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Sunday, July 5, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Vanishing Annie

Shifting media landscape zaps comic-strip heroine from the funny pages

Sharon Cohen Associated Press

Talk about a hard-knocks life: She has been jailed in North Korea, kidnapped repeatedly, accused of murder, trapped in a cave, roughed up by gangsters.

And she’s just a kid – more precisely, a red-haired girl named Annie.

Over 86 years, the spunky (and forever young) orphan has endured hundreds of curly hair-raising adventures, not to mention homelessness, poverty and other Dickensian hardships.

She’s even survived the death of the man whose pen and imagination turned her into a comic-strip heroine.

Annie, the character, may be indomitable. But “Annie,” the comic strip, is not.

Facing a shifting media landscape – the closing or shrinking of newspapers, a dwindling audience for comic adventures and an explosion of new forms of entertainment – Tribune Media Services has determined there will be no more newspaper tomorrows for Annie.

After today’s strip, Annie, her father figure and frequent rescuer, Daddy Warbucks, and her beloved pooch, Sandy, will disappear from the funny pages.

Actually, they’ve already disappeared from most newspapers (The Spokesman-Review hasn’t carried “Annie” since the 1970s). Fewer than 20 papers will run today’s finale – which, by the way, leaves Annie’s fate hanging as she remains in the clutches of a war criminal, the Butcher of the Balkans.

She will have a future, but for now, where that will be is unknown.

“Annie is not dying, she’s moving into new channels,” says Steve Tippie, vice president of licensing and new markets development at Tribune Media, which owns the license to the character.

Annie, he says, has “huge awareness” and possibilities include graphic novels, film, TV, games – maybe even a home on a mobile phone.

No matter where she lands, it’s clear there’s still gold in that red mop of hair and those white, pupil-less orbs.

Tribune Media continues to collect revenues from various productions of “Annie,” the sunny musical that charmed Broadway more than 30 years ago and is expected to return to the Great White Way in 2012.

“Annie is one of those iconic characters in American culture,” Tippie says. “If you stop 10 people on the street (and mention her), nine of them will drop down on one knee and start singing ‘Tomorrow.’”

It was, in fact, the popularity of the musical that gave the strip a second life. Tribune Media revived the comic after the death of its creator, Harold Gray, who had used Annie as a megaphone for his conservative political views.

From its opposition to the New Deal in the ’30s to its hard-line in the war on terror, the comic strip has never shied away from its beliefs.

“I always like to think of Annie as the Fox News Channel of the funny papers,” says Jay Maeder, Annie’s most recent writer. “It was a very political strip.”

But its popularity transcended politics.

“The appeal of Annie is simply that she doesn’t give up,” says Ted Slampyak, the strip’s artist for the last six years.

“She always ends up in one scrape after another,” Slampyak says. “She doesn’t have a lot of resources but she has a lot of spirit, a lot of pluck. She’s got a lot of fight in her.”

Being a girl – and one who’d occasionally deck an enemy with a mean left hook – also gave her a special cachet.

“She’s sort of a female Huck Finn,” says M. Thomas Inge, author of “Comics as Culture” and professor of humanities at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia. “The fact that she was surviving on her own made her attractive.”

Annie was created by Gray, a farm boy from Kankakee, Ill., whose love of Dickens novels was reflected in his character’s triumphs over greedy bankers and phony reformers with colorful names such as Phineas P. Pinchpenny and Mrs. Bleating Hart.

The comic strip debuted in 1924 when Americans still were watching silent movies, Prohibition was a reality and a home entertainment center meant a radio the size of an end table.

Annie expanded to the airwaves during the ’30s when families, looking for a respite from the Depression, tuned in to follow the exploits of a feisty girl who took guff from no one.

The character quickly moved beyond newsprint and radio, blossoming into a multimedia star: comic books, movies, a doll and board game in her name, celebrity endorser (Ovaltine, anyone?) with her own decoder ring, and later, her own U.S. postage stamp.

