Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Chapter One: Origins of the Medium

Sequential art has been with mankind for centuries. Long before the advent of Sunday Funnies or Superman, civilizations from all corners of the world depicted their narratives in a visual sequence. From the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt to the Bayeux Tapestry, examples of early sequential art prove that comics, normally thought of as a modern art form, are actually part of a tradition that is almost as old as storytelling itself.

The direct predecessor of the comic book was the comic strip. The birth of comic art in the modern context resulted from the ever-increasing competition between the newspapers of William Randolf Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. Both publishers used various gimmicks to increase circulation and in the latter part of the eighteen-eighties illustrations were introduced in an appeal to the semi-literate segment of the newspaper buying public. These black and white illustrations began as single frame anecdotes; a contemporary newsworthy or cultural situation would be treated, usually in a satiric way. The dialogue of these illustrations would be typed underneath the pictures. By 1896, political and cultural “funnies” had existed long enough for people to become acquainted with them and also for a new artist to change them. On February 16, 1896 New York Sunday World, a Pulitzer paper, included a section devoted entirely to “funnies”. While this in itself was not new, there was one panel that drew the attention of readers. Drawn by R.F. Outcault and titled “The Great Dog Show in M’Googan’s Avenue”, the scene depicted a group of slum children in the center of which stood an androgynous, bald child wearing a yellow smock. Color printing had never been used before and the reaction to the “Yellow Kid”, as “he” became known, was astounding. The popularity of Outcault’s first installment encouraged publishers to utilize color more frequently and soon the majority of “funnies” did. Pulitzer and Outcault were ahead of the game though, and in “his” second appearance, the Yellow Kid introduced yet another innovation which would change comic art forever. Instead of just plain yellow, this time the smock had printed on it the word “Artillery”. The word was a function of the political satire of the panel but, more importantly, it was the funny drawing’s first interaction of words and pictures.[1] Pulitzer recognized the potential of Outcault’s creation and had his artist draw the character several more times, always with a new slogan printed on his shirt. As a result of the repetition of this one character, people began to recognize and expect “The Yellow Kid”. Not only had Outcault introduced color and the use of words within images to the funnies, but he also created the first recurring character.[2]

In response to the overwhelming popularity of the Yellow Kid, both Hearst and Pulitzer emphasized the development of new characters and concepts. Every day new artists would try to create a panel that would not only entertain but also guarantee them more work. The artists who were most successful, like Outcault, usually introduced some character or convention to the funnies that made them stand out. The first artist to achieve recognition comparable to Outcault’s was Rudolph Dirks. Dirks penned a funny that initially gained attention as a result of his characters’ wild language and practical jokes; it was soon titled “The Katzenjammer Kids” after the two main characters. What differentiated this funny from all the others was that instead of free floating words, Dirks enclosed his dialogue with a line that indicated the speaker. “Katzenjammer Kids” used the word balloon for the first time in a non-political, recurring illustration. Since then, virtually every comic strip and book illustrator has utilized the word balloon to identify a speaker (or thinker).[3]

By 1907, the funnies had achieved nationwide popularity and a relatively standard form, but they were still missing the one element that essentially defines sequential art: the sequence. Up until that year, funnies appeared in one-panel drawings or rectangular groupings. On November fifteenth of that year, The San Francisco Chronicle presented the first installment of the adventures of Mr. Augustus Mutt by Bud Fisher.[4] “Mutt” was unique because it was presented in a “strip” of sequential images which, when read from right to left, created a continuous narrative. Fisher’s design was soon imitated by other artists and the form of the comic strip has remained the same ever since.

