These days, Little Orphan Annie really does have a hard knock life. Annie, the comic strip, is going to have its final run on Sunday, June 13. After 86 years of being featured in newspapers around the country, the red-haired orphan will no longer have a home among Blondie, Pearls Before Swine, Zits and the like.
The timing of Little Orphan Annie's departure is bittersweet. She is known primarily as a Depression-era comic heroine (even though she actually debuted during the Roaring 20s, when the economy was well... roaring), a role model we could look to for a laugh even during the worst of times. The little girl in Little Orphan Annie--the strip's name was later shortened to Annie--was so beloved that she inspired a radio serial in the 1930s, a Broadway musical which debuted in 1977 and a feature film in 1982.
But when the comic strip ends on June 13, chances are, few people will notice. Annie is now only featured in 20 newspapers, according to the New York Daily News.
"Little Orphan Annie is certainly one of the landmark comic strips in our history," says David Tosh, a collectibles specialist at Heritage Auction Galleries in Dallas. "But as an ongoing series, it long ago ran out of steam. Her presence on the printed page has been steadily going downhill for years, even before the strip passed from original creator Harold Gray."
Other cartoonists took over drawing the plucky girl after Gray passed away in 1968. Most recently, Ted Slampyak has been drawing the comic strip for the last six years.
Tom Heintjes, publisher of Hogan's Alley, a print and online magazine about cartooning, says that it's not the cartoonist's fault that Annie is going away; it's just an inevitability that all comic strips face at one time or another. "The truth is, most comic strips are a product of their time and inevitably begin going through the motions after a certain point, just like a TV show that starts off great and then begins to get stale and gets canceled," he says. "I wish [Annie] had been allowed to die with more dignity and not wither on the vine for years."
Story strips, in general, have fallen out of favor with the public, says Heintjes. Part of the problem is that the panels of the strip have shrunk with the newspapers, making it more difficult to tell a satisfying story in the limited space. "In this sense, Annie faces the same obstacles that other old-line continuity strips do: simply put, it's no longer a satisfying way to enjoy a story. The demands of media consumers have evolved over the years, and not all storytelling devices are going to work in perpetuity," he says.
I know firsthand that every comic strip must die eventually and how difficult it is to create something as lasting as Little Orphan Annie. About 10 years ago, I had my own comic strip in newspapers. I wrote it, and Jeff Stahler, a prominent and gifted editorial cartoonist (and now the editorial cartoonist at The Columbus Dispatch) drew it. It was a comic strip called Dear Dudley, about an advice columnist whose own life was a shambles, and very little evidence of it exists on the Internet. It ran in a handful of papers around the country and lasted about a year.
Nevertheless, even with this experience, I was still a little stunned to hear that Annie had been canceled. Maybe it's because there is something about icons. You expect them to stick around. That's probably why Peanuts is still in so many newspapers, ten years after Charles Schulz's death.
"Don't despair for the original, red dress-wearing Annie," says Tosh. "The spunky little girl with the can-do attitude will still be around and still be doing business." Tosh says IDW Publishing is reprinting the strip in its entirety in hardback volumes. "And the market for original artwork is still strong, with prices for vintage daily and Sunday strips drawn by Gray often selling for four figures in Heritage auctions. The old comic books, radio premiums and other merchandise still have their impassioned collectors as well. Rest assured that there will always be another 'tomorrow' for Little Orphan Annie," he says.
When I heard the news about Annie, I emailed my friend and former colleague Jeff Stahler, who is also the cartoonist behind the comic Moderately Confused, to ask what he thought of her departure from the comics. While marveling at her long run and suggesting she might do well in a future graphic novel, he said he found the timing oddly appropriate. "Daddy Warbucks lived through one Depression. I guess he couldn't make it through the second one."
Geoff Williams is a frequent contributor to WalletPop. He is also the co-author of the new book Living Well With Bad Credit.
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