100 YEARS OF KING FEATURES SYNDICATE
By Brian Walker
In October 1895, California newspaperman William Randolph Hearst purchased the struggling New York Journal, intent on competing with Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. The following year, after installing a new high-speed multi-color press, he acquired the services of Pulitzer’s most popular cartoonist, Richard Outcault. Hearst’s American Humorist, an eight-page color comic supplement in the Sunday Journal, featuring Outcault’s Yellow Kid as the star attraction, debuted on October 18, 1896.
At the peak of his popularity in 1896 and 1897, the Yellow Kid’s toothy grin showed up on hundreds of products, including buttons, crackers, puzzles and fans. The Yellow Kid dramatically demonstrated the selling power of a popular comic character.
The bizarre bald-headed kid whose thoughts appeared on his nightshirt would seem an unlikely choice for the first superstar of the comics, but as an inner-city street urchin he would reflect the milieu of many of the first audience to read the funny pages.
by Rudolph Dirks
This drawing by Dirks’ successor, Harold Knerr, shows the titular mischievous boys. The Katzenjammer Kids retains its place in history as the longest-running comic ever.
Following Outcault’s departure from the New York Journal in 1898, The Katzenjammer Kids by Rudolph Dirks became the anchor of Hearst’s flagship American Humorist comic section. Veteran cartoonist Frederick Opper joined the Hearst staff in 1899 and was put to work drawing single-panel cartoons for the Sunday supplement. On March 11, 1900, Opper introduced his first newspaper comic feature, Happy Hooligan, which starred an irrepressible Irish hobo with a tin can balanced on his head.
by Fredrick Burr Opper
Poor dumb Happy was forever trying to do good, but always met with disaster by a bad turn of fate or his own stupidity. Probably the only cartoon character to make a fashion statement by using an empty tin can for a hat.
Cartoonists around the country were soon imitating the successful formula pioneered by Outcault, Dirks and Opper. The unique combination of recurring characters, sequential panels, speech balloons and bright colors eventually came to be known as the “Sunday funnies.”
In New York City, the competition between newspapers continued to rage and metropolitan papers in other cities soon began publishing their own Sunday comic sections. As a result, the Yellow Kid and his fellow comic characters became national celebrities. Hearst expanded his empire when he launched the Chicago American in 1900, the Los Angeles Examiner in 1903 and the Boston Americanin 1904.
At first, Barney was an “Average Man” who was beaten down in life. Then he became a successful horse racer with his fabled steed, Spark Plug. But comic immortality came in 1934 when he was joined by irascible hillbilly Snuffy Smith. The comic continues today as Barney Google & Snuffy Smith.
Outcault’s second major creation, Buster Brown, debuted in the New York Herald on May 4, 1902, and switched over to Hearst’s New York American on January 14, 1906. Bud Fisher, who introduced the first successful daily comic strip, Mutt and Jeff, in the San Francisco Chronicle on November 15, 1907, signed with Hearst’s Star Company in 1909. Another pioneer, Jimmy Swinnerton, drew a comic feature, Little Bears, for Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner beginning in 1893. “Swin” relocated to New York in 1897 and his Little Bears became The Journal Tigers. He eventually settled in Arizona where he produced Little Jimmy until 1958. Other prominent artists who worked for Hearst during the early years of the 20th century were political cartoonists Homer Davenport and T.E. Powers, sports cartoonist TAD Dorgan, and strip creators George Herriman (The Dingbat Family), Gus Mager (Sherlocko the Monk), Harry Hershfield (Desperate Desmond), Tom McNamara (Us Boys) and Walter Hoban (Jerry on the Job).
Syndicates had grown steadily since the Civil War, but now, in addition to text features, they started selling comics. The Newspaper Enterprise Association began distributing to the Scripps chain in 1902, and Pulitzer launched his Press Publishing Syndicate in 1905. Among the other organizations that joined the ranks of long-established syndicates were: George Matthew Adams Syndicate (1907), the Central Press Association (1910), Associated Newspapers (1912) and the Wheeler Syndicate (1913).
On November 16, 1915, Hearst deputy Moses Koenigsberg consolidated all of the Hearst distribution operations within a single company – King Features Syndicate. Named after its founder (the German word “koenig” translates as “king” in English), it has been among the leading comics distributors ever since.
The story of the ultimate American dream come true, the dirt-poor immigrant who makes it big, though nobody would dream of being henpecked like Jiggs is by his status-seeking daughter Nora or violent- tempered wife Maggie. All poor Jiggs really wants of life is a card game with his pals and a plate of corned beef and cabbage.
