Comic Pages in Old Time Radio

There is no way it should work. The Comics depend on pictures! Some of the best strips don’t even have dialog! The Funny Pages are a visual medium, Radio just plain isn’t. Still some of radio’s most loved treasures began as “Sequential Art.”

The art of telling stories through a series of pictures goes back further than the Egyptian Hieroglyphics, all the way back to Cave Wall Paintings. During the Middle Ages Biblia Pauperum, Pauper’s Bibles, were published with Bible stories in illustrated form.

By the late 19th century comic strips began to appear in American newspapers. In 1895 Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World began to publish “Hogan’s Alley.” In 1897 “The Katzenjammer Kids” appeared in a Sunday Supplement to Hearst’s New York Journal.

Newspaper strips are divided into Daily and Sunday strips. The Dailies are usually shorter and printed in black and white, while the Sundays are longer pieces and usually colorized.

In 1925 The Chicago Tribune had a very popular comic strip, The Gumps. An executive at WGN, the radio station owned by the newspaper, thought there was potential in developing a radio serial based on the strip, and presented the idea to a pair of station regulars, Charles Correll and Freeman Gosden. The pair thought they could do a better program if they drew on their experience in Vaudeville blackface performance, and the show eventually became Amos ‘n’ Andy.

Another very popular Tribune Strip was Little Orphan Annie. Annie was the creation of Harold Gray, who injected a lot of his personal political philosophy into the long running strip. Gray was influenced by his farm upbringing and the novels of Charles Dickens. He met a young girl wandering the streets of Chicago and “liked her right away.” The little girl was tough and could take care of herself because she had to! The character almost became “Little Orphan Otto,” but Gray realized that a girl might be an easier sell- there were 40 popular strips with young boys in the lead roles, but only three with girls. Gray was not a fan of FDR and the New Deal. The artist took some heat for preaching to the poor to “work harder” through his strip while he was living very well off the income it generated along with two movies during the Depression.

Little Orphan Annie came to the airwaves over WGN in 1931, and was soon heard coast to coast. Because the networks at the time didn’t reach all the way to the west coast, there were two casts; one in Chicago and one in San Francisco. The show was initially sponsored by the Ovaltine milk supplement. On the air Annie concentrated on pushing Ovaltine and avoided many of the political themes of the newspaper strip. The show was scheduled for late in the afternoon, after the kids got home from school but before the dinner hour. Listeners could exchange Ovaltine proofs of purchase for “Secret Decoder” rings or badges, and were encouraged to decode messages read in the closing minutes of the show.

In 1934 Dick Tracy first appeared in the Detroit Mirror. Chester Gould brought raw violence to the comics by reflecting Gangland Chicago of the 20s and 30s. Tracy was dedicated and intelligent, depending on his intelligence and the latest in Police Forensic Science to solve crimes. Tracy, with his black and white sense of right and wrong, may have been a pretty boring character without his fanciful stable of villains, some of whom were so evil that their outward appearance would give away the darkness of their makeup. Dick Tracy began airing on NBC’s New England stations in 1934. The show had a daily 15 minute format until sponsor Quaker Oats brought it to prime time and half-hours in 1939.

In response to a Newspaper Delivery Strike in NYC during 1945, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia read Dick Tracy strips over the radio so citizens wouldn’t fall behind on the story.

Adventure Stories based on the world of Aviation became popular in the 30’s. Zack Mosley began sketching airplanes after an Army “Jenny” landed in a field near his home. After attending the Chicago Art Institute he got a job as an assistant to Dick Calkins who drew Buck Rogers and Skyroads (another early Aviation Strip which was adapted for the Mutual network for a few months in 1939.) Mosley began his own strip in 1933, On the Wing, the hilarious adventures of three frightened student pilots. Editors loved the stories, but hated the title, which was soon changed to Smilin’ Jack in reference to Mosley’s own nickname, Smiling Zack. Smilin’ Jack was filled with great aviation art but Jack’s adventures carried the strip. The supporting cast of characters included his side kick, Fatstuff, a young Hawaiian friend who was forever losing his buttons; beautiful Air Hostess Dixie Lee; and co-pilot Downwind Jaxon, who was so handsome that readers were never allowed to see his whole face; he drove every woman who saw him wild with passion. Smiling Jackwas only on the Mutual Network for a few months in 1939, fighting baddies like the Mad Dog in Arabia. The strip lasted for four decades, finally closing in 1973 when Mosley decided he would have more fun flying airplanes than drawing them.

