Looking Back at the Class of ’34
The Year of the Adventure Strip Has Its Anniversary: Celebrating Alumnae Alex Raymond, Milt Caniff, Al Capp and Lee Falk
By Rick Marschall
Editor’s note: This article originally ran in Hogan’s Alley #1 and has been updated accordingly.
Eighty years ago, in a remarkable burst of fecundity, several of the most memorable quality newspaper strips commenced. More significantly, 80 years ago a new type of comic strip achieved dominance.
Once upon a time the American comic strip evolved through definite periods of thematic preoccupation and stylistic convention. For a while, new waves crashed to shore approximately once a decade—the years following the comics’ birth around 1895 was the experimental period; after that the daily strip was standardized and syndication brought formulas and categories (kid strips, family strips); the ’20s saw more types with suburban and working-woman themes, and the advent of the continuity strip. The 1930s was not only the introductory era but the zenith of the adventure strip. (After reviewing this highly generalized survey of history, one realizes that since the 1930s only one other period of comics history has had a distinct individuality: the 1950s, with the decline of adventure strips, the institutionalization of the gag-a-day strip, and the stylistically different humor of Schulz, Kelly, Hart and Lazarus. We are talking about one significant sea change in the past half-century of comics history, compared to innovations almost every decade beforehand, and we realize how basically bankrupt comics might be today.)
The protean influences of early comics and their distinguishing periods all brought the adventure strip to maturity—for they did not emerge mature overnight—right around 1934. Mixtures of continuity elements, humor, adventure, melodrama and fantasy (which had been a staple of comics in their first decade) resulted in the debut of an impressive list of creations that include Secret Agent X-9, Flash Gordon, Jungle Jim, Terry and the Pirates, Li’l Abner and Mandrake the Magician. These strips are the most representative—fondly and lately recalled, or still running—of a larger varied group that included Red Barry and Henry, that saw their debuts in 1934.
We will focus on the strips of Alex Raymond, Milt Caniff, Al Capp and Lee Falk. We notice that all are adventure strips except Li’l Abner, which had its moments in its own—gasp!—context, and we can ask ourselves why the adventure strip dominated the field 80 years ago.
The quick, easy and traditional answer is that, with the United States in the throes of a deep economic depression, adventure strips provided escapist entertainment.
On the other hand, the lighter and vicarious aspects of any comic strip—one is tempted to emphasize especially the humor strip—provide escapism enough in difficult times. And if readers took special interest in mature stories with characters and stories more complex than those in early humor strips, then neither were these aspects new to adventure strips of 1934. ‘Way back, the Yellow Kid and Mutt and Jeff starred in loose continuities; so did Happy Hooligan, and Little Nemo’s adventures often continued week to week. Just-Kids was a mediocre humor strip between the 1920s and 1950s, but a creditable, and surprising, kids’ adventure strip in 1916. Neither Little Orphan Annie nor Phil Hardy (by George Storm) was drawn realistically but in the 1920s they featured real adventure. Wash Tubbs showcased humor and adventure; The Gumps melodrama and adventure; Tim Tyler’s Luck travelogue and adventure; Gasoline Alley domestic adventures; Apple Mary soap opera and adventure.
By 1934 there were only three major strips that could be termed straight adventure strips without qualifiers, although the first, Buck Rogers, featured such East-Lynne dialogue and Baroque props that it might be termed hokum and adventure. Buck Rogers began on the first day of 1929 and so did Tarzan. Hal Foster’s drybrush look lent a contemporary air to the exotic jungle locales of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s hero, and the captions—instead of balloons—reinforced the literary source, the adventure novels. Then came 1931’s Dick Tracy. Its art style more Expressionist than Realist, Chester Gould’s strip was adventure with a capital A.
