SMILIN JACKMedium: Newspaper comics
Distributed by: Chicago Tribune Syndicate
First Appeared: 1933
Creator: Zack Mosley
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pulp magazine Air Wonder Stories to the comic book Air Fighters Funnies. Nor was it necessarily the best — even discounting the less-prominent aviation elements of Steve Canyon and Buz Sawyer, there were some very strong contenders for that title. But at four decades it was one of the longest-lasting, and it got very high marks for authenticity.
Zack Mosley started in comics as assistant to Lt. Dick Calkins on Buck Rogers and Skyroads. The latter was, itself, a pioneering air adventure strip, which suited Mosley, a life-long aviation enthusiast, just fine. When Mosley heard, from his friend Walter Berndt (creator of Smitty), that Captain Joe Patterson, editor of The Chicago Tribune, was taking flying lessons, he worked up a presentation for an aviation strip of his own. Patterson's uncanny eye for a soon-to-be-popular talent saw something in the 27-year-old cartoonist's work. On the Wing, as Mosley's strip was originally called, started as a Sunday page on October 1, 1933.
The strip was judged a winner, but the name a loser. Since, unbeknownst to himself, Mosley had been nicknamed "Smilin' Zack" at the Tribune office, and since the main character of the strip was at that time named Mack Martin, Patterson fudged a few initials and re-dubbed the strip Smilin' Jack. The new title went in place on December 31, 1933, and that's when the strip started taking off. The daily version started on June 15, 1936.
Jack Martin started out as a nervous student pilot, and the series concentrated on the humorous situations he and his fellow nervous students got into. But he matured into a full-fledged hero, and within a few years was foiling The Claw (no relation), Toemain the Terrible, The Head and his sister, The Mongoose, and other villains who wouldn't be too far out of place in Dick Tracy. With his dashing good looks, he also had his share of romantic interludes, whose heroines Mosley drew to perfection — Jack called them "de-icers", referring to equipment that keeps airplane wings (and apparently other things) from frosting over. Even so, he managed a marriage or two, and even fathered a son. Jack Jr. was one of those comic strip kids like Hairbreadth Harry, Gasoline Alley's Skeezix or Prince Valiant's Arn, whom the readers got to see all the way from birth to adulthood, and eventually marriage (tho in Jack Jr.'s case, that didn't happen until the second-last day of the strip's run).
Through most of the strip's existence, Jack's supporting cast included Downwind Jaxon, the only character more handsome than Jack himself (so good looking, in fact, that readers never saw more than the edge of his face, perhaps in fear they might be struck blind by his beauty); Fatstuff, Jack's Hawaiian friend who was always popping his shirt buttons (usually into the mouths of hungry chickens, so under-nourished from eating buttons instead of bugs that they were unable to grow feathers); and an inexhaustible supply of de-icers.
In 1943, Universal Pictures made Jack the subject of a movie serial, with Tom Brown in the title role. The first of its 13 episodes was released January 5 of that year. Jack also, like many other comic strip adventurers, held down his own radio show. In the 1930s he appeared in about a half-dozen Big Little Books published by Whitman; and in the '40s he starred in a couple of dozen comic books from Dell.
But those gigs pretty much dried up by the '50s, and the post-war years were not kind to adventure strips. Smilin' Jack held on for decades, but circulation steadily declined. When Mosley was 67 years old he decided he'd rather spend his days flying his own plane than drawing pictures of somebody else flying one, and retired. The Tribune Syndicate took that as its cue to retire the strip as well.
Smilin' Jack ended on Sunday, April 1, 1973, with a single big panel showing a crowd of long-running characters who'd gathered together for Jack Jr.'s wedding. Even the villains were represented; The Head could be seen lurking in a corner — the only one present who wasn't smiling.