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Hey kids, it’s comics education time! You’ve probably seen me refer to “throwaway panels” when I tackle some of the Sunday strips, and it may be that you don’t know what this means! Essentially, most Sunday strips are shipped to newspapers with an extra row of panels at the top, which some (many, in these days of shrinking budgets) papers cut off so that they can fit more comics into a limited space; as a result, the strip as a whole must be able to stand without these panels. There are varying strategies for dealing with the narrative problem thus raised.

Panels from Dennis the Menace, 6/14/09

For instance, some strips use them to present little mini-episodes that stand somewhat apart from the main action. A good example is today’s Dennis the Menace, where we learn that Mr. Wilson would like nothing better than to spray his irritating neighbor with deadly poison.

Panels from Curtis, 6/14/09

Another is today’s Curtis, where we discover that Gunther is sweeping the floor to his barbershop! Ha ha! That Gunther! What won’t he do?

Mary Worth, 6/14/09

Sometimes the throwaway panels change the focus of the strip. For instance, without the top row of panels in today’s Mary Worth, we’d probably manage to ignore those pinkish briquettes that Mary and Toby are gobbling up by the fistful. But with those panels in place, we’re forced to confront the fact that they’re genuine Mary Worth-prepared “salmon squares,” and must kill a little bit of our souls trying to figure out what, exactly, a “salmon square” might be. Has Mary taken moist, delicious, tender salmon and mercilessly baked it until it’s a series of hard, crispy pucks that are easy to pick up without getting your hands oily, and that taste like ashes in your mouth? Is the salmon inside some kind of pink pastry shell, resulting in an awful salmon-flavored Pop-Tart? Was this so-called “new recipe” written on parchment in human blood in the bowels of hell by Satan himself? Probably!

Marvin, 6/14/09

Then there are throwaway panels that alter the entire thrust of the strip. For instance, without the top row of panels, this strip could be summarized as “babies love cookies, and grandmas love giving cookies to babies”; but with them, the message is more “babies and dogs are an awful lot alike.”

Mark Trail, 6/14/09

And sometimes the throaway panels can accommodate differing levels of ambient prudishness across various media markets. Would a drawing of a comely lass in a bikini result in angry letters from comics readers in your paper’s distribution area? Just remove the top row et voilà! You’ll still get a helpful text wall on avoiding rip currents, and a terrifying close up of our naive swimmer dying in terror. That seagull in the final panel doesn’t seem to be helping matters; in fact, I’m guessing that he will soon be dive-bombing our hapless swimmer, so that she’ll drown more quickly and fatten up the fishes that he’ll eat later. Nature is cruel!

Funky Winkerbean, 6/14/09

Unrelated to throwaway panels, but related to dying in terror: does this strip finally settle the “What happened to Wally” question? This being Funky Winkerbean, we should have guessed that he died, probably in terror.

I was going to make a crack about how Becky conveniently arranged the parade to conclude at the cemetery where Wally’s grave was, but in all likelihood in the world of Funky Winkerbean it’s impossible to plan a parade — indeed, it’s impossible to plan a trip of any significant distance — that doesn’t end up at a graveyard.