SF in all the Wrong Places - Big Chief Wahoo
byArthur Lortie, (c) 2018
Blog : Amazing Stories
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Promo 19361119.jpgEveryone needs to have confidence they can succeed at something new. Without it, the Wright Brothers would have merely improved their tans on that North Carolina beach and Lyle Lovett never would have snagged Julia Roberts.

But overconfidence could find you on skis speeding toward a pine tree because you once beat a six year old by six lengths on the bunny slope.

Which is exactly what happened to Allen Saunders and Elmer Woggon while doing a BIG CHIEF WAHOO story back in 1938..

Saunders was a writer. A very good writer, In fact. In 1936 he was a drama critic for The Toledo Bee when the Publishers Syndicate asked him to write a comic strip alongside Woggon. He turned out to be so good at this that over the next 43 years he churned out scripts in an impressive variety of genres, including soap opera (Mary Worth), detective (Kerry Drake), adventure (Dateline: Danger!), and, for his opening act with Woggon, humor (Big Chief Wahoo).

Unfortunately, he also tried mixing in a little science fiction, which turned out to be his pine tree.

Big Chief Wahoo, at first glance, could be considered racist by today’s standards. The titular hero was a pint-sized Native American wearing a ten-gallon hat whose dialect is best described as Tonto-esque. But he was unmistakably The Hero in his strip. Though played for laughs, he was brave and loyal to a fault and his street smarts made the white characters the foils of the jokes.

In 1938, science fiction concepts were finding new homes and popularity outside the pulps. The movie studios had success with properties like Frankenstein and Flash Gordon, and radio gave us Buck Rogers and his clones. Movie serials, even in straight police dramas like Radio Patrol, found that supervillains and city destroying death rays sold tickets. The immediate success of Superman and the promised futuristic concepts to be presented at the 1939 New York World’s Fair were on everyone’s minds. Even H G Wells returned with success to his science fiction roots with the movie and novel Things to Come. Comic strip creators, who never met a concept they couldn’t exploit, took every Wellsian theme and turned it into a 4 panel daily reality. You want a war between worlds? Turn to BUCK ROGERS. How about Dr. Moreau’s beast men? Flip the page to FLASH GORDON. Invisible men (and women)? Try INVISIBLE SCARLET O’NEIL on for size.

But it was time travel that offered the most appealing plot possibilities, and it was often accomplished by retooling an existing character, often using the most bizarre and startling metamorphosis possible. Originally an Allan Quatermain lookalike, BRICK BRADFORD acquired his own time machine, inexplicably in the shape of a hot air balloon. So did a dinosaur riding caveman named ALLEY OOP. A former flapper went from wooing college boys to saving a futuristic city in Frank Godwin’s CONNIE.

Well, heck, I can do that with WAHOO, thinks Saunders and Woggins.

Uhhh … no. No you can’t.

They had a wealth of popular literature to school themselves in the whys and wherefors of time travel. Besides just opening any random issue of AMAZING STORIES or consulting any of the previously mentioned sources, he could of even peeked at A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT.

Instead he chose a method that was akin to demonic possession by the ghost of Christmas past.

The WAHOO stories have no definitive beginning nor end but I chose to begin with the first appearance of Dr. Harvale, president of Cramhard College, on October 1, 1938. He fishes Wahoo and his girlfriend Minnie-Ha-Cha out of the East River and hires them to find out who had been sending him threatening letters signed “The Reaper”.

Big Chief Wahoo 19381107 (The Star Press).jpgThis is a wide ranging story that involves college football, initiation rites, Wahoo as a Native American Sherlock Holmes complete with deerstalker, and love sick coeds. And THEN, after a month of these shenanigans, we reach the real gem of the story -- the villain Dr. Weerd and his Time Reverser.

Though it’s unclear exactly what this invention does and how. Rather than actually sending its occupant back to an Ice Age or the time of King Arthur, depending on how the dials are set, he returns with the mind and personality of any character from any age.

You have to wonder if he could come back as a conversational dinosaur seeking a big heapum meal.

But something goes wrong and Wahoo comes back as Napoleon Boneparte. After the machine is destroyed, Wahoo returns to his lovable self by being kissed by Minnie-Ha-Cha.

None of this, of course, is how “real” time travel actually works.

I suppose the machine could have swapped mass with something in the past, and Wahoo and Napoleon swapped places. Then we could extend that to this being a brain swap, after ignoring all the physiological implications.

But that creates the problem of explaining what is happening to the real Napoleon back on Elba, presumably confusing everyone by speaking Wahoo’s peculiar brand of English.

All of this speculation is quickly negated by the sudden return to normal by a kiss from his sweetheart, suggesting it was some form of hypnosis after all.

Or, more likely, we weren’t supposed to scrutinize any part of this story. Ever! :)

All the strips from October 1, 1938 to December 4, 1938 are on MediaFire.

[Saunders and Woggon fared slightly better when they trued their hand at another science fiction trope during another incarnation of this strip as Steve Roper. See my earlier article here.]