A comic strip is a short strip or sequence of drawings, telling a story. Drawn by a cartoonist, they are published on a recurring basis (usually daily or weekly) in newspapers or on the Internet.
As the name implies, they can be humorous (as in "gag-a-day" strips like Beetle Bailey or Hagar The Horrible) but not necessarily. Serious, soap-opera continuity strips (like Judge Parker or Little Orphan Annie) have serious story lines in serial form. They are, however, nonetheless known as "comics"--though the term "sequential art", coined by cartoonist Will Eisner, is becoming increasingly popular.
The comic strip, in a manner of speaking, began in 1865 in Germany with Max and Moritz, a strip about two trouble-making boys. It was more a series of severely moralistic tales in the vein of German children's stories like "Struuvelpeter": in one, the boys, after perpetrating some mischief, are tossed into a sack of grain, run through a mill, and consumed by a flock of geese.
"Max and Moritz" did provide an inspiration for German immigrant Rudolph Dirks, leading to the debut of The Katzenjammer Kids in 1897, probably the first comic strip in the modern sense of the term. Familiar comic-strip iconography such as stars for pain, speech and thought balloons, and sawing logs for snoring originated in Dirks' strip.
Hugely popular, Katzenjammer Kids was responsible for one of the first comic-strip copyright ownership suits in the history of the medium. When Dirks left Hearst for the promise of a better salary under Pulitzer (unusual, since cartoonists regularly deserted Pulitzer for Hearst) Hearst in a highly unusual court decision retained the rights to the name "Katzenjammer Kids", while creator Dirks retained the rights to the characters. Hearst promptly hired a cartoonist named Harold Knerr to draw his own version of the strip. Dirks renamed his version "Hans and Fritz" (later, "The Captain and The Kids"). Thus, two versions distributed by rival syndicates graced the comics pages for decades. Dirks' version, eventually distributed by United Feature Syndicate, ran until 1979.
Hundreds of comic strips have followed with many running for decades.
The advent of the World Wide Web in the 1990s led to an explosion of amateur web comics, comic strips created solely for Web sites. Web comics differ from published comic strips, in that anyone can start his own comic strip and publish it on the Web; there is no longer any need to for a creator to meet the approval of a publisher or syndicate. Currently there are hundreds of web comics, most of which are low-quality and sporadically updated. However, a number of web comics have endured, and the best web comics rival their newspaper and magazine counterparts in terms of quality and quantity. Megatokyo, Penny Arcade, PvP, Sluggy Freelance, and User Friendly are considered to be among the best of the web comics.
All the comic strips mentioned so far in this article are centered on human beings, but a number of strips have either also included sentient animals as characters, either without being able to verbally communicate with humans, such as in Garfield or Peanuts, or being able to verbally communicate with humans, as in Get Fuzzy. Other strips have centered entirely on animals, as in Pogo or Donald Duck.
The comics have long held a distorted mirror to contemporary society, and almost from the beginning have been used for political or social commentary. This ranged from the staunch conservative values of Little Orphan Annie to the unabashed liberalism of Doonesbury. The aforementioned Pogo used animals to particularly devastating effect, caricaturing many prominent politicians of the day as animal denizens of Pogo's Okeefenokee Swamp. In a fearless move, Pogo's creator Walt Kelly took on Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, caricaturing him as a bobcat named Simple J. Malarkey, a megalomaniac bent on taking over the characters' birdwatching club and rooting out all undesirables.
Kelly also defended the medium against possible government regulation in the McCarthy era. At a time when comic books were coming under fire for supposed sexual, violent, and subversive content, Kelly feared the same would happen to comic strips. Going before the congressional subcommittee, he proceeded to charm the members with his drawings and the force of his personality. The comic strip was safe for satire.
The world's longest comic strip is 88.9 metres long and on display at Trafalgar Square as part of the London Comedy Festival. The record was previously 81 metres and held in Florida. The London Cartoon Strip was created by fifteen of Britain's best known cartoonists and depicts the history of London.
Today's comic-strip artists, with the help of the National Cartoonists' Society (NCS) enthusiastically promote the medium, in decline due to fewer markets and ever-shrinking newspaper space. One particularly humorous example of such promotional efforts is the Great Comic Strip Switcheroonie, held on April Fool's Day, 1997. For that day, dozens of prominent comic-strip artists took over each other's strips. Garfield's Jim Davis, for example, switched with Blondie's Stan Drake, while Scott Adams (Dilbert) traded strips with Bil Keane (Family Circus).
Even the United States Postal Service got into the act, issuing a series of commemorative stamps marking the comic-strip centennial in 1996.