A History Of Comic Strip Animated Adaptations

To celebrate the release of The Garfield Movie, we’re taking a look at the long history of animated adaptations of newspaper comic strips.

A fully-animated theatrical movie might be new territory for Garfield, but Jim Davis’s famous fat cat is no stranger to cartoons, having already starred in numerous animated specials and tv series.

The opening scene of Garfield’s first special Here Comes Garfield (1982), in which Garfield dances to a theme tune sung by Lou Rawls, had a permanent effect on the strip itself. The special was produced at Mendelson/Melendez Productions, the studio behind the Peanuts cartoons, and Jim Davis happened to run into Charles Schulz while he was struggling to make Garfield dance. According to Davis, “Sparky – as he was known to friends – provided me with the solution on the spot. He started drawing over my drawing, saying, ‘The problem is, you’ve made Garfield’s feet too small – little cat feet.’ So he got Garfield, like Snoopy, up off all fours. I took Sparky’s advice, and Garfield’s been walking upright ever since.”

Garfield’s moves were taken from live-action reference footage of Desirée Goyette, who also co-wrote the song to which Garfield dances. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at that process:

The history of adapting comic strips to animation goes all the way back to Little Nemo (1911), one of the earliest animated shorts ever made. Winsor McCay, the genius behind the painstakingly intricate fantasy strip Little Nemo in Slumberland, was inspired to make his characters move after he saw a flipbook that his son brought home. McCay pumped out four thousand drawings on rice paper, each individually hand-colored, all by himself. The fluid movement and dimensional quality of McCay’s animation is still staggering.

Early cartoons were regularly based on popular comic strips. Bud Fisher’s Mutt & Jeff, which popularized the entire concept of the daily comic strip when it launched in 1907, inspired one of the best cartoon series of the silent era. Fisher himself had little creative involvement in the films; instead, they were devised by a staff of wildly inventive New York animators like Charley Bowers and Dick Huemer. Only a handful of the 292 Mutt & Jeff cartoons survive, but films like Skating Instructors (1926) feature a steady stream of impossible sight gags that would make any cartoonist proud. (This print comes from the collection of Tommy José Stathes.)

The most successful cartoon character to come from the comics is undoubtedly Popeye, who first appeared in E.C. Segar’s Thimble Theatre in 1929 and became the strip’s breakout star. The cartoons made a few changes from the strip; the one-off villain Bluto was turned into Popeye’s primary rival, and although Popeye of the comics always claimed his strength came from eating spinach, the idea of Popeye downing a can of spinach to gain an extra burst of power was devised by the animators. Still, the Fleischer cartoons captured the essence of Popeye’s gruff appeal, and his gravely voice – created by Billy Costello – couldn’t have fit more perfectly. Here’s Popeye making his screen debut in the Betty Boop cartoon Popeye the Sailor (1933).

Otto Soglow’s playful strip The Little King, in which a childlike ruler follows his whims in a pompous regal setting, was turned into a series of animated films by the Van Beuren studio in the early 1930s. I love these cartoons; they nicely evoke the gentle humor and stylish Art Deco minimalism of Soglow’s strip without sacrificing the Van Beuren studio’s signature weirdness. This clip from Jolly Good Felons (1934) comes from Thunderbean’s must-have Blu-ray set “The Complete Animated Adventures of the Little King.”

In my opinion, George Herriman’s Krazy Kat is the greatest comic strip of all time. The simple slapstick premise of a mouse hurling bricks at a cat’s head is used as a jumping-off point for Herriman’s surreal artistry and personal poetic musings. Columbia’s Krazy Kat cartoons have nothing in common with the strip other than the name, turning poor Krazy into a generic Mickey Mouse clone. Only one cartoon in the series resembles the comic in any way: Lil’ Ainjil (1936). The film came about after animator Izzy Klein begged for permission to make a “real” Krazy Kat cartoon with characters and settings from the strip. Producer Charles Mintz relented, but the end result was compromised. Klein complained, “It was a senseless story, throwing bricks and that was the end of it. I was terribly disappointed.” Klein was right about the film, but it’s still fascinating to see Krazy, Ignatz, and Officer Pupp filtered through a 1930s rubber hose lens.

