Newspaper strips are as much a part of the wide world of comics as DC or Beano, or Marvelman. Creators do need a slightly different skill set to produce high quality stories, especially in the single tier format which appears every day. But that quality will quickly shine through with the finer writers and artists. Many newspaper strips are of a very high standard and comics fans will be aware of stories they have followed and enjoyed over the years, from Modesty Blaise to Garth and funnies such as Andy Capp and The Perishers. It is not only in Britain but in the USA, Europe and other continents where readers are fed with their daily dose of laughs or thrills in their paper of choice. Unfortunately, for a number of reasons, not least cost and falling readership figures, newspaper strips today are a dying art form.
We are all fortunate that some classic strips have been collected in the past and currently in book form and on-line by a number of publishers and sites, and wonderful strips such as Jeff Hawke; Garth; The Phantom; Mary Worth; Carol Day; Rip Kirby; Kapitein Rob; Eric de Noorman; Ben Casey; Rupert; James Bond and more have been preserved. Others, however, such as Matt Marriott with art by Tony Weare, Tug Transom by Alfred Sindall and Gun Law drawn by Harry Bishop are sadly under-represented in collected form.
While there are world renowned titles such as Prince Valiant by Hal Foster; Scorchy Smith, which from 1934 to 1936 was AP’s leading strip, with early stories drawn by Noel Sickles; Terry and The Pirates by Milton Caniff or Krazy Kat by the wonderful George Herriman, there are many others which are less well remembered, or simply forgotten. Thanks to the Daily Mirror it’s not the case with Buck Ryan. In recent years the paper has reprinted colourized versions of some of the later Ryan adventures bringing them to a whole new audience. And so we come to The Daily Mirror ‘Tec.
Buck Ryan wasn’t the first comic strip by Don Freeman and Jack Monk. Monk himself was responsible for two short lived funnies for the Daily Express in 1934. Moving to work for the Daily Mirror in 1936, Monk and Freeman adapted the Edgar Wallace thriller, “Terror Keep”, a Mr. J.G. Reeder mystery, for the paper. Copyright problems caused the strip to be dropped and the pair set out to create an original private detective character and in 1937, Buck Ryan exploded onto the scene.
From the very start there are gangsters, shootings, ingenious concealed weapons, ambushes, intrigue, mysterious oriental villains, glamour and fast paced action, and a surprising amount of sometimes nasty graphic violence.
In the first tale, “A Lady Disappears”, which started on 22/03/1937, Ryan has a young assistant, Slipper, reflecting the fashion of the times for the great detectives to have companions. For instance, Sexton Blake’s Tinker, Nelson Lee’s Nipper and Ferrers Locke’s Jack Drake. Poor Slipper, this was his only appearance and he was never heard of again.
The second story is entitled, “The Hooded Terror” and the action builds to a frenetic pace with shootouts, an attack by a maddened baboon, car chases, a time bomb, the kidnapping of a scantily clad woman from her boudoir and all sorts of mayhem and thrills.
In the early strips there was a resume paragraph above the illustrations which gave the feeling of a movie serial to the daily tiers.
Quickly, Freeman and Monk introduced some regular glamour into the proceedings. Zola is first seen as a gang member, sent to worm her way into Ryan’s confidence. But finally she has to make the decision whether to rejoin the gang or stay with Ryan. There isn’t a sudden change of heart, only expediency, as Zola and Ryan are faced with two armed thugs and she needs Ryan’s help to escape.
Once established as a regular in the stories, Zola becomes his secretary, assistant and collaborator, and as the war years approach, a companion on missions to exotic and dangerous parts of the globe. Brave, smart, and not afraid to take a swing at a bad guy, Zola is forever getting into scrapes, being kidnapped, losing her clothes. We often think of Mrs Gale from tv’s The Avengers as being one of the first take-no-nonsense, liberated women in thriller fiction, but Zola beats her to it by a good few years.
There are two other important regular characters that appear in the strip. Inspector Page of Scotland Yard is the face of officialdom, often working with Ryan and on occasions requesting Ryan’s help with difficult cases. The other figure is the criminal and gang boss, Twilight.
An intriguing character, Twilight is a serious and continuing nemesis, but, oddly, considering her amoral approach to bumping off good and bad guys alike, much later in the run she reforms and Freeman writes her as Ryan’s girlfriend, Zola having been ousted, much to the chagrin of many readers.
