The premise is simple: read one comic every day for the entire year. It seems like a simple task but there is no way that I read 365 comics last year, even if you count the individual issues in collections. So, this year, I have committed myself to this reading challenge, in the hope that I can broaden my reading habits and fully engage with my favorite hobby again.
“It is our sincere belief that these publications are one of the most insidious forces affecting our youth today. [The comics] tend to destroy all respect for authority, incite to all forms of delinquency and ridicule everything decent and good. They are a menace to the right thinking of our American youth and should be banned throughout the country.”
This was written in a letter by the East Hartford Board of Education and sent to the mayor, John W. Torpey (in 1954, as quoted in The Ten-Cent Plague by David Hajdu). The letter was calling for legislation and the banning of evil, corrupting, comics. It might seem like a ridiculous notion today, but in 1950s America, and all over the world at different periods of time, comics were seen to be the cause of corruption and delinquency in the younger generations.
This week I’ll be reading comics from the 1950s in an attempt to understand the stir they caused, and see how they have stood the test of time. I’ll be sourcing these comics from the Comic Book Plus website (https://comicbookplus.com/) which houses thousands of comics that are in the public domain. It’s a wonderful resource for anyone who loves comics.
Comic Number 15: Boy Loves Girl #45 (April 1954)
In American comics history, romance comics were created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby when they published Young Romance #1 in 1947. It wasn’t long before the genre was courting controversy, but not, perhaps, in the way that you imagine. It wasn’t that the comics were lewd, but rather that they gave women false impressions about marriage and love, and that they were hypocritical in nature (according to everyone’s favorite comic book villain Fredric Wertham).
After reading Boy Loves Girl #45, which was released at the height of the war against comic books, it’s difficult to see what the fuss is about. If anything, you would have thought that these comics would have been exactly what the detractors would want, offering, as each story in this comic does, the moral lesson that ‘normal’ socially acceptable relationships are the only ones where the women will be happy.
Some of the artwork is better in some strips than others but there is a consistent theme throughout each story which is highlighted by the visual composition: the emotional reactions of the central character, which in each case, is a woman looking for love. Occasional clunky dialogue shares space on pages with some witty speech and for the most part the stories are well written. This comic might not be a prime example of romance comics from the 1950s but it passes the time and is unintentionally funny. Although, I think I’d rather be reading Love Everlasting by Tom King and Elsa Charretier.
Comic Number 16: Blazing Western #2 (March 1954)
I’m not sure what to say about this comic. There is some very tight artwork from Eugene Hughes (possibly) and Jack Petrazzo that captures that western feel. Dynamic in places, but with that expansive landscape necessary for setting the scene.
Unfortunately, the overriding impression I get from this comic is the poor representation of Native Americans and the female characters, with the domination of the white man over them both. Maybe at the time of printing this wouldn’t have been as obvious, or important, but reading in 2023 it is an element that mars the rest of the comic. At least for me.
Comic Number 17: Eerie #15 (April 1954)
“Robert Warsham, a smirking, sarcastic neer-do-well who ridiculed what he could not explain”
As classic horror comics go, Eerie is a good example of what to expect. A collection of short stories, each with a grotesque character, haunting the protagonist to a dreadful end. By today’s standards, these stories might seem tame but there is a charm to each of them, almost marred by the sexist stereotyping. The artwork suits the tone of the comic, more so than some other genre comics, but is inconsistent throughout.
The Werewolf of Warsham Manor is unintentionally funny and includes some thinly veiled digs at anti-comic psychologist Fredric Wertham. The Subway Horror is a wonderful tale told with comical artwork but actually turns out to be the most disturbing of all four tales.
Overall, this is exactly what I was expecting from a horror comic from the 1950s, with the design and style etched into my mind from years of reading The Haunt of Fear and Tales from the Crypt. In Eerie I miss the voice of the narrator, a cackling crone injecting puns as the story unfolds, but you can’t have everything.
Comic Number 18: Famous Funnies #210 (February 1954)
Historically seen as the first American Comic Book, Famous Funnies reprints comic strips from American newspapers. By the time you get to 1954, only a year before the comic sees its final issue, the famous Buck Rogers has returned to the comic and features heavily on the cover.
My main take away from this comic is the lack of humor and the casual racism. In the Dickie Dare strip by Coulton Waugh, the representation of the Asian pirates is cringe worthy. You can argue that it is of its time, however not all comics were like this and in this strip, it comes off as a cheap joke and nothing more. This is a shame because Waugh’s book The Comics is a wonderful and, some might say, groundbreaking book about the history of the medium.
