Smilin’ Zack Mosley’s Wilder Blue Yonder

Captain Joseph Patterson, publisher of the nation's first big tabloid newspaper, the New York Daily News, had an instinct about what newspaper readers doted on, and that celebrated insight guided him in midwifing numerous highly successful comic strips. Beginning with The Gumps, Paterson nurtured into fame such stellar attractions as Gasoline Alley, Little Orphan Annie, Moon Mullins, Smitty, Winnie Winkle, Dick Tracy, and Terry and the Pirates. Successful as he was at the game, the Captain occasionally fumbled, revealing a fallibility that made him human. The 1933 take-off of Zack Mosley's Smilin' Jack was so wobbly and prolonged as to suggest that Patterson's fabled intuition had bailed out to attend to other pressing matters while he was buying the strip. Smilin' Jack is one strip Patterson launched without, apparently, having a clear idea about what he wanted it to be.

Patterson had been trying to learn how to pilot an airplane. It was his way of combating his fear of flying. It wasn't easy: he was past fifty, and he seemed to lack coordination and the ability to judge distances. His first attempt at a solo (without his instructor's permission) finished in a ground loop. He eventually got his pilot's license, promptly wrecked his five-ton Sikorsky amphibian, and swore off piloting himself. But in 1933, he was still struggling to master the skills.

At the time, Zack Mosley was working at the John Dille Syndicate in Chicago, assisting Dick Calkins on the first science-fiction comic strip, Buck Rogers, and an aviation strip, Skyroads. But Mosley was eager for better things, and he spent a good deal of time hanging around the Chicago Tribune offices with fellow Oklahoman Chester Gould, then in the early years of Dick Tracy, and with one of the Tribune's editorial cartoonists, Carey Orr, from whom Mosley had taken art instruction. One day early in the year, Gould told Mosley about Patterson's flying adventures.

"He's cracked up a couple of planes," Gould explained, "and I think he's a bit afraid, but he's determined to become a licensed pilot. Zack, you should take flying lessons and do a strip about scared pilots. The Captain might just like it."

That, it turned out, was just the right thing to say to the up-by-his-own-bootstraps youth. Zack Terrell Mosley was born December 12, 1906, in Hickory, Indian Territory the year before it became the state of Oklahoma. His father, Zack Taylor Mosley, was a rancher and one of the sons in Mosley and Sons General Merchandise Store; his mother was Irah Corinna Aycock. The family moved to Shawnee in 1922, and while in high school, Zack worked as a cotton picker, soda jerk, cowboy, and lumberyard roustabout. After graduating, he clerked in an Oklahoma City drugstore for a year to earn enough money to go north and enroll in the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts in the fall of 1926. He took courses in the Chicago Art Institute 1927-1928 and private lessons from Orr, earning his living as a cashier in a restaurant. In early 1929, Zack and one of his roommates, Russell Keaton, were hired to help Calkins. After three years of dating (and often becoming "somewhat" engaged to) several beautiful girls (strategically located in widely separated parts of the city "so there was," as Mosley explained, "no danger of them  meeting one another"), Mosley married one of them, Marie Gale, a nurse, in 1932.

Gould's advice struck a chord—Mosley's lifelong awe of airplanes. By the time he was eleven, young Zack had seen two airplanes in action; both crash landed, but he had been bitten by the aviation bug and started drawing airplanes and dreaming of flying them. "My main career was planned," Mosley wrote in his autobiography, Brave Coward Zack: "Someday, I would fly aeroplanes and draw 'funny papers' about them." Now, in the spring in 1933, Mosley saw his future looming suddenly larger, nearer, than ever.

He signed up for flying lessons, but he froze at the controls his first time aloft, so alarming his instructor that he was forthwith grounded. But he still wanted to draw a comic strip about flying, and by that summer, he'd translated his meager flying experiences into a strip about "scared pilots" that he called On the Wing. He resolved to take it to New York and show it himself to Patterson. When he arrived at the Daily News building, he found that getting in to see the Captain wasn't all that easy.

While waiting for an appointment, he wandered in to Walter Berndt's office, and after canoodling a little about Berndt's strip, Smitty, Mosley heard some startling news: Patterson was about to double the Sunday comic section to sixteen pages. Before Mosley had time to rejoice at the timing of his errand, Berndt went on to explain that the new strips would be selected from 400 candidates already on exhibition awaiting the Captain's decision. Mosley decided to enhance the odds in this 400-1 shot: he would go ahead and see Patterson in order to show his strip personally.

The Captain was not impressed. "You're a lousy artist," he said when he saw Mosley's samples. "But you seem to know a lot about aviation. How much pilot time have you had?"

Mosley confessed he'd had only one lesson but rattled on about being fascinated by aviation ever since he'd seen a plane crash when he was a kid. He wanted to learn to fly, he said, but was scared of the prospect. Then he mentioned that Gould had encouraged him to bring his strips to Patterson personally.

Patterson decided to give this brash youth a chance. Pointing out that his aesthetic judgment of Mosley's work stemmed in part from the fact that his samples were not completely inked and finished, the Captain told Mosley to condense his daily strips into a Sunday page and bring it in by nine o'clock the next morning when Patterson would begin picking strips for the expanded comics section.

Mosley panicked: he didn't have a pen, ink, or drawing board in New York. But he knew someone who did. He called an old Chicago roommate, Frank Engli, and the two of them worked through the night, cutting, pasting, and inking panels. The next day, Mosley turned in his samples and then went to wait out the decision in Berndt's office.

Unbeknownst to him, Mosley had a powerful ally. Berndt, the Captain's unofficial talent scout and one of those who would help Patterson select the new strips, liked Mosley's samples. Although another contestant drew airplanes better, Berndt thought Mosley had livelier ideas. Patterson liked the beautiful airplanes, but Berndt wanted Mosley to get the nod, so he rigged the selection by conspiring with editorial cartoonist C.D. Batchelor. Accordingly, he called Batchelor in as an independent third party arbitrator, and Batchelor, as instructed, picked the strip Berndt held in his right hand. It was On the Wing, and Mosley was suddenly a bigtime cartoonist doing a Sunday strip for the Tribune-News Syndicate.

On the Wing debuted with the other new strips on October 1, 1933. Five weeks after the strip started, Mosley got a telegram in Chicago from Patterson: "Change the name of On the Wing to Smilin' Jack," it said. Mosley wired back: "The name of the main character is Mack not Jack." But Patterson was not deterred by details: "Change name to Smilin' Jack," he responded.

"Naturally I did," Mosley recalled, "but I wondered what the readers would think when they saw that 'Mack' was suddenly 'Jack."' Readers apparently thought nothing of it: not one complained when the new name appeared on December 31. (Mosley never found out why Patterson changed the name. Maybe the Captain was inspired by Mosley's own beaming countenance, the autobiographical nature of the strip, and the profusion of sound-alike names—Zack, Mack, and Jack.) 

Those who remember Smilin' Jack doubtless recall a strip with lots of pictures of airplanes and a string of bizarre adventures. It's true that Smilin' Jack always had airplanes in it: Mosley was so fond of drawing them that he decorated his panels with airplanes, putting in pictures of them even when the story didn't require it. But it didn't begin as an adventure strip—a fact of which Mosley had to be rudely reminded almost immediately. Shortly after the strip began, Mosley insinuated some hair-brained adventuring into it. Patterson's assistant, Mollie Slott, wired the Captain's displeasure, saying the strip would probably be dropped soon. Mosley dashed to New York, borrowing money for the trip from Carey Orr. Patterson relieved him of any confusion he may have had about why the strip had been selected.

"You started off about true-to-life scared pilots," he explained. "But you are about to become imaginative. Stick to real flying. No shooting tigers from a cockpit. Keep up your flying lessons—and, so I can keep an eye on you, move to New York immediately."

Properly chastised, Mosley dutifully packed himself and his wife off to the Big Apple and installed his drawing board in Berndt's office in the News building. And Smilin' Jack continued for the next two-and-a-half years as a Sunday-only feature about the high-spirited training field antics of a bunch of young pilots.

