Wednesday, February 12, 2014


Obscurity of the Day: The Zane Grey Comic Strip

I confess to not being much interested in the western fiction genre, so I've never read a Zane Grey novel. But if the Zane Grey Comic Strip is anywhere close to a fair representation of how the famed novelist wrote, his popularity is a mystery to me. Rarely have I read more stilted prose than that found in the typeset captions of this comic strip. And since Mr. Grey's name is proudly emblazoned on each strip I have to assume he was happy with this representation of his work.

Anyhow, my two cents aside, let's discuss the strip. By the 1930s Zane Grey was a household name, having written immensely popular western novels since the early 1910s. However, the readership for his novels took a dive during the Great Depression, when his readers were more concerned with paying for their next meal than reading Grey's next oater. Likely it was this falling income stream that spurred Grey's interest in the extra money he could make licensing his novels to the Register and Tribune Syndicate for adaptation in the form of comic strips.

Though credited to Zane Grey, the adaptations were probably the work of John J. Welch, but he should be excused for the woodenness, having to follow Grey's lead. The art, which was delightfully rough-hewn, perfect for the subject matter, was by Jack Abbott (more about him tomorrow in an Alex Jay Ink-Slinger Profile).

On January 25 1932, after an unusually expansive marketing effort by the Des Moines-based Register and Tribune Syndicate, the strip debuted in a creditable number of newspapers nationwide. The first novel to be adapted, Riders of the Purple Sage, was also Grey's most popular.

But things went downhill from there. My guess is that newspaper readers generally fell into two groups -- those who enjoyed Grey's work and had already read the novels, and those who didn't particularly care for his work. My thinking is that a rather small pie slice of the newspaper-reading population fit into the category that were fans of this sort of story and had not already read the Zane Grey tales. That meant that the strip, which would have seemed an obvious winner with such a high-profile name attached, may not have had the expected appeal.

The series managed to make it through adaptations of seven novels, though the client list of newspapers dropped precipitously starting by the third and fourth stories. Finding a paper that ran the series all the way to the end is one tough hunt (the Toronto Star was one of the few papers to stick with it to the bitter end).
In an attempt to buoy up interest, the adaptations got shorter but that seemed to do nothing to reverse the strip's fortunes.

Story TitleLetter# of StripsOfficial Start Date
Riders of the Purple SageA1201/25/32
Forlorn RiverB1146/13/32
Desert GoldD1143/13/33
The U.P. TrailE667/24/33
Fighting CaravansF6010/9/33
Robbers’ RoostG4212/18/33

Each story had a letter designator, and oddly enough, when the series ended the letter designator actually continued. Presumably for some arcane marketing reason, the Zane Grey strip numbering, along with the numbering of another strip, Flying to Fame, was continued on a new strip titled Bullet Benton. While Bullet Benton was a western, it has nothing to do with the Zane Grey oeuvre.

Thanks very much to Cole Johnson, who provided the sample strips.


Your favorable opinion about Abbott's artwork matches my own. In Comics of the American West, Maurice Horn's assessment was that Abbott was "undistinguished" as an artist.

Attribution of the comic adaptation of Grey's novels to John J. Welch is certainly correct for the last four novels, which used the common comic format of dialogue balloons. The "Picture Strip" format used in the first three titles was also used by the Tarzan strips of Edgar Rice Burrough's, which had been running in newspapers for a few years before the Zane Grey strips appeared. I'm still seeking positive identification of the writer for the first three titles of the Zane Grey strip. I'm almost positive that it was not Welch.

The probable explanation for the strip's letter identifications (A through G) being continued in sequence to "Bullet Benton" and "Flying to Fame" was John J. Welch being a writer for these strips.

Zane Grey very likely had little to do with the writing of the strip. In 1935, when Grey needed money and Slesinger talked him into "King of the Royal Mounted" for King Features, Grey wrote only the initial story. Afterwards, he supplied only rough story outlines for the writers of daily continuity to complete.

A couple of questions for you:

(1) You have tabulated an "official start date" for the strips, e.g. 25 Jan 1932 for Riders of the Purple Sage. The Topeka, Kansas, newspaper that ran the strip started it on 18 April 1932. Was asynchronous publication typical of nationally strips in the 1930s?

