Coloring Daily Comic Strips
(c) 2016, Arthur Lortie


As even the most casual reader of syndicated comic strips knew, on Sundays you could expect to read them in vibrant living color; and Monday to Saturday, the 'dailies' are in glorious black and white. It's been this way for decades. I actually thought that was a rule set down by our Founding Fathers, or at least by Ben Franklin as he began fiddlung around with his printing press.

Today, of course, colorized dailies can be found everywhere, especially on the web. Locally, THE BOSTON HERALD has been presenting THE PHANTOM in syndicate approved colors for several years. You might also have seen colorized dailies in early comic books, like David McKay's ACE COMICS, and in many foreign reprint books, but never EVER in the newspapers until recently!

I had suspected there might have been some crazy left-wing hippie radical small press out there giving THE PHANTOM a lime green costume in the 1960's, but I was certain no mainstream newspaper would have dared attempt such a thing back in the '40's and '50's lest a McCarthy or Wertham take notice!
And then I ran across a headline in the July 12, 1948 ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH --
Dailies in Color 19480712a (St Louis Post Dispatch).jpg
Surely this was a leftover headline from April's Fools Day! Color bleeding and poor registration were something that could only be endured over Sunday coffee and not on a Monday subway commute, right? RIGHT??!!

It turned out to be the real deal, and for years afterwards they dared to crow about being the first! An eyewitness has confirmed this practice continued at least through the 1980's and possibly later.
Dailies in Color 19490130 (St Louis Post Dispatch).jpg
I'm unsure if their choice of colors required syndicate approval, or it was left to the whim of the publisher's Crayola-packin' offspring. There was a second page of 3 strips (BRUCE GENTRY, KEN STUART and REX MORGAN MD) that appeared in the rational black and white format, but the initial colorized lineup included L'IL ABNER, MANDRAKE THE MAGICIAN, RIP KIRBY and RUSTY RILEY:

Dailies in Color 19480712 (St Louis Post Dispatch).jpg

Two weeks later, on July 28th, the POST-DISPATCH presented an in depth confession by staffer Clarissa Start (1917-2008), who wrote for the Post-Standard for 64 years. She unfortunately didn't give the reasons for the newspaper doing this, other than they could. (I'm still thinking anarchy and toppling the government was at the top of their list.)

She does, however, give an interesting history of comic strips in St. Louis and the process by which syndicated comics are created.

