NEWS COLUMNS

TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 25, 2014

COMIC STRIP WARS IN WASHINGTON, D.C.

By James Johnson

Originally printed in the Woodstock Independent
May 5, 2004

The importance of the “Dick Tracy” comic strip and other popular strips is described in an interesting incident in Katharine Graham’s autobiography “Personal History.” The late Mrs. Graham was editor and publisher of the Washington Post, a Washington, D.C. morning paper originally owned by her father, Eugene Meyer. In the early 1930′s the paper had fallen upon hard times, with advertising, news content and circulation down severely. At one time a major editorial and commercial force, it had declined to rank fifth among Washington’s dailies. The owner, Ned MacLean, placed it into bankruptcy, and Meyer bought it in 1933 for an apparent bargain price of $825,000. Several years earlier he had offered $5 million for the paper but had been turned down.

A competitor in the city was Eleanor Medill (Cissy) Patterson. She was editor of the Washington Herald, a morning paper, and also editor-publisher of the afternoon Washington Times. These papers were owned by Hearst, but were later bought by Patterson. When the Washington Post went on the auction block, Patterson and her backers were outbid by Meyer.

Concerned about competition from a resurgent Post, Patterson asked her brother, Joseph Medill Patterson of the new York Daily News, to void the Post’s contract allowing it to carry four comic strips: “Dick Tracy,” “Andy Gump,” “Gasoline Alley” and “Winnie Winkle.” These were among the most popular strips of the day, and it would have seriously hurt the paper to lose them. This was the same Capt. J. M. Patterson who had bought the “Dick Tracy” strip from Chester Gould. Patterson’s rank was earned as an artillery captain in World War I, and he was a cousin to Col. Robert R. McCormick of the Chicago Tribune.

Meyer didn’t know much about comics, and asked his business manager, A. D. Marks, if the strips were important to the paper. Marks said they were “all-important to circulation” and were considered one of the best and most important assets the Post had at the time. Meyer went to court over the issue and prevailed after a lengthy fight. The Post then carried these comic strips until its contract with the controlling syndicate expired in 1936. The strips could then no longer be printed, but, after these first critical years under the new management, the paper was getting back on its feet. Feature and news quality were improving, high-quality reporters and columnists were being hired and advertising revenue and circulation were increasing. Today, the Washington Post, of Watergate fame, is one of the largest and most important newspapers in the country.

“Dick Tracy” does not appear in the Washington Post today. Perhaps it never did appear after 1936. It is interesting to think, however, that Dick Tracy and some of his fellow comic strip characters may have saved this major American newspaper from extinction.

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“He pictured himself as the world's smartest crook. That is until the police pictured him with those little numbers underneath.”
- Chester Gould
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