By the time the 20th century was a quarter done, the daily comics had filled most of the standard niches in comedy. Just as examples, kid humor was covered by Skippy, teen humor by Harold Teen, married adult comedy by The Nebbs, unmarried women by Fritzi Ritz, unmarried men by Wash Tubbs, funny animals by Felix the Cat, etc. etc. What hadn’t yet made it big was non-humor. In 1925, the same year Little Orphan Annie started showing that comics were also good for melodrama, Phil Hardy demonstrated they could be used for straight, hair-raising adventure, with no funny stuff at all.
Phil was the creation of writer Edwin Alger (pseudonym of Jay Jerome Williams), who later switched his hero out for Ben Webster; and artist George Storm, later renowned for such diverse characters as Bobby Thatcher, Buzzy and The Hangman. Their mutual creation debuted Monday, November 2, 1925 from The Bell Syndicate, which already distributed humorous offerings such as Mutt & Jeff and Joe & Asbestos, and later added more adventure, including Don Winslow and Flyin’ Jenny.
Phil was a young man just starting out in life, sole support of his aging mother at the tender age of 15. Unable to earn enough in their home town of Pleasanton, he set out for the big city, where his pluck and initiative quickly landed him a job on a wharf. Before long he was trying to foil a smuggling operation, and got shanghaied for his efforts. Within weeks of the strip’s debut, he was battling mutineers, who would have won if not for the timely intervention of a hurricane, and it just went on from there.
The Phil Hardy strip is distinguished, if that’s the proper word, for the first use of death in a comic strip story. Other characters had had death-defying adventures, or had death in their back-stories, but nobody had ever been killed in an actual comics story before Phil’s mutiny. The bodies never appeared on-panel (Out Our Way was the first to show one), no on-going characters died (the first of those was Mary Gold in The Gumps) and no death blows were struck right in front of the readers (that innovation was left to Dick Tracy). But in one sense at least, Phil Hardy was the one that introduced the Grim Reaper (no relation) to the comics world.
Phil Hardy lasted less than 11 months. The strip’s name was changed to Bound to Win, and the hero became the very similar Ben Webster. Phil’s last appearance was in the episode of Wednesday, September 29, 1926, but he also appeared in a couple of novels by Alger. He’s better remembered for his comic strip career — not just as a very early adventure comic hero, but also for taking adventure in the comics to a new level.
25 strips various