Six quarters were all you needed, in the 1990s, to laugh until your belly hurt at a series of slapstick shenanigans, or to escape, for a few seconds, from your quiet Illinois town and travel the world with a glamorous ace reporter. I can’t count how many mornings I spent with my stomach on the floor, feet in the air, balancing my weight on my arms as I pored over the vibrant colors of the Chicago Tribune comics insert. All I know is there were a lot.
While the Sunday-comics ritual has faded as a cultural touchstone, the distance a few decades provides may be what allows many of us to appreciate this kind of raucous, boundary-pushing, and occasionally transgressive art. As my colleague Caitlin Flanagan was growing up in the 1960s, the feminine and daring heroine Modesty Blaise showed her what it meant to inhabit a world of possibilities. My colleague Cullen Murphy—who wrote the comic strip Prince Valiant alongside his father, the artist John Murphy—notes that many classic cartoonists were “kind of adventurers” who had lived wide lives, helping them better understand everyday people.
But for all the nostalgia and joy the genre brought, it shouldn’t be romanticized. Racist slurs and stereotypes “played a substantial role in comics history,” the publisher Peter Maresca notes. Some view the comic strip Li’l Abner as a satirical masterpiece—yet its creator, Al Capp, was a misanthrope and, by multiple accounts, a sexual predator who destroyed much of his own legacy. And in 1960s Japan, a teenage cartoonist named Kuniko Tsurita submitted her manga over and over again to her favorite comics magazine—only to be told, eventually, that she should shift from telling action stories and “draw about girls,” with all the romantic plots and societal norms that phrase implied at the time.