Long ago dinosaurs walked the earth and a single comic strip – say, Little Nemo – could fill an entire page of the Sunday funnies. Comics section layout editors must have kept their X-acto knives tucked away in the back of the drawer and slept soundly on Saturday nights.
Gone is the day. Now, of course, six or eight strips may be crammed onto a Sunday comics page, and the layout editor must be able to tie a cherry stem into a knot with her tongue. To help her out, we cartoonists now deliver our Sunday strips with a title panel tacked onto each strip. The title panel, entirely expendable, gives the editor a few more options in laying out the page. Leave it intact and the strip runs wider and relatively shallower on the page. Whack it off and the strip’s a stockier rectangle.
Or, of course, twist and distort the damn thing to any size you want, as my hometown paper and beloved former employer apparently feels the freedom to do.
OK, that’s an exaggeration. Barely. But I digress.
The point is, cartoonists are left with the dilemma of how to fill their title panel each Sunday. It can’t be critical to the rest of the strip because it might be (and usually is) thrown away. On the other hand, when kept intact, the title panel is a nice big block of real estate that seems a pity to waste.
Some cartoonists like Scott Adams (Dilbert) treat the title panel like a billboard advertisement – a standard unvarying treatment that serves as a logo. On the opposite end of the scale, Patrick McDonnell (Mutts)
makes every title panel unique, a tribute to some beloved work of art or popular culture. Patrick’s title panels would make a fascinating book by themselves. And some cartoonists actually come up with an
entire extra stand-alone joke for their title panel, related to but independent of the idea in the body of the strip.
In Zits, we usually excise an interesting moment from the pencil sketch of that week’s strip for our title panel. Most cartoonists find their own pencil roughs more interesting than their finished ink
drawings — they’ll tell you that the roughs convey a carefree spirit and capture the fun of the idea before it gets tied to a post and beaten with a rubber hose during the inking and finishing process. And
I like the idea of subtly suggesting that there’s a good old-fashioned pencil drawing underlying the strip you’re about to read.