It was a humorous strip, the weekly gags occasionally strung together on a slender plotline. Then in the spring of 1936, Mosley sent Smilin' Jack into the South Seas in search of a famous missing aviator, Major McCloud—a continuity that ran for several months. The strips still had punchline endings rather than cliffhangers, but Mosley's execution of the story apparently led Patterson to rescind his dictum against adventuring. The Captain may have recognized in Mosley's unquenchable enthusiasm for excitement that the cartoonist was uniquely equipped to do a slam-bang adventure strip. (Besides, Patterson had earned his own pilot's license by this time, and, having sworn off flying himself, he may have lost interest in the strip's original focus.)

Smilin' Jack was converted to a seven-day strip, the daily beginning June 15, 1936, and Mosley's aviator was thrust into one harrowing scrape after another for the next thirty-seven years. None of the other strips introduced in Patterson's expanded comic section in 1933 lasted as long as Smilin' Jack or attracted as faithful a following.

Mosley proved himself adept at telling an adventure story—in his own haphazard, eccentric, almost zany, fashion. He subjected his hero (whose last name, for trivia collectors, is Martin) to more hair-raising cliffhangers per week than any other strip around. His off-handed plots were held together by a rapid-fire series of increasingly desperate situations from which Smilin' Jack extricated himself by a succession of maneuvers whose ascending ingenuity of contrivance gave every story the breathless spontaneity of catch-as-catch-can invention. Once into this thrill-packed maelstrom, we lose all sense of a plot in the headlong progression of stratagems by which Mosley advanced his stories day by day. Despite the artifice of these inventions, Mosley's plots seldom clanked: they were so flaccid as to lack working parts. But we never noticed because we were having such a marvelous time.

Smilin' Jack was the only aviation strip in which the techniques and skills of flying functioned actively in the stories. Mosley eventually became a licensed pilot, and he used his flying experiences to create both technical dilemmas and their solutions for his hero, scattering them liberally along every storyline with a propwash of aviator's jargon. Once one of the more unsavory of the strip's villains is decapitated before our eyes when he gets too close to the propeller of Jack's low-flying plane. Ever authentic and always ready to throw a complication into the story, Mosley quickly passed from this grisly scene to the cockpit of the plane, where Jack notices immediately that the impact on the prop has made it vibrate. "It's ripping the motor loose," he exclaims and quickly adjusts to meet the crisis: "I'll feather the prop so the blades won't turn," he says, and a footnote explains that feathering turns the prop control so the blades knife the air. By letting his zest for his hobby spill so constantly into his work, Mosley cast a mantle of authenticity over the strip thereby rescuing it from the realm of the fantastic to which its often preposterous incidents would otherwise have resigned it.

Soon after the adventures started, Smilin' Jack was battling a succession of Gouldish grotesques who equaled in criminal caricature and unrelenting villainy the hoodlums in Dick Tracy: Mosley's monsters were champion fiends, committing atrocity after atrocity for the sheer sadistic pleasure of it. One of the more note-worthy evil-doers was the Great Toemain, who was fond of feeding those who offended him to a pool of piranha fish ("my man-eating minnows," he called them affectionately). But there is justice in Smilin' Jack: in fleeing the forces of law and order, Toemain stumbles into the pool himself and suffers the inevitable consequences.

A steady diet of this kind of grim stuff could be depressing, but Mosley's imagination was too boisterously exuberant to sustain a long run of unrelieved fiendishness. The strip had been thoroughly infused with the horse-play sense of humor of its training field days, and Mosley never resisted a frequently recurring impulse to pull a prank for laughs, even in the midst of the most dire circumstances. And many of Jack's adventures were far less bloodcurdling (although just as harrowing).

