Thursday, July 26, 2012

Part 3: ALL Comics Are Junk! The Great Comic Book Heroes

The New Reprints: A Voyage of Discovery to the Golden Age of Comic Books

Part 3: ALL Comics Are Junk!

The Great Comic Book Heroes!

This project will be presented in twelve parts. Unfortunately, I can’t change the order, so later posts will appear first. Please try to check this out in order! And your comments are important. Please post how you became aware of comics and their history!
  1. Introduction/Comics in "real" books.
  2. 1960s: Reprints from the Comic Companies: 80 Page Giants & Marvel Tales!
  3. 1960s: The Great Comic Book Heroes
  4. 1960s: The Paperback Era
  5. 1970s: The Comic Strips AND the Comic Book Strips! 
  6. 1970s: DC from the 1930s and the Origins at Marvel Part I
  7. 1970s: DC from the 1930s and the Origins at Marvel Part II
  8. 1980s until Today: Horror We? How's Bayou! The EC Age of Comics
  9. 1990s until Today: The Archives and Masterworks
  10. How The West Was Lost
  11. When Comics Had Influence: Public Service, Education & Promotion
  12. Journeys End, What We Leave Behind: A Century of Comics
So let us continue our voyage to and from the 1960s and discover the world of comics once almost forgotten. Our expedition is mostly into the world of reprints that were available OUTSIDE the newsstands and comic book stores but we will have a few detours on the way.

“Comic books, first of all, are junk. To accuse them of being what they are is to make no accusation at all: there is no such thing as uncorrupt junk or moral junk or educational junk — though attempts at the latter have, from time to time, been foisted on us. “ Jules Feiffer.

In my comic book life this was the most important book ever. As kids, we are taught that there had to be learning or significance in anything we read or watched. That was baloney. This book implores us to accept Comic Books as junk, as fun and entertainment, with no redeeming social value. We needed then, and need now, the time to relax and just enjoy. Comics were designed for that. 


 "...Fredrick Wertham said that: (Comics)  were, in general, a corrupting influence, glorifying crime and depravity — can only, in all fairness, be answered: 

“But of course. Why else read them?”

"But Batman was not a super-hero in its truest sense (however we may have liked to think of him). If you pricked him, he bled — buckets. Superman’s superiority lay in the offense, Batman’s lay in the rebound. Whatever was done to him, whatever trap laid, wound opened, skull fractured, all he had to show for it was a discreet patch of Band-aid on his right shoulder. With Superman we won; with Batman we held our own. Individual preferences were based on the ambitions and arrogance of one’s fantasies."

So this was the Golden Age of Comics. I discovered it in a giant size, well-printed, color book that cost ten dollars. Minimum wage then was $1.50 an hour, so this was a lot of money! It introduced me to a different style of storytelling and a different attitude, one not obstructed by the Comics Code. Feiffer presented mostly origin stories of great characters, such as Captain America, The Human Torch, the original Flash and Green Lantern. He also included early stories for the Eel (Plastic Man), Wonder Woman and many others. He introduced me to Will Eisner and the great stories of the Spirit. He also wrote an interesting and affectionate introduction. He explained the era and its characters. ("Comic books, World War II, the Depression, and I all got going at roughly the same time.
 I was eight. Detective Comics was on the stands, Hitler was in Spain, and the middle class (by whose employment record we gauge depressions) was, after short gains, again out of work. I mention these items in tandem, not only to give color to the period, but as a sly historic survey to those in our own time who, of the items cited, only know of comic books."

 Gosh, I just loved this book. Feiffer even wrote about how the artists worked, not just about the characters they created and it wasn't pretty. I thought I was being let in on great secrets: "Artists sat lumped in crowded rooms, knocking it out for the page rate. Penciling, inking, lettering in the balloons for $10 a page, sometime less; working from yellow type scripts which on the left described the action, on the right gave the dialogue."

I smile as I write this part. Whenever I try to briefly address an issue, someone will post with all the details as if I don’t know them. Briefly, Fawcett Publications agreed to stop publishing Captain Marvel in 1953 due to the lawsuits by National (now DC) comics.  Reprints were not available until DC licensened  the copyright in 1972. So this is all I could see of the very famous Captain Marvel, whose cry of “Shazam” was used not just by him, but by Gomer Pyle.

The note on the bottom of the page reads:

This excerpt will, hopefully, give the flavor of Captain Marvel. More cannot be printed without unsettling the settlement between Clark Kent and Billy Batson. We thank J. S. Liebowitz, President of National Periodical Publications, Inc., for permission to reprint, for historical purposes, the following matter. Our excerpt, unfortunately, must end where Captain Marvel begins; for those not versed in comic book metaphysics, let it be known that "Shazam," the word that adds two feet, ten years and red leotards to Billy Batson's scant frame, is an anagram. S is for Solo­mon's wisdom, H is for Hercules' strength, A is for Atlas' Stamina, Z is for Zeus' power, A is for Achilles' heel and M is for the million things you've...

