As the creator of ‘The Katzenjammer Kids’, Rudolph Dirks can be considered as the father of the modern strip cartoon. Although he was not the first to use techniques such as sequential frames or speech bubbles, he is credited with popularising them and influencing their wider adoption.
Rudolph Dirks was born in Heide, Germany, on 26 February 1877. When Dirks was seven years old, his father Johannes, a woodcarver, settled the family in Chicago, Illinois. By 1894, he was producing cartoons for Judge and Life magazines, before moving to New York to join William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal in 1897. When Rudolph joined the Journal, the newspaper was in the midst of a fierce circulation war with Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World.
The New York World was running the hugely popular, full-colour Sunday feature ‘Down in Hogan’s Alley’, better known as ‘The Yellow Kid’, by Richard Felton Outcault, which had first appeared in 1895. Rudolph Dirks was charged with creating a cartoon to compete with the popularity of ‘The Yellow Kid’. Inspired by the strip ‘Max und Moritz’ by the German humourist Wilhelm Busch, he produced ‘The Katzenjammer Kids’, which first appeared in the New York Journal on 12 December 1897. He was assisted in producing the cartoon by his brother, Gus, before his suicide on 10 June 1902.
Rudolph Dirks continued to produce ‘The Katzenjammer Kids’ for the New York Journal until 1912, when he requested a year’s leave to tour Europe with his wife and devote himself to painting. This resulted in a clash with Hearst and a lengthy, high profile court battle over the rights to the cartoon strip. It was ruled that Dirks regained the right to draw his characters, but the use of the title remained the sole right of the newspaper. As a result, ‘The Katzenjammer Kids’ was taken over by Harold Knerr. Rudolph Dirks resumed the strip under the new title ‘Hans und Fritz’ in 1914, now working for the New York World. Soon, anti-German sentiment during the First World War prompted Dirks to again rename the strip to ‘The Captain and the Kids’.
Rudolph Dirks retired in 1958, with the production of the strip passing to his son and assistant, John Dirks. A self-taught artist, he devoted his later years to marine and landscape painting. He died in New York on 20 April 1968 at the age of ninety-one.