July 23, 2002

Skee-Ball Week Continues, with a Brief, Scholarly Interlude! [I’ve received a lot of e-mail this week indicating that the vast majority of you were not previously familiar with either the Guy Sterling stories or Happy Boy Magazine. I guess that most of you weren’t fortunate enough to grow up in the Goldstein household, where winter evenings were spent in front of the fire, with Gramps reading to us kids from the latest issue of Happy Boy. Ah, those were wondrous days.

Anyway, I thought that before I continued with the Guy Sterling reprints, I’d get you all caught up to speed, so to speak, with the following excerpt from Scott Scoglio's article "Magazines for Adolescents in the Pre-War Era," which appeared in the American Library Association publication Periodicals Quarterly.]

Though largely forgotten today, Happy Boy Magazine enjoyed a relatively lengthy period of success, especially compared to the many other boy's magazines that collapsed in the wake of the Grit/Boy's Life tandem juggernaut of the 1930's and 40's. Originally a giveaway produced by the Happy Boy Dairy Corporation to increase margarine awareness and sales among ten-year-old boys, the magazine soon outgrew its original purpose to include a wide variety of non-dairy features and serials. [Happy Boy's origins were well represented, however, by the long-running comic strip Oleo Joe, the adventures of a mischievous boy who each month used his beloved margarine to get out another tight scrape. Reports that Joseph Heller and Jack Kirby collaborated on some of the later Oleo Joe strips have proven to be only rumors.] The magazine began newsstand sales in June 1936, with its familiar tagline — "For Boys Like You!" — appearing shortly afterwards.
The most popular feature in Happy Boy Magazine was, by far, the Guy Sterling series, in its many incarnations. What made the Guy Sterling series unique was that its many writers never allowed it to lapse into a familiar formula or routine, as was the unfortunate practice of the time. Because of this character growth, readers followed the exploits of Guy long after they tired of many similar serials and, oftentimes, long after they had stopped reading the rest of the magazine. Towards the end of Happy Boy's run it would not be unusual to see men in their twenties and thirties reading the latest issue on the bus or subway. It was certainly responsible for a large share of the magazine's success.

The first year of the series, Guy Sterling: Farmboy, was standard rural fare, notable only for the relatively graphic, sometimes twice-monthly, descriptions of livestock birth that peppered the text. The characters were sweet, and the storylines ran to the sappy.

The series didn't really take off until 1937 with the introduction of the "Skee-Ball Champion" storyline. At the time, the Skee-Ball craze was sweeping the country, and the Happy Boy editors no doubt saw this as a way to cash in its popularity. It soon became much more, due to some crisp writing, exciting storylines, and an innovation that would become a hallmark of the series.

While other serials had occasionally featured real-life celebrities in cameo roles, the Guy Sterling serial was the first to actually use them as full-fledged characters, interacting as part of the storyline. Some of the nation's top Skee-Ballers, including Brinks McGillicuddy, Bobby Knowles, and Ray Rayberg, were signed to licensing contracts and became major players in the Skee-Ball Champion storyline. During a time when the sports press was much smaller and the personal lives of athletes were far more private, these stories gave many young fans the idea that they were seeing the men behind the legends.

In most cases, for obvious reasons, the athletes were presented as strong, noble, and near-invincible, despite their inevitable defeats at the hands of Guy Sterling. In a few cases, these Skee-Ballers had some input into their characters and storylines. There was, however, one unfortunate exception: Joey "Spats" Murphy.

At the time the Skee-Ball Champion series began, Spats Murphy was on the downside of a long, illustrious career, but was still immensely popular. Befitting his stature, Spats was introduced as a near-mythic figure, brave and beloved. To Murphy's lifelong dismay, this characterization only lasted a few brief episodes, and while the reasons for the editorial shift have been lost to history (the most persistent rumor revolved around a girlfriend supposedly shared by Spats and the series' lead writer), there can be no doubt that the animosity was genuinely felt. To a nation of boys the name Spats Murphy would soon became synonymous with sniveling, cheating, lying, and other unsavory acts.

While Murphy wrote letter after letter begging to be let out of his contract, his character continued to appear, even long after the Skee-Ball storyline and craze had passed. And while he died a broken man, hated by a nation of men and boys, a pariah to his own family, Murphy could take some solace that the April 1942 installment of Guy Sterling: Air Force Flyboy, consisting of seven pages of Guy savagely beating Murphy interspersed with scenes of Murphy begging for more and declaring that he wanted to kiss Tojo, is said to be largely responsible for the strengthening of America's libel laws during that period. How many of us can say we made such a difference?
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