You Are Likely to Date Yourself If You Say, "Funnies Are Not What They Used to Be’By Clarissa Start(c) St. Louis Post Dispatch, 1948
“The Comics aren’t what they used to be,” the oldtimer likes to say. “Why, do you remember ...” and then he goes on to describe some long remembered and cherished saying or sequence in the life of “Happy Hooligan” or ’‘The Katzenjammer Kids” or “Bringing Up Father,” or “Mutt and Jeff” or ‘Krazv Kat” or “The Bungle Family,'* depending on the particular comic-conscious decade of his childhood. Those comic readers who were born with Baby Dumpling or who are adolescent with Li'l Abner may think with some derision, “That old stuff? What could be funnier than Sadie Hawkins day?”
And both are right, because the comics, like any art form, reflect the life and times of their era and change with the times.
On July 12 this year, faithful followers of the “funnies” in the Post-Dispatch found that the comics had changed before their very eyes. They were no longer in black and white but in multicolor, the first daily colored comics in any newspaper in the United States.
As commentators pointed out. it was appropriate that this newspaper become the first user of daily colored comics since it was another Pulitzer paper, The New York World, which published the first colored comic of all time. According to Coulton Waugh in his book, “The Comics," the date was February 16. 1896, and the comic character was a small imp in a yellow nightgown, slightly Oriental in appearance, slightly Dead End in speech. He was drawn by Richard F. Outcault and labeled “The Yellow Kid.”
The comic cavalcade as seen through the pages of the Post- Dispatch is similar to the national story described by Waugh. Characters appear and disappear at about the same time, with their initial beginnings around the turn of the century.
In the very first copy of the newly merged Post and Dispatch, dated 1878 and now preserved on microfilm, there are no comics, cartoons, or jokes except as filler, and even in 1896. the year of The Kid's New York debut. the only humor used consisted of cartoons reprinted from Life, Judge, and other magazines in the daily paper with a colored cartoon, usually of humorous and political nature on Sunday.
By 1898, however, something new had been added, the Sunday Post-Dispatch Comic Weekly, a section of the reprinted cartoons and jokes, but with an added feature, a character who reappeared each week. It was George Luks’s “Mose,” a giant chicken that hatched a new set of comic figures each week, which the children readers were invited to name.
Whether "Mose” eventually laid an egg is not known but the next year he was replaced with “Kelly’s Kids”, a group of ragamuffins drawn by Outcault and hearing a resemblance to his more famous Kid. By June 1899, they had been joined by another small-fry comic, “Mischievous Willie”, an enfant terrible who sailed away on a string of balloons, substituted a funny valentine for the pretty one grandpa sent grandma, and amused everyone but his victims. The Sunday comic section was under way, but early comic strips were sporadic and spasmodic.
In 1904. the magazine of the Post-Dispatch was devoted stories of the Worlds Fair, and the Sunday comics, by then called “The Funny Side”, were devoted to “The Kid and Papa”, “Phyllis”, “Mr. Buttin”, “Superstitious Smith” and “Panhandle Pete” by a young artist named George McManus. Then on July 17, 1904. a strip that was to become a fixture for some time. “The Newlyweds" was introduced, to daily as well as Sunday readers. It. too. was drawn by McManus and the characters bore great resemblance to his later creations. Maggie and Jiggs. Mrs. Newlywed was a beautiful, elaborately coiffed young woman similar to Jiggs s daughter. Nora, and Mr. Newlywed was a younger, even homelier Jiggs. This prewar Blondie and Dagwood was one of the first, if not the first, married couple comics and most of the activity revolved around their spoiled Baby Snookums.
For the next 10 years, the daily comics remained fairly static with “The Newlyweds” as the only regular feature, but the Sunday pages increased steadily. Few people may remember that the Weatherbird, introduced in 1901 as a front page eye-catcher, was for a short time a Sunday comic as well, with small weatherbirds and even a mother-in-law weatherbird. Other comics of several years’ duration were, “The Step-brothers,” about two bad boys, “Yen Yenson the Yanitor,” who was given to saying. "Ay bane such big dummy ay yust have to laugh at myself," “Gabe”, a country boy who out-smarted his city cousins, "The Bad Dream that Made Bill a Better Boy," in which William J. Steinigans pointed out a moral through a small boys weekly nightmare, and two additional Steinigans strips, “The. Pups” and “Splinters” a clown who supplemented and supplanted the pups.
In 1912 a new daily comic appeared and stayed quite a while. It was “S’Matter Pop” by C. M. Payne in which a small boy drove his pop to daily distraction. The early comics stressed kiddie characters far more than present day funnies with their adult plots and continuity. The adult figures were likely to be slapstick comedians like McManus’s “Spareribs and Gravy,” which was part of the Sunday dish for a while, or Vic s “'Axel and Flooey,”
In 1915, the year when automobile pages were advertising the Chalmers Six, and food ads listed steak at 15 cents a pound, bread, “two splendid loaves for a nickle,” R. Dirks’s “Hans und Fritz,” which had started out “The Katzenjammer Kids” and later became “The Captain and the Kids”, joined the Sunday comics. In short order. “Hawkshaw the Detective,” “Can You Beat It”” by Maurice Ketten. the first Rube Goldberg inventions, and his “Mike and Ike (they look alike)” were among the regular laugh-getters. From then on. those comics we think of as the classics made their appearance in the Post-Dispatch.
