Monday, May 09, 2011


Obscurity of the Day: Detective Riley

The enigmatic Lincoln Features, which was run by Horace T. Elmo, is a syndicate that sold features to weekly papers. Weeklies are a notoriously bad market, and Elmo never had a great deal of luck selling his material. Lincoln was a curious mix of slapdash and brilliant work. The syndicate's main claim to fame is that Jack Kirby got his start there. Unfortunately Kirby, as far as I know, didn't discuss the syndicate in any depth in later years, so we really don't know much about it. Some of the Lincoln material is so rare that it has yet to be found actually appearing in a newspaper (Kirby's Abdul Jones, for instance, so far exists only in the form of a run of proofs that Kirby held onto).

Runs of Lincoln strips are so rare that this is the first opportunity I've had to feature one on the blog. Detective Riley could, I suppose, be considered Lincoln's flagship strip. I've actually managed to find it running on a consistent basis in a few papers for decently long runs; most Lincoln products tend to pop up and run for only 4-6 episodes, which invariably means that the syndicate sent the newspaper some samples, which they went ahead and ran without any intention of picking up the service on a paying basis.

As with any Lincoln feature, information is spotty. The strip ran at widely varying times because Elmo didn't worry about such niceties as dating his material. All features were numbered so that he could continue to sell the material on hand for years on end. The best guess I can come up with as to an 'official' starting date for Detective Riley is February 1 1935. This is based on looking at numbered strips appearing in papers and then figuring back to when strip #1 would have appeared. That date is calculated from my earliest samples, which ran later in 1935. However, there is a run from 1940-41, with current copyright years cited on them, that figure back to a start date in August 1934. Of course that paper probably didn't stick with the service all those years (no paper ever seemed to stick with Lincoln for more than a year or two at most) so of course I'm just talking hypothetically.

The end date is no less murky. The highest numbered strip I've found is #435, which would have run on June 4 1943 in the almost certainly hypothetical paper that ran the whole series. It's worth noting, though, that #435 is in the middle of a story, so presumably there are more strips lurking out there somewhere. Not many, though, because Elmo switched gears in 1944, gave up on Lincoln, and started a new venture called Elmo Features Syndicate with a whole new stable of features. The man must have been quite the masochist, because this syndicate, too, tried to sell to weekly papers, and with no better success.

Detective Riley is one of those high-adrenaline adventure stories that were a staple of early comic books, and the art was about on that level. The feature was credited to Richard Lee throughout, but most of Lincoln's features were done under pseudonyms. Part of the run does seem to have been done by Jack Kirby, but others are by unidentified cartoonists (like the later samples above).

Needless to say, if you have have ANY information on Lincoln, Elmo, or any of their features, or any samples, I'm all ears.


Part 1

Arazio "Horace" Theodore Elmo was born in New York City on April 3, 1903, according to a family tree at He was the sixth of seven children born to Joseph, a barber, and Josephine, as recorded in the 1910 U.S. Federal Census. His parents and five older siblings were born in Italy. The family lived at 430 East 11th Street in Manhattan.

In the 1920 census the family lived at 878 Kelly Road in the Bronx. Elmo's occupation was a stock clerk in the exporting industry. His father's real name was Sebastian, who brought his family to America in 1900. Elmo married Martha Oliver on May 15, 1928. The couple returned from a trip to Havana, Cuba on March 3, 1929. The passenger list recorded their address as 1304 Grand Concourse, Bronx, New York.

The couple lived at 2497 Grand Avenue in the Bronx according to the 1930 census. His occupation was cartoonist for a newspaper. A Walter Winchell column, published on January 29, 1955 in the Kingsport News (Tennessee), said that Elmo was a cartoonist at the New York Evening Graphic. It is not clear what happened to first wife, Martha, but he remarried, on February 3, 1931, to Vilma A. Molnar. The second half of the 1930s was a very productive period for Elmo as an artist and packager.
Part 2

Who's Who of American Comic Books 1928-1999 lists the following syndicated projects by Elmo: Facts You Never Knew; The Fizzle Family; Goofus Family; It's Amazing; Laughs from Today's News; Our Puzzle Corner; Sally Snickers; Socko the Seadog; Useless Eustace; and Your Health Comes First.

Page 1279 of the Catalog of Copyright Entries, Part 1, Books, Group 2, New Series, Volume 32, Volume Index for 1935, listed Elmo's copyright for Detective Riley; and on page 1498, it listed one of Elmo's pseudonym's, Bruce Stuart. Stuart was credited on the strip, Little Buddy, which was published in the Cullman Banner (Alabama) from February 18 to June 24.

He also produced material for DC and Marvel Comics in the 1940s and 1950s. Two books by Elmo, Modern Casanova's Handbook (1955) and Hollywood Humor (1957), were published by Ace. Other Elmo strips include The Rhyming Romeos (Arkansas State Press, 1950s); Puggy and Tell Me, both appeared in the News Reporter (Hubbard, Ohio) in the 1960s, and Spirit Lake Beacon (Iowa) in the mid-1970s.

Elmo passed away on October 23, 1992 in the Bronx, New York, according to the Social Security Death Index.
Thanks for posting this scarce feature. It's not so bad, really. Interesting how the art shows the influence of the pervasive Sickles-Caniff school in its layouts and spotting of blacks, though the artist doesn't imitate S/A drawing outright.

Did readers of weekly newspapers actually wait eagerly for seven days to see another three panels of a continued story? Maybe that's why Elmo features didn't sell.
I think it's interesting that some of the 3/4 views of the faces in this strip look a lot like Kirby's from that era. Some of the shading as well. I doubt that Kirby had anything to do with this, but I wonder if his influence lingered.
Hi Smurfswacker --
Indeed the inherent limitations of telling continuity stories at the rate of one daily-size strip per week most certainly is a huge handicap. Just ask the good folks who do Prince Valiant today. Their Sunday space is barely bigger than a daily of the 30s.

Hi Michael --
Yes, our ghost certainly was cribbing from Kirby's old Lincoln material. So odd that they referred to Kirby for 3/4 views, and Caniff for straight on and profile. The swiper knew what he liked...

The weekly Medina Tribune had the Lincoln newspaper features
FACTS YOU NEVER KNEW!!!,DETECTIVE RILEY and NAPPY in mid 1941, though with 1940 copyright line.
Another weekly, Cayuga Chief, of Weedsport, New York had the same three, with the year cropped out of the copyright line, as late as January 1944.
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