Most media, cultural and certainly women’s studies historians have long understood that the post-WWII era represented a twisted nadir for the representations of women in American popular culture. During wartime, women famously took on more prominent, responsible and even strenuous roles in the workforce than ever before. And once the war ended and the male troops returned, these same women upon whom the home front depended were explicitly urged by ever quarter of American society to surrender these gains for the sake of passing these jobs back to the traditional male breadwinners. There was nothing subtle to this process either. Many women were badgered back into domesticity, often accused of “stealing” livelihoods from returning veterans. Other aspects of popular culture like the the rise of the femme fatale trope in noir and crime fiction, the ditzy blonde bombshell, the irrational, imbalanced feminine figure in thriller genre – all helped undermine the legitimacy of women taking more powerful roles in the post-war “man’s world.”
This context makes the premise of the Twin Earths sci-fi strip all the more curious and fascinating. Running from the middle of 1952 to 1963 in dailies and 1953-1958 in a separate storyline in Sundays. When the overlooked strip is remembered at all, it is for some prescient gadgetry that anticipated later everyday tech. To be sure, the writing by comic book illustrator and editor Oskar Lebeck and drawn by comics veteran Al McWilliams was often leaden and unexciting. But Twin Earths was home to some genuinely intriguing and thoughtful futurism that echoed literary science fiction. And as I make my way through the strip’s early years, it is the basic premise of Twin Earths’ divergent social organizations that is most striking. The twin Earth (Terra) is a female-dominated society where a diminishing population of males is retained mainly as idle breeders. The Terran spy Vala infiltrates our earth to ensure this male-dominated planet is not developing its technology towards destructive ends. She pairs up with FBI agent Gary Verth to avoid Communist spies and assassins from her own host planet. The banter between the two, especially Vala’s accusations of masculine aggression (an early take on male “toxicity”?) is a remarkable standout at a cultural moment when most popular culture sought to diffuse, defeat and mock women aspiring to power.
By 1937, Harold Gray seemed to have fallen into an especially foul mood. It was several years into his nemesis F.D.R.’s “New Deal,” which Gray felt represented everything he and his “Little Orphan Annie” disdained: social uplift, misguided do-gooders, institutional authority. From the start, Gray was never shy about voicing his populist perspectives and what he saw as core agrarian values of self-reliance, individualism, and deep suspicion of government bureaucracy of all sorts. His chief scholar, Jeet Heer, has done a much better job than I can here outlining Gray’s vein of Populism and how it ran much deeper than knee-jerk reactionary conservatism. And I have argued in these posts how Gray’s cultural politics were grounded in familiar mid-western traditions and a tension between 19th Century values of “character” and 20th Century notions of “personality. But it is clear that in response to FDR and the popularity of the New Deal Gray got more radical and vocal about his views. And perhaps not coincidentally, the strip grew even darker in the later 1930s.
As Here argues in the introduction of the 7th volume of the Library of American Comics reprint series, Annie was always a gritty, street-smart tale, but Gray usually kept physical violence off-panel. Yet, as the strip approached its creative height in 1936-38, that violence started moving into frame. Heer argues that Gray likely was responding to world conflicts, a greater personal sense of mortality as well as competition from more action-oriented strips that dominated the 1930s. I think Gray may also just have been growing angrier and more resentful towards a culture from which he felt ever more alienated. Gray’s moral vision was always as as simple and plainspoken as his drawing style – venal villainy countered by saccharine sentimentality. But it is clear, Gray was getting darker and seeing the world in starker ways by 1936. In fact the lead-up to one of the most jarring bits of in-panel violence in Little Orphan Annie begins with a remarkable Sunday strip on Oct. 8, 1936 that maps the modern world as a perennial “jungle” of predators and good-hearted strivers. As Annie’s newfound friend and flower-seller Ginger, reflects, “But the rules are still jungle – the survival of the fightingest.”
In the coming weeks, Gray uses Ginger as his populist mouthpiece. Annie had always been a chatty strip to begin with, but in these months the moral bromides, punditry and snide asides crowded most panels. Gray clearly had a lot to get off of his chest…about the corruption of politicians and lawyers and their collusion with thugs…about the mixed motives of “uplifters”…about the productivity and generosity of earned wealth…the moral hazard of handouts and unearned wealth. Gray was not a simplistic or sentimental reactionary. He had relatively progressive racial views. And as he outlined through Ginger in these months, his sense of individualism was a principled rejection of the sociological generalizations he saw driving a lot of reformist uplift and welfare. His populist sociology rejects environment as determinative of behavior.
