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