In the 1930s, there were several comic strip adaptations that were obviously intended to launch a series but didn’t last beyond a single short (Carl Thomas Anderson’s Henry, Jimmy Swinnerton’s Little Jimmy, Gene Byrnes’s Reg’lar Fellers, etc.). Most of these strips were about rambunctious children, and without the original artists’ distinctive drawing styles, the characters didn’t stand out from other cartoons. The Van Beuren studio squeezed three cartoons out of Toonerville Folks, a strip about a Skipper who drives the rough-and-tumble Toonerville Trolley, but the charm of the original was in Fontaine Fox’s delightfully squiggly line art. Without it, the films are well-made but typical. Here’s a clip from Toonerville Picnic (1936), the last of the three.

Rudolph Dirks’s The Katzenjammer Kids (alternatively known as The Captain and the Kids for reasons too complicated to go into here) was the longest running comic strip of all time, lasting from 1897 to 2006, and its influence on cartoonists can’t be overstated (the strip popularized tropes like seeing stars to represent pain and sawing wood to represent snoring). The two titular hellions Hans and Fritz have made their share of onscreen appearances, most ambitiously in a series of fifteen cartoons from MGM in the late 1930s. Friz Freleng, who directed eight of these shorts, later complained, “I balked at making these characters into an animated series and expressed myself thusly, but to no avail… [MGM] thought that this being printed in so many papers would make it a popular cartoon. I was forced to prove them wrong.” The films feel like they were made under protest, with the Katzenjammers consistently upstaged by chickens and horses. Even so, they’re full of high-quality animation. This well-acted clip comes from Blue Monday (1938), which marked Bill Hanna’s first screen credit as director.

No one could pack more manic screwball energy into a single drawing than Milt Gross, one of my cartooning heroes. I still remember seeing Gross’s original artwork at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum as a kid, and being floored by his effortless skill. In the late 1930s, MGM brought in Gross himself to direct cartoons based on his comic strip Count Screwloose, starring a mental asylum escapee and his equally crazy dog. Producer Fred Quimby at first refused to release the films Gross came up with, claiming they were “below the dignity” of MGM. Quimby and Gross butted heads and Gross left after directing only two cartoons, but animator Bill Littlejohn recalled, “They were so funny. I’ve never seen a bunch of animators laugh so hard.” Here’s a clip from Jitterbug Follies (1939), a glorious work of demented chaos.

The name Rube Goldberg is still synonymous with preposterously convoluted machines, thanks to the crazy contraptions in Goldberg’s many spectacular comic strips. Goldberg was drawing wild inventions as early as 1917, often credited to Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts, and his comics formed the basis of the 1920s animated newsreel spoof The Boob Weekly (most of which is now lost). Here’s some footage from 1940 that features Rube Goldberg in the flesh, along with an animated version of one of his outlandish creations.

In the great comic strip Nancy, Ernie Bushmiller perfected the art of the sight gag. The Terrytoons studio brought Nancy to the screen in two cartoons from the early 1940s, but these attempts failed to capture the strip’s geometrically rounded art style and reality-bending humor. The animators seem to be struggling to get a handle on Nancy; she’s missing the iconic bristles on her hair, and her dot eyes keep shifting to white. Her dainty, feminine mannerisms also feel out of line with Nancy’s more blunt personality in the comics (they really nailed Sluggo’s voice, though). This clip comes from Doing Their Bit (1942), a WWII cartoon where Nancy and Sluggo help out the war effort.

Another mischievous little girl from the comics who got her own cartoon series is Little Lulu. She was created by Marjorie Henderson Buell in single-panel gag cartoons for the Saturday Evening Post, which eventually turned into a daily comic strip and a series of popular comic books. The 26 Lulu cartoons made by Famous Studios aren’t particularly well-remembered, but I quite like them. Lulu’s deadpan attitude is amusing, particularly in the shorts where she’s unwittingly driving some ill-tempered adult up the wall. This scene from Lulu in Hollywood (1944) plays like a cartoon parody of the Kuleshov Effect.

The reputation of cartoonist Al Capp seems to have fallen off due to his personal and professional implosion in the 1960s, but when Li’l Abner was at its best, it really was brilliant. The strip, about a bunch of hillbillies in the mountain town Dogpatch, expertly blends political commentary, weird fantasy creatures, and over-the-top spoofs of other comic strips. John Steinbeck called Capp “very possibly the best writer in the world today,” and during Capp’s 1940s and ’50s heyday, Steinbeck was right. Capp allowed five animated Li’l Abner cartoons to be produced by Columbia, although he was reportedly not pleased with the results. You can see why: Abner and Daisy Mae look awkward in motion, and the films downplay the strip’s satirical bite in favor of feuding hillbilly jokes. This clip is from the first entry Amoozin’ but Confoozin’ (1944). Sadly, the only available copies are the redrawn and recolored versions from the 1980s.

