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The evolving landscape of comic strips
The Sunday Funnies have experienced a lot of changes over the past 100 years. - photo by Maddie Swensen
For more than a century, the Sunday Funnies have been favorites for readers of all ages. Whether they are chronicling the political uprisings of the times or expressing the mundane in everyday life, comic strips have provided a moment of levity in newspapers, according to Brendan Burford, editor at King Features Syndicate.

As the times have changed, so have the comics.

(Comics) are a reflection of our world, Burford said. Any change you can imagine has occurred. Whether they are changes in humorous sensibilities or what people are prioritizing culturally, comics tend to reflect that over time.

The early days

In the early 1900s, comic strip artists developed comic strips for their local newspapers. Editors at newspapers soon discovered they could sell a single comic strip to newspapers all over the United States, and syndicates were born.

Back in the days when the newspaper was the only mass media around, or the most important mass media around, comics were the thing, said Reed Jackson, associate editor at Universal Uclick. Everybody read them, everybody talked about them, kids and adults.

According to Jackson, in the beginning, cartoonists sent their comic strips in to syndicates, where they would be photographed for mass production in newspapers all over the country.

Comic strips were extraordinarily popular early in the 20th century because they entertained and engaged readers unlike any other medium, said Ken Paulson, dean of the College of Media and Entertainment at Middle Tennessee State University. Comic strips were really the television of their era. People would develop favorite comic strips that they would follow and read every single day, just as they might see their favorite TV show every day.

With the creation of more advanced scanners, digitizing comics became a little easier, but the process was still tedious.

Going digital

About 20 years ago, Burford said, everything turned to digital publication, a move that has been a great benefit to getting (comics) out there quickly, efficiently and economically.

Although some cartoonists still use pen and ink to create their strips, a majority of comic strip artists use apps and software, often referred to as doodle technology, to draw their comics digitally.

People are still doing really good work, Jackson said. Its an art form thats not stagnating. People are continuing to come up with new and good ideas, and amazing strips.

According to Jackson, the digital creation of comic strips is beneficial in ways beyond savings in cost and time. He says doodle technology allows comic strip artists to refine comics like never before, producing some of the most advanced and detailed comics yet.

A bright future amid challenges

According to Paulson, the comic strip industry is in a state of crisis. The decrease in circulation and readership of print newspapers has meant a decrease in revenue in the comics business.

Just as newspapers are facing unprecedented challenges, so are comic strip creators, Paulson said.

Although comics may be suffering in print, they are still finding popularity in digital forms.

They are just starting to become more popular on the Internet, so its starting to pick up again, but its a different sort of feel now, Jackson said. Its real specialized people finding (comics), and they become popular, but they dont really escape their own little fan base. The mass audience aspect is missing. They are still around, people still enjoy reading them, and kids are still discovering them, its just on sort of a lesser scale.

Burford, however, disagrees. He believes comics are even more widely read online and that online publications have provided a way for comics to be taken more seriously than ever before.

While print newspapers used to cater to a large demographic, they are now mostly read by an older generation. According to Burford, online publication allows younger readers to access comics in a medium more familiar to them.

If you can go online with your content, I think you stand a better chance of casting a net and catching (younger readership), Burford said. I think you see a greater diversity in the readership.

Whether read online or in print, in single strips or in books, comics have long been a beloved source of entertainment for readers of all ages.

Comic strips have constituted one of the most dynamic art forms in the world over the past century, Paulson said. They were a huge American success story and paved the way for ever more imaginative movies and television. Long before there was Star Wars, there was Buck Rogers. The influence of comic strip artists on contemporary art is undeniable and is a lasting legacy.