JOHN DARLINGMedium: Newspaper comics
Distributed by: North America Syndicate
First Appeared: 1979
Creator: Tom Batiuk
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significant creative outlet for any of comics' great geniuses. It has only one real claim to fame — but that one's a doozy! On August 3, 1991, the day before the strip ended, its title character was murdered on-stage, in full view of the readers.
Title characters of comics had been murdered before. The Comet went out in a blaze of gunfire, for example, tho a couple of decades later the publisher relented, and he got better. And a villain blew up The Doom Patrol in the final issue of their DC comic book; but there, readers were given to understand that if the publisher became convinced the comic could be resurrected, sales-wise, then the characters would be resurrected as well. John Darling was intended to stay dead, and did.
The John Darling character was created by Tom Batiuk (rhymes with "attic"), best known for Funky Winkerbean, which he created, writes and draws. Darling was originally a walk-on character in the Winkerbean strip, an appallingly shallow, thoroughly self-absorbed talk show host. He made a big hit with readers, and was brought back over and over. He eventually became the first of two Winkerbean characters (the other being Ed Crankshaft) spun off into strips of their own. Darling's began March 25, 1979. Given the character's line of work, naturally, it was replete with caricatures of real-life media personalities — in fact, so media-saturated was the strip, many papers carried it on the TV page instead of with the rest of the comics.
Batiuk wrote John Darling, and it was originally illustrated by Tom Armstrong. In 1985, Armstrong left to devote his full attention to his own strip, Marvin, which he'd created in 1982; and the art on Darling was taken over by Gerry Shamway. When the Darling strip was canceled (crowded off most papers' TV page by the 1980s explosion of channels that required listing), Armstrong returned to draw its final three weeks — including, of course, the character's shooting death.
Batiuk had two reasons for closing the strip as he did. First, he wanted a boffo ending, one that people would talk about and remember. He certainly achieved that. Second, he was having a contract dispute with North America Syndicate (Sally Forth, Mark Trail), which distributed the strip, over ownership of the character, and made a decision to leave John Darling unusable.
And yet, the character was used one more time. In 1997, long after the dispute had been resolved in Batiuk's favor, he had Les Moore, a major Funky Winkerbean character, write a book about Darling's murder — and, in the process, solve it. To write that story, Batiuk had to solve the murder himself. He hadn't had any particular murderer in mind originally, but poring over the John Darling storyline, found enough clues to nail the felon.
Other than the fact that, like mortals, he survives through his descendants (his daughter Jennifer is a regular character in Funky Winkerbean), that may well have been John Darling's last gasp as a viable character. Like Generalissimo Francisco Franco, he is still dead.