Sunday, September 9, 2012

Chapter XII, What We Have Left Behind: The Century of Comics


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

What We Have Left Behind: 

  The Century of Comics


We were different then, kids were different. It took us longer to understand the things we felt. Life is made up of small comings and goings. For everything we take with us there is something we leave behind.” 
The Summer of ’42.



This will be my most personal post. I hope you followed and enjoyed this journey of both history and biography. This project was 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!
  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
Let us conclude our voyage to and from the 1960s discovering the world of comics once almost forgotten. Our expedition was mostly into the world of reprints that were available OUTSIDE the newsstands and comic book stores but we had a few detours on the way. I hope you enjoyed them.

The 20th century was The Century of the Comics.

New York Times, March 2011: “The edges of historical eras tend to be fuzzy. It would be nice to think that someone awoke in Florence, Italy, one day in the late 1300s — perhaps as spring started— and said, "Today the Renaissance begins!" We can be sure no one did, if only because historians discern Rich eras only in retrospect.”

The 80 Page Giants, Marvel Tales, and The Great Comic Book Heroes displayed a world of comics that I had not known. The stories, the characters and pacing were so very different. The art and writing were not always very good, but the stories were most often fun and even funny.

The bookstores introduced me to the great comic strips, Flash Gordon, Prince Valiant, Terry and the Pirates. I  learned  that The Golden Age did not start with Superman in 1938, but with the newspaper comic strips starting with the beautifully drawn Yellow Kid in 1895. These tales had terrific art coupled with compelling storytelling.  Those strips took their time in developing characters and plot; they didn’t have to pack it all in in a few pages. The stories were also aimed for adults.  With  reprints we can see the genesis of the comedy, adventure, and dramatic comics. These  strips were the foundation that comic books were built on.

As with many things in our lives, the most famous,  The Yellow Kid was not the first: but he was the most successful, the most marketable and perhaps the most memorable, so people think of him as the first.  

                                            So the Century of Comics begins May 8th, 1895.
 

For the bulk of my life in comics, 1958 to 1978, there were no comic book stores as we know them today. There were a few stores, such as Robert Bell in Woodside Queens, that sold old comics and plastic bags and very little else. They did not sell new comics; those were only available at newsstands and candy stores. There was no internet; there was no Grand Comics Database, blogs, or anywhere nowadays where you can go to get information on old comics. There were very few books published on the subject and many of them were incomplete or inaccurate. There were a few mail order houses that sold old comics and we often relied on their lists for information on what comics had been published.

You could only buy books about comics at large bookstores and they were placed in the unlikely “Humor” section. In N.Y. only Manhattan had large bookstores. The outer boroughs just had small ones  You could order a book, but you’d have to know it existed. That usually meant you had to have read a review or have seen an ad in a magazine or newspaper, which normally ignored comics. 

The world has changed. But what are we leaving behind?

Allen Holtz, is the author of one most comprehensive guide to U.S. newspaper comics ever published, “American Newspaper Comics An Encyclopedic Reference Guide.” He is also the host of the website entitled the Stripper's Guide  which features scans of many old comics and great deal of information about them. I asked him for this blog about the reprinting of old strips,

“Many strips that haven't been reprinted are due to lack of interest (duh!) or unreasonable expectations from licensors. An example of that, I am told, is the Felix strip -- the copyright holders apparently ask too much for anyone to get interested in doing a reprint.

A few are unreprinted because the source material is impossible to find -- but committed people can almost always get through that obstacle. Witness that the first 6 months of Little Orphan Annie was finally found (as originals!!) and some Europeans put together an almost complete book of the obscure Buck O'Rue strip. These are projects I never expected to see come to fruition."




There is no Turner Movie Classics for comics. There is no one publisher who will reach into a vault and say, “This is among the best there was, let’s share it with everyone.” There are companies will reprint comics out of copyright if they feature a famous character or a famous artist that is still marketable. Some genres seem to be lost because we currently have little interest in war comics, romance comics, Hot Stuff and Lil Dot. As for comic strips, we may see glimpses of Mr. Mum, Henry and Smiling Jack.







