I don't know about you guys but I'm a sucker for books about comic books. I have a large number (probably more than twenty) and most of them are devoted to the golden or silver age. I'm always looking for more to add to the collection, and last week I found (whilst browsing on Amazon) "Superheroes! Capes, Cowls and the creation of comic book culture" by Laurence Maslon and Michael Kantor.  

I bought it from one of the merchants who sell used books on Amazon and got it for the princely sum of 4 pounds (that's about 6 bucks) and it arrived today.

It's a work of genius! Straightforward, jargon-free writing, taking the reader from the 30's, comic-strips and the advent of Superman, right up to the appearance of Obama on a Spider-Man cover in 2012. Superb images throughout including some that this reader had never seen before! Interviews with Steranko, Kubert and Adams help to make this a book among books.

This, together with "Men of Tomorrow" will henceforth be my top two of my book collection.

Anyone else collect books about comics?

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Captain Comics said:

Hey, y'all, check out my new Wiki page!

I look forward to reading that.

Steve W said:

Fraser, I finished "The Ten Cent Plague" last night and enjoyed it very much indeed. It raised a lot of questions with me, so I hope to write further about the book early next week when I have more time.

Captain Comics said:

Hey, y'all, check out my new Wiki page!

Very nice!

I promised @Fraser Sherman that I would review The Ten Cent Plague, and, for what it is worth, here is my review.

The Ten-Cent plague by David Hajdu


I really enjoyed this book. I learned a lot about pre comic code comic-books and a lot about post-war America .  The author covers the topics in an interesting and concise way, not leaving anything out, but not dragging on for too long about the segments of history covered by the subject-matter.  I never realised, for example, that super heroes fell out of fashion quite so quickly following the end of world war 2.  A[part from the DC three, most others had drifted into obscurity within a year or two.  I understand now why publishers would seek to fill this gap by searching and trying new genres, given that sales before and during the war had been so high.  Empires had been built on sales of the humble comic-book and publishers were loath to let go of such an important revenue stream.

However, what I don’t understand is where they chose to go with their search for the next big selling genre. If I compare American comic-book publishing with British, we find a chasm of difference between the subjects covered.  In Britain, following the war, there were half a dozen comics, Beano,  Dandy, Adventure, Rover, Hotspur and Magnet which sold in great numbers. The comics were mostly in black and white and contained mainly text rather than pictures, with covers in colour.  In 1950 Hulton press launched Eagle comics, specifically aimed at pre-teen boys, with, as its hero, Dan Dare “Pilot of the Future”.  Dan’s adventures were very much in the sci-fi area, and followed on things like Astounding Comics which had been published in the USA some 20 years earlier. The comic also contained sectional drawings of rockets and space machinery, showing how they might be constructed and designed.  The comic was in 4 colour, and was constructed of drawn panels, like the American model.  There was little violence and no sex portrayed in the stories, and the comic started selling a million a week, just a few months after it was launched.  It was, therefore, just what the young British schoolboy was looking for.

It seems to me, that the average US comic book in 1945, was selling to G.I’s rather than pre-teens, and therefore was far more adult in its approach to the stories appearing within it.  Therefore, when superhero stories began to sell less, US publishers turned to crime, and its sibling, horror, to continue to achieve high volumes of sales.  After reading about the launch of “Crime Does Not Pay” in the book, I took time out and read a few issues of the comic, which are available on the Comic Book + website. They were shocking! The level of violence within them, including the depiction of shootings, blood and bleeding wounds, was surprising to say the least.  I can certainly understand how G.I’s returning from active service would be drawn to these comics, given the amount of violence they had already witnessed in their lives. However, there was no restraint requiring distributers to sell the comics to whoever wished to purchase them. Given the low 10 cent price, nothing stood in the way of nine and ten year old children buying these comics and others like them.

This, it seems, was where the problem lay. Publishers made no distinction about who bought their books.  It seems obvious to me that a more moral stance would have made publishers realise the potential dangers of selling such comics to pre-teens and limited this by, say, increasing the cover price, and targeting their comics at the 16+ age group.

It’s clearly understood (by me at least) that the pre-teen mind is very malleable and influenced by things seen, witnessed and read about, and for nine year olds to be reading about gang violence, gunfighting and  bloodshed, can only lead them to imagine that such things are normal within the confines of society.  I make no bones about the fact that I stand side by side with Wertham on this subject, and that these comic books were dangerous to the young, pre-adolescent mind.