So what happened in 1934? One factor was actually Dick Tracy itself. Gould was an artist who through the 1920s had shot his wad with the Hearst organization (including King Features), failing with several features. He was not much more successful with either the Daily News or Tribune in Chicago until Tracy clicked. King Features president Joe Connolly in part regretted “one getting away,” and was in genuine admiration of a hard-boiled crime strip. Lee Falk has told me that in 1934 he served as unofficial comics editor under Connolly and helped fashion competition to Tracy—not one but ultimately five crime-adventure strips: Secret Agent X-9; Red Barry; Sergeant Pat of the Radio Patrol; Inspector Wade; and Mandrake the Magician, whose sophisticated mysteries set a different tone for readers.
So in 1934 it was figured that crime would pay. Here were stories from the front pages—and emotions from concerned readers’ hearts—translated directly to comics pages. But during Prohibition in the ’20s there was gangsterism, and that hadn’t inspired a new wave of comic-strip themes. No, it was not specific current events nor general economic malaise that caused a revolution in 1934.
Rather we should look (as always with that most American of art forms, the comics) at commercial factors. Technical innovations in several fields combined with economic and social malaise to set the stage for an explosion in the popular arts. Comic books happened in 1934, with the debut of Famous Funnies; a promotional risk became a surprise success. Big Little Books were a year old in 1934, and sales in the millions spread the appetite for comics. An explosion in sales for pulp magazines coincided tellingly with the decline in humor magazines; almost exclusively, they offered adventure, mystery, and science-fiction fare. The readers who abandoned Judge magazine and Life (the original cartoon weekly that sold its title in 1936 to Time) did not switch en masse to the pulps, but the clear trends are revealing.
Movie serials, a staple of Saturday mornings since the ‘teens, now had sound and increasingly more sophisticated production values. Feature-length movies had only recently become all-talking, all-singing. Radio serials were catching the public’s fancy, with adventures like Little Orphan Annie and Jack Armstrong, All-American Boy rivaling comedies like Amos ‘n’ Andy.
Walt Disney’s Academy Award for color, sound shorts in 1932 began a decade that saw his studio receive eight out of ten Oscars in that category, and by 1934 Walt was contemplating the first feature-length animated cartoon. Miniature golf and bingo games in every neighborhood venue were national fads. Moving-picture theaters—as if their attendance weren’t already at an all-time high—beckoned audiences with Bank Nights (“match the number on your ticket for $1000!”), Free Dish Nights, and other schemes. In a move that perfectly illustrates the blanket effect of popular culture in the Depression Era, some theaters announced they would interrupt their movies to broadcast certain radio programs, so patrons could have their cake and eat it too. And speaking of eating, the number of primitive fast-food joints—already threatening Pullman-car-style diners—proliferated during the ’30s, mostly pushing hamburgers for a nickel.
Actually, it was that nickel that made the difference in 1934: with all the competition for escapists in the market, the comic-strip business had to innovate and expand in order to survive. Coupled with the thematic departures was an expansion in formats: Sunday comic sections increased their pages in 1934 in spite of hard times; the previous year the Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate introduced eight features simultaneously; and the following year the Hearst chain introduced a gaggle of new strips that filled its new tabloid-format color supplement (which in itself might have been a response to the popularity of the comic-book format).
Having given commercialism its due, we can escape once again to the valid role of escapist themes. There was much to escape during the Depression, and both adults and kids did it in three-minute, half-hour, and 100-minute doses via comic strips, radio shows and movies (all with equal enthusiasm, we note, while today’s syndicates bemoan the effect of TV and movies on the insipid remnants of adventure strips). Why the sudden appearance of exotic locales and science-fiction themes? In part this was due to the movies’ growing ability to produce special effects, but across the media another reason is the spirit of the times.
Factories might have been rusting, but advertisements nonetheless promised a brave new world of technology: gadgets would not only help us but be our salvation. The enormously perfervid political atmosphere around the world convinced perhaps a majority of the public that, whether they feared or coveted a left- or right-wing state, ultra-modern dictatorships were in the offing (Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote a book in the 1930s called The Wave of the Future about the Corporate State in which she called Hitler and company the scum on top of the wave, but “the wave is coming just the same”).
