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.

Continue reading

Like a Comet: Frazetta Races In

On Jan. 28, 1952, Frank Frazetta’s breathtaking talent for dramatically charged action and erotic, muscular figure drawing finally made its way into newspapers with one of the most gorgeous, if short-lived, strips of the decade, Johnny Comet. The eponymous adventure was set in the racing world, a theme that should have tapped naturally into the car customization craze of the 50s. It was ceonceived and distributed by the McNaught Syndicate, ghost-written by Earl Baldwin, but co-credited to Frazetta and 1925 Indianapolis 500 winner Peter DePaolo who served more as an advisor and was attached to the project to lend an air of authenticity. Hobbled perhaps by uninspired scripting, Johnny Comet failed to catch on despite its standout visual poetry.

Continue reading

Secret Agent X-9: Watching Alex Raymond Mature

Nearly 90 years ago yesterday Jan. 22 1934, the collaboration between Dashiell Hammett and Alex Raymond launched as Secret Agent X-9. Designed to respond to Dick Tracy’s massive success with the literary cachet of Hammett and the rising talent of Raymond, X-9 looked better on paper perhaps than it did, well, on the actual page. The famous innovator of the hard-boiled style was at the tail end of his productive output and clearly did not give his best effort. After crafting just a few very uneven scenarios, Dash got canned.

Continue reading

Dick Tracy Battles The JDs: Flattop Jr. and Joe Period

Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy was created in the 1930s as a response to the romanticization of gangsters and declining respect for law enforcement. And throughout its run under the notoriously conservative artist made no secret of his disdain for many modern trends. In the 1950s when mania around “juvenile delinquency” dominated popular culture, Gould added to his famous rogues gallery a few of these teen terrorists. Most notable for its outright weirdness (even for Gould) are the 1956 episodes spanning Joe Period and Flattop, Jr., the son of one of Tracy’s most famous nemeses of the prior decade.

Continue reading

Napoleon: The Gentle Art of Everyday-ness

Clifford McBride’s portrait of the affable, accident-prone and corpulent Uncle Elby and his puckish oversized dog Napoleon is one of those great American comic strips that are about nothing. There is no adventure or much of an ongoing storyline to the Napoleon and Uncle Elby strip. Nor are there gags, verbal or physical, really. It is more a strip about everyday mishaps. Uncle Elby is proud of his new white suit, which an affectionate Napoleon meets at the the front door with muddy paws. Constructing a simple tent results in a tangled mess. Napoleon chases a fleeing rabbit, chicken,  cat or whatnot (it’s a frequent theme), only to be chased by his prey in the end. Elby mows over one of his dog’s hidden bones, which conks him on the bean. Elby gets out of his car to open the garage door only to have it slam shut before he can drive through.

No, really, the action in the Napoleon strip is that banal and trifling…relentlessly…and apparently by design.

Continue reading

Premiere Panels: Mandrake Materializes…Eventually

It took a full week of strips for the eponymous hero of Lee Falk’s Mandrake the Magician strip to make his grand entrance. June 11, 1934 was the first strip, which evokes some of the feel of a classic mystery wind-up. But on June 15, in what has to stand as one of the most unambiguously racist intros in pop culture history, Mandrake’s “servant” Lothar heralds the coming of his “master.” One doesn’t even know where to start here. Falk’s full bore colonialism is more fully and relentlessly explored in his later The Phantom series whose origin we covered here and whose fetishes we covered here.

For all of its weaknesses, Mandrake remains important both to comic strip and comic book history in that his is the first strip to move towards a super-powered hero. Mandrake’s “magic” is only nominally super-natural, in that it is based on the power of suggestion and influence over others’ minds. But it precedes the appearance of Superman by 5 years and aldo nods towards costumed heroism, which would be more fully introduced in Falk’s The Phantom.