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Meet the Katzies: The Katzenjammer Kids, One of the Earliest Ethnic Comic Strips

1800s | July 18, 2019

The 'Katzenjammer Kids' cartoon children are the subject of this coloring book issued circa 1915 in New York City. (Photo by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)

One of the first ethnic comic strips, The Katzenjammer Kids, debuted in the funny pages of Sunday newspapers beginning in December of 1897. The comic strip followed the antics of German twins, Hans and Fritz, and their mother, Momma Katzenjammers. It may be viewed as offensive by today’s standards, but during its heyday, The Katzenjammer Kids was thought to be clever in its depiction of the German culture. Let’s take a look at this century old comic strip. 

Rudolph Dirks, a German-born cartoonist. (alchetron.com)

A German Cartoonist

The artist and creative genius behind The Katzenjammer Kids was Rudolf Dirks, a German born artist. As a young boy, Dirks moved with his family to Chicago. Dirks found moderate success drawing cartoons for local newspapers and magazines when he was a young man. Bolstered by his success, he moved to New York City in hopes of selling his drawings and cartoons to larger newspapers. 

William Randolph Hearst. (thoughtco.com)

Ammunition for a Newspaper Circulation War

Rudolf Dirks took a job as an illustrator for the New York Journal, a newspaper owned by William Randolph Hearst. In the 1890s, Hearst was engaged in a circulation war with rival newspaper, the New York World, owned by Joseph Pulitzer. One of features of the World that made it popular was the full color Sunday comics. One of the more well-liked comics on this page was Down in Hogan’s Alley, which started in 1895. Dirks was tapped to develop a comic strip for the Journal that would draw readers away from the World. The newspaper’s editor, Rudolph Block, suggested Dirks take inspiration from Wilhelm Busch’s popular German stories of Max and Moritz. Dirks came up with The Katzenjammer Kids, which debuted on December 12, 1897. 

(fathertheo.wordpress.com)

An Adventurous German Family

Dirks created a family with two mischievous twin boys which he called Hans and Fritz. Most of the storylines centered on the antics of the twins and the pranks that they liked to pull on others. In most cases, the butt of their jokes and antics was The Captain. He was an easy target and the boys seemed to enjoy getting a rise out of him. Each story concluded with the twins being punished for their pranks, often by being spanked by their mother, Momma Katzenjammer. As the comic strip progressed, the main characters developed distinct personalities, even though they were twins. 

One of The Katzenjammer Kids comic strips. (mikelynchcartoons.blogspot.com)

Written in a German Accent?

Dirks wanted his readers to really embrace the German aspect of The Katzenjammer Kids, therefore he wrote the dialog phonetically to show the accent that Hans and Fritz would have used. As a German himself, this was easy for him to do. All the “W”’s became “V”s, for example. In addition, he added in some comic dialect and slang terms, such as “dumbkopf.” It may have been stereotyping, but the comic strip’s fans didn’t seem offended. They adorned The Katzenjammer Kids and looked forward to reading about their next escapades each week. 

The comic strip turned into a book series. (comicvine.gamespot.com)

Expanding into Different Media

The Katzenjammer Kids was so popular during the first few decades of the 1900s that a live action musical version was staged in the 1920s. In fact, there were several musical stage adaptations of the comic strip throughout the 1920s. A book series and a comic book series were also developed based on Hans and Fritz and their adventures. 

Katzenjammer Kids toys. (flickr.com)

Product Endorsements

Hans and Fritz’s images graced many toys in one of the earliest examples of endorsement. The twins appeared on cereal boxes, puzzles, piggy banks, rings, postcards, and dolls. Many of these are now collectors’ items. 

Tags: 1800s, comic strip, cartoons, German cartoonist, newspaper, coloring books, The Katzenjammer Kids

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.