Many superheroes found success in radio after breaking through in pulps or comics, notably the Shadow and Superman, but Captain Midnight was one of the few who moved the other way, from radio to comics. In the wake of World War I, a number of flying aces caught the public's imagination, both real (Charles Lindbergh and Captain Frank Hawkes) and fictional (such as pulp stars G-8 and his Battle Aces, and Bill Barnes). So it made sense for the Skelly Gasoline Company to sponsor a new radio show starring a daredevil flying ace—Captain Midnight—in stories written by a couple of genuine aviators, Robert M. Burtt and Wilfred G. Moore. Captain Midnight debuted on Mutual Radio (from Chicago) on September 30, 1940.
Captain Midnight (voiced by Ed Prentiss) was Red Albright, a World War I flying ace who earned his nickname when he returned from a vital mission at the stroke of twelve midnight. Together with his adopted son Chuck Ramsey, plucky young Patsy (later replaced by another aviatrix called Joyce Ryan) and his mechanic Ichabod Mudd (also known as
Ikky), Captain Midnight flew off to find adventure around the world. Although he didn't possess any superpowers per se, Captain Midnight possessed extraordinarily precise flying skills, able to take off from such obscure locations as a Mexican pyramid. Albright was a resourceful inventor, creating such super-gadgets as his Gliderchute (think combination glider and parachute); Code-O-Graph for deciphering top-secret assignments;
Doom Beam Torch, which doubled as an infrared-heat generator and a device for flashing the Captain Midnight clock symbol; and
His nemesis was Ivan Shark, a seemingly indestructible rogue who was joined by a gang of his own, which included his daughter Fury. From 1940, Ovaltine took over sponsorship of the radio show, a successful relationship that continued for years and resulted in a torrent of merchandising, including badges, T-shirts, posters, and rings, and a fan club. On the entry of the United States into World War II, Captain Midnight was summoned by the president and given command of his own squadron of flying aces—all the better to take the fight to the Axis hordes.
The radio show was a real hit and, not surprisingly, comic-book publishers soon took note. First in the field was Dell, which ran faithful story adaptations of several Captain Midnight radio scripts in Funnies and Popular Comics in 1941. Another inevitable spin-off was the newspaper strip, which duly arrived in 1942, from the Chicago Sun Syndicate, drawn by
Jonwan. That same year saw the release of a fifteen-chapter Captain Midnight movie serial from Columbia Pictures, starring Dave O'Brien. If these features were all very much true to the spirit of the radio show, another development from 1942 was most certainly not. Seeing the success of the serial, Fawcett Comics launched its own interpretation of the daredevil ace.
Like its legendary Captain Marvel, Fawcett's Captain Midnight debuted in his own red costume, complete with aviator's helmet, goggles, and winged-clock insignia on his chest. Though initially quite baggy, the suit became increasingly tight-fitting over the following months, so that he was soon every inch the superhero. Although the character retained his radio comrades (albeit with Ikky soon becoming known as Sergeant Twilight), for good measure Fawcett's Captain Midnight borrowed a couple of gimmicks from his comic-book rivals. From the Black Condor he took a pair of underarm wings—his
gliderchute, which allowed him to fly into action without bothering with his plane. From Batman he borrowed the idea of a handy utility belt, boasting blackout bombs, a doom beam radio transmitter, and a grappling hook. While the Captain and his chums usually took the fight to the Nazi and Nippon war machines, he did cultivate a few other villains along the way, including the sinister Angels and the Shark.
By the standards of the day, Captain Midnight was not one of the most exciting comics on the stands, but it was always competently crafted by writers such as Joe Millard and Otto Binder, with art by the Binder studio (run by Otto's brother Jack), Leonard Frank, Carl Pfeufer, and Sheldon Moldoff. With Germans and their accomplices as readymade villains, the war years were fertile ones for the Captain, but peacetime proved more problematic, and Fawcett took the unusual step of switching the strip to a science fiction direction. Most issues from #50 (1947) on featured the space-helmeted Captain Midnight toughing it out with the Flying Saucers of Death, Xog (Evil Lord of Saturn), Dr. Osmosis, Jagga the Space Raider, and their ilk. Unconvinced readers stayed away from the comic and, in 1948, after sixty-seven issues, the comic was retitled Sweethearts and headed off for more romantic pastures—without the Captain, needless to say.
The radio show was itself abandoned the following year, but Ovaltine soon switched its sponsorship to the new medium of television. A Captain Midnight half-hour television show ran from 1953 to 1957 on CBS and starred Richard Webb as a suitably jet-age Captain. (When the show went into syndication, Ovaltine, which owned the rights to the character, was not involved, and so the series was renamed Jet Jackson.) No comics were published to tie in to the Captain Midnight TV show, and as of 2004 no more Captain Midnight comics have appeared at all, though Marvel did produce a Captain Midnight health and fitness book in the late 1970s, starring a yellow-costumed hero. In retrospect, the good Captain seems to be an early example of the cross-media merchandising that is so common with characters today. From radio to comics, toys, books, newspapers, premiums, movies and television, the character was everywhere, drafting the blueprint for licensing for years to come.