We may rely on websites, but they do come and go in time, they are not permanent like a book. So in a funny way, we leave behind what we want to leave behind.  


Is modern technology the future of the comic strip? King Features Syndicate, on their site of the DailyInk, has made comic strips, old and new, available to readers, for a $20 fee, on their computers, emails and mobile applications. 




GoComics has a free service on the web, presenting current comic strips and some older ones.

In our lifetime, we may not see certain comics due to licensing issues.

Dark Horse picked up the rights to reprint the Conan stories that originally appeared in the Marvel comics. A few Conan stories appeared in What If? and featured Marvel characters including Thor and The Watcher. (issues #13, 39, #43). These stories may never be reprinted. This may be true of Thongor, Planet of the Apes, Gullivar Jones, and Logan’s Run? 
Machine Man was a character created by Jack Kirby that made his first appearance in 2001: A Space Odyssey. There may be no reprinting of those early stories either. Early Master of Kung Fu stories will not be reprinted because it featured the licensed character of Fu Manchu. When Marvel released their three volume sets of Marvel Firsts: The 1970s, the licensed characters of Conan, Kull, Rom, and Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu, were all conspicuously absent, apart from small cover reproductions.







But Allan Holtz is optimistic and adds “Probably the ultimate in "can't be reprinted due to licensing" was the Star Trek strip. Now that IDW is somehow doing that, wading through an apparent morass of licensing handicaps, I guess anything is possible.”

So what have we left behind?

The comic strip itself.

Dick Ayers was told by his publisher 60 years ago, “They have already bought today’s paper, I want your comic strip to make them want to buy tomorrows.” We leave behind what we want to. And we are leaving newspapers behind.



When comics helped sell newspapers they were given a lot of promotion and lots of space to tell a story.
Now, the space has evaporated, as has newspaper circulation. The first thing to go was the adventure strip. There simply is not enough room to tell a story. Little Orphan Annie, Flash Gordon, and Terry and the Pirates are gone and they are not being replaced. Soon the strips that told personal and quieter stories disappeared including Mary Worth and Mary Perkins. Talented storytellers must look elsewhere. 

Most importantly what is missing is parents sitting down with their kids every night and teaching them how to read by reading comics with them. That’s gone.

Some comics do remain, they are not extinct, but they are on the endangered species list. After all, they may lose their home, the newspaper.

You can see here how Mutt and Jeff had a deliberate pacing to the strip, they had the space for more dialogue and more artwork. In fact, it is the last TWO panels that are funny, not just the final one.

Now, BC has to quickly get in and out quickly with a punch line, without much build up.
  
Today if strips were printed using the same height they seem to only be diminished by about 25%. But they are not printed at the same height they are 40% shorter. This gives them less space for lettering, dialogue, and storytelling.
Here is a Blondie strip from 50 years ago. Note that if I take a current one and printed at the same height it’s about 25% shorter. But that is NOT the proportion it’s printed in today. The bottom one is.

Here is also Dick Tracy, and original strip, a current one, and then a current one in the proportion it’s being printed today.


Comics now have to make room for crossword puzzles and other features instead of filling up the column.


There will not be another Golden Age of Radio...that time has passed.  Radio is still here, but its impact and influence has eroded. Don’t expect another Golden Age for comics. Their technology and economics have radically changed.

Perhaps that is why reprints today are so common: We can’t get these kind of strips anywhere else. Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Dick Tracy, Steve Canyon, Terry and the Pirates, Dondi, Peanuts, Gasoline Alley, Mary Perkins, and so many others are out there. If you reprint it, they will come.

It would be easy to end The Century of Comics in 1995. That was the final year for Calvin and Hobbes, the Far Side and Bloom County. It would be exactly 100 years and would be symmetrical. But as the New York Times pointed out the ending of eras are fuzzy.


So what have we left behind?

We have lost the comic books we knew.

