Skyroads: Flying As Fetish

After the fast success of Tailspin Tommy in 1928 from the Bell Syndicate, the John F. Dille company responded with Skyroads about five months after the syndicate introduced Buck Rogers. The otherwise forgettable strip is perhaps most notable as a stable for artists on more important projects.

Writer Lester J. Maitland and artist Dick Calkins were veteran airmen who invested Skyroads with the best and worst aspects of the genre. Caulkins, who also drew Buck Rogers, was no better a stylist here on the contemporary Earth than he was in Buck’s 25th Century. His stiff figures and uninspired composition were matched by Maitland’s disengaged, cliched storylines. The series had no persistent hero or cast, as the series moved across different casts and situations during its run. In the one existing reprint from 1929, Ace, Buck and Peggy fly into danger among an Amazonian tribe in a storyline that is cluttered with racial typing, perfunctory dialogue and no narrative grace. 

Skyroads was perhaps best consumed as a popular textbook on flight. The dissonance between the pair’s terrible storytelling skills and their love of the tech took unwittingly comic turns. In one sequence from their Amazon adventure, Peggy is fleeing primitive tribesmen on the ground, even offered up for sacrifice to their gods, while the strip cuts over to Ace and Buck chatting about the minutiae of flight dynamics. 

What the pair did have was a love of the art and science of flying itself, and it was here that Skyroads was a standout on the comics page. The adventures were punctuated by explanations of aviation jargon, which Maitland even compiled into a glossary he offered to mail readers who sent in a self-addressed stamped envelope. And Calkins peppered his panels with technical drawings of wing construction, aerodynamic principles and loving depictions of planes in flight. In the flashback sequence below one of the lead flyers recalls a WWI dogfight. As an artist, Calkins clearly was more comfortable when drawing airborne technology rather than people. Arguably, his Buck Rogers project was as much a sci-fi aviation strip, with its best artistic moments when depicting warring spaceships or futuristic gadgetry. Here, the dance of the war fighters turns technology into ballet, machines envisioned as poetic and responsive to human will, rather than rigid and inhuman.

One thought on “Skyroads: Flying As Fetish

  1. Once again, we see that quite adult topics can appear on the comics page as long as it is placed in an adventure/fantasy concept. What happened to Peggy’s clothes? That scene is almost a prelude to the later King Kong movie. Calkins liked to insert little cheeky bits like these. There was a sequence in Buck Rogers daily strip that several papers refused to run. In it, a scantily clad Wilma, who is on a reconnoiter mission in the emperor’s palace as a slave girl, has to vamp the big guy. She even climbs on his lap to do this! This was, apparently, the line Calkins crossed and had the papers bail on that strip. The “problem” apparently wasn’t the semi-nudity but the fact that the emperor was clearly implied to be Asian. “By all means, strip Wilma Derring down, but don’t you DARE imply miscegenation!” American morals at their finest!

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