No one ever accused Harold Gray of subtlety. Annie was as much folk punditry as it was an adventure. But he was artful, albeit dogged, in creating opportunities for his avatars to voice another homily. A street fight triggers bromides on rising out of the “hard kindergarten” of the streets. Passersby making an offhanded comment on these city kids not getting a chance in life set up Ginger’s counter-argument about the dangers of unearned advantage. Meeting an old friend lets her reflect on the morality and generosity of earned wealth. And all of this in just three strips.
Gray’s wordiness can divert us from his considerable and evocative graphic skills. He visualizes his principles and arguments that are as clear and un-subtle as his ideology. The street scenes in the Oct. 26 strip above illustrate the teeming diversity, the danger, raw violence of the city as well as the individuality of the humanity he sees there. That third panel depicting the “rushing tide of life” expresses at once a suffocating crowdedness and individuation.
Gray’s visual voice was singular and somehow it succeeded in establishing his mixed view of humanity, society and the cosmos. His laudable human figures were usually solid, husky and well-planted. Annie herself has tree trunk legs that look and feel organically rooted in much the way his friend Chester Gould like to plant Dick Tracy in the frame. It is the visual embodiment of self-reliance and resilience. The infamous hollow eyes of Gray’s cast underscore how little he and many other daily cartoonists relied less on facial expression and more on words, composition and action in a frame to express feeling. Much like Frank King and Gasoline Alley, Annie visualized the plain spoken style of its creator.
While they were very different artists, to be sure, Gould, King and Gray had visual voices that helped define the worlds we were in for those three or four daily frames. That to me is one of the comic strips’ singular aesthetic qualities, to establish diverse and distinct fictional worlds through these signature styles. For Gray it took the shape of bulky, pillowy figures that lived in a 2D world of little forced perspective or even movement. Gray’s characteristic hatch work helped communicate a grimness to his worldview – the persistence of shadows. Arguably, he did not have the stylistic talent or range of many peers. King had a great sense of panel pacing and rhythm, a feel for place and landscapes, he used relentlessly. Gould leaned heavily on his penchant for muscular action, grotesque violence, forced perspective and those vast planes of inky blacks.
Gray flexed his style sparingly. But he was capable of great visual power. In the run up to the tragic violent death of flower lade Ginger, we get this gorgeous showcase of crosshatched planes, light-source, and cross-cut pace that feels like German Expressionist film.
The local gang of hoods target Ginger because she refuses to pay into their protection racket. Her graphic murder that comes days after the foreboding strip above is a rare instance of a Gray panel exploding in explicit violence.
It is probably best that Gray depicted violence so sparingly. He wasn’t very good at it. But this moment is of a piece with the months of the strip’s immersion in the modern city and its many musings on the modern “jungle.” And it embodied the emotional energy, perhaps even the anger and pessimism that seemed to drive what many comics historians regard as his creative peak in the storylines and characters in the last half of the 1930s.
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.
On Oct. 4, 1931 Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy launched with the strip above. To commemorate the birthday of my personal favorite strip of all time, I am gathering some of the pieces I have written around Dick Tracy over the last couple of years.
Even 30 years into one of the most successful runs in comic strip history, Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy continued to promote itself to new newspapers that still hadn’t syndicated the iconic hero. This ad ran in Editor & Publisher, the longtime trade bible for print periodical publications. Of course, this “man of stature” led the most grisly, violent and truly weird of all American comic strips. It was also one of the most compelling. For a gallery of gruesome villain deaths, see this earlier post. On the impaling of The Brow. On the general strangeness of Gould’s imagination. On Gould and Tracy’s conservatism.
Retribution was Chester Gould and Dick Tracy’s model for justice from the beginning. The strip started in 1931 literally as a revenge narrative. Standing over the murdered body of his fiancé Tess Trueheart’s father, civilian Tracy swears vengeance on the killers. He quickly joins the police force, but the themes of retribution and conviction by poetic justice remained a hallmark of the strip across four and a half decade run. From the beginning Chester Gould unapologetically crossed the lines of good taste. By the late 1930s in criminals like The Mole, B.B. Eyes, Flattop, Pruneface and the like, Gould started using outward disfigurement as expressive of inner villainy. And the level of explicit violence and even torture in Dick Tracy was unlike anything else on the comics page, or elsewhere in pop culture for that matter.
