He was a ‘soldier of fortune’ who explored lost civilisations, ‘unravelled the secrets of the past and probed the mysteries of the future’. His stories ran from 1933-1987 in Newspapers across the United States. He was also popular globally with distribution in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Italy as well as in France under the nom d’plume of Luc Bradefer or ‘Luke Ironarm’. Columbia Pictures produced a 15-chapter serial featuring him in 1947. So why is the most obvious question: who is Brick Bradford?
Brick Bradford was created by writer William Ritt and artist Clarence Gray in 1933 in Cleveland, Ohio for the Central Press Associate group which supplied features for the ever-growing number of local newspapers that were emerging in American towns and cities. Newspapers were becoming hugely successful and comic strips were important tools in creating brand awareness for a paper. Central Press Associate was a regional subsidiary of King Features syndicate owned by William Randolph Hearst who also counted Popeye, Mandrake the Magician, the Phantom and Blondie amongst their stable of characters. Brick was designed to be a rival to compete with the popular Buck Rogers, published by the rival National Newspaper Service. Just one year later, Flash Gordon emerged into a crowded space for adventurers. The panel held in the Cartoon Museum appears to be from 16/3/1941 as part of the long running story ‘On the Throne of Titania.’ Brick has a dispute with a Middle Eastern stereotype called Shamak the Strong and asserts himself as the leader of a group of captives (see feature image above and below).
William Ritt was an established journalist within the Central group and tried to bring allusions to writers like H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs, classical mythology and the latest scientific discoveries to the strip. Ritt grew disillusioned with the grind of producing a story that was stretched over several years. Great ideas were hampered by poor plotting and scripts where they were contorted to fit long newspaper runs and Ritt was eventually fired in 1948 for failure to meet deadlines which meant Gray was responsible for both the script and art.
The original daily strip was focused on stories of adventure around the world whereas the later Sunday strip focused on space and time travel as Brick Bradford’s adventures began revolving around a time machine known as the Chronosphere or Time Top. The Time Top first appeared on April 20 1933 as a separate strip to Bradford on the top third of its page before they later merged. The Time Top was the first regularly appearing time machine in comics aiding Bradford’s battles with villainous spy Dr Franz Ego, robot engineer Avil Blue and ‘The Assassins’. Bradford and his contemporary strips focused much more on emphasizing the visual aspects of the story with the exotic locations being greatly emphasized:
“The poetic imagery of Brick Bradford was pure Space Opera futuristic cities rise out of lush jungles, flying ships battle with giant butterflies etc. while the scenarios were just as exotic as the contemporary sf appearing in the magazines: the discovery of lost races, a descent into the microscopic universe within a coin, a journey by drilling vehicle to the Earth’s interior world, and travels through time and space in the Time Top or Chronosphere.”(SF-Encyclopedia.com)
Bradford was reflecting the re-emerging positivism and hope for the future of the post-depression era. Part of the massive appeal of the comic strips was the window of escapism that they offered to a predominantly working class audience.
“Naïve, wide-eyed adventure. That’s why Brick Bradford appeals to me despite the meandering stories and bad art. It’s the romance of lost worlds, nuts-and-bolt spaceships, hulking humanoid robots, and hidden civilisations that inspired comics creators and fiction writers alike during the 1920s and 1930s.” (Blogger 2009)
Perhaps the most enduring physical legacy of Brick’s many adventures may be a large barnacle encrusted bronze representation of the Time Top by artist Jerry Pethick in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Pethick’s work “investigated space, optical phenomena and perception” and he used scientific methods to illustrate beauty and wonder. Pethick read the strips as a child and described the Top as “A symbol of intelligent technology, an imaginary device inducing wonderment.”
Brick Bradford was perhaps a victim of the fact that pulp comics were sold in bulk. They were seen as disposable culture to be reproduced and profited from just like his namesake in construction. In the heat of the newspaper comic boom with icons at every turn Brick Bradford was just a bit dull to break from the pack. Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon’s unloved middle brother was a too typical archetype of square jawed American exceptionalism. The Superman radio show advert on the lower third of the panel held at the Cartoon Museum illustrates the next wave of pop culture icons had already eclipsed adventurers like Bradford. However, William Randolph Hearst himself recognised the power of the early comics in propelling his empire forward so perhaps Brick laid a small foundation stone of Xanadu.
BIBLIOGRAPHY AND FURTHER READING
O’Sullivan, Judith. 1990. The Great American Comic Strip. Boston: Bullfinch Press.
Wright, Carlton. 2000. The Classic Era of American Comics. London: Carlton Books.
“Brick Bradford.” Wikipedia. Accessed 29/10/2017.
“Brick Bradford.” 2017. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Accessed 17/10/2017.
“Guilty Pleasures–1: Why the hell do you like THAT?!” 2009. Words and Pictures Blog. Accessed 19/10/2017.
Markstein, Don. “Brick Bradford.” Don Markstein’s Toonopedia. Accessed 15/10/2017.
Pethick, Jerry. 2006. “Time Top.” Art Registry of Vancouver. Accessed 15/10/2017.
**Thanks to Susan Liberator from the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum.