Pulp Heroes

Tailspin Tommy



NE of the first aviation comic strips to appear in the nation's funny pages was Tailspin Tommy, which made its debut in the spring of 1928. When readers first meet the youthful Tommy Tomkins, he's living with his widowed mother in the small hamlet of Littleville, about a hundred miles from Denver, Colorado. Tommy works on autos in the village garage, but he's always dreamed of being an aviator. He's sent away for a correspondence course in Aero Engineering, which promises to teach flying by mail, and he waits up nights to watch the local airmail plane fly overhead. He has talked "airplane" so much that the locals have nicknamed him "Tailspin Tommy."

One rainy night, Tommy notices that the airmail plane is late. When it finally shows up, it's having trouble making headway through the storm. A broken oil line forces pilot Milt Howe to make a treacherous landing in Deacon Grimes' cow pasture. The breathless Tommy races out to meet the downed flyer, and helps him push the disabled plane into the lee of Deacon Grimes' barn. After obtaining permission from the Deacon to leave the plane behind the barn, Tommy offers to take Milt back to his house for supper.

As Tommy and the pilot dry out in front of the fireplace, Tommy introduces Milt to his mother. While waiting for dinner, Milt encourages Tommy's aspiration to be a flyer, and puts in a good word to help allay Mrs. Tomkins' doubts. After supper is over, the storm has cleared and Milt and Tommy go back to the plane. Tommy fixes the oil line, but it's too late for Milt to continue on with his delivery. Going back to the Tomkins cottage, Tommy keeps Milt up all night with a barrage of questions about aviation. He's more eager to learn to fly than ever.

The next day, Milt thanks Tommy for his help and hospitality, and offers to let the young man fly on with him to Denver to repay him for his assistance. Tommy jumps at the chance, and to his delight, finds flying to be every bit as enjoyable as he had always thought it would be. After dropping him off in Denver, Milt advises Tommy to save up his money so that he can go to a real aviation school.

A few days later, back in Littleville, Tommy is back at work in the garage when Milt Howe's airmail plane swoops down low over town. Milt throws a note from the plane, telling Tommy that he has arranged for him to get a job as a grease monkey for the Three Point Air Lines at Three Point Landing in Texas. Throwing his bags into his jalopy, and bidding adieu to his mother and the townsfolk, Tommy makes the several-day drive to Southwest Texas and his future career in aviation.

oping to capitalize on the public's growing fascination with aviation, which had built to an almost fever pitch with Charles A. Lindbergh's transatlantic hop in May of 1927, John N. Wheeler of the Bell Syndicate hired Glenn Chaffin, a former newpaper reporter and movie studio press agent, and Hal Forrest, a former Army flyer and would-be cartoonist, to create an airplane comic strip. Writer Glenn Chaffin came up with the strip's title after a newspaper pal suggested the word "Tailspin" during a brainstorming session. Since alliteration was common in the funny pages, Chaffin tacked the name "Tommy" to it, and Tailspin Tommy was born.

While Chaffin handled the writing chores, Hal Forrest, an unfortunately indifferent artist, did the drawing. Initially running in four newspapers in 1928, Tailspin Tommy quickly gained in popularity, appearing in about 250 daily papers and 200 Sunday papers by the early 1930s.

The collaboration between Chaffin and Forrest continued until the end of 1933, when Forrest bought out Chaffin's interest in the strip. From that point, Forrest wrote and drew the strip himself until 1936, when he engaged a young assistant, and later ghost artist, Reynold Brown, who went on to became better known for painting over 300 movie posters in the 1950s. Although Forrest had some talent for drawing airplanes, his skill at portraying people can best be described as somewhat primitive. Reynold Brown brought some much-needed polish to the strip, and the illustrations during the strip's later years were often quite striking.

