United States history owes much to Little Orphan Annie, Beetle Bailey, and the hundreds of other cartoon characters symbolic of American culture. They will receive tribute this month, which marks the 100th anniversary of what many consider to be this country's greatest original art form next to jazz: the comic strip.
The first comic -- the Yellow Kid in ''Hogan's Alley'' -- appeared in newsprint on May 5, 1895. Its appearance fueled newspaper sales and increased competition between publishers for the most entertaining cartoon art. Since then, of course, the strip has given way to a rich mixture of American cartoon and caricature: from waxed-paper comics inside children's bubble-gum wrappers to urbane sketches appearing in the New Yorker magazine.
This week, cartoon aficionados and private collectors are kicking off the celebration of this American invention. Awarding cartoon art the ultimate badge of Americana, the US Postal Service unveils today some 20 new stamp designs to honor newspaper strips from the comics' first 50 years. The Library of Congress will follow with tomorrow's debut of an exhibit entitled ''Featuring the Funnies: 100 Years of the Comic Strip'' that will tour the country.
The centennial moves into cyberspace on May 5, when computer wonks can log onto the interactive America Online and take comic-strip trivia quizzes, view the new postage stamps and the Library of Congress show, talk about their favorite strips, and learn about the cartoon business.
But the most ambitious cartoon project, by far, is the opening of Washington's new National Gallery of Caricature and Cartoon Art. The 3,000-artist, 45,000-piece collection, assembled over many decades by cartoonist Arthur Wood, chronicles the development of cartoon art -- including editorial, comic, animation, humor, and caricature.
Mr. Wood has put together a panorama of American mythology, daily life, and politics. Among his stock are Richard Outcault's first Yellow Kid strip original, as well as animator Walt Disney's preliminary drawings and cel for the Seven Dwarfs, Norman Rockwell's ''The Census Taker'' cover from the Saturday Evening Post, and the ''Watergate Crowd,'' one of the great political satires from the acerbic Patrick Oliphant.
''The works were given to me by artists with the idea that the public would eventually see it on permanent display,'' Wood says. As a young boy, Wood explains, he often took trips with his father, who worked as a traveling trouble-shooter in the Roosevelt administration. With his father in meetings, Wood had plenty of time to call on cartoonists at every local paper in every town and city he visited, where he looked over their shoulders and picked up their renderings. Later, when he was crafting his own comic strips, Wood further developed a wide range of close contacts in the field.
''When I would go to New York City, for example,'' Wood recalls, ''I'd see one guy, pick up work from him, and run over to Grand Central Station where I'd rent a locker so I could store the cartoons and go to visit the next cartoonist. There were a lot of New York papers in those days, and that involved many trips to Grand Central in just one morning. At the end of the afternoon, I'd have a whole pile of stuff to lug back home.''
Interest in comics endures, Wood says, citing newspaper readership surveys that show comics are still the main attraction after the front page and the weather forecast.
Comic strips enjoy a loyal following among those who find an easy escape in clever gags, the daily tribulations of families, or become enticed by the dramatic developments in action series.
''Comic strips are like little worlds -- they can bring humor or hook you like a soap opera,'' says Bill Rechin, creator of the popular ''Crock'' comic-strip character and ''Out of Bounds,'' a tongue-in-cheek strip about sports. Producing two strips a day is hard work, and like many artists, Mr. Rechin is part of a team. He draws the images and writer Don Wilder creates the story.
Characters from the strips often assume superstar status; their recognition has often been part and product of their public service. ''Crock,'' which appears in 200 papers and 19 countries, was the subject of a series of warnings on drugs and drinking in the US military. Distributed to all the troops, Rechin says, the cartoons had a much greater impact than the often dryly written manuals. Crock will soon appear in advertisements for seat-belt safety.
Do more of today's artists spread negativity with increasingly mean-spirited subjects? ''Oh, that hasn't changed. Some of the early cartoons were venomous,'' Wood says. But what passed for humor a century or even decades ago -- poking fun at Japanese, Germans, Irish, Italians, Jews, blacks, and women -- is now considered offensive.
The impact of newspapers closing, resulting in more one-paper towns, and falling circulation have limited the trade to roughly 200 political cartoonists and 250 regular syndicated cartoonists.
Syndicates, which buy and resell artists' work to papers around the country, have been a double-edged sword for cartoonists, Wood says. ''We can make a lot more money and be widely seen,'' but the papers tend to rely on nationally recognized artists instead of hiring local talent.
Just how do cartoonists enter this wacky world of images, and just what does it take to stand out? ''It chose me at an early age,'' says New York cartoonist Art Spiegelman. ''I learned to read trying to figure out whether Batman was good or bad.''
In Mr. Spiegelman's case, a passion for recounting the past set him apart. He took an art form most people associate with amusement and used it to convey thoughts on the most tragic of subjects. In his book detailing his family's Holocaust experience, entitled ''Maus: A Survivor's Tale,'' he drew cartoon cats as the Nazis and mice as the Jews. Spiegelman says he succeeded in ''sorting out [his] own mysteries'' and managed ''to tell a story worth telling.'' After he completed the work over a 13-year period, his two-part story ''Maus'' and ''Maus II'' won a Pulitzer Prize. It is now used in schools as a teaching aid and has been translated into 17 languages.
Tom Gibson, former communications director for the Reagan White House and an accomplished political cartoonist, got his start at USA Today, and now pens images for Washington editorial pages. Working for Reagan gave him a reservoir of material, which he soaked up.
''To be a cartoonist, you have to be a sponge -- you have to read, listen, absorb, and produce,'' Mr. Gibson says. ''We've become such a quick snap-shot society, cartoons are the last thing that compete with television.'' He plans to use adventures and commentary told through pictures, ''to teach American history. It is very effective to use the distilling eye of the cartoonist as a lens.''
Cartoonists worry about the future of the industry. Wood says the saddest change over time has been the cartoon strip's diminished size. ''The comics have been crammed down and smashed together -- so much so, that people have trouble reading them.
''Comics are not what they once were,'' Spiegelman says. There was a time, he recalls, ''when Li'l Abner getting married made the cover of Life Magazine.'' Today, he contends, ''the comic-strip form is moribund,'' as evidenced by what he calls the ''withering'' of strips in newspapers.
Spiegelman is optimistic, nonetheless, about the art form. Over time, he says, ''most mediums redefine themselves or die,'' but the teaching of comics in universities (including classes such as the Art of Comics in Post-Modern Literature), newly published books of comics, and the prospect of cartoons on CD-ROM, has given cartoons new life.
Spiegelman, who now draws strips and cover illustrations for the New Yorker magazine, says he is ''using magazine work as a way to report.'' His most recent cover, for the magazine's Easter issue, sparked controversy: A rabbit, in a suit and tie, appears weary and in the position of being nailed to a cross. A complex US tax return is the backdrop. ''The authentic voice of a hand-created image is powerful journalism,'' Spiegelman says.