  About Captain Marvel and Superman, Feiffier wrote: "Happily, I did not learn of the Superman versus Captain Marvel law suit until years later. It would have done me no good to discover two of my idols, staunch believers in direct action, bent over, hands cupped to lips, whispering in the ears of their lawyers. No one should have to grow up that fast.
    The Superman people said that Captain Marvel was a direct steal. The Captain Marvel people said what do you mean; sheer coincidence; isn’t there room for the small businessman; we don’t know what you’re talking about. It went on that way for years, but the outcome was clear from the start. Captain Marvel fought hard but he was a paper tiger."

"The team of Simon and Kirby brought anatomy back into comic books. Not that other artists didn’t draw well (the level of craftsmanship had risen alarmingly since I’d begun to compete), but no one could put quite as much anatomy in to a hero as Simon and Kirby. Muscles stretched magically, foreshortened shockingly. Legs were never less than four feet apart when a punch was thrown. Every panel was a population explosion — casts of thousands: all fighting, leaping, falling, crawling. Not any of Eisner’s brooding violence for Simon and Kirby: that was too Liston-like. They peopled their panels with Cassius Clays — speed was the thing, rocking, uproarious speed. Blue Bolt, The Sandman, The Newsboy Legion, The Bay Commandoes and best of all: Captain America and Bucky. Like an Errol Flynn war movie. Almost always taken from secret files. Almost always preceded by the legend: “Now it can be told.”

Let’s read what Tony Isabella said about the Great Comic Book Heroes.

  The Golden Age of Comics, for me, at least, will always be one solitary winter's day in 1965. Christmas Day, to be exact.
         I was fourteen years old and super-heroes were my life. I was a card-carrying member of the Merry Marvel Marching Society and the next Stan Lee, the latter by virtue of the homemade comic book that I would send the Man himself every two months. I wrote the stories and my lifelong pals Terry Fairbanks and Mike Hudak drew them. Our comic was called Marvel Madhouse.
         I don't recall how I learned of The Great Comic Book Heroes by Jules Feiffer. I might have seen it reviewed in one of Cleveland's daily newspapers or, physically, on one of my weekly treks downtown in search of old comic mags. I do remember the hardcover book was, at $9.95, priced beyond my means. In 1965, that would've been more than six months worth of Marvel Comics!
         My parents would occasionally roll their eyes at my four-color fixation, but, on some level, they must have known it was much more than a passing fancy with me. That special Christmas, they gave me the gift of history. They gave me Feiffer's book.
         They gave me "the origins and early adventures of the classic super-heroes of the comic books--in glorious color."
         They gave me the Golden Age of Comics.
         Being reasonably well-mannered, I did manage to open my other presents before I started reading Feiffer's book. I couldn't tell you what those presents were if my life depended on it. That book is all I remember.
         On my first reading, I skipped past Feiffer's introduction and went right to the reprinted stories. Superman. The briefest taste of Captain Marvel. Batman and Robin. I was recall being surprised by the Joker's cold-blooded murders. This was the "Clown Prince of Crime?" Gosh.
         The Human Torch--not the Johnny Storm model--and Toro were new to me. I did recognize the original Flash, Green Lantern, Spectre, and Hawkman from a few DC comics of recent years, but I'd never had a chance to watch them in solo action. And why was Wonder Woman so ugly? I never did warm up to H.G. Peter's artwork. Blame it on my brief youthful crush on the Ross Andru/Mike Esposito version before I pledged my heart to, first, Jim Mooney's Supergirl, and, a couple years later, Murphy Anderson's Zatanna the Magician. Teen-age boys are a fickle lot.
         If I had to pick my three favorite stories, they would have to be the ones featuring the Sub-Mariner, Captain America, and Plastic Man. I never knew Namor was so vicious in his early days. I never realized Jack Kirby had always been the very best super-hero artist ever. I never heard of Plastic Man, but immediately thought he was pretty cool.
         And, since I am baring my soul to you here, I must sadly admit I didn't quite get the Spirit story that closed out Feiffer's book. It would still be a few more years before I recognized the absolute genius and mastery of Will Eisner.
         I spent the entire Christmas with The Great Comic Book Heroes. I read most of the stories a second time--and the Sub-Mariner story a third time--before I got around to Feiffer's introduction. Which had an even greater effect on me that the comics had.
         It was my first look at the history of the comic book and what the first comic-book writers and artists did to create the industry of which I would someday be a part. The hardships they had to deal with were there, but what really imprinted on me was the energy and even love they brought to their early efforts. It strengthened the dream that had been growing within me since Stan Lee and Jack Kirby "gave" me the first Fantastic Four Annual.
         Like Feiffer, who told of drawing his own comic books and then selling them to other kids, I wanted to bring my dream to thrilling life. I wanted to make comic books. I wanted to make magic.
         On that Christmas Day in 1965, reading about another youngster who labored on homemade comic books, my dream seemed real enough to touch and strong enough to hold on to forever.
         My parents gave me the whole Golden Age in a day.
         A day, thank God, that's never ended.

