Why Are the Sunday Comics So Bad?

Because I am middle aged and need to get in training for my cranky Get off my lawn years, and because I’m in a pandemic with long hours sitting at home, I did a study of the Sunday comics section in the Buffalo News

This was inspired by years of opening the Sunday comics section and rarely seeing anything that made me chuckle, impressed me with artistic skill, Prince Valiant notwithstanding, or combined humor with insight into our lives now, the magnificent exception being Doonesbury. Is there something wrong with me? Of course. Humor is in the eye of the beholder and I do not have 20/20 vision. Did I mention we’re in a global pandemic? But there’s something wrong with the Sunday comics, too.

Omitting puzzles and games, I counted 24 syndicated comic strips in the Sunday comics section. None originate here in Buffalo. Then I looked up their ages. From Blondie, founded in 1930, to the youngest, Pros & Cons, founded in 2008, the average age of a Sunday strip is 44 years old. If you aspire to be a Sunday funnies cartoonist, like I did as a child, you should have gotten started around 1978.

If you aspire to be a Sunday funnies cartoonist, like I did as a child, you should have gotten started around 1978.

Only 3 strips, 12%, were founded in this century. Seven of the 24, or 28% of the strips, are 62 or older and eligible to draw Social Security. Their characters are frozen in a long-gone mid-20th century America.

American servicemen and women have fought in multiple conflicts since Beetle Bailey was founded in 1950, but you’d never know it from cringey plot lines that steer carefully away from anything resembling military life today. Aren’t there any veterans drawing comics about their lives?

American households come in all places, sizes, configurations, and colors, but on Sunday, I see a preponderance of white-middle-class-nuclear-families-in-the-suburbs (Peanuts, Family Circus, Blondie, Zits, Dennis the Menace, Sally Forth.) As though this specific demographic and its sensibilities represent something universally relatable.

One strip, Jump Start, focuses on a Black family in Philadelphia. Other than Jump Start, why is city life absent from the comics page? What about farm life? College life? Factory life? Aren’t there any strips by and about immigrants? Humor can be found everywhere.

We are living in a golden age of visual storytelling, starting with the zine movement, which took off in the 1970s, thanks to the advent of inexpensive photocopy technology. Graphic novels came of age in 1982, when Art Spiegelman won a Pulitzer prize for Maus. Manga, or Japanese comics, have had a devoted American audience for decades. This creative explosion is reflected nowhere in the Sunday comics, which are dominated by senescent strips from before I was born.

This creative explosion is reflected nowhere in the Sunday comics, which are dominated by senescent strips from before I was born.

No doubt there is much to the syndication process that is invisible to the ordinary Sunday subscriber, but apparently certain comics now own valuable Sunday newspaper real estate in perpetuity, such as Peanuts, Blondie and Dennis the Menace, the last two of which are drawn by the founder’s descendants or others. 

This does not occur on the editorial page. When editorial columnists die, their children are not entitled to continue Mom or Dad’s column. Emerging columnists and new viewpoints get an opportunity to shine. This natural cycle of talent has been stifled for decades in the Sunday comics. For the sake of the new audiences that the News needs and deserves, it is time to end Sunday comic strip monopolies from the last century. Please make me laugh again.

My calculations:

StripFoundedAge in 2022Eligible for SS
Pros & Cons200814
Dog Eat Doug200418
Pearls Before Swine200121
Get Fuzzy199923
Zits199725
Mutts199428
Pickles199032
Jump Start198933
Dilbert198933
Sally Forth198240
For Better For Worse197943
Garfield197844
Hagar the Horrible197349
Funky Winkerbean197250
Doonesbury197052
Animal Crackers196854
Wizard of Id196458
Family Circus196062Y
Marmaduke195468Y
Dennis the Menace195171Y
Peanuts195072Y
Beetle Bailey195072Y
Prince Valiant193785Y
Blondie193092Y
Total11397
Average age45.56

I submitted this as a My View column to the Buffalo News on January 24, 2022. Having gotten no response, I am posting it here. Lead image by author.

Published by Cynthia Van Ness

Librarian, author, webmaster. BuffaloResearch.com is an on-my-own-time project, reflecting my own views and idiosyncracies.

4 thoughts on “Why Are the Sunday Comics So Bad?

  1. Interesting statistics. It may be that comics readers appreciate the familiar. I subscribe to comicskingdom.com and gocomics.com, and have access to some vintage strips as well. “Krazy Kat” is as zany as ever. “Bringing Up Father” takes me back to the Sunday comics of my childhood, but the worldview of the 30s and 40s is insightful, and the art deco is amazing. “Beetle Bailey” probably had more resonance when most American males had been drafted into the military. The background art reminds me of Fort Dix, NJ. “Spider Man” is currently re-running strips that appeared several years ago. As for strips like “Peanuts,” it is interesting how some situations are perennial, and are as fresh now as they were 50 years ago. “Blondie” has updated to the 21st century, though the characters are the same. There are two versions of “The Katzenjammer Kids” available on comicskingdom on Sunday: a current one, which simply plays on the German accent, and the version from the 40s, which is loaded with non-PC stereotypes of African natives. As for Buffalonian comics, just look in the daily news. The two strips printed there are terrible: terrible art, un-funny gags. In the Sunday comics, “Moose Miller” is by a Buffalonian, and endlessly repeats the same tired gags.

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  2. One of the biggest reasons the Sunday comics were so good is because for a long time they were the only game in town for comics art entertainment. Since the 1970’s syndicated cartoonists continually lamented about shrinkage in art size and iron-fisted creative control by the syndicates who had complete power over them. As newspaper revenue continued to shrink, more space was allotted for advertising in the Sunday comics. What became a game changer for cartoonists was the proliferation of the internet and on-line self publishing… along with a continually growing market in high quality graphic novels. Thanks to these new mediums, cartoonists now have a broader platform with more creative freedom than ever before. The features still in the Sunday funnies are to hold onto existing readers, because there are no new readers. The best and brightest among cartoonists are no longer on the Sunday print pages simply because they don’t want to sign on to a sinking ship. Things have never been more promising for cartoonists. Lamenting about the demise of Sunday funnies is like going to an auto show and complaining about the end of the horse and buggy era.

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  3. I enjoyed this breakdown especially because I’m old enough to have followed some of these comic strips since childhood. “Bringing Up Father” (Jiggs and Maggie) ran for 99 years, if I recall correctly, and starred a millionaire with ties to his previous blue collar life. It was based on Buffalo’s Fingy Conners. I reproduced a panel in my most recent volume 5 of THE FIRST WARD where he absurdly lectures a grain scooper about how it was hard work that made him his millions. Cartoonist George McManus was a suitor of Fingy’s daughter and was rejected by her stepmother as unsuitable. His “revenge”, and ultimately his own wealth, was the creation of Jiggs and Maggie.

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