The revenge motif was baked into the strip’s moral universe. Tracy villains didn’t just need to be sought, caught and jailed. They needed to be hounded and often tortured along the way. Many of Tracy’s prey ended up behind bars, but just as often they met poetically just ends. Gould turned the grisly, fitting deaths of villains into his own special kind of art. Here are some examples from the first two decades of the strip that highlight Gould’s dark talent for retributive justice and capital punishment Dick Tracy style. At these climactic moments we see most clearly the visual, moral and often bizarre world,
Final Curtain for Whip Chute – 1939
Subtlety was not in Chester Gould’s quiver. Here he triple underlines his irony.
B-B Eyes Gets Dumped – 1942
More than anything, Gould loved to kill and humiliate Tracy villains in slo-mo. Here, B-B Eyes hides in a garbage barge in the final leg of a desperate flight from justice, only to get dumped, trapped and drowned. Gould had a special talent for using the panel. framing and zoom techniques to communicate feeling through his use of space. His signature tight shots on dead villains often conveyed the loneliness and claustrophobia of death itself.
Flattop Gets Spiked – 1944
In 1944, Gould concocted two of his most venal villains. Flattop was simply psychopathic as a hit man, and he would be followed by The Brow, who was sadistic and a spy. Hiding beneath a ship being constructed, Flattop gets hung up on protruding spikes, leading to another close-up of deserving death.
The Brow Is Killed By Patriotism – 1944
Far and away the most inventive and stomach-turning death in the first decades of Dick Tracy was the impaling of The Brow. I covered this in greater detail and with more context elsewhere. But here again is the wartime spy getting impaled on the flagpole commemorating the city’s war dead. The bending flagpole is a gruesomely brilliant touch to amplify that moment of maximal tension that will ultimately pierce the villain.
Gargles Eats Glass – 1946
Falling through a skylight, again in comic strip slo-mo, Gargles gets sliced across three panels. And Gould can’t resist giving us his final shudders. In fact Gargles hangs on until the next strip so his final words exonerate an innocent suspect just in time for Christmas. One of the hallmarks of Dick Tracy was the strip’s extremism, Gould’s penchant for balancing unmatched graphic violence and angry vindictiveness with maudlin sentimentality. This sequence leads up to a Christmas strip that celebrates the villain’s death and the joy of the season.
Mumbles’ Cry for ‘Elp’ – 1947
Making a speech impediment somehow expressive of a villain’s evil was a questionable move to begin with. But Gould doubles down on this conceit by having Mumbles frantically, futiley hail for “ELP”.
T.V. Wiggles Can’t Move – 1950
Gould loved to draw in that little bit of grisly business to convey violence. While he used a heavy, cartoonish line and unreal, expressionist style that set the strip far apart from the illustrative style of most adventure strips, Gould used other ways of communicating hard-boiled reality. He had a penchant for objects penetrating bodies. Bullets often passed through their targets in shootout sequences. And as the deaths of The Brow and Gargles showed, the impaled body has a special place in Gould’s sense of horror. The death of T.V. Wiggles comes from fallen metal sheets that form an ersatz coffin. But it is that little corner of metal piercing a flap of neck flesh that telegraphs the experience of death itself.
Mr. Crime and Judge Mix Blood and Money – 1953
Mr. Crime was among Tracy’s most ruthless, pitiless villains of the 50s, and in the context of the Gould moral universe I am surprised (and a bit disappointed) that he suffers a simple shootout with Tracy. In fact Gould reserves the grisliest image for Mr. Crime’s extorted dupe, Judge Ruling. When cornered, the corrupt Judge chooses suicide. But of course Gould can’t give us a gunshot sound effect heard through a closed door. We have to get an image of Judge Ruling eating the gun, complete with cheek lines to suggest how deep he has planted the barrel. But we’re not done with this duo. As is his wont, Gould closes in for a final tableaux of both villains swimming in their own blood and money.
Flattop Jr.’s Near Miss – 1956
Flattop Jr. was indeed the son of the original Flattop, but he was framed by Gould as a neglected youth who embodied the overhyped scourge of the 1950s – the juvenile delinquent. He appears to meet his end in a theater fire he himself set to cover his escape. Despite the massive explosion Gould depicts dramatically, and the presumption of having died in the inferno, Jr. turns up later where his genuine death takes place in the middle of another villain’s cycle. And so that final contemplative panel here turns out to be ironic.