Here is a scan of the Green Lantern page from GCBH and the one from the DC Archives that was published 30 years later. They look similar but the GCBH pages were 50% bigger!
       I loved the Spirit.  These were simply incredibly drawn and told stories. I immediately saw how Eisner influenced Kirby and was a great influence on Jim Steranko. I loved the cover shots and how Eisner played with the logo. But, through this book, I also learned that the Spirit was technically not a comic book, but an eight page color insert for newspapers. The Spirit has his complete archives printed by DC Comics, all 26 of them. Well, 27. Dark Horse Comics has published a 27th edition that lines up with DC’s 26.  This contains stories from 1997-1998.  The one on the left is from GCBH.
"His (Eisner's)  high point was The Spirit, a comic book section created as a Sunday supplement for newspapers. It began in 1939 and ran, weekly, until 1942, when Eisner went into the army and had to surrender the strip to (the joke is unavoidable) a ghost.
    Sartorially the Spirit was miles apart from other masked heroes. He didn’t wear tights, just a baggy blue business suit, a wide-brimmed blue hat that didn’t need blocking, and, for a disguise, a matching blue eye mask, drawn as if it were a skin graft. For some reason, he rarely wore socks — or if he did they were flesh-colored. I often wondered about that.
    Just as Milton Caniff’s characters were identifiable by their perennial WASPish, upper middle-class look, so were Eisner’s identifiable by that look of just having got off the boat. The Spirit reeked of lower middle-class: his nose may have turned up, but we all knew he was Jewish.

From 1974-1976, Warren published a series of 16 issues of black and white Spirit reprints in magazines. Here is a copy of one next to a DC archive scan.


Sadly, the large, full color edition of this book is long out of print. However, a smaller version, with Feiffer's great text, but without the  reprints, is still available and I suggest that you check it out. It is invaluable! Also the original is available used on Amazon and Ebay often for less than then dollars. Go for it!

This book left me with a greater emphasis on my mission: Where do I get more Golden Age Comics?


  1. I hope you're going to answer your own question. Where DID you find some more Golden Age comics? Really enjoying this series.

  2. Don't let Kid fool you! He has been a great help in assisting me in putting this together. He has helped me with formatting, proofreading and everything else. We even will have a blog by him at the end! Thanks kid. By the way, I think I found out the problem with not being able to post on the previous chapter. It should work now!

  3. I don't recall exactly when I first read the Great Comic Books Heroes, probably in the early 1970s, but I do know it had a great effect on me. The author, who at that time I didn't know was involved in comics, was intelligent and wrote with passion and authority. He opened up a world of comics that I knew little about, including Eisner's Spirit and Parker and Beck's Captain Marvel. That one page excerpt of Capt Marvel evoked a sense of a distant time and treasures I thought would likely never be seen.

    I still have my beat-up copy of The Great Comic Book Heroes. Like All in Color for a Dime and Steranko's History of Comics, they opened up a world worthy of exploration; one I continue to find fascinating.

  4. Barry, I had a copy of the Golden Age of Comics as a kid. It was my introduction to the Golden Age & I still have it on my bookshelf. It's a great read, particularly since it came out at a time when reprints of older books (and information about their creators) were hard to find.

  5. And I was blown away by Will Eisner's artwork when I first read the Golden Age of Comics. I find a lot of Golden Age artwork to be endearing, but somewhat crude compared to the comics I grew up on in the '70s and '80s. But The Spirit holds up to this very day.

  6. My father and I would periodically visit the bookstore W.K.Stewarts on Saturday mornings. I would often come away with a new Tom Swift Jr adventure or a Holt, Rinehart and Winston Peanuts reprint book.
    But one Saturday I discovered this book on the shelf. Holy Cow! A hardback book in a respectable book selling establishment about and reprinting Comic BOOKS not Comic STRIPS! It was like my passion had moved from trash you hid under the bed to legitimacy. And there in four color glory were the origin stories of Golden Age Heroes that I'd only had hints and whiffs of. I had to have it. But $9.95 was a lot of money in 1965. So I had to save up and work extra chores to get it together.
    When I finally had it and we returned to the store it was gone. I was crushed until the clerk told me they would special order it for me. It was like waiting for took forever to come in.
    But it was worth it.
    And I still have it.

  7. KF: What a great story. So many of us remember when wee got that book. And $10 was a lot then, when minimum wage was $1.25.

  8. "'Shazam,' the word that adds two feet, ten years and red leotards to Billy Batson's scant frame, is an anagram. S is for Solo­mon's wisdom, H is for Hercules' strength, A is for Atlas' Stamina, Z is for Zeus' power, A is for Achilles' heel..."

    I got this book as a Christmas gift in the early 1970s. I immediately caught one mistake in the text: the second A stands for Achilles' courage, not Achilles' heel. But it was over twenty years later that my wife pointed out another error that I'd never noticed before: "Shazam" is an acrostic or an acronym, but not an anagram.