American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1950s by Bill Schelly (book review).

August 30, 2013 | By | Reply More

There is something always important to remember about TwoMorrows publications: they are quality products about the history of comics with loads of illustrations and information. Now, with these ‘American Comic Book Chronicles’ book series which ‘The 1950s’ by Bill Schelly, the comicbook publishers from each decade is put into context with each other and you have an in-depth history. If you only thought there were only a couple main players then this book will point you at the rest. At the time, super-heroes weren’t selling so well, giving an opportunity for other genres to crop up in quantity as each followed the bandwagon. Did you know that Jack Kirby and Joe Simon did the very first romance comicbook? Romance attracted the girls and the westerns got the boys but the other genres flourished as well as the home television in the USA was still catching on.

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There is so much information here and some very rare material. I’ve never see the first issue cover of ‘Archie’ for instance. Jughead was still shut-eyed but Archie Andrews himself looked more like a freckled chipmunk with his teeth than how he developed later.

National Periodicals aka DC Comics had their mainstay super-heroes around but publisher Martin Goodman at Timely Comics had shelved Captain America, Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch and wasn’t too happy with his nephew Stan Lee for stockpiling other material and had him sack his bullpen in 1950. All three heroes had a resurgence in 1954 as publisher Martin Goodman needed to show them as potential properties for film or TV. Speaking of which there was no Timely Comics in the 50s because they now were under the Atlas imprint. Anyway, that isn’t to say that there isn’t a fair representation of super-hero comics over this decade in this book as that starts to take effect in the middle of the decade but seeing how western, crime, horror and, to a lesser extent, Science Fiction comicbooks developed over this period, not to mention how Fredric Wertham led public demand to curb what they saw as excessive graphical violence influencing the young puts things into context. Mind you, seeing a beautifully drawn picture from Wallace Wood on page 37, one thing you can’t say was it was poor work. I should also point out that there is loads of art, including the occasional original page which always makes me think I’m seeing a piece of history here.

If you thought the Ghost Rider was a Marvel creation then you would also have missed the Magazine Enterprises western hero wearing illuminatous togs. There was also a couple ‘Thing’ titles, including one from Atlas, long before Ben Grimm in the 60s.

Interestingly, Dell Comics was actually outselling DC by quite a large margin in 1950 because they printed the Disney range and did their own printing and distribution. Dell were also the first to do giant or rather 100 page comics and, compared to the other publishers, not to include adverts in the page count. The growth of TV in the home had only just started so it’s hardly surprising that comicbooks maintained their popularity. I should point out for the young people reading here that although there were a large number of comics around, few were actually on a monthly schedule, most on a 6 or 8 issues a year.

Something else that comes over quite strongly is the brief pocket histories of the various creators which again provides useful fleshing out the decade context. In previous reviews I pointed out that the most active women involved with comicbooks was Marie Severin and Ramona Fradon and this book points out nine others in various capacities. The same is also applied to show the number of black creators at that time as well. Outside of Matt Baker and A.C. Hollingsworth, there were only four others. It’ll be interesting to see the progress of this feature in the books to come.

Seeing the origins of ‘Mad’ magazine prior to Wertham and driven largely because Harvey Kurtzman was a faster comedy writer than genre, where he would spend considerable time researching. ‘Mad’ was also not a runaway success and it wasn’t until # 4 with a certain parody called ‘Superduperman’ that word of mouth upped the sales massively. Every new trend had all the other publishers jumping on the same bandwagon and I think the biggest surprise was Atlas having a magazine called ‘Crazy’ long before it tried again with the title in the 70s under the Marvel imprint.

One could hardly have a book of this nature and not explore Wertham’s effect on the comicbook industry which ultimately resulted in the self-governed Comics Code Authority, the rules of which are also displayed here, although only Dell didn’t sign up, setting up its own rules. Reading all the information here, the biggest effect was by toning down so much that they lost their adult audience. From my perspective, in the UK, comics were always seen as kids fodder and the limited availability of American comicbooks over here didn’t really change that opinion, although it was a puzzle why they were on the same racks with American soft porn mags. However when you look at the likes of Europe and Japan which never suffered such restriction, they never lost their adult audience. Although I can appreciate the, shall we say, more paranoid setting of 1950s America where everything from the communist menace to the dangers of comicbooks, with the latter, I’m amazed no one raised the American Constitution’s First Amendment of freedom of speech also applied to printed material. In retrospect, it would have been simpler to have segregated comics into adult and children’s and put the former on the top shelf, assuming they had them over there. From what is shown here, the 1950s Americans had a herd reaction to burning comicbooks simply because it was something they could publicly react together to and be in agreement about. More puzzling is that these same adults twenty years previously must have also read comics and yet still reacted this way. No wonder there was an adolescent uprising building up for the 1960s.

It’s when I got to 1956 that it dawned on me why TwoMorrows started with this volume because it is the start of the Silver Age of comics with the first appearance of the Barry Allen Flash as well as a certain Martian Manhunter at DC. Interestingly, both Krypto and Bathound were introduced around the same time.

The lack of sales because of Wertham and the CCA code had an enormous effect on the comicbook industry with several comicbook companies giving up but also laid the foundations for the comics to come. It meant Jack Kirby going to Atlas looking for work and Steve Ditko to work for them as well as they paid just a little better than Charlton. You should be able to work out that link for yourself. Mind you, considering Martin Goodman’s mistake of going to the American News Corporation for distribution and it folded, Atlas got relegated even further when it had to depend on National/DC Comics for distribution and limited how many titles they would carry and curtailed their growth for a time.

It goes without saying that the last couple years of the 1950s would focus on the rise of the Earth-2 super-heroes at DC and the re-interpretation of both their origins and look for a new generation. It was also pointed out the influence of adult readers that convinced the editors that it wasn’t just kids buying the comics which had a long-lasting influence ever since.

Something I found fascinating was the comparison between the colouring ink processes on the covers that was shown in one of the features. I have a vague memory of a couple Marvel Comics’ titles, ‘Thor’ or ‘Fantastic Four’ in the 1960s that appeared to have two versions for a similar reason. I just didn’t realise this was far more prevalent even earlier. Then again, considering the printing presses hadn’t been upgraded, maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised.

One of the neatest things I liked about this book was whenever there was a reference to a particular comicbook practically everyone of them had a picture shown so you were really getting your history and seeing it. As such, this will make a valuable history of American comicbook history and reference book

I should point out that after a word with TwoMorrows, for those wondering, there will be a further volumes leading up to the end of the 1990s and ones back to the 1930s & 1940s added to the mix over the next two years.

I think you can see from my reaction to this book that I had an enjoyable time reading it. This is the perfect reference book that you will have to chain to your bookshelf to stop your ‘friends’ borrowing it for a read. Tell them to get their own. Utterly brilliant.

GF Willmetts

August 2013

(pub: TwoMorrows Publishing. 240 page colour illustrated indexed hardback. Price: $40.95 (US), £30.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-60549-054-0. Ebook: $12.95 (US))

check out website: www.TwoMorrows.com

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Category: Books, Comics

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About the Author ()

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 15 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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