With Tailspin Tommy blazing the way, the funny pages soon became populated with additonal aviation strips, such as Scorchy Smith, Skyroads, Smilin' Jack, Barney Baxter, and even an aviatrix, Flyin' Jenny. By the end of the 1930s, interest in Tailspin Tommy began to decline, and Hal Forrest changed syndicates in 1940 in an attempt to increase exposure. United Features, the new syndicate, gave the strip substantial promotion, but interest continued to wane. Despite Forrest's best efforts, Tailspin Tommy disappeared from the nation's newspapers in the summer of 1942.

ack in 1928, however, public interest in Tommy's adventures was still growing as he pulled his flivver into the Three Point Airfield after several days of hard driving. Paul Smith, manager of Three Point Air Lines, made good on the promise he had made to Milt Howe and hired Tommy as a grease monkey. Within a week of arrival, Tommy had made friends with several of the employees at Three Point, and became acquainted with Betty Lou Barnes, an attractive young waitress at the airport's Aileron Cafe.

A short time after Tommy's arrival at Three Point, an impressed Paul Smith promoted him to full mechanic. All the while, Tommy took flying lessons from the Three Point pilots. Soon he was piloting planes himself, with Paul Smith riding along to supervise. One day, while riding as a passenger in a search plane looking for bandits who had stolen a shipment of diamonds from a Three Point flyer, Tommy's plane was shot down, and the pilot seriously injured. In order to get back home, Tommy was forced to make his first solo flight. Not long after, he had his own license to fly.

Following his adventures with the sky bandits, Tailspin Tommy returned to Littleville for a triumphant homecoming. While there, he hooked up with childhood pal, Clarence "Skeeter" Milligan, who followed him back to Three Point. Although poorly educated, and a bit goofy, Skeets (whose freckled countenance was so ineptly rendered by Forrest that he resembled an unfortunate plague victim in the early strips) proved himself to be nearly as adept at flying as Tommy, and soon had his own pilot's license. As Tommy and Betty Lou's friendship continued to grow closer, Betty Lou got her own pilot's license, and soon became an accomplished aviatrix and seasoned parachute jumper.

Although Tommy and Skeeter initially became airmail pilots for Three Point after getting their pilot's licenses, they found the time to fight cattle rustlers, join in a civil war in Central America, discover a lost Aztec civilization in South America, accompany Betty Lou and her explorer uncle on a dirigible flight to the North Pole, take a flying tour of Africa, battle Avvez Martini and his submarine pirates, thwart kidnappers, run down rumrunners, dig up pirate treasure, catch payroll robbers, foil numerous evil aviators (such as the Vulture, with his strangely silent airship of prey), and enter virtually every aviation race of any significance.

In a transpacific race to Japan, Tailspin and Skeeter find themselves entered against Betty Lou, who's accompanied by a French aviator. When Betty Lou and her teammate are forced down on a deserted island, the notoriety resulting from her plight and eventual rescue lands her a contract with a Hollywood studio. This development leads to what is perhaps Tailspin Tommy's most well-known adventure, when Betty Lou and her film company come to the Three Point Flying Field to film "The Midnight Patrol," a World War I action picture.

During the filming of "The Midnight Patrol," stunt pilot Bruce Wilkins is killed in a staged dogfight after someone substitutes real bullets for the blanks in the machine gun used by fellow stunt pilot Dick Douglas. Practically everyone in the film's cast and crew, as well as several Three Point employees, including Tommy and Skeeter, has both motive and opportunity to kill Wilkins, and the unraveling of the mystery makes for a fairly well-scripted whodunnit (though the unconvincing ending is a bit of a disappointment). Apparently this particular storyline was a hit with the comic-reading public, as we'll see later on.

Although it wasn't always readily apparent, Tommy and his friends continued to grow older as the strip progressed. Tommy was obviously in his teens when the strip began in 1928, but by the time of "The Midnight Patrol" sequence, he was reminding Betty Lou that they had known each other for six years. It was also during this sequence that Tommy and Betty, who had been separated while Betty was in Hollywood, admitted their love for each other. From this point, Betty Lou went from being Tailspin's "best girl" to being his only girl.

Tommy's and Skeeter's aviation careers also advanced as the strip progressed. From being airmail pilots, they went on to be commercial airline pilots and test pilots, and even flew for the Army Reserves. By the time the strip ended in 1942, Tommy and Skeeter were heavily involved in the war effort, and they and Betty Lou had matured into adulthood.