Here is Twilight in an early tale as a wanted criminal and from a 1962 yarn as Ryan’s lady friend.
Some reviewers and commentators on the series have noted possible comparisons with Dick Tracy, which commenced it’s long run in 1931. Both strips feature eccentric, downright odd characters, and both feature detectives who occasionally are written almost as guest stars in their own strips. A plotline develops and villains are assembled before the hero makes a late entrance to sort it all out. The difference in styles, as noted by one commentator, is that Freeman’s stories appear well plotted out compared to Chester Gould’s make it up as you go along approach. And that is no slur on Gould’s excellent work.
A very popular strip in the UK and important for the Daily Mirror, it is surprising that there was only one Buck Ryan comic book published here by Mirror Features which was in 1946 and which reprinted “The Case of The Oblong Thistle”. Whether this is a misprint or a deliberate re-titling is unclear as the original story in the Daily Mirror was entitled, “The Case of The Broken Thistle”. The comic was in landscape format which is the ideal way to display newspaper strips.
However, Buck Ryan was also a success in a number of other countries where it appeared in newspapers and in collected book form and series of comics.
Translated into Tamil, comics reprinting a variety of Ryan stories appeared in Muthu Comics by Prakash Publishers. These books featured re-drawn covers by local artists.
Prakash Publishers also reprinted European stories of the Roger Moore version of The Saint with art by Santiago Martin Salvador and others. These reprints were not from newspaper strips but from the European publication, Le Saint, published in France by Septimus. Prakash also reprinted the James Bond strip.
An Australian series of Buck Ryan comics was published by Atlas Publications and later under their own brand, World Famous Series AP. By around 1954, the publishers had added the phrase, “MI5 Investigator”, to the title. These series ran from 1949 to around 1957.
Italy, having a nationwide love affair with comics, it’s no surprise that Buck Ryan found his way there and there were collections in album form distributed in the country. Milano Libri Edizioni published a series of five books which reprinted stories from 1937 to 1940.
The Quebec newspaper, La Presse, published a number of Ryan stories around 1963 and in France, the journal Franc-Tireur ran stories in the 1950’s.
Many older British and Commonwealth comic fans will remember the Ryan stories which appeared in Super Detective Library (pub. Associated Press), the digest sized, 64 page comics which featured reprints of The Saint; Rip Kirby and also the classic Ron Turner and Bill Lacey drawn Rick Random s.f. series. There were fifteen issues in the run which were reprints of the newspaper stories. Unfortunately, the digest size meant that the original panels had to be cut, re-sized and occasionally edited out in order to fit into the books.
Because of the longevity of the strip which finally came to an end in 1962, the reader can follow the development of Monk’s style. As with many quality comic book artists the look changes over time. At first the style is loose and fast, adding to the frenetic nature of those early stories. There is hardly time to draw breath. As time passes, the lines thicken, the figures firm up, the pace, while not slackening much, becomes steadier and humour is added, and occasionally, slapstick. Towards the end, the art shows much more realism and sophistication. None of which dilutes the excitement and danger.
A tier from the very first story, A Lady Disappears” –
This is from 1946, “The Sonata Murder Plot” –
Finally, from 1959 and a tale entitled, “The Mad Mistress of Montezorro”
There is an awful lot to enjoy in twenty five years of Buck Ryan stories and the passage of time has done little to dampen the pleasure of settling down to read a Buck Ryan thriller.
It is sad that newspaper strips are often neglected nowadays as there is and was an array of talent creating many strips to equal anything in comics. In America in the early days of comic books, before the arrival of Superman, most featured reprints of newspaper strips. Apart from some creators mentioned at the top of this article, we should remember that Neil Adams drew the Ben Casey strip, which is a favourite of certain very well known modern day comics’ creators. Same with Modesty Blaise as Jim Holdaway did lovely work on the early stories. Less well known is David Wright, responsible for arguably one of the finest newspaper strips, Carol Day, a series of stories immaculately and sensitively written and drawn and an example to all of the level of quality that can be found in this format. In a world of high quality writers and artists, Monk and Freeman are up there with the best. Can the avid reader expect professionally published volumes of Buck Ryan to appear in our bookshops? We can only keep our fingers cross