(2) Could you comment on the probable nature of the collaboration between artist and writer in producing picture strips like the sample you show for "Nevada". Would frequent communication have been required? Or could the writer have simply broken the text into small chunks that he thought could be illustrated, and then given them to the artist? Any insight would be appreciated.

Thank you.

--Bob Keen
Hi Bob --
Good questions!

Regarding an "official starting date", I'm really glad you asked that. I should have explained more in the post, but I felt like I was starting to get a mite long-winded.

The beauty (business-wise) of a strip that is numbered instead of dated is of course that newspapers can start the series at any time they wish. They aren't locked in at all -- in fact they can buy the material and let it sit on the shelf if they want to until it is needed. Of course, on a dated strip the dates can be removed from the strips before they're printed, but the extra work associated with that makes it (thankfully) not all that common.

The Zane Grey series did indeed start at various different times in different papers, taking advantage of the lack of dates. Therefore my "official" start date is, I suppose, anything but that since the syndicate made special allowance to make it easy for papers to run it late. I call it official for no better reason than that is the starting date at the Toronto Star. The Star is the only paper I know of that ran the entire series, in sequence, without breaks, and no later than any other paper I've discovered. The Star was obviously very hepped up about the strip, and that leads me to assume that they got it into the paper as soon as it became available from the syndicate.

As regards question 2, a typical comic strip script produced in a writer/artist collaboration contains the written dialogue and captions and directions for how the artist should illustrate it. Depending on the way the duo like to work, the writer may describe the panel art in very vague terms, or hamstring the artist by describing how each rivet on a pair of jeans should look.

In the comic strip world, it is not uncommon for writers to actually draw rough sketches of how they see the action in each panel. Of course if the writer is reasonable, the artist is given plenty of latitude to take or ignore the directions as more suggestion than orders.

Now a couple questions for you. First, how does the prose in the comic strips relate to Zane Grey's originals? In other words, is much of the text taken directly from the novels, or is it substantially rewritten? Second, why do you believe that Welch was not the writer on the first three titles, and why do you think he did adapt the rest?

Best, Allan
Thanks for a kind and responsive reply. I'll attempt in turn to address your questions.

How does the prose in the comic strips relate to Zane Grey's originals? In other words, is much of the text taken directly from the novels, or is it substantially rewritten?

In the picture-strip format of the first three adaptations, the length of the novel was buy at least 80%. The text that remained used much of Grey's wording. Grey is on record as deploring the condensation because he thought it mangled his stories; however, he needed the money then.

Second, why do you believe that Welch was not the writer on the first three titles, and why do you think he did adapt the rest?

John J. Welch is listed in the Library of Congress records of copyright, submitted by the Des Moines register & tribune co. as being the writer/adaptor for the last four novels, with Jack Abbott as the illustrator. Too, at the same time in 1933 that Welch was converting the novel to the usual comic format, he was also doing the same for P. C. Wren's Beau Geste, illustrated by B. W. Depew. Welch inserted his own characters Slim and Tubby into the latter adaptation.

The first three novels, in picture-strip format, were submitted for copyright with only Zane Grey indicated as creator. Some Zane Grey scholars think that daily continuity for the first three titles was written by Grey's son Romer. Zane Grey kept himself distanced from the strip as he mostly did for the "King of the Royal Mounted" strip that followed.

It seems that the Des Moines Register and Tribune Syndicate had a certain fluidity about its staff, and shuffled its artists among strips. Even Welch's character Tubby, a flying cowboy in strips written by Welch, was switched to being a newspaper reporter working alongside Monte Barrett's Jane Arden.

Thank you.
--Bob Keen
Hi Bob --
Thanks for the insight regarding the writers. Very interesting that Welch actually received copyright credit!

I assume the missing word in your first response is that the novels were CONDENSED by 80%?

Best, Allan
Thank you very much for all this great information regarding the Zane Grey newspaper strips of the 1930s. I only discovered them after I had purchased a run of Tarzan strips by Rex Maxon. On the backs of the Tarzan strips were Zane Grey's RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE. Some of the strips were complete and others had the last panel cut off (of course the clipper was only interested in the Tarzan strips). I only have a handful of RIDERS OF RHE PURPLE SAGE but really enjoyed them, especially Abbott's art.
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