The Stone Age Of Comics

 A Look At Early Comic Book History, Part 3

All right, Mr. Peabody, we're taking another jaunt with the Way-Back Machine again...

While the first issue of 1934's Funnies On Parade had been a Procter and Gamble giveaway, and Maxwell Gaines' second title, A Carnival Of Comics, had been marketed as a department store premium, Gaines hit on the idea of pasting a ten cent price on leftovers of Funnies On Parade, and as an experiment dropped the remaindered copies at several different newsstands. The test case was a greater success than he had expected; within 24 hours they had all sold out. Comic books were on their way as a new way of generating income for publishers. With the success of A Carnival of Comics, Max Gaines followed through with another comic-book title,  a one-hundred page comic book called Century of Comics. Between 100,000 and 250,000 copies of both Century of Comics and Carnival of Comics would be given away that year of comics' infancy.

But soon Gaines had competition. The first was the comic Famous Funnies, an innovative title, edited by Stephen A. Douglas, that used new material in addition to reprinting news strips. (Famous Funnies would endure until the fifties, and its last sixteen issues would feature covers by none other than Frank Frazetta.) Another was New Comics, which lived to its name by printing all new material. Gaines met the challenge by coming out with another comic that would sell on the newsstands, this one published by George Delacourt, founder of Dell Comics, and the third publisher (after Eastern Color and National Periodicals) to take up the new medium of story telling. The title was Popular Comics, which appeared in February 1936.

Initially Delacourt placed his comics in bookstores. At first, newsstand distributors didn't know what to make of the flimsy ten-cent booklets. One of them, American News, had refused to handle Funnies On Parade and other reprint comics. The situation altered when the New York Daily News ran a full-page ad praising the new form of print entertainment. American News suddenly had a change of mind and contracted for 250,000 comics.

As with Funnies On Parade, Gaines ran reprints in Popular Comics. His son Bill would later do a lot to set standards of excellence in comics publishing with E.C., but Max was more of an entrepreneur (selling ties that read "Bring Back Beer" during Prohibition), interested in the bottom line of getting out a "property" which would sell. Sheldon (Scribbly) Mayer worked with Gaines during this period and, as he put it, "We brought the material for next to nothing and slapped the books together." Some of that slapped together material included Milton Caniff's Terry And The Pirates, Sidney Smith's The Gumps, and the delightfully eccentric Smokey Stover.

King Features Syndicate must've taken notice of Gaines' efforts, but didn't imitate his slap-dash methods (Gaines had to be argued into running Terry And The Pirates in sequential order). In 1936 King Features made arrangements with David McKay to publish a title that exclusively ran their syndicated strips. This was King Comics,and the first issue appeared in April 1936. The title was slick and sophisticated in comparison to the other reprint titles. The lead feature in King Comics #1 was Brick Bradford, a s.f. time-travel strip written by William Ritt and drawn by Clarence Gray. Bradford's adventures had first appeared in the funny papers five months before Flash Gordon, another King Comics regular, and would enjoy a sixteen year, 110 issue run in that title (the strip itself lasted 54 years, until 1987).

Tip Top Comics made an almost simultaneous debut with King Comics. Like its rival, Tip Top Comics consisted entirely of strips owned by one syndicate, United Features, which acted as the title's publisher.Their lead was Hal Foster's Tarzan, the strip about Edgar Rice Burroughs' jungle lord. Other reprinted strips were Al Capp's L'il Abner and The Captain And The Kids (formerly The Katzenjammer Kids) by Rudolph Dirks.

To sum things up, Tip Top Comics, Famous Funnies, Popular Comics, and King Comics were reprint titles. National's New Comics and More Fun Comics were the first titles to use new material. Shortly National would suffer a loss which would result in the first comic book to use nothing but new material.

This was The Comics Magazine, and the loss was due to National's former managing editor, William H. Cook, and their business manager, John F. Mahon. Cook and Mahon took away more than National's practice of using new material; they took also some of that new material with them when they left.

Among the New Comics' strips to jump ship for The Comics Magazine were Freddie Bell, He Means Well and Sheldon Mayer's The Strange Adventures Of Mr. Weed. Other defectors appeared in the new title under assumed titles; National's It's A Dern Lie became Cook and Mahon's T'aintSo!, and Slim Pickins became Spunk Hazard.

Evidently signed contracts weren't an established practice in the early days of comics.

As for comics' first super hero, Dr. Occult, by Jerome Siegel and Joe Shuster, the ghost detective underwent a further metamorphosis at The Comics Magazine, becoming Dr. Mystic, forerunner of The Spectre and The Phantom Stranger.  Now their character could walk through walls, expand his size, and travel through space unaided by mechanical devices.

Siegel and Shuster had actually come up with the super hero concept while still in high school, printing the first Superman story in their science fiction fanzine. Incredible as it now seems, the two youngsters had been unable to interest any publishers in Superman. Dr. Occult and Dr. Mystic opened the door for Siegel and Shuster to finally put their new idea, the hero with superhuman powers, in print.

The new form of entertainment would soon discard the traditions and formats of the newspaper comic strips, dropping strip titles at the top of every page and varying the size and number of panels per page. Comics would also turn from the traditional adventure heroes of the Sunday papers and go to another source for inspiration. It was the thirties, the height of the Depression, and an era of spectacular mob violence.

Fictional characters sprang up to satisfy the public's yearning for street justice; men with names like The Spider, Doc Savage, The Shadow, and Captain Satan. Some comics writers, like Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, of New Fun Comics had already been writing such stories. It was the era of the pulps, and when it was over, comic books would remain.

--Steve Stiles