NOTE: An earlier version of this article originally appeared in The Comet.
Although I'm too young to have appreciated the Golden Age of the adventure strip at its height during the 1930s and '40s, unlike many people my age, these are the comics that initially drew me into the comics field as both a fan and a cartoonist. Even today they remain my biggest source of inspiration.
I vividly recall discovering classic adventure strips like Terry and the Pirates and Smilin' Jack in the mid-1970s while still in my teens, primarily through books found in the public library. These books included Martin Sheridan's Comics and Their Creators, Stephen Becker's Comic Art in America, Pierre Couperie and Maurice Horn's History of the Comic Strip, and Ron Goulart's The Adventurous Decade. Since this was long before the current reprint boom, in those days I could only imagine what the plots were about since these books offered only brief excerpts, usually only a few days' worth of strips. My subsequent search to learn more about these strips underscore my strong fascination for these characters and storylines.
Fortunately, the proliferation of reprint collections that began in the 1980s and '90s has given fans and students of comics art the opportunity to study the work of the great adventure strip masters. These include Roy Crane (Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy and Buz Sawyer), Hal Foster (Prince Valiant). Alex Raymond (Flash Gordon, Jungle Jim and Rip Kirby), Noel Sickles (Scorchy Smith), Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon), Will Eisner (The Spirit), Frank Robbins (Johnny Hazard), and the many artists they influenced such as Alex Toth, Alfred Andriola, and many of the "hot" cartoonists working in the comic-book industry today.
What made these strips so popular? Why do interest in these strips continue today? Most importantly, why have they disappeared? These are all issues that I attempt to address in this article.
The Early Days
Adventure has been an integral part of comics from the very beginning. Strips like Charles W. Kahle's Hairbreadth Harry (1906) and Ed Wheelan's Minute Movies (1922), for example, emulated the popular film melodramas of their day. (Wheelan's work even featured "cinematic" adaptations of classic adventure stories like Ivanhoe and Treasure Island.) These early attempts at adventure, however, which also were integral to strips like Happy Hooligan, the Gumps and Wash Tubbs, were influenced by vaudeville as as much as by the silent movie era's melodramas.
The debut of both Tarzan by Hal Foster and Buck Rogers by Phil Knowlan and Dick Calkins — coincidentally on the same day in January 1928 — is generally considered by scholars to be the launch of the modern adventure strip. And most agree 1934 to be a true watershed year in the history of the genre. This is the year that both Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon and Milton Caniff's Terry and the Pirates began. Raymond introduced magazine illustration to comics while Caniff—with friend and studio-mate Noel Sickles—created an innovative impressionistic inking style that used solid black liberally applied to suggest shadow and form. This new style brought a palpable sense of drama, authenticity and atmosphere to comics. To paraphrase comics historian Ron Goulart, these artists became the most widely aped artisans in a tirelessly copycatting trade.
The Soldier of Fortune
The decade of the '30s was the age of the globe-trotting soldier of fortune. These characters are noteworthy because they depicted the American ideal of rugged individualism during a time when the U.S. was still debating its own place on the world stage, despite the fact the country had emerged from World War I a world-class power.
This underdog mentality was perhaps best captured by Crane's Wash Tubbs who, despite his diminutive size, was always willing to defend himself against bullies and tyrants several times his own size. Even prior to the Depression, Wash manifested the innocence, recklessness, cockiness, and optimism of the 1920s, a time when the nation was growing at an incredible rate with no end to the possibilities in sight. The attitudes of Wash and his tough sidekick, Captain Easy, often stood at odds with the stuffy traditions of the older European cultures they encountered — with both hilarious and violent results.
Other comic strip adventurers from this period also made a career of defending the rights of "the little guy." Scorchy Smith, for instance, often became involved in South American revolutions while in Terry and the Pirates, Pat Ryan and Terry Lee became engaged in the Chinese struggle against the Japanese. Even seemingly out-of-this- world heroes like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon were caught up in rebellions against tyranny.
The Wartime Peak
World War II brought both the country and comics to the "real" world. The war was such a pervasive part of American life, it became impossible for comics to ignore. In response, the adventure heroes joined the military: Terry Lee reached draft age and joined the Army Air Force while Scorchy Smith fought alongside the Russians on the Eastern Front. They were soon joined by new comic strip adventurers created especially for the war, such as Coulton Waugh's Hank, Roy Crane's Buz Sawyer, and Frank Robbins' Johnny Hazard.