The origin of comic books themselves is harder to trace. The first compilations of comic strips appeared around 1911; reprints of “Mutt and Jeff” were the first books to circulate with any sort of frequency or volume. The “Mutt and Jeff” volumes had very little resemblance to modern comics. They were eighteen inches high and six inches wide, but these dimensions were not standard by any means. The size and format of most reprinted volumes differed from one another; some were in color while others were in black in white and the individual dimensions of the volumes were rarely equivalent.[5] Books were also bound in different ways– some in hardcover, other in cardboard. Companies devoted specifically to the publication of reprints evolved during the second decade of the century; the first and most prominent of these outfits was Cupples and Leon, based in New York City. Cupples and Leon had begun reprinting comic strips early on and were firmly entrenched in the market during the twenties. In order to solidify their commanding position, they developed a marketing strategy that simultaneously improved sales and simplified record keeping: they numbered their books.[6] The technique was quickly adopted by competing publishers and continues today.

By 1922, the Embee Distribution Company had developed a standard dimension for comic books– eight and a half by ten inches– with their magazine Comics Monthly. Not all magazines followed this format initially. Among the reluctant was George Delacourte whose Dell Publishing Company printed the first comic to use original material, The Funnies. The size of The Funnies was equal to the tabloid spreads of the Sunday funnies but went under after only thirty-six issues. An overwhelming majority of books continued to reprint old strips in the new format and those that didn’t, like The Funnies, folded almost as soon as they began. None of the standard format comic books could claim steady success until 1934.[7]

In a twist on conventional distribution of comic books, the Eastman Color Printing Company began to use their comic, Famous Funnies, as a promotional gift and sales premium. This proved to be very lucrative and Eastman counted among its customers Gulf Oil, Proctor and Gamble and Canada Dry. A few individuals at Eastman recognized the potential for comics, which now included games as well as reprints, and approached Dell Publishing for assistance. Although the collaboration was nominally successful, both companies were reluctant to devote all of their resources to publish original comic books. The project would be undertaken by Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson in the form of New Fun. This magazine, which has been called “the first proper American comic book”, appeared on newsstands by 1935 and included not only funnies but “...a two page Western yarn, a sports page, radio news...instructions for building a model airplane, foreign legionnaire stories, hard-boiled detectives... futuristic police...puzzles, games [and] adventure stories...”[8]

Over the following three years, New Fun and Famous Funnies were the only legitimate “comic books” and even they were struggling. Not only was the audience for these books unstable and unreliable, but also the newsvendors were wary of devoting shelf space to such uncertain products. Despite these difficulties, Nicholson continued to publish New Fun, renaming it More Fun and including another title in his stable: New Comics. By the end of 1935 a third title had been added to his publishing list; Detective Comics would prove to be Nicholson’s greatest contribution to the industry. Detective Comics was unique because it was the first comic book to have an actual editorial policy; it contained only adventure stories and nothing else.[9] Nicholson also decided to use Detective Comics as the cornerstone of his new company. In the process of creating National Comics, Nicholson took on as a partner Harry Donenfield, who he had been involved with as a partner in a distributing firm, Independent News Company.[10] Over the following three years Donenfield and Nicholson continued to produce original material, mostly adventure and detective stories. Before his death in 1938, Major Nicholson had arranged for the creation of a new title, Action Comics.[11]

When Nicholson passed away, only forty-two years passed since the introduction of the Yellow Kid. Over that period of time, the experiments involving the presentation of sequential art yielded a new, highly sophisticated form that conveyed simple narratives much more succinctly and deliberately than its less modern predecessors had. The innovations of such artists as Outcault and Dirks helped to establish the basic visual language of comic storytelling while the efforts of businessmen like Major Nicholson and Donenfield produced a package for those stories that was both easily consumed and sold. Despite these developments, the content of comic strips and books was, in 1938, mediocre and childish. Most of the characters were abstract or comical and very few story lines ran beyond the confines of the single strip or comic book page. The subject matter itself was often whimsical and pleasant. The quality and content of comics was a consequence of the infantile status of the art form itself; comics of the period were primarily concerned with the development of narrative devices and so the narratives themselves suffered. Comics were merely a new way to tell a story and the comics began to look to other media for subject matter. During this period other, more established popular arts were turning out new fiction. In the 1930’s radio, film and especially the cheap “pulp” literature available at the time were beginning to explore plots that centered on “mystery men”, some of whom were costumed. In radio, there were, among others, the Lone Ranger and the Green Hornet. While the Lone Ranger fit more appropriately in the Western genre, Green Hornet’s formula was a detective adventure that would eventually be copied outright by a number of superheroes.[12] In film, characters like Lone Wolf and Zorro began to whet the appetites of American youths for more masked vigilantes; in fact, Zorro and his alter ego Don Diego, a “wealthy, disaffected effete” would serve as inspiration for a slew of heroes, including Batman.[13]

