Smilin’ Jack: the Classic Aviator

By Zack Mosley (Classic Comic Strips)

Modern comics evolved from newspaper comic strips. These pictorial features were until relatively recently hugely popular with the public and highly valued by publishers who used them as an irresistible weapon to guarantee and increase circulation and profits.

It’s virtually impossible for us to understand the overwhelming power of the comic strip in America from the Great Depression to the end of World War II. With no television, broadcast radio far from universal and movie shows at best a weekly treat for most folk, household entertainment was mostly derived from the comic sections of daily and especially Sunday Newspapers. “The Funnies” were the most common recreation for millions who were well served by a fantastic variety and incredible quality.

From the very start humour was paramount; hence the terms “Funnies” and “Comics”, and from these gag and stunt beginnings came mutants and hybrids like Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs. Comedic when it began in 1924, it gradually moved from mock-heroics to light-action and became a full-blown, rip-roaring adventure series with the introduction of ancestral he-man and prototype moody swashbuckler Captain Easy in 1929.

From there it wasn’t such a leap to full-on blockbusters like Tarzan (which began on January 7th 1929) and Buck Rogers (also January 7th 1929) – both adaptations of pre-existing prose properties, but the majority of drama strips that followed were original productions. The tidal-wave began in the early 1930s when an explosion of action and drama strips (tastefully tailored for a family audience and fondly recalled as “Thud and Blunder” yarns) were launched with astounding rapidity. Not just strips but entire genres were created in that decade which still impact on not just today’s comic-books but all our popular fiction. Still most common however were general feel-good humour strips with the occasional child-oriented fantasy.

Among the most popular of the new adventure genres was the Aviator serial. With air speed, distance and endurance records bring broken every day, travelling air-circuses barnstorming across rural America and real life heroes such as Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart plastered all over the front pages it wasn’t difficult to grasp the potential of funny-pages analogues.

The first was Tailspin Tommy, by Glenn Chaffin and Hal Forrest, the story of boy pilot Tommy Tompkins, which ran from May 21st 1928 (almost exactly one year after Lindbergh’s epic flight in the Spirit of St. Louis) until 1942, swiftly followed by Lester J Maitland and Dick Calkins Skyroads and John Terry’s Scorchy Smith (see Scorchy Smith: Partners in Danger) 1930 -1961, as well as such late-arriving classics as Flyin’ Jenny, Buz Sawyer and even Steve Canyon.

Zack Mosley was an enterprising young cartoonist who assisted Calkins on both Skyroads and the legendary Buck Rogers (see Buck Rogers: the First 60 Years in the 25th Century). He was also a dedicated pilot and flying enthusiast, and when he heard that Captain Jor Patterson (influential editor of the Chicago Tribune) was taking lessons he swiftly pitched a series to the kingmaker of comic strips.

On the Wing debuted as a Sunday page on October 1st 1933, but the name never gelled and the series was re-titled Smilin’ Jack (apparently Moseley was surreptitiously known as “Smiling Zack” around the Tribune office), from the December 31st episode. The strip steadily gained interest and syndication subscribers and on June 15th 1936 was augmented by a daily strip.

Jack Martin was a nervous student pilot, and the series originally played safe by vacillating between comedy and hairsbreadth thrills as he and his fellow learner-pilots learned the ropes. Never a top-tier series it nevertheless always delivered terrific entertainment to the masses, moving with the times into a romance, war-feature, a crime thriller (complete with Dick Tracy style villains) and even a family soap. Moreover the strip progressed in real time and when it closed on 1st April 1973, Jack was a twice married air veteran with a grown son and a full cast of romantic dalliances in tow. It wasn’t lack of popularity that ended it either. Mosley at 67 years old wanted to spend his final years in the air, not at a drawing board…

This fabulous collection delivers a delightful selection of rousing romps, beginning with that name changing first episode from December 31st 1933, before concentrating on some classic sequences from the roaring thirties starring Jack, comedy foil Rufus Jimpson (a hill-Billy mechanic), eye-candy air hostess and love interest Dixie Lee (subject of an extended romantic triangle), Latin spitfire (the curvy sort not the fighter plane sort) Bonita Caliente and spies, thugs, imbecile passengers, South American revolutionaries and even a foreign Legion of the Skies with an eerily prescient stiff-necked Prussian flyer named Von Bosch whose type would soon be plastered all over the strips and comic books when WWII broke out

This kind of strip is, I suspect, an acquired taste today like Preston Sturges or George Cukor films, with a little bit of intellectual and historical concentration required, but the effort is certainly worth it, and if this kind of stuff is good enough for the likes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg it’s perfectly good enough for you and me…
© 1989, 2009 Chicago Tribune Syndicate. All Rights Reserved. (I’m guessing here: if somebody else actually owns the rights let me know and I’ll happily amend the entry)