The new and very real threats to the free world demanded a new kind of hero. Characters like Wash Tubbs were no longer accurate portrayals of how Americans saw themselves — tougher people were now needed to fight real evils like fascism. Captain Easy soon took over the strip from Wash Tubbs and became a real captain working in the military intelligence. (Perhaps sensing the limited possibilities of his characters now that the world was changing, Crane left Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy in 1943 to create Buz Sawyer. Buz blended in one character Wash's optimism and smalltown values with Easy's ruggedness.)
This intertwining of history and fiction brought immediacy and relevancy to the funny pages. Readers responded as if they were watching their own loved ones at the war front. Readership soared.
The end of World War II brought with it a major re-evaluation of the adventure strip. People were no doubt tired of reading about the war. Adventure strip artists found it difficult to return to the same kinds of stories they had been telling before the war, especially now that anything they came up with was mundane in comparison. As a result, many of the old adventure artists set out in new directions. Raymond, for instance, abandoned Flash Gordon and created Rip Kirby, a more domesticated , urbane and cerebral hero who stayed closer to home. Crane's Buz Sawyer took a similar tact as did many of the other adventure strips created during this period. Only Caniff remained a die-hard adventure strip artist in the old tradition by creating Steve Canyon in 1946, a character who quickly became embroiled in the Cold War. Even Canyon, however, eventually married and settled down.
The world also was no longer as black and white as it used to be. For example, the "Reds" were now the enemy, although we had fought on the same side during the war. In addition, the communist witch hunts of the 1950s forced us to examine the enemy within ourselves, both individually and collectively.
The soldier of fortune could no longer function as he once did — after all, revolutionaries in the post-war world were now often Marxists and leftists! The soldier of fortune also now needed a job — simply bumming around the world was no longer respectable or believable. Trying to justify adventure and danger for its own sake and as an end to itself seemed trivial compared to the very real dangers of the Cold War and "the Bomb." As a result, comic strip adventurers now fought for Uncle Sam directly or private industry (which in those days sometimes meant the same thing). This made the motivation behind such characters more suspect and less pure. Distrust in the military and the establishment as a result of the Vietnam War was perhaps the final death knell for the traditional adventure strip in the late 1960s. Although the genre had long been in decline, Milton Caniff's death in 1988, and the cessation of his strip, Steve Canyon, ended the era of the adventure strip.
Reasons for the Adventure Strip's Popularity and Decline
The sense of history portrayed in these strips, and the way they reflected American values, played an important role in the success of the adventure strip, especially with the advent of World War II. When done right, the mixture of history and fiction elevated the adventure strip to mythic proportions, casting world struggles in individual and human terms for adventure strip readers.
Adventure strips also brought us to worlds more exotic than ours, both real and imaginary: Flash Gordon brought us to the planet Mongo while "Terry and the Pirates" brought us to China and Southeast Asia. Furthermore, without the benefit of a near-ubiquitous television news media as in the Vietnam and Persian Gulf conflicts, the adventure strips usually became an important window to the outside world for readers.
The country's role in World War II and the post-war period, however, created a more sophisticated audience with a better understanding of the world. As a result, adventure strips became mundane and trivial in comparison.
Other factors — less abstract and more economic in nature — also contributed to the decline of the adventure strip. The size of newspaper strips shrunk significantly leaving little room to portray epic action. Competing media like television and movies drew away audiences and brought distant lands into our living rooms, making them less exotic.
Despite these challenges, I believe there's still room for a modern-day adventure strip, and without the nostalgic baggage usually seems to accompany modern attempts that attempt to recreate the feel of the original strips; and if not in the newspaper strips, then in comic books. The world today is as exciting and frought with danger as it has always been: the crisis in the Middle East, which never seems to cease, and the changes underway in Asia, Eastern Europe and Russia, all make them ripe for a modern-day adventurer who is willing to assert not blind American chauvinism and jingoism. but rather the American ideal of the power of the individual. That, after all, was the real underlying appeal of the adventure strip hero and the soldier of fortune.
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