The tv specials based on Peanuts are beloved classics, but translating Charles Schulz’s deceptively simple drawings into animation was no easy task. Director Bill Melendez recalled, “I had to animate Sparky’s characters in such a way that you wouldn’t see the turns. I found ways of animating this and hiding the fact that the scope of the movement was very limited. Charlie Brown has this big head and tiny arms; he could never scratch the top of his head. So I found out that you had to do things like move his hands to the top of his head in profile, for example, then you could make his arm as long as you want.” Everyone remembers the holiday classic A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), but it was not actually the first Peanuts animation; Melendez had already animated the characters in a few Ford commercials and the cartoon segments of an unaired Schulz documentary called A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1963). Seeing Schulz draw Charlie Brown’s squiggle of a mouth right in front of our eyes is magical.

The great Bill Watterson has always refused to allow any adaptations of his work, maintaining, “As a comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes works exactly the way I intended it to. There’s no upside for me in adapting it.” Most other popular comic strips have been put on the screen at some point, with or without the creators’ involvement, and when you see how some of them turn out, Watterson’s resistance is all the more understandable. Seeing Bill Holman’s beautifully drawn absurdist masterpiece Smokey Stover reduced to a cheap Filmation cartoon is almost depressing. Here are just a few tv shows and specials based on comic strips, with varying levels of success.

Many of these tv adaptations had to make do with low budgets, but in the case of Billy DeBeck’s hillbilly character Snuffy Smith, that limitation was turned into an asset. The 1963 series was animated by wildman genius Jim Tyer, who always found hilariously eccentric ways of warping and jerking his characters around. Observe:

In addition to tv shows, comic strip characters have also shown up in commercials. Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie appears in this 1969 hairspray ad produced by Hanna-Barbera and animated by Disney veteran Art Babbitt. Look at the obsessive detail on Annie’s hair.

Dik Browne’s Hägar the Horrible was used in a series of beautifully-animated Skol Lager ads, which were created at Oscar Grillo’s studio in London. These are so well done, maintaining the simplicity of the original black-&-white strips without skimping on sophisticated acting.

One of the most obscure projects in the career of animation legend Chuck Jones is Curiosity Shop, a 1970s children’s show that combined live-action, puppetry, and animation. The tapes were tragically destroyed after the series ended, so very little of it survives, but there are a few existing animated segments adapted from comic strips. One of them is an animated version of The Wizard of Id, a funny strip by Brant Parker and Johnny Hart about the tyrant ruler of a mythical kingdom. Jones’s longtime animator Abe Levitow directed this short.

Another Curiosity Shop segment: a clever adaptation of Hart’s caveman comic strip B.C. in which the title character matches wits with his own shadow. Levitow did such a good job with this that he was later tasked with directing two B.C. tv specials.

One comic strip I’ve always felt is underrated is Mell Lazarus’ Miss Peach, about a schoolteacher who runs a classroom full of obnoxious kids. While obviously derivative of Peanuts, the strip takes the sparseness of Schulz’s art style one step farther, with even flatter, more heavily abstracted designs; the kids all have huge bulbous noses and “flounder faces” with eyes on one side of the head. Also, Marcia might be an even bigger sociopath than Lucy. (Once again, Levitow directed this segment for Curiosity Shop.)

Walt Kelly’s Pogo, all about a humble possum who lives in the Okefenokee Swamp, is one of the true masterpieces of the comic strip medium; it’s gorgeously drawn, and loaded with complex wordplay, slapstick, nonsense, and pointed political satire. Animated adaptations (The Pogo Special Birthday Special, I Go Pogo) have mostly failed to capture the strip’s wit. Kelly, who was trained as a Disney animator, was actually working on an animated version of Pogo that he would write, direct, animate and voice himself, titled We Have Met the Enemy and He Is. Kelly died in 1973, before he could complete the film, but this unfinished clip gives a taste of what might have been.

Speaking of comics with a political edge, Garry Trudeau’s countercultural strip Doonesbury was brought to the screen in the Oscar-nominated A Doonesbury Special (1977), a time capsule of post-hippie angst. Directors John and Faith Hubley must’ve been bored by the static compositions in the comic, because they really go wild with the camera angles here.