Probably the art form with most influence on the development of superhero comics was the lowbrow adventure literature whose cheap, pulpy pages gave it its name. Pulp literature had been relatively popular before the 1930’s but nothing compared to the growth it found during that decade. The pulp’s new found vigor was a result of a number of factors. The growing tensions in Europe spawned not only a cadre of sleuths and spy smashers but also a never-ending legion of villains, many of them Nazis and Asians. Another factor that can’t be ignored is the influence of other art forms on the pulps themselves. The emergence of costumed heroes in film and radio, as well as such comic strip heroes as the Phantom, probably had a reciprocal effect on new heroes in the pulps. The Shadow (1931) was one of the first costumed heroes to fight crime in the pulps. He was soon followed by Doc Savage, The Spider and The Phantom Detective in 1933. Such heroes as The Whisper and The Avenger, first published in 1936 and 1939 respectively, came later but were nonetheless part of the same movement towards the development of a new archetype of American hero. We see here a new type of hero emerging in popular culture but what were the causes of this trend?

Before the nineteen thirties, the archetype for “the” American hero was based partly on concepts of the Puritan work ethic and partly on what Teddy Roosevelt called “rugged individualism”. The hero was either a real man or, if fictitious, probabilistic and usually grounded in some historic event (e.g. Jesse James). These factors established heroes of the time in an unmagical, actually “rational”, frame of reference. Consider Jewett and Lawrence’s description of the scenario:

A community in harmonious paradise is threatened by evil. Normal institutions fail to contend with this threat. A selfless hero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task, and, aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisal condition.[14]

When the Great Depression struck America in 1929, a disillusioned American public rejected or blamed real life leaders, and perhaps the fictitious ones, too, for their predicament. As established notions of heroism were proving too “fragile” to meet the demands of a real American hero, a new archetype began to develop. This new hero was neither probabilistic nor grounded in history. In fact, the new archetype found the hero in the realm of myth and magic; the world of the new hero, like the island of The Phantom, was nowhere near our world. This new hero’s world was one in which the insurmountable grievances which faced the average American during the Depression could only be conquered by beings more powerful than ourselves. This is not to say the old archetype disappeared or was consumed by the new; the new hero merely adds another level of comprehension to a heroic scenario. Compare the above description with Jewett and Lawrence’s conception of the “superhero”:

...distinguished by disguised origins, pure motivations, a redemptive task, and extraordinary powers. He originates outside the community he is called to save, and in those exceptional instances when he is a resident therein, the superhero plays the role of the idealistic loner. His identity is secret, either by virtue of his unknown origin or his alter ego, his motivations a selfless zeal for justice.[15]

This is the archetype of the hero that began to emerge in the 1930’s. The formulas were initially explored and refined in the pulps and movies but it was in comics that this new type of American hero would find the perfect medium in which to grow.

In Action Comics #1, published June 1938, Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster introduced the world to its first comic book superhero, Superman. He only received a one-page introduction in the first issue and he did not even appear on the covers of the next few, but a newsstand survey ordered by a nervous Donenfield soon revealed Superman’s appeal. “Children were clamoring not for Action Comics but ‘that magazine with Superman in it.’”[16] Superman’s popularity sparked a deluge of new characters who would appear consistently for the following ten years. It cannot be emphasized enough that Superman was the original comic book superhero and it is in his stories, found in Action Comics and eventually Superman, that the basic units of the genre can be and were found by authors whose subsequent creations helped to perpetuate and refine the myth.

