Many cartoonists have achieved good results by adapting cinema techniques to comics. Milton Caniff (Steve Canyon), Will Eisner (The Spirit), Carl Barks (Uncle Scrooge) … the list goes on and on. But Ed Wheelan, who predated them all, did more than just adapt a few techniques. In every way possible, he strove to make his comics look and feel just like movies.
Edgar S. Wheelan’s Minute Movies grew out of a strip that ran in the sports pages of The New York American (a Hearst paper), during the mid-19-teens. At first, it didn’t even have a name. Wheelan took to parodying current movies and their stars; and that soon became the sole focus of the strip. On April 8, 1918, it received a name: Midget Movies. That day, it parodied a travelogue. The next day, and the one after, it ran a two-part story. Soon it was doing week-long continuities. In later years, Wheelan claimed to have introduced serious continued stories to the comics. Some latter-day commentators scoff, pointing out most of Wheelan’s stories weren’t all that serious, but there aren’t many other examples of continued stories among such early daily strips.
A year or two later, Wheelan quit Hearst (and had few kind words to say about him afterward) and took his strip to The George Matthew Adams Service (Cap Stubbs & Tippie, Sky Masters). In court cases over The Yellow Kid, Buster Brown and The Katzenjammer Kids (all involving Hearst), the precedent had been set that a cartoonist could take his work to a new publisher, but the trademarked title stayed with the old one. As Minute Movies, the Adams syndicate launched it in 1921. Meanwhile, Hearst launched another continuity strip with a similar name — Elzie Segar’s Thimble Theatre, which in 1929 introduced Popeye.
Minute Movies was the same size and shape as other comic strips, but was divided into two tiers. This made the panels very small (or “minute”, in keeping with the title) but allowed Wheelan to cram a lot of them in. He covered every genre of film — pirate stories, westerns, detective stories, even short subjects and newsreels, all supposedly directed by the fictional Art Hokum. As time went on, and stories stretched out to a month or more, he introduced various “stars”, who played a variety of roles but were generally typecast in certain positions. The first was leading man Dick Dare — handsome, steel-eyed, and always ready for adventure or romance. Then there was Hazel Dearie, who played opposite Dick as leading lady; Ralph McSneer, who usually played a villain; Blanche Rouge, a vamp in the style of Theda Bara; Herbert Honey, a child star; and even animals such as Dynamo the Wonder Dog and Milo, a monkey. Wheelan maintained the movie theme so well, according to early comics historian Martin Sheridan, children would often write in to ask for the stars’ autographs.
Still sticking to the theme, Wheelan introduced such cinematic techniques as close-ups, long shots and irises to the comics. He made full use of the silent movie practice of introducing characters and crediting actors with head shots accompanied by title cards. Between features, he sometimes parodied the gossip columns, inventing silly facts about the stars’ private lives. As silent movies gave way to talkies — and as strips such as Tailspin Tommy and Buck Rogers began doing serious stories — Wheelan’s own strip grew more serious. He put the cast through quite a few two-month adaptations of famous novels, such as Ivanhoe and Treasure Island. These often performed a function similar to the later Classics Illustrated; but with more space to work with and the guidance of a single talented craftsman, did a better job of it.
Unfortunately, a serious tone was at odds with the strip’s art style and general direction. As comics historian Ron Goulart put it, this “changed the strip into something Wheelan once would have made fun of himself”. It probably contributed to the strip’s demise in 1935.
After the strip had run its course in syndication, it was reprinted in Movie Comics, one of the first comic books published by Max Gaines’s All-American Publications. It ran six issues, April through September, 1939. Four months later, Gaines launched Flash Comics, his first title without any reprints (the stars were The Flash and Hawkman); and Wheelan was there with a very similar feature called “Flash Picture Novelets”. As of Flash #12 (December, 1940), the name was changed back to “Minute Movies”.
Minute Movies ran in the Flash Comics back pages until #58 (October, 1944), after which it was replaced by Gaines’s own “Picture Stories from History”. But Gaines wasn’t through with Wheelan. After selling All-American to DC Comics and using the proceeds to found EC, he took a couple of Wheelan’s lesser lights and made stars of them. “Fuller Phun” and “Archibald Clubb” had appeared in short subjects as the comedy team of Fat & Slat. A oneshot with that title was published by All-American in 1944, then they got a regular comic at EC, starting with a cover date of Summer, 1947.
EC’s Fat & Slat, written and drawn by Wheelan, ran four quarterly issues. That was the last use of Minute Movies or any of its characters. But for pioneering long, continuous stories in the dailies, and for showing how film techniques apply to the medium, Wheelan’s creation has a secure place in the history of American comics.
22 strips 1926
14 strips 1929
12 strips 1930
16 strips 1934
23 strips various