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6 Comic Strips That Suddenly Turned Serious

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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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A Visual History of Captain America’s Shields
Pop Chart Lab
Pop Chart Lab

Captain America has gone through plenty of wardrobe changes since his comic book debut in 1941, but it’s his iconic shield that has had the most makeovers. Over the past eight decades, fans have seen the shield change its shape, color, and even the material from which it’s crafted. For the folks at Pop Chart Lab, the shield’s storied history provided the perfect subject matter for their latest poster.

On this piece, the company teamed with Marvel to give a rundown of 50 of Cap’s shields—from the instantly recognizable to the downright obscure. Here we see his classic Golden Age shield, with its slightly different color scheme, and the different variations from Jack Kirby’s time-traveling Bicentennial Battles book. Then there are entries like the vibranium shield he received from Black Panther in Captain America #342 and an adamantium one made by Tony Stark.

Those different shields just scratch the surface of the deep cuts Pop Chart Lab provides. There are also shields from Captain Americas across Marvel’s numerous alternate universes, like the ones used by the Ultimate Universe Steve Rogers and the android Cap from Earth-725.

Each shield is illustrated to match its comic book counterpart and comes with a description specifying the series it debuted in and which Earth it exists on (the Marvel Universe has thousands of different versions of Earth, after all).

The posters will begin shipping on May 23, and you can pre-order yours now starting at $29 on the Pop Chart Lab website. You can check out a full look at the poster below.

Pop Chart Lab's Captain America shield poster
Pop Chart Lab
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Tony Stark's Original $325,000 Iron Man Suit Was Stolen from a Hollywood Warehouse
Marvel Studios
Marvel Studios

Tony Stark has defeated the likes of Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, and Magneto. But the industrialist/superhero is apparently no match for the person—or persons—who made off with the Iron Man suit Robert Downey Jr. sported in the original 2008 film, which is valued at approximately $325,000. As the Los Angeles Times reports, the LAPD is currently investigating the incident, which occurred at a Hollywood warehouse and was reported earlier this week. The theft itself, however, is assumed to have occurred sometime between February and April of this year, and was only discovered by chance. According to the Los Angeles Times:

“The famous red-and-gold suit, which first flashed across movie screens in the 2008 Iron Man film that kick-started Marvel's movie empire, was reported missing Tuesday, [Officer Christopher No, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Department] said. Employees at the warehouse ‘just happened to check’ Tuesday and noticed the costume was gone.”

Very few details were given; a spokesperson for the LAPD declined to name to whom the warehouse belonged, nor was it made clear who exactly reported the crime. Marvel, meanwhile, is directing any questions about the missing suit to Walt Disney Studios, and Disney did not immediately respond with a comment.

Sounds like a case for Jessica Jones.

[h/t: Los Angeles Times]

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