Scorchy in a jam. Artist: Noel Sickles.


Medium: Newspaper comics
Distributed by: Associated Press
First Appeared: 1930
Creator: John Terry
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Scorchy Smith was one of those comic strips about adventuring aviators that were so frequently seen in American newspapers of the 1930s. Kind of like …

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Smilin' Jack, but without the long continuity of creative personnel — like Skyroads, but without a big name artist involved in its creation — like Tailspin Tommy, but without the distinction of having been first. It was notable for a couple of outstanding talents that worked on it, but even there, less notable for its own sake than for what came of it elsewhere.

The daily strip began during March, 1930, an early offering of The Associated Press — which may have been a powerhouse when it came to rapidly disseminating news from coast to coast, but was definitely a bush league syndicator of comics — among its best known offerings were Mr. Gilfeather and Oaky Doaks. The cartoonist who handled Scorchy for AP was John Terry, a former animator who had more recently turned to political cartoons. Like his brother Paul, who founded Terrytoons, John Terry was better at getting the work out on time, than at imbuing it with outstanding quality. Still, in the early years following Charles Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic, adventure series involving aviation were immensely popular, and even a sub-standard one was able to prosper. After a couple of years, this one was running in about 200 papers.

Scorchy somewhat resembled "Lindy", young, blond and slim. He had a plane, and hired out his services to whoever might need one — which in his case, often led to daring rescues, gunfights, mystery solving, and other adventure story staples. In his 1947 book, The Comics, historian Coulton Waugh (Dickie Dare) made only one complaint about the character: He never smiled. He was always serious about his fabulous adventures, and never seemed to be having much fun. In this, he resembled the later flying hero, Barney Baxter.

Terry withdrew for health reasons in 1933, and that's when the talent came along that put Scorchy Smith on the map. Noel Sickles, who had been on staff, doing artistic odd jobs for AP, took it over. Tho he made no bones about his dislike of Terry's work, he dutifully copied Terry's style, starting December 4, 1933. Gradually, tho, he was able to let his own way of doing it emerge.

Sickles's way was neither an illustrative style, as had started to be seen in strips like Connie and Tarzan, nor the cartoony "bigfoot" style that had been with the medium for decades, but something that had not been seriously explored in comics before: Impressionism, in which the artist, instead of attempting to duplicate the precise, measurable form of an object, attempts to use a few lines to convey the impression it makes on a viewer. He also experimented with a chiaroscuro effect, in which the arrangement of light and dark areas had as much to do with the composition of each picture as the linework. Milton Caniff, who shared a studio with Sickles, learned a great deal from these experiments, as he showed in his contemporary work on Terry & the Pirates.

Sickles left Scorchy in 1936, and there followed a succession of less prominent artists. A minor stand-out was Bert Christman, who later co-created The Sandman for DC Comics. The next outstanding cartoonist to work on Scorchy was Frank Robbins, who, like Sickles, had never had a feature of his own before. His signature first appeared May 22, 1939. Robbins packed the strip with hair-raising adventures, but he didn't stick around very long. In 1944, he was hired away by King Features, where he created Johnny Hazard — practically a clone of Scorchy.

Then there was another succession with, again, one minor stand-out — George Tuska (Buck Rogers, Crime Does Not Pay and other diverse credits) served a stint during the 1950s. The strip lingered until 1961, without inspiring any media spin-offs. The last artist to handle it was Milt Morris, whose credits include News Cartoon, Neighborly Neighbors and others of equal stature.

There have been occasional reprints of Sickles and Robbins runs, but not of most others.


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Text ©2003-07 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Associated Press.