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Landings: Reviews: Smilin' Jack: Classic Aviation Culture

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By: Michael E. Marotta (Mike Echo Mike)
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For 40 years, from October 2, 1933, to April 1, 1973, Zack Mosely's Smilin' Jack Martin flew from the comics of the CTNYN syndicate. At first a Sunday feature, Smilin' Jack became a daily strip in 1936, mixing two-fisted adventure with aviation groundschool. Jack was a realistic character because Mosely was really a pilot.

In 1930, after two years of art school, and two years laboring around Chicago, Zack Mosley found work on the "Buck Rogers" team and then transferred to drawing "Skyroads." Skyroads was "amateurish and pretty fantastic" in Mosley's words. "I didn't write it. I just drew it," he said. The aviation in the strip was "wild-haired and impossible" but it piqued his interest. In the summer of 1932, Mosley took a flying lesson at Chicago Municipal Airport. In 1933, Mosley launched Smilin' Jack.

Mosley passed his PPL checkride and by 1949 had logged 2500 hours in single engine planes, the Beech 18, and PBY flying boat, among others. At the same time, Smilin' Jack piloted all of the modern planes of the 1930s and fought in both theaters of World War II. After the war, he continued up the ladder into jet transports. He was married, divorced, and remarried. He filed for bankruptcy. In short, he had a real-life life.

Zack Mosley was born in Oklahoma in 1906, a year before statehood. So it is no surprise that Mosley's value system is that of the frontier West. You will find sexism, racism, and jingoism in the panels of Smilin' Jack. You will also find loyalty, courage, intelligence, and fairness.

In late 1940 and early 1941, Jack gets married to heiress Joy Beaverduck, who is also a pilot. She has purchased her own specially built racing plane, intending to set a speed record between New York and Rio de Janeiro. Jack says she'll never get a type certificate and she replies that an X-certificate will be easy to get. Jack test flies the plane and condemns it. Attempting to be the man of the house, he forbids her to fly it.

Joy: You conceited males think you are so superior to women, but you're not stopping me from flying my racer!!
Jack: I'm sorry, Joy, but I must forbid it -- it's too hot for a girl!
Joy: Girls can fly just as good as men any day!
Jack: Some girls, perhaps -- It's all a matter of experiece -- It's true I flew it, but I've had thousands of hours -- you've only had a few hundred!

Instinctively the protective and dominant male, Jack nonetheless admits to the fact Joy presents: given experience, women fly as well as men. For all of that, the argument goes nowhere and Jack walks out of the house mad. He visits his pal Downwind who tells him he is being a jackass and advises him to apologize to Joy. "But that would be giving in -- I've gotta teach her who's head of the family..." Downwind is not sold. "It's just as much your place to make the first move to make up as it is hers."

Too late. Joy takes off to set a record. She flies into bad weather over the Caribbean. She makes all the mistakes of a VFR pilot caught in IMC: she attempts to fly by feel; she doubts the instruments; she fixates on one condition, ignoring other problems; she misinterprets the instruments.

The circumstances are all the more bitter for Jack. This was their first argument in eleven weeks of marriage. Their honeymoon had been postponed twice. The first time, Downwind was thought lost or dead when he failed to close his flight plan. Jack flew off to find him, tracing the river valleys that he knew Downwind would opt for in bad weather. The second time, Joy's father just has to take his legal advisors to Nashville and bad weather has grounded the airlines. Furthermore, Mr. Beaverduck's corporate Lockheed Electra is getting a 100-hour. So, Jack stuffs them all into his single engine. They ice up. Jack descends to warmer air. He reads the charts and the weather and makes it through the mountains. What a guy!

A picture is worth 1000 words and every day for 40 years, Mosely delivered three to five panels. The virtues and faults of the cultural context are not unusual for the time. (In 50 years Dilbert and Cathy will be blamed for quite a lot that we do not see now.) Be that as it may, in Smilin' Jack, Zack Mosely ran a good groundschool. Mosely loved air shows and he plugged them in his strip. As an AOPA member, he also used the strip to lobby Congress on behalf of general aviation.

Among the places that sell Smilin' Jack reprints are Ken Pierce Books and Clark Classic Comics, Inc. Ken Pierce is online at <> and clicking on < >takes you to Dave Clark.

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NOTE: Reviews and Opinions do not necessarily represent those of Landings, its personnel and employees.

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