NOTE: An earlier version of this article originally appeared in The Comet. Click on the images for additional comments and notes.
Like most mass popular art forms, the comics have been a reflection of the nation and how its people looked at themselves. This was true even moreso at the beginning of the 20th century, when assimilation into American culture was valued and encouraged, and the culture and audiences were less fragmented. In this article, we look how the adventure strip prior to World War II reflected the young nation.
Setting the Stage
The 1920s was a time of heady growth for the country. While Europe focused on rebuilding itself, the U.S. emerged from World War I as a world-class power. Rather than assume a larger role in the world community, however, the young country turned inward. Nowhere is this more evident than in the country's decision to stay out of the League of Nations, a precursor to the United Nations that Woodrow Wilson had proposed. This rejection was not a surprise, however, since the nation had always favored a staunch policy of isolationism up until World War II.
The carefree country during this time worked hard and played hard. Entrepreneurs, businessmen and industrialists like Dale Carnagie, Henry Ford, John Rockefeller, and William Randolph Hearst were the heroes of the age. Silly fads and an emerging pop culture, such as the Charleston, pole sitting, flappers, and jazz, took up leisure time.
Many of the strips published during this period reflect the cocky, optimistic nature of Americans during this time. Strips like "Polly and Her Pals" (1912), "Bringing Up Father" (1913), and "The Gumps" (1917), portrayed the follies and foibles of the social classes, both old and new. that made up American society.
Pure escapist fare as typified by the exotic adventure strip could not have come at a better time. The first two acknowledged newspaper adventure strips debuted coincidentallyon the same day in January 1929, a mere nine months before the onslaught of the Depression: "Tarzan" and "Buck Rogers."
Adventure had existed before, of course, in the funnies. One of the children of "The Gumps," for instance, often travelled the world on dangerous trips and safaris, thanks to generosity of a rich relative; "Happy Hooligan" (1900) and "Wash Tubbs" (1924) were often riding the rails or off treasure hunting; and "Hairbreath Harry" (1906) and "Minute Movies" (1922) emulated the popular film melodramas of the day.
Nevertheless, this was the first time that adventure had been presented to readers straight. For the most part, there were no silly antics to distract you, and no guarantee that the hero would survive — this was real DANGER! Someone could actually got HURT!
No two strips more diametrically opposed than "Tarzan" and "Buck Rogers" could have been better imagined; although both originated in the pulps, that's where their similarities ended. "Tarzan," created by Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1914 and already a popular culture icon, was a jungle strip that underscored man's superiority over nature and the primitive (or sometimes vice versa). The strip had initially been brought to newspapers as a test. When it proved successful, the series was renewed. It has remained in syndication ever since.
"Tarzan" was first brought to comics life by Harold Foster, who was really nothing more than a hired gun for the strip; in fact, once he made a name for himself and mastered the now medium, he left the strip in 1937 to create another Sunday comic with a similar man-versus-nature theme: "Prince Valiant." With "Tarzan" and "Prince Valiant," Foster brought classical illustration to the comics pages and epic, sweeping vistas to both the stories and the art.
In contrast, Dick Calkins' art on "Buck Rogers" was as homely as Foster's was beautiful. (Phil Knowlan, who scripted the series, originally created the character for a short story he had written for a science fiction pulp magazine.) The art was crude and old-fashioned, and stood in sharp contrast to the high-tech world that the strip portrayed. That wasn't the point though: the idea of "Buck Rogers" was enough for readers. Here was a man who flew in space ships and with jetpacks, fighting off invading hordes of Mongols with a ray gun. The hardware was as important to the strip as Buck himself.
Dozens of strips patterned after both "Buck Rogers" and "Tarzan" soon emerged, such as "Don Dixon," "Brick Bradford," "Rod Rian of the Sky Police," "Speed Spaulding," "The Phantom," and "Tim Tyler's Luck." The most successful of these copy-cat strips, "Jungle Jim" and "Flash Gordon," which both debuted in 1934, were the work of one man, Alex Raymond, who brought a lush, slick magazine drybrush style of art to comics.
