Imagining the Orient in the Golden Age
of Adventure Comics
In 1995, the United States Postal Service put out a set of twenty gorgeously colored comic-strip classics stamps (figure 2). These stamps featured the most well known characters from the golden age of newspaper comic strips, roughly from the late 1920s to the 1930s, although major strips continued to enjoy popularity in the 1940s. 1 At the height of this genre in the 1930s, adventure comic strips, with the protagonists' daily heroic feats, boosted the sale of newspapers by offering diversion to Depressionweary Americans in the wake of the great stock market crash in 1929. Far more important than mere entertainment, adventure comic strips were, and still are, part of the stories a nation repeats to itself, out of which a national identity and myth arise. Of the twenty comic-strip classics selected by the postal service, Alex Gillespie Raymond's Flash Gordon and Milton Caniff's Terry and the Pirates, both begun in 1934, were credited with setting the standard for adventure comic strips (Harvey 124). To create tales of adventure, both strips included a supporting cast of “Orientals” in opposition to the American heroes. Moreover, Terry was set exclusively in the Orient. The only exception to Terry 's exotic locale was a sequence on March 23 and 24, 1946, when Terry's teenage assistant Hotshot Charlie was shown in his native Boston. What accounts for this shared Orientalist theme? What does this say about the American culture of those decades? Is there any legacy from a “lowbrow” art form that flourished half a century ago?
Before venturing to answer these questions, let us return to the postage stamps of Flash and Terry, for they are sanitized 1990s versions in terms