Like every other form of humor, comic strips reflect the era in which they were created. But for scholars and serious journalists, simply reporting that "Doonesbury" or "The Far Side" convey a baby boomer sensibility isn't good enough. You want to know precisely when they were published. This is a job for ... who? Dick Tracy? Rex Morgan, M.D.? Pogo? Try Dave Strickler.
A former research librarian at the University of Southern California, Strickler has compiled an online database listing the 965 comic strips published in the Los Angeles Times from 1904 (when "Buster Brown" debuted) to the present day. The list features the date of each strip's first and appearance, as well as the end date for those that are not ongoing. Searchable by name, artist and keyword, it will be periodically updated.
Why the L.A. Times? Strickler explains: "The United States has five major national newspapers with long back runs widely available nationwide in microfilm. Three of these newspapers have never carried comics (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor), and one has carried comics only sporadically (Washington Post). That leaves the Los Angeles Times as the only newspaper with comics in the United States with a long back run that is widely available."
Strickler blames Joe Btfsplk for starting him on this decades-long project. Joe, as Baby Boomers and their parents will recall, was a mischievous character in Al Capp's caustic comic strip "Li'l Abner" (which ran from June 30, 1935 to March 22, 1970).
"I was a novice reference librarian at the University of Southern California (USC) in 1992, and pretty cocky about my research abilities when a lady called, wanting to know how to spell Joe's last name," Strickler writes on his Web site. "No problem, I thought.
"Joe's spelling took several hours to track down, however, and in the course of that long, dusty (eventually successful) hunt I realized that no substantive index of comic strips and characters existed, either at USC or anywhere else. USC's library held two well-known encyclopedias on comics but nothing like the exhaustive indexes available in other areas of the humanities."
Realizing he had found "a gap in the reference literature," Strickler went to work, using Editor and Publisher's Syndicate Directory as a starting point. Besides the online L.A. Times database, he has created a reference book listing an astonishing 4,700 comic strips and panels syndicated in the U.S. between 1924 and 1995.
And his work is not yet done.
"Now that indexing of the Los Angeles Times is out of major construction and into maintenance mode, we've begun to develop an index to the characters of all comic strips," he writes. "This database contains more than 32,000 names, dates, and descriptions, and grows every day. Its future public availability is yet to be decided, but questions about characters are always welcome."
What's the point of all this? "Other fields of endeavor have been indexed, analyzed, and deconstructed nearly to oblivion over the years," Strickler notes. "The stock market and baseball are obvious examples. Yet newspaper comic art, one of the most pervasive forms of entertainment in the United States this century, has been comparatively neglected.
"These comic strips of yesterday and yesteryear do continue to exist, in their original form, in microfilmed archival runs of newspapers. The indexes in this volume offer a first finding guide for those archives. With the included title index, the researcher will know where to find the early Steve Canyon; the artist index will convey the scope of Rube Goldberg's work."
By the way, Gary Larson's "The Far Side" ran from Oct. 13, 1980 until Jan. 1, 1995. "Doonsebury" was first published in the L.A. Times on May 17, 1971, and of course continues to this day.