There is nothing outstanding in this comic, nothing that will stick with you for years to come. It does not come as a surprise that there wasn’t much life left in this anthology book.
Comic Number 19: Beep Beep the Road Runner #20-76 (1970)
This is one of the oldest comics I actually own and I’ve only read it a couple of times. The contents are exactly as you would expect them to be with clean, fine line work and a collection of simple gag comic strips.
I’m not sure who the artist is, and that’s probably the way the publisher wants it. Character recognition outweighs any individualism the creators would bring to the table. I’ve always enjoyed a good Road Runner cartoon, and this comic captures that simply and effectively.
This title falls outside of my theme for this week, but I needed a lighthearted, physical comic to read.
And this comic taught me the Road Runner’s name was Beep Beep. You are always learning when reading comics.
Comic Number 20: Crime Does Not Pay #133 (April 1954)
Nearly got through my 50s week without reading a Crime Comic, unless you subscribe to Fredric Wertham’s contention that all comics are crime comics (this is how he referred to all comics, which caused some confusion, and probably explains when he has been so villainized in the comics communities).
As the years passed, the ‘Crime’ on the cover became smaller and the ‘Does not pay’ became bigger as the publishers, in this case Lev Gleason, tried to emphasize the moral aspect of the story and downplay the glorification of the violence. There’s a lot of gun play but all the criminals get what’s coming to them. In fact, the endings are all a bit anticlimactic and sudden, with a last panel sum up. However, out of all of the comics I’ve read this week, the artwork is the most interesting. There are some wonderful compositions in some of the panels and the flow through on the pages is engaging, if a little word heavy.
You can easily see why this was one of the more popular titles of the era.
Comic Number 21: Startling Terror Tales (vol 2 #9 May 1954)
Back to horror for the end of the week. This Star Publications comic boasts true horror on the cover but delivers mostly crime stories. The artwork is crude and the script is an affront to literature. When detractors of comics talk about low art, this is the kind of thing they are referring to. Although entertaining, in a simple way, this style of cheap comic, that uses quick cheap thrills, plays into the hands of the anti-comic brigade. For every exceptional publication, such as Tales from the Crypt, there were a pile of mediocre comics like Startling Terror Tales.
After reading so many of these types of titles, the stories all blur into one and there’s not much that stands out. The reason that ECs back catalog is still republished is because their work was on a different level, in the same way that Hitchcock’s films are constantly re-released while hundreds of films from the same period haven’t been seen since. I enjoyed reading Startling Terror Tales, although there’s not much terror and nothing particularly startling about them. I will not be searching out collections or re-prints of this particular title.
The most fascinating aspect of these comics is the paratext; the adverts and house announcements. In Startling Terror Tales, for example, there are adverts for gum to help women lose weight and a powder to help men bulk up. Short of money? Get a loan via the post, or sign up to sell stockings. When you get into the paratext, the notion that the comics were ‘for kids’ becomes a murky argument because the majority of the adverts in this comic are aimed at adults. There is no denying that the comic strips were designed with youth in mind, the violence and anti-authority that is on display in these crime stories are testament to that but it would also appear that these comics got into the hands of adults otherwise, who are the advertisers aiming their wares at?
“Crime Does Not Pay” is the message printed at the end of many of these stories but, in the early 1950s, before the witch hunts and government interventions forced a select few publishers to stamp their moral code on all comics production, comics did pay, and paid well for those who knew their audience.
So, what have we learned this week? Nothing. To make any judgement about the state of comics in the 1950s based on this small sample would make us as bad as the Sterling North and Fredric Wertham’s of this world. The rise in anti-comic rallies and news stories denouncing the scourge that was sweeping across America, infecting the youth, has complex roots that cannot be deciphered by simply reading a collection of comics from that era. It is easy to point to Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent and pull it apart, comparing his statements to certain comics and proving him false but his book was the tip of an iceberg and comics were the Titanic. The damage was done by a mostly unseen force, but the comics publishers also carry an element of blame.
If you are interested in the rise and fall of American comics in the 1940s and beyond, there are plenty of resources out there. I would recommend The Ten-Cent Plague by David Hajdu and Comic Books Incorporated by Shawna Kidman as starting points. Both take different approaches to telling the story and therefore highlight the complexity of the situation in the industry at the time.
Week 3 complete. Maybe lighter reading for the week ahead. Why not let me know what you’re reading in the comments below and give me some ideas of what to read next.