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.

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Best Books of 2022: TOPS – When the Comics Tried Adulting

While this blog focuses mainly on the American comic strip in the first half of the last century, we have a soft spot here for comic books of the pre-code, pre-superhero era. For a brief shining moment after World War II, the comic book medium tried in vain to lurch into adulthood. Romance and crime genres especially aimed for older audiences. And the trend peaked with the horror, suspense and sci-fi comics of EC. The backlash was severe. Political hearings threatened government regulation, which the industry pre-empted with a self-censoring “Comics Code” that effectively consigned the American comic book to decades of the arrested adolescence of the superhero genre.

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Doc Hero: Rex Morgan, M.D. Is Here to Help

Remember when doctors were iconic pillars of respectability and authority in pop culture? Before alternative medicine? Before CDC missteps? Before drug company bribery? Before all expertise became “elitist conspiracy?” Remember Dr. Kildare? Ben Casey? Marcus Welby? And how about the most enduring of them all, Rex Morgan, M.D.? Launched on March 10, 1948, the doctor-driven soap opera was the brainchild of a psychiatrist, Nicholas P. Dallis, who wrote under the moniker Dal Curtis. His intent was to create a doctor hero who ministered not only to broken bodies but to overall mental and moral health. Young Dr. Morgan, apparently not long out of medical school, moves to the small town of Glenbrook to take over the practice of the burg’s departed, beloved practitioner. The strip was very much part of the psychological turn in American pop culture after WWII. Morgan represented that new generation of more enlightened experts of all things both scientific and emotional.

But at the same time, Rex Morgan M.S. rightfully remains a monument of 1950s iconography. For many years under the hands of main artist Marvin Bradley and backgrounder John Edgington, the strip had the bland realist style of contemporary advertising illustration. Characters showed minimal expressiveness; environments were just as pristine and inexpressive; houses, cars, furniture were just as generic; and any cartoonishness was saved for the offbeat minor players and comic relief.

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Kurtzman Turns The Funnies Into The Sillies

As part of his general send-up of modern popular culture in the original MAD magazine, Harvey Kurtzman took special care with his satirical takes on famous American comic strips. Most often aided by the uncanny mimicry skills of Will Elder, who seemed able to channel any cartoonist’s style, it was clear that their hearts were really in these stories. Whether it was Manduck the Magician, Little Orphan Melvin or Prince Violent, these parodies were coming out of deep familiarity of having been raised on these strips. And Kurtzman always zeroed in on the inane in pop culture as his target.

Putting Manduck into a mind-bending duel with fellow mystic The Shadow was an inspired but typical Kurtzman assault on the shallow and phoney in pop culture conventions.

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Lance: Warren Tufts’ Beautiful…Strange America

Lance (1955-60) was Warren Tufts’ masterful exploration of mid-19th Century American expansion, and it remains among the most breathtaking uses of the newspaper comics medium in its history. Tufts, who had previously fictionalized the Gold Rush in his wonderful Casey Ruggles (1949-55), was a self-taught savant of realistic illustration and frontier history. Lance embodies some of the signature qualities of the American newspaper strip. Visually, and much like Winsor McCay, Cliff Sterrett, Frank King, Hal Foster and Alex Raymond before him, and scouted new ways of using the full-page Sunday format and especially color to evoke emotions and a sense of place. And like Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy, Percy Crosby’s Skippy and Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie, Tufts’ rendered a highly personal, idiosyncratic and often weird vision of America and humanity. Lance demonstrates how such individual and offbeat perspectives were still possible in the comic strip format, and could make this medium much different from other modern mass media that had become corporatized and collaborative.

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They Had Faces Then: Close-Ups, 50s Photo-Realism and the Psychological Turn

Stan Drake, The Heart of Juliet Jones

The turn to photo-realism in the adventure comics after WWII is well-documented and obvious in any review of the major strips. Alex Raymond’s Rip Kirby, Warren Tufts’ Casey Ruggles and Lance, Leonard Starr’s On Stage, Stan Drake’s Heart of Juliet Jones, John Cullen Murphy’s Big Ben Bolt are just some of the clearest examples. The stylistic foundation had already been set in the 1930s, of course by Noel Sickles (Scorchy Smith), Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates) and Hal Foster (Prince Valiant). They moved adventure strips away from the more expressionist modes of Gould and Gray, or the cartoonish remnants of Roy Crane (Wash Tubbs and Capt. Easy) or the sketchy illustrator style of a Frank Godwin (Connie). .But it is really in the post-war period that we see a clear ramping up of fine line visual detailing, naturalist figure modeling and movement, as well as full adoption of cinematic techniques.

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Rip Kirby Introduces the 1950s

In the first days of Alex “Flash Gordon” Raymond’s post-WWII detective adventure Rip Kirby, it was clear the master was going to redefine the look of comic strip adventure. Day two of the March 1946 launch story speaks volumes about the influence Raymond was going to have on a decade of 50’s adventure style. The panel progression here is so engaging. The first two panels are energized so that you can almost feel the weight of the murder victim slump into Kirby’s arms and instantly change valence of the scene. And that final close up communicates the deadly reality of the situation by bringing us right into the complex reaction to beauty and death. The photo-realism is here, as is the increasing influence of cinematic points of view, timing, and close-ups. And arguably, the next decade would also see in comic strip adventure a turn inwards, toward psychological realism, the emotional lives of characters, that accompanied the more photographic style of the art. All of these elements would be deployed in different ways by Stan Drake in the Heart of Juliet Jones, Leonard Starr in On Stage, Warren Tufts in Casey Ruggles and Lance and John Cullen Murphy in Big Ben Bolt.

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