Looking Back at the Class of ’34
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.