Original Art

Unlike most comic strips, strips distributed by the Bell Syndicate were often undated. Instead of a date, a sequential number was written on the strip to keep it from being printed out of order. The purpose in not dating the strip was so that as new papers added the strip to their line-ups, they could run earlier sequences to bring their readers up to speed.

For example, when The Bellingham Herald added Tailspin Tommy to their line-up in January of 1930, they started with strip number 1, which had originally been released in 1928. After the initial run introducing the main characters had been printed by the Herald, they skipped ahead to the strips that were then being produced. However, despite the flexibility inherent in the use of a sequential numbering system, it did have its drawbacks, and the artist started dating the strip beginning in the late 1930s.

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Click on image for pop-up enlargement.

Above is the original art for strip #557, drawn by Hal Forrest. The strip is not dated, but it includes a paste-on copyright strip in the third panel that indicates that it was copyrighted in 1930. Click on the strip for a pop-up enlargement (image size 210K).

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Click on image for pop-up enlargement.

Above is the original art for strip #2317, drawn by Hal Forrest. This strip is from a sequence that later served as the plot line for the second Tailspin Tommy movie serial, Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery (see below). For a time, strips were printed by newspapers in one of two formats. Full-size strips printed all of the artwork, but most strips were drawn in such a way that the strip could be cropped along the top and bottom to save space. A newspaper that chose to run the cropped version of the strip could fit more strips to a page. In the pop-up enlargement of this strip (image size 280K), thin blue crop lines can just barely be seen running a short distance down from the top and a short distance up from the bottom of the the strip (the black line-up marks on either side of the strip are easier to see). Blue pencil was used to mark crop lines because it didn't show up when the strip was photographed for reproduction. Note that the dialogue balloons do not extend above or below the crop lines, and that the strip's number, originally noted at the bottom of the first panel, has been moved to the second panel because it had been placed too low for cropping.

Click for pop-up enlargement
Click on image for pop-up enlargement.

Above is the original art for strip #2677, published in 1936. Note the improvement in the strip's artwork, most likely the result of the inking of Forrest's pencil layouts by the talented Reynold Brown. Although it's not readily apparent from the scan, the strip's inker has deviated significantly from the original penciling in the first panel. Click on the strip for a pop-up enlargement (image size 261K).

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Click on image for pop-up enlargement.

Above is strip #3183. This strip is from a sequence that was later adapted into the Little Big Book (a series of Big Little Book knock-offs published by the Saalfield Publishing Company) Tailspin Tommy Air Racer (see below). Note that the date of publication, July 16th, is written just to the right of Skeeter in the second panel. Click on the strip for a pop-up enlargment (image size 286K).

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Click on image for pop-up enlargement.

Above is strip #3466, published on June 13, 1939. Click on the strip for a pop-up enlargment (image size 209K).

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Click on image for pop-up enlargement.

Above is strip #3542. I've been unable to confirm that this strip was actually published. It is drawn in the style of Forrest's ghost artist, Reynold Brown, and there is a blue crop line visible a short distance up from the bottom of the strip, but there are no other markings on the front or back of the strip to indicate that it had been received by the syndicate. Anyone having any clippings or reprints that include this strip is requested to contact me by clicking on the e-mail button at the bottom of this page. The image size of the pop-up enlargement is 220K.

There are a few misconceptions regarding the Tailspin Tommy strip that are floating around on the Internet, all of which can apparently be traced back to some mistaken claims made in one of the standard comic strip reference books. For example, it's said that Tommy, Skeeter, and Betty Lou were the founders and sole owners of Three Point Airlines, where in reality, Three Point was a going concern when Tailspin first arrived to work as a grease monkey in 1928. And while the three friends eventually became shareholders in the company, Paul Smith was the president when the strip first started. It's also said that Tommy, Skeeter, and Betty Lou were the only pilots who flew for Three Point, when there were, in fact, a number of pilots who were on the payroll—such as Herb Slack, Buzz Anlin, Bart Cox, and Speed Walton, to name only a few.

