The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
SMILIN' JACK'S AUTOPLANE
Airplanes were new and dazzling technology in the 1930s. Charles Lindbergh established himself as the archetypal American hero with his daredevil solo flight over the Atlantic in 1927 and a million imitators and wannabe pilots flooded the skies over the next decade.
Zack Mosley was one of them. As an artist, he apprenticed on Skyroads, an early aviation strip drawn by Lt. Dick Calkins, who later would be the first artist on Buck Rogers, where Mosley also toiled in the background. The proximity to planes must have gotten to him because he started taking flying lessons in 1933 at the age of 27. Although he didn't get his license until 1936 he almost immediately saw the possibilities in a comic strip satirizing the foibles of student pilots. On the Wing, starring student pilot Mack Martin, began in the Chicago Tribune on October 1, 1933. A slight bit of editing changed Mark to Jack and Smilin' Zack Mosley in real life spawned The Adventures of Smilin' Jack starting December 31, 1933. Jack lost both his last name and "The Adventures of" in the title: his editor wanted Jack to remain down-to-earth. For the first three years, it was a Sunday-only gag strip. Although some sequences stretched out for months, each individual strip ended in a punchline.
Keeping an airplane in the air in those days provided plenty of opportunity for action, nevertheless. Jack graduated and started running his own flying school and building his own airplanes. No matter how good his planes were - and they were the best - they kept falling out of the air: shot down by rivals, taken for joy rides by friends, and subject to every storm on the Atlantic seaboard. Gags gave slowly away to adventures and the formula kept Smilin' Jack in the air for another 37 years, until Mosley retired. Over those years, Smilin' Jack, the second handsomest man in the world, would grow a Clark Gable mustache that made him irresistible, pal with Headwind, the handsomest man in the world - so handsome his face could never be shown, add a sideshow's worth of comic sidekicks, acquire a Dick Tracy-like legion of sinister criminal archfoes, and dazzle a much larger troupe of female hotties, so meltingly beautiful that they became known as "de-icers." He'd wed two of them, Joy Beaverduck and Sable Lottalotta, and have a kid, Jack Jr., who grew from a baby to an adult and whose wedding ended the strip in 1973.
Mosley was a product of his time and his attitudes toward the world included numerous elements no longer acceptable. The South Sea islanders and the other natives Jack encounters around the world are ignorant caricatures baffled by the white man's technology. Jack's assistant, Fat Stuff, was a Hawaiian who learned English in prison and spoke like Tonto. He was so fat that his buttons keep bursting off his shirt, forever being eaten by a bewildered chicken who mistook them for food.
Jack's de-icers had a bit more flair. Much like the movie's leading ladies in the 1930s, they were independent and capable, pilots as good, well, almost as good as the untoppable Jack. Call them hellcats and spitfires. Jack tamed them the only way he knew how: by throwing them over his knee and spanking them. One theory of the screwball comedy is that after Joseph Breen started enforcing the Hays Code in 1934, writers and directors sublimated sex into violence. Sex couldn't be shown, but a man spanking a woman could. Audiences got the intent. Spanking scenes turn up everywhere in visual media of the era. (So do slapping, pushing, and other physical violence that necessitated hand on skin touching.) The Hays Code - and the equal, if not greater, censorship of newspapers - specified what couldn't be shown so writers gamed the system with code of their own. Most popular culture of that age has elements modern audiences can no longer easily dismiss and certainly can't give the adulation that they once garnered, and rightly so. At the same time, without immersion in older cultural norms, most of us will lose under-the-surface nuances that help explain why some of these elements were so readily accepted at the time. Fortunately, the autoplane sequence I'm featuring here has a heroine with all the good and none of the bad.
Smilin' Jack became a huge hit by the end of the 1930s. He starred in a radio show, a movie serial, his own comic book, and several Big Little Books for kids. A 1940 research article claimed that it was the favorite strip of children out of the 1200 or so published. As with so much else of the past, you had to be there.
These three panels appeared at the bottom of the Smilin' Jack Sunday strips for April 23, July 9, and July 16, 1950. Dozens of aviators came home from WWII and thought that a huge market for cheap flying cars would appear as millions of city dwellers moved out to the then practically deserted suburbs, thousands of ex-pilots among them. (Check out my ebook: Flying Cars: The Miracle of Flight - in Your Driveway!) None of them could lick the basic problems, not least of which is their falling out of the sky. No matter: flying cars will keep getting invented until the end of time because they sound so cool.
Anyway, that gave Mosley a chance to remind older readers of his 1935 "autoplane." They didn't have any ability to go back and dig them out of newspaper archives, but that's the miracle of modern computers on your desktop. The autoplane sequence actually begins a week earlier than mentioned in the strip, when Jack tells his current gal, Mary, that he's planning on entering his new plane in the National Air Flivver Derby.
October 27, 1935.