Raymond had cut his teeth on an earlier strip called "Secret Agent X-9," which was ostensibly written by Dashiell Hammet. It was on "Flash Gordon," however, that Raymond made his mark. Whereas Foster's "Prince Valiant" effortlessly alternated between high adventure, human interest, and the tiny joys and sorrows of everyday life, Raymond favored a broader, more masculine and heroic romantic style that placed the athletic Flash in direct opposition to the heavy of the strip, the evil Ming the Merciless, from the planet Mongo. Both the art and the stories are the closest antecedents that super heroes have in the newspaper adventure strips. Along with Milton Caniff, who created "Terry and the Pirates" and "Steve Canyon" (discussed later in this article), Raymond's work had the most influential impact on the adventure comic strip.
Another strip that played a major role in the early development of the adventure strip was a series that actually debuted in 1924 called "Washington Tubbs III" by Roy Crane. At the beginning, "Wash Tubbs" (as it later became more simply known), was not much different than many of the other gag strips that emerged during the flapper age. Like many of the other comic strip male leads of the period, Wash was a diminutive fellow with a slight resemblance to silent film star Harold Lloyd. Wash was a dreamer and a go-getter, constantly devising get-rich quick schemes. This desire for fame and fortune quickly evolved into wanderlust.
Wash soon took on a sidekick named Gozy Gallup. The two started riding the rails and traveling the world together in search of easy riches and beautiful women. Wash and Gozy, both before and during the Depression, were obvious manifestations of the early American spirit. Like Crane himself, they came from small towns and possessed simple down-to-earth values. (Crane also rode the rails in his youth.) More significantly, they were also perennial underdogs, always willing to stand up for what they believed was right, regardless of the odds. These simple values often clashed with the moribund traditions and cultures they encountered both in Europe and Asia. Because of this, "Wash Tubbs" can be said to be the "Tom Sawyer" of the American comic strip.
The Soldier of Fortune
The strip's major turning point came in 1928 with the introduction of a mysterious and rugged soldier of fortune known only as Captain Easy. Easy soon not only displaced Gozy in the strip, he also soon eclipsed Wash himself as the star of the series. By the 1930s, Easy was the sole star of the Sunday page where exotic high adventure was the norm.
Crane's art proved to be just as significant, if not moreso, as his stories and characters. Although Crane's artistic roots are in the "big-foot" style of cartooning, he soon began experimenting with both texture and black and white to create atmosphere, drama and special effects. In addition to effectively using black and white, he also utilized gray shading expertly, particularly in the use of Duotone, a two-tone shading process. Crane became the bridge between pure cartooning and the straight adventure strip that was to flower in the 1930s.
Crane's Captain Easy also represented a new class of hero in the comic-strip: the soldier of fortune. These new adventurers were usually pilots and patterned after the aviation heroes who were then the rage, such as Charles Lindbergh. Strips like "Tailspin Tommy," "Skyroads," and "Flyin' Jack" emerged in response.
In the comic strip universe, the soldier of fortune also became an unofficial roving ambassador for American democracy, values, and capitalism. Regardless of his profession, whether it be pilot or vagabond, the soldier of fortune often became involved in some revolution or another, aiding the oppressed in their struggles against tyrannical governments and evil feudal warlords. During the 1930s, for instance, Easy and Wash became involved in European civil wars, Noel Sickles' titular character in "Scorchy Smith" became embroiled in a South American revolution, and Milton Caniff's Pat Ryan and Terry Lee found themselves defending Chinese soil against Japanese invaders in "Terry and the Pirates."
An especially interesting artifact of the period is the fact that these new adventurers were often staunch defenders of U.S. industrialism and business interests. Although barely scraping by, the soldier of fortune often found himself defending the interests of wealthy industrialists and large corporations overseas. These industrialists and businesses were often portrayed as an extension of the benign and paternal colonial power the U.S. often portrayed itself as, particularly after the Spanish-American War. Thus, Scorchy Smith is hired to fight a commerical war in South America for a wealthy plantation owner while Caniff's Pat Ryan and Terry Lee are sent an a similar mission to Indonesia. ln retrospect, this recurring alliance with industry is an interesting motif, especially when one considers the suspicion for big business that most people harbor today.
