Top One Hundred Print Cartoon Creations of the Century
Compiled for the Comic Buyer’s Guide Somewhere Near the Beginning of 2000
The world didn’t end December 31, 1999, as widely predicted by end-of-the-worlders, students of the Bible, and other millennium bugs. So, clearly, December 31, 1999, was not the end of the millennium. If it had been, the world would have ended, and we wouldn’t be here writing about it. No, as countless discerning souls were observing loudly at the time, the millennium ends with a “ten”--that is, with 2000—not with a “nine.” So this year is the last year of the millennium. And it’s this year that everything will end in a pillar of fire.
Well, I swan.
You coulda fooled me.
I even strenuously maintained that if it sounds like a duck, it must be a duck. So if you start saying “two thousand” when referring to the year, it must mark the beginning of something different—hence, the year 2000 was the beginning of the new millennium; and, perforce, the year 1999 must be the end of the previous millennium.
Not so, I guess. We’re still here. So the much bruted about end of the world, which would signal the transition from one millennium to the next, must be just over the horizon.
Ditto for the century. Centuries end in “tens” not “nines.” So the end of the Twentieth Century is the year 2000, not the year 1999. But it won’t matter who is in the White House to lead us into the Twenty-first Century because, as already noted, with the concurrent end of the millennium, the world as we know it will cease to exist. And that includes the White House.
While we still have time, then, lemme put out my centennial list.
Fortunately for me, I have all of the centennial lists of last year to refer to for guidance.
Last year, laboring under the heavy misapprehension that 1999 was the last year of the century, lots of folks celebrated by making up lists of one hundred of all manner of things. It was the game of the season. It was a way of celebrating the end of the century. There are other ways. But this is the way numerous personages did their celebrating.
Some did it with a thousand things instead of a hundred because they thought it was also the end of the millennium, in case you hadn’t noticed. I don’t know that you could have avoided noticing. The racks of tabloid newspapers at the check-out stand in the grocery stores screamed the significance of the millennium at you: that’s where I found out it was the end of the world.
Well, this year, the last days are surely upon us. The signs and portents lay before us--pestilence and chaos on every hand. Crime and violence in the streets, mysterious new killer viruses on the loose, radically changing weather patterns, earthquakes, floods, famines, destruction and death and terrorism everywhere. If that’s not a portent, I wouldn’t know one when I see one.
It’s pretty unsettling, let me tell you. I don’t know if I can go through this every thousand years.
One of the most intriguing millennium lists is the one that makes up the book 1,000 Years, 1,000 People. Agnes Hooper Gottlieb, Henry Gottlieb, Barbara Bowers, and Brent Bowers undertook to rank order the one thousand men and women who did the most to shape the past one thousand years. Their method is admirable in theory even if tedious in execution. Using a Biograph System, they awarded candidates points in each of five categories: lasting influence, effect on the sum total of wisdom and beauty in the world, influence upon contemporaries, singularity of contribution, and charisma. You could award as many as 10,000 points in the first category; 2,000 in the last.
The highest possible score is 24,000, but the first ranking personage had only 21,768 points. That was Johannes Gutenberg, who invented the printing press with movable type in the 1430s. He toted up a pretty good number of points in every category except “charisma,” where he got only 210 points out of the 2,000 possible. How did our quartet of authors know Gutenberg was an old stick in the mud? Dunno. Katherine Hepburn made the list. Ditto Captain Kidd and Coco Chanel. Andy Warhol is ranked 1,000 as a gesture of poetic justice: so at last he’ll be famous for more than fifteen minutes. Lady Godiva didn’t make the list, though. Neither did Amerigo Vaspucci, Pocahontas, or Ronald Reagan. Or, alas, Cal Ripken, Jr.
In picking the top one hundred works of comic art in the last century, my criteria aren’t as mathematically pure as Gottlieb and Bowers’. In fact, my method is simplicity itself. The criteria? Just works of genius, that’s all. Works of one kind of genius or another.