Patricia Farr (Betty Lou) and
Maurice Murphy (Tommy) in
Tailspin Tommy (1934).

ith public interest in Tailspin Tommy and his friends nearing its peak, Universal Studios released a twelve-chapter movie serial based on the young aviator's adventures in 1934—the first serial to be based on a comic strip. Starring an enthusiastic Maurice Murphy as the nineteen year-old Tommy, Noah Beery Jr. as an affably imbecilic Skeeter, and a spunky Patricia Farr as Betty Lou, Tailspin Tommy incorporated a number of episodes that would have been familiar to the strip's readers.

As the serial opens, youthful garage mechanic Tommy Tomkins has set up an ersatz flight simulator in the garage, and is reading a mail-order manual on how to be a pilot. After explaining the workings of his simulator to the perplexed Skeeter, Tommy fires the simulator up and promptly goes into a tailspin. Just as Skeeter is knocking the blocks out from under the simulator to "help" Tommy pull out of the tailspin, Betty Lou Barnes pulls up in front of the garage with a flat tire. Introducing herself as a flier to the two boys, she tells Tommy about the pilots at Three Point Airlines as Skeeter fixes the flat.

After Betty Lou has gone, Three Point pilot Milt Howe (Grant Withers), who is flying mail as part of a trial for an airmail contract, makes a forced landing in Deacon Grimes' field after rupturing an oil line and breaking his arm. Tommy fixes the plane, and Milt asks him to ride along to help with the controls. As a result of his injury, Milt passes out once they're in the air, and Tommy must make a bumpy landing when they get to Three Point.

At Three Point, Tommy learns that his pal, Skeeter, has stowed away on the plane in order to be with his friend. Paul Smith (Charles A. Browne), grateful for Tommy's assistance in winning the airmail contract for Three Point, hires the two boys as mechanics. Later, when the boys make a stop at the Aileron Cafe, they find Betty Lou employed as a waitress.

The individual chapters of the Tailspin Tommy serial are made up of incidents taken straight from the strip by Forrest and Chaffin, but the film's writers have introduced an overriding storyline involving rival airline owner Wade "Tiger" Taggart's (John Davidson) attempts to force Three Point out of business as a framing device. To assist him in causing problems for Three Point, Taggart has planted flier Bruce Hoyt (Walter Miller) within the ranks of Three Point's pilots.

Episodes borrowed from the funny pages include Tommy earning his pilot's license, a payroll robbery, and an attempt to steal a shipment of diamonds. And two of the serial's chapters tell the story of the filming of "The Midnight Patrol," although the central murder mystery has been deleted—presumably because the writers couldn't figure out how to incorporate it into the serial's overall plot.

In what is no doubt the serial's most hair-raising cliffhanger, Bruce Hoyt pilots a plane for Three Point in the Refueling Contest at the Los Angeles Air Meet. With Tommy riding along to assist in the event, Bruce flies up behind the Three Point fuel plane, which lowers a hose to be used for the in-flight refueling. As Tommy is maneuvering the hose into position, the traitorous Hoyt goes into a dive, leaving the parachute-less Tommy dangling in mid-air while clinging to the fuel hose. As the Air Show's announcer describes Tommy's horrifying predicament to the breathless spectators, Tommy loses his grip on the hose and plumments to certain death!

Although the storyline involving "Tiger" Taggart is a bit too weak to overcome the episodic nature of the serial's chapters, and there's too much reliance on stock footage, Tailspin Tommy is great fun to watch, and is a pretty good introduction to the characters. The serial must have been a hit with the movie going audience, because Universal Studios felt confident enough to make a sequel.

Clark Williams (Tommy) and
Noah Beery, Jr. (Skeeter) in
Tailspin Tommy in
the Great Air Mystery

Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery, released in 1935, while still borrowing a number of incidents from the comic strip, had a stronger overall plot holding it all together. This time around, Tommy, now played by an enthusiastic Clark Williams, and Skeeter, again played by Noah Beery Jr., join Betty Lou Barnes, played here by the striking Jean Rogers, her Uncle Ned Curtis (Bryant Washburn) and friend Inez Casmetto (Delphine Drew) on a trip to the island of Nazil to help develop an oilfield owned by Ned Curtis and his partner, Inez's father, Don Alvarado Casmetto (Harry Worth).

