The Surprising History of the Comic Book

The Surprising History of the Comic Book

The Comics Cavalcade

The rise of a medium.


Blame the comic book. Cheap and transportable, a trove of infantile fantasy and psychosexual Pop Art, often spiced with egregious stereotypes and nativist aggression, this humble medium was for a time the United States’ most ubiquitous cultural ambassador. Such is the thesis of Paul S. Hirsch’s Pulp Empire: The Secret History of Comic Book Imperialism, an engaging account of the ways in which comics variously served or confounded official interests.

Vividly illustrated and enjoyably hyperbolic, Pulp Empire tells its tale as a kind of horror comic. Recounting the emergence of comic books during the Depression, Hirsch details how the medium was drafted during World War II to play its own modest part in defeating the Axis, then cues the scary music: Having discharged their patriotic chore and more popular than ever, comic books “showed the world that American society was racist, gruesomely violent, and soaked in sex,” creating what, in 1952, the Daily Worker excoriated as a “Billion Dollar Industry Glorifying Brutality.” That industry would go through many iterations but only truly recovered from the ensuing moral panic and backlash in the 1960s, when Marvel Comics reshaped its product into a more sophisticated form, with a relatively mature readership that was solidified by the dark superhero “graphic novels” of the 1980s to provide the template for the movie blockbusters of the 21st century.

Hirsch ends his history with the rise of Marvel. The saga has continued into the present day, however, with the superheroes invented by Marvel and its rival, DC Comics, dominating Hollywood, once again offering the world a questionable image of the United States and perhaps the way our culture views itself. Pulp Empire does not elaborate on this latest chapter. Rather, its alternately admiring and adversarial—not to mention obsessive—comic book history documents, with passion and disappointment, one fan’s discovery that his idol has two faces and feet of clay.

Magazine-like compilations of newspaper comic strips first appeared in the early 1930s, around the time that newspaper strips increasingly became vehicles for action and adventure tales. The mid-’30s saw the emergence of original comic books with titles like Thrilling Wonder Stories. These began to flourish, and the year 1938 brought their apotheosis with the creation of Superman. Soon, each monthly installment of his adventures, published in National Periodical’s Action Comics, was selling nearly 1 million copies.

Located in New York City, the comic book industry was a sort of sweatshop Hollywood. Overhead was low, piecework was the norm, and business was good, albeit exploitative. If some of the bosses had crossed over from the garment industry, so too had many of their employees. A significant number of comic book artists and writers were the children of Jewish and Italian cutters and pressers, excluded from the tonier precincts of Madison Avenue.

Early comic books resembled B movies focused on the adventures of cowboys and detectives. Those featuring superheroes sought the bigger picture. Even before the United States entered World War II, Superman and Captain America, both invented by young Jewish artists, as well as Daredevil, created by the communist and entrepreneur Lev Gleason, beat up on Hitler. A comic prepared for Look magazine had Superman apprehending both Hitler and Stalin. The cover of the March 1941 issue of Captain America showed the eponymous superhero punching out der Führer; the July 1941 premiere issue of Gleason’s Daredevil featured the story “Daredevil Battles Hitler.”

The prewar audience for comic books was mainly teenage boys. After Pearl Harbor, the comics’ use value—like that of the movies—was officially recognized, and the industry, like Hollywood, reported for duty. The Writers War Board, a volunteer entity established by the mystery novelist Rex Stout at the behest of the Treasury Department, saw comic books as a way to reach and teach GIs, not only honing their technical skills but inculcating democratic attitudes that included a hatred of fascism, an understanding of the need for international cooperation, and progressive perceptions of race. Thus the WWB began to commission comics. The first were instructional manuals like Army Motors explaining preventive maintenance; others promoted the purchase of war bonds. Army hospitals requested additional copies of Picture Stories From the Bible, prompting the publisher to seek an exemption from paper rationing.

Still, propaganda has its own logic, as does the comic book, and inevitably the WWB came to appreciate the degree to which the medium lent itself to explosive violence and gross caricatures—which is to say, it saw comic books as way to fuel the racial and ethnic hatred of America’s enemies. Initially a distinction was made between Germans and Nazis, but as US casualties mounted, all Germans were identified as irredeemably cruel. The Japanese, who had no analogue to the Good German, were already portrayed as evil subhumans. Indeed, as Hirsch points out, Daredevil’s usual nemesis, the Claw, was a grotesque Asian stereotype well before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Even when depicted as helpful, America’s Chinese and Filipino allies were visually indistinguishable from the Japanese enemy. As the US Army was still segregated, African American soldiers were subject to the same demeaning representations as had existed before the war or simply whitewashed out of the picture.

Hirsch argues that, given the progressive politics of their creators, comic books could have gone in a different direction. But the industry acquiesced to the wishes of the WWB, which specifically warned publishers against using members of “minority groups” as protagonists. Hirsch describes a 1944 story in Captain Marvel Jr. that concerns the attempted lynching of an innocent white man (and apparently not in the South). The pilot protagonist of a 1945 Comic Cavalcade story about an all-Black regiment, the 99th Army Air Corps, was also white.