Superman was not the first character to disguise himself with a costume but his brightly colored tight suit and cape were unlike anything seen before. The Man of Steel’s outfit is recognizable by sight; its simplicity and unique appearance result in an iconic representation of the hero. In general, once the loud, often contrasting, primary colors of a superhero’s costume have been established, the costume can be used to invoke that hero. In Superman’s case the chest insignia and the red cape identify him as well as the colors do; these attributes of his costume became oft-used generic units. And as the costume is the only specific physical component of the hero, many different artists can interpret the hero without betraying one universal concept of his or her appearance. The costume is also of extreme importance because for most heroes it is used to mask a secret identity. In Superman’s case that secret identity was Clark Kent, mild mannered reporter for the Daily Planet and son of the farmland. As the reader observes Clark’s interactions with others as a normal person, the character of Superman is brought down from deity to mortal. In this way Kent and secret identities in general are used to narrow the ideological gap between the superheroes and the readers. Alter egos allow authors to explore the more human sides of their characters and subsequently create a greater combination of potential narratives. One such narrative, which is common to almost all superheroes, is the origin story, a scenario that also finds its inception in the pages of Superman comics. The origin story relates the events that actually brought the hero from a state of normal existence (if any) to the superhuman position he or she now occupies.

Inside everyone is a feeling of ineffectuality and weakness. It is this deep-rooted desire to shed weakness and to control destiny that Clark Kent touches... This is why the secret identity has become a necessary part of every superhero. Without it, he is a distant inaccessible god on Olympus.[17]

Superman himself was heavily inspired by Philip Wylie’s Gladiator (1930), which recounts the tale of a man who received superpowers and near invulnerability from an experimental in-utero injection. The Man of Steel also owes debts to John W. Campbell and Edgar Rice Borroughs, both of whom wrote about characters who existed on planets with heavier gravity. Perhaps the most interesting of Superman’s borrowed attributes is his name. The origin of “superman” is found in Neitzche’s “Thus Spake Zarathustra”. In it he discusses the ubermensch, or “overman”, the perfection of human form. The less-literal translation of “superman” comes from Shaw’s Man and Superman. And from film, Schuster and Siegel borrowed Metropolis, a thinly veiled metaphor for New York City, from the dystopian film of the same name, directed by Fritz Lang.

Superman set the standard for costumed heroes and considering his initial success it is not surprising that two other costumed heroes would appear that same year: The Arrow and D.C.’s Crimson Avenger. The Arrow had no superpowers but was extremely efficient with a bow and The Crimson Avenger was basically a clone of radio’s Green Hornet. Neither hero could rival Superman in popularity, but The Arrow is significant because it was published by a different company and therefore represents the beginning of DC’s competition in the genre. The battle for control over the market that arose between publishing companies spurred the creation of new (and hopefully better selling) characters and scenarios. One of the victims of the commercial war was Wonder Man, a character created by Timely Comics in May 1939. Timely, which would later become Marvel, was forced to discontinue Wonder Man after Donenfield proved in court that he was merely a copy of Superman.[18] The outcome of the case created an interesting dynamic within the comic industry; fear over lawsuits provided comic publishers with ample incentive to be as original as possible when developing new characters. The desire to create a costumed hero who was not Superman carried over to DC as well. Instead of cashing all their chips in on the success of the Man of Steel, DC introduced in 1939 yet another character who would not only help define the genre but who is also one of three characters to be published without break from the date of his inception to the present: Batman.

