Newspaper audience hooked on comics

"The Spirit," 1946 newspaper comic

“The Spirit” comic, 1946 Chicago Sun newspaper

No journalist shows up to solve the 1944 “radio noir” mystery of “The Comic Strip Murders,” but the audio drama draws an over-the-top picture of dedicated newspaper readers, and the popularity of newspaper crime comics like “Dick Tracy” and “The Spirit.” Most of the story is told from the point of view of a district attorney interviewing the wife of a comic strip artist whose creation seems to be taking on a murderous life of its own. Is the artist going mad and planning to murder his wife in a decorative fish pond full of acid?

The “tense and frightened” wife says she has lived with the madness of increasingly gory comic strip murders for nine years — and that she expects to be killed at midnight:

“You follow Buzz O’Keefe in the Morning Telegraph, don’t you? Of course. Everybody does… one bloody episode after another… blood and pistol shots and poison and charred bones…”

Fortunately, Molle Mystery Theatre was not a continuing-serial-drama, so the whole story is told in one half-hour episode.

Color Sunday comics page

A full newspaper page of Dick Tracy, 1938

For our newspaper-in-popular-culture perspective, throughout the broadcast we hear obsessed comic strip fans discussing new episodes of the newspaper crime comic strip serial about a detective and sadistic killers.nThe radio actors use a variety of accents, highbrow and low, to suggest a strip as popular as “Dick Tracy,” and as full of grotesque characters.

The newspaper readers’ guilty-pleasure involvement wIth the strip is reminiscent of morning-after discussions of “The Sopranos,” “Dexter” or similar hit TV shows today.
(It also has some of the comic strip readers muttering about comics not being funny anymore, a topic that even turned up in serious academic research. See Hutchison, below.)

Were newspaper readers this involved with comics? Perhaps — remember 1945 was the year that the mayor of New York took to the air reading comics to citizens deprived of their papers during a delivery strike. A New York Daily News documentary captured his performance, as well as the passionate newspaper audience standing in long lines outside pressroom loading docks. Download the film at the Internet Archive or see three YouTube clips from it on my “Real Newspapers” page.

Back to Molle’s “Comic Strip Murders” episode, the broadcast even used the comic-strip theme in a commercial for its sponsor,  Molle shaving cream, having the presenter laugh heartily at a user of a competing brand nicking his face in a comic called “The Little Shaver.”

The audio file is part of a three-CD Old Time Radio Researchers Molle Mystery Theatre collection at the Internet Archive, with notes from Digital Deli Too.

While violence in comics is not the topic of “Newspaper Heroes on the Air,” here are a few links for readers who stumble on this page because of its title. For crossover research on comics and violence, see articles like “Male and female relations in the American comic strip” by G. Saenger, in D. M. White & R. H. Abel (Eds.), The funnies, an American idiom (pp. 219-231). Glencoe, NY: The Free Press (1963), and Bruce D. Hutchison’s “Comic Strip Violence, 1911-1966,” in Journalism Quarterly, Vol. 46, 1969, pp. 358-362. (The latter content analysis research said 100 per cent of newspaper strips were literally “comic” in 1911, with “serious” strips beginning in 1924 and becoming the most common  by the 1940s. What Hutchison called “crime and crime-cowboy strips” amounted to 18 percent of the comics during World War II.) Newspaper comic strips were a common topic for academic research in the 1950s and 1960s. See, for example, “Trends in Newspaper Reading: Comic Strips, 1949−54,” by Jack B. Haskins and Robert L. Jones, Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 1955, 32: 422. 

For a more comic-book focused discussion during a 1950s controversy over violence in comics, see “Juvenile Delinquency: Crime Comics,” Congressional Digest, Vol. 33, Dec. 1954, p. 293ff. Dr. Frederic Wertham’s book, Seduction of the Innocent, was a major document about the controversy over violence and sex in comics.

Interest in the topic went international. The Internet Archive has full-text copies of the 1977 Canadian Royal Commission on Violence in the Communication Industry report, “Violence in Print and Music,” with an extensive bibliography.

How to Murder Your WIfe film poster from Wikipedia

A lighter approach…

For a more recent book-length treatment, see Why We Watch: The Attractions of Violent Entertainment, edited by Jeffrey Goldstein (1998), Oxford University Press.

Other recent studies include Henry Jenkins’ research into audiences, fan cultures and “transmedia” from comics and films to television and video games. For example see his book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, New York University Press, 2006, or this 2011 course syllabus for “Comics and Graphic Storytelling.”

Movie-crossover fans might enjoy the lighter approach to a similar story, the comedy “How to Murder Your Wife,” with Jack Lemmon and Virna Lisi as the cartoonist and his suspicious wife, plus Terry Thomas as the cartoonist’s valet. I wonder how many times TV and films have explored the darker side of cartoonists?

I see “Martin Kane Private Eye” had a TV episode with a similar name: The Comic Strip Killer, but the plot twist was that the cartoonist based his strip on a true-crime story and promised to reveal the murderer’s identity… unless the killer got to the penman first. At this writing, YouTube has the full episode online:

Lee Tracy stars as the detective here, not a journalist playing detective, the way he did in the original “Dr. X” and other movies. Tracy was no stranger to fictional newspapers, having been the original Hildy Johnson on Broadway’s “The Front Page,” the Winchell-like gossip in “Blessed Event” and a reporter or editor in many other pictures.

About Bob Stepno

mild-mannered reporter who found computers & the Web in grad school in the 1980s (Wesleyan) and '90s (UNC); taught journalism, media studies, Web production; retired to write, make music, photograph sunsets & walks in the woods.
This entry was posted in 1940s, audiences, comics, newspapers, readers. Bookmark the permalink.

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