BARNEY BAXTER IN THE AIRMedium: Newspaper comics
Appearing in: Rocky Mountain News
First Appeared: 1935
Creator: Frank Miller
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On radio, in pulp magazines, even in early television, the adventuring aviator was a staple of American fiction during the first half of the 20th century. The "funny papers" fielded Tailspin Tommy,
Skyroads, Smilin' Jack
Brick Bradford, too, started out in that genre, before it went over to science fiction. Even after World War II, new ones, such as Bruce Gentry and — of course — Steve Canyon kept turning up, at least for a few years. Tho virtually unknown today, in its time, Barney Baxter in the Air was a fairly prominent representative of the popular genre.
Barney wasn't your standard pretty-boy hero. He was a bit on the short side, and pudgy. His face looked kind of lumpy, and was covered with freckles. He didn't have a big, toothy grin — in fact, he didn't smile very much at all. Of course, he wasn't downright ugly — his pal, Gopher Gus, a desert rat turned pilot, was the ugly one. His other pal, Hap Walters, a sometime-girlfriend named Patricia, and Barney's mom rounded out the cast. They had one thrilling adventure after another, fighting spies, air pirates, Latin American warlords and, when the time came, Nazis and Japs; and they kept it up for almost a decade and a half.
The cartoonist behind Barney and his entourage was Frank Miller — but not the Frank Miller who became famous decades later for his work on Elektra, Batman and Sin City. This Frank Miller was born in 1898, and spent his early 30s working on staff at Denver's Rocky Mountain News. There, he created Barney in 1935, for the paper's "Junior Aviator" page. At first the hero was a boy just entering his teens, who had a burning interest in airplanes; but the series took a more adventurous turn when a grown-up aviator named Cyclone Smith took him (with Mom's permission) on a trip to Alaska. By the time Barney got home, he was a seasoned crime fighter.
Barney Baxter in the Air (as the strip was originally called — it dropped the last part in 1943) had been running a little more than a year when Miller moved East to work at William Randolph Hearst's New York Mirror; and from then on, Barney was no longer a one-paper strip. Starting in December, 1936, it was distributed by Hearst's King Features Syndicate. By that time, Barney had rapidly aged to about his late teens or early 20s.
Miller's plots moved fast enough to keep most readers from noticing the occasionally large holes in them. But if, like the syndicate's earlier Flash Gordon, it was a bit light on the writing side, it was, also like Flash Gordon, very well drawn. But off the newspaper page, Barney didn't have anywhere near Flash's success. David McKay, a comic book publishing partner of King Features, starred him in an issue of Feature Book in 1938. Later, he appeared in the back pages of McKay's Magic Comics, where Henry, Mandrake and Blondie were the cover-featured stars. Whitman Publishing put him in a single Big Little Book. Dell devoted an issue of Four Color Comics to him in 1942. There were no film or radio adaptations.
Miller continued on Barney Baxter until 1942, when he had a heart attack and had to take a couple of years off. Bob Naylor, a King Features staffer whose other credits include a short-lived revival of Walter Hoban's Jerry on the Job, and Big Sister, which he drew from 1955-71, took over temporarily. Miller returned in 1945, to carry the strip into the postwar era.
But he didn't carry it far, as he died in 1949. By then, aviation no longer seemed quite as pioneering a concept as it had in earlier decades; and the era of the adventuring aviator, as a standard genre of fiction, was drawing to a close. The last of Miller's strips was published in January, 1950; and at that point, King Features folded the series.
Inexplicably, a minor comic book publisher called Argo Publications (The Toodle Family, Vic Flint) is recorded to have reprinted two issues of Barney's adventures when the strip was long gone, in 1956, but bibliographers question whether that reprint ever actually appeared on the stands. But that, assuming it exists at all, was the last of him.