Toy ray guns and spaceships, cereal premiums, and radio shows spun off from Buck Rogers’ phenomenal popularity in the 1930s. The property was tailor made for merchandising and licensing, of course. Gadgetry was the strip’s core appeal. A number of comic strip’s created kid clubs around their heroes. Dick Tracy had his Detectives Club, and later the famous Crimestoppers. Little Orphan Annie’s radio show had its own Secret Society with a toy decoding device for over-air messages (famously depicted in the film A Christmas Story), and the strip enlisted her fans into Junior Commandos during World War II. In addition to servicing fans, keeping audiences engaged, these clubs were also early examples of marketing data collection, See for instance Buck Rogers’ Space Scouts application above. While some of the data inputs were tongue in cheek, of course, club applications (“previous rocket ship experience”?), the club members promotions worked much like sweepstakes for other consumer product manufacturers, a way of getting first part data on their audience.
One of the oddest cultural responses to the Great Depression of the 1930s was American pop culture’s fixation with monarchy, especially as a setting for comedy and satire. The non-comedic pulp-ish adventure into pre-modern civilization was everywhere, of course. From Tarzan and Jungle Jim, to The Phantom, Prince Valiant and even Terry and the Pirates, Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy and Flash Gordon, the connection is obvious. In a ways absent from mainstream American culture in the 1900-1930 span, Americans were fixated on pre-modern, anti-modern, prehistoric and fable-like alternative worlds.
On March 12, 1951, Hank Ketcham’s Dennis the Menace premiered. Ketcham’s artistry only looked effortless. In fact, every aspect of the strip was thought through and expressive of the strip’s deeper joys. I wrote about this early last year, but resurfacing it for Dennis’s birthday. And here is a bit of 1950s gender studies, via Dennis.
For all of their international popularity, I confess I could never warm up to Lee Falk’s proto-superheroes, Mandrake the Magician and The Phantom. Of course, historically they were significant mainly for introducing the idea of the ridiculously costumed adventure hero to mass audiences, paving the way for the juvenilia that defined comic books through much of WWII and then again after the early 1950s comics scare. And Falk’s creations remain among the most recognizable comic strip characters of all time. Therre is not getting around their sheer iconic import. And yet, I myself never found Falk’s storylines especially compelling or tense, nor his villains daunting. His early defining artists, Phil Davis on Mandrake and Ray Moore on Phantom become merely competent if anodyne figure artists, and their use of panel progression and framing is, again, meh.
On July 24, 1962, the successful Rocky and Bullwinkle Show made its way onto the newspaper comics pages. Written and drawn by Al Kilgore, who had worked on the comic book iterations of the successful TV cartoon series, and some scripts for the show itself, it was a rare instance of faithfully translating popular cartoons to daily print. From this first strip, Kilgore embodied the wry self-consciousness of the Jay Ward Production. the inaugural story “Big Bomb” carried the same absurdist satirical tone and topicality of the TV series.
Hugh Hefner was famously supportive of cartooning in the pages of Playbpy for decades, in part because he was a frustrated artist himself. Samples of his own attempts at single panel humor surface from time to time in biographies of the legendary publisher and the history of his landmark magazine. Less well-known is that in 1951 and prior to his meteoric Playboy fame he published a collection of his own comic work focused on the theme of his beloved Chicago., That Toddlin’ Town: A Rowdy Burlesque of Chicago Manners and Morals. This was very much an insiders’ cartoon revue, as Hef broke the volume into Chi-town’s famous districts and infamous institutions like The Loop. Michigan Avenue, Bug House Square, North Clark Street, The El, and the activities for which they were famous: strip bars, b-girls, the city’s multiple newspapers, soapbox orators.