The Great Skyroads/Speed Spaulding Mystery

The aviation strip Skyroads was written by Dick “Buck Rogers” Calkins and drawn by, among others, Zack “Smilin’ Jack” Mosely and Russell “Flyin’ Jenny” Keaton. With plenty of creative talent at the helm it might seem as if this strip couldn’t fail to be a big success. And it was reasonably successful when it first appeared in 1929 as part of the explosion of new adventure strips. However as the 1930s progressed and the market for aviation strips was flooded with the likes of Tailspin Tommy, Flying To Fame and others, Skyroads just couldn’t seem to keep its nose up.

By the mid-30s Skyroads had become a strip that appeared in a piddling number of papers. Yet for reasons unknown the John Dille Syndicate kept the faith with it. In hopes of creating reader loyalty among the kids the syndicate started a club called the Flying Legion which never really took off. In 1936 the syndicate tried the gambit of soliciting the strip under a different name, Speed McCloud, but that too failed to perk up newspaper editors and the new title was scrapped.

Until yesterday I had never seen a single printed example of Skyroads from later than 1935. Yet according to the Editor & Publisher syndicate directories the strip was available from the syndicate as late as 1942, and other comics historians have also cited that year for the end of the strip. Last night fellow researcher Jeffrey Lindenblatt called me with the exciting news that he had located a newspaper, the San Mateo (CA) Times, running the strip in the late 1930s. Eager to see more, the two of us were up late last night looking through the material on NewspaperArchive.com. What we found there, however, left us mighty confused.

Here’s what we found. As expected, Russell Keaton stopped signing the strip in November 1939. This makes perfect sense as he started Flyin’ Jenny for another syndicate in October. Also much as expected, after a few weeks uncredited, the signature Leon Gordon starts appearing on the strip. This is the pen name that Len Dworkins used, and we knew that he worked on the strip as an assistant starting in June 1938. Unexpectedly the printed credit running over the strip begins to read Zack Russell, a combination of the names of two artists who had already left the strip. We can only guess this is Dille trying to maintain creative continuity. Newspaper editors have a habit of dropping strips when the creators change, so perhaps the name Zack Keaton was put there to mollify editors with itchy trigger fingers.

On 1/8/40 things get odd. The title Skyroads is dropped in mid-story, the strip numbering restarts at #1 (with no story break, mind you) and the new title is The Flying Legion. Hey, that name sounds familiar. I check the E&P listings, and they advertise a strip titled The Flying Legion, by one William Winston, from 1940-42 — a strip that I’ve never before been able to document. Okay, no big deal. So Skyroads changed its name to The Flying Legion. Everything makes sense, right? But the problem is that the E&P directories also advertise Skyroads in those same years. So do we have two strips, or just one strip masquerading under two names?

Now astute students of adventure strips might perk up at that 1/8/40 date. That also happens to be the earliest known date for the start of another Dille strip, Speed Spaulding. Speed Spaulding was a sci-fi strip based loosely (VERY loosely) on the novel When Worlds Collide. Speed Spaulding was a closed-end strip that ran for 384 daily episodes (there was also an ultra-rare Sunday strip). It has its own share of mysteries associated with it, because it was first advertised in E&P in 1938, yet there is no paper known to have started it before 1/8/40 (though several are known to have started it later, an important piece of information that we’ll come back to). The combination of these two events happening on the same date seems too much for coincidence.

Now things get mega-weird. On 4/8/40 The Flying Legion strip has a very definite farewell strip (but it’s supposed to continue two more years!), and in the final panel of the final strip we have one of the characters dreaming of a rocket ship. This is a complete non sequitur in the strip, there’s no explanation at all for it. No, the explanation comes the following Monday when the Times starts running (drum roll please) Speed Spaulding!

So now we’ve got Skyroads/Flying Legion ending on 4/8/40. Yet I have correspondence from Len Dworkins stating that he worked on the strip until June 1940, and I have E&P directories claiming that it was then taken over by this William Winston person for another two years. And we have Speed Spaulding starting three months late, but that’s not too big a surprise — it’s a closed end strip, you start it when you like.

So Jeffrey follows the Speed Spaulding strip to its conclusion. We’ve got our fingers crossed that when that strip ends the paper might just go back to running the Skyroads strip. No such luck, though. Speed Spaulding ends on July 5 1941 and is replaced by yet another Dille strip, Draftie.

Okay, that’s all we learned from the San Mateo Times. It’s a confusing mess, and only made worse by Dille’s listings in the E&P directories. After a lot of head-scratching, though, I’ve come up with a halfway decent guess as to what was going on. Here’s my proposed scenario. I think that Dille got the rights to When Worlds Collide back in 1938, and immediately started advertising a strip adaptation. He expected a torrent of orders, but he got more like a dribble. So he kept advertising it, trying to get enough papers on board to make the project pay. He also started marketing it to papers that were running the practically moribund Skyroads strip, perhaps asking them to trade up from that to Speed Spaulding. Skyroads was in bad shape, about to lose its talented artist, and the handwriting was on the wall that the strip was doomed. If Dille could sell these papers on Speed Spaulding he could let the strip die but could mitigate that loss with a new client for Speed Spaulding.

the 4/8/40 Flying Legion strip – note the last panel

By the end of 1939 he had amassed a barely big enough list of papers that had pledged to buy Speed Spaulding, so he puts it in production. A start date of 1/8/40 is somehow decided on. A lot of the buyers are Skyroads clients — he offers them three options. They can start Speed Spaulding on 1/8/40 and continue Skyroads, rechristened with a new name but continuing the storyline, start Speed Spauding on 1/8 while dropping Skyroads in mid-story (perhaps with a special wrap-up strip that we haven’t seen), or continue running Skyroads until the current storyline wraps up on 4/8/40, and then start Speed Spaulding, also with a special wrap-up strip, the one shown with this post. For papers that didn’t take Speed Spaulding, the Skyroads/Flying Legion strip continues on with a new story as if nothing untoward has happened. By renaming Skyroads on 1/8, he knows he’s stacked the deck in his favor — editors hate name changes even more than they do creator changes — its a great excuse to cut the client list on Skyroads, which he is prepared to kill, and to boost the available slots for Speed Spaulding.

The only thing he didn’t plan on was that he would still be left with a barely profitable client list for Skyroads, and yet, seemingly, he did. So the strip kept on running until 1942. And how he managed to not add clients to an aviation strip after World War II had started is beyond me, but perhaps that William Winston person who took it over was so bad that the remainder of the client list finally deep-sixed it.

This scenario, while perhaps a mite intricate, is the only way I can make sense of everything. But of course I have no proof that any of it is true. What would be an enormous help to prove or disprove all this conjecture is any additional information you might have, especially information about what happened in other papers running Skyroads, The Flying Legion and/or Speed Spaulding. Help!!!

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