The Ode: Little Orphan Annie (1924 - 2010)

At the height of her popularity, she was a global cross-platform brand, but the comic about a plucky orphan couldn’t avoid the hard-knock life.

Little Orphan Annie began her life on Aug. 5, 1924, as the star of a daily newspaper comic strip distributed by the Chicago Tribune Syndicate. Created by cartoonist Harold Gray, the young waif was noted for her curly red hair, red dress, blank circular eyes and frequent exclamations of “Leapin’ lizards!” Annie’s companions included her dog, Sandy, Oliver (Daddy) Warbucks, the self-made millionaire who adopted Annie from the orphanage, and Warbucks’s three menservants: Punjab, an eight-foot-tall Indian; the Asp, an East Asian with mystical powers; and Mr. Am, a mysterious figure whom the strip sometimes suggested was God.

Aimed originally at children, by the 1930s Little Orphan Annie had morphed into a serialized action-adventure, along the lines of other popular crime strips of the day such as Dick Tracy. Although Annie and Daddy Warbucks would be separated many times over the years—Annie was prone to being kidnapped—they were always reunited in the end. As the Second World War approached, Gray became one of the first newspaper cartoonists to inject politics into his strip. The cartoonist often used Warbucks—who believed in an honest day’s wage for an honest day’s work—as a mouthpiece for his own conservative/libertarian views, with stories targeting communism, labour unions and even U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Annie’s most noted, and controversial, storyline had Gray kill off Warbucks, only to resurrect him after the death of FDR, crediting his miraculous rebirth to a vaguely defined change in “climate.”

Annie’s popularity led to numerous spinoffs, beginning in 1930 with a radio show that ran for 13 years, and included two early film adaptations, in 1932 and 1938. In 1977, Annie’s story was adapted into a Broadway musical, running for more than 2,000 performances over the next five years (at one point featuring a young Sarah Jessica Parker in the lead), and spawning the popular songs “Tomorrow” and “It’s the Hard Knock Life.” The musical Annie was adapted into another motion picture in 1982, starring Albert Finney, Carol Burnett and Bernadette Peters, and led to a new influx of merchandise, which over the years included books, dolls, toys and clothing. It also led to numerous parodies, most notably Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder’s highly sexualized comic Little Annie Fanny, which ran in Playboy from 1962 to 1988.

The Little Orphan Annie strip continued under new artists following Gray’s death in 1968, but its popularity declined over time, and in 1974 the syndicate began running classic strips in place of new stories. The success of the Broadway show led the return of fresh newspaper adventures in 1979, but Annie’s popularity eventually waned once again. More recent artists attempted to update Annie’s look, with new hair and new clothes, but nothing could change the fact that serialized adventure strips were falling out of public favour. Once appearing in hundreds of papers, fewer than 20 carried the strip by the time Tribune Media Services announced Annie would end on June 13. The final instalment stayed true to Gray’s rule that Annie’s story should never reach a happy ending: while being held by Mexican drug dealers, Annie is kidnapped by her own rescuer. Meanwhile, Warbucks grieves the loss of his adopted daughter, presuming her dead in Guatemala. The last panel contains the line: “And this is where we leave our Annie. For now—.”

Tribune promises Annie will live on in “new channels,” such as graphic novels, but considering that the stage play has been the only financially viable Annie brand for some time (an updated version is slated to return to Broadway in 2012), this marks the final chapter of the little orphan’s waning brand power, if not her status as cultural icon.