Radio Patrol | The Dailies | Detectives in the Comics

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Radio Patrol

The police adventure comic strip Radio Patrol ran as dailies from 1933 - 1950, with Sundays going from 1934 - 1946. It was written by Eddie Sullivan, and drawn by Charlie Schmidt. It featured the adventures of Sgt. Pat (the strip's lead character), police woman Molly Day, Pat's partner Sam, and the courageous young boy Pinky Pinkerton. Both Pat and Molly seem to be Irish cops, in the tradition of the era. Molly is intelligent, courageous and competent, and is definitely one of the least sexist characters in the comics. Both Sullivan and Schmidt worked for the same Boston newspaper, and the series took place unofficially in and around the Boston area, and the surrounding countryside.

Radio Patrol was organized into distinct stories. Each new story has a title, put in the last panel of the preceding story. As in many narrative strips of the era, the daily strips and the Sunday strips had separate continuities and story lines.

Radio Patrol gave rise to a radio show, and a movie serial: Radio Patrol (1937), directed by Ford Beebe and Cliff Smith, with Grant Withers as the hero Pat, and silent film veteran Wheeler Oakman also in the film.

Radio Patrol has some features that recall the adventure comic strips of the 1930's: continuing story lines, a serious tone, a handsome hero, occasional action scenes, richly drawn art. But Radio Patrol is quite different in feel from the sf adventure series popular in the 1930's, such as Flash Gordon, Brick Bradford, Don Dixon, or such comic book imitations of these as Brad Hardy. Everything in Radio Patrol is strictly realistic. There are no elements of science fiction or the fantastic, and everything takes place on realistically depicted Boston city locations, or in the countryside. Hero Pat is always in realistic clothes of the 1930's, such as police uniforms, suits, or working man's clothes, when he is undercover. So are the other characters. This differs from Flash or Brick, who often were in exotic garb of different civilizations. Hero Pat was not the sole protagonist character of the strip, the way Flash or Brick seemed to be to sole stars of theirs. Instead, the point of view in Radio Patrol was often shared among a large cast of continuing characters, such as Molly, Pinky, Sam or the Buster. Both Pat and all the other Radio Patrol heroes are full of brain power, unlike the sf adventure heroes, who seem to stress brawn and fighting. While Pat is strong and good with his fists, most of the advances he and the other heroes make are due to smart detective work, not muscles. Pat also seems more modest and down to earth than Flash and Brick. He is content to be dating Molly, while Brick always seems to be romancing some new exotic princess.

The scripts in Radio Patrol were more tightly constructed than those in most sf adventure series, too. Every plot event in Radio Patrol flows directly and logically from the actions of one of the characters. This character can be a series hero, one of the many villains in the stories, or a suspect in a case. The interactions of the characters, and the plot events they generate, make up the entire story line and action of Radio Patrol. By contrast, in sf strips like Flash Gordon and Brick Bradford, the heroes are often exploring a strange new planet or lost civilization, and this fantastic world furnishes much of the plot of the story. What the individual characters do has much less bearing on the plot, than the strange world or environment which they are exploring.

There is a wry sense of humor running through Radio Patrol. This is not belly laugh style gags. Rather, it is a sense of absurdity and irony among the characters. The scripts often point this out explicitly. A character's statement or attitude will be referred to by others as comic or as "comedy".

The Dailies

Untitled Bank Robbery Tale (daily strips, around 9/26/35 to 1/18/1936). A mobster brings in professional safecrackers to help him rob a bank. The safecrackers, Sport Ambrose and Wally Oswaldo, are from the nearby city of Bigtown - shades of the later Big Town radio show and comic book. The safecrackers are odd, eccentric figures. They carry nothing but golf bags, and are beautifully dressed in shirts and ties. They look like upper class men having a golf game after work. The illusion is quite detailed. The two men also have a bizarre sense of humor. So does the mobster in charge, the fancily dressed crook, the Duke. Criminals in Radio Patrol often tend to be very well dressed. Gangsters in films and comics helped ordinary people in the Depression indulge in fantasies of wealth and power.

By contrast, police and other good guys tend to wear snazzy police uniforms in Radio Patrol. They too are spiffed up to the max. Hero Pat wears a double breasted dark uniform, with a white shirt and dark tie. It is extremely dressy looking, like a naval officer's uniform. He also wears a harness across his chest, that fastens under his shoulder epaulettes, as well as high boots. Pat has prominent white Sergeant's stripes on his sleeves.

