Death in the Funnies

Posted by on July 30th, 2010 at 1:02 AM



When Lisa Moore, a character in Tom Batiuk’s Funky Winkerbean, died of breast cancer in the fall of 2007, it was a major sensation and inspired countless accolades in the news media about how mature (i.e., serious) the funnies had become. Batiuk’s motive was, at first, simple: He wanted to grow as a writer by dealing with disturbing human situations; and he hoped the story, for which he, a cancer survivor himself, did a lot of research, would help people who either have cancer or who have friends or relatives with cancer. Presumably, Batiuk was successful in both his objectives: He demonstrated great skill — sensitivity and understanding as well as mastery of his medium — in handling the Lisa story, and the American Cancer society named the cartoonist to its Cancer Care Hall of Fame. Lisa, however, was not the only comic-strip character to die in the history of the comics.

Sam Fulwood III, reporting at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Batiuk’s hometown newspaper, identified at least 10 other comic-strip characters who had died. The first were in George Storm’s Phil Hardy in 1925: Several supporting players were killed off during a mutiny. Comics historian Bill Blackbeard gave these deaths historic significance, saying the presence of death in comic strips made adventure continuity strips possible: if a character could die, that ramped up the reality in adventuring to a life-threatening levels. Then in The Gumps, Mary Gold, who was poised to marry another character, fell ill and, after a long illness, died, precipitating an avalanche of protest mail to creator Sidney Smith’s syndicate at the Chicago Tribune.

Daddy Warbucks died twice in Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie. After his first death, in May 1937 of knife and bullet wounds, reader protest was so clamorous that Gray brought him back to life. But he bumped him off again in 1944 as a protest against the policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose New Deal offended Gray’s conservative sensibilities to such an extent that he decreed that the self-made millionaire Warbucks couldn’t live in FDR’s world. A few months after Roosevelt died in 1945, Gray brought Warbucks back from the grave again. Warbucks explained his reappearance to Annie by saying that “the climate here has changed since I went away.”

In the fall of 1941, Milton Caniff famously killed off his plain Jane character, Raven Sherman, having the villain of the moment in Terry and the Pirates shove her off the back of a speeding truck. She lingered for the next 11 days and finally died in the arms of the man who loved her, Dude Hennick. Caniff’s wife had given Raven her name, and the cartoonist joked that Mrs. Caniff never forgave him for killing off “her little girl.” At the instigation of syndicate head Joe Patterson, Caniff had killed another supporting character, Old Pop Scott, on January 17, 1935, during the strip’s inaugural episode, mostly to demonstrate that death can happen in a comic strip: No character can be presumed immortal.

Andy Lippincott, a gay character in Doonesbury, died of AIDS in 1990, raising awareness of the disease and sympathy for its sufferers. Lippincott is the only fictitious person to have a patch on the national AIDS quilt. Garry Trudeau has killed off other characters —congresswoman Lacey Davenport and her bird-watching husband, Dick, and fat-cat businessman Phil Slackmeyer.

And in For Better or For Worse, Lynn Johnston killed the family dog, Farley. Dogs don’t live forever, and Johnston, who has taken great pains to make her strip as realistic as possible, knew the Old English Sheepdog would eventually have to expire, like all family pets do. She arranged a heroic departure: Farley died after saving a child from drowning in 1995.

Thanks to Rancid Raves Correspondent Ed Black for the newspaper clipping detailing some of the foregoing.


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2 Responses to “Death in the Funnies”

  1. Another one for the list: Phylis, a major character in the first decades of Gasoline Alley, died in 2004.

  2. R.C. Harvey says:

    Ouch. Dunno how I could have forgotten Phyllis, Walt’s wife. Jim Scancarelli had carefully arranged a long and ambiguous sequence leading up to her death. For a while, we were led to believe it was Walt who was mortal. But at the last minute—after a build-up of several weeks—it was Phyllis who died. Alas, all Jim’s careful work came to nearly nothing: the very week that Phyllis expired, B.D. in Doonesbury lost his leg in Iraq, a comic strip event that knocked every other eventuality—even so earth-rocking as the death of a major character in an American institution like Gasoline Alley—completely off the page. Phyllis died and almost no one noticed. Except me, who wrote a piece along the lines I’ve just strung out, in my online magazine, Rants and Raves. Let’s hope when Scancarelli finally arranges for Walt’s death (he’s about 109, I think), it won’t occur at the very same moment as Donald Duck is driven over by a truck.