What Is a Comic Strip? - Definition & History

Instructor: Anne Butler

Anne has a bachelor's in K-12 art education and a master's in visual art and design. She currently works at a living history museum in Colorado.

Lots of today's superhero movies would not be around had it not been for the creation of comic strips. This lesson will focus on what a comic strip is and examine its history from their beginnings to today.


A comic strip is either one panel or three panels that tell a story or a joke. Humorous comics are usually found in the pages of some newspaper's entertainment sections, or more increasingly on the internet as more papers go online to save money. Editorial comics, are usually more serious and are found within the opinion pages of newspapers. Sometimes writers and artists collaborate and create comic books, where one storyline is shown altogether instead of having to wait for a new paper to find out what happens in the story. Some artists have taken classic novels and other books and turned them into graphic novels, where the story is illustrated in a comic book format. Some comic strips aren't even featured in papers at all. These are usually found on the internet and are referred to as webcomics. All of these would not be in existence today if it wasn't for Richard Outcault's Yellow Kid.


Narrative strips and comics have been around for quite a while, but the form they are today began around 1865 in Germany with Wilhelm Busch's Max and Moritz. The two mischievous children became the basis for many other comic strips.

The Early Years: 1890s-1920s

The first color comics began appearing in the late 1890s. The Little Bears, by James Swinnerton, appeared first, followed by Hogan's Alley (the home of the Yellow Kid) by Richard Outcault a year later. The Yellow Kid first appeared in Joseph Pulitzer's New York World in 1895 and became a big hit.

The Yellow Kid also introduced an early form of the speech bubble that is seen in most comic strips today. As he became more and more popular, his words were printed on his bright yellow nightshirt.

The Yellow Kid
yellow kid

In 1912, Hearst created the International Feature Service, later known as the King Features Syndicate, which allowed Hearst's papers to pick and choose which comics and other features they wanted to appear in their papers. King Features would later become the home for many strips that are still known and running today, such as Beetle Bailey and Blondie.

Some artists felt they needed to express their political views through their strips during this time. Little Orphan Annie began in 1924, drawn by Harold Gray. Gray had a tendency to express his political views, such as his disapproval of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal through his story lines.

1930s-40s: Comics Go to War

The DC Universe began in 1937. The first issue of Detective Comics, which later became DC Comics, appeared that year. Superman first appeared in DC Comic's Action Comics the next year. The first incarnation of Batman was in DC Comics in 1939. 1939 was also the year the world was introduced to what became the Marvel Universe.

When the U.S. entered World War II, comic artists used their influence to encourage readers on the home front. Jack Kirby and Joe Simon created Captain America to go and fight the Nazis. A prominent theme throughout this time was good triumphing over evil.

1950s: Pulp and Peanuts

The wild west and gritty crime dramas were popular themes in novels and in comic books during this time. One place they weren't popular, however, was with teachers and members of the clergy. They didn't think children should be exposed to such elements, and encouraged Congress to take action to regulate the comics industry. The Comics Code Authority was created in 1954 to monitor the content of comic books and make them more suitable for children.

One strip that rose in popularity during this time was Peanuts, which launched in 1950. Originally called Li'l Folks, Charles Schulz's creations became one of the most popular strips of all-time. The strip spawned a great deal of merchandising opportunities for Schulz, from television specials to stuffed animals and even an animated film. The strip itself ran until 2000.

Charles Schulz
Charles Schulz

1960s: Cold War Comics

The Cold War put radiation and nuclear energy into a lot of people's minds. Marvel introduced readers to Spiderman and The Hulk in 1962, and the X-Men blasted the way onto pages the next year. The 1960s also gave readers more female-fronted comics with Josie and the Pussycats and Sabrina the Teenage Witch.

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