On Strips: Animal Crackers

By | Friday, October 09, 2015 Leave a Comment
I don't think I've read Animal Crackers since the late 1980s. It ran in The Plain Dealer, which my parents got, and I'd read Bollen's strip along with whatever else was on the page. I don't especially recall any strips in particular, but it just kind of rolled in the background with Hagar the Horrible and Beetle Bailey. I was more interested in Garfield when I was younger, and Calvin & Hobbes and The Far Side once those strips debuted.

I did, however, have a small, heart-shaped box with a relief of Lyle Lion under the phrase, "Love is the answer." Lyle was shown asking, "What was the question?" I got it as a Valentine's Day gift from my parents one year. I have no idea what happened to it -- it probably got thrown out around the time I went to college -- but it was on my desk in my bedroom for probably around a decade. And so that box stands out as a stronger memory of the strip to me than any of the actual strips themselves.

Sadly, when I heard of Roger Bollen's passing yesterday, my first thought was, "He was still alive?" Then, having read some pieces that noted he passed the strip on to Fred Wagner in the 1990s, I thought, "That's still published?" I have thought about the strip periodically since I last actually read it, but I never mustered enough interest to see if it was still around.

I don't say that as a means to knock either Bollen's or Wagner's work. (Hell, I've never even read Wagner's version!) But it strikes me as everything problematic with newspaper strips relative to webcomics.

First, the strip is almost entirely reliant on Universal Press Syndicate for marketing and general promotion. But they manage so many comics that Animal Crackers gets lost among darlings like Doonesbury, For Better or For Worse, and Foxtrot to name a few. They're all given more promotion, and get their strips collected in book form to sit on the shelves at Barnes & Noble. As far as I can tell, Animal Crackers hasn't gotten into a book since 1982.

Related to that are licensing deals. As I mentioned, I did have that small box, but with a cast of anthropomorphic animals, you'd think it'd be easier to sell plush dolls and such. I think there are more licensing deals with Andy Capp right now than Animal Crackers. Now, to be fair, that may have been some kind of issue with Bollen himself -- Bill Watterson famously refused to let his creations be turned into stuffed animals. But that there have been at least some licensed pieces over the years, it would seem that's not the case.

Then there's the name itself. It was actually the third newspaper strip to use the name "Animal Crackers" and it's in such common useage thanks to both the cookies and the Marx Brothers film (which predate the strip by several decades) that internet searches on the comic strip are more difficult than other comics. Even if you know precisely the name of the strip, you have to manually filter out loads of unrelated information if you're trying to get to something about Bollen's strip. This obviously was not an issue or concern when Bollen first launched his strip in 1967, but it can be insanely problematic today. Even the Wikipedia entry for the actual strip not only notes the two predecessors, but the image is from one of those as well with no visual reference to Bollen's or Wagner's work.

Animal Crackers was never a bad comic to my recollection. Very much on par with much of what was in the funny pages throughout the 1970s and '80s. But several factors unrelated to the strip's actual contents have kept it stuck as a vague memory from 30 years ago, instead of a part of the contemporary comics scene. Which is unfortunate. But it's also why I think the traditional newspaper syndicate model needs to change in order to be relevant in the 21st century.
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