That’s not to say I stand shoulder to shoulder with Wertham on all his beliefs and hypotheses. The guy was definitely paranoid in some areas, and his fears about the ‘homoerotic fantasies’ given out by Batman and the Boy Wonder are not worth taking seriously.

But the fact (that the book acknowledges) that children in the US did hurt, maim, and occasionally kill each other and adults during this post WW2 society, suggests to me that some form of comic-book story absorption was going on.

Hadju makes a point near the end of the book that ‘over 500 illustrators, letterers, editors and others lost their jobs because of the imposition of the Comics Code’.  I say “So what?”  500 people is nothing compared to the damage being done to children, and many of the artists and letterers were subsequently re-employed when the  superhero genre drove comic sales up two years later.

So – great book – but I have to disagree with the author’s avowed sympathies for the people working in the industry. My sympathies lay with the parents of the children who read these pre-code comics and who had to deal with the fallout.

from "Crime Does Not Pay #22"

The post-WWII period in the U.S. and Britain were different. No one was dropping bombs on Britain anymore but wartime rationing continued until July 1954. This was a factor in my father deciding to leave for the U.S. in 1952. I would argue that the habits of buying comics continued longer because, like the movies, they were an escape from the daily grind. I was trying to find examples of covers, but the newsstands in the U.S. continued to have magazines (not comics) that were in the "detective" and "crime" genre that had very violent and/or erotic covers. These were on display right next to the comic books at newsstands and many news vendors would surely sell them to minors. There was also a lot of upheaval following WWII. Many families had been torn asunder by a father not returning from the war or by an increasing divorce rate. There was an unrecognized large degree of poverty and segregation. There were a lot of factors that produced a juvenile delinquent, not just horror and crime books.

I don't think it's right to blame the Code for the contraction of the industry, although it did some damage.(1) I think the major damage was done by the bad publicity in 1954. It probably affected the industry broadly, so creators lost their jobs who hadn't been doing sensational crime or horror comics.

The Code was adopted by the industry in response to the bad publicity and backlash. So I think it wasn't imposed on the industry so much as imposed by part of the industry on the rest of the industry. My guess is DC was one of its chief shapers, as it avoided the kinds of material the Code banned already.

Dell didn't join. It could get its output distributed anyway so it didn't have to.

Many of the publishers, including EC and Archie, didn't have a large output. The largest publishers in terms of output were Dell, DC and Marvel. Harvey, Charlton and Quality were the next tier. All except Dell published horror titles, but DC's House of Mystery was tame,(2) none of their lines were dominated by them, and the most ghoulish stuff was from smaller publishers.

The industry contraction forced Jerry Iger and Simon and Kirby to close their studios. Iger had done a lot of horror for different companies. Simon and Kirby had been doing horror and crime for Prize. A story from Prize's Black Magic, which S&K produced, was used as an example at the Senate hearings.

(1) Reportedly Magazine Enterprises had to stop publishing stories about the Ghost Rider because the Code Authority wouldn't let it use the Ghost Rider name.

(2) DC had also published The Phantom Stranger, and turned Sensation Comics into a horror title, and renamed it Sensation Mystery. But they were both cancelled in 1953.

I don't think the Code damaged the industry as much as it provided cover for the industry and kept it alive. Since readership had gone down dramatically there were few people outside the industry willing to defend it.

I read that comics company management were invited to testify, but not required to do so, and that Bill Gaines chose to testify, thinking he could easily deal with the interrogation. Presented with the cover of his own Crime SuspenStories #22 (MAY54) showing man holding a woman's severed head and an ax over the partially revealed body on the floor, Gaines proceeded to testify that the picture could be worse, and what would make it worse. Fidgeting and sweating, he probably fit their stereotype of a purveyor of pornography. He only made things worse.

EC was far from the worst in horror and crime comics. The really bad ones were held up as typical comic books. All comics were tarred with the same brush and the Code was the only way to prevent draconian government action. They could have tried to fight against government regulation on the grounds of free speech but the industry would have gone belly-up before they got a ruling.

I'm not sure how much product the Archie company was turning out, but it seemed that they became prime movers in the Code, then or later. Dell/Western comics said "Dell Comics are good comics" and few could fault them. Apparently they already had a code of their own in place and were mostly associated with beloved cartoon characters.

