Comics readers hear the phrase thrown around pretty often, but yesterday really was the end of an era: After 86 years of daily publication saw its circulation numbers dwindle down to less than 20 newspapers, the "Little Orphan Annie" comic strip came to an end.

And the ending is completely insane.

Seriously. Popular perception of the strip may be rooted in the rags-to-riches musical version that hit movie screens in 1982, but as early as the late '20s, "Annie" had shifted to focus on almost Dick Tracian levels of brutality and crime, a tradition the last team, Jay Maeder and Ted Slampyak, were keeping alive and well in the current stories. Did you know, for instance, that the last "Annie" storyline involved Annie getting embroiled in a plot to distribute fake passports to Mexican drug dealers, from whom she is "rescued" by an aging war criminal?

Of course you didn't. You weren't reading it. That's why it got canceled.It's a shame, too, because reading back through the archives to figure out the ending, I discovered that "Annie" was about as taut (if occasionally surreal) a thriller as one is likely to find on the newspaper comics page. But then you get to that ending.

For some background, here's what's happened up to now: After tumbling to the passport plot, Annie gets kidnapped by gangsters, because getting kidnapped by gangsters is pretty much what she does. Said gangsters are murderous enough to bludgeon a man to death right there underneath the Jumble...

I just love that Sandy's all "Yep. That's a dead body." That dog's had a crazy life.

...which doesn't give anyone much hope for Annie's chances of survival.

Things seem so hopeless, in fact, that the police spend a Sunday strip informing Daddy Warbucks that his adopted daughter has most likely been shot in the head execution style and fed to sharks. Really.

If the cancellation order had come down a week sooner, a gang of frenzied sharks circling Annie's waterlogged remains would've been the very last image of her, but instead, the story does go on for another week, where we learn that Annie wasn't killed, she was rescued from the gangsters by a renegade war criminal named The Butcher of the Balkans.

Thus, in the final strip, Annie has been kidnapped by a literal genocidal maniac, while Daddy Warbucks zones out, convinced that she has been murdered but unaware that she is still alive and in need of rescue:

And that's where it ends. Surely the creators had at least some warning that this was coming, but instead of wrapping the story up, they just cut it off right in the middle, and 86 years of stories end with Annie in South America being essentially pressganged into service to war criminal while Daddy Warbucks does his best impression of Kirk at the end of "Wrath of Khan." And just to put the icing on the depression cake, the very last panel is a vague promise of a resolution that is most likely never going to come.

Suddenly, "Funky Winkerbean" doesn't seem so dark.

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