Boy Wonder: Tailspin Tommy’s Machine Romance

“Boy!! That’s the life for me. Gosh…” The first of the major aviation-themed strips, Tailspin Tommy (1928-1942) embodied many of the essential qualities of the genre. From its start, the strip had an infectious, boyish wonder…about the air, about technology, about modern progress itself. Like most in the category, it was drawn by a pilot and flying enthusiast (Hal Forrest) in a rough style that fetishized planes and flight images yet fell flat in depicting characters and earthbound life.

But, Gee Willikers, for all of its failings, Tailspin Tommy was as earnest a celebration of aviation as an American boy or girl of the 1920s and 30s could want. Written until 1933 by a press agent and former journalist Glenn Chaffin and drawn by WWI flyer and former barnstorm pilot Forrest, it was imagined by the Bell Syndicate as a direct response to Charles Lindbergh’s heroic transatlantic solo flight of 1927.

Most of the aviation strips were aimed at a younger audience, especially boys, and innocent wonder with the romance of flight was fundamental to the genre. We meet Tommy Tompkins as a gosh-golly farm boy in “Littletown” fixated on the Air Mail pilots that soar overhead. When a broken oil line downs one of these pilots and Tommy repairs his engine, the boy’s path is set. Tailspin Tommy drips with wholesomeness. Chaffin frames aviation as an emblem of modern change, the encroaching machine age and big city ways. The strip appeals to and argues with the small town skepticism over Tommy’s dreams of flight, and even looks to the local deacon to ratify the boy’s ambition and modern change itself. “Thing is, we’re moving into a new age — Aviation —and you fellers better get aboard the flying band wagon – or be back numbers.”

To be sure, the strip’s wide-eyed, aw-shucks tone was a bit of a condescending put on. The seasoned LA-based ex-journalist Chaffin was no hayseed. His caricature of small town America as well-meaning but backward feels like an urbanite’s patronizing vision of what Tommy himself describes as “this slow burg.” And yet the early strip successfully exhudes a boyish wonder and sense of discovery that was different from the more jaded, contentious tone of domestic satires like The Gumps, Moon Mullins, let alone darker Bungle Family.

Curiously, the aviation genre gave several female characters a more heroic role than elsewhere in pop culture. The first adventure heroine, Connie, starts her comic strip career as a flyer. Later in the 1930s, Russell Keaton introduced Flyin’ Jenny. And here in Tailspin Tommy, circa 1930, major character Betty is not only an able flyer but she openly mocks the timidity of a male sophisticate.

In fact, the marriage of man and machine, individual with technology, traditional individualist values with modernity itself was the larger cultural mythology at work in many of these aviation strips. The fantasy was not just about flight and the freedom of being airborne. The lone man at the stick dramatized a powerful counter-mythology for an age where industrialization was removing workmen from craft, when the machine was as much dehumanizing as empowering citizens. The aviation strips reconfigured this new reality as man in control of machines, rather than the other way around. While usually poor at depicting people and scenery, aviation artists were adept at romanticizing the technology, making modern planes perform aerial ballet. And not coincidentally, most of these strips took place across the great American rural landscape rather than the modern city. The pilots and inevitably colorful “grease monkey” sidekicks, were heartland innocents entranced equally by flight technology and airborne freedom. This was the new machine, even modernity itself, married to folksy values. In the larger cultural mythology of the aviation genre, the dangers of the machine age to our very humanity were reimagined as tools of individualism, romance, freedom.

One thought on “Boy Wonder: Tailspin Tommy’s Machine Romance

  1. Pingback: Skyroads: Flying As Fetish – Panels & Prose

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