Some are pace-setting (Terry, The Far Side, Peanuts), showing others the way. Some are simply unique exploitations of the medium by masters (Betsy and Me, Popeye, Gordo, Alley Oop). Others are works of a cartoonist whose influence was wider than is represented by a specific work; so these works (Scrooge McDuck, Dark Knight Returns, The Spirit) are merely touchstones representing that cartoonist’s pervasive impact upon the profession and the craft. And often I mixed up both these criteria and myself. And sometimes, alas, I failed to mention genuine works of genius because I didn’t know about them or hadn’t seen enough of them. The comic strip 9 Chickweed Lane, for instance, should be on this list somewhere: its creator, Brooke McEldowney, is clearly a master at his craft. But I didn’t start watching the strip until after the old millennium passed over my head.
In citing long-running works like the comic strips Terry or Peanuts, I often give the dates of the period when the work was most influential or at its peak. Here we go, starting at the “bottom” of the ranking and working our way up to the “top”:.
100. Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers by Gilbert Shelton; flagship creation of the underground by one of the medium’s founders.
99. Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud; a vivid demonstration of the medium’s capacity for serious, non-narrative discourse.
98. Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai; a superior example of non-superhero comics storytelling in both picture and words.
97. Zippy by Bill Griffith; an underground creation that crossed-over successfully to syndication, proving that unconventional cartooning can survive in the mainstream.
96. Betsy and Me by Jack Cole; an innovative comic strip in both graphic style and narrative technique, the third of Cole’s masterful achievements in the medium.
95. Greeting cards by Sandra Boyton; a blend of words and pictures in a wholly novel (and highly comical) manner.
94. Suburban Heights (et al) by Gluyas Williams; a sustained example of Williams’ pristine black-and-white style.
93. David Levine’s caricatures in New York Review of Books, revived the art of pure caricature in this country.
92. Katzenjammer Kids by Rudolph Dirks; set the pace for the medium in the closing years of the 19th century by deploying both words (in balloons) and pictures to tell its stories.
91. Mort Drucker’s caricatures in Mad parodies; a stunningly accurate “portrait” painter.
90. Mutt and Jeff by Bud Fisher (1907-1930); the first daily “strip” established the form by running across the page instead of in a box somewhere on the page.
89. Felix the Cat by Otto Messmer; a visually inventive creation, Felix was the first super star of animation.
88. Bootsie by Ollie Harrington; a social protest series of panel cartoons by a passionate master.
87. Brenda Starr by Dale Messick; a role model in the funnies by a role model at the drawingboard, the first nationally recognized syndicated female cartoonist (although not “the first syndicated female cartoonist”).
86. The Lonely Ones by William Steig; shows how cartooning can step beyond laughter into philosophical satire.
85. Gasoline Alley by Frank King (1918-1946); the characters aged, year by year, and also set the pace for homespun narrative in small town American when small town America was vanishing apace.
84. Barney Google (July 17, 1922 until DeBeck’s death in 1942); one of the first comic strips to extend itself beyond the funnies pages into popular culture at large, inspiring a popular song (“Barney Google with his goo-goo googly eyes”) and coining a host of expressions (“sweet mama,” “balls afire,” “time’s a-wastin’,” etc.--mostly from the hillbillies).
83. Little Annie Fanny by Harvey Kurtzman & Will Elder; the most luxurious full-color comic strip in print for the first 10-15 years of its run in Playboy.
82. Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller; revitalized superheroicism in comic books by treating the superhero “realistically” as a flawed human being rather than an icon.
81. Maus by Art Spiegelman; the first serious narrative in the medium to earn public recognition via a Pulitzer Prize.
80. For Better or For Worse by Lynn Johnston; a comic strip with heart and humanity, setting an example for the medium.
79. Rose Is Rose by Pat Brady; one of the few imaginative visualizations yoking word and picture in newspaper comics.
78. Dennis the Menace by Hank Ketcham; a stylistic triumph in black-and-white.
77. Caspar Milquetoast by H. T. Webster; one of the first comic strip celebrities to have his name seep into popular culture.
