A Comic Strip Is Born

The following is an article from Bathroom Readers' Institute's Uncle John's Great Big Bathroom Reader Ever wonder how the creators of your favorite comic strips came up with the idea? Uncle John got curious and did some research. Here are a few of the stories he found.


Background: In 1976, jazz guitarist Gary Larson was on the verge of getting a dream gig with a big band in Seattle... but they hired somebody else. Crushed with disappointment, Larson spent the weekend drawing animal cartoons (something the "frustrated biologist," as he called himself , had done since he was a kid). On Monday, he took his drawings to a small California wilderness magazine to sell, and to his surprise, the magazine bought them all.

A Strip Is Born: Meanwhile, he kept drawing. To pay the rent, he took a job as an animal cruelty investigator with the Seattle Humane Society. (In true "Far Side" fashion, he ran over a dog on the way to the interview.) One day, while Larson was on assignment, a reporter for the Seattle Times noticed the drawings in his notebook. She asked if she could show them to her editor... who hired Larson to do a cartoon called: "Nature’s Way." Unfortunately, it ran right next to the children’s crossword puzzle. Parents complained about its warped humor, and it was cancelled. Luckily, Larson had just shown his cartoons to an editor at the San Francisco Chronicle. The editor immediately bought the strip. The only thing he changed was the name. "Nature’s Way" became "The Far Side."


Background: Scott Adams’ career as an artist didn’t look promising. He got the lowest grade in a drawing class at college, and had cartoons rejected by Playboy, The New Yorker and a long list of comic strip syndicators. He was stuck in cubicle-land, working first at the Crocker National Bank for eight years, then at Pacific Bell for nine.  

A Strip Is Born: In the late 1980s, while he was still at Pac Bell, he decided he wanted to earn a living as a cartoonist. He invented "Dilbert" and sent samples to six comic strip syndicates. Four rejected him, one suggested he take drawing lessons, and one - United Features - offered him a contract. But since "Dilbert" wasn’t a hit yet, Adams kept his day-job. The turning point came in 1993. "I asked the syndicate for ideas on what they would like me to write more about," Adams recalls. "They said, ’Do more on downsizing, more on things getting harder in the workplace.’" To find our what people were thinking in cubicles around America. Adams began posting his e-mail address in every strip. The feedback he got helped him make "Dilbert" the first comic strip to capture the frustrations of modern office workers. In 1995, he was finally able to leave Pac Bell and become a fulltime cartoonist. Today, "Dilbert" is in over 1,000 newspapers; about 20% of his story ideas still come from readers.


Background: Bill Watterson graduated from college in 1979, and immediately got a job as a political cartoonist for the Cincinnati, Ohio Post. He was fired after six months. So in 1980, he tried a new career - as a comic strip artist. His first effort was called "Spaceman Spiff," about a character who "wore flying goggles, smoked a cigar, and explored space in a dirigible." It was rejected by every syndicate.  

A Strip Is Born: Five years and several flops later, he finally got someone interested in his work. The United Features Syndicate picked out two minor characters in a strip he’d submitted - the lead character’s little brother and a stuffed tiger who came to life - and paid Watterson to develop a strip about them. He called them Calvin (after the theologian John Calvin) and Hobbes (after the pessimistic philosopher Thomas Hobbes). United Features actually rejected the finished product, so Watterson took it to Universal Press Syndicate. They liked it. "Calvin and Hobbes" debuted on November 18, 1985, and didn’t bow out until ten years later, at the end of 1995. At that time it was America’s most popular strip, appearing in 2,400 newspapers.


Background: Blondie is the most popular "family" comic strip in the world, appearing in 55 countries and 2,200 newspapers. But it started out in 1930 with a very different story line. The stars were Blondie Boopadoop, a gold digger looking for a rich husband, and Dagwood Bumstead - who was, believe it or not, "a playboy, party animal, and polo player," and heir to the Bumstead railroad fortune. Dagwood spent most of his time partying and chasing Blondie.  

A Strip Is Born: As the Depression got more severe, the company that distributed "Blondie" to newspapers worried that rich airheads wouldn’t amuse people anymore. They told the strip’s creator, Chic Young, to "go back to the drawing board and start over" with something readers could relate to. He did. In 1933, Dagwood and Blondie surprised everyone by falling in love. Dagwood’s parents objected to their marriage... and disinherited him. Result: He had to get a job, which made the Bumsteads "common folk." From then on, the jokes could be about the problems of ordinary life - getting up for work, missing the bus, pleasing the boss, making ends meet, etc.


Background: In 1976, at age 26, Cathy Guisewite was already a VP at an ad agency... but she was 50 pounds overweight and not terribly happy. One night, as she waited for a boyfriend to call, she realized "how pathetic" she’d become. She drew a few humorous pictures of herself eating junk food, waiting at the phone, and sent them to her mother. Soon, she was sending these "illustrated versions of my anxieties" to her parents regularly. "Instead of writing in my diary," she says, "I sort of started summing up my life - my pathetic moments in pictures - and sending them home."  

A Strip Is Born: Her parents saved the drawings and eventually suggested she try to sell them as a comic strip. "My mother had always taught me to write about things instead of talking to anyone," Guisewite says." "If you’re angry,’ she’d say, ’don’t scream at the person. Write about it.’ If you’re hurt or jealous, don’t go gossiping to girlfriends. Write about it. If you’re lonely or sad or depressed, write about it.’ Try to Imagine my horror when - after a lifetime of teaching me to keep my feelings private - she insisted my drawings were the making of a comic strip for millions of people to read." Her timing couldn’t have been better. Universal Press Syndicate had been looking for a strip dealing with women’s issues, and this one, they said, was the first that had "some feeling, some soul." They bought the strip and named the main character after its author. Today, Guisewite says, "If I had ever had any idea how many people would one day be reading it, I would never have agreed to name her Cathy."


Background: Jim Davis was too sickly to work on the family farm in Indiana, so his mother kept him supplied with pencils and paper and encouraged him to draw. When he graduated college, he got a job as assistant to Tom Ryan, creator of the syndicated comic strip "Tumbleweeds."

A Strip Is Born: A few years later, Davis went to New York to sell his own strip - "Gnorm Gnat," about an insect. It was turned down. "They told me nobody could identify with a bug," Davis says. He looked for subject people could identify with and noticed there were lots of dogs in successful comic strips - Snoopy, Marmaduke, Belvedere - but almost no cats. So he decided to fashion a cat character after his "big, opinionated, stubborn" grandfather, James Garfield Davis, and sold it to United Features. The strip debuted on June 19, 1978, in 41 newspapers. During the 1980s, Garfield merchandizing became a billion-dollar-a-year industry. For example, between 1987 and 1989, 225 million of those suction cupped Garfield dolls sold.

The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Great Big Bathroom Reader This 1998 edition is so big it covers topics from your own backyard to the farthest reaches of the globe, such as the world's tallest buildings, the world's strangest beer, and more.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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Dagwood and Blondie are the oldest of the featured strips here. Dagwood's devotion to Blondie (who actually used to say "boop-boop-a-do") was so great that he went on a hunger strike until his father consented to let them get married. Even then, he was disinherited!

The experience clearly left its mark on him, since he has a strong food obsession to this day.
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