Newspaper comic strips are a lost art. You need to convey a full beat in one small space every day. That beat has to be satisfying in and of itself but also work as a whole. That’s hard enough working from a creation of your own but masters of the format like Garry Trudeau and Bill Watterson and Bill Amend make it look easy with blends of serial stories and genius gags. Far harder is to work from someone else’s property (usually) and create a satisfying ongoing strip. In this and the next column in two weeks I’m going to look at a wide variety of licensed strips. This isn’t in any sense complete with plenty of notable ones missing as I couldn’t find samples but it’s a good overview of the weirdest tie-ins ever.
Mickey Mouse (1930-1995)
Creators: Floyd Gottfredson and Bill Walsh (primary)
Availability: The Gottfredson era is complete in reprints.
Should it work? Yes. Mickey Mouse had a cast for it and a format.
Did it work? One of the gold standards. People forget this but Mickey’s appeal wasn’t humor. It was his everyman scrapper nature. Mickey got knocked down and fought back. These are a showcase for that. Mickey faces wild crises and always gets up. The strips are boldly drawn, well written, and as strong as strips ever got.
Creators: Brad and Guy Gilchrist
Availability: Select books are available second hand but many contain repeated strips. Your best bet is here.
Should it work? Definitely. The Muppets are clear cartoonish characters with mountains of built in recurring gags.
Did it work? Splendidly. This was a perfect concept for the gag a day format because the show was gag a second. Everyone is perfectly in character. A funny strip in need of rediscovery.
Wallace and Gromit (2010-)
Availability: There are several books.
Should it work? It should. The format of brief invention shorts led to some fun material in the cracking contraptions shorts.
Did it work? Yes. These don’t touch the brilliance of Aardman but they’re rather fun. The format of one invention a week is perfect. Art is nice with lots of charm.
Bugs Bunny (1942-1990)
Availability: Select samples here.
Should it work? Definitely. Bugs Bunny and the Looney Tunes gang had all the material for a long running strip.
Did it work? Eh. The sample I read wasn’t bad but it was thin. Bugs being a smart aleck got old. The tendency to serialize Sunday’s was odd. There was some drawing on the cast but Bugs stated too much at the front. I would love a bigger sample.
Walt Disney’s Treasury of Classic Tales (1952-1987)
Availability: There are collections from IDW.
Should it work? Not at all. Serialized movies in comic strip form was a weird decision on the surface.
Did it work? God no. The comics played like what they were. Ads for movies. In particular the Tron one reads like a blunt synopsis poorly drawn. The format didn’t match the material. Y’all Jack Kirby crashed in this format. That’s how bad these were.
Winnie the Pooh (1978-1988)
Creators: Don Ferguson and Richard Moore
Availability: There is a fantastic collection from Dark Horse.
Should it work? Yes. The characters are bold enough for comics without getting too repetitive.
Did it work? In a weird way yes. Pooh famously became kind of a jerk here. The whole comic elevated the cynicism. But the strip itself is better for it. This isn’t exactly the warm Wood but it’s a funny place. Great art too.
Creator: Al Kilgore
Availability: There is a solid sample here.
Should it work? Maybe. This isn’t the place for gag a day work. Rocky and Bullwinkle thrived on spoofing the great serials.
Did it work? Kilgore leaned into the way this could be an ongoing serial making this a real gem. Plots ran nonstop with each day leading to the next. The art was completely in the style of the show. Jokes were spot on. I would love a full book.
Creator: Bob Montana (primary)
Availability: There are collections of Montana’s run and a collection of the strip’s gag a day format.
Should it work? Archie is basically a comic strip in the books. Of course it should.
Did it work? Well there’s two eras. Bob Montana’s serialized high school comedy is a first rate chronicle of the era where the idea of youth was born. It’s a distinct, bold comic that feels special as a document. The strip would devolve into a gag a day strip and is an emblem of the worst of this format. Lots of generic jokes any strip would have. It’s terrible.
Availability: Boom released a rather mountainous compendium.
Should it work? It’s logical. A familiar cartoon with characters with clear quirks.
Did it work? No. This was pretty soulless stuff. Mostly very generic babies don’t comprehend the world humor. The characters were mostly accurate but that was pretty sad because it exposed how thin the material was.
Gummi Bears (1986-1989)
Creators: Lee Nordling and Rich Hoover
Availability: Very limited samples are floating.
Should it work? The show had the material for a perfect serial strip. The characters were interesting and the setting was actually fairly solid fantasy.
Did it work? This is really bad gag a day work. It doesn’t work at all. Admittedly there’s only a small sample but this is the kind of thing mocked in Tom the Dancing Bug. Genetic material only notable by a license.
Howard the Duck (1977-1978)
Creators: Steve Gerber and Gene Colan/Val Mayerik
Availability: The strip has been preserved.
Should it work? Only if Steve Gerber was involved. Howard is so distinctly the writer’s creation that no other run has quite recaptured the magic.
Did it work? Given that Gerber was in fact the writer on the first 5 stories and original artist Colan drew, I’m happy to say this strip is as spot on as it gets. In fact it really might be a stretch to include it since the original creators did the first few stories. Gerber manages to translate the character to perfectly punctuated jokes amid a great story. This is a genius strip and deserves better.
Inside Woody Allen (1976-1984)
Creator: Stuart Hample
Availability: Two collections exist.
Should it work? It’s a comic strip whose main character is a real person or at least his persona. Not really.
Did it work? I hate Woody Allen but fine, yes. This is actually very funny stuff. And it’s because of Allen not in spite of him. This gets at what I find funny about him without having to think about what a predator he is. It’s very distinct humor.
I Love Lucy (1952-1955)
Creators: Lawrence Nadel and Bob Oksner
Availability: Full run here
Should it work? Domestic comedy gag strips are common so sure.
Did it work? No for a very obvious reason. I Love Lucy wasn’t about the writing. It was the once in a lifetime talents of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Remove them and you have a sour, ugly concept about a man who hates his clingy wife. That’s what these read like. One joke is just Ricky picturing clubbing Lucy. The art is staggeringly bad too.
Conan the Barbarian (1978-1981)
Creators: Various but it started with Roy Thomas and John Buscema
Availability: Can be found in full here.
Should it work? This is a really obvious fit. Characters like Prince Valiant pointed the way. A pulp legend.
Did it work? Of course it did. Conan is a simple character, a wanderer who gets into problems and fights his way out. This is vintage pulp storytelling done right. The shock is that it was so short.