Spotlight on newspaper strip layout

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The creators

The writer

The author's task was to write a manuscript. Lee Falk wrote the script with dialogues and narrative text, also with a description of the scene and other instructions for the cartoonist. When one read newspaper comics in old newspapers from the 30s and 40s many newspapers had a by-line over the strip: Mandrake the Magician short title by Lee Falk and Phil Davis. This short title is the same in different newspapers on the same day. But this short title is not found at any original art, so most likely it is not written in the script.

One of the few scripts still in existence is from October 27 1996, a page from the Phantom Sunday story "The Lookout". note: The pencil sketches in the script were made by George Olesen.

The artist

The artist's task was to draw the newspaper comic stripes in high contrast, with black ink on white paper.

By studying original art created by various newspaper comic artists, one sees that the daily strips have a blue color were a dotted pattern later is glued on. This pattern is known as Ben-Day dot pattern or later as Zip-A-Tone, to create a halftone effect. One do not see a corresponding blue color or halftone pattern on the Sunday pages. Nor do one see any hints that the artist envisages which colors will be used on a Sunday page. A small exception can be seen on the back of Alex Raymond's third Flash Gordon page. A small note is written with a typewriter: Note to color man - it is very important that the skin of the inhabitants of the new planet be given a blue tint insted of a flesh tint

In both the dailies and Sundays there is glued on a small copyright mark. The sundays often has a logo glued on the strip.

It has not been established whether it was the artist himself who applied the blue colour on the dailies. But it is unlikely that the artist himself glued on the dot pattern, the copyright mark or the logo.

King Features Syndicate

The staff

At KFS, a staff was employed to prepare the cartoon artists' drawings so that they could be printed in the newspapers. Such a staff was later in the Marvel universe known as the bullpen.

The preparing was correcting misspellings, (adding blue color as guide for the half tone pattern on the dailies ?), adding the half tone pattern on the dailies, glue on copyright label, adding a logo to the Sunday pages. adding colors for the Sundays - for later color separation. Since the daily strips and Sunday pages was to be printed in slightly different proportions is it possible that part of this work had to be done for each individual variant.

In the USA there were also newspapers in languages other than English, so the strips for these newspapers were also translated by the staff.

Newspapers - layout

Daily strips

In 1934 a standard broadsheet newspaper page consisted of eight[footnotes 1] columns separated with gutters, an empty space of about 10 to 12 points (a pica is 12 points = 1/6").

The first Mandrake story was offered by KFS to the newspapers in a format spanning 6 columns, about 3" x 12". A five-column variant (about 2 1/2" x 10") was also offered not long after[footnotes 2]. A third variant appeared[footnotes 3] in 1942, spanning four columns (about 2" x 8").

By 1945 KFS offered the Mandrake daily stripes only as 4 or 5 columns, adding a 3 column variant in 1946. The 3 column variant was intended to be split in half, so that the last half of the strip came under the first half. From 1954 KFS only offered the 4 columns variant.

Looking at the twentieth and twenty-first annual directory of syndicates and features in Editor and Publisher (1945 and 1946) the daily strips are listed with size, columns wide and inches deep. The height of the Mandrake dailies are:

  • 3c = 4 3/4"
  • 4c = 2 7/16"
  • 5c = 2 1/4"

The height of the four-column variant is similar to most other newspaper comics at that time. But the height of the five-column variant varies slightly like: "The Phantom" - 2 7/16", "Secret Agent X-9 - 2 9/16", "Rip Kirby" and "Buz Sawyer" - 2 13/16".

Lee Falk's other comic strip, The Phantom had a corresponding development in size. It started spanning 6 columns in 1936, and 5 columns variant was added in 1939. In 1942 there was only 4 and 5 columns variant. A 3 columns variant was added in 1947. Then, from 1953 there was only the 4 and 5 columns variants.

Differences between the different variants

Comparing the size ratio between the 6 column strip and original art by Phil Davis, one find that the strips printed in the newspapers are slightly higher then the original art (fig. 1) in 1934. Comparing the 5 and 6 column variants of the Mandrake strip in 1935, one find that the 5 column variant is closest to the original art drawn by Phil Davis. The 6-column variant is stretched in height, as seen in the illustration below (fig. 2).

The reason why the strips seem stretched in height may be related to something known as shrinkage[footnotes 4] in the process of making molds for the printing plates. These moulds were made using heavy spongy paper (flong) which was moistened and pressed against a relief. The cellulose fibers in the paper points in the same direction and when moistened they expand sideways. When the flong dried out they shrank in width.

By the end of 1938 it looks like the 5 and 6 columns strips size ratio are identically, but compared to the original they seem significantly stretched in height (fig. 3).

By the end of 1942 the 4 and 5 columns variant are identically with the the original art, but the 4 columns are is slightly stretched in height, while the 5 columns variant are compressed in height (fig. 4).

In 1946 the 4 columns are slightly stretched in height compared with the original (?) art. The 5 columns variant now are reduced in height by cutting away the lower parts of the original (?) art. In the 3 columns variant are reduced in height by cutting away the lower parts, but not as much as seen for the 5 columns. In addition, each panel having more art on the sides of the panels (fig. 5).

Sunday pages

The Sunday pages was intended to be printed in the comic section (a supplement magazines) for the Sunday (or Saturday) edition of the newspapers.

The size of the main newspaper was known as Broadsheet and measures about 29.5 inches × 23.5 inches. The supplement magazines were in two different size[footnotes 5]: Full page which is 22 inches × 14 inches and Tabloid which is 14 inches × 11 inches. So, if you take a tabloid, unfold it and rotate it 90 degrees, you have roughly the size of a comic section standard page.