Roy Thomas wrote in the Golden Age of DC Comics, “'The Golden Age of Comic Books is seven. …The Golden Age is basically a state of mind. It has more to do with the age, attitudes, and mental receptiveness of a given reader of the time he first encounters the art form, rather than with any precise chronological period—let alone with any allegedly objective standards of quality. And yet, that said, almost every fan knows that when someone refers to 'The Golden Age of Comics' —a somewhat sloppier term, since technically that would include newspaper comic-strips, as well—he's talking about some decades-past time when comic books and super-heroes were both new and shining things.”

It is great when a Golden Age of something, comics, baseball, movies, coincides with your personal golden age. I guess mine was age 12.


So what make yesterday's comic books better than today's: Creativity, Artistry, Individuality and Originality.Comic books were a product of the Great Depression. 

Comic books should have been expensive to produce; you needed to pay writers, artists, inkers, letterers and colorists. In the mid 1930s publishers no longer wanted to pay the “high” rate for reprinting comic strips, about $15-20 a page, so they began to create their own comics, paying the writers and artists LESS than what it cost to license the reprints of comic strips. They also got to keep all the licensing fees of their new characters. With nowhere else to go great creative people wound up working in comics for a fraction of what they would cost today.


One third into the Century of Comics gave us The Golden Age of Comic Books. This was a unique time of great creativity, of discovery, of building formulas, not following them. It was a time of less censorship and no political correctness. The end of World War II brought great optimism for the future, tremendous economic growth for the country, and this hopefulness was incorporated into the comic book stories. But in the mid 1950s comic books were under attack and a huge amount of creative people left the business forever. The super-hero did not save the industry; he was the remnant of it.

Today you could not treat Jack Kirby and Joe Kubert the way they were treated in the past.  Now, innovators would have to get a piece of the action, a percentage of the take, partial ownership. So what did the corporations do? They lobbied Congress to have the copyright laws extended. So instead of having to come up with new characters, they can use the old ones, repackaged year after year, forever. They will never fall into public domain, like Frankenstein, Dracula and so many others.


Creativity comes from individuals, not corporations. As the conglomerates took over, individuality suffered and creativity disappeared. Today bookkeepers make the decisions that publishers and editors used to make. Artistry is not individualized, it’s computerized; they removed the last drawing tables from Marvel’s office this year. The technology that is restoring the old comics is displacing the new ones.

Tony Isabella says it well, “I am not at all surprised that DC's editors, most of whom have few if any appreciable credits as writers, are treating their writers like typists.  It's the Hollywood model…Corporations aren't people and they definitely aren't creators.”

This is now the “Zero Age of Comics.” Not only do the companies have no new ideas, but they actually start their comic book series with number zero to get two first editions in.

Visit the DC comic section of your local comic book store. More than 75% of the characters are based on the ones that were created in the Golden Age, 1938-1945. In the 1960s, Superman sold about half of the amount of comics he sold during the Golden Age. Today he sells about one or two percent of his 1940s figures. Originality is long gone; the “New 52” was rewritten stories of the “Old 52.” There aren't new characters, just same old ones with their histories erased.

In the Marvel section, 75% of their characters come from the early 1960s. (Then throw in Captain America, The Torch and Sub-Mariner from the 1940s.) But most of their creators had their roots in the Golden Age. Today Disney and Time/Warner’s only want to work with creations they completely own and don’t have to share revenues with, so nothing new is being created. The creative people must find other places to go. They have no choice.

Look at the Comic Book movies and then look at the TV cartoon shows. All the successful ones are based on characters at least 40 to 70 years old. Many of the he younger ones, those created after 1980, Electra and Steel, were not profitable on screen.

Marvel and DC Comics were once businesses whose survival depended on selling their comics. It was live or die for Stan Lee, Mort Weisinger, Julius Schwartz to keep their company vibrant and to keep their jobs by selling comics. That is no longer the goal. Now they are just a component in a big corporation that is marketing their characters, not their comics.

