Stern and a recent associate. Artist: Jim Aparo.

STERN WHEELER

Medium: Newspaper comics
Appearing in: The Hartford Times
First Appeared: 1963
Creators: Ralph Kanna (writer) and Jim Aparo (artist)
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Stern Wheeler was a newspaper comic, but not one distributed by one of the giant syndicates, like King Features Syndicate (Blondie) or Tribune Media Services (Dick Tracy) — or even a small syndicate, like The George Matthews Adams Service (Sky Masters) or The Chicago Sun-Times (Betsy & Me). It was in a …

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… single paper, not even one serving a major metropolis like New York or Los Angeles. Nonetheless, it's secured a minor spot in the medium's history, as the first comics work of Jim Aparo.

Aparo went from there to working at Charlton Comics, where his assignments included Nightshade, and from Charlton to DC, where he started on Aquaman and soon took over Black Lightning. But in the early 1960s, he'd been doing layouts, diagrams and other commercial art for The William Schaller Company, a Connecticut advertising agency. Breaking into comics was his ambition, but it hadn't yet been achieved.

Aparo teamed with writer Ralph Kanna (also a Schaller employee), who also had some interest in working in comics, to produce a comic strip — not for financial remuneration, but just, in Aparo's case, so he'd have a resumé item to supplement the art samples he was in the habit of sending out. The Hartford (Connecticut) Times didn't pay for or syndicate the work, but did agree to publish it. Stern Wheeler started there on March 4, 1963.

Stern's employment status wasn't 100% certain (the setup wasn't as meticulous as one might prefer), but he seemed to do a lot of work as an "undercover agent" for a guy named J.B. Shoreman, who seemed to be in charge of Ocean Services, Inc. Stern seemed to have a partner named Wally, outside the Ocean Services office, but the exact structure of the relationship wasn't spelled out.

The story opened with J.B. assigning Stern to fake first a marriage and then his own death, as part of a scheme to catch "the bad men pilfering young widows" (described elsewhere as killers) that wasn't described in very great detail, but that's okay because Stern's supposed bride's name wasn't mentioned, either. Even at that price, The Times ran it for only a couple of months.

After it ended, Kanna went on to a career in broadcasting, but it was a couple of years before Aparo moved into full-time comics work.

Stern Wheeler eventually got reprinted by Spotlight Comics, which existed for only a couple of years during the late 1980s, when the most notable thing it did was license a few Terrytoons characters. Spotlight planned to do the strip's whole run in two issues, but wound up publishing only one.

— DDM

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Text ©2010 Donald D. Markstein. Art © The Hartford Times.