Integrative Arts 10
William Randolph Hearst and the Comics
By Joseph F. D'Angelo President, King Features Syndicate

There might have been newspaper comics without William Randolph Hearst, but it's hard to imagine what they'd have been like. With Hearst's aggressive support, the "funnies" thrived through the tumultuous early years and evolved into one of this country's few indigenous art forms. In the hundred years since Hearst first set his sights on the Yellow Kid, the comics have reflected and contributed to our language and culture. They've also sold a lot of newspapers. Today, 44 years after Hearst's death, the comics claim an estimated 113 million loyal readers the U.S. and millions more worldwide -- and that's just on Sundays.

It was the publishing magnate Hearst who grasped the potential of the earliest "Sunday funnies" and turned them into a big, booming, modern business enterprise -- eventually syndicating them from New York City into America's hamlets and valleys, opening the gates for the great parade of comic stars to come. In the process, Hearst pioneered the art of promoting pen-and-ink personalities and furthered the careers of many brilliant cartoonists, while largely shaping the popular tastes of several generations of comics fans.

It was in Joseph Pulitzer's NEW YORK WORLD that cartoonist Richard Outcault's legendary Yellow Kid made his newspaper debut in 1895, but it was Hearst's NEW YORK JOURNAL that cannily snatched the Kid away from the rival sheet and deployed him as a key weapon in the historic newspaper circulation wars. The Kid led the charge in Hearst's trailblazing AMERICAN HUMORIST comic supplement, with it's famous motto: "Eight Pages of Iridescent Polychromous Effulgence That Makes The Rainbow Look Like A Lead Pipe!" Pulitzer fought back by hiring another artist to draw Outcault's character for the WORLD. The publishers' fierce battle over the bald urchin in the yellow nightshirt led bystanders to refer to sensational, screaming-headline style newspaper combat as "yellow journalism." The popularity of that expression tainted the early comics as a less-than-genteel entertainment, but it also made it clear that the "funnies" had become serious business, seemingly overnight.

The Kid holds title as the star of the first successful comic feature, but it was years before his debut that a troupe of little bears first appeared in Hearst's SAN FRANCISCO EXAMINER, demonstrating the power of continuing characters to engage readers. Cartoonist James Swinnerton's drawings of little bears and tykes appeared only as spot illustrations, but they had personality, and they became the first comic characters to appear repeatedly in newsprint.

In 1897, having grasped the potential of compelling comic characters to sell papers, Hearst remembered two mischievous German lads from the picture books of his childhood -- Max and Moritz, their names were -- and ordered cartoonist Rudolph Dirks to create a couple of pranksters just like them. THE KATZENJAMMER KIDS were a sensation from the start, expanding into other newspapers and becoming one of the public's best-loved comic features. THE KATZENJAMMER KIDS became the first to regularly incorporate sequential narrative panels with speech balloons, further defining the modern comic strip. Mamma Katzenjammer's little trouble makers landed in court for a time as the focus of an historic comic custody battle. But THE KATZENJAMMER KIDS kept going, and the strip still appears in newspapers worldwide today as the oldest comic strip in syndication.

In 1900, Hearst introduced the slapstick antics of Frederick Opper's HAPPY HOOLIGAN, who also became immensely popular with the public. Together, Opper, Swinnerton, Outcault, and Dirks are credited as the main founding fathers of the modern comic strip, but its growth was also shaped also by Hearst's determination to see the "funnies" reach their full potential. By the turn of the century, other publishers across the country were scrambling to get good comics into their papers, and experimenting with ways to present them; Hearst continued to lead the way.

In the early 1900s, before Mutt and Jeff became the stars of the first regular daily newspaper strip, early black-and-white comics had begun appearing sporadically on weekdays in Hearst newspapers. In 1912, Hearst's NEW YORK EVENING JOURNAL introduced the first full page of daily comics on weekdays. Hearst's comic features were among the first to be reprinted in booklet form; the popularity of such reprints set the stage for modern comic books. In 1916, Hearst's International Film Service was among the pioneer animation studios, making movie stars out of the characters from the Hearst newspaper strips, including BRINGING UP FATHER, HAPPY HOOLIGAN, MAUD THE MULE, KRAZY KAT and a raft of others.

Hearst put hit after hit into newspapers as the years went by: BLONDIE (which today, 65 years after its launch, ranks among the top five strips in circulation), THIMBLE THEATRE (homeport of Popeye), FLASH GORDON, TILLIE THE TOILER, THE PHANTOM, and many, many, more. Hearst sought out premier talent and he paid handsomely. Many a cartoonist became a gentleman working for Hearst: BRINGING UP FATHER's George McManus in particular lived like an emir in Southern California, always a welcome guest at Hearst's storied San Simeon estate. Hearst brought Walt Disney's MICKEY MOUSE into the funny papers. He commissioned the likes of Western novelist Zane Grey, mystery writer Dashiell Hammett and big-game hunter Frank Buck to create strips for him. An influx of cartooning talent swelled the "bullpen" at Hearst's King Features Syndicate, making it the MGM of the comics business (today, with its affiliated syndicates, King Features distributes three times as many comic features as its next-largest competitor).

While Hearst expertly exploited the circulation-building powers of comics, he was also among their biggest fans. Obliged though he was to spend much of his time overseeing his empire and hobnobbing with heads of state, Hearst loved his "funnies" and followed them faithfully, keeping a paternal eye on every one. He is said to have ritually spread comic sections from a dozen different cities out on the floor each Sunday, turning the pages with his toes.

Hearst was particularly proud of George Herriman's cult-favorite KRAZY KAT, which remains a favorite of artists and intellectuals, who hailed it then and now as a masterpiece of 20th century art. Although the strip never achieved more than a modest circulation, Hearst ignored financial considerations and refused to ever consider canceling the strip, keeping it in newspapers until Herriman's death in 1944. Hearst also deeply admired Hal Foster's epic PRINCE VALIANT, insuring that it ran in its original full-broadsheet size in his papers, years after most other major features had been cut back to half-page formats, or less. Well into his 80s, Hearst insisted on personally approving new comics for syndication. One of the last strips to receive his thumbs up was a newcomer called BEETLE BAILEY.


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