Saturday, March 15, 2014

Six comic strip stars who lost the spotlight

As I learn more about comic strip history through my work on the U of C's comic art collection, it's interesting to see how many strips evolved over the years - in some instances by casting off their original protagonists in favour of a new one, sometimes with dramatically different results!

Here are six starring characters who found themselves diminished - or outright put out of work.

Barney Google

Began as the star of: Take Barney Google, F'rinstance, 1919, wherein our pint-sized hero debuted as a gambling sportsman; over the years he would acquire his famous horse Spark Plug, appear in animated shorts, become featured in one strangely-preserved song ("Barney Google Foxtrot") and have a search engine named after him.

Supplanted by: Snuffy Smith, a hillbilly who indulges in hillbilly antics; he entered the strip in 1934 and took it over in 1954; you may be surprised to learn this strip is still being published as Barney Google and Snuffy Smith, albeit Google's name is little more than a legacy.

Lesson learned: Horse racing jokes become dated; hillbillies are a bottomless jug of comedy.

Mitzi McCoy

Began as the star of: Mitzi McCoy, 1948, presented there as the glamourous heroine of a soap opera.

Supplanted by: Kevin the Bold, her swashbuckling 15th century ancestor who shamelessly took over the strip in 1950 and held on 'til 1968 (Mitzi is such a minor footnote I had tremendous difficulty finding just one image of her).

Lesson learned: Unless Geena Davis or Roman Polanski are involved, swashbuckling always wins out.

Castor Oyl

Began as the star of: Thimble Theater, 1919, wherein our pint-sized hero headed an ensemble cast in comical variations on melodramatic stories.

Supplanted by: A new ensemble player named Popeye the Sailor, who swaggered his way into the strip in 1929 and within a year made it his own and has remained so featured to this day; although Popeye served as the primary romantic interest of Castor's sister Olive, ensuring Castor would never be forgotten, his presence diminished to the point where Castor is as much a piece of trivia as anything.

Lesson learned: Beware the character whose personality is more outrageous than yours; you yam what you yam and that's that you yam.

Fritzi Ritz

Began as the star of: Fritzi Ritz, 1922, wherein our glamourous protagonist engaged in comedic/romantic escapades much like other lady "flapper" stars of the time (ie, Winnie Winkle, Tillie the Toiler).

Supplanted by: Nancy, her adorable niece who debuted in 1933 and took over by 1938, delegating her aunt to a subservient role as a "mother type." Nancy runs in papers to this day.

Lesson learned: The public's not interested in beautiful, independent women. Cute kids, that'll never get old.

G. Washington Tubbs III

Began as the star of: Washington Tubbs III, 1924, wherein our pint-sized hero went on largely comedic adventures, seeking to find his place in the world through the circus, acting and even soldiering.

Supplanted by: His pal Captain Easy, who helped Tubbs out of one jam during 1929 and - excepting occasional absences - never left. In 1933, Easy took over Tubbs' Sunday pages and by the 1940s, Tubbs had been virtually retired; the strip kept his name, but Captain Easy remained in charge 'til the end in 1988.

Lesson learned: We empathize with your everyman hero who struggles to make a mark in this world, but all told we'd rather be the muscular, no-nonsense tough guy sidekick.

Big Chief Wahoo

Began as the star of: Big Chief Wahoo, 1936, wherein our pint-sized hero with his hilarious mode of speech engaged in comedic escapades while brushing up against paleface society.

Supplanted by: Steve Roper, an adventurous photojournalist who began edging Wahoo out in 1944, then renamed the strip after himself in 1947 and kept it 'til the 2004 finale; along the way, Roper picked up his own subordinate, Mike Nomad, pushing the strip's original star even further into obscurity.

Lesson learned: Stereotyping the indigenous peoples will always be funny, so the lesson must obviously be the fickle public just aren't into pint-sized heroes.

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