Don Winslow in a typical hair-raising situation.


Original medium: Newspaper comics
Distributed by: Bell Syndicate
First Appeared: 1934
Creator: Frank V. Martinek
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Like other mass entertainment media, comics can also be used to inform and/or persuade — as propaganda, in other words. Don Winslow, U.S.N. (later referred to mostly …

continued below

… as Don Winslow of the Navy) was launched in 1934 to address the issue of low Naval recruitment in the inland portions of America.

Not that it didn't entertain readers as well. In fact, to be effective, propaganda must have some way of roping in an audience, and entertaining them is a good way of doing that. Also, by showing the hero having exciting adventures with spies and saboteurs, it made the Navy look attractive to young men of recruitment age.

Don Winslow was the brainchild of Frank V. Martinek, a veteran of World War I Naval intelligence. Martinek hired Leon Beroth (who later did a minor strip called Kitten Kaye) as art director and Carl Hammond (whose known credits in comics are even sparser) to do layouts and research, while Martinek set the strip's general tone and direction. The daily strip debuted from The Bell Syndicate (Tailspin Tommy, Miss Cairo Jones) on March 5, 1934. A Sunday page was added the following year.

Don was a lieutenant commander in Naval intelligence. He didn't have much personality, since his main function was to make the Navy look good, but he was smart and good in a fight — had to be, because his job was to save the world from The Scorpion (no relation), The Crocodile, Dr. Q, and other colorful and capable bad guys. He had a Naval girlfriend, too — Mercedes Colby, who had no less than two admirals in her family, and who became a nurse for the Navy during World War II. Don's sidekick was Lt. Red Pennington, who provided a lot of muscle. There was a similar-themed topper to the Sunday, Bos'n Hal, Sea Scout. Hal also had seafaring adventures, but being much younger than Don (and therefore a role model for an intermediate stage in taking up a life on the sea) didn't tangle with dangerous, world-conquering super villains.

Later creative personnel on the strip included Ed Moore (former assistant on Dan Dunn), Ken Ernst (well known later for his work on Mary Worth) and John Jordan (who also did the comic book character Sgt. Spook for Novelty Press). But the newspaper comic didn't remain Don's major focus for long. He almost immediately branched out into Big Little Books, of which more than a half-dozen were published during the '30s. The radio show began October 19, 1937. It ran two seasons, then was revived Oct. 5, 1942, when World War II made military adventure immensely popular. In 1940, Grosset & Dunlap published the first of four novels about him, written by Martinek. There were also comic books by several publishers, from the 1930s to the '50s.

The first of them was from a very minor company called Merwil, and combined comics reprints with a new prose story about the character. The following year, Dell Comics began reprinting Don's newspaper adventures in Crackajack Funnies (alongside those of Wash Tubbs, Freckles & His Friends, Apple Mary, The Nebbs and other comic strip stars) with its first issue, dated June, 1938. They continued until the title folded in 1942, then switched to Popular Comics, which they shared with those of Smilin' Jack, Terry & the Pirates and more. In addition, Dell starred Don in a couple of early issues of Four Color Comics, which also devoted issues to Prince Valiant, Steve Canyon and any number of other comic strip heroes, and ran him in its 1938 oneshot, Famous Feature Stories, along with King of the Royal Mounted, Little Orphan Annie and more.

Fawcett Publications (Captain Marvel, Spy Smasher) launched its Don Winslow of the Navy comic book title with a February, 1943 cover date. Fawcett used new stories rather than reprints. It lasted until 1948, then was revived in '51, for a total of 69 issues. In 1955, it was revived again by Charlton Comics (Captain Atom, The Blue Beetle), which had inherited a lot of titles on Fawcett's withdrawal from the comic book business. Charlton reprinted Fawcett's stories for four issues in Don's own book, then continued them in the back pages of other titles such as Fightin' Navy.

The movie serial, Don Winslow of the Navy, produced by Universal Pictures (Tim Tyler, Jungle Jim), began January 6, 1942. It was so successful, Universal followed it in '43 with the 13-episode Don Winslow of the Coast Guard.

That was the height of Cdr. Winslow's popularity, which declined after World War II. Also, improved recruitment made him less necessary as a propaganda tool. The strip ran for another decade, but finally sank on Saturday, July 30, 1955.


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Text ©2004-10 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Bell Syndicate.