Mosley ornamented his strip profusely with fuselages other than the purely aerodynamic: the runway was an endless attraction for shamelessly zaftig pretty girls (which Mosley christened "li'1 de-icers," maintaining the strip's aeronautical ambiance in all things), and Jack was forever becoming entangled in their coils. He seemed always to be either falling in love or grieving over the (often falsely) reported death of one of numerous fiancees. He even got married. Twice: first to Joy Beaverduck, who died. Then to Sable Lottalotta. Mosley's skill at limning the curvaceous gender had both benefits and hazards. He was frequently asked to judge bathing beauty contests, which he dutifully did, saying he was doing "research" for the strip. But sometimes the embonpoint of his de-icers strained readers' sense of decorum, and they protested, writing letters that eventually found their way to the syndicate office, which forwarded them forthwith to the cartoonist. The girls' appearance was pretty tame by the standards that emerged only a few years later, but in the 1940s, the stream of protest correspondence was fairly steady. Whatever letters from the syndicate arrived on Friday, Mosley put aside and didn't open until Monday. This delaying tactic postponed for two days the emotional turmoil of confronting nit-picking editors and carping would-be censors, thereby preserving a carefree weekend.

One of the most picturesque of Smilin' Jack’s adventures began in the summer of 1938 and continued for eight months, introducing two of Mosley's unforgettable characters and giving his hero a new appearance. Jack is recruited to infiltrate a spy ring by assuming the identity of one of the ring's members, a man named Powder, whom he resembles. To complete the masquerade, he dies his hair blonde and grows a moustache; his hair eventually returns to its normal black, but the moustache hangs on for the rest of the strip's run. The story is one of Mosley's spiraling spectaculars.

As soon as Jack arrives among the spies, he meets Powder's wife and his infant son, about which his briefing had been seriously deficient. His imposture is discovered and he is imprisoned aboard the spy's ship. He escapes by hijacking a seaplane, but when it runs out of fuel, Jack is stranded in the trackless ocean vastness, doomed. A bunch of sharks swim up and Jack thinks he's their dinner, but they turn out to be porpoise. Jack's heard that porpoise will push a man to shore, "—maybe if I lie still ... ," he thinks. And, sure enough, the big fishes push him onto the beach of the nearest South Sea island.

Jack's triumphant survival is cut short by the native population which thinks he's Powder; they demand that he marry the chief's daughter, as Powder had promised. Jack flees, swimming out to a ship just off-shore. It's a prison ship, and he is again taken for Powder, who, it turns out, escaped the prison, Death Rock, "the Devil's Island of the South Seas." Jack is returned to the prison, but he escapes three times—twice on foot through the jungle. In the jungle, he's re-captured both times but tries yet again, ingeniously constructing a glider by night and, eventually, flying off the Rock with it.

Before this success, he must endure the sadistic attentions of the chief prison guard and the threats to life and limb of fellow inmates, who, thinking he's Powder, want revenge for his treatment of them during his first sojourn on the Rock. He also encounters the spy ring leader again, a man with Peter Lorre eyeballs called the Head: the Head and his lumbering henchman, a half-naked hulk with a murderous claw for a hand, have been captured by the authorities and sent to the Rock. Jack engages in a life-or-death fight with the Claw and wins. When he finally glides to freedom, he lands in the ocean and is picked up by a seaplane, whose skipper, a dutiful sort, says he must return the escaped convict to the Rock. At that crucial moment, Jack is recognized by another of the plane's officers, a man he'd flown with before named Downwind Jaxon. (Mosley appropriated the name from his flying instructor, Wally Jackson, who once defied his own dictum never to try to land downwind.) Conveniently, Downwind vouches for Jack, who finally makes it back home.

The invention of Downwind Jaxon typifies, perhaps, the creative eccentricity that guided Mosley's machinations in the strip. When Mosley was winding up this sequence, he was rushing to finish the last weekly batch of strips so he could take a vacation in Cuba. He needed a handsome skirt-chasing character, but since handsome men were difficult for him to draw distinctively, he couldn't come up with a good face quickly. Mosley decided to postpone the moment of creation until he returned from Cuba, but he had to introduce the character before he left. He faked it. When we first see Downwind, we see him almost from behind: only the side of his forehead and rounded cheek and chin are visible in a sort of profile.

