In the Air: Barney Baxter Flies With Style

Even comics aficionados barely recall the very popular aviation adventure strips of the late 1920s and 1930s, perhaps because, well, they just weren’t very memorable. Tailspin Tommy, Scorchy Smith, Smilin’ Jack, Flyin’ Jenny, and Skyroads, to name a few, were definitely of their time, tapping into the most romantic technology of early 20th Century – aviation. The wild tales of WWI air battles, the triumph of machine and human endurance in Charles Lindbergh’s solo crossing of the Atlantic, the mystery of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance fueled film, pulp magazines, and even popular science journals with an admixture of human spirit, adventure to far off lands and technical jargon that many audiences, especially boys, ate up. The strips captured that blend. Many of them were created by pilots who brought their love and knowledge of flight to the strips. Much of the art was unremarkable. Noel Sickles’ work on Scorchy Smith was a legendary exception, and Russell Keaton had a polished and breezy style in Flyin’ Jenny. For the most part, however, aviation cartoonists were more in love with the planes than their own characters, and they tended to focus effort and attention on the planes themselves.

Frank Miller, however, brought Barney Baxter in the Air (1935-1949) a special whimsy to the genre both in his characterizations and line work. From the Art Deco/Machine Age feel of his lettering to the rounded nature of his figures, everything about this strip feels sophisticated, considered, modern . His faces are comprised of a few deft dabs of ink. The upholstered texture of his people and objects are somewhere between big foot cartooning and classic adventure realism. And this allows him to bring his style to either extreme as it fits the scene. It reminds me of (or foreshadows) Rick Geary, whose style I also love. Miller is adept at using a variety of panel framings to keep the eye energized across the progression. His narrower close-up panels call out important moments of gesture or expression. And he has such a stylized way of rendering shadows in a pointillist style. It all adds up to a visual signature that light, witty, and yet functional as a vehicle for adventure. The feel is similar to Capp’s Li’l Abner.

His skills often came together in some truly creepy villains.

Miller lavishes attention and invention on his Sunday pages. He is breaking frame, manipulating panel shapes and sizes with the kind of energy we usually associate with McCay, King or Sterrett. The detail and color in his rocky backgrounds are just wonderful for establishing setting. He maneuvers our point of view radically from panel to panel to bring us into the scene by circling us around it. And just look at that open parachute as the visual centerpiece of the whole layout. If that isn’t an homage to McCay, I don’t know what is.

Frank Miller, obviously not the Frank Miller of later comic book fame, ran the strip throughout its 15 year span and until his premature death in 1949.

Fleshy Gordon: Alex Raymond’s Pop Erotica

Alex Raymond loved bodies. Male bodies, female bodies, animal and alien bodies. He couldn’t wait to disrobe them, pop on loincloths or skin-hugging gossamer robes and bras, put them on show, flex their muscles. And this made his 1930s space opera Flash Gordon (1934) a masterpiece of subverted sexual energy. Two of the most famous satires of the great strip, Harvey Kurtzman’s MAD magazine parody, Flesh Garden (May, 1954) and the software porn cult classic Flesh Gordon (1974) got this about Raymond’s work. In many ways, Flash Gordon was laughable. Its dialogue and plotting were sub-literate. Its conceptions of aliens (Lionmen, Sharkmen, Powermen) pedestrian. Its conceptions of technology (Disolvo-Rays, Oxo-Liquifiers) paled beside even Buck Rogers. And its even sillier sexual politics (alien princesses pursuing the irresistible Flash and the forever jealous, swooning, fawning, nagging Dale Arden) were embarrassingly adolescent. And yet it was a fetishist’s delight, and certainly the most erotic mainstream comic strip of all time.

The special genius of Flash Gordon is Alex Raymond’s talent for visualizing primal urges and tired tropes with such detail, energy, operatic extravagance that they registered deeply with the viewer. His mastery of bodily form, facial expression and panel composition supercharged visually the familiar adolescent fantasies and fetishes that he and co-writer Don Moore lifted from pulp fiction magazines of the era. Xenophobia, hyper-masculinity, emasculation, dominatrices, bondage, miscegenation – all of the fodder of adventure pulp stories were dialed up to eleven by Raymond’s art.

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Wimpy Gives Popeye a Sissy Lesson

In early 20th Century theater and film, the “sissy” was the dreaded antithesis of two-fisted pulp hyper-masculinity, at best, and at worst was a stereotypical euphemism for what was unspoken in general culture, homosexuality. Wimpy, the dandyish, appetite-driven counterpoint to Popeye’s principled violence, is of course Popeye’s best tutor for all things “sissy.” To make this sexual dynamic even weirder we have Popeye’s Pappy bewildered by his prancing progeny. It reads like an unintended burlesque of Popeye “coming out”. Per a previous post, These dailies precede Popeye deceiving the underground demons to come up and fight.

It is important to note that this gender-bending sequence was followed immediately by another adventure cycle involving Popeye getting the crap beaten out of him in a land of highly muscled women. And this is all happening right after E.C. Segar’s death in October 1938. The strip was being continued unsigned by assistants for the time being.

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    Flash Gordon (June 16, 1935).
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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.

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