76. Magazine cartoons by Tom Henderson (1950s); visual-verbal blending of the first order.
75. Joe Palooka by Ham Fisher (c. 1935-1950); one of the most popular comic strips in the medium’s history, the strip’s hero was a role model for young Americans.
74. Professor Lucifer G. Butt’s Inventions by Rube Goldberg; another cartoonist who infiltrated popular culture, giving his name in the dictionary to any mechanical device that seems more complicated in operation than the task it is intended to perform.
73. The Far Side by Gary Larson; set the pace for bizarre humor in the last decades of the century.
72. Harem girl cartoons E. Simms Campbell; a place-holder for the cartoonist who designed Esky, the goggle-eyed mascot for Esquire magazine, and who devised the comedy for most of the magazine’s cartoons in the early years.
71. Political cartoons by Rollin Kirby; the first winner of a Pulitzer for editorial cartooning, Kirby invented the notorious Mr. Dry, a funereal symbol of Prohibition in the twenties.
70. The Gumps by Sidney Smith; established the continuing story mode for daily comic strips, making suspense a vital ingredient on the comics pages.
69. Bringing Up Father by George McManus; by the 1940s, Jiggs and Maggie were probably the most famous comic strip characters in the world--and they were elegantly rendered, too, by a master.
68. New Yorker cartoons by Charles Addams established the macabre in cartoon humor.
67. Male Call by Milton Caniff; the most widely circulated comic strip in history (about 4,000 base and unit newspapers during World War II), it featured the curvaceous Miss Lace, a daringly risque departure in comic strippery but justified considering the exclusive audience--soldiers and sailors in wartime, who, Caniff said, needed to be reminded of what they were fighting for.
66. He Done Her Wrong by Milt Gross; a graphic novel without words, a tour de force.
65. Betty, Veronica, and My Friend Irma by Dan DeCarlo (1950s); established a style for rendering cute but sexy women.
64. Gordo by Gus Arriola (c. 1955 on); a beautifully designed strip that also deliberately acquainted its readers with the customs, language, and folkart of Mexico.
63. Polly and Her Pals by Cliff Sterrett (c.1925-1950); another triumph in graphic design.
62. Little Lulu comic books by John Stanley; captured the aura of childhood like no one else except, maybe--
61. Capp Stubbs and Tippie by Edwina Dumm; the first lady of cartooning (who was doing editorial cartoons for a daily newspaper before women could vote), Edwina defied logic again by producing the epitome of a boy strip for over 40 years.
60. Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson; captures the child within us all but with an adult perspective.
59. Editorial cartoons by Jeff MacNelly (c. 1970-1990); the pace-setter in editorial cartooning for the last quarter of the century.
58. Boys’ Ranch comic books by Jack Kirby (mostly) and Joe Simon; the apogee of the team’s achievement in visuals and thematic narrative.
57. Skippy by Percy Crosby; the classic roughneck boy down the block, Skippy was, by turns, philosophical and petulant, but he was always a graphic delight, Crosby’s sketchy renderings capturing youthful energy like no one else (not even Edwina).
56. Sad Sack by George Baker (1942-1946); everyone’s low man on the totem, the Sad Sack was the quintessential put-upon dogface soldier of World War II.
55. Gasoline Alley by Dick Moores (c. 1960-1986); in revitalizing Frank King’s classic, Moores proved that a successor can improve upon a creator’s achievement.
54. Li’l Abner by Al Capp (1934-1960); the second strip in the “modern era” (since 1930) to have a political stance, Abner paved the way for all political satire in the last half of the century.
53. New Yorker cartoons by George Price; unique renderings, Price’s drawings represented the dottiest of our population in the most loving manner.
