Monday, June 27, 2022
A Long-Awaited Discovery -- Socko the Seadog and Other Lincoln Features Rarities!
An offhand remark by friend of the blog Mark Johnson sent me down the rabbit hole, searching once again for a long-sought obscurity, Socko the Seadog. If you're not familiar with it, that was a strip that Jack Kirby supposedly penned for the hole-in-the-wall syndicate Lincoln Features in 1937.
I've been searching for appearances of the strip ever since Greg Theakston uncovered a set of proofs of the strip from the King himself, Jack Kirby, way back in the 1990s, I think. Or maybe it was even earlier. I can't remember, and I cannot find my copies of Theakston's publications right now. (Hey, anyone want to come organize my books so I can find the one I want once in a while?).
Anyhow, Lincoln Features was a syndicate run by H.T. Elmo in the mid-1930s to early '40s, and it produced material for weekly newspapers. While Elmo was quite the hustler, he could never seem to get a decent number of paying clients for his wares. In fact, the majority of Lincoln Features material that you do find actually printed in weekly papers of the 1930s are the freebies he sent out to try to court subscribers.
Some of the Lincoln Features material did manage to sell, and since it was all numbered, not dated, Elmo could keep hawking the same material year after year after year. In fact some of the material produced in the 1930s he was still selling to newspapers under his Elmo Features imprint into the 1970s!
But back to Socko. Although Theakston had definite proof that some strips were produced, in all the weeklies I checked (and there were a lot, even back in the pre-digital age) I never found one that took the feature. Even papers that took other Lincoln material didn't run poor neglected Socko.
I have to admit, by the 2010s I wasn't even thinking to check for Socko in the burgeoning online archives for years at a time. I'd pretty well managed to convince myself that it was a white whale, probably produced but never successfully syndicated. And then, Mark Johnson casually mentioned while discussing something else that he saw a paper in which Socko was advertised to start the next week. Wow!!
So as soon as I could stuff the eyeballs back in my head, I jumped on newspapers.com (Mark had found it in a paper on that Fulton Postcards website, which I avoid like a covid variant) and glory be, a search on "Socko The Seadog" offers up not one, not two, but more like a half-dozen papers that ran it at various times!
The feature began in two papers on the same first week of April 1937, so that would presumably mean that these were takers from Lincoln's original promotion. And the really exciting thing is that Lincoln was offering not just one new feature, but SEVEN! In other words, they were trying to sell an all-new full page of weekly strips. On that first week all the strips were unnumbered, and here they are, as they appeared in the Crescent (OK) Times:
So let's discuss each of these. Up top we have Dolly In Hollywood, a strip about a beautiful young would-be starlet. This sort of strip was riding on the coattails of Dixie Dugan, Ella Cinders and others. The art is obviously trying to emulate (a nicer word than swipe) Alex Raymond. As is typical for Lincoln Features, it is credited to a nonentity, Bill Hughes. The middle panel on the first strip looks like Kirby could have had a hand in it, but I see not much more of his influence in this or later strips.
We'll pass by Socko for a moment and next look at Lefty Wright, a gag strip about an All-American kid. This was credited to Robert Gerald, and based on that pen-name and the look of the strip, I wondered if we had a Bob Kane production here. But looking at further strips, and the lettering style, I believe we are actually looking at the work of M.E. Brady, who is known to have done some other work for Lincoln. In fact, while I was researching this material I stumbled upon another short-lived Lincoln strip, Farmyard Follies, which I'm 99% sure is reprints of the daily-style years of Brady's Dip and Duck.
Next we have Cyclone Burke by Bob Brown. Aviator Burke is transported to the lair of a futuristic mad scientist guy, who has an army of robots to do his evil bidding. This exciting sci-fi strip that moves along at lightning pace seems pretty obviously the work of Jack Kirby.
Next is The Black Buccaneer, a muddled seagoing pirate adventure. While the first episode offers art I find tough to identify, later strips seem to be the work of Jack Kirby. Which is a good thing, because the supposed creator, Jack Curtiss, is a known pen-name of Kirby.
Next we have The Cloud Busters, one more in the seemingly endless list of 1930s aviation strips. This strip is supposed to be by George Newman. What we're actually doing is bookending the new comics page with slavish Alex Raymond swipes; the art is just like Dolly in Hollywood. I'm guessing the same unknown copycat is responsible for both strips.
Counting Socko the Seadog, which we're still saving for last, that makes six new features. But I said seven, so what's up? Well, for some reason the Crescent Times decided not to run our last strip, but thankfully the Oklahoma State Register, the other pioneer subscriber to the page, did. The digitized microfilm is in awful shape, but here is Curious Customs and Oddities:
Lincoln Features absolutely loved Believe It or Not clones, and their new page offered yet another one in that line. This one was by "Barton", which of course is yet another pen name. The condition of this first page is so bad I wouldn't be caught dead trying to ID the art, but the second installment is in much better shape:
From this strip I can definitely say that this is by H.T. Elmo himself. And, thanks to help from Alex Jay, who awhile back took on the Herculean task of documenting Facts You Never Knew, Lincoln's long-running curiosities strip, we know that these are just retitled episodes from that series. For some reason only two of these strips were run -- odd since it is recycled material -- so you see here the entire run, or at least what the Oklahoma State Register was willing to run of it. The Crescent Times never ran it at all.