But her home base was the funnies.

Annie was one of the first comics to use long-running narratives, unlike the episodic single gags that dominated the funny pages at the time, says Jeet Heer, who has written introductions to five volumes of Annie comic collections and is planning a biography of Gray.

At its peak, “Little Orphan Annie” appeared in hundreds of newspapers. During the 1945 New York newspaper deliverymen’s strike, New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia didn’t want to disappoint her young followers so he read Annie’s adventures over the air (she was on trial for murder at the time).

Annie did undergo a modest makeover over the years. The “Little Orphan” was dropped in the late ’70s. And she finally traded her red dress with the white collar for sneakers and jeans.

But she remained a plainspoken girl – a favorite expression was “leapin’ lizards!” – who preferred the company of working stiffs to those who put on airs.

In Gray’s (and Annie’s) view, Heer says, the enemies were “officious social workers and government bureaucrats, snooty do-gooders and busybody political reformers … know-it-all intellectuals and pointy-headed college professors.”

One of the comic strip’s recurring themes, he says, was the poor don’t need the government to better themselves, just occasional help from a benevolent capitalist – such as Daddy Warbucks.

Sound familiar?

“The ‘don’t expect government to do stuff for you’ – all the slogans on the Tea Party placards sound like they came off Little Orphan Annie,” says Randy Duncan, professor of communication at Henderson State University and co-author of “The Power of Comics.”

Creator Gray actually started as a progressive Republican with a populist streak; he was sympathetic to immigrants and minorities, according to Heer. But by the 1930s, he had become a fierce opponent of Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal policies.

When FDR was nominated to a fourth term, Gray killed off Daddy Warbucks; the bald magnate suggested that perhaps the climate was making him sick. After Roosevelt’s death, Warbucks magically reappeared, puffing a cigar and saying the “climate here has changed.”

In the 1940s and into the Cold War a decade later, Warbucks fought the Communist conspiracy, sometimes using his own mercenaries to go beyond what the government was willing to do, Heer says.

Whether it was the politics or the adventure, Annie developed a huge fan base. It was a diverse group, including a teenage John Updike (he wrote a fan letter) and Henry Ford, who sent a telegram in the 1930s when Sandy, the dog, went missing.

It said: “Please do all you can to help Annie find Sandy. STOP. We are all interested. Henry Ford.”

Some politicians also took a shine to Annie, including Ronald Reagan and Jesse Helms, the former North Carolina senator who came to the comic’s defense after a paper in his state pulled the strip, accusing it of being “John Birch Society propaganda.”

It was not the only criticism. Decades earlier, one magazine referred to Annie as “fascism in the funnies.”

There were parodies, too, most famously the misadventures of Little Annie Fanny, a voluptuous young woman who got in trouble – and often ended up naked. It first appeared in Playboy in the 1960s.

After Gray’s death in 1968, others continued the strip. Then, for a few years, newspapers ran “classics,” also known as reruns.

When the musical came along in 1977, a new generation of fans was born – though the show did not hew to Gray’s ideology.

“That impossibly happy, chirpy little creature that little tweenage girls just loved … that’s certainly not the Annie I was chronicling,” says Maeder.

In the last decade, Annie storylines have included problems at the border, illegal immigration, even Guantanamo.

Warbucks ended up doing undercover CIA work that took him to fictionalized countries named Ratznestistan and Quagmiristan.

Annie, meanwhile, hooked up with a new character named Amelia Santiago, a daring Cuban-American aviatrix and CIA veteran. A few years ago, they were tossed into a North Korea prison.

“Annie got kidnapped more than any child on the planet,” Maeder says.

And that, dear readers, is her predicament now.

She’s been spirited away to Guatemala by her war-criminal captor. Warbucks is huddling with the FBI and Interpol but there aren’t many clues.

Annie’s captor says they’re stuck with each other. Welcome to your new life, he says.

And there it ends.

Where and when will Annie resurface?

Stay tuned.

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