The bank's security guards also have fancy police uniforms, which are both similar to, and different from, those of the police. The guard uniforms are single breasted, and are also worn with white shirts and dark ties. We see them at their office at the "Automatic Watchman Company", without their jackets, in their white shirts and ties; later, we see them slip on their uniform jackets. The jackets have four large patch pockets, in the police style. The two on their upper chest are actually slanted, so that they point up to their broad shoulders, creating a V effect. The right hand pocket also has a police badge. They also have a pair of lower patch pockets, as well. Their uniform trousers flare out at the sides, just below where their jackets end.

Pat's police uniform has no upper patch pockets, but it does have huge pockets on the lower, flared part of the police uniform jacket. Both the police and the guards wear very high peaked officer's caps, with badges in their front, over their shiny black curved visors.

This episode contains some good moments for Pat's partner Sam. These help develop his characterization. Sam might be comic in manner, but he turns out to have a good brain for detective work. The detective work performed by both Sam and a bank guard here is quite solid, and leads to much tracking down of the robbers. Pinky also shows moments of inspiration here. The bank guard is also an inspired character.

The final gun battle resembles those in such movies as Howard Hawks' Scarface (1932) or William Keighley's "G" Men (1935). Little in the story up to this point seemed to motivate such a battle, and its violence seems excessive and exploitative. It seems there just to add a traditional "police siege of gangsters trapped in an apartment building" shoot out.

A Gem of a Frame-Up (daily strips, 11/29/37 to 2/12/38). A gang of jewel thieves includes a moll who looks just like heroine Molly.

Despite some good ideas, this episode falls flat. The bad guys have the police on the run or cowed most of the time, and this is not fun to watch. There are some very good country landscapes by Schmidt. Also, the scenes with the painters in the street are visually rich.

The police here wear the long coats that were so big in the 1930's. They recall the long overcoats worn by Alex Raymond's heroes in Secret Agent X-9. As in Raymond, these coats are form fitting in the waist and chest, tapering from broad shoulders down to a narrow waist. Then they flair out into long skirts down to the wearer's ankles, which are always blowing out in dramatic patterns as the men race around. Such long coats are very flattering to the men. They are one of the few spectacular fashion items available to men in the otherwise grim looking late Depression environment. Such long coats temporarily came back into style around 1990, where their dramatic qualities were proven all over again.

It is in this episode that the heroes first get a plane. This adds much drama to the later tales. Oddly, in the opening of the bank robbery episode (1935-1936), Pat disdained the idea of flight, suggesting that it was too risky. This leads to some comic banter at the start of that tale.

The Buster (daily strips, 2/14/38 to 5/21/38). The Governor sends a gutsy assistant prosecuting attorney, popularly known as the Buster, to break open an underworld truck hijacking ring. This is the first appearance of the Buster, who would go on to be a series character in later episodes, too. In 100 Years of American Newspaper Comics, Maurice Horn says that the Buster was inspired by the real life crusading DA Tom Dewey.

This is a terrific piece of storytelling. It has many interweaving plot threads, that all come together in beautiful patterns. There are no less than six good guys, and seven villains. Each of these gets involved in the interlocking story lines. The crime scheme the police are investigating has many aspects - it consists not of one crime, but a whole series of parallel, interconnected schemes. Because of this, the storytelling never flags, but is always moving in some vigorous direction. The whole sequence is like a piece of music, one with an ever-flowing sense of rhythm and development.

The art is deeply aware of this storytelling in the script, and brings it to a high polish. Each panel seems to heighten the events depicted in it, and to present it in as logical and as vivid a fashion as possible. The geometrical arrangement of the characters and background in the panel seem to convey the relationships in the story, and to set them forth in a dramatic way. There is often a sense of dramatic surprise in the panels: one is seeing something more interesting and more complex than one expected.

Schmidt is especially good at nature areas: country roads, lakes, bridges and trees and shrubs of all sorts are a specialty. He is also good at night scenes, which often look something like shadowy day scenes. These are highly atmospheric. Schmidt had a dramatic sense of lighting.

