The Golden Age Of DC Comics: 1935-1956 by Paul Levitz (book review).

November 28, 2015 | By | Reply More

The Golden Age Of DC Comics: 1935-1956 by Paul Levitz was originally the first part of ‘75 Years Of DC Comics’ and traces National Periodicals and All-American Comics worked in tandem before merging with M.C. Gaines controlling them at the start of the industry. As the original book is out of print and kind of expensive, being able to buy it in three parts, will bring it into most people’s budget and being a little smaller, easier to manage. Saying that, I still preferred to read at the table than in bed from a weight point of view.

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For openers, it has an interview with artist/writer Joe Kubert, one of the last people alive who had a direct link to that era until 2013 when he died. He started as a teen and all the illustrators he worked for taught him the ropes or rather inks then pencils. When you consider the pay rate was $10 a page and in the middle of the 1930s Depression, it’s also understandable that the artists saw the work as a job first than to give it much merit and hence so little of the original artwork exists, even if it had been returned to them.

Only about 30 pages is devoted to the history of National Periodicals for 1935-1956, with the rest devoted to the art with detailed information. Even so, you will find yourself taking your time letting it all soak in.

If you know your characters, you’ll know Superman wasn’t the first super-human as there were several in the pulp fiction that preceded him, although he was the first to wear the leotards. Something I didn’t know was Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster did have an earlier Superman but who was much more villainous. Oddly, there’s a preliminary sketch of the first Superman cover by Schuster which is of a better quality design than the one used for the first issue.

The success of Superman spawned other super-heroes, amongst them Batman, Green Lantern, the Flash, Starman and Hawkman. Looking at the early Hawkman, like with his modern counter-part, he was invariably drawn in three-quarter profile simply because it was very difficult to draw him face on. Inevitably, he was given a standard mask with a winged motif. Oddly, considering the Golden Age Green Lantern is supposed to be wearing a power ring on his finger, looking at his cover appearances, it’s rarely shown. Oh, if in case you didn’t know, SF author Alfred Bester came up with Green Lantern’s oath. We shouldn’t forget Wonder Woman and there was a 15 year gap before the Martian Manhunter and he only appeared as a back-up story run in ‘Detective Comics’.

Oddly, the reduction of the 64 page comicbook to half its size was more a result of paper shortage in World War Two rather than the company’s intent. After WW2, many of the long-serving editors/creators like Julius Schwartz, Mort Weisinger, Joe Kubert, Gardner Fox and Bob Kanigher were recruited. It was also the time when Jack Kirby and Joe Simon came on-board for a few years and holds a distinction of having their names on the covers of their National Periodical books. When you consider how DC Comics were so reluctant to give credits to their creators, you have to wonder why it didn’t start doing that back then to them as well. Mind you, when you consider how editors also wrote stories to supplement their low income, maybe they thought that it would look odd to the reader and, hence, even the editor name was never given, even in the letters’ pages.

Lest you think the Golden Age at National Periodicals was dominated by super-heroes, even in those, it was less than 15 years, there is an big acknowledgment of the number of comedy comics, following Disney’s success, and which ones survived. Indeed, western comics filled the gap of super-heroes decline and even dog-based ones like ‘Rex The Wonder Dog’. There’s a priceless cover showing Rex wearing an Indian headdress.

Something I knew vaguely but confirmed here was the Golden Age end was determined by the final issue of ‘All-Star Comics’ featuring the Justice Society of America and the end of Sheldon Mayer‘s reign as publisher. Years ago, I was told that it was forbidden to call films ‘flicks’ in comics because ink blur could change it to a certain Anglo-Saxon swear word and interesting to see it confirmed here with the advent of the Comics Code Authority.

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Most of the book is devoted to showing covers, interiors and such, including samples from the films and TV series. If you ever thought there were any samples of Action Comics, Adventure Comics and Detective Comics prior to them becoming home for Superman, Superboy and Batman then you will see them with this book. If you want to confuse comic quizzes, the masked and caped Crimson Detective predates Batman by 6 issues. There’s also a sample of art by Walt Kelly, nearly a decade before he went on to create the newspaper strip ‘Pogo’.

It’s rather interesting looking at the ‘Superman’ covers and trying to figure out when he got the stylised ‘S’ on his chest. The earliest shown was Superman # 41 but I wish it was covered in the text. There are examples of the earliest merchandise, showing the first Superman figure to be made from wood. Just in case you didn’t know, Jimmy Olsen was originally created for the radio show and then transferred into the comics based on his popularity. Lex Luthor only lost his red hair when an artist looking at an early issue for reference mistook a bald henchman to be him. What is most priceless to me is seeing the original script page from the radio showing the biggest misquote since as originally it was, ‘It’s a giant bird’. I also came across one of the first stories I read as a reprint when young which came from Superman # 30 featuring the first appearance of Mr. Mxyztplk.

In case you’re curious, there is a full example of the colour separation of a western comic cover to see if everything was OK and a note that the interiors didn’t get such a scrutinisation. Seeing the comics coming hot off the press here is also something that needs to be experienced.

The examination of Batman and Robin’s early days throws light on their activities together although doesn’t exactly explain how they got that giant coin into the Batcave unnoticed. You also get to see the first appearances of all their enemies and transport.

Something I wasn’t aware of was that Starman was literally created by committee in the hopes of emulating Superman’s success but failing. Something that did strike me was Bill Finger was also writing more than Batman, was also involved in the development of the first Green Lantern. There’s also an interesting puzzle over Doctor Fate who briefly had a half-helmet for a time so it could be seen that he could talk. My biggest wry smile goes to the Spectre who appeared for a run in ‘More Fun Comics’. After all, he was hardly a fun character. When it came to side-kicks, the original Flash had three and yet Paul Levitz doesn’t notice some vague similarities to the Three Stooges, especially as one is a dead ringer for Curly. The Flash, by the way, appeared in some 50 page long stories. Seeing pictures of Hawkman and Hawkwoman/girl, I often wonder why no one thought to ask why their wings looked like they were made out of hair than feathers.

It goes without saying that Wonder Woman gets a section to herself and looking at the early illustrations, her eagle top looks more like a protection shield than a top. Again, it would have been useful had it been shown where she switched from having a skirt to pants to shorts although Levitz does point out that her boots went through several transformations.

(c) DC Comics

(c) DC Comics

Something that struck me about two photographs on different pages. One was a bunch of kids sitting in front of the comics shelves in, I presume, a drugstore, and being reminded that it wasn’t a library and a news-seller who had the comics on pegs behind the counter, which must have been the way to get around that problem.

When it comes to away from the comics, we do see samples of the Fleischer animation material for Superman and the live-action Batman, the latter giving rise to the name of the Batcave. Rather interestingly, there are sections devoted to ‘Captain Marvel’, ‘Plastic Man’ and Will Eisner, none of which were National Periodicals, although the first two would further down the line. Then again, where the war effort is short and Superman encouraging paper to be handed in to be pulped for cardboard, a lot of the comics were lost and probably not available to show here.

Towards the end of the war, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby were working for them and produced a variety of titles and, even back then, you can see a different quality compared to the other titles.

Lest you think this book is all about their material shown is super-hero, we do have an interesting selection of their comedy books, including one by Harvey Kurtzman, and romance material, showing off the early work by Irv Novak. Kurtzman also gets a section to himself and we see several ‘Mad’ parodies as illustrated by Wally Wood.

There’s also an early picture of the Black Canary who although wearing a blonde wig, when a mask was added could have been a ringer for one of Eisner’s characters.

When I saw the third issue cover of ‘Superboy’, I did think they didn’t have its first issue cover but it did feature further in and is of note because the Boy of Steel wasn’t on it but his older self. Of note, also is the first issue of ‘Jimmy Olsen’, eagerly trying on one of his disguises. It was also the start of Curt Swan’s career, although he only did covers for the ‘Superman’ titles at the time. Looking at his early work, it didn’t really change over the years and to my anatomy eye, he never could draw ribcages but there was a certain dimensionality that other artists hadn’t quite reached yet.

In the late 1950s, the future of super-heroes was bleak and National Periodicals turned more to comedy and western titles with the odd bit of medieval with now legendary artist Frank Frazetta making an appearance and a sample two pages included here. I was also surprised to see Virgil Finlay had also contributed to ‘Strange Adventures’ although there is no sample of his art.

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A good idea is never forgotten and we see the original comic covers that were redrawn much later for the super-hero titles as well. Finally, there is also the effects of the Comic Code Authority and a timely reminder that it was thought their war comics were too gory for the American sailor.

As you should be able to tell from the length of this review, I’ve had a great time with this book and seeing a lot of material that I thought I would ever see. It’s a nice reminder that there were many first issues that I’ve never seen before included here and seeing how the comicbook art developed and changed. Fortunately, mostly for the good. Ensure you keep it under lock and key to stop your ‘friends’ wanting to borrow it. Tell them to get their own copy. If you’re into comics and want to see the company that developed into DC Comics, what better way to start?

GF Willmetts

November 2015

(pub: Taschen. 416 page illustrated giant hardback. Price: £34.99 (UK). $59.99 (US). ISBN: 978-3-8365-3573-1)

check out website: www.taschen.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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