When Mosley returned two weeks later, he still couldn't come up with a face for Downwind, so he continued to draw him in profile as seen from behind one shoulder. Pretty soon, the mysterious Downwind began to draw mail. Patterson complimented Mosley on his perspicacity and suggested waiting about two months before showing Downwind's face. "Well, if it's getting such a good response," Mosley said, "how about never showing his face?" The Captain thought for a moment and then concurred. And so Downwind was condemned to a faceless existence. Patterson's instinct converted Mosley's fumbling and groping into a firm grip on his readers, and letters asking for a glimpse of Downwind's permanently averted visage came in a steady stream for the next three decades.

Another of Mosley's inspired inventions was one of those South Sea islanders Jack meets, a paunchy native whom Jack casually names Fat Stuff and brings back to the U.S. with him in gratitude for having saved his life. Worthy of his nickname, Fat Stuff was all belly—so much so, that his shirt, strained by the bulk, was always popping its buttons. This aspect of the character Mosley had borrowed from his experiences as a youth in Hickory. His family's general store was a social center, and local characters convened there to sit on benches in front, chewing tobacco, spitting, whittling, and telling tall tales. "There was one really fat Indian," Mosley recalled, "called Richmond Billy, who had two large families. He would live with one family on Big Blue Creek for six months, and then live six months with his other family on Polecat Creek. When Billy was 'in town,' he never said much—just stood around listening to the tall tales, and occasionally his big, fat belly would pop a button off his shirt."

When it was subsequently decided that Fat Stuff would have a pet, Mosley resurrected another youthful experience that involved a cold front that arrived in Hickory so quickly that it threatened the chicks in his mother's hen house. Mosley and his brothers dashed out in the freezing temperatures to gather up the chicks and brought them indoors, where his mother had devised a unique way of saving them. She'd fired up the wood stove in the kitchen, Mosley recounted, "and we would stick the chicks in a pan in the open oven for a few seconds; the ones that chirped would be placed on a blanket in a tub, and the ones that didn't chirp would be discarded." One of the chicks lost his feathers during this process, and they never grew back. "He was naked," Mosley said, "and we kept him as a pet: he would follow us around like a little puppy. Maybe he thought he was a dog." Mosley gave Fat Stuff a pet featherless chicken, whose chief function in the strip—his only function—was to catch the buttons that popped off Fat Stuff's shirt. Presumably, he lived on a steady diet of them. Unforgettable. 

Shortly after the United States entered World War II, Mosley moved to Florida and joined the West Palm Beach Civil Air Patrol. Created just six days before Pearl Harbor, the C.A.P. was soon patrolling the U.S. east coast to detect the infiltration of any vandal-bent German submarines. C.A.P. pilots also did target-towing for fighter pilots in training, performed courier service between defense plants, and patrolled borders and forests. Settling initially in Lantana, Mosley built a studio at the local airport in order to be close to squadron activity. His assistant at the time, Andy Sprague (who followed Mosley from his setup at Sands Point, New York), said: "Zack got permission to locate his studio right next to one of the hangers. It was constructed to look like a control tower and was a real beauty with windows all around so Zack could check out the action going on down below."

Mosley, who became Florida's C.A.P. wing commander in 1944 and a full colonel soon thereafter, flew over 300 hours of anti-sub patrol and was awarded the Air Force Air Medal. Throughout the War, Mosley continued with a succession of assistants to produce Smilin' Jack, and he also flew to U.S. military bases in the Caribbean and South America, entertaining the troops with sometimes risque chalk-talks featuring an assortment of suitably bikini'd "li'l de-icers." The combination of demands on his time strained his marriage, which ended in divorce in early 1944. On May 31, 1945, Mosley married Betty Sue Adock, the sister of one of his assistants; they had a daughter, Jill, born February 27, 1947. (Today, she runs smilinjackart.com, logging aspects of her father's career and selling original Smilin' Jack strips.)