52. Masses cartoons by Art Young; exemplar of an idealistically driven cartoonist, Young never drew a cartoon whose message he didn’t believe in passionately once he’d converted to Socialism in the early years of the century.
51. Fox and Crow comic books by Jim Davis; the con man and his perpetual victim were never so thoroughly explored (and exploited) as in this title.
50. Editorial cartoons by J.N. Darling (“Ding”) (c.1910-1945); perhaps the first nationally-recognized editorial cartoonist, Ding set the graphic fashion for his generation of the breed.
49. Bravo for Adventure by Alex Toth; a beautifully executed expression of a cartoonist’s belief in his art and in the moral function of heroism.
48. Playboy cartoons by Jack Cole; divorcing himself from the linear medium of comic books, Cole set the pace for all Playboy cartoonists with his watercolor masterpieces of the mid- to late-fifties.
47. Editorial cartoons by Paul Conrad; particularly during the Nixon administration and ensuing Watergate era, Conrad exemplified hard-hitting, merciless metaphorical cartooning.
46. Fantastic Four comic books by Jack Kirby (mostly) and Stan Lee; a watershed creation that sparked a revival of superhero comic books.
45. Blondie by Chic Young (until c. 1960); the ultimate in domestic comedy for its time, Blondie was among the top five comic strips in worldwide circulation. Still is.
44. Crimebuster stories in Boy Comics by Charles Biro and Norman Maurer; a benchmark here for the documentary style of narration that characterized the Lev Gleason books of the 1940s and 1950s, setting a model for Kurtzman and others, who, later, tried for serious storytelling in the medium.
43. Mickey Mouse (comic strip) by Floyd Gottfriedson (c.1930-c.1950); established the character of The Mouse better than the films.
42. Dick Tracy by Chester Gould (c. 1930-1953); set the pace for authenticity as well as violence in cops and robbers strips.
41. Little Orphan Annie by Harold Gray (c. 1930-1949); exemplified self-reliance for a Depression-racked country and was perhaps the first nationally distributed strip to overtly assume a “political” stance.
40. Daredevil by Frank Miller; demonstrated how a creative intelligence can revive a faltering character in a marketplace medium.
39. Spider-Man by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee; shifted the age group to which superhero comic books appealed from early to late teens, attracting a college audience.
38. EC horror comics by Al Feldstein and Jack Davis and Graham Ingels; created a new kind of comic story with twist endings and vivid grisly graphics.
37. EC science fiction comics by Al Feldstein and Wally Wood; another standard established, particularly in visuals.
36. Mad parodies as drawn by Wally Wood; for cute silliness and sexy cartoon women, unequaled.
35. Mad marginals by Sergio Aragones; masterful pantomime comic art of seemingly endless inventiveness.
34. Batman by Bob Kane and Bill Finger; added costumed vigilantism to the comic book canon with the second of the genre’s icons.
33. Beetle Bailey by Mort Walker; helped change the direction of newspaper comic strips by introducing magazine-style drawing.
32. Scrooge McDuck by Carl Barks; a complex and whole personality infused into a duck and coupled to moral lessons in perfect tune with his society.
31. Doonesbury by Garry Trudeau; turned name-dropping into political satire, a major step for syndicated comic strips.
30. Editorial cartoons by Herblock; a hard-hitting pace-setter in the 1950s who coined the term McCarthyism.
29. Superman by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster; a creation that was soon so popular that it spawned an entire industry.
28. EC war stories by Harvey Kurtzman; took the glamour out of war and established a new style of comic book storytelling, too.
27. Stories in Zap Nos. 1-4 and Snatch Nos. 1-3 by Robert Crumb; the success of these titles took underground cartoonists out of newspapers and into comic book formats, virtually creating underground comix.
26. Mad parodies as drawn by Will Elder (Nos. 1-23); manic visual invention set Mad’s style.
25. Sick Sick Sick by Jules Feiffer; a new approach to social commentary in which characters reveal their flaws in endless monologues.
24. Little Nemo in Slumberland by Winsor McCay; a work of graphic genius so far ahead of its time that it was never successfully imitated.
23. Alley Oop by V. T. Hamlin (1939-1960); an absorbing combination of legend, history, science fantasy, and, even, comedy, all held together by the commanding presence of a taciturn cave man.
22. Willie and Joe WWII cartoons by Bill Mauldin; caught the essence of the dogface (soldier in the trenches) for a generation.
21. Krazy Kat by George Herriman; a lyric poem to the triumph of love.
20. Barnaby by Crockett Johnson; more lyricism, but this time of the high comedy kind that champions the power of imagination over reality.
19. The Pie-face Prince of Old Pretzleburg by George Carlson; an inimitable work of visual puns and linguistic legerdemain, wedded in antic comedy.
18. Captain Marvel by C. C. Beck and Otto Binder; a superhero of science fantasy that mocked the conventions of the genre, creating comedy as well as suspense and adventure.
17. Peanuts by Charles Schulz; in visual style, comedic approach, and sheer merchandising, the strip that so changed the face of newspaper comics as to justify our dubbing the last forty years of the comics’ first century The Age of Schulz.
16. Tarzan by Harold Foster; in the Sunday pages particularly, established realistic illustration as a visual standard for serious adventure comics.
15. Cartoons in True magazine by Virgil Partch (VIP) (c. 1940-1955); re-vitalized the single-panel magazine gag cartoon by making the sense of the picture dependent upon understanding the caption beneath and vice versa.
14. Cartoons in assorted 1920s publications by John Held, Jr.; pictures that set the fashion for the Jazz Age.
13. Plastic Man by Jack Cole; apart from the novelty of an elastic superhero, these comic books were hilarious demonstrations of the power of sight gags to infuse a creation with a distinctive ambiance--in short, a cartoonist’s power.
12. Captain America by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon; demonstrated how to render action sequences with such persuasive graphic power as to make superheroes believable.
11. Mad comic book (Nos. 1-23) by Harvey Kurtzman; satire that stripped pretense and posturing away from social institutions, setting the style for the magazine for a generation and ripping the rose-tinted glasses from the eyes of American Youth raised on Disney visions of homespun rural contentment.
10. Thimble Theatre (Popeye) by E. C. Segar (1929 until Segar’s death in 1938); a work of endless comedic invention and visual genius (Popeye’s bulging forearms alone convinced us of his fistic prowess).
9. New Yorker cartoons by Peter Arno (1927-1950); embodying the spirit of the magazine as no other New Yorker cartoonist, Arno made his words completely dependent upon the pictures for comedic sense (and vice versa) thereby establishing the single-speaker caption for gag cartoons.
8. The Spirit by Will Eisner; after developing the grammar of the comic book form in the late 1930s, Eisner went on to demonstrate how a masked crime-fighter could provide a framework for human interest stories with genuinely literary qualities.
7. Flash Gordon by Alex Raymond; the most vivid demonstration of the power of stunning visuals for creating a world.
6. Wash Tubbs (and Captain Easy) by Roy Crane (c. 1928-1943); the adventure strip that inspired and led all the others.
5. Sports cartoons by Willard Mullin; set the style for the entire genre.
4. Theatrical caricatures by Al Hirschfeld; another who, like Mullin, embodies an entire cartooning genre.
3. Editorial cartoons by Pat Oliphant; revolutionized the appearance of editorial cartooning and its method by making comedy a weapon.
2. Terry and the Pirates by Milton Caniff (1934-1946); redefined the adventure strip genre by practicing a chiaroscuro manner for realistic rendering and by making character integral to his plots.
1. Pogo by Walt Kelly; at its best, this strip scaled the heights to which the visual-verbal medium of cartooning can aspire by combining vaudevillian comedy and caricature with satirical allegory, creating meaning on two levels at once, each serving the purposes of the other.
That’s my list. About which, without further adieu, I say merely: stay ’tooned.