May 1, 2014

Six Comics Characters that Used to Be Huge and You've Forgotten About

Sometimes, comics will give you someone like Superman, who was huge when he came out and will still be going strong in the public consciousness almost a century later. Sometimes, though, you'll get characters who'll take the world by storm, and then some decades pass and the new generations either only have a passing knowledge of him, or don't know him at all. It happens, of course, because people move on from fads. But they were there. So let's name...

Six Comics Characters that Used to Be Huge and You've Forgotten About
by Duy

6. Blondie

Blondie's still in today's newspapers, mostly as an institution, really. But cartoonist Chic Young's strip about Blondie and Dagwood Bumstead was huge back in the day, not only spawning 28 — twenty-eight! — movies and two TV shows, but also coining the term "Dagwood sandwich," which is just a sandwich with a gajillion fillings.

(Re)Discover Blondie here:

5. Pogo

I recently watched two documentaries. One was The Cartoonist: Jeff Smith, BONE and the Changing Face of Comics, about Jeff Smith and Bone, arguably the most important all-ages comic book cartoonist in the last thirty years. The other one was Dear Mr. Watterson, about Bill Watterson and Calvin and Hobbes, almost inarguably the most important comic strip of the last thirty years. You know what those two guys have in common? They were both directly influenced by Walt Kelly's Pogo. And Pogo was huge back when it was coming out — many a comic strip enthusiast I know would rate Kelly as the most important funny animal artist ever. Pogo, about a possum who lives with his friends in the swamp, would delve into social and political commentary and was notable for making fun of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Asterix was also influenced by Pogo, and Alan Moore paid homage to the strip in a classic issue of Swamp Thing. In a true case of "Out of sight, out of mind," it's hard to imagine how big Pogo was when it was coming out. But it was there.

Perhaps its most enduring legacy is the famous quote, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

(Re)Discover Pogo here:

4. Barney Google

Barney Google, with the goo-goo-goo-ga-ly eyes, is a perfect example of a strip fading from the public consciousness even if its influence is still being felt.

Google, the search engine, was named after the mathematical number googol, which is a one followed by a hundred zeroes. However, the term googol was coined officially in 1940 by Milton Sirotta, nephew of mathematician Edward Kasner. And as Brian Cronin points out, it is extremely unlikely that Sirotta came up with the term "googol" on his own, because ubiquitous at the time in so many media (including sheet music!) was Barney Google, the short fellow who had bad luck.

Sometimes things get so big that when they leave, something lasting is left behind.

(Re)Discover Barney Google here:

3. Li'l Abner

Seriously, how many of you know Li'l Abner? Okay, I see some hands. How many of you have only heard of Li'l Abner? How many of you have actually read a Li'l Abner book? Pretty much most of the hands went down, I'm sure, but this comic strip about a young hillbilly named, uh, Li'l Abner was huge at the time and sparked some trends. In addition to adding new words to the American lexicon, such as "shmoo" (a generic kind of good that reproduces itself), "schmooze," and "no-goodnik," Al Capp's strip also created the Sadie Hawkins Dance, which became an American tradition (it's the dance where the girls ask out the boys). There's a whole load of other things that started and was given life in the pages of Li'l Abner, including, if you believe Al Capp, the miniskirt, which he put Daisy Mae in in 1934.

(Re)Discover Li'l Abner here:

2. Popeye

I already see this one going unrecognized by a lot of the younger generations, and I'm weirded out by it because I never thought it would happen. Popeye, created by EC Segar in the pages of Thimble Theater, used to be immortal. He'd fight Bluto over Olive Oyl, gain strength by eating spinach,take care of Swee'pea, and have an awesome cast of characters.

Popeye was so huge that they coined words like "jeep" and "goon." J. Wellington Wimpy's catchphrase, "I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger to-day!" was a catchphrase.

Anyway, Popeye's still around, but that's the challenge with a society where everyone is more in control of what they tune into and where it's easier to filter everything. You can't be as widespread as you once were just by "being around."

(Re)Discover Popeye here:

1. Just About Everyone from Harvey Comics

How many readers of this site even know a company called Harvey Comics existed? Not a lot, I'd bet — but how many readers would recognize Richie Rich, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Wendy the Good Little Witch, and Hot Stuff the Little Devil?

