american comic strips of the 1950s
Mid-century and the rise of television saw the story strip give way to the humor feature in U.S. newspapers.
Television had a greater influence on the newspaper comics business than any other development of the fifties. At the decade’s start, 3.1 million American homes had a TV set. This led to a newspaper-TV
battle, which Editor & Publisher in 1951 called “a contest for the readers’ time in which no holds are barred.”
Some strips based on TV shows such as “Howdy Doody” and “I Love Lucy” were developed, but most of these were short-lived. Publishers and editors instead focused on creating “alternatives” to broadcast entertainment. The radio soap opera was replaced by realistically drawn comic strips about conventional people like doctors, lawyers, and judges. This wave was led by Elliot Caplin and Stan Drake’s “The Heart of Juliet Jones” and Leonard Starr’s “On Stage.”
Some of the new artists, such as Jack Kirby, Wally Wood, and Lou Fine, had been comic-book illustrators who made the transition to newspapers when their own industry fell on hard times. Others came from ad agencies, including future comic-book favorite Neal Adams.
But fewer new story strips were launched because editors became convinced that readers were losing patience with long continuities, thanks to the ability to get a complete story in one half-hour TV show. Humor strips, on the other hand, delivered a quick punch daily, and they began to proliferate.
On September 4, 1950, Mort Walker’s “Beetle Bailey” debuted. The college-themed strip wasn’t
very popular, but Walker’s decision to enlist Beetle in the army made it a smash hit. October 2 saw the
introduction of charles schulz’ss “Peanuts,” which began as a conventional child gag strip. But the children developed adultlike personalities and the humor became more introspective, making the feature just what the newspaper needed as counterprogramming to TV. About the time “Peanuts” took its first bow, cartoonist Hank Ketcham was being inspired by his four-year-old son to create “Dennis the Menace,” which appeared on March 12, 1951, and was an instant success.
The humor strip began to dominate and even develop as the decade progressed. Johnny Hart’s “B.C.,”
which premiered on February 17, 1958, was known as a “new humor” strip because of its playfully unpretentious observations about philosophy, politics, and religion. It combined a simple drawing
style with dry wit, slapstick, puns, sound effects, and anachronisms.
On August 14, 1951, William Randolph Hearst died due to a heart condition. More than half a
century earlier, he had set the stage for the birth of the comics medium by publishing W.F. Outcault’s “Yellow Kid.”
Distraught over being suspended from the National Cartoonists Society for ethics violations caused by a long-standing feud with Al Capp (“Li’l Abner”), “Joe Palooka” creator Ham Fisher took an overdose of
pills in his Madison Avenue studio on September 6, 1956.
In 1958, “Plastic Man” creator Jack Cole, who was doing the strip “Betsy and Me,” shot himself with a .22 rifle. His true motive remains a mystery.