Steve Roper and Mike Nomad

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"Big Chief Wahoo" redirects here. For the Cleveland Indians logo, see Chief Wahoo.
The meeting of Steve Roper with Chief Wahoo and Minnie Ha-Cha, as reprinted in Famous Funnies #89 (December 1941).

Steve Roper and Mike Nomad was an American adventure comic strip that ran under various earlier titles (proposed as The Great Gusto, published as Big Chief Wahoo, then Chief Wahoo and Steve Roper, Steve Roper and Wahoo, and then Steve Roper) from November 1936 to December 26, 2004. Initially distributed by Publishers Syndicate (Publishers-Hall Syndicate), and then by Field Enterprises, it ended at King Features Syndicate. Despite the changes in title, characters, themes and authors, the entire 68-year run formed a single evolving story, from an Indian who teamed up with an adventurous young photojournalist to two longtime friends ready to retire after their long, eventful careers.[1]

The strip was originally proposed by Elmer Woggon as The Great Gusto, drawn by himself and written by Allen Saunders (who would also write Mary Worth and Kerry Drake). J. Mortimer Gusto was a freeloading opportunist based on the film persona of W.C. Fields. In his autobiography, Saunders said Fields was flattered. But the syndicate preferred his sidekick Wahoo, so the proposal was revamped to center on him, and the strip debuted on November 23, 1936 as Big Chief Wahoo.[2]

Characters and story[edit]

Wahoo was a short Native American in a ten-gallon hat who was played for laughs but showed courage, loyalty, and common sense. It was whites who were often the targets of the jokes (Wahoo: "Paleface full of prunes!"), and of vigorous defenses of Native Americans (e.g., December 16, 1941). Wahoo was rich due to the discovery of oil on his land back in Te(e)pee Town (spelled both ways in the strip), and headed to New York to find his girlfriend Minnie Ha-Cha, who had gone away to college and was now a beautiful singer in a nightclub. On the way, he was joined by Gusto, who liked Wahoo's medicine so much that he bottled it up for sale as Ka-Zowie Kure-All. Gusto continued as a support character through August 1939, and then was dropped. (For more on Wahoo, see Elmer Woggon article; for a picture of Wahoo, Gusto, and Minnie, see Woggon's biography card at the National Cartoonists Society.)

The strip initially revolved around humorous tales, such as stories about people trying to cheat Wahoo out of his money or fish-out-of-water tales of Wahoo in New York or Hollywood. But from the beginning, it was a continuity strip, and had already moved into serious adventure by 1940, when a dashing young photojournalist named Steve Roper was introduced. (Sundays continued to do gags until rejoining the main plot line in 1944.) By World War II, Roper was the lead in war-oriented adventures, and the strip was retitled Chief Wahoo and Steve Roper in 1944, then Steve Roper and Wahoo in 1946, and in 1947 simply Steve Roper, as Wahoo and Minnie were written out (last seen on February 26 and November 19, 1947, respectively). As a very different kind of strip now, its artwork lost its earlier cartoonishness, ghosted by artists like Woggon's brother Bill Woggon, Don Dean, and (from December 1945 to July 1954) Pete Hoffman. But Woggon remained the strip's letterer and researcher until 1977, shortly before his death in 1978.

1946–70[edit]

After his World War II service in Navy intelligence, Roper got a job at Spotshot magazine (renamed Spotlight in 1950), and from then on the main action was set in New York City. As good with his fists as with his cameras and typewriter, he built a reputation as a racket-busting ace reporter and editor. The strip's popularity grew: after the March 1948 birth of a son to Roper's friends Sonny and Cupcake Brawnski, there was a national write-in of suggested names from readers.