I started reading DC comics after Dell in 1958, well into the Code era. I still loved them. I wasn't around for the pre-code comics and only saw them years later, except for a single coverless EC comic a friend owned when I was young. I don’t remember my mother ever having a problem with comics. She was concerned when I started looking at and buying paperback books. Paperbacks had been associated with raunchy stories at first. I was glad when the Code was liberalized and later went away. I think the current trend of the companies putting suggested ages on the covers is a good way of avoiding most problems.

The site I linked to also has Gaines's testimony, and Walt Kelly's and Milton Caniff's. The page with the list of transcripts is here. Gaines talked about the hearings in his The Comics Journal interview part two pp.4-5 (internet version). Part two p.6 has an image of Gaines's "Are You a Red Dupe?" editorial, and part three p.1 has his explanation of it.

The biggest year in sales history for comics was 1953. 1954 was second or third. After that it drops off a cliff. I don't think bad publicity was hurting the industry as much as has been assumed here.

And, yes, the Code knee-capped the industry. It outlawed what was bread-and-butter for not just EC but a lot of the smaller publishers. They had to cancel their best-selling books because they wouldn't pass the Code, and without a Code stamp you didn't get distribution. (Dell, as noted, was an exception.)

EC couldn't get distributed even when it produced Code-approved books. Without distribution, it was doomed. 

The distributors gained even more power as they shrank the industry, because the Code drove so many books out of the market that a great many publishers went out of business, which had a domino effect on distribution, which also lost some players. The remaining distributors were able to determine what got distributed and what didn't -- and what did get distributed wan't much.

You'll recall that it was 1953 when Fawcett threw in the towel on Captain Marvel -- because it saw the handwriting on the wall and was getting out of the comics biz. Other publishers that went out of business or dropped their comics arm from 1953 to around 1958 are Ace, Ajax/Farrell, Comics Magazine, Comics Media, Eastern Color, EC, Farrell, Fiction House, Hillman, Lev Gleason, Magazine Enterprises,  Mainline,  Orbit, Standard, Quality, St. John, Star, Superior, Toby Press and Youthful.

The Code was responsible for most of this. What it didn't kill directly it killed by distribution or by reducing the remaining field to banal crap that even kids didn't want to read. 

Captain Comics - accepting that all your comments are true - it still begs the question - Was it right what these small publishers were publishing? They were publishing violent, misogynistic, uncensored, bloodthirsty material just purely to achieve sales. They seemed to show little or no moral standards, and cared not what their material was doing to young, easily malleable minds.

The Code (inadvertently) brought about the revival of the superhero and directly led to the publication of Showcase #4, which opened the door to the silver-age. Not a bad thing, though I'm of course biased.

Had my two daughters been aged 8 to 10 in 1948 - 53, I would never have allowed them to read such violent, horrific stories as were on sale and available on all newsstands at the time.

And you would have been a good parent to take an interest in your children and determine what influences they have. But I don't know that it's even necessary that you do that. A good thing to do, surely, but you began determining your kid's sense of right and wrong literally at birth.

That's one reason I don't accept the "malleable mind" argument quite as readily as you do. Children are formed by the overwhelming impact of parents, family, school and church, not a 10-cent comic book they read on a Saturday afternoon when they are long past the age when their morals are formed. By age 10 or so, you've either created a future good citizen, a monster, or something in between. It's not going to change because of a comic book, an exceptionally tiny influence in the Build-A-Kid sweepstakes.

Because it's a parent who raises a child, not the market.

Secondly, I had to read a lot of studies as part of my master's degree that examined the measurable effect of pop culture, and without exception, the studies show that there is none. Pop culture follows society, it doesn't lead it. It gives the audience what it wants -- it doesn't create the audience. If anything, there's an opposite effect, in that people don't like to be told what to think or believe, and resent media if they perceive that's what it's trying to do. (See: Conservatives and Hollywood, Conservatives and mainstream journalism)

So I reject the argument pretty much out of hand that children were going to be damaged by reading Tales from the Crypt in 1953. 

And history has more or less borne this out. Virtually every child in America was reading comics in the early 1950s. And yes, there were "juvenile delinquents" then (as there are now). But Wertham's book was fallacious precisely because he claimed cause and effect (without doing any of that pesky science to prove it). The joke is he proved precisely the opposite -- if every American child was reading horror comics, why did only a comparative few become J.D.s? If his theory was true, wouldn't they all become monsters?

