Looking Back at the Class of ’34
The Year of the Adventure Strip Has Its Anniversary: Celebrating the Class of 1934 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.