While older comic strips had reputations for being substantial in both size and in ambition, the one-note gag panels of recent decades have rarely ventured beyond bad puns or poor copies of better material. Some, however, have opted to substitute laughs with some jarring tonal changes. Here are a few that had readers scratching their heads for being more solemn than silly.
1. Garfield’s Existential Issues
Fictional, lasagna-fetishizing cats that sell millions of dollars worth of merchandise every year do not typically venture outside their litter box full of cash. But in October 1989, Jim Davis, Garfield’s creator, had an urge to place his orange tabby in a joke-less, weeklong series of strips that pondered a world where Garfield was never born. The cat awakens to find his owner has disappeared—and when Jon does appear, he’s revealed to be a hallucination. “After years of taking life for granted,” Davis wrote, “Garfield is shaken by a horrifying vision of the inevitable process called ‘time.’”
It sounded like a Twilight Zone epilogue; Davis later said he did it as an homage to Halloween and the universal fear of being alone. Having unsettled readers, Davis returned to jokes about mornings the following Sunday.
2. Beetle Bailey’s Post-Traumatic Stress
A private in the Army since 1951, Beetle Bailey has cultivated a reputation for being lazy and shiftless, often angering his sergeant into what looks to be a decades-long case of dangerously high blood pressure. In June 2013, creator Mort Walker broke from the typical format by presenting the normally lackadaisical Bailey suffering from nightmares and having trouble sleeping. It was in honor of National Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Awareness Month. Walker, a World War II veteran, said he wanted to help draw attention to the matter.
3. They Killed the Dog
Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse has never shied from strife—her characters aged in real time during the strip’s three-decade run—but even fans used to her illustrated agonies choked back a sob when the family dog, Farley, died in 1995 after saving a child from drowning. After dragging him from the water, the family noticed he was cold and motionless: “Daddy, he isn't breathing!” Many grim breakfast-time explanations presumably followed.
4. Nancy in Wartime
Possibly the most innocuous strip of all time, Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy has been alternately celebrated and vilified for its one-dimensional approach to humor, with some people bored by its rote format and others considering it a celebration of minimalist art. Whatever the case, the 8-year-old’s exploits during World War II were fairly explicit exercises in propaganda. In one strip, Sluggo is seen blowing up Japan on his school globe with a fire cracker; in another, a discarded bottle tossed out a window scatters in the shape of a swastika, a presumed nod to Nancy’s—and the country’s—hyper-vigilance towards the enemy. Postwar, Nancy largely returned to her black-eyed examination of the mundane.
5. Hagar the Responsible
Few readers expect a Viking to exhibit any kind of social conscience, but Hagar the Horrible underwent a facelift of sorts in 1989. That’s when Dik Browne handed over the reins of the strip to his son, Chris. Among the changes: Hagar was no longer seen stumbling home drunk. "When my father was doing the strip, he did an awful lot of gags about Hagar falling down drunk and coming home in a wheelbarrow,” Browne told the Chicago Tribune. “As times go on that doesn't strike me as that funny anymore. Just about everybody I know has had somebody hurt by alcoholism or substance abuse.”
6. Little Orphan Annie
When Little Orphan Annie debuted in 1924, the mischievous urchin had already undergone a sex change: Creator Harold Gray had originally pitched his newspaper editor on a strip about a curly-haired boy named Otto. Having squared that away, Gray went on to pepper his heroine’s usually lighthearted adventures with a relatively somber exploration of hot-button issues of the day. In 1956, readers opening the paper expecting Annie to get involved in juvenile capers were instead treated to a story about delinquency, drug use, and prostitution. When 30 outlets canceled the strip due to protests, Gray dialed down his pulpy style and Annie returned to being (mostly) harmless.