The Twilight Ranger was one such radio star who made his way to the pages of an Australian comic book. Michael Noonan (1921 – 2000) was already a well-regarded and popular radio dramatist when he was invited by Artransa Productions[i] to create a new dramatic serial to be broadcast through their parent company, the Macquarie Network. What they wanted, in particular, was a western.
Noonan, who had already worked with his uncle, William (Bill) Moloney, on the radio serial Justice Rides the Range (broadcast on 2UE in 1946), wasn’t too keen to write another ‘horse opera’. Perhaps somewhat impishly, Noonan suggested he could write a western with a hero who doesn’t use a gun. The Artransa executives initially rejected the concept out of hand, but eventually called Noonan back, asking him to write two sample quarter-hour episodes – to be paid for only if they accepted the finished scripts.
Given the apparent dramatic limitations of having a cowboy forsake the use of guns, no doubt Atransa Productions and, quite possibly, Noonan himself, were surprised to see The Twilight Ranger become a popular success. Starring Leonard Teale (1922 – 1994), who often wore high-heeled boots during recording sessions to “get into the part”,[ii] The Twilight Ranger debuted in 1948 and ran for 208 episodes.
Noonan’s decision to have his hero eschew firearms wasn’t just a dramatic contrivance, but was borne out of the author’s experiences as an army bomb disposal officer, serving in
Broadcast four times per week, The Twilight Ranger managed, as Noonan hoped he would, to air “his belief (and mine) that whenever guns are available, there is always the danger they will be used.”[iii]
Noonan was paid the then-top rate of £4.00 per episode, managing to negotiate a modest increase to £5.00 per episode, when he was commissioned to write the second lot of 108 episodes.
As was no doubt the custom back then, Noonan signed away all world broadcasting rights to The Twilight Ranger, and therefore never received any royalties from overseas sales. The sole exception to this rule was when Noonan received a “modest fee” for each episode that was translated into Afrikaans for the South African market, where The Twilight Ranger proved equally popular. (The serial was also apparently one of the most popular programmes aired on national radio in
“What I did not sign away,” Noonan later recalled, “were the publication rights, and some years later I wrote the scripts for a series of comic books, describing each frame and setting out any narrative or dialogue. I’d had some experience in this medium, thanks to cartoonist Dan Russell (1906 – 1999)… [who] paid me to do scripts for comic books about the outback cowboy with a travelling rodeo show, Tex Morton.”[iv]
Jack Atkins, the founder and publisher of Cleveland Press, acquired the comic book rights to The Twilight Ranger, keen to add comic books to his already successful line of crime, war and western ‘pulp fiction’ novelettes. Atkins commissioned Noonan to write the scripts, while hiring Keith Chatto (1924 – 1992) to illustrate the series. Chatto was no stranger to cowboy yarns, having created a popular western title, The Lone Wolf, for Atlas Publications in
“In that same year,” Chatto later wrote, “I began working exclusively for Cleveland Publishing Company, at first illustrating and designing pocket book covers. At one period about this time, I was producing an average of six full colour covers each and every week for various publishers.”
“[Jack Atkins] commissioned me to illustrate a radio serial written by…Michael Noonan, called The Twilight Ranger. I had to adapt for the comic book Michael’s scripts and illustrate them.”
“I had become somewhat disillusioned about illustrating comics, particularly as the pocket books had become popular and my services as an illustrator were in demand at a lucrative fee. But the fee offered to illustrate [The Twilight Ranger] was too good to let pass.”
“I kept producing the covers whilst I worked on the comic. I must admit I was not altogether happy working on another man’s story, but the money was good and the publisher was prepared to put money into the publication to help make it a success.”[v]
The first issue of The Twilight Avenger appeared in October 1955 (The first two issues were unnumbered). In the comic book version, Jess Palmer was a seemingly timid milksop, forever getting under the feet of his uncle, Pa Palmer, owner of the Square Diamond Ranch, which borders the Carakaway Indian Reservation in southwestern
Unknown to his cantankerous uncle, Jess was made a blood brother of the Carakaway tribe, before he was sent away to
Jess Palmer disguised himself as The Twilight Ranger who, together with his young Indian companion, Red Moccasin, rode the Texan plains in defence of justice. Palmer’s double identity even extended to that of his horse; whenever he rode out of his cabin hideaway in the Carakaway forests as The Twilight Avenger, he did so astride his magnificent horse, Mahogany. When he returned from his mission, he would discard his black costume, and swap Mahogany for an old mare named Bluebell – a steed more befitting the frail bookworm he wants everyone to believe him to be.
Jess had to contend not only with the sneering contempt of Judy Keel, the fiery and voluptuous daughter of the ranch foreman, but also with the hostility of Sheriff Mullins, the sole lawman of the nearby
Despite Noonan’s occasionally redundant and wordy scripts, his stories lent themselves to Chatto’s delicate artwork. As he did on The Lone Wolf, Chatto dispensed with word balloons, preferring instead to relay all the dialogue and narrative text in caption boxes, which gave Chatto ample space to display his fine penmanship. Much of the action in The Twilight Avenger took place at night, creating an unusually dark, moody atmosphere, not often seen in most ‘cowboy’ comic books of the time.
The Twilight Ranger, however, was not the financial success that publisher Jack Atkins had hoped for. Despite boasting numerous reader competitions (with prizes including interstate flights on a T.A.A. Viscount airliner), and even being printed in full colour for its final issue, The Twilight Ranger ceased publication with its seventh issue. An eighth Twilight Ranger story was, apparently, later printed in Cleveland Press’ King Size Comic, which was published during 1956-59.
[i] Artransa (American Radio Transcription Service of Australia) Productions was established in 1938 by A.E. Bennett, Managing Director of Sydney radio station 2GB, to adapt American radio shows and scripts for the Australian market. Bennett hired Texan-born Grace Gibson (1905 -1988), of the Radio Transcription Company of
[ii] Lane, Richard, The Golden Age of Australian Radio Drama 1923-1960 (Carlton, Melbourne University Press, 1994); pg338
[iii] Noonan, Michael, In with the Tide: Memoirs of a Storyteller (St Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1995); pg.107
[iv] Ibid, pg.107
[v] Chatto, Keith, ‘Keith Chatto: The Creator of Flame and Ash Tells His Story’, Flame Magazine, Vol.2 No.5 (1972) pg.20