The Stone Age Of Comics
 A Look At Early Comic Book History, Part 2

In the previous installment of this feature, I covered the development of the comic book up through the birth and development of the first monthly comic book, The Comic Monthly. By 1933, that title would by challenged by new competition in different formats The first of these rivals were the highly collectable Big Little Books, published by Dutton. Big Little Books, however, were not sold on the newsstands. A more directly competing title was Funnies On Parade, produced by Max Gaines, father of E.C.'s Bill Gaines, that same year. Unlike the Cupples and Leon publication, Funnies On Parade was printed in four colors and ran Sunday comics reprints rather than dailies, increasing the panel count on each page.

Another aspect which help to further boost circulation was that Gaines reprinted a wide variety of different strips appealing to individual members of an entire family. Role stereotyping was part of life in the 1930s so that strips could be slanted to both parents and their sons and daughters. The tactic proved so successful that Gaines was able to strike a deal with Proctor & Gamble to give away copies with their products. Funnies On Parade underwent a rapid jump in circulation, from 10,000 to 500,000, a run that any of today's comics publishers can only envy.

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery. It was also resorted to in the 1930s as often as it is in the nineties. Gaines' success had not gone unnoticed. In 1934 the first comic to be sold on the newsstands appeared. This was Eastern's Famous Funnies #1. Although similar to Funnies On Parade, it had the advantage of featuring twice as many pages, 64 in all. Edited by Stephen A Douglas, the new comic closely followed Gaine's lead by limiting reprints to four pages of any given strip.

Douglas' innovation was to go beyond only running humor strips like Mutt and Jeff, adding adventure strips like Tailspin Tommyand Donald Dare, and romance strips like Connie and Dixie Dugan. A second, greater, innovation was to use new original material specifically done for the comic. Two new strips were Dip and Duck by "Meb," and Goofy Gags by "Veps." Editor Douglas continued the practice of using new material with S.M. Iger's Bobby and Pee Wee.

By the 16th issue Famous Funnies was being distributed in South America, China, Cuba, England, Java, The Philippines, and England. Douglas was a creative editor; in addition to being the first to use new material, he was also first to print editorials, and had started a readers' letter page. Perhaps less welcome were the new ads that appeared in the comic; one paid ad, in #7, was for .22 caliber rifles.

Famous Funnies only enjoyed an 18-month run as the sole newsstand comic. By the end of 1935 New Comics #1 appeared, the product of the National Allied Newspaper Syndicate, and the number of newsstand comics printing all new stories doubled.

By today's standards New Comics' art and stories were crudely rendered and written. The writers and artists were often young and inexperienced, and were charting brand new territory. There were no standards to follow, nor were creators hampered by set formulas and "house styles" of story telling. They had only newspaper strips as guides to follow, and newspaper strips utilized an entirely different form of continuity, with six four- panel daily strips and a full color Sunday page. Comic book pioneers had to learn to tell stories in a brand new format.

Like Famous Funnies, New Comics ran humorous material like Tinker Twins At Penn Point by Joe Archibald, and The Strange Adventures Of Mr. Weed, a time travel adventure strip by Sheldon Mayer. (Mayer would enjoy a long career at DC Comics, and was the creator of Sugar & Spike, rated one of the top 100 comics of all time by TheComics Journal.)

Also like Famous Funnies, creators branched out from humor and into other directions, writing adventure strips about travel with Genghis Khan, Viking exploits, and the comics field's first "What If?" series, H.C. Kiefer's Just Suppose, which explored the science fiction theme of alternate history. Two young men, who would soon become the most important creators in comics, made their debut in New Comics #2 with a four-page story, The Federal Men. The two were Jerome Siegel and Joe Shuster, and their creation, Superman, would eventually be born in the pages of Action #1 in 1938.Another future Big Name to appear in New Comics was Walt Kelly, father of a possum named Pogo.

New Comics continued to forge ahead on the trail Stephen Douglas had blazed with other new directions. Sandra Of The Secret Service, by "Brigham," was unusual in that it featured a woman as its hero. There were seafaring stories, westerns, jungle tales, and a science fiction strip, Don Drake On The Planet Saro. Perhaps the most daring of all, for those times, was the interracial strip Spike Spaulding, the adventures of two boys, one white and one black

More Fun Comics, National's second title, hit the newsstands in March, 1936. It was in More Fun #9 that Siegel and Shuster created comics' first super hero under the pseudonyms of Leger and Reuths. Initially there was nothing too out of the ordinary about Dr. Occult, other than the fact that he was the world's first ghost detective. At first the deceased mystic investigator's only power rested in the bullets of his revolver. As the strip developed, Dr. Occult acquired a magic amulet, which resisted the powers of evil energy, an all-blue costume with cape, and powers of hypnosis, teleportation, telekinesis, and invisibility. The Doctor's "lifespan" ran for 27 issues of More Fun.

Roy Thomas would be resurrect him 49 years later in DC Comics' All-Star Squadron #49.

--Steve Stiles