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'Annie' comic strip is ending, but the redhead's fate uncertain

CHICAGO - Talk about a hard-knocks life: She has been jailed in North Korea, kidnapped repeatedly, accused of murder, trapped in a cave, roughed up by gangsters. And she's just a kid - more precisely, a red-haired girl named Annie.

CHICAGO - Talk about a hard-knocks life: She has been jailed in North Korea, kidnapped repeatedly, accused of murder, trapped in a cave, roughed up by gangsters. And she's just a kid - more precisely, a red-haired girl named Annie.

Over 86 years, the spunky (and forever young) orphan has endured hundreds of curly hair-raising adventures, not to mention homelessness, poverty and other Dickensian hardships. She's even survived the death of the man whose pen and imagination turned her into a comic-strip heroine.

Annie, the character, may be indomitable. But Annie, the comic strip, is not.

Facing a shifting media landscape - the closing or shrinking of newspapers, a dwindling audience for comic adventures and an explosion of new forms of entertainment - Tribune Media Services has determined there will be no more newspaper tomorrows for Annie.

After Sunday's strip, Annie, her father figure and frequent rescuer, Daddy Warbucks, and her beloved pooch, Sandy, will disappear from the funny pages. They will have a future, but for now, where that will be is unknown.

"Annie is not dying, she's moving into new channels," said Steve Tippie, vice president of licensing and new markets development at Tribune Media, which owns the license to the character. Annie, he said, has "huge awareness" and possibilities include graphic novels, film, TV, games - maybe even a home on a mobile phone.

No matter where she lands, it's clear there's still gold in that red mop of hair and those white, pupil-less orbs. Tribune Media continues to collect revenues from various productions of "Annie," the sunny musical that charmed Broadway more than 30 years ago - and is expected to return to the Great White Way in 2012.

"Annie is one of those iconic characters in American culture," Tippie said. "If you stop 10 people on the street, nine of them will drop down on one knee and start singing 'Tomorrow.' "

It was, in fact, the popularity of the musical that gave the strip a second life. Tribune Media revived the comic after the death of its creator, Harold Gray, who had used Annie as a megaphone for his conservative political views.

From its opposition to the New Deal in the '30s to its hard-line in the war on terror, the comic strip has never shied away from its beliefs.

"I always like to think of Annie as the Fox News Channel of the funny papers," said Jay Maeder, Annie's most recent writer. "It was a very political strip."

But even with timely story lines, public interest in newspaper-comic adventures faded decades ago. Fewer than 20 newspapers ran the strip at the end - which, by the way, leaves Annie's fate hanging as she remains in the clutches of a war criminal, the Butcher of the Balkans.

Still, Annie had one amazing run. And one of her creators thinks he knows why.

"The appeal of Annie is simply that she doesn't give up," said Ted Slampyak, the strip's artist for the last six years. "She always ends up in one scrape after another. She doesn't have a lot of resources but she has a lot of spirit, a lot of pluck. She has a lot of fight in her."

Being a girl - and one who'd occasionally deck an enemy with a mean left hook - also gave her a special cachet.

Annie was created by Gray, a farm boy from Kankakee, Ill., whose love of Dickens novels was reflected in his character's triumphs over greedy bankers and phony reformers with colorful names such as Phineas P. Pinchpenny and Mrs. Bleating Hart.

The comic strip debuted in 1924 when Americans still were watching silent movies, Prohibition was a reality and a home entertainment center meant a radio the size of an end table. Annie expanded to the airwaves during the '30s when families, looking for a respite from the Depression, tuned in to follow the exploits of a feisty girl who took guff from no one.

Annie quickly moved beyond newsprint and radio, blossoming into a multimedia star: Comic books, movies, a doll and board game in her name, celebrity endorser (Ovaltine, anyone?) with her own decoder ring, and later, her own U.S. postage stamp.

Annie was one of the first comics to use long-running narratives, unlike the episodic single gags that dominated the funny pages at the time, said Jeet Heer, who has written introductions to five volumes of Annie comic collections and is planning a biography of Gray.

At its peak, Annie appeared in hundreds of newspapers.

Shedid undergo a modest makeover over the years:

The "Little Orphan" was dropped in the late '70s. And she finally traded her red dress with the white collar for sneakers and jeans. But Annie remained a plainspoken girl - a favorite expression was "leapin' lizards!" - who preferred the company of working stiffs to those who put on airs.

In Gray's (and Annie's) view, Heer said, the enemies were "officious social workers and government bureaucrats, snooty do-gooders and busybody political reformers . . . know-it-all intellectuals and pointy-headed college professors."

After Harold Gray's death in 1968, others continued the strip. Then, for a few years, newspapers ran classics - reruns. When the musical came along, a new generation of fans was born.

In the last decade, Annie story lines have included problems at the border, illegal immigration, even Guantanamo.

And that, dear readers, is her predicament now.

She's been spirited away to Guatemala by her war-criminal captor. Warbucks is huddling with the FBI and Interpol but there aren't many clues.

Annie's captor said they're stuck with each other. Welcome to your new life, he said.

And there it ends.

Where and when will Annie resurface?

Stay tuned.