So in 1934 there was a heady mix of new technologies, new hopes and new fears. The public was hungry for new wellsprings and new amounts of entertainment. Cross-pollination was happily rife in the popular arts. The political ferment was such that strips simultaneously advocated by portrayal rugged individualism and collectivism; nativism and wanderlust; traditional values and technological fantasies; violence as a curse and a cure.
Therefore Alex Raymond—a bullpen grunt who had toiled on Tillie, Tim Tyler’s Luck and Blondie—was tapped to illustrate the prose of crime fiction’s gutsiest writer, Dashiell Hammett. Secret Agent X-9 didn’t fulfill Connolly’s dream to commercially threaten Dick Tracy, but the strip was a legitimate rival in quality and elan: snappy dialogue, absorbing plots, pulp-style art.
Was there something in the water at King Features in 1934? Raymond continued to come out of nowhere as he created not one but two other classics: Flash Gordon and Jungle Jim. Once again there might have been a creative, uh, inspiration as King Features beheld Buck Rogers, but also again Alex Raymond took a new strip to new heights. In his first months Raymond engaged in Buck Rogers‘s patented anachronisms (medieval trappings in a high-tech future world) in a pulp-magazine drybrush style, but then broke through with exciting settings (the Water World), compelling character types (although Flash’s squeeze Dale Arden was the dippiest heroine since Buster Keaton’s foils); and the handsomest artwork in the funnies—a sensual wetbrush look, experimentation with panel arrangements, dialogue in balloons or running captions and so forth. Raymond was having fun, and so were his readers. Jungle Jim—dare we suggest?—was another “answer,” this time to Tarzan, but in Raymond’s jungle there was more cogitation than vine-swinging, more foreign smugglers than roaring lions.
Mandrake the Magician was another strip that emphasized the cerebral over the muscular, although Lee Falk and artist Phil Davis structured a heavy and heady portion of suspense and excitement. Mandrake was a modern-day Sherlock with added portions of fantasy and magic; as in Tracy the villains were physically and psychically bizarre; and if Mandrake resembled the movies’ John Gilbert, then his girlfriend Narda resembled Myrna Loy.
In another 1934 entry, movie stars inspired characters, but then Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates was itself to inspire later filmmakers in its pacing and staging; its mood, evocation and atmosphere. The earliest sequences of Terry resembled the latter sequences of 1933’s Dickie Dare, but Caniff was experimenting through 1934 and the rest of the ’30s. Arguably the greatest of all adventure strips, Terry was set in the exotic Far East, offering a menu of vicarious delights with a boy protagonist, handsome hero and a cast of stunning women whose personalities ranged from pure evil to virginal innocence, types including coquettes and lesbians, and a character (Raven Sherman) whose death still causes fans to observe anniversaries. Caniff was the comics’ master of characterization, dialogue, and design—his “camera angles” and visual storytelling have inspired succeeding generations of cartoonists but never have been equalled.
Finally there was L’il Abner, which defies categorization. A humor strip, to be sure, but Al Capp’s hillbilly saga was really a satire—and more than a satire of current events (until its demise in the ’70s), it satirized human nature. If one would look to similarities in the other popular arts—and why not? Capp himself did–Li’l Abner after its debut in 1934 was similar to Hollywood’s screwball comedies, where impoverished rustic types frequently found themselves in urban high-society settings. We should look beyond Hollywood to literature in Dickens, Twain and Swift for the likes of Capp’s characterizations and observations.
As we have pointed out, there were other periods of innovation and change in comic-strip history, but only the period of 1949-51, when Pogo, Peanuts, Dennis the Menace and Beetle Bailey commenced, comes close to rivaling the short period that enveloped the year 1934 in producing landmark strips of a new sort that changed the art form and have withstood the passage of time in their quality and appeal.
Eighty years have passed, and the Class of ’34 still exhibits just that: Class.