In 1951, Steve got engaged to his "boss lady," Kit Karson, but when he was framed on a story in 1953 and broke jail, she abandoned him. (The experience left him a "confirmed bachelor.") Vindicating himself in a major crime ring bust, he was snapped up by the competition, crusty Major J. Calhoun McCoy at Tell magazine (soon renamed Proof). He continued exposing crimes and frauds, even on routine assignments like covering rock stars or beauty pageants, but his sense of moral outrage kept landing him in fiendish criminal traps ("deathtraps") that nearly finished him — and some of the crooks he sent "up the river" to prison with his exposés came back for revenge. Meanwhile, on the domestic side, in 1953 he took in a Korean war orphan, So-Hi Chong, as his ward, intending to adopt him. But after 1958, So-Hi was not seen again in the strip, apparently going off to live with the Brawnskis.

On July 12, 1954, the artwork was taken over by William Overgard, who on June 17, 1956 introduced a character whom he had tried unsuccessfully to feature in a strip of his own. Mike Nomad (born Nowak in Kraków, Poland) had served in World War II as a U.S Marine commando. After working in oil fields, he looked up Roper to verify his Proof photo of a smuggler he thought he had killed. They solved the case together, and then Roper got him a job at Proof as a truck driver. In 1962, Nomad got his own room over the restaurant of Chinese wisdom-quoting Ma-Jong, and she became a permanent member of the cast as his landlady.[3]

The two men were different: pipe-smoking Roper was a fast-thinking, stylish, college-educated "straight arrow," the adopted son of a wealthy San Francisco family, while flat-topped Nomad was a tough, street-smart antihero, loyal to friends and family but not averse to deceiving, and often AWOL from work as he barged into risky situations without thinking them out. But as McCoy pointed out (1957), a "Nomad" was a "wanderer," and Roper was likewise kept on the move by his career. Their friendship and interaction as men became a lasting theme of the strip. In the next 25 years, they alternated or joined forces in stories about people (especially the memorable women each attracted) whose problems often drove them to crime. The dual protagonists were recognized in April 1969 by the last name change, Steve Roper & Mike Nomad. For a picture of Roper and Nomad ca. 1965, see Overgard's National Cartoonists Society biography card.[4]

1970–2004[edit]

In February 1970, Roper was promoted by McCoy to editor-in-chief at Consolidated Publications, Inc., though he continued to do investigative reporting. Then, in August 1976, after years of lecturing his pal to look before he leaped, he leaped for love in his late forties and married young reporter Trudy Hale. Meanwhile, Nomad, who remained footloose and single despite four close calls, was laid off from Proof and got new jobs, with new dangers, as a cab driver (1976) and then independent trucker (1981). In 1983, Roper lost his wife (traumatized in an explosion, committed to a mental hospital, and soon divorcing him), got fired for taking dangerous risks in an exposé of political bribes, and then moved to Florida to make a new start as a TV news anchor.

In 1979, Allen Saunders retired and gave the writing of Steve Roper and Mary Worth to his son John Saunders (not the Canadian-born sportscaster), a Toledo TV broadcaster who sometimes assisted him. There has been conflicting information on this transition. John (1986) said he had helped since 1949 and had done the "writing chores" since the early 1950s; and in its release on his death in 2003, King Features Syndicate (in turn cited by Markstein) said he had had "full responsibility" over Steve Roper since 1955. This claim is not supported in Allen's own candid discussions of "the strips that I write" (articles in 1953, 1971, and 1983-85 autobiography), and the scripting continued to show his unique writing style, characterization, and plotting until 1979. The strip itself first acknowledged John as assistant on December 25, 1976, and as the writer on October 28, 1979. As the obituary in his hometown newspaper (Toledo Blade, 2003) put it, "John Saunders began working on the strips (i.e., Steve Roper and Mary Worth) periodically during the 1950s, but took over in 1979."[5]

