The Katzenjammer Kids is an American comic strip created by the German immigrant Rudolph Dirks and drawn by Harold H. Knerr for 37 years (1912 to 1949). It debuted December 12, 1897 in the American Humorist, the Sunday supplement of William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. Dirks was the first cartoonist to express dialogue in comic characters through the use of speech balloons.
After a series of legal battles between 1912 and 1914, Dirks left the Hearst organization and began a new strip, first titled Hans and Fritz and then The Captain and the Kids. It featured the same characters seen in The Katzenjammer Kids, which was continued by Knerr. The two separate versions of the strip competed with each other until 1979, when The Captain and the Kids ended its six-decade run. The Katzenjammer Kids is still by King Features Syndicate, making it the oldest comic strip still in syndication and the longest-running ever.
The Katzenjammer Kids was inspired by Max and Moritz, a children’s story of the 1860s by German author Wilhelm Busch. The Katzenjammer Kids (three brothers in the first strip but soon reduced to two) featured Hans and Fritz, twins who rebelled against authority, particularly in the form of their mother, Mama; der Captain, a shipwrecked sailor who acted as a surrogate father; and der Inspector, an official from the school system. Other characters included John Silver, a pirate sea captain and his crew, and King Bongo, a primitive-living but sophisticated-acting black jungle monarch who ruled a tropical island. Several of the characters spoke in stereotypical German-accented English. The main plot of the strip was Hans and Fritz would pull a prank or trick on one of the adults which resulted in their being hunted down and given a spanking in the end panel. Katzenjammer translates literally as the wailing of cats but is used to mean contrition after a failed endeavor or hangover in German (and, in the latter sense, in English too). Whereas Max & Moritz were grotesquely but comically put to death after 7 destructive pranks, the Katzenjammer Kids and the other characters still thrive.
The comic strip was turned into a stage play in 1903. It inspired several animated cartoons and was one of 20 strips included in the Comic Strip Classics series of U.S. commemorative postage stamps.
The Katzenjammer Kids was so popular that it became two competing comic strips and the subject of a lawsuit. This happened because Dirks wanted to take a break after 15 years, but the Hearst newspaper syndicate would not allow it. Dirks left anyway, and the strip was taken over by Harold Knerr. Dirks sued, and after a long legal battle, the Hearst papers were allowed to continue The Katzenjammer Kids, while Dirks was allowed to syndicate an almost identical strip of his own for the rival Pulitzer newspapers.
Knerr’s version of the strip introduced several major new characters in the 1930s. Miss Twiddle, a pompous tutor, and her brainy niece Lena came to stay permanently with the Katzenjammers in early 1936. Later in the year Twiddle’s ex-pupil, “boy prodigy” Rollo Rhubarb joined them. The ever-smug Rollo is always trying to outwit Hans and Fritz, but his cunning plans often backfire.
Initially named Hans und Fritz after the two naughty protagonist brothers, Dirks’ feature was called The Captain and the Kids from 1918 on. The Captain and the Kids was very similar to The Katzenjammer Kids in terms of content and characters, but Dirks had a looser and more verbal style than Knerr, who on the other hand often produced stronger, more direct gags and drawings. The Captain and the Kids soon proved to equal the popularity of The Katzenjammer Kids. It was later distributed by the United Feature Syndicate (while Hearst’s King Features distributed The Katzenjammer Kids).
The Captain and the Kids also introduced some new characters. Ginga Dun is a snooty Indian trader who can outsmart almost anyone and only talks in verse. Captain Bloodshot is a pint-sized pirate rival of John Silver’s.
The Captain and the Kids expanded as a daily strip during the 1930s, but it had only a short run. However, the Sunday strip remained popular for decades. From 1946, Dirks’ son, John Dirks, gradually began doing more of the work on The Captain and the Kids. They introduced new characters and plots during the 1950s, including a 1958 science fiction storyline about a brilliant inventor and alien invasions. Even as John Dirks took over most of the work, Rudolph Dirks signed the strip until his death in 1968. John Dirks’ drawing shifted slightly towards a more square-formed line, though it maintained the original style until The Captain and the Kids ended its run in 1979.
Knerr continued drawing The Katzenjammer Kids until his death in 1949; the strip was then written and drawn by Charles H. Winner (1949–56), with Joe Musial taking over in 1956. Musial was replaced on The Katzenjammer Kids by Mike Senisch (1976–81) and Angelo DeCesare (1981–86). The strip is currently drawn by Hy Eisman and distributed internationally to some 50 newspapers and magazines. Notable features of the modern version include a more constructive relationship between the Captain and the boys, who sometimes have friendly conversations instead of fights. The King and his people are now Polynesian rather than African. Eisman reused a lot of old gags and stories in recent years.
Katzenjammer Kids David McKay 1949
26 strips 1902
28 strips 1903
67 strips Sundays 1901-1920
55 strips Sundays 1950
53 strips Sundays 1951
54 strips Sundays 1952
54 strips Sundays 1953
50 strips Sundays 1954
52 strips Sundays 1955
46 strips Sundays 1956
13 strips unsorted
24 strips and Dinglehoofer Sundays 1939a
25 strips and Dinglehoofer Sundays 1939b