Frank Godwin’s 1927-1941 adventure strip Connie should have been among the standout strips of its day on a number of counts. While its launch as a Sunday light-hearted take on the modern working gal (a la Tillie the Toiler, Ella Cinders), its extension to a daily in 1929 turned the lithe and stylish Connie Kurridge (yes, “Kurridge”) into one of the first comic strip adventuress. While others consider her the pioneering female adventure character, it seems to me Harold Grey’s Little Orphan Anniehad already been working this genre since 1924. Still, Connie was the first woman in strips to take on the typical tropes of pulp drama – globe-hopping, eccentric villainy, world-shattering consequences. She employed a combination of savvy, courage, physical daring and comely attraction to both overcome and disarm her antagonists. And the scene-shifting was impressive. In the first years of the strip she moves from being an aviator to reporter to charity worker and eventually in the 1930s as a white defender against the “Yellow Combine” when she time travels to 2349 AD.
One of the reasons the Connie strip never enjoyed the comprehensive distribution of better-remembered adventures is that Frank Godwin was more of an artist than a convincing storyteller. From the premiere dailies in 1929 (below) it is obvious that Godwin’s pedestrian plotting, use of unlikely circumstance and coincidence, and non-existent characterization weighed the strip down. Most of the early encounters with conniving relatives (bent on stealing Connie’s inheritance), terrorists and smugglers, even a run of disenchanted (or mad) scientists failed to engage this reader at least.
But as a visual treat, Frank Godwin’s illustrative line work, composition and figure modeling exceeded anything else on the cmics page during much of Connie’s run. Godwin was a noted magazine artist at the time, shared a studio with the legendary James Montgomery Flagg, and clearly channeled both Flagg’s and Charles Henry Gibson’s scratchy magazine-style realism. formally trained, this son of The Washington Star’s city editor was deeply entrenched in the traditions of print journalism and art.Connie is notable in bringing to the comic strip a more polished, realistic style that jumped right out of the spot illustrations from the magazine world. The four panels from an early daily below almost serve as a portfolio of the range Godwin brought to the strip game. He had that illustrators sense of freezing the moment that communicated just the right mood in the story, rather than simply visualizing action. The first three panels whisper Connie’s curiosity and suspense, giving the final panel reveal all the more impact. On a technical basis, Godwin’s respect for light sources, shadowing and composition are obvious. The inverted chiaroscuro in the third panel is gorgeous and even abstract in the way Godwin blows out the light source from below.
Godwin excelled at expression, and especially posing. His characters registered emotion in their positioning, postures, lilt of head. These talents made for an intimate strip[ in these early years, where the exchanges and tension between characters made the strip more interesting perhaps than the storylines themselves. There was a gentle sort of realism to Godwin’s style. In its first years, he married an etching style of magazine work with some of the cartoonishness of the strip. His women were lankier and heavy-headed than nature might allow. Facial characteristics often emerge from just a few lines of ink. He does a lot with a little.
But Godwin really impresses when he embraces some of the pulp sci-fi and fantasy tropes of the 1930s. Connie’s adventures underwater, across time and into lost worlds seemed to ignite Godwin’s surreal sensibilities. Godwin had a penchant for misanthropic and misunderstood scientists, including the inventor of an invisibility machine, mutant crustaceans that can better feed the world, and time travel devices. The seascapes and creeping amphibian creatures are deliciously ethereal. the giant mushroom jungle sequence uses the scale of the shrooms as well as the confines of the frame to make us feel as lost as Connie.
The few profiles of Godwin and Connie often mention a stretch of the strip in the early 1930s that engage the Great Depression head on. I have not been able to locate any examples of Connie in this period, but according to reports she took on the role of a charity worker who ministered to those hit worst by the national crisis. By 1936, however, Godwin was primed to escape the domestic world and have his heroine time travel several centuries into a future world government led by women. Clearly working in a sci-fi sub-genre that included Buck Rogers in strips and Things to Come in film, Godwin envisions a radically reoriented social structure that accompanies technological advances in the far future. When the one world government of 2436 is assaulted by the apparently perennial threat of Asian invasion, Connie has to teach the future the lost art of warfare. Curiously, notably, this vision of a post-tribal unified world government is still decidedly white, xenophobic and racist. Primitive politics aside, Godwin’s otherwise sketchy style snaps into industrial precision in these futurescapes of high-tech. He seems to drop the hatch-work, illustrative look for a thinner, sharp line of technical drawing.
Despite the simplified style of Connie’s futuristic episodes, Godwin certainly did not abandon his magazine illustration roots. In fact, after Connie folded in the early 1940s, Godwin took another stab at newspaper comics with Rusty Riley (1948-1959). This achingly folksy nostalgic look at small town boyhood cranked the old-time magazine illustration style up to eleven. While others in the 1950s deployed pin-sharp photo-realism, Godwin’s dense hatch-lines and doe-eyed children must have seemed like a comfy cozy country quilt in the midst of Rip Kirby, Juliet Jones and Big Jim Bolt. While the strip was scripted by Rod Reed, Rusty Rile could not survive the death of its artist in 1959.
Are you familiar with “Cherry Sundae” a comic strip that ran in many small town newspapers from 1946 to 1949? Cherry was a fiery redhead who worked as a car hop in a small Texas town. She was pursued by a blond ex-GI and a dark-haired rich dilettante. Yes, it was an inverted “Archie” Cherry lives with her only relative, her wheelchair bound grandfather. Gramps wears a ten-gallon hat and is pure Texas corn. The strip was issued by A&M Advertising, a Texas ad firm and ran in soap opera format one panel a week, usually sponsored by a local business such as a dairy or garage as a form of product placement. I just discovered it recently and it is worth a look. There were lots of comics that ran in small markets. Many of these strips and their history remain undiscovered.