Tuesday, August 14, 2007


The Stripper's Guide Dictionary Part 1: Sunday Strips

Here's the first in a series of posts I'm going to do as the muse hits me. We're going to cover the terminology of comic strips. Thankfully our beloved strips don't come with nearly the volume of esoteric buzzwords as you'll find in other collecting disciplines, but there are some terms that you really ought to be familiar with, especially when buying and selling strips. I'm not going to go into any tremendous depth in this series, just hit the high points -- this is mostly for those of you who are novices to comic strip collecting.

Today I'm going to cover Sunday strip sizes, with maybe a detour or two here and there.

Let's start out with a quick look at the size of Sunday comics pages over the years:

Obviously there's been quite a size reduction over the years, so keep that in mind. When we get into formats remember that the actual sizes of the printed strips, even when they are the same format, will vary considerably over time. Note also that newspapers haven't gotten much shorter since the 40s -- the big loss has been in the width.

The first important bit of terminology is for the two standard sizes of Sunday comics:

On the left we see a FULL PAGE, usually shortened to just FULL. On the right is a TABLOID PAGE, usually shortened to TAB. These happen to be from the 40s, but the two standard formats are still used today. Keep in mind, though, that the actual size of the paper has changed over the years, and to make matters even a bit more confusing, some newspaper publishers vary a little bit bigger or smaller. The Baltimore Sun tabloid, seen above, is actually a little chintzy for a tab in the width.

There is actually a third standard size, but it came and went pretty fast. Here we see it, with comparison to the other two standards:

The one on the right is what we call COMIC BOOK FORMAT. It is so named because not only is it about the size of a comic book, it's actually bound like one (okay, not exactly - the binding on these was often glued rather than stapled). This format appeared about 1978, and after an initial rush by publishers to try the new format it pretty quickly fell out of favor. You'll rarely see these after about 1985 or so. My guess is that some printing company came up with the format and had some pretty sharp salesman talking publishers into believing they could lure kids by offering a comic book as part of the Sunday newspaper. This same gimmick was tried back in the 40s by several newspapers, and it didn't pan out then either.

Okay, that covers paper sizes. That's the simple part. Now we have to get into Sunday strip formats. Let's go back to our first sample:

These are all full page papers. On the left side we see a strip that covers the whole Sunday page. This format is known simply as a FULL, short for full page. The full is the most gloriously huge of Sunday comic strip formats. For the most part it had fallen out of favor with publishers by the mid- to late-1930s, bringing an end to the most wonderful age for Sunday comics. The reasons behind the change are many, and I'm going to keep this article simple, so we won't get into the whys and hows until some other time. Suffice to say that fulls from the 40s and beyond are few and far between.

In the middle paper we have two strips, each taking up a half page each, and each would be called a HALF. Pretty simple, wot? If you were selling this page you'd say that it has a Penny half and a Mr. & Mrs. half. Much the same as full pagers, half pagers have gotten less and less common over the years, though they do still pop up in current papers once in a while.

Before we get into even smaller formats, let's check in with those tabloid papers:

Here's a couple samples from the 1950s. The one on the left features a Steve Canyon in FULL TAB format. Notice that we mention the size of the page for tabs, but not for full size pages. Likewise on the right we have a pair of HALF TAB strips. When buying or selling it is important to note when a strip or a section is printed in the tabloid size. A full is worth more than a full tab, and the same for a half versus a half tab.

I noted on the Steve Canyon that it might be TRIMMED. Because there's a small ad at the bottom of the page, the newspaper may have trimmed a little off the bottoms of the panels to make it fit comfortably on the page. This practice is not all that unusual, and the loss is usually minimal (perhaps about 1/8" at the bottom of each panel in this case). Generally speaking it is nothing to get bent out of shape about, but there are some folks out there who positively freak out over a slight trim. Speaking of trimming, though, here's another form it can take:

On the right we have a full tab Li'l Abner page. On the left we have a version where the title panel has been dropped in order to put in an ad. You still get the complete comic strip so again, not that big a deal. Comic strip syndicates often had Sunday strips formatted specifically so that publishers could engage in such monkey business.

To go a little further on ways strips get trimmed, we have to introduce the TOPPER STRIP. The topper is a small extra strip that gets tacked on with a main strip. Here we have Kitty Higgins accompanying Moon Mullins and Snookums with Bringing Up Father. Topper strips got their start with the Hearst syndicates in the 1920s, and the practice was adopted by most other syndicates by the late 20s and early 30s. The idea was that the newspaper could elect to drop the topper in favor of an ad, or, if the topper was large enough, a whole extra 'main' strip. Toppers had their heyday in the 1930s, and some main strips continued to supply them into the 1960s, and in a few cases even the 70s.