Schmidt's art looks like other 1930's comic strip art. These artists clearly want people to linger, looking at their work, soaking up its atmosphere and sense of drama. They often use "cinematic angles", showing both landscapes and interiors from high or low angles. Like other 1930's artists, Schmidt's art is full of "realistic" detail. It is not sketchy; instead, it tries to create full, accurate landscapes or cityscapes.

Schmidt likes high angle shots, looking down on buildings. These show much detail of both a building and its grounds. They offer viewers a map like layout of the terrain of the story. It is almost like looking at a scale model of the area in which the story takes place. These panels have much visual drama, with their "cinematic" angles. They allow for complex compositions. They also convey much information.

The group shot of the reporters glorifies this group of men. Schmidt and Sullivan were newspapermen themselves. Such glorification of reporters was also a common point of view in movies, fiction, comic books, plays and radio in the era. Schmidt's reporters tend to be handsome. They are in good suits and hats, the uniform of reporters in the 1930's.

"The Buster" has ties to the gangster films and stories of the era. 1938 was very late in the day for the gangster film. A handful were still being made in Hollywood, although they will soon be eclipsed in 1941 and 1942 by film noir. So it can not be considered pioneering. Still, "The Buster" is one of the most delightful visualizations of the police versus gang melodramas, and should be much better known today.

A Note on Detectives in the Comics

The "graphic art" detective characters best remembered today, Dick Tracy from the comic strips, and Batman from the comic books, have some elements in common. Both are highly non-realistic characters. They fight grotesque, unusual looking villains. They operate in a world that is strange, bizarre, and often drawn with expressionistic distortion. Life is sinister in these tales, and full of violence. Both Dick Tracy and Batman use high tech devices in their work, such as Tracy's two-way wristwatch, and Batman's utility belt and Batarang. These devices were not in common real life use during their appearance in the comics, and they approach science fiction. The two series definitely have a different tone: Tracy is fighting gangsters on the street with full police support, while Batman is a loner in a sinister nocturnal world. Still, both series have much in common. These elements serve to make both Dick Tracy and Batman utterly different from most prose detective fiction, although they are related to the "hero pulp magazines" of the 1930's, such as The Shadow.

It is a historical fact that both Dick Tracy and Batman were far more popular in their day than any of their rivals. It is also a fact that both characters are far and away the best known detective characters in the comics, today. This popularity is in contrast to the obscurity that surrounds many other detective characters of their era.

From the 1930's through the 1950's, systematic attempts were made to create detective characters in the comics, that were relatively realistic, and which resembled the detectives in books and movies. These characters were reasonably popular in their day, enough to keep them published for many years. But they seem to be completely forgotten today. These detectives were far more realistic than Dick Tracy or Batman. These sleuths wore normal clothes, such as suits or police uniforms, and had no secret identities or special high tech devices. The sleuths used the normal investigative techniques of their prose counterparts in mystery novels and stories. The villains they fought were conventional gangsters or crooks, who also tended to be normal looking people in conventional suits. The world in which the sleuths operated was fairly normal looking, and drawn in as realistic a style as the artists could summon, often with a touch of glamour and sophistication. For example, Radio Patrol takes place in the streets of Boston, and the surrounding countryside; the art is beautiful and evocative. Big Town is set in the streets and buildings of 1950's New York City; the city is depicted in a glamorous and realistic fashion.

"Realism" is a relative term. No one would say that these sleuths exhibited the raw realism of such mainstream novelists as Balzac, Zola or Theodore Dreiser. These are escapist detective tales, in which a hero solves a mystery and captures a criminal. And unlike Zola or Dreiser, the creators of these detective comics usually avoided the sordid and the scandalous - their tales would all be rated PG, if they were movies. Like most of the mystery novels of their era, they were conceived as family entertainment. Still, within these conventions of detective fiction, the characters and the world around them are depicted with a fair level of realism.

Comic strip historians have faithfully remembered Radio Patrol, and reprinted some of its adventures in two small books, in recent years. By contrast, comic book fans rarely reprint 1930's detective series, such as Slam Bradley or Speed Saunders, although they are often mentioned in passing in reference books, and seem to have almost entirely forgotten about the best of all detective comic books, the 1950's Big Town. The biggest amnesia has overtaken mystery fans: they seem collectively unaware as a group of the possibilities of fusing mystery fiction and the graphic arts.