Thursday, Sep 17th, 2015
Still the King
posted by Bruce Canwell
Concluding our look at a century of King Features Syndicate offerings in advance of our King of the Comics retrospective, these "DVD Extras" take us through the end of the 20th Century and into the 21st ...
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The 1990s seem a time of relative innocence and prosperity when we look back on them today. It was still possible to escort a loved one through an airport and directly to the gate in those days; Seinfeld and Friends were the two different-yet-complimentary flavors of comedy that placed NBC-TV securely atop the Nielsen ratings. Comics were by now an almost-vestigial part of most newspapers, yet King Features still offered readers laughs aplenty with an increasingly-diverse range of offerings. One of the most pleasant surprises for me during the assembly of King of the Comics was how many laugh-out-loud moments I had while checking out the selections that would eventually accompany Brian Walker's final chapter of the book, dealing with the "modern" King Features Syndicate. I hope your reaction to some of the talents we have on display from pages 273 of the book to its conclusion will mirror my own.
Surely Mutts, Baby Blues, and Zits are three of the most popular strip debuts from this timeframe, but King also acquired and relaunched Sally Forth in 1991. It's a favorite among readers, and we see why in this daily, a representative example of the strip from June 1995, four years before Sally's creator Greg Howard ended his association with the series.
Jeff MacNelly's delightful Shoe had dominated the space for anthropomorphic animal journalists for years when, in 1994, cartoonist Bruce Tinsley brought his Mallard Fillmore to King. In addition to providing another avian newsman to the comics page, the syndicate saw the conservative-leaning Mallard as a counterpoint to the liberal Doonesbury. Politics aside, this early-December '99 Mallard outing made me smile with its reference to those "new cellular phones that can also surf the internet!" What was new in 1999 is now (unfortunately, says this non-cell-phone owner) ubiquitous today ...
Also among the wave of strips taking their bows in the '90s were the outrageous Piranha Club and the more gentle humor of Sherman's Lagoon. The latter gets a special nod from me for its recurring use of the phrase "hairless beach apes," making me suspect cartoonist Jim Toomey read many of the same comic books I read as a boy, since the phrase is a nod to Steve Gerber's 1970s Howard the Duck at Marvel Comics. Here are samples of both Piranha and Sherman's:
Fifteen years ago we crossed the border into a new year and began the countdown to a new decade, a new century, and a new millennium (remember, those didn't begin until January 1, 2001). The Y2K Scare had corporations and individuals holding their figurative breaths over the fear that computers everywhere would crash as the calendar rolled from 1999 to the year 2000. The digital apocalypse never occurred, and King Features continued to erode the perception of the comic strip business being an "old boys club" with series like Six Chix ...
... And, starting in 2006, the Pajama Diaries of Terri Liebenson.
On a more wistful note, here's a link to old pal Jim Keefe's website. Jim, you may recall, spent time on the King staff and was the last artist to work on Flash Gordon; my interview with him while I was preparing to write text for our Definitive Flash Gordon/Jungle Jim series was an absolute pleasure. From earlier this month, Jim offers some terrific photos and a pleasantly wistful reminiscence of The Palm restaurant, in part famous for the unique decorations on its walls, decorations that are now, alas, gone forever:
Still, if there's one thing comics history teaches us, it's that new delights are always appearing to form the nucleus of fond memories for a new generation. LOAC and our friendly competitors play a role in preserving many of the wonders of the past, and King Features Syndicate continues to help present those new delights to still-eager audiences across America and around the world.