Throughout the war, comics could be seen as good—if excessively zealous—soldiers against the threat posed by the Axis. It was only afterward that, even as a small group of comics developed the medium further, the plague, in Hirsch’s view, took hold.

Post-V-J Day, the government withdrew from the comic book business; the industry, however, did not contract. On the contrary: Thanks to the war, the audience for comic books was no longer confined to or even primarily composed of children. Moreover, the world that comic books addressed was less innocent. Superheroes were now passé: “After Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” Hirsch notes, “it was no longer so simple to pull readers into a system populated by kind heroes, accommodating police officers, and right-thinking governments.” New sorts of comic books—romance, crime, and horror—began to appear, written for adults. These were grim and “real,’” not to mention cynical, sadistic, and, at times, borderline pornographic.

Comic book violence had nothing to do with battlefield glory but, reduced to an intimate scale, was shown as part of everyday American life. Created in 1942, Lev Gleason’s Crime Does Not Pay used the careers of actual convicted criminals to implicitly, if intermittently, critique oppressive social conditions and unbridled capitalism. Crime Does Not Pay wasn’t originally a top seller; it found an audience and inspired imitators in the war’s disillusioned aftermath. By 1947, the comic was selling over 2 million copies a month, more than those featuring Superman or Captain Marvel.

There is a sense in which this development paralleled the postwar proliferation of the relatively naturalistic, strikingly pessimistic Hollywood movies that French critics dubbed film noir. Hollywood, however, was strictly self-regulated; by comparison, comics books were the Wild West in their depiction of quotidian brutality and disdain for authority.

This contempt for the forces of law and order attracted the attention of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. In 1947, the year the House Committee on Un-American Activities investigated the movie industry, the first horror comic, Eerie, and the first issue of Young Romance appeared. The latter carried a cautionary notice that it was specifically intended for adult readers. However, writing an article about responsible parenting for the Los Angeles Times, Hoover linked comic books to juvenile delinquency. His admonitions were followed by those of the socially minded child psychologist Fredric Wertham and the bohemian sexologist Gershon Legman (writing, respectively, in the middlebrow Saturday Review of Literature and the proto-Beat little magazine Neurotica) on the baleful effect of comic books on children. Soon, high school students in some American cities were collecting comics and consigning them to public bonfires.

For the FBI, Gleason presented a dual threat as a purveyor of sensational comic books who was also or had been a Red and who produced comic books that were often anti-capitalist in nature and theme. He was a problem for the State Department as well. “Thanks to the movement of Cold War plague carriers—soldiers, tourists, diplomats, and American corporations—Gleason’s crime comic books and their offspring mingled with cultures around the world,” Hirsch writes.

Not that comic books weren’t also useful for those in power. Lt. Gen. Leslie Groves, erstwhile director of the Manhattan Project, recruited the comic strip characters Blondie and Dagwood, along with Mandrake the Magician, Popeye, and the warring couple Maggie and Jiggs, to explain the mysteries of atomic fission in a King Features comic, Splitting the Atom—Starring Dagwood and Blondie. Millions of copies were distributed. Some even made light of the situation: Donald Duck’s Atom Bomb, created by the Disney studio as a promotional item for a Cheerios breakfast cereal, has Donald unleash a home-made bomb (whose recipe includes “mashed meteors,” “the juice of one lightning bolt,” and “ten cat hairs”) on Duckburg, then recoup the disaster by selling the irradiated citizens his “Atomic Hair Grower.”

With regard to nuclear weapons, comics expressed the full range of popular ambivalence. Ironically, thanks to the relative lack of censorship, horror comics were particularly well-suited to the job of contemplating the fearsome nature of the bomb. Depictions of the Atomic Age ran the gamut from witless japery and cheery denial to fantasies of radioactive superheroes and dreams of one-world government to apocalyptic visions of Earth laid waste. Weirdly triumphal, the cover of the 1953 Ace comic Atomic War! depicted an American jet bomber flying low over a burning Moscow, a speech balloon exulting, “We’ll plant this H-bomb right in the Kremlin and avenge what the Reds did to New York, Chicago and Detroit…. Bombs away!”

As Hirsch notes, EC Comics titles like Weird Science and Weird Fantasy referred to the bomb in just about every issue, characteristically portraying it “as something too huge and too powerful for humans to manage.” Indeed, EC—which, with Bernard Kriegstein’s 1955 “Master Race,” published at least one story explicitly dealing with the Holocaust—included aspects of radical politics and dissident culture. Appearing at the height of the Korean War, EC’s Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat, both edited by future Mad creator Harvey Kurtzman, acknowledged the futility of war and, more radically, the humanity of the enemy. These comics were not only unpatriotic but, as they might well have turned up in military barracks, even subversive.

The comic book’s disruptive potential ran parallel to its popularity. Comic book circulation had been 17 million in 1940; by 1953, there were 650 titles with a combined circulation of 70 million. Before television saturated American society in the mid-1950s, comic books were the key cultural form consumed by kids and, despite their numerous adult readers, were still considered a form of juvenile entertainment. Hence the moral panic precipitated by the crime and horror comics.

