As much as many of these strips are maligned today as being trite and repetitive, they were funny and original if you were nine years old and hadn't seen those jokes a few dozen times already. Besides, we also had some wildly original, and still celebrated, strips like Calvin and Hobbes, The Far Side and Bloom County. (Oh, we had Doonesbury too, but I didn't even START to appreciate that strip until I was in college.)
But, more significantly, the casts of all the comics I read were either furry animals and/or suburban white families. Even the historic dressings of strips like B.C. and Hagar the Horrible only masked what was, in effect, contemporary culture. Even in those strips above -- a medieval king talking about trying to "relieve stress", a viking raider taking out the garbage...? We'd see cameos of African-Americans from time to time in Peanuts (Franklin), Beetle Bailey (Lt. Flap) and Bloom County (Oliver), but the comics were clearly not about them. Not to mention that other nationalities were non-existent.
I'll admit that it completely didn't bother me at the time. Largely because it was a reflection of my own sheltered life. At that point, there were no black families with kids in our school system, but my dad's co-workers mostly were and I'd see and interact with them from time to time. But, because of that, coupled with a healthy dose of Seasame Street, I was completely ignorant that there was any such thing as racial prejudice. Life in America was mostly white with some occasional, but friendly, encounters with black folks. This was reinforced in other media as I got older -- one of Han Solo's good friends was Lando Calrissian and B.A. Barracas was one quarter of the A-Team.
Of course, as I was growing older, I was also becoming more aware of the world around me and the racial issues that still permeated American culture. I still don't see it as an issue for me, though, insomuch as I've never given a rat's ass one way or another what color someone's skin was. My parents raised me to believe in a true meritocracy, and that it's only what you're able to accomplish that's what counts. (This, curiously, caused OTHER problems for me later, as I harshly discovered that career advancement rarely has to do with merit exclusively.)
Technology has also improved such that cartoonists are no longer limited by what syndicates or old, stuffy, white guys in the corner office at the newspaper think people want to see. Earlier, it was in the form of underground newspapers who were able to publish using cheaper printing technology and today the internet has opened the doors for any number of people to get their voices heard.
My "newspaper" (which doesn't, in fact, exist on paper at all) today includes comics like these...
Granted, I pulled out a handful of examples that happen to feature non-caucasian characters in central, if not THE central, roles. I still read Andy Capp and Heathcliff. And some of the newer comics I read include the clever, but still decidedly caucasian, Red & Rover and Pearls Before Swine.
My point is that the comics I read today are vastly more inclusive than they were in my youth. Some, like Secret Asian Man and Maintaining, tend to deal with racial issues in relatively direct ways. Others, like High Moon and Cafe con Leche, are a little more oblique in their approach. And still others, like Tozo and Necessary Monsters, are written in an almost entirely color-blind manner.
One question that arises is: how come this isn't happening in comic books? Oh, don't get me wrong, I know that we've got Luke Cage and Black Lightning and Black Panther and Blue Beetle, but they seem much more in the background to the overall milieu of comic books than, say, Huey Freeman and Curtis Wilkins. These comic book characters are the equivalent of comic strips' Lt. Flap and Franklin.
I find it a little disturbing, too, that my funny pages have more diversity than my actual neighborhood. My S.O. has noted repeatedly how very few people of color she sees when she comes down from Chicago to visit, and I've pointed out that my subdivision has exactly one black family and one Indian one. (Personally, I figure there must be something more than just a casual correlation between said lack of diversity, and the fact that my precinct is overwhelmingly Republican -- McCain beat Obama 62%/36% in my district, and that was actually considered a success by Democrats!) Clearly, we've got a situation here where Life isn't imitating Art nearly enough, and there's still lots of work to be done.
The bad news is that there's no quick fix. Just because a black man has been elected President doesn't mean that racial prejudices will melt away. The problem in both cases noted above is that it's still Old, White, Male America that's controlling the purse strings. That's why things look better online -- no one to hold in the reins. The good news is that because there's at least SOMEWHERE where no one is being held back, their messages of openness and diversity will make their way out to the masses. It will undoubtedly take longer than when Americans only had three networks channeling the same message to everyone -- there are an almost infinite number of media outlets now that dilute what any single person hears.
But the message DOES get out there.
Some people hear it earlier than others, and some people reject it altogether anyway. But people do hear it. They listen, and they learn, and they grow. And maybe one day in the not-to-distant future, we'll have a country that looks more like the funny pages.
Except for Dilbert. I don't think anybody wants life to look any more like Dilbert than it already does!