Smilin' Jack – A Life Long Comic Adventure pt1      

Fat Stuff, Downwind, Tish the Dish and Supersonic Sable may not be names of people you recognize immediately.  They are important, having dealt with the diabolical Madam Mongoose, been captured and escaped from the clutches of the she-devil Simon Legreete and prevented “the Head” from leaking American nuclear secrets to the commies. Their names may seem familiar but if you still don’t know them they were part of an international crime-fighting, aviation adventure that started almost seventy-five years ago. A picture is worth 1000 words and if you were to see these imaginary folks you’ll remember them immediately.  Yes, I said imaginary – all of these characters along with a unforgettable cast of stars like a young Army private named Wagon Wheels, Toggle-switch and Eager Beaver were drawn from the creative mind of Zack Mosley as he developed a flying adventure comic strip about a fictional pilot Jack Martin. 

Sunday, October 1, 1933, a few years before Social Security was invented Zack Mosley revved up “On the Wing” a comic strip about Jack Martin, a nervous student pilot and his terrified student pilot friends. It lifted off the pages of the Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate in the “funny pages”. Comics are big today, but in 1933, before television cartoons, they were colossal.  A few months later, on December 31, the comic strip endured a name change and appeared as Smilin’ Jack.  The daily version started on June 15, 1936. The comic strip was an immediate frontrunner. It grew in popularity partly based on its mix of humor coupled with a comic strip full of characters based on real people and detailed drawings of aircraft.  The American public was enamored with the excitement of aviation. Many notable pilots of the day, Howard Hughs, Amelia Earhart and the Lindbergh’s were breaking records shrinking the world. Flying had become a national pastime, airports and airfields were hosting electrifying air air shows that attracted thousands of spectators. Flying was part of every youngsters dream and for the next four decades Smilin’ Jack inspired their dreams. Zack Mosley’s imagination was stimulated by a mail plane that flew over his boyhood home when he was seven years old. The event, just eight years after the former Indian Territory of Oklahoma became a state, impacted the rest of his life.  When an Army “Jenny” crash landed near his home in Hickory, OK a few years later he began the habit of sketching planes.  Little did he know that “sketching planes” was to continue throughout his professional life.  One thing Zack did know was that he wanted to draw. He collected his life’s savings and moved to Chicago, IL to study art at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts and the Chicago Art Institute. He landed a job as an assistant artist on a fantastic, futuristic aviation comic strip called Buck Rogers. It was not long after the stock market crash of 1929 and Lindbergh had not flown across the Atlantic so Buck Rogers was really leading edge sci-fi.  Equally important he and his roommate had found professional work with Dick Calkins, a chief cartoonist and WWI pilot.

It didn’t take long and the assistant artists began to feel like hypocrites drawing daring aviators and rocket ships but being afraid to fly themselves. That changed after a Chicago air show when Zack and his roommate bought tickets to fly in a huge Curtiss Condor. They were sure a crash landing was their immediate future but when the pilot put the monster down like a feather, Zack was hooked.  Although money was tight he needed to fly again. His next flight was in a commercial T.A.T. airliner. It was top drawer of the day known as a “Tin Goose” it was the Ford tri-motor. The flight was one to remember. Midway through the flight during an unusually heavy thunderstorm they made an emergency landing in a farm field. When the storm cleared they took off from that same field arriving in Tulsa.  These flying stories have a purpose; remember SMILIN’ JACK started out as a story about three student pilots.  Zack was able to create a very real comic strip since he started to take flying lessons in 1932. He was licensed to fly on Friday the 13th November, 1936. The evolving stories of the comic strip were fed by his imagination and very active participation in aviation throughout the 1930s and 40s. He had owned 9 airplanes and logging over 3000 hours at their controls. He was an AOPA member and flew another million and a half miles in military and commercial aircraft.

He was a founder of the Civil Air Patrol in 1941 where he flew over 300 anti-sub patrols during World War II.  In 1944 he became the third C.A.P. Wing Commander of Florida and won the United States Air Medal. In 1976 he was inducted into the United States Air Force Hall of Honor. If you’ve not read or like many of us have not read SMILIN’ JACK in a number of years you’re in for a heartfelt long laugh. You’ll remember the strip featured a motley cast of characters, including Fatstuff, whose belly was so big that buttons routinely popped magically reappearing in the next panel.  Who could forget his argument as a newly wed when his wife Joy disobeyed his guidance and flew into bad weather over the Caribbean. She made all the mistakes of a VFR pilot caught in IMC: she attempted to fly by feel; she doubted the instruments; she fixated on one condition, ignored other problems as she misinterpreted the instruments.  What really happened to Joy after she disappeared at sea? Was she picked up by an enemy sub?

The comic strip features some sensational gender battles too.  Who could forget the characters Walkie Talkie - the girl with the talking legs, Wickie – the incendiary blond or the dashing faceless pilot, Downwind Jaxon, who symbolized some of the decade’s most colorful aviators?  Everyday, for almost 40 years, these characters and their friends helped to publish three to five comic panels of what has become a bit of aviation history. Smilin’ Jack, like its creator piloted all of the modern planes. Smilin’ Jack also fought in both theaters of World War II and later flew jet transports. Smilin’ Jack had a number of different romantic interests in the comic strip too, usually referred to as “de-icers.”  Smilin’ Jack was married, divorced, and remarried and filed for bankruptcy. In short, the character faced the challenges of a real-life, life.  In 1939, Smilin’ Jack was broadcast in a radio series for one season.

In 1943 Universal Studios produced a The Adventures of Smilin’ Jack serial based on the comic strip. When Mosley turned 67 he decided flying his own plane was better than drawing pictures of somebody else flying one and retired. The Tribune Syndicate retired the comic strip at the same time concluding Smilin’ Jack on Sunday, April 1, 1973.

Over the next couple of months The Atlantic Flyer will explore some of Zack Mosley and Smilin’ Jack’s backdrops that helped put the authentic adventures of Smilin’ Jack into the American newspapers for forty years. If you start to read one of the stories, you can’t put it down even today. The DVD of the television serial is pretty entertaining, too. The stories are that good. By the way – who was the only character present in the final episode who wasn’t smiling?

John Cilio is a freelance writer, aviation historian and member of the Connecticut China Seas Lost Squadron Veterans Group.  He lives in Sherman, CT.   You can contact John at: questions@vintageflyer.com  To contact Jill Mosley, Zack’s daugher, go to www. smilinjackart.com