After a false start in a dirigible that gets caught in a storm and crashes into the sea (in a sequence borrowed from two separate comic strip episodes involving dirigibles) Tommy and Skeeter fly down to Nazil in one plane, while Betty Lou flies Inez and Uncle Curtis down in another. Along the way, they're assisted by the mysterious Eagle in his eagle airship when a pilot in the employ of Don Casmetto's evil step brother, Manuel Casmetto (Herbert Heywood), tries to shoot them down. After helping Tommy avoid the danger, the Eagle touches a control and his ship disappears in a cloud of smoke.

Separated from Betty Lou and her plane, Tommy and Skeeter are forced down within the compound of Manuel Casmetto. Here they discover that Manuel is aided in his scheme to take over his step-brother's oilfield by Horace Raymore (Matthew Betz). Thrown in Manuel's dungeon, Tommy and Skeeter escape with the aid of Bill McGuire (James P. Burtis), a reporter posing as a cook for Manuel.

Catching up with Betty, Inez, and Uncle Curtis at the Casmetto hacienda, Tommy and Skeeter meet Enrique Garcia (Manuel Granado), who is supposedly wooing Inez, but is actually a spy for Manuel. Flying as the disguised Officer XX, Garcia bedevils Tommy and Skeeter nearly every time they take to the air.

Featuring run-ins with an active volcano, cannibal tribesmen, mid-air collisions, and a flooding dungeon, Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery is every bit as exciting as its predecessor. And with higher production values and a stronger script, it's a more polished effort than Tommy's earlier adventure. Fans of the genre will not be disappointed.

Tailspin Tommy

y 1936, the era of the pulps was in full swing, and C.J.H. Publications sought to create a niche for itself by publishing pulp magazines based on popular comic strip characters. Accordingly, the rights were presumably acquired (though perhaps not) for Flash Gordon, Dan Dunn, and Tailspin Tommy. None of these attempts appear to have been particularly successful, but the Tailspin Tommy Air Adventure Magazine did see the printing of two issues before publication ceased (there have been suggestions that publication rights may not have been properly acquired for these titles, which might also account for the short publication runs).

While the pulp stories faithfully retain the three leads, Tommy, Skeeter, and Betty Lou, there have been some inexplicable changes at Three Point. Not the least significant being that Three Point is no longer located in Texas, but is now based in Clearwater, Florida. And the head of Three Point is no longer Paul Smith, but the previously unheard of Donald Roberts. The first issue, bearing an October 1936 cover date, included the novel-length adventure, "Doomed in the Air" (titled "Doomed in the Sky" on the cover), attributed to the otherwise unknown Arnold Evan Ewart. In fact, the story is a novelization of "The Midnight Patrol."

In the pulp version of the story, Adventure Pictures, the studio to which Betty Lou Barnes is under contract, rents Three Point Airport to film "Midnight Patrol," and Three Point's pilots are being called upon to fly old war planes in the battle scenes. One of the Three Point flyers, Bruce Wilkins, is an ill-natured drunk, who gets into a fistfight with Tommy by page three, and later has an argument with mechanic Bill Bolt, who he gets fired.

After Betty Lou's arrival at Three Point, delayed after an unfortunate run-in with a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico, the rest of the cast and crew of "Midnight Patrol" settle in for the making of the picture. Hans Mannheim is the picture's director. Betty Lou Barnes is the romantic lead. Yvonne L'Vrille plays the secondary feminine lead. Actor Gilbert Montague is set to star in the picture, but soon gets into a fight with Bruce Wilkins over Mlle. L'Vrille, and is too injured to start filming. In desperation, Director Mannheim turns to Tailspin Tommy to replace the ailing actor.

