Sunday, April 20, 2008

Comics of the Airwaves: The Twilight Ranger

Amidst the constant noise of talkback chatter, opinionated ‘shock jocks’ and endlessly regurgitated music play lists, it must be difficult for anyone listening to commercial radio in Australia today to imagine a time when radio was a dramatic medium. Yet dramatic serials and plays were once broadcast around the clock on Australia’s commercial radio stations, as well as on the government-controlled Australian Broadcasting Commission. Reaching the broadest possible audiences, from the big cities to outback towns, Australian radio drama was the true ‘mass medium’ of its day, before gradually losing its army of listeners to television by the early 1960s.

Both Australia’s radio drama and comic book industries were similarly, and adversely, affected by the advent of television. Yet at their peak of popularity during the late 1940s and early 1950s, these two popular art forms sometimes enjoyed a symbiotic relationship, with the ‘stars’ of one medium occasionally finding new life in the other.

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 New Guinea during World War II.

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 Canada at the time.)

“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 Melbourne during 1949-50. By 1955, however, he had already branched out into other areas of commercial art, including magazine illustration and record cover designs.

“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 Texas.

Unknown to his cantankerous uncle, Jess was made a blood brother of the Carakaway tribe, before he was sent away to England for ‘proper’ schooling. During a stormy midnight ceremony, the tribal chieftain, Long Twilight, gave Jess a thunder-hoof charm that would protect its wearer from harm. Accepting this token of brotherhood, Jess renounced the use of weapons, believing they only led to violence and bloodshed.

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 township of Rawhide, who believes that The Twilight Ranger is an outlaw.

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 America, to help establish Atransa Productions. Initially ‘on loan’ to 2GB for six months, she relocated permanently to Australia and eventually formed her own radio production & syndication company, Grace Gibson Productions, which still operates today.

[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


Ian Grieve said...

Great information on Twilight Ranger. I haven't heard any episodes and not sure if any exist, I will make enquiries. I see the National Archives do not have any, though they do have 8 scripts.

As a researcher on Australian Radio Shows, I would like to correct the misconception that Australian Radio Drama died in the 1960's in the same way as it did in the U.S.

Whilst Television in Australia did have an impact, you must remember it was a different situation outside the capital cities. Many towns did not have television until the 1980's and then only one station, the ABC.

Reg James of Grace Gibson Productions often points out that the most successful of their radio serials were actually 1980 serials, Castlereagh Line and Cattleman.

I enjoyed reading the article and I will add the blog to my favourites in case you revisit more comics that cross over with radio shows. Yes, noticed The Shadow and Smoky Dawson.

Moris Sztajer and myself maintain an Encyclopaedia of Australian Radio Shows. We have Twilight Ranger commencing in Melbourne in 1953.

Ian Grieve
Australian Old Time Radio Group

Deb said...

I was wondering if anyone would know where i could get a copy of a comic character called BUNNY ALLEN, from the net info I think she was in a comic called Tex Morton Wild West.
Bunny was drawn by keith Chatto and my mum was his model for her. I would love to get a copy of Bunny any info as to where I may go to find one would be greatly appreciated.
Thanks Debbie

Kevin Patrick said...

Hi Deb

It's Sunday 5 April 2009 as I type this, having only just seen your comment today - not sure how long ago you posted this, but hope you're reading it soon!

Wow, that's a great personal/family connection you have to Keith Chatto and Aussie comics history. Your mum was the model for Bunny Allen? Wow! I understand Chatto made extensive use of live models and actors, both for posing for illustrations, and for recording/performing scripts of the comics he wrote in the 1950s (such as Steve Carlisle)

The "Bunny Allen" comic strip appeared in either 'Middy Malone Magazine', or in Tex Morton's Comic, both of which were published in the mid-to-late 1940s. They are extremely rare, very sought after, and often fetch high prices on ebay. I don't own copies myself, as they're often out of my price range.

In the meantime, if you'd be willing to share any info about your mum's experiences modelling for Keith Chatto please email me (my address appears on the 1st page of this blog). This kind of personal anecdote is personally fascinating to me, especially as so many of the writers/artists involved in Aussie comics during the 1940s & 50s have long since died.

- Kevin Patrick