The strip looked in on the Perkins family, nouveau-riche small-towners led by Pa Perkins, who had to deal with daughter Polly’s social aspirations and a long stream of insufferable relatives. In his unique style, Sterrett could turn a walk down a hallway into an extravagant, nearly abstract composition.
By 1915, two decades after the first appearance of The Yellow Kid in the New York World, the funnies business was a national nstitution. Comics appeared, both daily and on Sundays, in virtually every newspaper in the United States. Syndicates distributed the top comic features to over a thousand clients, and the most sought-after creators were well-known celebrities. Comic characters starred in stage adaptations and animated films, their praises were sung in hit songs, their adventures were collected in books and magazines, and their popular images were used to sell a wide variety of products, ranging from toys and dolls to cigars and whisky.
The syndicates gradually transformed the content of the comics. Urban, ethnic and slapstick humor was complimented by more family-friendly fare. Although many of the creations from the first decade, including Happy Hooligan and The Katzenjammer Kids, continued to be among the most popular strips, new titles released in the coming years provided a broader spectrum of choices for readers.
Thimble Theatre was a wonderful strip, enjoyed by many, and then when the one-eyed sailor came along in 1929, it skyrocketed in popularity.
As the syndicates became more powerful, they were able to attract the best talent. The big distributors quickly snapped up homegrown artists who achieved local notoriety, and the top cartoonists began earning huge salaries. They were also free to work where and when they wanted, and to entertain better offers from competing syndicates.
Among the successful comic strips that King Features released before and after its founding were Bringing Up Father by George McManus, Krazy Kat by George Herriman, Polly and Her Pals by Cliff Sterrett, Barney Google by Billy DeBeck, Thimble Theatre Starring Popeye by E.C. Segar, Blondie by Chic Young, Flash Gordon and Jungle Jim by Alex Raymond, The Phantom and Mandrake the Magician by Lee Falk, Prince Valiant by Hal Foster and Ripley’s Believe It or Not by Robert Ripley. King also distributed the numerous comic strip adaptations from the Walt Disney Studios, beginning with Mickey Mouse in 1930.
Before becoming an animation icon made famous by Max Fleischer, Betty Boop was portrayed in strips as a flighty movie starlet having adventures at a film studio. Today, the flirty flapper remains one of the most widely licensed characters in the world.
Fortune magazine, in an April 1933 article entitled The Funny Papers, reported that, “Of 2,300 U.S. dailies, only two of any importance (New York Times and Boston Transcript) see fit to exist without funnies. U.S. Funny Paper Inc. grosses about $6,000,000 a year. Some twenty comic-strip headliners are paid at least $1,000 a week for their labors.”
Originally a series in the cartoon magazine “Life,” it was well received enough to move to King Features in 1925. Skippy was a curious little boy always getting into and out of trouble, playing ball with friends and generally doing the things kids do. The strip also had a quiet, cerebral side to it. Crosby’s Skippy is said to have influenced young Charles M. Schulz. Two hit movies based on Skippy starring Jackie Cooper appeared in the 1930s.
Newspaper circulation continued to climb throughout the 1930s, reaching a high of 41,500,000 in 1937, but profits were down due to the loss of advertising revenue after the 1929 stock market crash. Smaller papers struggled to survive and either folded or were absorbed by one of the larger chains. Editor & Publisher reported that between 1924 and 1934, groups owning more than one newspaper had doubled, from thirty-one to sixty-three. These organizations controlled 361 daily papers, which accounted for 37.6 percent of the total circulation.
By 1935, the Hearst empire had expanded to twenty-six daily and seventeen Sunday papers in nineteen cities, thirteen magazines, eight radio stations, two motion picture companies, four syndicates and two wire services. Hearst owned two million acres of real estate valued at $56 million, a vast collection of art and antiques, and an estimated personal wealth of $220,000,000. Financial hardship finally caught up with the organization in 1937, when many holdings, including nine daily papers and five Sunday editions, had to be liquidated to pay off debts.
he outbreak of World War II closed many foreign markets for the major newspaper syndicates. King Features, which had twenty-six overseas bureaus, was hit the hardest. After the Nazis invaded Belgium, Holland and France, American comics were banned in most newspapers in those countries. Publishers in England were forced to cancel features due to paper shortages. Currency exchange restrictions, the closing of shipping lanes and the loss of advertising revenue further restricted business.