Aside from Crane's Captain Easy, another influential soldier of fortune in the history of the newspaper adventure strip is the above-mentioned Scorchy Smith. "Scorchy Smith" was created in 1930 by John Terry. By all accounts, Terry's art was crude, but the strip proved to be popular nonetheless. When Terry took ill with tuberculosis in 1933, however, a fellow artist from the bullpen staff of the syndicate, Associated Press (AP), was asked to fill in: Noel Sickles. Reluctant to tamper with their most successful feature, AP asked Sickles—an excellent draftsman (and largely self-taught)—to closely duplicate Terry's crude style. (It says much for Sickles' versatility that he did an admirable job at emulating Terry, though reportedly even his ghostin represented an improvement for the strip.
At Terry's death the following year, Sickles, was allowed to take over the series and slowly change the art. The progressive evolution of the strip over the next few months is truly remarkable to witness on a day-to-day basis.
Sickles throughout his life was a restless soul and this is clearly evident even during his short stint on the strip (he left both the strip and the industry entirely by 1936). He experimented constantly, using cross-hatching predominantly in one episode, ben-day in another, and heavy shadows in yet another. However, it was his use of heavy blacks applied liberally but strategically with a brush which revolutionized the adventure strip.
One of Sickles' colleagues was Milton Arthur Caniff. The two met as newspaper artist hopefuls, attended school together for a while (although Sickles dropped out, Caniff remained a staunch booster of both his school, Ohio State University, and his fraternity, Sigma Chi), and even shared a studio as commercial artists . Sharing a studio as they did, cross-pollination was inevitable. Caniff soon adopted Sickles' innovative inking style for his own strip, "Terry and the Pirates" (launched in 1934), while simultaneously helping out on the scripts for "Scorchy." Caniff's warm-up for "Terry" was an adventure strip called "Dickie Dare." Although "Terry" was named and shaped by New York Daily News head Joseph Patterson (who also played a role in the creation of a host of other successful strips, such as "Dick Tracy" and "Moon Mullins"), "Terry" at first was nothing more than a carbon copy of "Dickie," consisting of a handsome male lead and a young sidekick.
Unlike Sickles, however, Caniff paid as much attention to the story as to the art. Although the plots in "Scorchy" were passable, it was only the art which excited Sickles (he often complained about Scorchy's bland personality). In contrast, Caniff was a born dramatist and, in fact, had even seriously considered an acting career. So while the art caught your attention initially, it was the stories and the characters that kept readers coming back for more. Caniff's plots were riveting and dramatic because they were usually character-driven: character motivation was always clearly defined and often led to actions that led to either happy or calamitous consequences for the characters in the strip. The situations were also often adult, involving not only love, greed and jealousy, but outright sex (within the boundaries of a syndicated comic strip of course) and lust as well.
The Winds of War
Caniff further innovated his storylines by integrating real world events and settings into his strip. which had never really been done before. For example, the Japanese had invaded China as early as 1932, and since his story was set in the orient, Caniff felt that he had no choice but to include the Japanese in his strip. This greatly upset his superiors at the New York Daily News Syndicate who were extremely conservative and staunch isolationists. Despite orders to keep the Japanese out of the strip, Caniff continued to portray events in the region, referring to the aggressors only as "The Invader."
The issue became moot, of course, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941. When World War II broke out, Caniff found himself way ahead of the pack: since the Japanese had been portrayed in "Terry" for several years, he had already done extensive research on the uniforms, the culture, etc. While other artists struggled to get their characters into uniform, Caniff's characters were already in the thick of it; although he had to re-do several weeks worth of strips, Caniff quickly found himself mobilized for war. The other adventure strips soon fell in stop behind him. But the era of the soldier of fortune, and the vagabond adventurer, had come to an end.
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