Further, all of his delinquents had lots of other factors in common, such as peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. They had all eaten them -- should we outlaw peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches? No, because the cause-and-effect is preposterous.

As it is with comics, which were the scapegoat of the 1950s every time a child misbehaved. Later it would be TV, then video games. Alarmed parents, preachers and opportunistic politicians are always ready to whip out the torches and pitchforks, and they always look for an easy solution, or a weak target -- a scapegoat. Their hearts are in the right place, but they're picking a fight with the wrong enemy.

Were some 1950s comics over the top? Yes, but so what? That's what the market wanted, many of whom were returning servicemen, for whom the gore was, if anything, tame. As to children, did our parents and grandparents become monsters because of comics? Because if they were kids in the early '50s, they all surely read them. Are kids today all turning into juvenile delinquents because our fiction is now at The Walking Dead level? Again, there's no evidence of that. My nephew and his friends absolutely loved Grand Theft Auto, playing it over and over again, looking for new ways to kill the hooker or shoot the cop to gain more points. I was, honestly, appalled. But he's 30 now, and neither he nor any of his friends have ever killed a hooker. Grand Theft Auto was a pastime, and is now a fading memory.

It's just the path of least resistance to blame media. But there's not a comic book, movie, TV show or video game that outweighs your guidance and examples in the formation of your child's moral paradigm and behavior. Not even close. You don't have to fight comics or other "bad" culture very hard, because you've already won (unless you're a terrible parent).

This is the point where someone brings up the kids who did violent things in emulation of Dungeons & Dragons, or set fire to themselves because they saw the Human Torch on TV. First, it should be noted that the Human Torch story is an urban myth. (See how easy it is to rile people up if your "example" sounds plausible?) Secondly, in every generation you're going to have a percentage of bad apples, sociopaths who do bad things. That percentage almost never changes. And if one of them chooses a D&D game as his mode of misbehavior, well, nothing changes if you outlaw D&D games. This little sociopath will simply copy something else -- a TV show, a video game, an ISIS terrorist, Charles Manson. He can get all the inspiration he needs from the daily newspaper/website. The problem isn't the D&D game; the problem is the kid.

But I'll gladly accept the argument that what comics needed was a ratings system -- a way for parents to parent, guided by product labeling. That's responsible capitalism, and I'm all for it. 

But eliminating most comics and turning the remainder into pre-school pap was not the answer. Instead, it crippled the industry just as it was beginning to mature. EC Comics was aiming for an older audience -- what would be called T+ today. Some publishers might opt for more salacious material, and get an M. Archie, DC and Dell would remain all ages, and labeled that way. 

IOW, you'd get today's system -- in 1954, not 1994. If ECs continued, and other publishers followed suit (as they will a successful formula), then other publishers would seek to compete. Maybe DC would, by 1956, decide to compete against horror comics by counter-programming with a superhero revival for younger readers. 

Or maybe not. We'll never know. But my basic argument remains the same: The Code knee-capped the industry. And I don't think it was a good thing in any way. It put a lot of people out of work, it strangled a unique American industry in its infancy, it allowed a whole lot of people to get comfortable with bad sociology, and it denied all of a lot of cool EC comics that never got made.

Sorry to rag on and on about this. I do feel pretty strongly about it. For me, destroying the source material isn't far from book-burning, and is a bad thing, especially since it doesn't achieve anything except getting people used to the idea of book-burning. Remember when we fought a war against people who burned books? Alas.

But I'll gladly accept the argument that what comics needed was a ratings system -- a way for parents to parent, guided by product labeling. That's responsible capitalism, and I'm all for it. 

The counter argument is that a rating system makes it easy for little kids to figure out which comics they shouldn't be reading, which are the ones they want to be reading. And, as with movies, no teen wants to be seen reading a "G" comic, even if he used to like it.

An article in yesterday's Tribune discussed the trend of giving iPhones to kids when they're eight to 10 because it's important to stay in constant touch and iPhones get "better reception." Oh yeah. The story was about a group that wants parents to pledge to Wait Until 8th (grade) to give them their own hand-held computer-connection to all things Internet. I don't think comic books are a big issue.

I do agree with your premise. You don't want your kids reading comic books? Don't read. If they can't model the behavior, they'll equate reading with homework and dull classics in English. Lots of parents don't read anything for pleasure, and kids never consider that option. Quite often, people who buy books and read a lot do it because their parents read or read to them as kids--before they were buying their own comics.

-- MSA

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