Most of the really great comic book crime-fighters wear capes and tights — most, but not all. It is my honor to introduce you to Toni Gayle, the “glamorous model-detective” who should have taken detective comics by storm when she debuted in 1945.
Toni never even got her own comic. She appeared only as a feature in other comics, starting with Young King Cole. Young King Cole starred Kingston Cole, Jr., a boy genius-type who goes to work in his father’s detective agency. Giving him the lead role was clearly a mistake on the publisher’s part. Out of all the features in this book — including one which, amusingly in hindsight, is called Dr. Doom — Toni Gayle is the obvious frontrunner. Judging by the content of the published fan letters, many contemporary fans agreed that Toni’s feature was strongest. By the end of this article, hopefully you will understand why!
Gayle Force Wins
First things first: Toni’s origin story. We meet her as she is making breakfast for her dismissive jerk of a dad.
Yeah, Toni, his career is important! Not like yours!
When Mr. Caring over here gets his head bashed in by the thief he’s after, a devastated Toni vows revenge. She does this by dressing in her dad’s clothes to try to trick the villain into attacking her. It works so well that he takes her hostage, forces her to pack up his plane for a quick getaway to South America, and almost succeeds in dropping her over the ocean sans parachute. Toni’s reaction?
That’s right, Toni strangles the guy with her necklace until he passes out. And then she just toodles on over to the pilot seat and flies the plane back home herself.
After this adventure, Toni became a magnet for trouble. Wherever her modeling jobs took her, she inevitably stumbled across a dead body or stolen jewels. Usually, the cops zeroed in on an obvious but innocent suspect, leaving Toni to uncover the truth and, at great peril, bring the real culprit to justice.
Havin’ a Gayle Old Time
Fortunately, Toni didn’t have to fight crime alone. Her dad only appeared once after the first issue — he was even ruder the second time around, thinking to himself about how women should stay in the kitchen! — so obviously, he wasn’t going to be any help. Instead, Toni relied on the awesomely named Biff Muggson, a reformed criminal who tags along with Toni out of loyalty to her and her dad, who both helped him out of scrapes. (I assume Papa Gayle is paying him for this.) Biff is supposedly Toni’s bodyguard, but he functions more as a legman/assistant. Whenever she gets into real trouble, Biff is nowhere to be found, and Toni has to fight her own way out.
Later, another man entered Toni’s life: Ty Benton, a smarmy reporter who thinks her reputation as a crackerjack detective is a hoax.
Eventually, Ty realized Toni was the real deal, and they started dating. I don’t like him much — he’s controlling and condescending, and he enjoys Toni’s rare failures way too much — but at least Toni remains awesome. She doesn’t let Ty stop her from solving cases and punching bad guys.
Ty’s one shining moment comes when he gets captured by murderous gamblers and thrown in a boat. To attract Toni’s attention, he sticks his butt in the air so she can see his ugly swimming trunks from afar. It’s a hilarious subversion of the usual, “woman gets captured while scantily clad” trope.
What I love most about Toni is her bravery. She is not fearless — she shows fear on a number of occasions, and even runs away when she knows she’s outmatched — but she doesn’t let that stop her from snarking at the bad guys, even as they march her into the latest death trap.
I also love that Toni isn’t very squeamish, and that she doesn’t shy away from getting physical. She’s even been known to save Biff on occasion, at one point clubbing a bear while wearing a pioneer dress.
(Don’t worry, the bear is fine: Toni leads it to a hot spring, where it is scared off by the boiling water!)
Not long after the bear incident, Young King Cole was renamed Criminals on the Run. Toni did not make the jump. Instead, she became the star of a new series, Guns Against Gangsters. Why the reshuffle? Editors’ notes, including this one from Guns Against Gangsters #2, provide the answer.
By the late 1940s, comic books were falling victim to a religiously and politically motivated movement that claimed comics were morally bankrupt. The new titles were a desperate attempt to show that these books weren’t glorifying criminality and, therefore, should not be attacked. Did it work? We’ll get into that in a minute.
Toni’s adventures never glorified criminals in the first place, so the rebranding had little impact on the actual stories. Guns Against Gangsters also gave a redesigned version of Toni’s father, Gregory “Gunmaster” Gayle, a feature for…reasons. I’m not sure if they were trying to capitalize on Toni’s popularity or if they figured a back-up feature starring a cop would help project a squeaky clean image. Either way, he’s not half as interesting as Toni. I mean, look at her.
“I Just Went Gay All of a Sudden!”
Wikipedia doesn’t have much to say about Novelty Press, which published the original Toni Gayle adventures. What’s worse, as of this writing, their article misspells Toni’s name as “Tony.” Show the lady some respect!
I do know that Toni Gayle boasted some interesting behind-the-scenes talent. The original artist was Wayne Boring, who made his mark drawing Superman. Later, Janice Valleau took over. Not many people know about Valleau, and there’s a sad reason for that. David Hajdu interviewed her for his 2008 book, The Ten-Cent Plague. In it, Valleau talks about how much she loved working in comics and resisted leaving during the crackdown. But eventually, the outcry grew too vicious for her to bear, and she quit. She never worked as a professional artist again.
At the back of Hajdu’s book, he includes a depressingly long list of creators who were forced out of comics. The list includes several people in addition to Janice Valleau who worked on Young King Cole, including Jim Wilcox (from the title feature), Nina Albright (Dr. Doom), and art editor Al Fago. Novelty Press itself went under in 1949, apparently because of the burgeoning anti-comics backlash.
Weirdly, this is not quite the end of Toni’s story. By 1950, L.B. Cole, a former artist at Novelty, bought their characters and founded Star Publications. One of Star’s titles was Popular Teen-Agers, a teen romance comic featuring “Toni Gay, model miss.” Imagine if Veronica Lodge was the star of Archie and you get the picture.
Not exactly the astute detective anymore, is she?
Along with losing two letters off her name, her thirst for justice, and her general intelligence, Toni also lost her supporting cast. Instead of Ty Benton, she now had eyes for an Archie clone named — prepare yourselves — Butch Dykeman. The 1950s were such a special time.
Popular Teen-Agers seems to have had trouble finding its footing. The first seven issues are as I’ve described. But something very interesting happens in Issue 8: the old, mystery-solving, adult Toni Gayle returns! Alas, it is but a reprint of her story in Guns Against Gangsters #2.
This revival was short-lived: by Issue 12, Toni and all of the Popular Teen-Agers regulars were ousted in favor of straightforward romance stories. It remained a romance comic for the rest of its existence.
It seems likely that Star Publications was trying to chase the trends: both teen humor and romance comics were on the rise at this time. Poor Toni got caught in the middle. She obviously wasn’t a good fit for the former, and even less so for the latter.
Unfortunately, Star’s trend chasing was the death of them. According to Wikipedia, they tried to cash in on the horror comic craze by turning another old Novelty Press property into a horror comic. This put them in the cross-hairs of the aforementioned anti-comics backlash, and they folded in 1954. As far as I know, Toni has not appeared in any comics since.
Has the Gayle Blown Over?
Both Toni Gayle and her creators deserved better. Despite the cringeworthy moments you inevitably get in comics this old, Toni Gayle is a light, fun series with a stellar protagonist. Toni is a real treasure who never lets anything get in her way. Even her failures aren’t enough to dampen her fighting spirit.
But the absolute best thing about Toni Gayle is that she is in the public domain. This is great news for two reasons. One, you can read all of her adventures for free right here. And two, anybody who wants to revive the character and give her the spotlight she deserves can do so at no cost whatsoever. Any takers?
Miss Gayle, any kind of evening you want to have is fine by me.