Throughout his career, Mosley was assisted by several cartoonists: Andy Sprague, Elliott Adcock, brother Bob Mosley, Alec Delich, Craig Zirkle, and Ward Albertson, who served the longest at 23 years. The most notable of his assistants, however, was Gordon "Boody" Rogers, a fellow Oklahoman, who achieved comics history by contributing a one-page strip, Rattlesnake Pete, to the first newsstand “comic book” of original art (not reprinted newspaper strips), a tabloid weekly called The Funnies (1929-1930), and, much later, concocting two of the medium’s most outlandish creations: Sparky Watts, which starred a super-powerful bespectacled character but “not one of the underwear boys,” and Babe, an equally powerful female of the species. Sparky Watts graduated from newspaper strip to comic book, but Babe, although intended as a comic strip heroine, never appeared except in funny books. Both Sparky Watts and Babe are given ample display in the 2009 Fantagraphics volume, Boody: The Bizarre Comics of Boody Rogers, edited by Craig Yoe.

Rogers had been among Mosley’s numerous wannabe cartoonist roommates during his early sojourn in Chicago, and he was Mosley’s first assistant, starting when Smilin’ Jack went daily in 1936 and continuing until 1939, when Rogers invented Sparky Watts. Rogers’ other distinction is in producing the screwiest cartoonist autobiography on the market. Entitled Homeless Bound, it’s about 200 6x9-inch pages long, decorated with a few drawings and photographs, but nowhere in the book does Rogers discuss his cartooning career. The focus of the book is highschool hijinks and comical military maneuvers in WWII. The dedication of the book is revealing:

“Dedicated to what’s his name, the guy who caused me to write this book. I was in a Manhattan bar, and the bartender said, ‘Get the hell out of here before I smash your face. Go some place and write your story: I’m tired of listening!!!’”

The book consists of little more than a string of similarly would-be amusing anecdotes of the sort men who hang out in bars tell to keep the beers coming. Two or three of these tales retail adventures of cartoonists Rogers knew, but he says nothing about his work on Smilin’ Jack, or Sparky Watts. Or Babe. He retired from comics in 1952 and ran a couple art supply stores in Arizona until he made enough to retire to a small town in Texas; he died in 1996.

After the War, Mosley set up shop in Stuart, Florida, and continued both Smilin' Jack and his association with C.A.P., assisting in the national staff's public relations efforts, producing promotional artwork, designing squadron insignia on request, making appearances around the country, selling originals and his own books, which, when he sent them out, he accompanied with prefabricated artwork such as the one near here. Mosley flew over 1.5 million miles in his aviation career (3,000 miles at the controls) and was inducted into the C.A.P./U.S. Air Force Hall of Honor in 1976. When he retired Smilin' Jack with the release for April 1, 1973, the strip was the longest-running and most authentic aviation strip in the history of the medium. Mosley died in Stuart of a heart attack on December 21, 1993. He'd had a great flight through life and art.


Mosley wrote an autobiography in 1976, Brave Coward Zack, and the standard references, The Encyclopedia of American Comics From 1897 to the Present, edited by Ron Goulart, and World Encyclopedia of Comics, edited by Maurice Horn, rely upon it. Mosley was a member of New York Society of Illustrators, Airplane Owners and Pilots Association, Sportsman Pilots Association, Banshees, Quiet Birdmen Fraternity, Pi Delta Kappa, Silver Wings Society, American Aviation Historical Society, National Cartoonists Society, and Aviation Writers Association. Smilin' Jack was reprinted in comic books during the 1940s and 1950s and collected in two saddle-stitched paperbacks Mosley published, Hot Rock Glide: August 1938-March 1939 (1979) and De-Icers Galore: April-August 1941 including some sample Sundays, 1934-40 (1980). Two other paperback collections from Classic Comic Strips, Volume 1 and 2 (n.d.), carry the continuity from the first daily strip, June 15, 1936, to March 20, 1938 (Volume 1 reprinting the first On the Wing), followed by a quarterly magazine that published about two dozen issues covering much of the period from March 20, 1939 to July 4, 1948. A movie serial, "The Adventures of Smilin' Jack," appeared in 1942 from Universal. The New York Times published Mosley's obituary on December 25, 1993.