Brainiac On Banjo #011: Death of A Super-Hero?

He rides through the jungle, tearin’ limbs off of trees Knockin’ great big monsters dead on their knees The cats don’t bug him ’cause they know better ‘Cause he’s a mean motor scooter and a bad go-getter He’s the toughest man there is alive Wears clothes from a wildcat’s hide He’s the king of the jungle jive Look at that cave man go!

Way back in May 1960, the ABC network purchased a Chicago-based rural-oriented radio station from the Prairie Farmer magazine, not because they wanted to aid corn-growers but because it was a 50,000 watt “class A” radio station. That meant it was received by listeners in about 33 states, much of Canada, and, if you lived next to their transmission towers, probably your dental fillings as well.

In other words, they wanted a money machine. Pursuant to this, WLS changed format from “music to milk cows by” to that nasty-ol’ rock’n’roll. ABC thought the farmers wouldn’t appreciate the musical musings of Chuck Berry, Brenda Lee, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, and the ever-frightening Elvis Presley. So, in order to clear the field, they chose one song to play over and over and over for a few days. Their disc jockeys were a talented group of kids including the legendary Dick Biondi and Bob Hale, who a year previous had emceed the Iowa concert where Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Richie Valens performed their last. Those jocks were the heart and soul of the station. They announced that song under various contrived titles. The farmers quickly found something else to listen to, and the kids were brought in through word-of-mouth generated by their redundancy programming.

That song was Alley Oop, performed by The Hollywood Argyles and written by Mort Shuman and Doc Pomus, two of rock’s most important writers. For the record, it debuted on WLS a month before official release. The song was based upon the brilliant newspaper comic strip of the same name – which, unless I’m mistaken (it happens), was not published in any of the five major Chicago newspapers at the time.

Oh, wait. This isn’t about rock’n’roll radio. It’s about an obituary. Well, maybe not. Hopefully not. 

Created by the brilliant V. T. Hamlin, the Alley Oop strip debuted on December 5, 1932 and ran until September 1, 2018 – nine days ago. It wasn’t cancelled due to poor sales, although the continuity (story) strips that once dominated the medium have dwindled to about a dozen. Dwindled due to the complete lack of competition between local papers. Back in the day (which ended about 40 years ago) people would choose their daily reading based upon which had their favored comic strips. It was the single most important feature in building newspaper circulation. Of course, rising prices and dwindling interest cut the size of strips from a magnificent stretch across about two-thirds of the page to, as Dick Tracy creator Chester Gould noted, postage stamps.

Alley Oop and his cast were time-travelers from the pre-historic days when people believed man and dinosaur lived together. If you take the position that E.C. Segar’s Popeye The Sailor Man was America’s first comics superhero – and I do – then V.T. Hamlin’s Alley Oop was the second. As Pomus and Shuman wrote, “He got a chauffeur that’s a genuine dinosaur / And he can knuckle your head before you count to four.”

The last Alley Oop team was artist Jack Bender, who joined the strip in 1991, and writer/colorist Carole Bender, climbing aboard 27 years ago. They left because they decided to retire, which is quite understandable. Given the severe limitations of today’s comic strip real estate, they did a terrific job. I read it every day on gocomics.com, the Internet home to such stalwarts as Dick Tracy, Gasoline Alley, Tarzan (reprints), Bloom County, and tons of funny funnies – as well as webstrips including my personal favorite, Buni.

Alley Oop is still there, in reruns by the Benders. The syndicate is mulling over finding a new team to take over early next year – I’m cynical enough to look at the finances and think that ain’t gonna happen. But I’m bright-eyed enough to hope it might.

Until then, there are a number of reprint books covering V.T. Hamlin’s work, including two beautiful editions from Dark Horse that reprint five years or so of his stunning Sunday pages. Get ‘em while you still can.

No, I do not know what a mean motor scooter is… other than a truly great line from a truly great song.

“There he goes / Look at that cave man go / He sure is hip, ain’t he?”

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