Batman first appeared in Detective Comics#27, the same month Wonder Man hit the stands. Although Batman fit the description of a costumed hero, he was noticeably different from the few characters who came before him. Unlike Superman, Bruce Wayne is a mortal human. And instead of a childhood of harmony and righteous upbringing, Bruce witnessed his parent’s brutal murder. As a result of this traumatic experience, Wayne took an oath “by the spirits of my parents to avenge their deaths by spending the rest of my life warring on criminals.”[19] Batman was a unique character and went on to innovate in the genre; initially, however there were aspects of his character and his world that were consistent with some of the conventions already established by Superman. These obviously include his costume and his origin story but there are other, more subtle conventions that “the Batman”, as he was originally called, works within. For example, New York is again, like the heroes themselves, masked in a pseudonym; in this case it is Gotham City, a name that invokes the austere darkness found in Batman. The inspiration for Batman’s character was, like many of the first wave of heroes, grounded in other art forms, although it is arguable whether or not this is an aspect of the genre. As mentioned above, Douglas Fairbanks Sr.’s performance as Don Diego in The Mark of Zorro was a major influence on the Batman character. In the film, Don Diego is a wealthy playboy who uses the time afforded by his position to fight crime in the guise of a swordsman named Zorro. In addition, he uses a secret door behind a grandfather clock to store his costume and escape his house unnoticed. The Batman myth reinterprets Zorro’s hidden exit as the Batcave; the secret hideout, while certainly not unique to comics, was in Batman adapted and consequently integrated as an essential unit of the genre.

Although Mark of the Zorro formed the basis of the Batman character, it was the pulp adventures of the decade that truly inspired Batman’s style. The dark, seedy locales, the gruff villains, and even the tone of the writing were taken directly from the pulps. Bill Finger, Batman’s original writer and partner of Batman creator Bob Kane, has freely admitted his debt and homage to pulp writers and characters; he has even gone as far as saying that his writing style for Batman was patterned directly after that of The Shadow.[20] The influence of the pulps extends all the way through Batman’s name: The Bat and the Black Bat were popular pulp characters that inspired the film The Bat Whispers (1931). In this movie the detective/murderer (clearly not Bruce Wayne) announces the impending doom of his victims by shining a light on the wall, in the middle of which is the silhouette of a bat.[21] The technique would be repeated by Batman’s police commissioner Jim Gordon in the form of a distress beam, only one of the many “Bat-gadgets”, including his utility belt and Batcar, that would help to make the Dark Knight so famous. Gordon also represents the host of recurring characters that inhabit Batman’s world over the years. In general, secondary characters help to establish a living atmosphere for the hero and expand narrative possibilities. Detective’s Batman stories investigated different types of secondary characters, a process that resulted in the two most important contributions to the genre: the sidekick and the supervillain.

Perhaps as a response to allegations that Batman was too dark for children, Detective Comics#38 introduced the superheroes’ first sidekick, Robin, the Boy Wonder.[22] Although nominally written into the Batman stories as a way to lighten the mood established in the first eleven issues, Robin was more likely the product of a creative team eager to sell more comics. The kid sidekick functions similarly to the alter ego, helping the young readers to identify with the heroes; even if you couldn’t be Batman, at least you could fight crime beside him. Robin’s instant popularity, the successful results of the sidekick experiment, guaranteed a permanent place for the sidekick in the genre’s developing vocabulary.[23] Only a few months later, in Batman#1, Kane and Finger yet again developed a device that would earn a permanent place in superhero narratives. In this issue Batman faces the Joker, a murderous villain who would become the Dark Knight’s “greatest perennial challenge”. In the Joker, Kane and Finger introduce the antithesis to the superhero, the supervillain. The supervillain is, like the protagonist, usually gifted with super powers or super intelligence; s/he differs by using these gifts not to save society but to destroy it. Although the Joker did not reappear until a few years later (again innovating within the genre by becoming the first recurring villain) his introduction instigated the creation of countless other costumed evildoers and, consequently, a new narrative tool.[24]