Shortages of materials, including newsprint and ink, also hurt business on the home front as newspapers began cutting back on the number of comics they printed. The syndicates quickly responded to this threat by offering their comics in reduced sizes. They began distributing daily strips in a four-column width, as well as in the standard five and six-column formats (one column is approximately two inches in width).
The definitive space strip, Flash Gordon combined state-of-the-art science fiction with lush draftsmanship to produce a beloved classic that was made into radio, TV and movie series, as well as many reprint collections.
The stories of The Phantom span many generations in the ceaseless family quest to destroy piracy on the African coast. The Phantom remains one of the most popular adventure strips today.
The comic strip world’s most earnest attempt at great art, Hal Foster’s epic adventure of the world of knights and chivalry features a young warrior prince from the court of King Arthur, his experiences in many exotic lands and the armor-and-sword battles he fought.
Steve was a jet fighter pilot for the Air Force who served in the Korean and Vietnam Wars and often found himself on dangerous missions behind enemy lines and dealing with those on opposite sides of the ideological fence stateside.
After the hostilities ended and the foreign markets were restored, international distribution of comics became a growth industry. “We never did any promotion in the South American and European countries,” remarked one syndicate manager, “but the war and the GIs’ enthusiasm for comics opened up a big field for us there.”
The comics industry lost its founding patron when William Randolph Hearst succumbed to a heart condition on August 14, 1951, at the age of eighty-eight. “The Chief” left behind sixteen daily and thirteen Sunday newspapers, eight monthly magazines, a sprawling real estate empire and a priceless collection of art and antiques.
Another heroic pilot was Buz Sawyer, who started out in the Pacific in World War II, and went on to many of the world’s trouble spots throughout the Cold War. His sidekick Rosco Sweeney took over the Sunday strip for many years, contrasting his comic rural stories with the exciting intrigues of Buz in the daily series.
Hearst remained personally involved in every detail of his publishing empire until his death, including the supervision of the comics. All new features had to be approved by him before King Features could sign them up. Mort Walker’s Beetle Bailey was the last comic strip he personally green-lighted. When Hearst saw a comic strip he liked that wasn’t owned by King, he directed his people to hire the artist away from the current employer with a better offer. Many cartoonists, including Richard Outcault, Winsor McCay and Roy Crane, came under his control in this way.
Ward Greene, who was the editor and general manager of King Features at the time of Hearst’s passing, made regular trips from the syndicate offices in New York to his boss’ home in California. Hearst would pore over two bound volumes containing all three hundred of the syndicate’s features and make comments and suggestions. He frequently suggested plot lines for comic strips and objected to sequences that he disliked.
Over half a century before his death, Hearst set the stage for the birth of the medium. On October 17, 1896, the day preceding The Yellow Kid’s debut in Hearst’s Sunday edition of the New York Journal, a full-page advertisement described the new comics section as “Eight pages of iridescent polychromous effulgence that makes the rainbow look like a lead pipe!” Hearst didn’t invent the comics, but his promotional bravado was what sold them to the American public.
A Hearst editor once said that his boss’ goal was to make every reader exclaim “Gee whiz!” upon opening the newspaper. That phrase might have been a fitting epitaph for the greatest showman in the history of journalism.
A soldier’s life is usually a busy one, but Beetle’s is dedicated to artful inactivity. Sarge is always trying to get him to shape up, even if it means beating him to a pulpy mess to do it. Mort Walker continues a create Beetle Bailey today with his sons, Greg and Brian Walker.
The friendly suburban Flagston couple and their forever-young children have become one of the staples of American strips, most famous for baby Trixie, who waxes philosophical to a sunbeam coming through a window.
In the modern era, technological advances such as television and computers and social changes brought about by the baby boom generation, had a major influence on the comics business. Trends within the industry had an even greater impact on cartoonists. The decline of story strips and the increasing dominance of humor features led to both terminated careers and new opportunities. The shrinking size that comics were printed in newspapers posed an ongoing threat to creativity. Other issues – censorship, ownership and merchandising – presented additional challenges.
Corporate mergers also dramatically altered the funnies business. In March 1986, under the leadership of President Joe D’Angelo, King Features absorbed the seventh-largest syndicate, Cowles (formerly known as the Register and Tribune Syndicate). The following February, it purchased News America Syndicate, the third largest comics distributor, from Rupert Murdoch. King, which incorporated the renamed North America Syndicate into its group of companies, now controlled 225 syndicated features, including nine strips and panels with over 1,000 clients.
