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Before Dr. Seuss, even

Food For Thought

It has been said that J. K. Rowling has coaxed more kids into the reading habit in this century than Dr. Seuss did a generation ago. Her Harry Potter stories enchant and entertain adults and kids alike, and while both authors have influenced movies and television, I think their greatest contribution to society has been in the cause of literacy. Tempting children to read, to prefer books to the more passive activity of sitting and watching the screen, not only establishes the reading habit; it requires the exercise of imagination. Movies and television supply that imagination for us and, sometimes, it is less fascinating than what might go on in our own heads.
Before Dr. Seuss, there was the world of comics and comic strips. Comics, as we know them, originated in England in the 18th century. They involved line drawings, often used balloons to contain words spoken by the characters, and were largely political, appearing in newspapers as editorial comments on current political issues.
In the United States, cartooning developed a century later, influencing public opinion about political issues and playing a role in elections. At that time, publishers William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer were competing for readers and they soon saw comic strips as a way to attract readers.
Richard Outcault’s cartoon series “Hogan’s Alley” was first published in Pulitzer’s newspaper in 1895, and was set amid city tenements with tough characters, ragamuffins, cats and dogs. Among the crowd was a bald-headed urchin in a nightshirt. Outcault used the nightshirt to write comments related to the drawing, and the printers colored the nightshirt yellow. The character soon became known as the Yellow Kid, and within a year Hearst had hired Outcault away from the rival paper to draw a new series named for “The Yellow Kid.” The other newspaper continued to publish “Hogan’s Alley” featuring the same character and the two newspapers engaged in a struggle over the rights to publish the Yellow Kid character, thus giving rise to the term “yellow journalism” still used to refer to sensationalism as a means to attract readers.
Other early comics included “The Katzenjammer Kids” which first appeared in 1897, rapidly followed by “Happy Hooligan” and “Maud the Mule.” Another Outcault character, “Buster Brown,” which first appeared in 1902, was soon used to advertise a number of products such as hats, children’s shoes, buttons, cigars, and whiskey. Bud Fisher’s comic strip “Mutt and Jeff” debuted in 1907, and was the first successful comic strip to run every day. It established the form as an important daily newspaper feature.
Early 20th century strips tended to appeal to children, featuring kids and animals and were less politically oriented than before. By the second decade, comic strips began to reflect social issues like women’s suffrage, independent women and families. The challenges and customs of Irish and Jewish immigrants became subjects for strips. Intended to appeal to adult readers, these comics not only broadened the readership, but also helped to foster awareness and sympathy for persons from different backgrounds. By this time, syndication of comic strips had made it possible for small newspapers to afford to feature the strips, though major newspaper chains still employed their own artists.
“Buck Rogers” and “Dick Tracy” appeared in 1929, ushering in the era of adventure comics and continuing stories that left the reader anxiously awaiting the next day’s newspaper to find out what happened. Soon to follow: the comic book.
The earliest American comic books were merely collections of previously published strips in booklet form. The first comic book containing new material featured Superman in 1938. The character, who arrived as a child from a dying planet, had superhuman abilities. He could fly, had superhuman strength, X-ray vision, and other powers. He had a secret identity as a newspaper reporter. The popular new character sent sales of Action Comics soaring, and an American myth was born.
With the advent of television, comic book readership did a nosedive and a love for reading along with it. Seduced by color and spectacular visual effects developed within the industry, our young people began to prefer television to books. As a mother, grandmother, teacher and writer, I urge you to encourage your kids to read. The variety of good stories is greater and far better than those on TV and in the movies– and the reader gets to use his or her own imaginations for the visuals.