“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
Connie and Frank Godwin’s Gentle Realism
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.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
When Superman Was Woke?
Everyone is familiar with Clark Kent’s (aka Superman) origin story. Orphaned by cosmic circumstance, rocketed to Earth, fostered by the midwestern Kents, superpowered by our planet’s physics, and taking on his secret identity as the milquetoast reporter are a story etched in modern American pop mythology. Less attention has been paid to his political roots. Every comic strip in the adventure genre especially has an identifiable political slant most obviously in its choices of wrongs to right and the villains it constructs. The famously conservative Chester Gould in Dick Tracy and populist Harold Gray in Little Orphan Annie were the most overt. Less obvious was the implicit imperialist sensibilities implicit in Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates and most of the adventure pulps that characterized non-Western cultures as at best quaintly primitive or at worst inherently brutal.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
Chester Riley, Al Capp, and Dr. Wertham: The Great Comics Crisis of…1948?
Conventional wisdom holds that the infamous moral panic around crime and horror comics bloomed in 1953 with the popularization of Frederic Wertham’s dubious “research” in general magazines and the formation of Senate subcommittee on juvenile delinquency. But the proliferation of Wertham’s landmark Seduction of the Innocent (1954) diatribe against comics, and the haranguing of Senators Kefauver and Hendrickson was just the culmination of a controversy that had accompanied the rise of more adult and violent comic books throughout the 1940s. Parents worried about the bullets and blood that flew across the color pages of blockbuster titles like Crime Does Not Pay and its many imitators long before the EC titles and their followers horrified parents and legislators even more.Continue reading