THE ADVENTURES OF PATSYMedium: Newspaper comics
Distributed by: Associated Press
First Appeared: 1935
Creator: Mel Graff
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littered the landscape. It didn't even stand out among those with young girl protagonists, such as Little Orphan Annie and Little Annie Rooney. It wasn't in all that many papers, and none of the several cartoonists who worked on it appears to have done a very memorable job. Even its syndicator, The Associated Press, while known worldwide for its rapid dissemination of news, wasn't highly noted for its comics.
But the strip has one distinction that gets it at least a footnote in the history books. Of all the masked, costumed, super-powered mystery men who stride, fly, stretch, swim or teleport through the comics medium today, the very first was an early supporting character in The Adventures of Patsy. Depending on how you define the term, Patsy's recurring rescuer, The Phantom Magician, may have been the first superhero in comics.
During most of its existence The Adventures of Patsy was about a young actress in Hollywood, but it was very different at the beginning. It started on March 11, 1935, when young Patsy, an ordinary girl of about 4-6, was carried away on a kite. Next thing she knew, she was in the magical kingdom of Ods Bodkins, and getting caught up in stories reminiscent of Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland. She wasn't the first juvenile star of an Associated Press comic to enter the world of the imagination — Milton Caniff's Dickie Dare had been running for more than a year. But Dickie's adventures all took place in books he'd read, whereas Mel Graff, the cartoonist who created Patsy, had no such limits on the things that could happen to Patsy, or the characters she could meet.
At the end of the strip's fifth week, a big carnival was announced in honor of Patsy and her friend, a younger boy named Thimble, and she wished she had something nice to wear to it. On Monday, April 15, a tall, handsome man in swashbuckling clothes appeared in a puff of smoke, introduced himself as The Phantom Magician, and conjured up regal outfits for both. From that point on, he was her constant companion. Some people say Mandrake the Magician, who started in 1934, was comics' first superhero — but if he wasn't, this guy, not Superman, was.
But unlike Superman, The Phantom Magician didn't become a big hit or set off any trends. He just had a few half-humorous, half-hair-raising escapades with Patsy, and even these came to an end during August of the same year. Patsy got homesick, and her super-powered benefactor returned her there. She was reunited with her grieving parents on the 19th of the month. The Phantom Magician switched to a regular Earth suit and assumed the identity of her hitherto-unseen uncle, Phil Cardigan. He never used his powers again. Thimble was sort of adopted by the family. Graff's artwork became more sharply defined, with greater use of blacks. The strip switched from whimsy to melodrama, and continued that way for years.
The Hollywood setting began toward the end of 1936, when Patsy became a child actress for Paragon Pictures, with Uncle Phil there as her guardian and Thimble tagging along. Phil became a screen writer and Patsy's producer, J.P. Panberg, became a regular character in the series. A few years later, Phil was written out, and a Hollywood agent named Skidd Higgins became Patsy's adult sidekick. A Sunday strip was added in the early 1940s.
Mel Graff left the strip in 1939, to take over King Features' Secret Agent X-9. There followed a succession of artists — Charles Raab (a former assistant to Milton Caniff on Terry & the Pirates), George Storm (whose comic book work ranged from Bugs Bunny to The Hangman), Bill Dyer (previously a sports cartoonist, who had also helped launch the Sunday version of Oaky Doaks) By far, the most notable was Noel Sickles, who put Scorchy Smith on the map and who ghosted this strip briefly in 1942.
The Adventures of Patsy never did garner much attention. Its only media spin-off, if you want to call it that, was a few pages of reprints in early issues of Famous Funnies (where The Phantom Magician made his first comic book appearance in #32, March 1937, still well before Superman). When it faded off the newspaper page, about 1954, its passing was scarcely noticed.
But it may have introduced the first superhero in comics.