With these basic elements in place the genre was truly ready to take off. The number of new characters between 1938 and 1939 grew from three to fourteen; this seems paltry compared to the forty-six new characters appearing in 1940 and the overwhelming one hundred and sixty eight new superheroes to hit the newsstands in 1941. Over the course of those four years the creative output of the comic writers was astounding. This was due in part to the virtually undefined state of the medium; characters could be or do anything simply because no one had done it before. Strict deadlines forced artists to come up with something new every week or two. It was a period of “firsts” and also of imitators; after the introduction of a new concept artists had to expect their inventions to be rehashed and revised in any number of ways, sometimes for the better. An example of this can be seen in the case of the Black Widow. She appeared in August 1940 as the comics’ first superheroine.[25] Unfortunately for her publishers, Black Widow (and subsequent female crimefighters, Black Cat and Phantom Lady) was overshadowed by Wonder Woman. Originally published in September 1941, Wonder Woman incorporated “mythology, superpowers and a bit of bondage imagery” and has been one of only three characters to be continuously published since her inception, the other two being Batman and Superman.

Just as a woman hero proved a successful inversion of the standard set by Superman, so did a child. Although Robin was unquestionably the first sidekick, he had no real powers. The first true “superkid” was Wonder Boy, but even he wasn’t as popular as Captain Marvel.[26] Published by Fawcett Comics starting in the early forties, Captain Marvel was actually Billy Batson, average kid. By uttering the word Shazam! (short for Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury) Billy transformed into Captain Marvel. Billy Batson’s powers allowed kids the opportunity to forgo being a sidekick and become the hero himself. But, like Wonder Man before him, Captain Marvel’s book was forced off the shelves in the mid-fifties by a lawsuit filed by DC.[27]

Above all of the other new characters, gadgets and innovative scenarios that came out of this initial period, Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide cites the invention of the superteam as the second most important contribution to the genre, the first being the creation of the superhero.[28] The concept of a superteam was developed and introduced in All-Star Comics#3 (Fall, 1940). All-Star brought together some of DC’s most popular heroes to form the Justice Society of America. The superteam allowed characters from different titles to finally interact and fight crime with one another. A common universe is implied through their interaction and the crossover of villains and other, more minor characters is made feasible. The potential of crossovers was not fully realized at the time, though. While the JSA and other superteams pleased the young readers, the concept of company “universes” remained undeveloped until the Silver Age.[29]

By 1941, the basic elements of the genre had been laid down. The character types, scenarios and gadgetry that had so recently been invented were by this point repeated and regurgitated on a weekly basis. The stories and the feats of strength may have differed, but comic writers of the time had found a formula and were exhausting it. At the same time the American economy was taking a turn for the better, a result of increased munitions production for our European allies; the country was less preoccupied with its economic woes and more concerned with the war. Comic editors began focusing their energies on ways to incorporate world politics into their titles and the demand for escapist literature decreased. The outcome of the situation was a new type of superhero, one who was more than patriotic– he was a soldier. The first of these super-patriots was The Shield, originally published in 1939.[30] He was soon followed by such characters as Fighting American, The Eagle, V-Man, The Star-Spangled Kid and, of course, Uncle Sam.[31] Perhaps the most well known of these heroes was Captain America; the guinea pig of an Army experiment intended to create a cadre of supersoldiers, Steve Rogers was chemically enhanced and given an indestructible shield. He, like many of the other heroes of his type, was clad in the “stars and stripes” and deployed against German “ratzis” and “Japanazis” long before official U.S. involvement in the war.[32]