The term topper can be misleading since sometimes they appear underneath the main strip. However, this is the name that the cartoonists used in the 1920s and it stuck in the business. Some collectors today, those without a sense of the history of the term, call them companion strips, or even call them bottomers (ugh!) when they appear at the bottom. I'm a traditionalist, though, and I prefer to call them all toppers.

Okay, so I had to go through all that so that you could recognize what happened to this next tab page:

Here we have Moon Mullins with poor little Kitty Higgins given the ol' heave-ho in favor of an ad. When we lose this much from a tab page we call it a 2/3 tab. When you see this term you should assume that either a topper strip is missing, or a large title panel has been dropped. Unfortunately many sellers like to call the above a full tab. Obviously it ain't.

Above on the left you see one of the worst strip formats there is. These are all THIRD TABS. When trying to complete a run of a strip you may spend years trying to winnow out all of these crummy little strips which, naturally, newspaper editors think are just the cat's pajamas because they can shoehorn a crapload of these into a section. Crap is right...

On the right we see a pair of half-tabs that include topper strips. You can see how easy it is for newspapers to turn these into thirds tabs by deep-sixing the toppers.

Before we finish our little survey with the current state of the art in mangling strips, let's take a peek into one of those comic book format sections:

We see Nancy printed as a COMIC BOOK FULL, and to her right a pair of COMIC BOOK HALFS. Although the comic book format is obscenely small, it does have one saving grace. The comic book half is often a miniaturized (full page) half, which for most strips from the 50s on is their best and most complete format. So if you're looking to get a run of your favorite strip in half page format, don't overlook the comic book half as a serviceable filler until you can find an upgrade.

The comic books even had a third page format. About them the less said the better.

Okay, time to look at some current comic sections. In the past twenty years syndicates and newspapers have found new and ever more horrific ways to shoehorn more strips into less space. We'll try and build up to some of the worst so that the shock isn't too great.

Above is a page with three different formats. We have a half (papers are contractually obligated to run Opus as a half, though some fudge by using the half tab version -- finks), a third and a quarter. Those among you with a bit of facility for math have already figured out that we have a problem here: 1/2 + 1/3 + 1/4 doesn't come up to a nice even integer. That's because syndicates have been shrinking their Sunday features so that newspapers can jam even more strips on a page. The old designations, though still used both by collectors and in the business, are today just comparative sizes -- they really don't have a whole heckuva lot of real world meaning. Here's another example:

This is back in the 90s, but we were already able to fit five quarters comfortably on a page. Sigh.

Speaking of quarters, for many strips today the quarter has actually taken over as the most complete format available even though it's smaller than the third.

Here we have an interesting juxtaposition of formats in one paper. On the right side we have two halfs, rarely seen these days. Notice that they had no trouble fitting a quarter between them, though. So the right page is pretty decent, but the left, yuck! We start off with a third, then everything goes downhill. We have four strips printed in their third tab formats (some call them SIXTHS when they run in full size papers, but the format used is in fact the third tab). Plus we get one of the most popular new ways to shoehorn in an extra strip, called the VERTICAL. There's actually two sizes of vertical available (the other runs down the entire page) but I haven't heard what the terminology is for the two formats. My take is who cares - verticals are awful and I don't even save the horrid things when I clip Sundays. The vertical takes advantage of the fact that many quarter page strips now run a large title panel that can easily be dropped (you can see one in use on Zits a few pictures up from here).

Okay, here's one last crime against comic strips:

I don't know what those ones at the top are called in the business. I call them squares, or to be more exact, I call them recycle, 'cause that's where they go when I'm clipping.

Okay, so that brings you up to speed on the basics of Sunday comic strip terminology. There is more to it, of course. There's the big question of just how exactly a comic strip can be supplied in all these various formats. The short answer is that the poor cartoonists have to practically have an engineering degree to design their strips to work in all these various configurations. But we'll save that meaty subject for another day.

I always believed that, instead of drawing a title-panel, cartoonists should use the area to add an extra, one-panel comic. Better use of space, IMO.

Patrick McDonnell's "Mutts" used to do these neat title-panels that was a tribute/knock-off of various artworks and paintings through out the time. He even did a title panel that was based on the cover of the only "King Aroo" paperback book ever made.

