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Paws, Inc

6 Comic Strips That Suddenly Turned Serious

Paws, Inc
Paws, Inc

While older comic strips had reputations for being substantial in both size and in ambition, the one-note gag panels of recent decades have rarely ventured beyond bad puns or poor copies of better material. Some, however, have opted to substitute laughs with some jarring tonal changes. Here are a few that had readers scratching their heads for being more solemn than silly.   

1. Garfield’s Existential Issues

Fictional, lasagna-fetishizing cats that sell millions of dollars worth of merchandise every year do not typically venture outside their litter box full of cash. But in October 1989, Jim Davis, Garfield’s creator, had an urge to place his orange tabby in a joke-less, weeklong series of strips that pondered a world where Garfield was never born. The cat awakens to find his owner has disappeared—and when Jon does appear, he’s revealed to be a hallucination. “After years of taking life for granted,” Davis wrote, “Garfield is shaken by a horrifying vision of the inevitable process called ‘time.’” 

It sounded like a Twilight Zone epilogue; Davis later said he did it as an homage to Halloween and the universal fear of being alone. Having unsettled readers, Davis returned to jokes about mornings the following Sunday.  

2. Beetle Bailey’s Post-Traumatic Stress

A private in the Army since 1951, Beetle Bailey has cultivated a reputation for being lazy and shiftless, often angering his sergeant into what looks to be a decades-long case of dangerously high blood pressure. In June 2013, creator Mort Walker broke from the typical format by presenting the normally lackadaisical Bailey suffering from nightmares and having trouble sleeping. It was in honor of National Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Awareness Month. Walker, a World War II veteran, said he wanted to help draw attention to the matter.   

3. They Killed the Dog

Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse has never shied from strife—her characters aged in real time during the strip’s three-decade run—but even fans used to her illustrated agonies choked back a sob when the family dog, Farley, died in 1995 after saving a child from drowning. After dragging him from the water, the family noticed he was cold and motionless: “Daddy, he isn't breathing!” Many grim breakfast-time explanations presumably followed.      

4. Nancy in Wartime

Possibly the most innocuous strip of all time, Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy has been alternately celebrated and vilified for its one-dimensional approach to humor, with some people bored by its rote format and others considering it a celebration of minimalist art. Whatever the case, the 8-year-old’s exploits during World War II were fairly explicit exercises in propaganda. In one strip, Sluggo is seen blowing up Japan on his school globe with a fire cracker; in another, a discarded bottle tossed out a window scatters in the shape of a swastika, a presumed nod to Nancy’s—and the country’s—hyper-vigilance towards the enemy. Postwar, Nancy largely returned to her black-eyed examination of the mundane. 

5. Hagar the Responsible

Few readers expect a Viking to exhibit any kind of social conscience, but Hagar the Horrible underwent a facelift of sorts in 1989. That’s when Dik Browne handed over the reins of the strip to his son, Chris. Among the changes: Hagar was no longer seen stumbling home drunk. "When my father was doing the strip, he did an awful lot of gags about Hagar falling down drunk and coming home in a wheelbarrow,” Browne told the Chicago Tribune.  “As times go on that doesn't strike me as that funny anymore. Just about everybody I know has had somebody hurt by alcoholism or substance abuse.”

6. Little Orphan Annie

When Little Orphan Annie debuted in 1924, the mischievous urchin had already undergone a sex change: Creator Harold Gray had originally pitched his newspaper editor on a strip about a curly-haired boy named Otto. Having squared that away, Gray went on to pepper his heroine’s usually lighthearted adventures with a relatively somber exploration of hot-button issues of the day. In 1956, readers opening the paper expecting Annie to get involved in juvenile capers were instead treated to a story about delinquency, drug use, and prostitution. When 30 outlets canceled the strip due to protests, Gray dialed down his pulpy style and Annie returned to being (mostly) harmless.    

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Pop Chart Lab
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The Origins of 36 Marvel Characters, Illustrated
Pop Chart Lab
Pop Chart Lab

No matter what their powers, every super hero has an origin story, from Spider-Man’s radioactive bite to Iron Man’s life-threatening chest shrapnel. In their latest poster, the designers at Pop Chart Lab have taken their infographic savvy to the Marvel Universe, charting the heroic origins of 36 different Marvel characters through miniature, minimalist comics.

Without using any words, they’ve managed to illustrate Bucky Barnes's plane explosion and subsequent transformation into the Winter Soldier, Jessica Jones’s car crash, the death of the Punisher’s family, and other classic stories from the major Marvel canon while paying tribute to the comic book form.

Explore the poster below, and see a zoomable version on Pop Chart Lab’s website.

A poster featuring 36 minimalist illustrations of superhero origin stories.
Pop Chart Lab

Keep your eyes open for future Marvel-Pop Chart crossovers. The Marvel Origins: A Sequential Compendium poster is “the first release of what we hope to be a marvelous partnership,” as Pop Chart Lab’s Galvin Chow puts it. Prints are available for pre-order starting at $37 and are scheduled to start shipping on March 8.

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Disney/Marvel Studios
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Afternoon Map
Marvel vs. DC: This Map Shows Each State’s Favorite Comic Universe
Disney/Marvel Studios
Disney/Marvel Studios

Which comic book company is the best: Marvel or DC? This is a perennial argument on middle-school playgrounds and Reddit threads, but this map, courtesy of USDish.com, might just give us a definitive answer. The information here is broken down by state, using information provided by Google Trends to give us a clear winner of not only the most popular comic book company but also the most popular individual hero in each state (let’s show a little respect to Indiana for championing the Martian Manhunter).

According to the map, Marvel is the most popular publisher in 37 states, with DC trailing behind at eight, and five additional states coming to a 50/50 stalemate. The totals weren’t a blowout, though. In certain states like Mississippi, Iowa, and Pennsylvania, the favored company only won by a point. And just because a state searches Google for a specific publisher the most doesn’t mean an individual character from the opposing team isn’t its favorite—Hawaii is listed as favoring Marvel overall, yet they love Aquaman on his own. Same with DC-loving Maryland showing Black Panther some love (helps to have a big movie coming out). Take a look at some of the most notable state preferences below:

So how did Marvel amass so many states when there are just as many DC TV shows and movies out there? Well, according to Andrew Selepak, Ph.D., a professor in the department of telecommunication at the University of Florida, and director of the graduate program in social media, the answer lies in the depth at the House of Ideas.

“While Superman and Batman may be dominant characters,” Selepak said in a statement, “the DC Universe offers few other well-known heroes and villains and when these other characters are presented to the audience in film and on TV, they often are less than well-received.” This is opposed to Marvel, which launches new heroes on the big and small screen seemingly every year.

Does this map tell the whole story? That’s up for debate. When it comes to comics sold, DC and Marvel are always in a close battle: In January 2018, DC had six of the 10 best-selling comics of the month, placing four of the top five. Marvel, meanwhile, had three, while Image Comics had one with The Walking Dead. In terms of overall retail market share, though, Marvel eked out DC 34.3 percent to 33.8 percent.

This is a battle that's been raging since the 1960s, and for an industry that thrives on a never-ending fight between good and evil, we shouldn't expect the Marvel vs. DC debate to be settled anytime soon.

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