The coming of World War II was extremely fortuitous for comic book publishers. Writers finding their creative potential exhausted were suddenly overwhelmed with the possible plots a war and a superhero could inspire. The war not only provided new subject matter but it also increased comics sales by offering publishers a completely new audience. During the war, hundreds of thousands of comic books were shipped to U.S. troops in Europe and Japan.[33] The books raised the morale of the troops and demonstrated the support of those back home. Many publishers plastered their books with patriotic slogans and advertisements for bond and paper drives. And while only a chosen number of heroes ever joined the fray, all were involved in churning support; even Bruce Wayne puts off his nightly escapades in order to sell war bonds.[34] During the war years, superhero comics became the site for undenied and unmistakable propaganda; often the villains were grotesque caricatures of Japanese or Germans. The war affected the appearance of comics, as well. In consideration of their new audience, comic book covers steadily acquired more and more graphic sexual imagery; a typical wartime cover pictured a scantily clad or nude woman bound in rope by some Axis villain, the superhero struggling in the background to come to her aid.[35]

While the war breathed new life into the genre, it may have also spelled its temporary doom. Although it ended in 1945, World War II continued to be fought inside the pages of many comic books that had not yet published all of their backlogged stories. Some titles featured war stories for up to two years after the peace and by the time all of the heroes had returned to America, superhero comics were faced with another dilemma. Whereas the prewar writers were grasping for new scenarios, the post-war period found them in even deeper straits:

Small wonder that by the time the war ended many superheroes found it hard to go back to busting bank robbers after the intensity of fighting Axis aims of world conquest. The war in comic books despite its early promise, its compulsive flag waving, and its incessant admonitions to keep ‘em flying was, in the end, lost...[36]

The proof of the war’s effect came in 1948 when superhero titles suffered an unprecedented decline in sales. Many hero titles began to fold during the few years following the war and some began turning to new genres. Among these was All-American Comics, home of the Green Lantern, which became All-American Western with issue #103 in 1948.[37] While some superheroes survived the loss of interest, Superman and Batman among the few, their adventures were lackluster and cliché. In the place of Superheroes, America turned to Western, Science Fiction and Horror comics. Over the following five years these alternative genres gained a sizable audience, and with that audience came critical observation. As early as 1940 comics had come under the scrutiny of parents and psychologists who were suspicious of the effects the books had on children. The controversy surrounding them gained more attention beginning around 1948 when children across the country were called upon to burn their comic books. That same year the Association for the Advancement of Psychotherapy held a symposium on comics; it was there that Dr. Frederic Wertham, senior psychiatrist for the New York Department of Hospitals, first gained public spotlight in his campaign against the medium.[38]

Wertham headed a crusade against comics that gained sizable public support and attention over the next few years. Some publishers were frightened out of the business entirely, while others attempted to assuage the concerns of parents by switching their focus from crime and horror stories (the most popular genres of the time) to teen love stories; plummeting sales indicated that the change was not a wise business decision. The situation came to a head in 1954, the year Wertham published his three hundred and ninety-seven page diatribe Seduction of the Innocent. The book condemned what Wertham defined as “crime comic books” a title which included any comic books “depict[ing] crime, whether the setting is urban, western, science fiction, jungle adventure or the realm of supermen, ‘horror’, or supernatural beings.”[39] Associations are made throughout the book between comics and juvenile delinquency, sadism, theft, murder and rape, among other lurid allegations. And although his main focus centers on horror comics, Wertham attacks the superheroes, rather than the comics in which they appear:

What is the social meaning of these supermen, superwomen, super-lovers, superboys, supergirls, super-ducks, super-mice, supermagicians, super-safe crackers? How did Nietzsche get into the nursery?...Superheroes undermine respect for the law and hard working decent citizens.[40]

