Three comic strips have been tremendously inspirational to me: Peanuts by Charles Schulz, Pogo by Walt Kelly, and Krazy Kat by George Herriman. These strips have very different sensibilities, but they've helped me discover what a comic strip can do.
Peanuts books were among the first things I ever read, and once I saw them, I knew I wanted to be a cartoonist. I instantly related to the flat, spare drawings, the honesty of the children's insecurities, and to Snoopy's bizarre and separate world. At the time, I didn't appreciate how innovative all that was - I just knew it had a kind of humor and truth that other strips lacked. Now when I reread the old books, I'm amazed at what a melancholy comic strip it was in the '60s. Surely no other strip has presented a world so relentlessly cruel and heartless. Charlie Brown's self-torture in the face of constant failure is funny in a bitter, hopelessly sad way. I think the most important thing I learned from Peanuts is that a comic strip can have an emotional edge to it and that it can talk about the big issues of life in a sensitive and perceptive way.
Pogo, in some ways, is the opposite of Peanuts. Whereas Peanuts is a visually spare strip about private insecurities, Pogo was a lushly drawn strip, full of bombast and physical commotion. The strip's dialogue was a stew of dialect, pun, and nonsense, and word balloons were often filled with gothic type or circus poster letters to suggest the character's personality and voice. With the possible exception of Porkypine, there was not a soul-searching character in a cast of dozens. The drawings were beautifully animated and the stories wandered down back roads, got lost, and forgot their destinations. Kelly's animals satirized the day's politics, back when comics were expected to avoid controversy altogether. Beneath the chaos and bluster though, the strip had a basic faith in human decency and an optimism for bumbling through. Pogo had a pace and an atmosphere that will probably never be seen again. The strip is a wonderful lesson in what a lively, rich world the comics can present.
It is Krazy Kat, however, that fills me with the most awe today. Krazy Kat is more poetic than funny, with a charm that's impossible to describe. Everything about the strip is idiosyncratic and peculiar - the wonderful, scratchy drawings, the bold design and color of the Sunday strips, the kooky, austere Arizona landscapes, and the bizarre conglomeration of Spanish, slang, literary allusion, dialect, and mispronunciation that makes up the dialogue. The circular plot, such as it is, can be interpreted (and over-interpreted) as an allegory about good and evil, love and hate, society and individual . . . or it can simply be enjoyed for its lunatic machinery. For me, the magic of the strip is not so much in what it says, but how it says it. In its singular, uncompromised vision, its subtle whimsy and its odd beauty, Krazy Kat stands alone.
Other cartoonists and artists have inspired me as well, but these three strips shaped my idea of what a comic strip could be. All the strips work on several levels, entertaining while they deal with bigger issues of life. Most important, these strips reflect uniquely personal views of the world. They argue that comics can be vehicles for beautiful artwork and serious, intelligent expression. They set the example I wanted to follow.
The challenge of any cartoonist is not just to duplicate the achievements of the past, but to build on them as well. Comic strips have a short history, but their traditions are important. Cartoonists learn about cartooning by reading cartoons. Unfortunately, the history of comics is not very accessible. Popular strips were not regularly collected in books until very recently. Peanuts and Pogo collections are often difficult to find and are increasingly expensive. Krazy Kat still has not been adequately published in book form. It has only been in the last few years that I've seen any extended runs of the true classics of the medium. Early strips are amazing - some are far more inventive than today's - but they can't educate future cartoonists if they're not collected and republished. Sometimes I wonder what strips would be like if every generation didn't have to reinvent the wheel.
by Bill Watterson