Before we finally discuss Socko the Seadog, I have some bad news about the whole page of new Lincoln strips. The whole megillah seems to have run for a grand total of eight episodes; the first episodes were unnumbered, and the rest take each series from #101 to #107. Both papers ran it exactly that long. Now that could just mean that Lincoln sent these papers the first eight episodes as promos, and that's all they ran, and the series went on elsewhere. Unfortunately, we have no 'elsewhere' to look for more. So for now, we have to, by default, assume that the grand long run of these strips was a whopping two months. Maybe after I've been searching for another thirty years or so, I'll stumble across a paper that ran these longer. But I'm not holding my breath. My guess is that they didn't get enough takers to bother continuing the series.
But that's NOT the case with Socko The Seadog, and that's why I had to save it for last. Let's start, though, by covering the first eight installments of Socko, credited to "Teddy". The bad news is that these strips are absolutely, positively NOT the work of Jack Kirby. I understand that Theakston found them in Kirby's papers, and maybe Kirby even took credit for them -- The King wasn't lying, but we'll get to that. What I can say is that the Socko strips #nn-107 are absolutely, definitely the work of our good buddy H.T. Elmo. Back when these were brought to my attention decades ago, I seem to recall there was some palaver about how Kirby was employing animation techniques so that these strips would not look like his usual fare. Sorry, no. These are as obviously Elmo as the nose on Durante's face. Granted, it's Elmo desperately trying to evoke a faint whiff of the Segar genius out of his pen (and failing miserably), but it's Elmo.
The thing about Socko the Seadog is that he was too darn tough to die after a mere eight episodes. Searching for later appearances, I found that over two years later, in August 1939, Socko was resurrected, popping up in at least five papers: the Scottsbluff Farm Journal, Cherokee Messenger, McIntosh County Democrat, and lagging a month behind, the Rutland Times and Lathrop Optimist. After a few strips from the old series, still bearing their numbers up to 107, all of a sudden the numbering jumps to #136 and then continues.
Were numbers #108-135 even produced? I tend to doubt it, unless they were so bad that Lincoln deep sixed them. Once again, Alex Jay's work on Facts You Never Knew is instructive, because there are definite gaps in the numbering of that series as well. In any case, with #136 we get a new artist (though still, of course, "Teddy"). The new person has a pretty nice style, when they're not rushed, characterized by a tendency to draw elongated heads and no chins. Here's an early sample, #138:
|Socko the Seadog #138|
Once again, I see no obvious trace of Kirby, unless he was really, really committing to a different style here. But sometimes Kirby's style does peek through, like in this strip, #165:
So is this new artist actually Kirby committing all-in to a bigfoot style? The traces of Kirby definitely come and go, but the character designs remain pretty consistent, so maybe he just pencilled a lot of these strips?
Only the Cherokee and McIntosh County papers stuck with the Socko strip for the long haul. By 1941 the two papers were running Socko strips into the #220s; that means that even if we assume that strips #108-135 weren't produced, enough weekly Socko strips were created for a solid year and a half run. What's also interesting is that until they got into the #200s, Lincoln was affixing a 1937 copyright stamp on them, which likely means that the whole run was produced in one great gush of ink-slinging in 1937. But why, then, did Lincoln not try to sell them until August 1939? Once we get into the #200s, though, the copyrights change to 1941, indicating most likely that they had finally got around to updated the slugs so as to appear current for client papers. I certainly doubt that they returned to the series four years later to add more material.
Here are some additional strips from the run, for your art-spotting pleasure (the last one seems to bear the most obvious marks of Kirby, in my estimation):
|Socko the Seadog #153|
|Socko the Seadog #183|
|Socko the Seadog #198|
|Socko the Seadog #209|
|Socko the Seadog #214|
And then there is one final mystery for a strip that was rife with them. The last client I have running the strip, the McIntosh County Democrat, runs the strips up through the #220s in mid-1941, but then all of a sudden they jumped numbers and ran #254 and 258 before reverting back to earlier numbers and then dumping the feature entirely. That's a second jump of 30-odd strip numbers in the series. And odder still, I find on this website that someone has evidently found a strip numbered what looks like 278, another jump of 20. In this strip, obviously by Kirby, the tone has definitely taken a turn for the grim, and it seems to be in the middle of a semi-serious continuing adventure story. And down about 2/3 the way through this page you'll find another serious looking Socko strip -- though too small to say for sure what the number is (267 maybe?) it also looks like semi-serious Kirby work. Both these samples look like they are from digitized microfilm, but from what papers?
So that's the end of my report on Socko the Seadog, and obviously there are lots of unanswered questions. As always, if you have more information, I'd love to hear from you!