Read Alex Grand’s Understanding Superhero Comic Books published by McFarland Books in 2023 with Foreword by Jim Steranko with editorial reviews by comic book professionals, Jim Shooter, Tom Palmer, Tom DeFalco, Danny Fingeroth, Alex Segura, Carl Potts, Guy Dorian Sr. and more.
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Born in a world of ink and paper, the characters of Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy comics leapt from the pages and into the hearts and minds of readers across America. The comic strip medium, still in its nascent stage, found an extraordinary storyteller in Crane. His work, rich in thematic depth, moved seamlessly across genres, from high-stakes adventure and suspense to lighthearted humor, from critical social commentary to depictions of sexuality and diverse cultures. Crane’s comic strips weren’t just about entertainment; they were windows into the zeitgeist of the time, chronicling the changing cultural and societal landscapes from the 1920s through the Second World War while contributing 7 key developments to comics.
- Evolution of Character development and storytelling
In 1926, Crane introduced us to the world of Wash Tubbs, a naive adventurer, who was engaged in daily gags and the occasional adventure. One such gag is shown here where Crane inserts himself into his comic. A 1926 “Wash Tubbs” strip showed Crane, an early example of meta-narrative in comics.
This is of course, the artist himself shown at this desk in the top left in a 1934 Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy daily showcasing his humor.
Wash Tubb’s life took a turn when Captain Easy, a seasoned mercenary entered the strip in 1929. Similar to how Popeye became a rough and tough side-character in the Thimble Theatre in his first appearance the same year, replacing the star protagonists Ham Gravy and Castor Oyl; Captain Easy replaced Wash Tubb’s friend, Gozy eventually became a main sensation in his own right. He was a super strong, southern “Wonder” of a man, very popular in the “fly over country” or “middle America” of the United States where the NEA syndicate sold its strips. Although it’s a high quality strip, and seminal in comic story telling, the Big City Newspapers would raise their eyebrows and choose not to use alot of NEA material because they didn’t want to appeal to “hicks.” Frankly, it was their loss because the rest of the country got to enjoy a fantastic comic strip from a very well paid comic strip creator, Crane who ranked up there in comic pioneering with Chester Gould, Harold Gray, and E.C. Segar.
When Captain Easy joined the cast, he was a gruff, lone wolf character with a dark shadowy past, who smoked a good cigar and toughened up the lead character, Tubbs in a similar manner as Wolverine to Kitty Pryde. Although Wash Tubbs was chasing girls in worldly adventures in the 1920s, Easy had him grow up, teach him how to fight and survive in the dark and real world of the 1930s.
He really became the series’ action hero, and in this 1934 Sunday, it’s clear that he became the Rambo of the far east.
There was still an occasional daily gag between larger continuities like this one from 1930 with a Wash Tubbs Sunday comic mimicking the format of a Little Nemo strip. Here, Tubbs fell out of his dream, and bed, in the last panel. This echoed the format of a 1902 strip called “Drowsy Dick’s Dime Novel Dream” which predated Little Nemo’s first 1905 adventure, so it’s a play on a comic trope.
Once 1942 hits, the Wash Tubbs daily strip transitions into a Captain Easy-only set of continuities where the Feds actually send him into Asia for covert missions to foil the Japanese invasions. The Japanese soldiers are drawn with a bit more humanity in comparison to the typical approach to the war with violent cartoonish stereotypes like most of the comics at this time. Crane takes a more human approach with an example shown here by what the local citizens of the Phillipines experienced, which are very mild versions of the atrocities recorded from the Rape of Nanking or the Bataan death march.
Captain Easy gained an adversary during WW2, a German named the Baron over a few continuities, where they develop a well formed and mutual hatred which comes to a conclusion in this sequence of 1941 dailies by Roy Crane. Their hate is quite palpable and comparable to the rivalry between Steranko’s Nick Fury and Hydra’s Baron Von Strucker.
His next strip, started in 1943, Buzz Sawyer had war scenes during the peak of World War II, which were both compelling and impactful for enthusiasts of the War Genre.
- Depicting Social and Cultural Themes
Crane’s strips weren’t merely about adventure. They tackled significant social and cultural themes. A 1934 “Wash Tubbs” comic delivered a powerful commentary on organized crime and its clash with the law likely linked to the 1920s mob led by Al Capone.
Another strip portrayed the theme of culture shock. In 1928, Wash Tubbs attempted to befriend an Algerian local, only to be met with an unexpected and to some, comedic reaction.
A 1932 “Wash Tubbs” strip provided a visceral sense of a villain’s evil as a ruthless ‘pig-eyed’ ship captain mercilessly killed a man who tried to escape his captivity. Crane did a great job enabling the audience to despise the murderer, allowing them to later rejoice at his comeuppance, demonstrating that the comic lived by an eye for an eye mentality.