Tabloid and full page

From the beginning the Mandrake Sunday pages were sold to fill an entire page in both a tabloid and standard sized comic section. The difference between these two is not just that they are scaled to fit the format, but a full page variant of a Mandrake Sunday page is wider than the tabloid format.

There are no original drawings from Phil Davis from the earliest years, so it is difficult to determine whether he drew the Sunday pages in a full page or tabliod format. If you compare the two strips by Alex Raymond, "Flash Gordon" and "Jungle Jim", from the third of February 1935, these are drawn in tabloid format. The staff at KFS then rearranged the panels, adding some extra ink to fit a full page. Then they were sold to the newspapers as tabloid "Flash Gordon" and "Jungle Jim" and full page "Jungle Jim"/"Flash Gordon". The earliest known original Sunday pages drawn by Phil Davis are from August 1939 and these are drawn in tabloid format. So it was probably this format that he drew in from the very beginning.

Tabloid, full and half page

In 1942 KFS started to offering the Sunday page also as half pages. Phil Davis changed his layout so that the originals were drawn three rows high, so that they could be split into a landscape format two rows high. The last page made that could not fit the half page format was on April 26, 1942. Comparing images of Phil Davis' original art from about the same time they look like the tabloid pages. The full and half pages are wider than the art in the tabloids. But single panel in the rows is not extended by adding extra ink, as can be seen previously. The art appear to have been stretched wider using some kind of optical process.

By 1945 there was only two variants: tabloid page and standard half page. Interesting, the Sunday pages were now sold as furnished in mat form complete. These are cardboard molds that were sold to the newspapers, which then poured liquid lead into the molds to make the printing plates. If they were to print the strip in color they used four printing plates. One for red, one for yellow, one for blue and one for black.

Tabloid, half and third page

On 6th of August 1961 a third variant turn up and the Sunday page was now sold in three different formats: tabloid page, standard half page and standard third page. For the Mandrake Sundays this third page was made by dropping the first row of a half page (known as "throwaway" panels). Phil Davis had until now drawn in a portrait format similar to what a tabloid page looked like. When the third page format was introduced Davis changed his layout to the landscape format, so that his original art looked like the half page. Interesting, the size ratio of the original art is not the same as when the strips were printed in the newspapers. If you compare panels from an original drawing by Phil Davis, you see that in the tabloid version the panels are pressed together in height, but in the half and third pages the panels are stretched higher.

This new format also meant that there was room for a new logo for the half-page variant. The subtitled "By Lee Falk & Phil Davis" changed to "By Lee Falk" on June 27, 1965 - which is the first time we can see Fred Frederick's name on a Sunday strip. On the strip of June 7, 1970, Fred Fredericks start changing the panel size in his layout. This led to a new logo being created for the half-page variant.

Half and third page

Late 1972[footnotes 6] the Sunday page was sold only as standard half page and standard third page. For the Mandrake Sundays this half page was made by dropping the first column of a third page. Comparing an original drawing by Fred Fredericks, the third pages are closest to these. The panels in the half-page version are stretched higher.

In 1984 the Sunday page was sold as: standard third page, tabloid half page and the small quarter half page. The quarter half page is the same as the third page, but only fills about two-thirds of the width of a newspaper page. The newspaper page could then have four strips in height, as well as room for something else in the remaining space.

The Phantom

Lee Falk's other comic strip, The Phantom had a slightly different development in size. Ray Moore and Wilson McCoy drew the Sunday pages in landscape format, close to the half page format in the newspapers. The KFS staff rearranged the panels to fit a tabloid format and added some extra ink to some of the panels. So, when the Phantom Sundays started in 1939 it was sold in two different format: standard half page and tabloid page. According to "Editor and Publisher" there also was a format to fit a full standard page in the years 1939 to 1942.

By 1943 it was sold as: tabloid page, standard half and third page. The panels are almost identical at the tabliod and half page variants. The third pages (earliest known is from May 2, 1943) are cut in the lower part to make them lower in height, and there are some extra ink on the sides of individual panels to make them wider.

By 1946 there are only standard half and third pages, adding a tabloid page again in 1948. (was there a tabloid vesion from August 4, 1946 to April 4, 1948 ?)

A fourth variant turned up in 1966, the small quarter half page. Then a fifth variant in 1971, the tabloid half page.

Final product to be sold to the newspapers

As shown above, only some variants of the dayily strips before 1954 were adjusted/trimmed in height. Otherwise, the original drawings (with the additions by KFS staff) were used in the further process. These processed strips by the KFS staff were then photographed and the negative was transferred to a zinc plate via an etching process. This zinc plate became a master for making molds that could be sent to the newspapers.


A mat (also known as a flong) is is a mold made of a soft cardboard-like substance. The syndicate made these so that the newspapers could pour liquid lead into them and make their own printing plates. The newspapers received these flonges once a week.

KFS proof sheets

These proof sheets came with the mats, as a check on how the strips should look after the newspapers had made their printing plates. It was probably these sheets that were used as a basis when the strips later were adapted for printing in comic books.


  • All the products that were made in the process of printing the strips in the newspapers, as well as the newspapers themselves, were counted as fresh produce. Very few products exist today: only a few original drawings, a few molds, a few printing plates, etc.
  1. 9 columns at pages with small ads
  2. the five column variant existed in January 1935
  3. the four column variant existed in April 1942
  4. Arnold, Edmund C, "Newspaper layout and typography" (New York : Harper & Row), 1981, p 7.
  5. The size is stated slightly differently in relation to which sources one uses. This article takes the starting point in sizes mentioned in Andy Madura's Comics & Paper Collectibles
  6. the last known tabloid page is from October 29, 1972
  7. *picture from Stripper's Guide
  8. *picture from PhantomRayMoore


See also