Last year, I walked down the Forest Hills neighborhood where I grew up in the 1960s. Then, on every block, there was at least one luncheonette, one candy story or one coffee shop where I could buy a comic. Today, the fast food restaurants have replaced the luncheonettes and Dunkin’ Donuts has replaced the coffee shops. There was not a comic to be found.


 
Comics have lost their farm club. We have lost children reading the newspaper strips, with their parents.  The afternoon papers now are gone and the publisher who told Dick Ayers to create a strip that will make people want to buy tomorrow's newspapers? Well, he’s gone too.

Kids used to read the newspaper strips and then try out Casper, Lil Dot, and Ritchie Rich at the candy stores. Then they’d grow up to read Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and the Silver Surfer. But there are no more candy stores. Now, you must get a parent to take a kid to a comic book store if there is none in the neighborhood. The ones I have visited are always cramped; dark always a bit out of the way and there is always someone there who looks like he is from the “Simpsons.” And young girls don’t go there.

Today’s comics are dark and depressing. They all look very much the same, as if everyone was using the same computer program, with similar page layouts. The characters are not the heroes they once were, but vigilante thrill seekers with no moral compass. Death is no longer fatal, as characters keep coming back and being repackaged. They cannot think of new ones.

I don’t like current comics. There are no heroes anymore. The good guys and bad guys are interchangeable. So I have no one to root for or care about. The government now is the enemy. Nick Fury was a hero, a good guy, he fought the Nazis and Hydra, I need him and SHIELD to stay that way. Baron Strucker was a Nazi, a villain, who created Hydra. I need him to stay that way too.


In mainstream comics, the personal vision of a creator is now seldom realized. Today,they even brag about how they are eliminating the individuality of their creators. Publishers boast about how everything is done by committee. And every occurrence is promoted as “The event will change their Universe forever.” Until the next event that will change their Universe forever. And the next big event usually doesn’t usually acknowledge the last big event anyway. Since people don’t stay dead and characters, like Mephisto, can change everything, nothing is permanent. Perhaps that is why reprints of the 40s, 50s and 60s, are so popular today, you can’t get these types of storytelling anywhere else.

If you like the comics of today, it may be because you like the creations of a half a century ago and the people who created them. Those people had depth and character, and gave them to their creations. The decency, humanity and humor of the Golden Age Heroes were hereditary: they got it from their creators. 

In his introduction to a Captain America Omnibus, the author, Ed Brubaker, states that he, himself, didn’t like the Cap stories from 1980-2000, so he picked up right where I left off in 1977. How sad to know that in 30 years nothing was developed that was good enough to stick.  I don't want to beat a dead horse but...



The stories jump from one sub plot to another, there are a lot of continued plot lines in each comic. Few are resolved, but when they are it takes so much time. And, events happen in other titles that are apparently necessary to read in order to make sense of the plot in an otherwise unrelated book. 

Since they cannot come up with anything new, they keep mining their earlier eras. When caught, they say it’s an “homage” not a rip off. 

 Superman of the 1970s and Jonah Hex of the 1980s
 
When I read those comics I saw images that I know I have seen before. These are not tributes; this is a lack of imagination.
 Jim Steranko from the 1960s and then an "homage" forty years later...

The artwork: the concept that every page has to have three or four horizontal panels as it if were a wide screen movie is boring, formalistic and unimaginative. The computerized house style and “overcoloring”  artwork dominates the books; nothing looks very different from the others. Their plots might have made a four even five issues run in the old days, but now they run 25 issues, with the writer preoccupied with “forcing” you to get the next issue. And the violence is indescribably overwhelming. I don’t even want to discuss it.


In the Century of Comics, Comic strips thrived in the first half and mainstream comic books flourished in the middle third. In its last third the Graphic Novel became the medium for personal and individual stories, a place where humanity thrived. 


