December 1, 1999
by Chuck Miller
Part one of a brief and in no way complete or even exhaustive history of 20th century American comics written entirely from memory by the ever-amazing Chuck Miller.
Well, we haven't had comic books for a whole millennium, of course. In fact, we've had them for less than a century. But what a century it's been!
Comic books got their start in the early part of this century as cheap repackaging of comic strips. They did not evolve into their more familiar form until the mid to late 1930s. Detective Comics #1, which came out in '35, was probably the first comic book to contain all-new material. At any rate, it was the first one that lasted -- in fact, it is still going strong today, 700-plus issues and counting.
That first issue of Detective gave no hint of the revolution that would come along in '38. It featured a collection of fairly pedestrian detective (surprise!) stories. If memory serves, it may have had a Fu Manchu adaptation of some kind. The cover featured a lurid illustration of a leering, satanic Oriental face. (Remember, these were the days before Political Correctness-- embarrassing racial stereotypes were common in comic books, and things would get worse before they got better. Dimwitted, simian Negroes were staples of comic relief. And World War II gave comic book creators plenty of opportunities to work out their anti-German and anti- Japanese prejudices.)
Nineteen-thirty-eight was the big year, of course. That was when the guy in the blue tights and red cape came along and made comic books into a truly lucrative and popular form of entertainment. The Last Son of Krypton was the creation of two young Jewish fanboys (yes, there were fanboys back then-- they drooled over pulp magazines) from Cleveland, Ohio, named Jerome Seigel and Joseph Schuster. The following year, Supes was joined by a rich boy who dressed like a bat, and the race was on.
Superheroes exploded. National (later DC) had Superman, Batman, the Flash, Dr. Fate, the Spectre and the rest of the Justice Society and then some. Timely (later Marvel) had Captain America, the Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch, the Whizzer, the Vision and others far too numerous to mention. In fact, every publisher who could scrape together enough money to hire a writer/artist and get some time at a printing plant had at least one superhero on the stands during the 40s. Most of the artwork was very crude, and the stories just barely had a detectable plot. Remember, this was a brand-new medium, one that took off faster than anyone had foreseen. Demand outstripped supply, and creators had to rush to keep product on the stands. Most people working in comics had little or no formal artistic training, which didn't much matter to the publishers, as their target audience was not what you would call extremely discerning. Untrained artists worked in sweatshop conditions to meet impossible deadlines.
December 7, 1941, was, for most Americans, "a day that will live in infamy." But, for comics book publishers, it was a godsend. The war helped the fledgling medium in a number of ways. For one thing, people on the home front wanted cheap, quick-fix entertainment. Comics were big and loud and colorful and only cost a dime. For another, in times of fear and uncertainty, people want heroes. Flashy comic book superheroes were made to order for the times. And the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis gave them ready-made villains. Hardly a month went by without Hitler's leering face on the cover of Captain America, Superman or one of the many other red-white-and-blue crusaders who popped up.
All booms inevitably lead to a bust, and the ax fell on the cape-and-tights crowd in the late 40s and early 50s. The war was over and so, it seemed, was the need for the kind of super- patriotic escapism provided by the comic book heroes. The more popular characters held on for awhile -- Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman managed to survive the holocaust, but even the World's Mightiest Mortal, Captain Marvel, whose popularity rivaled Superman's during WWII, bit the dust.
The new kids on the block were crime, horror and cowboy comics. Which led to more trouble when psychiatrist Frederic Wertham wrote a little book called Seduction of the Innocent, in which he placed the blame for most of society's ills on comic books. And crime and horror were at the top of the doctor's hit list, particularly the magazines put out by EC Comics, under the leadership of William M. Gaines.
EC Comics were graphic indeed, though it is doubtful they produced any serial killers among their young audience. Gaines was an eccentric man, to say the least, who kept framed photographs of disgraced silent-film star Fatty Arbuckle and Virginia Rappe (the young actress Fatty was accused of raping and murdering) in his office and told people they were his parents. And the comics that came out under his editorship were no less eccentric than he. Dismemberment, decapitation and disembowelment were served up on a monthly basis, with exquisitely gory artwork by the likes of Jack Davis, Johnny Craig and "Ghastly" Graham Ingels.
Gore wasn't the whole story behind EC, of course, but it was undoubtedly the more lurid titles that brought home the bacon. When, in the wake of Wertham's book, comic books became the target of a congressional inquiry (a popular sport in the Red Scare paranoia days of the 50s), the comics industry elected to police itself ("castrate" might be a more appropriate word) by establishing the Comics Code Authority; EC went the way of the superheroes that proceeded them -- into limbo.
So what came along to fill the void left by the passing of crime and horror?
Why, superheroes, of course. What goes around comes around.
(To be continued...)
Please join us next millennium for, as Paul Harvey says, "the REST.... of the story." Happy holidays to all! You can e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.