In early 1985 (his last strip was for April 7), Overgard left to focus on his own comic Rudy and other work, and the artwork was then taken over by Fran Matera. The strip was now focused on Nomad, who won a state lottery and was cajoled into a detective business with cop Francis Hogan (1989)— usually as a bodyguard-chauffeur with a penchant for stumbling into crime rings. Their main client (beginning December 1991) was a motel chain owner, the inimitable Emma Stopp. Nomad got engaged to social worker Meg Carey in a long, bumpy relationship that would break up in 2000. Meanwhile, finishing his broadcasting work with some freelancing, Roper retired in Florida and was kept out of sight for ten years. But in 1997 he returned: after brooding over his losses, he had gone to work on a newspaper, and was later fired (1998) for upholding truth over employee loyalty. Tired of the "prison of journalism," he joined Nomad and Hogan in detective work, and by the end of the strip he had again become the leading character. John Saunders continued to write the strip until his death on November 15, 2003. Officially, Matera took over the writing until it was discontinued by the syndicate, although it was ghosted by Keith Brenner, J.S. Earls and Geoffrey Brenneman in the final years. In the strip's last days the dailies featured stories involving Mike, while the Sundays focused on Steve. It has been reported that the dailies of that period were combinations of reprinted and some new art, remaking older stories. One late story dealing with the widow and child of an Iraq-fighting Marine had been told during the 1980s, when the Marine had met his death in Lebanon.[6]

Analysis and conclusion[edit]

Mike Nomad and Steve Roper on December 10, 2004, only days before the end of the strip (December 26, 2004).

Aside from selected reprints in U.S. and foreign comic books, Steve Roper (under all its titles) stayed in the newspapers, where it had an especially strong appeal to male readers (Saunders, in Ridgeway interview). Particularly during its peak decades, it showed attractive photorealistic art and well-written stories with plot twists, suspense, danger, and touches of ironic wit and male "soap." Allen Saunders was known for his "sophisticated scripts with literate dialogue" (Browne Popular Culture Library 2007); his Steve Roper characters referred to art, literature, and music and often spoke in other languages (he had been a French professor before becoming a journalist). The action was tense and fast-paced with four stories per year, until it slowed down drastically after the 1979 reduction from three or four daily panels to just two. By the 1990s, a single conversation easily took an entire month of dailies. This change was reversed in December 2003 by Matera, recapturing some of the strip's original narrative pace, but by then it had lost its earlier quality and almost 90% of its newspapers.

Steve Roper explored human foibles and two men's responses to a variety of issues; and through the life story of Roper, it also showed two journalists' views (Allen and John Saunders) of changes in their profession over the course of the 20th Century. Roper and Nomad upheld a male code of honor in their work and personal lives, but unlike the idealized heroes of other adventure strips, they had well-developed, believable personalities with flaws, moods, and complex depths. They were good at what they did, but also miscalculated sometimes and dealt realistically with the consequences. Allen Saunders (1949 Brandenburg article) said his characters became "awfully real" to him, and in 1971 he quoted Milton Caniff as saying Nomad was "the most real character that ever appeared in a comic." Also unlike story strips that always reset to the same status quo, Roper and Nomad developed through their successes, losses, and changes in life over the years, and they gradually aged — from a cocky, adventurous Roper at 22 to both men in their sixties, seasoned and ready for a change.

They got one: an ending that fell back through past stories to return them to a key December 1986 talk of a voyage together, this time leading to a new outcome and retirement. The final strip (Sunday December 26, 2004) wordlessly showed Roper visiting his ex-wife's grave with a daughter whom she had borne in the hospital without telling him — and who was now likewise a journalist.

References[edit]

Sources[edit]

  • Ridgeway, Ann N. (interviewer). 1971. Allen Saunders. The Journal of Popular Culture 5 (2), 385-420.
  • Brandenburg, George A. 1949. Soap Opera in Comics? Never, Says Saunders. Reprinted in Stripper's Guide May 2007.
  • Harvey, R. C. 2004. Rants and Raves, opus 149.
  • The Toledo Blade. 1953. Seymour Rothman, "Evolution of a Comic Strip," Pictorial, August 9, 1953, p. 5-6. Reprinted in Steve Roper and Wahoo, Blackthorne Publishing, book 2 (1987).
  • Obituaries: John P. Saunders 1924-2003. The Toledo Blade. November 17, 2003.
  • Saunders, John. 1986 (and 1987). Foreword to Steve Roper and Wahoo. Blackthorne Publishing, books 1 and 2.
  • Browne Popular Culture Library News. 2007. Allen and John Saunders Collection, March 17, 2007.