Seduction of the Innocent, in combination with a general public outcry, led the Senate Subcommittee on the Judiciary to call Wertham and a host of comic writers and publishers to testify on the relationship between juvenile delinquency and comic books. Among those who testified was William Gaines, son of M.C. and publisher of EC Comics. EC was at the time the most successful and infamous publishing company; it was responsible for such horror titles as Tales from the Crypt and Weird Science. Gaines made an impassioned appeal on behalf of the medium but in the end his efforts were for naught. A group of publishers took the liberty of creating two entities for self-regulation: the Comic Code Authority and the Comic Magazine Association of America. The creation of these organizations was ostensibly to beat the government to the punch and keep regulation inside the industry; it is widely believed, however, that the true purpose of these agencies was to ostracize Gaines and EC. Not only was EC the most successful company at the time, but Gaines was also bringing unwanted attention to the medium with his bold and biting editorial remarks. The Comic Code itself established strict guidelines for comics and their content and any publishing company that refused to join the CCA or the CMAA was blackballed by distributors. This is exactly what happened to EC and Gaines was forced to drop every title from his stable with the exception of the comedy magazine Mad.[41] The institution of the Comics Code was seen as the final blow to the beleaguered medium. Comics published after 1954 were bland and boring and many publishers left the industry. To make matters worse, the advent of television had a devastating effect on sales and the numbers of titles appearing on newsstands between 1954 and 1956 dropped from 650 to 250.[42] The aftermath of the Wertham attacks is seen as the true end of the Golden Age of comics. The challenge of the few remaining publishers was to keep the medium afloat until a new wave of comic enthusiasm returned. Abandoning their horror, crime and, eventually, western titles, publishers fell back on the superheroes whose black and white morality was all that seemed acceptable to post-Wertham audiences. For a few years Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, the only heroes to survive Wertham’s comic inquisition, merely relived and repeated the same old adventures. But the dawn of the next Age was right over the horizon.

[1] Greg McCue, Dark Knights: The New Comics in Context (Boulder: Pluto Press, 1993) p.9. The panel was addressed to the issue of Great Britain’s militaristic motives in the global arena.

[2] Ibid. Outcault’s character was so popular he changed employers three times.

[3] McCue, p.10. An exception to this can be found in the more avant garde, underground and experimental comics. These books do not always contain their dialogue in balloons. Some of this is also crossing over to mainstream comics but not in great quantity.

[4] Ibid. Jeff, the second half of this now famous duo, would not be added till some time later.

[5] Ibid., p. 12.

[6] McCue, p. 13.

[7] Ibid.

[8] McCue, p. 14.

[9] Ibid., p. 15.

[10] National Comics did not become known as D.C. until the late-fifties.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ron Goulart, ed. The Encyclopedia of American Comics (New York: Promise Land Productions, 1990) p. 157.

[13] McCue, p. 22.

[14] Robert Jewett and John Lawrence, The American Monomyth, in Jeffrey Lang and Patrick Trimble, “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” Journal of Popular Culture 22, (1988) p. 159.

[15] Jewett and Lawrence, in Lang and Trimble p. 160.

[16] Ron Goulart, Ron Goulart’s Great History of Comic Books in McCue, p.19.

[17] McCue, p. 20.

[18] McCue, p. 21.

[19] Bob Kane, “The Legend of Batman”, in McCue, p. 24.

[20] Goulart, Encyclopedia, p. 24.

[21] McCue, p. 23.

[22] McCue, p. 24.

[23] Ibid., p. 25.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Goulart, Encyclopedia, p. 36

[26] Ibid., p. 391.

[27] McCue, p. 27.

[28] Ibid., p. 26.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Goulart, Encyclopedia, p. 330.

[31] McCue, p. 27.

[32] William Savage, Comic Books and America: 1945- 1954. (Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1990) p. 8. The bombing of Pearl Harbor was prophesied on the cover of National Comics#18 (Nov. ‘41), home of Uncle Sam.

[33] Ibid., p. 11.

[34] McCue, p. 27.

[35] Savage, p. 12.

[36] McCue, p. 28.

[37] Ibid.

[38] McCue.

[39] Dr. Frederic Wertham, M.D., Seduction of the Innocent, in McCue, p. 30.

[40] Wertham, p. 15, from McCue, p. 31.

[41] Savage, p. 100.

[42] Savage.

No comments: