Have you ever heard of Tailspin Tommy the comic strip character? I have, but then again I have some 30,000 comic books and fancy myself as someone who knows quite a bit about comic books… then again… this is a newspaper comic strip. Something totally different.
Although aviation in aeroplanes had been around since 1903 with the Wright Brothers doing secret, but successful aeroplane flights, and balloonists taking flight since 1783, few people thought to capitalize on it via comic books or comic strips. There certainly were numerous postcard cartoons, however.
In fact, it wasn’t until Charles Lindbergh’s historic solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927 that the general public began to really clamor for further exploits of men (and women) and their jaunty flying machines.
In 1928, the adventure aviation comic strip began appearing in newspapers, and ended up being the longest running such strip until its demise in 1942, when WWII came about (US participation in December of 1941) and the public wanted REAL aviation heroes.
Still, Tailspin Tommy Tompkins was a popular character, a young man created by artist Hal Forrest and Glenn Chaffin, the writer who was also a newspaper journalist and press agent.
First published in four newspapers on April 30, 1928, just three years later the adventures of Tailspin Tommy were seen in over 250 newspapers across the US.
Beginning in 1933, Forrest purchased Chaffin’s part and began writing and drawing the strip by himself, until 1936 when he took on Reynold Brown to pencil it, while Forrest inked (and wrote) it.
Who is Tailspin Tommy? Well, according to a Wikipedia entry, Tommy Tompkins of Littleville, Colorado was so obsessed with flying that even before he ever set foot in a plane he gained the nickname Tailspin Tommy.
Now… I’m pretty sure that having the nickname Tailspin isn’t necessarily a good thing, as it generally means you aren’t in control of your aircraft. Oh well.
Now Tommy, who took a correspondence course in aero-engineering, became introduced to real planes after a lucky accident involving Milt Howe, a mail pilot, who made an emergency landing in a field near Tommy’s neighborhood.
Running out to help him, Howe rewarded his quick thinking by making him a ‘grease monkey’ at his Three Point Airlines in Texas.
Eventually, Tailspin Tommy became a pilot and became a part owner in the airline and had many adventures.
I know, I know… it sounds kind of boring, but believe it or not, beginning in 1934, there was a 12-episode movie serial, complete with weekly cliffhangers called Tailspain Tommy, with the lead actor Maurice Murphy.
It did well enough to spawn a second 12-parter in 1935 called Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery starring Clark Williams… and if that was enough, there were four 60 minute features released on 1939 starring John Trent: Mystery Plane; Stunt Pilot; Danger Flight; and Sky Patrol.
I can’t verify the quality of the films, suffice to say that Sky Patrol (a coast guard-type organization of the sky) has: Tailspin helping a bunch of graduates on their first assignment patrolling a piece of land for some clandestine activity. When one of the pilots is captured, its up to Tommy and his crew to beat the bad guys AND to rescue the captured pilot.
The above comic strip is a piece of original artwork of Tailspin Tommy’s Sunday page (the only day of the week it would be in color!), from July 13, 1930, as drawn by Hal Forrest.
And… finally… Tailspin Tommy did indeed ALSO appear in a comic book – namely the first modern era comic book in 1934, as one of the many newspaper strips reprinted in the famous Famous Funnies #1, published by William Gaines, whose son Max did the great EC comics like Tales From The Crypt and Mad Magazine.
As well, Tailspin Tommy also appeared in a host of Big Little Books (I used to have all of these books, but sold them about nine years ago just as they were becoming collectable again). (Ugh! I wish I held onto my mint condition Buck Rogers BLBs!).