One of the best specials based on a comic is Ziggy’s Gift (1982), starring Tom Wilson’s big-nosed little loser Ziggy. Typical of director Richard Williams, the animation here is impressively lavish, far above the norm for a tv production. Future Disney animator Eric Goldberg took over mid-production as director, though he only received credit as an animator.

Lynn Johnston’s family strip For Better or For Worse is one of the few comics to age the characters in real time. The Christmas special The Bestest Present (1985) was the first of seven specials based on the strip, and it was written by Johnston herself, with her two children providing the voices of Michael and Elizabeth.

Cathy is an autobiographical strip by Cathy Guisewite about a single career girl prone to neurotic breakdowns (hence her oft-repeated catchphrase “ACK!”). The strip inspired three tv specials written by Guisewite herself and produced by Lee Mendelson and Bill Melendez (the team behind the Peanuts specials). Here’s a clip from the first one, simply titled Cathy (1987).

You might recall, way back at the beginning of this article, we looked at a short from 1911 based on Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland. Well, 78 years later, the strip inspired an entire animated movie, titled Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland (1989). The film was in development hell for almost a decade, going through a murderers’ row of big names in the animation industry, only to end up a mixed bag. Much more exciting than the finished product is this 1984 test film by Yoshifumi Kondô at Studio Ghibli, which is legitimately awe-inspiring. If only we could’ve gotten a full feature like this!

Berkeley Breathed, creator of the Eighties cultural satire Bloom County, was apparently unsatisfied with the Christmas special based on his strip, A Wish for Wings That Work (1991). I have to disagree; the story is fun, and the animation by the team at Steven Spielberg’s short-lived Amblimation studio is worthy of a feature film. The funniest scenes involve Bill the Cat, a scuzzy lobotomized feline designed to be the antithesis of Garfield.

You might think that Gary Larson’s The Far Side would be impossible to adapt to animation, given that it has no consistent settings or characters, but you would be wrong. Marv Newland’s macabre tv special Tales from the Far Side (1994), composed of bizarre vignettes and one-off gags, is just as deliciously sick as Larson’s original comics.

Many series and specials based on comics are geared for kids, but adults have always been the primary readership of newspapers, so it stands to reason that some comics, like Dilbert, Baby Blues, and The Boondocks, would aim for adult audiences in their animated adaptations.

As you’ve seen, there are no shortage of excellent animated films inspired by comic strips, but maybe the film that looks most like a comic strip is Isao Takahata’s My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999), adapted from Hisaichi Ishii’s comic Nono-chan. The bold use of negative space and little splashes of color make this the most unique movie ever produced by Studio Ghibli.

Newspapers no longer have the cultural weight they once did, but comic strips remain popular online, and many webcomics have been adapted into animation (just a few recent examples include the feature film Nimona, the Apple TV+ series Strange Planet, the crowd-funded Lackadaisy pilot, and the just-announced Apocalyptic Horseplay series). And despite newspaper circulation declining, the popularity of the old characters like Snoopy and Garfield hasn’t diminished. Over the last couple of decades, there have been numerous tv series (The Garfield Show, The Snoopy Show, Big Nate) and feature films (Over the Hedge, The Peanuts Movie, Marmaduke) based on characters from newspaper comics. Blue Sky Studios was also working on a feature-length adaptation of Patrick McDonnell’s wonderful comic strip Mutts, which was sadly shelved around the time the Walt Disney Company acquired 20th Century Fox. This brief animation test is the only available footage from the project.

Key to successfully adapting a comic strip to the screen is finding an animation style that complements the original. Animator Derek Mogford of Spitting Image studios came up with an interesting take on Krazy Kat by turning the residents of Coconino County into stop-motion puppets. This segment was created for a George Herriman documentary that was never finished.

Also key to adapting a comic strip is finding the perfect voice for the characters. Lorenzo Music’s dry delivery made him a natural fit for Garfield, but he wasn’t the first actor to voice the famous cat. Garfield’s screen debut was actually in a little-seen CBS special The Fantastic Funnies (1980), where he was given an odd southern accent by Scott Beach. Here’s a side-by-side comparison of the two different voices.

What are your favorite animated versions of comic strips? Let us know in the comments below. To close things out, here’s Jon Arbuckle disco dancing.

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