January 6, 2007
Fan Followings for the Comic Strips of Yesteryear

This weekend, I plan to write a series of posts based on work I did about a year ago for the Convergence Culture Consortium internal weekly updated. Circulated among affiliated faculty and corporate partners, as well as all of the C3 team here at MIT, the weekly update is one of the perks of being an affiliated researcher or a corporate member of the Convergence Culture Consortium.

When the internal newsletter first launched, I wrote a series of articles looking at some rather unique examples of online fan communities, including fan communities based on historical comic strips. These fan communities have helped keep characters alive and act as historians of sorts. Some of these projects are explicitly based on archiving for historical purposes, while others are more explicitly fans expressing their lovemarks for these strips that have long since stopped producing new work.

Dick Tracy. For instance, there are--perhaps not surprisingly--vibrant spaces for online fan communities for the popular police detective of yesteryear, Dick Tracy. I'm not surprised, since Tracy is a character who resurfaced in a 1990 Warren Beatty film that generated quite a bit of interest in the gamut of Chester Gould characters, including Tracy, Tess Truehart and all the villains, from Al "Big Boy" Caprice and Influence to Littleface and Shoulders and The Rodent, Flattop and Itchy, and perhaps the greatest character of all--Pruneface. As you can tell, I was quite a Dick Tracy fan myself in the early 1990s, collecting Tracy figures and searching out old Dick Tracy comic books (which were separate from his comic strip run).

But Tracy has been a character that has been distributed across multiple media platforms for years. I found a series of black-and-white Dick Tracy movies to buy, and the yellow-suited detective was also the star of a radio show in addition to his films, comic strips, and comic books. Currently, there's not much in the way of official output of Dick Tracy content, but there are still a variety of fan sites keeping the media property alive and ensuring that Dick Tracy will remain an American cultural icon. For some of the Dick Tracy fan communities, look here and here.

Flash Gordon. Meanwhile, Dick Tracy isn't the only popular comic strip character still circulating. There's also Flash Gordon, one of the earliest super hero characters to have mass popularity. In the world of yesteryear, Flash Gordon was the star of various comic books and comic strips, films, and television shows, even though Gordon is hardly one of the more featured cultural icons of the modern day. Nevertheless, the various incarnations of the Flash Gordon hero are kept alive by fans across the world who collect and archive the material surrounding the character. For these fans, the Flash Gordon character and universe is kept alive, even though the character is outside the public mainstream now and even though there is not new Flash Gordon material being produced. These type of behaviors instill fans with the feeling of taking over the role of gatekeeping from the content producers, who no longer exist in this case. These fan communities keep each other up-to-date when the character is used or mentioned in some way, including the airing of or release of material related to the character and various references made to him throughout popular culture.

For some of the various Flash Gordon-related characters, visit the fan sites and materials here, here, and here.

The Yellow Kid. Perhaps most interesting to me is projects that aim to keep alive and archive the content of a comic strip whose run ended before pretty well anyone alive was even born, that being The Yellow Kid of American newspapers in the late 1800s. Online fan communities surrounding comic strips don't have to just include nostalgia for strips from fans' past but instead an historical interest in the history of comic strips themselves. These are fans of the genre as much as any particular comic strip media property. Take, for instance, The Yellow Kid. The Yellow Kid may have been a major part of the American conscience in the late 1800s, but there is still a vibrant online community who work to keep the character and these strips in the public eye, not just for history's sake (although that is certainly part of the appeal) but also because the characters, artwork, and stories have some emotional resonance with this online community who find some value in writing about and documenting these comic strips.

Not surprisingly, some of these archiving projects for content like The Yellow Kid have an academic or historian's flare and some may even involve academia, but the people who have dedicated substantial time and effort in keeping the Yellow Kid work alive have certainly got a dedication that goes beyond any detached historical interest. Check out two Yellow Kid projects here.



Very interesting, but you missed the fact that new Flash Gordon and Dick Tracy comic strips are still being produced (FG is Sunday-only, DT is 7-days). There's a fairly active Dick Tracy reprint program from at least 2 publishers as well.


I wrote a partial response to this in the discussion section of Warren Ellis' post but wanted to ask you as well. I was not aware that Flash Gordon comic strips were still being produced. I had looked at the Wikipedia page, which listed the strip as stopping in 2003.

I did, however, learn from the Ellis page that there is a Sci Fi Network movie that should air sometime this year, so it's great to see the character still generating content.

I also wasn't aware that Dick Tracy comic strips persist but am glad to hear so. The reprint program only emphasizes the fact that there is still an interest in that old content and that it is still driving fandom in one way or another.

Not to diminish the current work of those creating the Dick Tracy comic strip, but I would think that many fans consider this more of an historical property that they are keeping alive by this point. There is certainly an historical feel to Dick Tracy the character.

Do you have any sense as to the current cultural reach of the Dick Tracy strip or any more info on the current Sunday Flash Gordon strip?