By Zack Mosley (Classic Comic Strips)
Here’s another forgotten birthday boy seriously in need of an archival revival…
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 social media or television, broadcast radio far from universal and movie shows at best a weekly treat for most poor or middle-income folk, household entertainment was mostly derived from the comic sections of daily and especially Sunday Newspapers.
“The Funnies” were the most common and an almost communal 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 prototype 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 (the same day); both were 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 frequency and rapidity. Not only strips but entire genres were created in that decade which still impact on not just today’s comicbooks but all our popular fiction. Still most common, however, were general feel-good humour strips with an occasional child-oriented fantasy.
Arguably 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 and in movie newsreels, it wasn’t difficult to grasp the potential of comics-pages analogues.
The first was Tailspin Tommy – by Glenn Chaffin & Hal Forrest – the story of boy pilot Tommy Tompkins. It ran from May 21st 1928 (almost exactly one year after Lindbergh’s epic flight in the Spirit of St. Louis) until 1942, and was swiftly followed by both Lester J Maitland & Dick Calkins Skyroads and John Terry’s Scorchy Smith (see Scorchy Smith: Partners in Danger) 1930 -1961. Close on their high-flying heels came 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 in the 25th Century. He was also a keenly dedicated pilot and flying enthusiast, and when he heard that Captain Joe Patterson (influential editor of the Chicago Tribune) was taking lessons, Zack 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 with the December 31st episode the series was more snappily re-titled Smilin’ Jack. Apparently, Moseley was surreptitiously known as “Smiling Zack” around the Tribune office…
The page steadily gained interest and syndication subscribers and, on June 15th 1936, was augmented by a monochrome 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 sky novices and unqualified pilots learned the ropes. Never a top-tier series, Smilin’ Jack nevertheless always delivered terrific entertainment to the masses, moving and morphing with the times into a romance, war-feature, crime thriller (complete with Dick Tracy style villains) and even a family soap opera.
More importantly, 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. At 67 years of age, Mosley wanted to spend his final years in the air, not crouched over a drawing board…
This fabulous (and shamefully scarce) collection gathers 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.
Meet here or be reintroduced to Jack, comedy foil Rufus Jimpson (a hillbilly 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 kind) Bonita Caliente and numerous spies, thugs, imbecilic 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 after WWII broke out…
This kind of strip is, I suspect and fear, an acquired taste today like Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder or George Cukor films, requiring the contribution of a little bit of intellectual and historical concentration from the reader, but the effort is absolutely 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…
A grand adventure and one you should undertake at your leisure…
© 1989, 2009 Chicago Tribune Syndicate. All Rights Reserved. (I’m going on best evidence here: if somebody else actually owns the rights now, let me know and I’ll happily amend the entry).