In 1910, a fire nicknamed the Big Blowup destroyed 3 million acres of timber in Idaho and Western Montana.
In the same year, Glacier National Park was created, and Halley’s Comet took a swing close to Earth.
And, along with the serious, significant and sensational news of the day, 1910 was the year that the first real comic strip appeared in The Billings Gazette’s Sunday paper.
The strip, “Katzenjammer Kids,” followed the adventures of Hans and Fritz, twin boys whose capers took place in an imaginary African land. The twins rebelled against any form of authority, including their mother and der Captain, the sailor who acted as their surrogate father.
Created by Rudolph Dirks in 1897, the strip is often considered the first of the modern-looking newspaper funnies.
Dirks hit upon three elements that still mark today’s comics. The strip relied on regular characters from week to week. The characters’ dialogue appeared in speech balloons. And the storyline advanced through sequential cartoon panels across the newspaper page.
The introduction of the funny papers in America was not without controversy, said Brian Walker, who has written several histories of comic strips and for 18 years was the curator of what has become the International Museum of Cartoon Art.
The outcry of anti-comics crusaders peaked between 1911 and 1913. Parents and educators claimed comics had a detrimental effect on impressionable children because the strips often depicted children as pranksters who continually outwitted their elders.
“The typical Buster Brown was dropping a bucket of water on an old man’s head out of a window,” said Walker, who is part of the creative team that produces the comic strips “Beetle Bailey” and “Hi and Lois.”
“Comics, which were never just for kids, glorified the underdog and the triumph of the underdog,” Walker said. “The underclass appreciated them more than the genteel types.”
The comics started in Sunday supplements. But the first successful daily comic strip, “Mutt and Jeff” was geared to grownups, said Jared Gardner, an associate professor at Ohio State University, in Columbus.
Gardner has delved into the archives of the Cartoon Research Library at OSU since he started teaching there 11 years ago.
“Mutt and Jeff” ran on the sporting pages of the San Francisco Chronicle in 1907. Its creator, Bud Fisher, sometimes drew caricatures of corrupt local politicians and mentioned betting on specific horse races.
By the start of World War I, the Sunday comics were an institution.
In the 1920s, syndicates revolutionized the comic business, distributing the strips to papers across America. Distinctive genres evolved, such as story strips, which often ran with cliffhanging, “to-be-continued” plot lines. Even humorous strips, such as “Popeye,” often featured continuing storylines.
“The Gumps,” launched in 1917 and ran until the late 1940s and dominated the front of The Gazette’s Sunday comics for years.
“The Gumps were like a fairly quiet little soap opera,” Gardner said. “What happened to the Gumps regularly became front-page news.”
In 1929, when “The Gumps” creator killed off the comic strip character Mary Gold, it touched off an enormous outpouring of grief, Gardner said.
In the strip’s plotline, Gold had been on the verge of marrying her fiancée who had been wrongly imprisoned. She suffered from a lingering illness, but readers had been teased into thinking she was recovering.
The success of the Gumps led to a slew of continuing storyline comics, like “Gasoline Alley,” which debuted nationally in 1919 and claimed a slot in The Gazette’s Sunday comics lineup on Dec. 13, 1925. It ran in The Gazette for more than 60 years.
“Little Orphan Annie” was a regular in The Gazette’s Sunday comics during the 1920s.
The square-jawed detective Dick Tracy hatched in the 1930s and was picked up by The Gazette around 1945. By 1947, the crime-fighter had wrestled his way to the front page of The Gazette’s Sunday comics.
In February of 1933, after three years of comic strip courtship, Dagwood Bumstead married the cartoon character Blondie, whose maiden name was Boopadoop. The Gazette picked up “Blondie” around 1946, and it has become one of the longest running strips to still claim a place in today’s Gazette comics.
The bumbling Dagwood, with his foot-high sandwiches, afternoon naps on the couch and frantic dashes to work, has become as familiar to many Gazette readers as their morning coffee.
Prince Valiant and his knights, another 1930s strip, which still runs in the Sunday comic section, first appeared in syndication on Feb. 13, 1937. The Gazette picked it up sometime after 1950.
In the 1950s, “gag-a-day” strips took over, Walker said.
“Peanuts” and “Beetle Bailey” which both came along in 1950, continue to maintain a hold on America’s funny bone.
Mort Walker, created Beetle Bailey in 1950 and still draws the strip, with help from his sons Greg and Brian.
The character, Beetle Bailey, started out as a college student, based on Mort Walker’s own experiences at the University of Missouri. But the strip never really caught on until after the Korean War heated up.
“He put Beetle Bailey in uniform, teamed him up with Sarge and the rest is history,” Brian Walker said.
While the strip revolves around Army life, the humor is universal.
“It’s the boss who’s completely clueless. It doesn’t require that you went to boot camp to get the humor of Beetle Bailey,” Walker said.
In 1958, The Gazette was one of the nation’s first newspapers to publish Montana’s own comic strip, “Rick O’Shay,” created by Stan Lynde.
Lynde created the strip’s characters from composites of real Montanans, including one character, Allison Dragg, a high-class novel writer, modeled after the late Gazette columnist Addison Bragg. Bragg was the first reporter to interview Lynde after “Rick O’Shay” was syndicated.
The strip ran for about 20 years until the cartoonist and the syndicate parted ways. In 1979, Lynde produced a new Montana-based strip “Latigo,” which ended in 1983.
A new generation of cartoonists, such as Gary Trudeau, who launched “Doonesbury” in 1970, made a splash by using the funnies to deliver political punches. While his approach offended some readers, politics was fair game for funnies in the 1920s and 1930s, and even in the 1890s, Walker said.
When The Gazette moved “Doonesbury” from the comics page to the editorial page, it followed the lead of the Lincoln Journal, which in September of 1973 became the first of many papers to transfer the strip to the editorial page.
On The Gazette’s editorial page, “Doonesbury” appears alongside “Prickly City,” a cartoon that offers a conservative/libertarian perspective on political and social issues.
A whole generation of strips spawned in the 1970s, such as “Cathy” and “For Better or For Worse,” seemed more autobiographical, more relevant, more topical, Walker said.
In 1978, “Garfield” unleashed a licensing empire, putting the feisty orange cat everywhere.
Starting in the 1980s strips like “Far Side,” with its cast of talking animals and dorky humans, and “Calvin and Hobbes,” the boy with the sardonic stuffed tiger, stirred conversations around water coolers and lured new readers. The cartoonists behind both of those strips ended them in 1995, well before their audiences fizzled.
In 1974, Mort Walker founded the cartoon museum that became the International Museum of Cartoon Art in Boca Raton, Fla. The move was part of an effort to get the funnies taken seriously as an art form, Brian Walker said.
That effort took another leap forward in 2005, when two museums in Los Angeles, the Hammer Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art, hosted a joint show on the “Masters of American Comics.” Cartoon exhibits are enormously popular because it’s so easy for people to relate to them, said Brian Walker, who co-edited a companion book to the exhibit, and has been the curator for 70 cartoon exhibitions.
“Cartoonists create friends for people,” Walker said.
“Newspaper comics, they’re basically there for people to visit every day. Dagwood is there trying to get to work on time. Dilbert is trying to survive in his cubicle. People see themselves. They see their friends.”
Gazette surveys confirm that readers take their comics seriously. Decisions on which strips to keep and which to boot are never taken lightly.
Local and national readership surveys, along with information on the number of other newspapers carrying a particular strip, help guide those choices.
It’s a decision guaranteed to infuriate some readers, who tend to react as if they were losing a best friend.