Comics history nerd interlude ahead.
There’s a thing newspaper comics do for the Sunday paper, where they’re designed to be modular. Every individual paper’s layout artist can crop and rearrange them in various ways.
The lowest-effort way to do it is to have an optional row that’s just the logo — it can be the same logo panel every week, even — followed by two rows of comic. Like this Foxtrot:
But a lot of strips fill the space with actual (if croppable) content. Maybe a longer lead-up to the main joke, maybe a full extra mini-joke.
Garfield typically fills 2/3 of the space with a logo. The rest is a panel that leads into the main strip, but has nothing essential (usually no dialogue, even). Here’s an example with what I think is a stock logo:
At some point we started getting new individual logo panels every week. They have illustrations that are unrelated to the rest of the strip, but usually funny/entertaining in their own right.
(First panel is still really useless, though.)
Doonesbury does a full eight panels of strip. The croppable top row includes one logo, one mini-setup, and one mini-punchline.
Here’s a Doonesbury strip rearranged to be vertical. Leave out the logo panel entirely, and you even get a version where the top row is still croppable:
Beetle Bailey also does eight panels, with a croppable first two. Whether they’re a separate joke or just extended setup is…variable. Here’s one that does put a bit of effort into the throwaway space.
(Not wild about the design of the one Asian character, but that’s another post.)
Bill Watterson, of Calvin and Hobbes, famously haaaaated this whole idea. You won’t see him following the “every panel is a box of the same size, maybe a double-width box every once in a while if you’re feeling frisky” mold unless you go way back to the earliest strips. Once that was broken, he pushed all the way up to the limits of the modular format.
Here’s a famous strip that drops almost all the panel borders, and makes the art as visually fluid as possible:
It rearranges smoothly into four thinner rows, but you wouldn’t even notice the “crop here to rearrange” breaks if you aren’t looking for them. (Here’s the vertical version.)
While I’m at it, here’s a Calvin and Hobbes Sunday with a more typical throwaway-joke in the top row:
Eventually Watterson talked the syndicate into a deal where his strips wouldn’t be rearranged at all. He got a big rectangle to fill however he wanted, and it wouldn’t be touched.
And then he took full advantage.
All hats off to the guy, honestly. He believed in the artistic potential of comics as a medium, and pushed back hard against corporate forces that tried to squish it.
You could say he was pushing the medium forward, but really it was a throwback to an era when Sunday comics typically had a full page to themselves. He cited Krazy Kat as one of his biggest inspirations:
Look at that ridiculously lush layout. Mmmm.
When it comes to my big comic inspirations, Watterson is near the top, for all those reasons. Trudeau (Doonesbury) is up there too — honestly, I’m sure he deserves a lot of credit for why I thought “long-running strip, switching between multiple ongoing plot threads in a huge cast that grows and changes, with commentary on important real-world issues showing through in their stories, and also there’s a joke every four panels” was a totally natural, doable idea.
But also…reading so much of them is probably why, in my head, “throwaway setup, throwaway joke, beat, standalone longer sequence” feels like a Natural Rhythm for a one-off Sunday strip.
I’ll catch myself doing it sometimes, and have to smooth it away. Most recently in the December 23 strip — now that you have all these newspaper examples fresh in your mind, go read it again, and you can see where the beat is, right?
(At this point you might be feeling the urge to go reread the whole archive and see how many more you can spot. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.)
It’s very silly. There’s no natural reason for it! It’s not funnier or better-paced that way, it’s just an artificial constraint made up to serve the cost-cutting needs of newspaper layout editors. And it’s not like these strips actually are rearrange-able. (The influences for the layout are basically all manga.)
But writing-wise, I sure have managed to internalize it anyway.
tl;dr comics are great, brains are weird.
As a callback to that dancing strip (and a way to squeeze in one more bit of cartooning meta), let me close out with some Feiffer.