Bud Fisher's “Mutt and Jeff” joined the ranks in 1917, the ranks of local comics and the Army, for they were in uniform for a while. Four of the other classics were, coincidentally, the work of artists who started their careers in St. Louis. They were, “Bringing Up Father” the sage of Maggie Jiggs and Dinty Moore’s corned beef and cabbage by George McManus; “The Bungle Family,” Harry J. Tuthill’s chronicle of a bungling, bumbling sub-suburbanite which, according to Waugh, was the first comic to stress subtlety rather than slapstick: “Mr. and Mrs.,” another fable of marital misunderstanding by Clare Briggs, whose captions became catchwords of the day -- “And so far. far into the night,” “Ain’t it a grand and glorious feeling”. “It may be comedy for some persons but it’s tragedy for me”; and “Penny Ante,” the perennial poker game conjured up by the late Jean Knott.
By the mid-twenties all the best-loved and remembered comics were in full flower, and anyone now past his mid-twenties is caught up in nostalgic recollection at the sight of them.
Most of the “standards” of the twenties have vanished; a few still hang on. though they have passed their popularity peak. The leading comic strips of today, for the most part, had their beginnings in the early thirties. Some of these grew out of earlier comics. Segar’s “Thimble Theater” began to star a new character, “Popeye”. Chic Young took his flapper, “Dumb Dora,” made a feminine blondie of her, called her “Blondie” and gave her a beau, Dagwood Bumstead. Few fans may remember that Dagwood was a rich playboy disinherited by his family for marrying Blondie, but that is how the story began. Post-Dispatch readers first met the Bumsteads when Baby Dumpling was two years old, in the spring of 1936. It was the summer before that, July 8, 1935. to he exact, when Post-Dispatch readers were introduced to “The simple home of the Yokurms, nestled deep in the hills of the South . . . and there are no simpler souls in all the hills than Mammy and Pappy Yokum . . . and L’il Abner, only 19 years old and six feet three in his stockinged feet if he wore stockings” Of the other comics of the early thirties, only Jane Arden (1933) remained in the daily section to join the call to the colors. Most of the others are war or post-war products.
The Post-Dispatch Sunday comics made headlines in September 1946 when they became the first Sunday comics to be printed by a rotogravure process, a process resulting in deeper, richer hues on velvety surfaced paper.
The new system for producing color in the daily comics is a simple one. so they told us, but a tour of the plant shows that it requires infinite pains, skilled artistry, technique and experience every step of the way.
The daily comics were formerly reproduced from matrix, supplied by the syndicates furnishing the cartoons. Now, instead of a matrix process, the comics are handled by an engraving process. The syndicates now furnish a slick paper proof of 1he comics which an artist assembles on a cardboard-backed layout slightly larger than normal page size. This is sent to the photo-engraving department where it is photographed down to size, the negative transferred to a plate of glass, and a silver print (or photostat) proof sent back to the artist. He then indicates the colors to be used to provide balance and harmony, and sends this guide back to the photo-engravers.
The artist has indicated the colors but it is the skill of the man applying the Benday process which results in the tone achieved. Bendav is a process of laying down dots in amounts that may range from a pale tint to a deep solid color. If you have ever looked at a newspaper picture under a magnifying glass you have noticed the dots of varying intensity which provide the shading If you look at the new comics you will see dots of various colors. The chartreuse sofa cushion in Blondie’s living room is yellow over gray-black; the orange bow in Nancy's hair is red over yellow. These three primary colors. red, yellow, and blue-black combine to make all the secondary colors, and it is from the Benday processed plate that three acid-etched zinc plates, a “key” plate, a “red" plate, and a "yellow” plate are made.
Are you still with us? The zinc plates then go down two floors and across to the new building to the stereotypers’ department. At this hot spot, where the temperatures would melt Aunt Eppie Hogg into the thinnest woman in three counties, the plates are transferred to mats of papiermache. thoroughly dehydrated to prevent variance in size. These mats go into a huge machine, a stream of hot metal pours down and a curved plate is cast, which will fit around half a cylinder in the press room. The plates are brought into register on a special register machine so that the colors will synchronize properly; the result of a color comic “out of register” would be Mandrake gesturing hypnotically at a girl whose red dress was partially on her and partially on the margin, an effect startling even for Mandrake. Excess metal is routed out by another machine, and the plates, the colored ones marked with a red or yellow symbol, are sent down to the press room.
In the press room, as passers-by can see, through the Olive Street windows, sheets of paper roll up from cylinders on the floor below and move on webs past the ink-fed plates. In the case of the colored comics, they receive impressions first from the black cylinder, then from the yellow and red which are on a higher level, equal with the “top deck” or catwalk above. All of this is at a dizzying rate of speed (as high as 40.000 impressions an hour), and to thunderous noise that makes the noisy composing room sound like chamber music. The papers are cut, folded, ready for the reader.
Your reactions to daily comics in color may be mixed and are quite likely to depend on your age and resistance to change or acceptance of new.
As for the younger generation. the comics grow more absorbing as well as more colorful every day. To admit anything else, to look sentimentally backwards, very definitely dates you.
Just the same, wasn’t “Krazy Kat” wonderful?