The 1970s and 1980s did not have the first graphic novels, but that when they took off and thrived. Although he worked for Marvel, Jim Steranko’s great Chandler Red Tide had to be published somewhere else. Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor, 1986, would have had trouble finding a publisher 20 years earlier.  Spiegelman was able to print his Maus properly and own the property. Steve Ditko can now create stories  without corporate interference and publish them with Robin Snyder. But in the era of Jack Kirby’s, those avenues did not exist.

If we need an exit ramp, a finale, for the Century of Comics, there are two titles that brilliantly fit the bill. First, is Marvels, by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross, published in 1994. Here they show the greatest 30 years of Marvel’s existence through a different perspective. They demonstrate that comics can be new yet at the same time remind you of what they once were. Both  in the writing and in the artwork gives you the feeling that you were not a reader but a witness to the events and therefore had a personal connection. Kurt Busiek wrote: “That was very much our intent -- a "what would it be like to have been there for real" factor.”

History may well be written by the survivors. In comics, the future is written by them too. Alex Ross teamed with Mark Waid two years later to present Kingdom Come. Unlike Marvels which was a look back, this was a look forward for the silver age heroes that I grew up with.  It was a wonderful look at what heroes once were and could be again. It also mixed in many touches of DC’s past and present. Here, Superman leaves Lois Lane behind, opening up new vistas in this often told story. This storyline and its ramifications are being mined in today’s comics.


These two beautifully drawn and wonderfully told stories are the perfect coda for the comic books of the Century of Comics.



There will be comic books and comic strips in the future. And there will be good ones too. But a new age does not automatically begin the day after the old one ends. You don’t end Golden Age one day on The Night of March 31st and start a silver one on April 1st.And then have a bronze age when that ends. Those are marketing distinctions, used by dealers. it is not reality. I have a tin ear for people naming ages after the Metal Men.







The Comic Book Century gave us incredible comic strips filled with adventure, humor an incredible creativity. It gave us a Golden Age of Comic Books, an EC Age and the Marvel Age. It finished it's run with the graphic novel.  There will never be a time like this again. It’s gone. For those who ask, “Will comic books still be with us in the digital era?”  The answer is: The comic books that we knew are already gone.”

“In the end, is my beginning.”

The Comic Book Century began in 1895. When did it end?

It was a day in comics like no other. For the first time in comic history, writers and artists of all walks of life got together and conspired something special. Dick Ayers brought his Howling Commandos, Stan Lee brought Spider-Man; Lynn Johnson brought a beagle, Annie brought Sandy, too. Rick Stromoski explained it from soup to nuts. The Simpsons showed, so did Mickey and Bugs. Cathy Guisewite raised a toast …it was covered in all the papers, all the papers that still had comics, that is…

May 27, 2000:
The day the comics cried.
 Charles M. Schulz 1922-2000

A Century of Comics 1895-2000









3 comments:

  1. A lovely piece, sir. Sad, nostalgic, hopeful and so familiar to my own mind. Thanks.

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  2. An exceptional and poignant conclusion to a wonderful series. I don't have much to add, as I agree with so much of your conclusions. The individual expression that was able to filter through mainstream comics was due to the creators who brought their own strong personalities to the stories. In my time, the work of Lee, Kirby, Ditko, Wood, Colan, John Buscema, Barry Smith, Jim Steranko, Roy Thomas, Neal Adams and many others were unique and exciting. Some of that may be a product of my "golden age", yet it is more than a nostalgic yearning that makes me go back and enjoy these creators over and over. I'm often able to go back and appreciate these tales with new eyes, discovering things that I never noticed before. Most of the new work is a chore for me to read through. I don't see many new ideas or enthsiasm.

    The future is with young creators, often writing and drawing their own stories, often personal but featuring a wide range of ideas and themes, both on the internet and with independent companies like Fantagraphics and Drawn and Quarterly. Here individual expression, styles and variety abound. The corporate groupthink is old and tired and a new Eisner, Kirby or Ditko won't be found on that road.

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  3. Spot on, for the most part. A few good creators are still around...my faves are Waid and Busiek...but I just don't have the heart to read distortions of characters I once loved.

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