Sadly, it looks like he doesn't do that anymore. (I guess he ran out of artworks to use)
So I guess you don't save any "Non Sequitur" Sundays, then. Few years ago, Wiley Miller decided to change his Sunday format and are now available in the vertical format only.
Great post! I've always been a bit confused about these matters. Thanks for straighten this out for me. :)
Hi Charles -
Last I knew McConnell was still doing them, but so few papers run those great title panels he could very well have stopped awhile ago and I wouldn't know about it.

And as for Non Sequitur, yup, don't save 'em. Not only an ugly format, but Wiley is just handing newspapers an excuse to further mutilate their Sunday comics. Someone else will have to store Wiley's work for posterity, won't be me.

Well, if you want to be technical, McDonnell still draws title panels for each Sunday "Mutts." However, he no longer goes fancy with it, and instead decided to go for a generic title panel look.

Here's this week's example:

(yet another) Great informative post!

My face is a bit red-- i've always thought that 'trimmed' referred to the strips that had been clipped right down to the panel borders-- i had no idea that it referred to internal changes.

Is there a term for strips where the borders have been clipped? (can you tell that getting strips like this is a pet peeve for me?)

thanks again-- tim
The LA Times runs "Drabble" at the sixth size, but with the quarter format (the title panel is included). Would those be called "eighths?" These are just about impossible to see or read.
It's "Drabble" so, as far as I'm concerned, "impossible to read" is just about the right size for it.
Hi Tim - No need to 'beet' yourself up (ha!). The same term is used for both strips trimmed by a newspaper, and those trimmed to the panel edges by clippers. I was going to get into the whole trimming to panel edges issue when I do the post about dailies, where it is a much more common occurrence among old-time clippers. Thankfully few people trim Sundays right to the panel edges, though some do like to trim off the ragged edges of Sunday sections. I don't really object to that as long as they don't cut off more than a 1/2" or so. What say you folks?

And Lee, I'm not sure how you can run a quarter in the size of a sixth (third tab). The proportions don't translate. I'm probably just misunderstanding you, but any chance you could scan in a sample? Have they found yet another way to mangle things?

Ah, glad that I wasn't totally off the mark. I prefer pages untrimmed, even if the edges are shabby, but i understand the desire to clean up those really torn up pages.
Hello, Allan---It's often said World War Two paper shortages were what put Sunday comics into their spiral of shrinking size. I regard the real culprit as the explosion of advertising in the comic sections, led by the advertising agency-created "Puck" sections in 1931. Those great old full-page comics were seen as wasting valuable ad space, so they took a buzz-saw to them. So...half-pages, thirds, fifths, eighths--looking forward to twelfths, eighteenths, etc. ---------Cole Johnson.
Hi Cole -
Couldn't agree more. That old canard about WWII paper shortages being the ruination of Sunday comics is pure bunk. By 1942 the comic section was already featuring halfs and even thirds regularly -- finding toppers from that late is one of my hardest jobs as an indexer.

Advertising was the real culprit -- the Puck and ChiTrib sections leading the way. Also the desire to proclaim that your newspaper had 24 strips (at third page) whereas your pathetic rival had just 8 (at full page).

Hello, Allan---Finding fulls compressed into halves is practically unknown before the mid-30's advertisement era, but it was done at some papers. The last few miserable years at the once-great Philly NORTH AMERICAN (Ended 1925) featured four forced-into-halves strips inside. The same thing was to be found at the Cleveland PLAIN DEALER in the early 20's. I assume the re-arranging was done by those papers, not prepared by the syndicates. Here's a question---In the 20's, Hearst sections would run a half page ad, accompanied by an intended-to-be half strip, usually TOOTS & CASPER, but sometimes FREDDIE THE SHEIK (or even something weird, like a revival of T.E.Powers' CHARLIE AND GEORGE). Were there regular fulls of TOOTS or whatever, prepared for subscribers not running the ads?---Cole Johnson.
Hi Cole -
Yes, I have fulls of Toots & Casper in my collection from those years. One of these days I'll have to pull one where I have the same date in full and half to see exactly how they went about it. Presumably drop panels, like later on, but I don't know for certain.

Some time ago I found out (thanks to the Google Newspaper Archive) that broadsheet papers back then were more like large "berliners" (a newspaper size between broadsheets and tabloids), and that some broadsheets have been narrower in recent years (specially because of inflation and the general decline on news readership -specially on broadsheets and tabloids, in favor of the "berliners"-). Will this have any more effects on the size of Sunday strips (specially with the decline of the half-page format, which UFS has practically abandoned, with the exception of a few comics).
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