Rudolph Dirks was born on this day in 1877 in Heinde, Schleswig-Holstein. He died on April 2, 1968 in New York City.
Until the introduction of rookie cartoonist Rudy Dirks’ Katzenjammer Kids in December 1897 in William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal, newspaper comics were largely one-picture jokes with an ever-changing cast of stock characters. Inspired by Wilhelm Busch’s sequential-picture storybook, Max und Moritz (1865), Dirks’ Katzenjammer Kids ("katzenjammer" literally meaning "howling of cats," German slang for hangover) portrayed a regular cast of characters (something only tried before in fits and starts, notably in Outcault’s The Yellow Kid), with action progressing through sequential panels (with or without well-placed dialogue "balloons") to tell a tale, not just a joke. As Dirks’ "comic strips" told tales about the Kids (a pair of mischievous German children, Hans and Fritz, who incessantly played pranks on their Mama Katzenjammer, or later, on the old Captain and his pal the Inspector) on a daily basis, Hearst and his rival newspaper publishers realized that comic strips could be a great promotional tool, even more compelling than the use of recurring characters in a one-frame slice-of-life vignette as Outcault had been doing, as readers would buy the paper to see the Kids in their next mini-adventure.
With a compelling economic reason behind it, Dirks’ comic strip form became the industry standard, inspiring a million imitators. In addition to the basic outline conventions of the comic strip, Dirks was the originator of a number of detail elements which would become instantly understandable comic strip cliches, including sweat beads to indicate exertion, motion lines, and stars to indicate pain.
In 1912, Dirks left Hearst and joined Pulitzer’s World, setting off litigation over the rights to the Katzenjammer Kids which concluded with the ridiculous result of Hearst retaining the name of the strip, and Dirks retaining the likenesses and the names of Hans and Fritz; Harold Knerr lovingly took over the Katzenjammers for Hearst, while Dirks continued to draw Hans and Fritz (later as The Captain and the Kids), the two strips running in parallel for decades, oddly playing off each other’s character developments. The Katzenjammers survived for nearly 100 years, while Dirks drew The Captain and the Kids on and off into the 1950s, when he passed it on to his son John; the strip was discontinued in 1979.
Outside of his newspaper work, Dirks was also a serious artist who established a painter’s colony at Ogunquit, Maine.