Jul 08

Comics: A Beginner’s Guide: Adventure Strips

The Brown Wedge5 comments • 687 views

All of my favourite newspaper strips were at the comedy end of the market – and it is worth noting here how big an influence Segar’s Popeye was on adventure strips. Nonetheless, there were some great adventure strips, back in the days when there was room for more than talking heads in comic strips. All of them feel old-fashioned these days, it should be admitted.

Roy Crane

As Popeye took over Thimble Theatre, so Captain Easy took over Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs strip – indeed, the Captain appeared just a few months after Popeye in 1929. He was a much more straightforward hero, shifting what had been a comedy adventure strip into more serious territory. Captain Easy was a definitive influence on adventure strips – and comic books too: he was an archetype who is seen in Superman and Batman and many others. He followed this with Buz Sawyer in 1943, a straight adventure strip. Roy Crane, more than anyone else, evolved the style of the adventure strip, in terms of art, story and character.

Noel Sickles

In 1933, Sickles took over a strip called Scorchy Smith, drawing it for three years before largely abandoning comics for better paid illustration work. He was a superb artist, especially his brushwork and use of duotone, and he brought in effects that you then see in the work of the more famous Milton Caniff, particularly his use of chirascuro. They worked together for a while, and that included trading strips at times, so there are Caniff Scorchy Smiths and Sickles Terrys, but I don’t think anyone is sure which. Some great samples of his art.

Milton Caniff

The giant of adventure comic strips. He started Terry and the Pirates in 1934, and these stories set in a rather implausible Orient were a huge success. When he left it in 1946 to launch a new strip that he would own (as Crane had done with Buz Sawyer), it was huge news: front-page strapline teasers for the coming strip for over a month on newspapers, and the first Steve Canyon strip was printed on the front page by some. Its unabashed militarism is at times exasperating, and it cost it a lot of readers and papers during the Vietnam war, but both strips are absolutely masterful storytelling, with daring adventures and femmes fatale all over the world.

Frankly you’ll be very lucky to find anything of Crane or Sickles available cheaply, if at all. (Actually there is a collection of all of Sickles’ Scorchy Smith out soon, but it isn’t cheap.) Caniff is better served, with lots of collections of Terry and Canyon available. You might even find Checker’s Steve Canyon collections quite cheaply, but bear in mind that they are significantly reduced from the original size, so you need decent eyesight to read them.

Oh, and I’d like to add an honorary mention to Frank Robbins’ excellent work on Johnny Hazard from 1944-77.


  1. 1
    Dan M. on 11 Jul 2008 #

    I guess this entry is about “contemporary” or “realistic” adventure strips. Otherwise, why not include Tarzan, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Prince Valiant, or a personal fave, Alley Oop? But given that categorizing, you definitely nailed the classics in the genre — can’t think of another real contender, ottomh. Unless you’d include Little Orphan Annie in the category.

    Come to think of it, this could be a ‘spoiler’ for your next entry — feel free to censor!

  2. 2
    Dan M. on 11 Jul 2008 #

    Oh, oh — what about The Phantom and Mandrake the Magician? And what about Westerns, or is that a different discussion? I’m not too familiar with them, but I’ve seen some beautiful examples of Cisco Kid and Wesley Ruggles. I guess that’s getting relatively obscure for this discussion, though.

    And nothing ever really captured that “globe-trotting adventurer” feel that especially Crane’s strips and the ’30s Terry had. So much fun…

  3. 3
    Martin Skidmore on 13 Jul 2008 #

    I don’t know if those others will get covered. I nearly put Alley Oop in my first entry, but obviously I am only including brief highlights: that would definitely have been the next strip I included. It means I leave a lot of very worthwhile out. I probably should have included Tarzan, though I was thinking of ‘adventure’ as a specific genre (i.e. not including SF, for example) when I selected strips – then my intro made it seem as if I just opposed it to humour strips. I don’t know where I’d put Little Orphan Annie, which is a terrific strip. It’s kind of in between.

  4. 4
    james on 17 Jul 2008 #

    I always did like Johnny Hazard better than the Milt Caniff stuff — there’s something was always HAPPENING in Hazard, whereas in Caniff it always feels like down-time, filler strips BETWEEN important story points — sometimes for months or years at a time.

    and yes, the Steve Canyon reprints are TINY.

  5. 5
    Martin Skidmore on 17 Jul 2008 #

    I like the filler in Caniff, but that would probably be different if I were reading it day to day. There are sequences where Steve Canyon is omitted for a couple of months while he plays with some other characters, and regular week-long stalls before the reveal of this story’s female lead, or lengthy teasers for the return of some character. These are fine in book collections, which is the only way most of us ever get to read it now.

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