The terror of the neighborhood, Dennis isn’t so much of a mean kid, or a troublemaker, more that he’s just an unbridled little devil, causing low-scale catastrophes unintentionally. Dennis the Menace remains one of the most famous characters in American popular culture.
Among the new acquisitions were Dennis the Menace by Hank Ketchum and The Family Circus by Bil Keane, which were added to established properties like Blondie, Beetle Bailey, Hi and Lois, Hägar the Horrible, The Lockhorns, Curtis, The Piranha Club (formerly Ernie) and Zippy the Pinhead.
Far from living up to his name as a Viking, Hägar is more epicurean than bloodthirsty. His expeditions to sack the cities of medieval Europe are likely to result in plunder rich in pizza and beer as much as gold.
Hollywood references, old landmarks, catchphrases and comic strip characters mixed with confused nuggets of ideology comprise Zippy’s bizarre world. Once an underground character, the Zipster has pioneered the outer edge of mainstream comics for almost thirty years.
Jay Kennedy, a former cartoon editor and consultant to Esquire, People, National Lampoon and Lear’s magazines, took over as comics editor at King Features in 1989. Kennedy, who had represented a number of “alternative” comics artists, promised to compliment King’s mainstream features with “edgier” creations. Kennedy would have a major hand in bringing fresh ideas to the syndicate in the 1990s.
Drawing from his own experience as boy growing up in Harlem, Ray Billingsley brings welcome diversity to the comics pages with Curtis. It may not be the first comic to feature African-American characters, but Curtis is the most popular and most loved.
The three most successful new strips of the decade – Baby Blues, Zits, and Mutts – blended traditional themes with fresh perspectives. Jerry Scott, Rick Kirkman, Jim Borgman and Patrick McDonnell, the creators of these King-distributed comic strips, were all born during the postwar years. They helped to revive classic, family-oriented genres and brought quality draftsmanship back to the funnies pages.
Earl the dog and Mooch the cat are neighbors and best friends. When they’re not begging at the deli counter for treats, they spend their time interacting with other animals birds and sea creatures. Most agree that Mutts is a true modern-day classic.
Among the other successful creations King launched in the 1990s and 2000s were: Between Friends by Sandra Bell Lundy, Mallard Fillmore by Bruce Tinsley, Rhymes with Orange by Hilary Price, Six Chix by Isabella Bannerman, Margaret Shulock, Rina Piccolo, Anne Gibbons, Benita Epstein and Stephanie Piro, Tina’s Groove by Rina Piccolo, Pajama Diaries by Terri Libenson and Dustin by Steve Kelley and Jeff Parker.
Hilary Price’s comics reveal truths about relationships, pets, work and everyday life with insightful wit and her own brand of humor. Historically, women cartoonists have been under-represented on the comics pages — in recent years that is changing, and Hilary has helped lead the shift.
A number of features that had been successful with other distributors also joined the King family, including Sherman’s Lagoon by Jim Toomey, Bizarro by Dan Piraro, Mother Goose and Grimm by Mike Peters and Shoe by Gary Brookins and Susie MacNelly.
The emergence of the Internet as a global communications network in the 1990s had parallels to the rise of television in the 1950s. The new electronic medium presented both a challenge and an opportunity to the comics business. Syndicates, initially concerned about competing with their newspaper clients, eventually set up websites and marketed features directly to Internet subscribers. King debuted its first digital destination on January 12, 1998, which was renamed DailyINK in 2004. A new, improved version, Comics Kingdom, was launched in 2008.
Today, the comics claim an estimated 113 million loyal readers in the United States and millions more worldwide. King Features Syndicate is the leading distributor of comics, columns, editorial cartoons, puzzles and games to nearly five thousand daily, Sunday, weekly and digital newspapers around the globe. President T.R. “Rocky” Shepard and Editor Brendan Burford continue a tradition of providing quality entertainment to readers that William Randolph Hearst established more than one hundred years ago.
Brian Walker has written, edited and contributed to more than forty books on cartoon art and is the author of the definitive history “The Comics – The Complete Collection.” He has served as curator for seventy cartoon exhibitions, is a founder and former director of the Museum of Cartoon Art and a part of the creative team that produces the comic strips Beetle Bailey and Hi & Lois.
Special thanks to Brian Walker, Peter Maresca, Donna Ferreiro, Dean Mullaney, Jenny Robb and the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum – your contributions and help along the way are greatly appreciated.