Probably a lot. Casper actually showed up in a cartoon first, but he quickly became a fixture in the comics (with some postulating that he was Richie Rich's ghost). And they were huge. Their iconography still permeates to today. They still get put on merchandise (one strip club in the Red Light District over here has a neon Hot Stuff on the entrance), Richie Rich and Casper were in fairly successful movies, and Casper even spawned imitators, because clearly, "friendly ghost" has a ton of mileage.

It's weird to think they're basically remembered as huge now only by the people old enough to remember them, or only by name or concept, dismissed by the younger generations as fads of bygone ages. But they were there, and they were huge.

So the next time you're enjoying your Walking Dead or Game of Thrones and talking about it with everyone, the next time you talk to someone about Spongebob Squarepants, think a bit about how huge and ubiquitous they are, and how, in all likelihood, people your age in twenty years probably won't know them by more than name.

(Re)Discover Harvey Comics here:


Ian Miller said...

I think the 90's were the last hoorah of a lot of Golden Age creations. I was born in 1986, but growing up I had a healthy diet of old Disney and Looney Tunes shorts. I also recall reading Harvey comics featuring Casper, Ritchie Rich, and Wendy the Witch. And I seem to recall ABC's programming before dinner time was the Flintstones, Jetsons, and the Adam West Batman show. And Popeye was one of my idols when I was 5, and my parents would use him as an example of why I should eat my vegetables (I remember my mom once buying Popeye brand spinach, and thinking I had Popeye's strength I punched her in the stomach, thinking it would send her flying. All it got me was a MASSIVE time-out).

I have a younger sister who was born in 1990, and I noticed when she began watching the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon almost all programming from the 60's and older were done away with. Cartoon Network still showed the old Hanna Barbara cartoons, but those were quickly done away with in favor of original programming and anime. If a character from the days of old is on TV now it's usually in the form of a CGI cartoon. And kids don't read comics anymore, so things like Archie may be forgotten with this next generation. It's not like I was raised to live in world of cartoons and comics from my parents' generation, they still existed vibrantly in the ether of many kids' lives on TV and in the stores. From a very young age I began calling big sandwiches "Dagwoods", and I still do that today.

At least we have the internet to allow people to discover things they never would've. Without internet message boards and Google I may never have discovered Alex Toth, Creepy Magazine, or Wally Wood, all of whom had huge influences on my life and drawing in the past few years. Even though the mainstream media is giving less attention to older properties, inquisitive minds may soon discover them through Youtube or social media. said...

My earliest memories of watching cartoons on TV go back to when I was 4 years old, in 1978. Pink Panther, Superfriends, and Scooby-Doo (including Laff-a-Lympics) were still on network TV. I could also watch THREE different versions of Popeye: the Fleischer and Paramount cartoons, the early '60s King Features cartoons, and the CBS version which first aired in '78. I also got a healthy diet of Warner Brothers cartoons, Rocky and Bullwinkle, and Underdog, which may not qualify for this list now, but might as well. Underdog reruns disappeared from my local (San Francisco) station by the early 80s, the others gradually followed. Even some of the biggest cartoons of the '80s-Inspector Gadget, He-Man, Heathcliff, and the 'original' Transformers, have pretty much fallen into this category(Heathcliff was eclipsed by Garfield, who has also declined in popularity since the '80s, and might now be considered just 'still around'.)

Edwin said...

Do you think that Calvin and Hobbes could become one of those characters that will lose its popularity, like those characters above? Since it doesn't have any means of exposure like TV shows, movies or even video games, and there's also accounting that newspapers lost popularity, I think it could be the case. I imagine that 30 years after its last strip (2026), it could be headed that way (unless you all keep bringing up that comic until readers get sick of the exposure).

Then again, perhaps the urinating Calvin logo would be useful after all.

Thanks for reading.

Duy Tano said...

In the "Dear Mr. Watterson" documentary that came out late last year, they've pointed out that Calvin and Hobbes should have already been losing popularity, but it hasn't happened yet, because librarians, schoolteachers, and the like have just loved giving Calvin and Hobbes to children. I think it's the first one to really survive off the source material alone, which is a true testament to how good it is. It is timeless.

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