Sequential Illustration is a storytelling method that dates back to Stone-Age Cave Wall Paintings, but the Comics inspired many Old Time Radio Favorites.
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.
The earliest Comic Books were reprints of funny page strips, collected and bound in pulp magazines. Famous Funnies hit the newsstands in 1933 and created an industry. The term "comic book" is derived from their "funny page" origin; the funnies were created to attract kids to enjoy newspapers with their parents (although many grown-ups enjoyed the funny pages as well). Comics continue to be perceived as "kid's stuff" even though some of the most profitable cinema franchises of all time, the Marvel Universe Movies, come almost directly from the comic book pages.
In 1925 The Chicago Tribune had a very popular comic strip, The Gumps. An executive at WGN, the radio station owned by the newspaper, guessed 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. Here are some more Old Time Radio favorites which began as Sequentially Illustrated Stories:
Archie Andrews first appears in PEP Comics #22 in December 1941, Archie #1 has a cover date of Winter 1942, the Archie Andrews radio program debuted on the Blue Network on May 31, 1943. Bob Montana created Archie Andrews, who first appeared in Pep Comics #22. Archie was a typical 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.
Batman was Detective Comics' answer to the success of Superman in Action Comics. Easily one of the most recognizable of Costumed Superheroes, Batman never had the success on the radio that he enjoyed in other media. The Batman TV series of the 1960s is considered a classic for its campy tone (although comic fans argue that the TV Batman had nothing to do with their hero). Except for a one-off audition program that uses the Batman characters but little of the characteristics, Batman and Robin on the radio were relegated to supporting roles on The Adventures of Superman.
The Blue Beetle first appeared in Mystery Men Comics #1 in August 1939, heard on CBS radio serial from May to September 1940. Rookie patrolman Dan Garret's father, also a cop, had been gunned down by crooks. Unsatisfied with what he could accomplish with the restrictions of the police force, Garret begins fighting crime as the Blue Beetle. At first, he had no superpowers but soon donned a special bullet-proof suit and gained super-strength by ingesting "Vitamin 2X". Frank Lovejoy played the Beetle on CBS. In the mid-Sixties, Dan Garrett (two t's) was an archeologist who gained the Blue Beetle's powers while digging in Egypt and eventually joined the ranks of DC superheroes.
Blondie, created by Chic Young and first published by King Syndications on September 8, 1930; Columbia Pictures begins a 12-year-long series of Blondie "B-grade" pictures in 1938; the films inspire a radio program which debuts as a 1939 summer replacement series. Chic Young created a few 'pretty girl' series, including one about flapper Blondie Boopadoop and her college boyfriend, Dagwood Bumstead. The strip had a big buildup to the Bumstead's wedding, including Dagwood's disapproving parents disinheriting the couple, forcing Dagwood to get a job and become part of the middle class. Usually, a popular strip which inspires a successful radio series might get the green light for a film or TV series; Blondie caught the eye of Columbia studios and after Blondie (1938, directed by Frank Strayer) became a hit, the picture's stars, Penny Singleton and Arthur Lake, were tapped to bring their characters to CBS in the summer of 1939. 28 films were made through 1950, and when the film series came to an end, so did the radio show.
Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, first appeared in the novella "Armageddon 2419 A.D." in August 1928 issue of Amazing Stories, adapted for a newspaper comic strip beginning January 7, 1929; first comic book appearance is in October 1934 issue of Famous Funnies #3; first airs on CBS on November 7, 1932. As originally conceived, Rogers was investigating radioactive gas phenomena near a coal mine, becomes overwhelmed by the gas, and wakes up 492 years later. The North America he wakes up to is hardly the utopian wonderland of Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek, but Buck will overcome any odds with a healthy dose of Good Old Truth, Justice, and the American Way.
Dick Tracy, debuted in The Detroit Mirror on October 1, 1931, first comic book appearance in Popular Comics in 1936 and got his own book, the Dick Tracy Feature Book in May 1937; debuted over NBC New England Network 1934. 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.
Don Winslow of the Navy, debuted as a Bell Syndicate strip on March 5, 1935; featured in Dell's Crackajack Funnies in 1938; Don Wilson of the Navy #1 appeared on February 17, 1943, with Captain Marvel on the cover to introduce the titular officer; began broadcasting over the Blue Network on October 19, 1937. Most comic heroes rely on some sort of "superpower"; Don Winslow's superpower was being a member of the US Navy. The character was created by LCDR Frank V. Martinek, USNR, who had served with Naval Intelligence during the Great War. One of his fellow officers had complained about how hard it was to recruit from the Midwest which inspired Martinek to create a strip focused on Naval Tradition and manly courage. Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox helped to sell the idea to the Bell Network. The Blue Network program was hailed for being wholesome and patriotic but was canceled after two seasons, however, it was revived to even more popularity during the War.
Flash Gordon was created for the King Features Syndicate in 1934 to compete with Buck Rogers in the 21st Century. Flash is a good-looking athlete who joins Dale Arden and Dr. Zarkov in their spaceship to answer the threat from Planet Mungo. The great Gale Gordon was the first to play Flash on the air, beginning on April 22, 1935, in what began as a 26-episode serial. The series ended with Flash and Dale's marriage on October 26, but two days later the gang was again fighting Interplanetary bad guys on Mutual's The Further Interplanetary Adventures of Flash Gordon.
Gasoline Alley debuted on November 24, 1918, in Chicago Tribune Syndications, and has the longest publication of any currently running strip. The gentle, slice-of-life strip follows four generations of the Wallet family and was a terrific fit for the Radio. In a bid to attract lady readers to the strip, Baby Skeezix was deposited on bachelor Walt Wallet's doorstep in 1921. Skeezix's adventures were largely based on those of creator Frank King's own son. Unlike most comic strip and sitcom kids, Skeezix and the others in Gasoline Alley were allowed to grow up.
Little Orphan Annie, debuted in the New York Daily News on August 5, 1925, debuted on WGN Chicago in 1930 and nationwide over the Blue Network on April 6, 1931. 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.
Mandrake the Magician is considered the first Superhero to appear in the comics. First appearing in King Features Syndications in the summer of 1934, Mandrake predates superheroes like Superman and Captain Marvel. Part of every superhero is his superpower, and Mandrake's was the ability to effortlessly induce a state of hypnosis. He deployed this ability on his stage audiences as well as against all manner of gangsters, crooks, extraterrestrial beings mad scientists, and other assorted baddies. Mandrake began appearing on the Mutual Network in quarter-hour episodes on November 11, 1940, and most of the on-air bad guys were fascists in various forms.
Mark Trail was a Sunday comics section feature by Ed Dodd , where Trail was a pipe-smoking, dark haired forest ranger who loved nature and told of its wonders. The strip showed kids the tracks of animals, and what they did in the winter when there was no food and was a great way for city kids to learn something about the big woods. Mark Trail's adventures were good, intelligent fun for the kids, and probably gave many future nature lovers one of their first chances to get excited about wild America. The show's beginning is a great example of taking a mild-mannered forest ranger and taking his job "over the top" with Mark Trail's "Battling the raging elements! Fighting the savage wilderness! Striking at the enemies of man and nature!"
Popeye first appeared as a character in King Features Syndicate's Thimble Theater on December 19, 1919. By this time, Thimble Theater. The popular Theater featuring the pretty if scatterbrained heroine Olive Oyl had been around for nearly a decade at this point, but soon the strip's focus went to the one-eyed sailor. Popeye the Sailorman's popularity began to skyrocket when King Features signed an agreement with Fleischer Studios to bring Popeye and his pals to the screen in a series of theatrical short cartoons. Beginning on September 10, 1935, Popeye the Sailor began appearing on the red Network. Purists will note that on the air, Popeye got his 'muskels' from Wheatena cereal rather than the usual spinach.
Red Ryder, first appeared as a syndicated strip beginning November 6, 1938, was on the cover of Crackajack Funnies #9 in March 1939; got his own Dell title, Red Ryder, in August 1941; began broadcasting over the Blue Network on February 3, 1942. Publisher Stephen Slesinger had an idea for a Western strip and needed an artist. Fred Harman was an actual cowboy and his knowledge of authentic period details and pen-and-ink talent made him a perfect fit. Especially on the Radio, Red Ryder was a rival to The Lone Ranger franchise. Red was an idealized cowpoke and not a lawman, although he was perfectly willing to be deputized if the sheriff needed some help dealing with bad eggs. Like the Ranger, he avoided unnecessary violence and never killed his foes, he just shot the guns out of their hands. The infamous "Red Ryder carbine-action, two hundred shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time" only existed as described in A Christmas Story (1983, MGM, written by Jean Shepherd), although Daisy Outdoor Products has produced a not-so-fancy Red Ryder BB Gun, named for the comic strip, since Spring 1940.
Sad Sack first appeared drawn in pantomime by Sgt George Baker in the first issue, June 1942, of Yank, the Army Weekly Magazine. The hapless private's name comes from an expression used by drill sergeants the an inept recruit was a "sad sack of sh!#!" Sad Sack brought his military foibles to civilian newspaper funnies from 1946 until 1958. Private Sack was first heard on the air played by Mel Blanc on the April 29, 1944 edition of G.I. Journal with Bob Hope and Betty Grable. Old Gold Cigarettes sponsored The Sad Sack Show as a summer replacement for The Frank Sinatra Show in 1946.
Smilin' Jack first appears in the Chicago Tribune on October 1, 1933, Dell Comics publishes an anthology of strips in 1936 and new Smilin' Jack comic books go on sale in 1940, radio debut over Mutual Network on February 13, 1939. Adventure Stories based on the world of Aviation became popular in the '30s. Zack Mosley began sketching airplanes after an Army "Jenny" landed in a field near his home. Smilin' Jack was filled with great aviation art but Jack's adventures carried the strip. The supporting cast of characters included his sidekick, 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.
The Adventures of Superman first appeared on the cover of Action Comics #1 dated June 1938, became a syndicated newspaper strip in January 1939, Superman #1 was cover-dated Summer 1939 and began broadcasting as a syndicated program from WOR New York on February 12, 1940. 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. Many elements of Superman's iconic status were created for the radio program, such as his aversion to Kryptonite which was a device to allow star Bud Collyer to take some vacation time.
Terry and the Pirates began as a daily strip on October 22, 1934, and appeared on Sunday color pages that December, ran three afternoons a week on the Red Network beginning November 1, 1936. Milton Caniff created the story of a "wide-awake American Boy" in China who had adventures and foiled 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 canceled 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.
Reading Comics on the Radio
The Comic Weekly Man began airing in 1947 over the Mutual Network, produced by the Hearst Syndicate, which included Puck: The Comic Weekly insert in 17 different Sunday editions across the nation. Think of Comic Weekly Man as doing the same thing for the Funnies that Lux Radio Theatre did for Hollywood movies. After opening with a catchy jingle, the Man, an uncredited Lon Clark, would read and describe the action in the popular strips, including Snookums, Blondie, Prince Valiant, and many more. Clark read all the male parts and his friend, "the little girl", probably Ms. Cecil Roy, read the female characters.
Comic Parade was an interesting footnote in the Labor Movement, the Information Age, and the Funnies. During the summer of 1945, when New Yorkers were hungry for news of the world, the truck drivers for eight of the major newspapers went on strike. Desperate for their news fix, New Yorkers turned to the radio, but what about the kids and their Funny Page? On Sunday, July 1, "hizzoner the mayor", Fiorello La Guardia sat before the microphones at WNYC and read the comic page to his youngest constituents. Reading the Sunday Funnies was turned over to other comedians for the remainder of the strike.
Club Car Special was presented by the Hearst News Paper Syndicate. The little show presented a teaser of the upcoming Sunday's Newspaper inserts during mid-week. The show opens with a sketch dramatizing a cartoon, then a short review of some of the humorous articles by favorite Hearst writers like O.O.McKentyre, Will Rogers, George Eads, Stan Hilman, Arthur 'Bugs' Bayer, Milt Gross, Damon Runyon and many others.
Telling stories with pictures, which is precisely the appeal of comic books and the Funny Pages, should simply not have worked on the radio. However, just like it does with movie adaptations on the radio (another concept that shouldn't work) the mind takes the images it already has and expands them with the audio information it does get and creates even more detailed and spectacular impressions. Can the radio ever match the experience of spreading out a full-color Sunday Comic insert? To be perfectly honest, probably not. However, Comics on the Radio are still a lot more fun than we would expect, and can be enjoyed without waiting for Dad to finish the sports page!