A flivver was a nickname for Ford's Model T and became used for any cheap but reliable knockabout car and then for small, cheap airplanes. Ford itself tried marketing an aircraft called the Ford Flivver in 1926. It was a disaster that never made it into production after a crash killed Ford's chief test pilot. Ford tried again in 1931 with the Stout Skycar. Stout was Ford's chief designer, whose Ford Trimotor became a huge success. Nevertheless the Sky Car (sometimes spelled Skycar) also never went into production, though widely publicized as a prototype. As seen below it's the likely model for Mosley's autoplane.
An Air Derby was a race, either over a small course with lots of turns and twists or from city-to-city, with points given out both for speed and control. Winners usually were rewarded with a cash prize, something that Jack, running a business on a shoestring during the Depression, would pant after. Air derbies took place constantly but 1935 provided Mosley with two terrific examples that his readers were sure to be familiar with.
Ruth Chatterton was both a film star and a pilot. She sponsored a series of Air Derbies in the 1930s, with the 1935 Derby offering $1000 in prize money for a course that would take the amateur pilots from Los Angeles to Cleveland, where the winner would be feted at the 1935 National Air Races, starting on August 30. Another female pilot, Mrs. Grace Prescott of San Diego, won the Derby, the trophy, and the $450 first prize. Finishing fourth and just out of the money didn't hurt the prospects of Cecile Hamilton, pictured with Prescott below. Although only 19, she had made a solo flight to England in 1933. At the end of 1935 she became the youngest transport pilot of either sex in America.
With all that set-up out of the way, Mosley introduced Smilin' Jack's autoplane on November 3. Like the Sky Car, the front is a small, rounded cockpit, the propeller is in the rear, and wings fold up for conversion into a ground vehicle. The location of that propeller worries me: I'd think that the prop wash beating against the plane would produce huge amounts of turbulence. I can't find any other examples in an image search of real-world pusher planes in which the propeller is above part of the fuselage. Unlike most flying cars, there's room for two pilots plus passengers, which is good for gags in a strip but would have increased weight and made the craft slow and overlong on a road. (Mosley was surprisingly inconsistent in his depictions of the plane for a fanatic about accurateness. He usually draws three windows, but the final panel below shows four. There's obviously a single front seat for a pilot here but later strips show two sitting side-by-side. First rule of comedy: when jokes run up against facts, jettison the facts.)
November 3, 1935.
The next several weeks alternate between the mysterious stranger warning Jack not to fly and gags that lighten a deadly plot line. Note that the last panel is always a picture of a real-world aircraft, there so that air-happy kids could cut them out and paste them in a scrapbook. Mosley would draw thousands of planes over his 40-year tenure, either in the one-panel Smilin' Jack Airport-style or the bottom of the strip Flying Facts-style that stretched the width of the page.
November 10, 1935.
November 17, 1935.
November 24, 1935.
December 1, 1935.
Then comes the race itself. Mosley was a huge supporter of female pilots, even though he got as many gags out of them as he did out of his male characters. Mary takes the controls and manages to walk away, despite the plane literally being shot down. Take that, Grace Prescott! She's the winner, though, or is she? Yes! Just in time for Christmas, she and Jack get a huge present. (Both Mary, as pilot, and Jack, in nurse's drag, wear high heels, not something that would be likely in real life. Guys didn't notice things like that back in the 30s.)
December 8, 1935.
December 15, 1935.
December 22, 1935.
If you're thinking that we never learn who Jack's mysterious foe is, you're right. We never see Jack getting the prize money either, or how much it is. In truth, Mosley was far better an artist than a writer.
With the race out of the way, Jack settles down to his everyday job of teaching and selling airplanes, great for our purposes because it gives Mosley an opportunity to reel off a series of flying car gags that give modern readers a glimpse of what contemporaries thought of them.
Velvet, the comic sidekick, is a slick con-man type, averse to hard work and forever wanting to make life easy for himself.
January 5, 1936.
January 12, 1936.
Many of the early comic books reprinted newspaper strips rather than provide original - and therefore unproven - content. Popular Comics reprinted several Smilin' Jack strips, giving us a rare chance to see the strip in color. Strips had to be cut into individual panels and repasted on the page in order to work in the new format. No room for the Smilin' Jack Airport panels remained.
January 19, 1936.
January 19, 1936.
For once Velvet gets the last laugh, in the next sequence.
January 26, 1936.
January 26, 1936.
February 2, 1936.
February 9, 1936.
Then it's back to flying car gags.
February 23, 1936.
February 23, 1936.
The autoplane was in the background a couple of other times but Mosley threw his editor a curve. He sent Jack on an adventure. He and Velvet boarded a giant four-engined seaplane clipper to the South Seas, so huge that he could stow a new version of the autoplane in cargo.
He adventured all over the world for the rest of his existence. Autoplanes were beneath him except for that 1950 exercise in nostalgia. By then the strip featured the latest in jet planes and other experimental aircraft. Flying cars never made it to the big time, good only for gags, and eternal striving after personal flight, a goal that still hasn't been achieved.