When other higher brow strips avoided the reality of marijuana, Roy Crane decided to confront the topic in a 1942 Captain Easy Sunday comic, even showing the plant itself.
One historical bit demonstrated by Crane in 1933 Wash Tubbs were these dailies devoted to the ins and outs of the difficulties and basics behind old time whale hunting. This is of course before we were all enlightened about its barbarism in Star Trek 4: The Voyage Home, 1986.
- Artistic Techniques and Influences
Crane demonstrated a variety of influences for example in 1934, he has a character in Wash Tubbs teach one how to reflect upon classic works like those by John La Gatta, a fashion magazine illustrator who knew how to make women look sexy.
A 1934 “Captain Easy Sunday” strip showcases Crane’s interest in Far East architecture when they go to Tibet to find treasure, portraying a Lamasery with a Tibetan window style similar to that of Dr. Strange designed by Steve Ditko in 1963.
1934 Captain Easy Sunday panels depicts another Far East Village religion in some fun fantastic panels by Crane with a giant serpent encircling earth much like the Midgard serpent in the old Viking myths, portrayed later by Walt Simonson.
Photo reference from magazines was another strong influence to create a long form adventure newspaper strip allowing Crane to visually depict far away lands. These depictions, for instance, were influenced by photos from National Geographic, bringing his readers on a visual journey to exotic locations.
Crane also often used photo references of famous actors and political figures to create characters and drawing from various photographs of the 1920s to the 1930s.
4. Women and Sexuality
Despite being a cartoonist, Crane was no stranger to imbuing his work with elements of subtle sexuality, which was apparent even as early as 1926 in a Wash Tubbs strip.
A 1927 strip portrayed a sexy serial widow, driving men to spend their money on her or to their doom.
1940 brought an interesting depiction of a Hollywood starlet in a Captain Easy Sunday strip. It was a clear indication that even back then, there were certain ladies in Hollywood you just don’t mess with.
In a 1934 Captain Easy Sunday strip, Crane depicted a village princess as a captive turned slave, who was on the brink of suicide to avoid her living conditions. Captain Easy stops her and buys her freedom, in a scene drawn with simplicity and purpose.
5. Humor and Levity
Low brow humor kept readers coming back for more like this situation here when Crane had Captain Easy throw out funny one-liners like this one during an action sequence from 1936.Another one occurred when Wash Tubbs became king of a small country, and he demonstrated which type of resume got the position in a 1933 daily.
In another scenario, Tubbs and Easy stumbled upon a murder scene during a home invasion, leading to a humorously awkward escape in 1933.
A 1940 Wash Tubbs Sunday strip introduced an eccentric character, Goldy. Goldy was an attractive goofball who demonstrated a prank that involved ketchup on the chest, to feign blood and sexiness, an effective gag used in horror films for decades.
This panel in 1938 shows that good old Wash Tubbs was having too much fun as he’s about to bust a… neck.
Crane’s humor extended to the supernatural as well. A 1931 Wash Tubbs strip depicted a personification of Death needing an orthodontist, showing his heroes’ ability to laugh Death square in the face.
6. Depiction of Culture and Diversity
Crane’s work also showcased diverse cultures and societies. In a 1931 Wash Tubbs strip, our heroes venture to Southern Louisiana, where they encounter swarthy Cajuns and Creole’s, engaging in a local fugitive game of “beeg dog.” The scenery and dialogue well establish the unique location chosen by Crane for the strip’s story.
In a 1938 Wash Tubbs strip, a foreign royal family’s dialogue is replaced with pseudo-Shakespeare, which is written tool used by Marvel’s Stan Lee when scripting the speech of Asgardians and Olympians 25 years later.
In a 1941 Captain Easy Sunday strip, Crane explored the Jungle Girl genre, providing a psychological description of how to “tame” her with a smack that was reminiscent of John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in the Western comedy, McClintock.
7. Impact and Legacy
Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Superman 1938 is a descendant of Captain Easy. The hero’s direct precursor by the same artistic team was Slam Bradley created in 1937, a world adventurer who had a sidekick named Shorty Morgan, and this dynamic duo had the same story set up as Roy Crane’s Captain Easy and Wash Tubbs.
In retrospect, the unique genius of Roy Crane wove together serious and humorous elements with a deft touch, making his readers laugh one moment and reflect the next. His work stands as a testament to the power of comic strips as a medium to convey sophisticated narratives and deep societal insights. His characters and stories, grounded in the realities of their time yet transcending those very realities, continue to resonate with readers today. Through his work, Roy Crane has truly carved a niche for himself in the annals of comic strip history, leaving a rich legacy that continues to inspire and entertain.
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