One night, after filming has started, someone puts the lights out at Three Point. Tommy runs into Skeeter, and the two hear a scream. It's the scream of a man, and it comes from the hangar where the picture's war planes are being kept. Tommy and Skeeter go to investigate, and find the night watchman unconscious. Tommy and Skeeter hear someone messing around in the hangar, and although Tommy and Skeeter have a run-in with the intruder in the dark, he gets away before they can identify him.

The next day, Tommy and the other Three Point flyers take to the air for the filming of a big battle scene. But an accident in the air destroys Tommy's landing gear, and he's forced to make a crashlanding. With Tommy in the hospital, Director Mannheim brings in pilot Dick Douglas, who has also had an argument with Wilkins, to do his flying for him. But Tommy leaves the hospital and insists on flying himself, so Douglas takes the back seat in the plane. The scene calls for Bruce Wilkins, flying an enemy attack plane, to get into a dogfight with the bomber that Tommy is flying. But after the planes take to the air, and filming starts, things go terribly wrong.

As Wilkins comes in for his first attack run, Tommy watches in amazement as a line of bullet holes appears in the cockpit just in front of him. Before Tommy can react, Wilkins comes in for another run, killing Douglas in the rear passenger seat. Whoever had been prowling around in the hangar the night before had switched live ammunition for the blanks in Wilkins' machine gun!

After Tommy's narrow escape from Bruce Wilkins' continuing attack, Wilkins lands and is arrested for the murder of Dick Douglas. But as generally despised as Wilkins is, Tommy isn't convinced that he was intentionally using live ammunition. The remainder of the story involves the efforts of Tommy, Skeeter, and Betty Lou to learn the identity of the true killer—at great risk to themselves.

Although "Doomed in the Air" follows the same general outline as the comic-strip version of "The Midnight Patrol," there are some significant differences. The murder victim has been switched, Bruce Wilkins being a more believable target in the story as it was told by Chaffin and Forrest. The suspect list has also been considerably trimmed, presumably to leave room for the inclusion of some irrelevant pulpish business, such as Betty Lou's encounter with the hurricane and some added melodrama in the hangar scene, but it makes the solution to the mystery rather obvious. While there are worse ways for die-hard pulp enthusiasts to while away an afternoon, "Doomed in the Air" isn't particularly successful as an adaptation of the Tailspin Tommy comic strip.

Tailspin Tommy

Skeeter Milligan

Betty Lou Barnes

Clark Williams

Noah Beery, Jr.

Jean Rogers
The portrait illustrations from the Tailspin Tommy pulp magazines were based not on Hal Forrest's comic strip art, but on cast photos from the second serial, Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery.

The second issue of Tailspin Tommy Air Adventure Magazine, bearing a cover date of January 1937, is pretty much more of the same.

The story, "On Wings of Disaster," opens with Tommy, Skeeter and Betty Lou on vacation in Miami and the Florida Keys with Lieutenant Robert Casey of the Coast Guard. Lt. Casey tries to interest Tommy in helping him run down some heroin smugglers. Tommy will have none of it, because he wants to enjoy his vacation, though he begins to take something of an interest when the smugglers sabotage the Coast Guard plane that he, Skeeter and Lt. Casey have been flying around in. And when Tommy, Skeeter, and Lt. Casey are later nearly gunned down in a drive-by shooting, and are then captured by the smugglers, Tommy decides it's definitely time to get involved.

From there on, it's pretty standard pulp action. Tommy, Skeeter, and Lt. Casey escape with the help of the Coast Guard. They chase the smugglers. The smugglers capture Tommy. Tommy escapes. The smugglers kidnap Betty Lou and take her to their island hideout. Tommy captures one of the smugglers. Betty Lou gives Tommy a clue as to where she's being held by radio. Tommy gathers all the Three Point pilots for a raid on the smugglers' hideout.

Again, it's not particularly bad pulp fiction, but it's not particularly memorable, either. Nor does it appear that it was much of a hit with the pulp-reading audience, since a third issue, promised to include a story entitled "The Secret of the Scarlet Squadron," never saw publication.

The Holloway Pages Pulp Heroes

© 2001 by Clark J. Holloway.

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