Terry and the Pirates by Milton Caniff began as the story of a “wide-awake American Boy” in China having adventures and foiling the plans of various bad guys along with his he-man mentor, Pat Ryan, and guide Confucius “Connie” Webster. As Terry matures he joins the Air Forces and becomes a pilot. Terry and the Pirates came to late afternoons on NBC’s Red network in 1937 sponsored by Dari-Rich, but left the air after two years. Returning shortly after Pearl Harbor, the show became incredibly popular and patriotic. After the War the loss of War-time villains caused ratings to slip and the show was cancelled in 1948. Caniff left the strip in 1946 to create Steve Canyon, which allowed him greater creative freedom. Terry continued to be drawn by George Wunder until 1973, by which time Terry was Colonel in the Air Force.

In 1941 Bob Montana created Archie Andrews, who first appeared in Pep Comics #22. Archie was  atypical small town kid, hanging out with his best friend Jughead Jones, attending Riverdale High School, dating cute girl-next-door Betty Cooper and wealthy Veronica Lodge, working on his Jalopy (kept together with whatever parts he could find), and trying to keep ahead of his rival Reggie Mantle. Archie and his gang came to the NBC Blue network in 1943. Like many shows at the time the program was performed in front of a live audience, but with its Teen Appeal, those audiences could become a bit boisterous at times. The show lasted on radio until 1953, but in the comics, Archie is still the likable red-headed 17 year old he has always been.

Did you know that before Action Comics #1, Superman was a telepathic Villian? And that he was Bald!?! That was how high-school buddies Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster first used the name in a short story they wrote and illustrated in 1933. Later they reformed Superman as a hero and sought a publisher. After seeing a copy of Detective Dan, Secret Operative #48 (which would go on to become the Dan Dunn radio show) Siegel rewrote the story for the comic form and Schuster illustrated it. Their man in the red boots would get published in Action Comics #1 in 1938 and become an American icon.

In 1939 Superman was featured in a newspaper strip an that summer he appeared in a self titled comic-book series. The early Superman stories are a reflection of their Depression era origins. Siegel and Schuster allowed there hero to display the Left-leaning Liberalism of the New Deal. This liberalism would continue somewhat onto the Radio. In 1946 Superman takes on “The Clan of the Fiery Cross,” a thinly disguised KKK

Part of the fun on radio was that the star of The Adventures of Superman had a secret identity like his character. Bud Collyer was not acknowledged as Superman until a front-page interview in Time Magazine about the racial-intolerance story arc. Because this was the era before reruns, several devices were used so that Collyer would be able to take a vacation from his recurring radio role. These included being overcome by Kryptonite; this one weakness of the hero’s was developed on radio, not the comic pages. Another device used was to allow his fellow DC comic characters, Batman and Robin, to take over the story while Collyer was out. Although an audition program was prepared, Batman never had a self titled radio program during the Golden Age of Radio

The power of Radio is that it allows the mind to generate its own images.  Fans of Radio Mystery and Science Fiction have long recognized that the images that the mind generates with a few audible clues are far richer than anything that could ever appear on a movie or TV screen. The comic page is a powerful story telling device because it combines visual images with written words. When the great stories told in “Sequential Art” move to Radio, the strength of the audible medium takes over and the stories are made even better.

Read more about comic books and funny papers in old time radio.