Katzenjammer Kids, comic strip pioneer, turns 110

American Heritage has a great article on the original The Katzenjammer Kids – which turns 110 years old today. The original Katzenjammer Kids was a pioneer in cartooning – establishing the basic visual language used in comics today.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, two popular art forms began parallel transformations. Up until that point, photography and cartooning had each been used primarily to depict isolated scenes. But in the last years of the 1800s, static photographs evolved into movies; at the same time, stand-alone cartoons began to multiply across the panels of a newly emerging phenomenon, the comic strip. Both developments allowed artists tell stories rather than just capture vignettes: Just as film could now record motion, the comics had harnessed time. On December 12, 1897, a comic strip debuted that would set the standard for the new medium. The Katzenjammer Kids, now the world’s longest-running strip, made its first appearance in the New York Journal 110 years ago today.

In that single decade astride the turn of the twentieth century, the format of the comic strip crystallized. All its pieces locked into place between 1895 and 1905, buttressing a structure both durable and flexible enough to survive all the fleeting trends of the century to come. With multiple panels, the comics began to render time as well as space; by integrating text into drawings in thought and word balloons, cartoonists allowed us to read their characters’ minds. Permanent casts encouraged ongoing storylines, which brought readers back week after week. When all these elements finally combined, it represented the final step in the long evolution of the comic strip. None of the ingredients was new; in fact most had been in use for centuries. But they had awaited the perfect nexus of technology, commerce, and culture to bring them together.

In the first five years, Dirks created the blueprint for all future comic strips. He did not invent word balloons or sequential panels, but he was the first cartoonist to use them both regularly; he also made standard the recurring cast of characters and ongoing narrative. “Because of him,” wrote the cultural historian Richard Marschall, “the comics told tales, not just jokes.” His design sense was perfectly suited for the crowded newspaper page. He quickly scrapped excess detail and clutter in favor of simple lines and bold fields of black that guided the reader through his panels. In Dirks’s strips, Americans first encountered the symbols that now form an unquestioned part of comics syntax: Straight lines indicate motion, beads of sweat mean fear or exertion, footprints show movement, stars equal pain.

20 thoughts on “Katzenjammer Kids, comic strip pioneer, turns 110

  1. Well, in fairness, this strip doesn’t really run in many papers anymore.

    How many papers still runs “Katzenjammer?” Not counting the weekly papers that runs the strip through King’s Weekly Service package.

  2. “(ducking before the whole â??legacy strips are ruining the art formâ? debate starts up again)”

    How many artists does a strip need to outlive before it’s time to finally retire it? (not even counting everyone who drew it’s The Captain & the Kids counterpart).

  3. Larry: the answer is blowin’ in the wind, along with “how many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop?”

    I feel very safe in saying that there is NO ONE alive today who read The Katzenjammer Kids as written by its original artist.

  4. “I feel very safe in saying that there is NO ONE alive today who read The Katzenjammer Kids as written by its original artist.”

    Pat, except for Walt Wallet–but that’s a seperate debate!

  5. I remember doing the math when Queen Victoria held her funeral for Mary Worth. Walt Wallet himself would be 110 today. (This is based upon his apparent age at the birth of Skeezix, who himself will turn 88 next February 9th.)

  6. Pab, the answer is 3. It takes 3 licks to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop. The Owl said so.

    (I wonder if the people who did that commercial still get residuals…I think it was done by the guy who did the Katzenjammer Kids originally.)

  7. “It takes 3 licks to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop.”

    3 licks for Tootsie Pops, 3 centuries for The Katzenjammer Kids (can cartoon tots apply for AARP?).

  8. “I feel very safe in saying that there is NO ONE alive today who read The Katzenjammer Kids as written by its original artist…when originally published.â?

    That would be someone born before March 16, 1913.
    Hey, famed cartoonist Creig Flessel was born in 1912 and is still with us. So anyone around say 96 years old. Of course they would have had to be very precocious to have READ the strip then.

  9. “How many papers still runs â??Katzenjammer?â? Not counting the weekly papers that runs the strip through Kingâ??s Weekly Service package.”

    John McWhorter, writing for the N. Y. Sun and datelined July 19, 2007,
    said, “Only about 50 papers take the Katzenjammer Kids, and it is safe to say that the number of people who eagerly anticipate catching up with Hans and Fritz over their morning coffee these days are few.”

    Those 50 papers would include the Weekly Service papers.

  10. And now many only-50-paper strips (including Sunday sales) has King Features killed over the past twenty years?

    It would be nice to know if every feature is held to the standard of “The Katzenjammer Kids” when contract renewal time comes up.

  11. A few years ago, I traded art with Hy Eisman and got one of his “Kids” Sunday pages. I treasure it.
    Also, it is always commented on as it is on the walls at our cartoon Academy. The Katzenjammers are asked about, the kids look them up in the comics history books, parents recall their childhood…
    Oh,,,and Hy is a real pro.

  12. It would be nice to know if every feature is held to the standard of â??The Katzenjammer Kidsâ? when contract renewal time comes up.
    Do the syndicates consider a 50-paper feature successful, especially one so old?

    Would a newer feature that stagnated at 50-papers be brought to a premature end by syndicate and/or creator after a few years?

    Would it be better for an old feature like this to be brought to an end so that the syndicate can promote a newer feature to those 50 clients?

    With the longetivity of their careers, will The Katzenjammer Kids names show up in todays Mitchell Report???


  13. Does anyone out there know of a paper that still carries the Katzenjammer Kids? I haven’t seen it in print since I was a kid. And I’m old.

    But here’s a little factoid… did you know that it was Katzenjammer Kids, and more specifically the number of strips that ripped them off 100 years ago, that led to copyright laws? That’s a little example of the power of comics.

  14. Actually, copyright laws have existed since the early days of the Federal Government. I think what you’re referring to, Wiley, are intellectual property laws.

    Still quite an achievement, though. The Katzenjammer case was cited by NBC in the lawsuit preventing David Letterman from taking his material to CBS. The same decision was reached: NBC owned the trademarks, but he owned the material.

  15. I’m still shocked & saddened that “Bringing Up Father” was retired in 1999. I think legacy strips rule–older the better! I think the 1904 classic “And Her Name Was Maude” is just ripe for a revival.

  16. Not a big fan of legacy strips, but I find it hard to begrudge KFS’ continuation of The Katzenjammer Kids. Continuing the oldest strip as a historical artifact is something I can see as worthwhile; and continuing the Popeye strip to keep a trademark on a valuable licensing product, also makes sense.
    Giving both to Hy Eisman, who has been in business over 50 years with nearly all of them with King Features, seems to be a Company showing loyalty to a long-time empoloyee. Not something common in today’s marketplace.
    Eisman, who turned 80 earlier this year, gets to supplement whatever retirement income he receives and KFS gets to continue the world’s longest published comic strip. Seems win-win.

  17. “Continuing the oldest strip as a historical artifact”

    Artifacts belong in museums, not in newspapers. Rudolph Dirks & Harold Knerr are long gone and the legacy they’ve created lives on in their original work.

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