Progressives, too, had reason to question some comic book content. Blatantly racist “jungle” comics like Fiction House’s Sheena, Queen of the Jungle and ME’s Thun’da, King of the Congo were mostly ignored at home. But abroad, these exotic adventure stories became the face of the Ugly American. To protest comics was also to protest the arrogance of US military might and economic power. Both the Soviets and the Chinese singled out comics as proof of American depravity. So did the French left. Jean-Paul Sartre’s Les Temps Modernes published Legman’s “The Psychopathology of the Comics” and excerpts from Wertham’s exposé, Seduction of the Innocent. The British Parliament passed a law restricting comic books that had the backing of both the Communist Party and the Church of England.

In the United States, comic books were still viewed more as objects of a subversive culture. Under government pressure, comic book publishers created a self-censorship organization in late 1954. Bland superheroes made a comeback, and the most successful publisher was Dell, which specialized in Disney and Warner Bros. cartoon characters. However, comic books were still considered to have a propaganda use value. Using Freedom of Information Act requests as well as the Library of Congress, Hirsch uncovered a 19-page document prepared by the CIA for use in the 1954 overthrow of Guatemalan reformer Jacobo Árbenz, complete with storyboards illustrating a mode of political assassination—“in essence, a crime comic book.” There were also official titles like If an A-Bomb Falls and The H-Bomb and You, made for government civil defense agencies by Commercial Comics, a firm founded by Malcolm Ater in 1946.

Originally, Commercial made political comic books. The first, prepared for the 1948 election, was The Story of Harry S. Truman. This was followed by a number of pro-segregation comic books made for Southern governors seeking reelection. At the same time, Ater produced comics for the State Department denouncing international communism. While the government discouraged foreign distribution of commercial comic books, some did occasionally serve official purposes. An issue of T-Man: World Wide Crime Buster anticipates the 1953 CIA-sponsored coup that deposed Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh.

Then, in the early 1960s, after a half-dozen years of G-rated dullness, comic books had a resurgence. Developments at Marvel (formerly Timely Comics) created a new dialectic. The Fantastic Four and the characters that followed, like Spider-Man and the Hulk, revived the 1940s superhero, but with a difference: Marvel’s superheroes lived in an approximation of the real world and exhibited quasi-naturalistic psychologies. Among their issues, many of them even resented the fact that they had been transformed into superheroes (typically by atomic radiation).

For comics fans and historians of the medium, the first Fantastic Four comic books, drawn with remarkable panache by the veteran artist Jack Kirby, were nothing short of epochal. Hirsch, however, is less interested in Marvel’s innovations than in the ways in which its comics followed a Cold War playbook: “The story of the Fantastic Four is drenched in patriotism, paranoia, and the faith in military technology.” And he is not entirely wrong: The multimillionaire cyborg Iron Man (a veritable personification of the military-industrial complex) deployed himself to Vietnam. So did the Norse god Thor, who had also intervened in the Chinese-Indian war of 1966. Perhaps because so many of its superheroes were radiation mutants, Marvel also had a casual attitude toward nuclear weapons. Writing of one early Fantastic Four conflagration, Hirsch notes that “using a nuclear weapon to destroy a sea monster in the middle of Manhattan is not terribly different than Donald Duck detonating an atomic bomb in Duckburg.”

Having convincingly established Marvel’s anticommunist bona fides, Pulp Empire rests its case. Hirsch notes that gender roles and authority figures reverted to wartime norms. But he misses the cosmic camp quality and general trippiness of Marvel’s comics and how they were adjusting to the prevailing anti-war, pro-civil-rights sentiments of its student fan base, including an African American superhero with the Black Panther. In a sense, Marvel was scrambling to keep up: The counterculture had begun producing its own outrageous and, in the term of the day, “relevant” comic books. But Marvel was keeping up nonetheless.

By the 1970s, comic books had shifted in the pop culture firmament. As their readership declined, old comics became valuable collectibles while new ones (rebranded as graphic novels)—notably Maus and Watchmen—were recognized as a literary form. R. Crumb entered the high-art pantheon; younger artists like Gary Panter and Chris Ware were exhibited in art galleries and museums. Hollywood also began to recognize how comic books might serve its interests, and in the post–Star Wars new order, the movie industry recruited superheroes as blockbuster protagonists. By the late 1990s, in fact, superheroes appeared to be taking over the movies: As in the middle decades of the 20th century, our new superhero spectacles became the mask we wear in front of the mirror, but also in front of the rest of the world.

However monolithic, the Marvel/DC universe has addressed some of the racism and sexism of the past, with Black Panther and Wonder Woman as well as last year’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. There is even room for a smidgen of critical thinking: V for Vendetta was almost immediately adapted as an oppositional film; The Joker is a movie that turned superheroism on its head; and far more than the original comic, the TV version of Watchmen demands a new reading of American history. But how meaningful are these exceptions?

Hirsch correctly acknowledges that comic books are now “secondary to the products they spawn”—movie franchises, video games, TV, and ancillary merchandise, not to mention fan culture. Another way to put it: The humble comic book is our cultural DNA. Thus, Pulp Empire ends more or less in medias res. Like any self-respecting superhero movie, it deserves a sequel.

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