Holy Octogenarian, Batman: Comic Books Turn 80!

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I was doing research for a post when I came across an interesting fact that I wasn’t aware of: the medium of the comic book was first conceived in 1933, which makes 2013 the eightieth anniversary of comics.

According to legend — accounts vary slightly depending on the source — Maxwell Gaines was working as a salesman for Eastern Color Printing, when he came across bundles of old Sunday comics supplements his mother had stored in her attic.

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Newspaper comic strips at the time were immensely popular, a daily shot of humor in the midst of the Great Depression — one of the few things that could make people smile during an uneasy and uncertain day-to-day existence.  Gaines had an epiphany: putting reprints of the ‘funnies’ together in a cheap tabloid / magazine format publication might prove to be a fun giveaway promotional item that he could pitch to clients of Eastern Color who purchased print advertising services with the firm.

Funnies on Parade, the very first comic book, was born out of this inspiration, reprinting a selection of popular newspaper strips of the day.

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Gaines wasn’t just satisfied with a pat on the head from his superiors for a sales job well done and satisfied clients for Eastern Color Printing, though.  He was looking at the print runs for these giveaways — which numbered in the hundreds of thousands, as different entities like Gulf Oil, Canada Dry soft drinks, and Proctor & Gamble signed on to use the promotion  — and seeing dollar signs.

Max reasoned that the same audience who bought the daily newspaper to read the comic strips and scarfed up freebies like Funnies on Parade would pay for these newfangled comic books, if they were available at retail.  Gaines and his cohorts at Eastern Color approached the American News Company in 1934 to distribute a new, non-sponsored comic with a ten-cent cover price called Famous Funnies.

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American News was reportedly doubtful about the potential of the new product . . . until the first run of Famous Funnies hit newsstands and subsequently flew off them, with clamoring consumers leaving stacks of dimes behind in their wake.

Sales on Famous Funnies averaged about 350,000 an issue.  According to author Nicky Wright’s excellent reference / coffee table book The Classic Era of American Comics (which I highly recommend if you ever come across a copy), the going rate for reprint rights that was paid to the newspaper syndicates for use of the comic strips that made up the bulk of the 64-page comics was $5 a page.

So production costs for an issue were about $320 . . . and they brought in a gross of $35,000.

Adjust that for inflation, and in present-day numbers, that comes out to over $600,000 per issue.   You can see why a number of publishers were eager to jump on the bandwagon, and how the comic book industry sprung up practically overnight.

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Another important event in comics history happened in 1933, as well, although it turned out to be a slow-burning fuze that wouldn’t fully explode until several years later.  That was the year that a young, aspiring writer /artist duo from Cleveland, Ohio created what they thought would be a great adventure strip for the papers, which they called ‘Superman’.

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Unfortunately, no one in the newspaper business agreed with Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster that they were working on the next big thing, and their Superman strip was rejected multiple times.

When comic books started to hit big, and publishers began to dabble with original, non-reprint material, Joe and Jerry reformatted Superman to be a comic book rather than a strip, shopped it around . . . and still couldn’t sell it.

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Joe Shuster was so discouraged that he actually tossed the original art for Superman into a fireplace and SET IT ABLAZE.  As the story goes, Jerry Seigel was able to only save the cover of that very first Superman comic, the remainder of which has been sacrificed to the gods of manic depressive pique.

Shuster had sort of given up on Superman, but Siegel hadn’t, and while the duo went on to create other characters and features for various publishers over the next couple years, Jerry talked to other artists to come in and work on Superman (presumably ones who wouldn’t, you know, torch the material), but nothing ever came of the outside collaborations, and eventually Shuster got back on board.

(Ironically, the first thirteen-page Superman story that ended up published in 1938’s Action Comics #1 was essentially cut-and-pasted from the original newspaper strips Jerry and Joe had created in 1933, because of an insane last-minute deadline that didn’t allow them to rewrite and redraw the material into ‘standard’ comics format.  Keep in mind that a single copy of said rushed kludge job sold for $1 million at auction in 2010.)

public domain blog old comic books action comics 1 superman joe shuster

The takeaway there, to you creative-type kids, is to not EVER give up on your art.  Sometimes it takes the world a little while to recognize the value of what you’ve put into it through your work.

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I’ve been a comics nerd since I was knee-high to a gamma-irridated nuclear physicist.   I’ll dig this out of the archives — I stuck it on the very first post here at Public Domain:

michael allan leonard public domain blog comics comic books spider-man humor parody satire

And I’m proud to have had the chance to put a few of my own scribbles on the communal cave wall of the medium so far along the way as a writer (and I hope to add far more to the mural in the near future).

public domain blog michael allan leonard comics cover gallery doorman

(And yes, that’s a Rob Liefeld Youngblood piece in my little self-indulgent cover gallery, on Test Drive #1 by M.A.I.N. Publishing from 1997.  Don’t ask me how that happened — maybe Rob lost a bet — but I consider it a feather in my cap, when you write a little short story for a small press anthology comic and one of the most well-known (if not exactly beloved) artists of the period ends up doing the cover.  Neither Rob or Youngblood end up anywhere in the interior of the book, but there was a pretty swank Western story drawn by the legendary Gil Kane, who unfortunately passed away not too long after, and I believe it was one of his last published credits.)

Both fans and creators owe a huge debt of gratitude to Maxwell Gaines, as well as Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster, for their combined contributions to global pop culture (as well as Mother Gaines, who didn’t throw out her son’s funnies or sell them off for pennies at a yard sale.)

In order to more properly celebrate this milestone, I think I’ll delve into the history of comics over the course of 2013 here on Public Domain, both with tongue planted firmly in cheek and to pay honest tribute to the colorful characters and the even more colorful flesh-and-blood creators who brought them to life on the printed page.

With comics, I feel sometimes we as fans tend to focus so much on what’s going to happen next, which creator is doing what to which character  — and how much we love and / or hate it — and just simply get so caught up in the minutae of the moment that we don’t step back often enough and appreciate the overall mosaic of the art form itself.

So, happy 80th birthday, comic books.

You don’t look a day over sixty, even with those wrinkles along your spine and the occasional missing corner from a page.

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— mal

Riddle me this, caped crusaders and crusaderettes: what’s black and white and read by discerning nerds with too much time on their hands around the world?  Public Domain!  Shout out to our three readers in Mauritius!

Thanks for stopping by, and special thanks to those of you who write in.  You should see some of the fan mail that eager beaver and faithful automated assistant Askimet has waiting for me each day.

‘Wanda’ writes: “Hi, after reading this awesome paragraph i am too delighted to share my knowledge here with colleagues.”

Wanda, I am glad you’ve gotten over your crippling, irrational fear of the office photocopiers, no longer cower in the janitor’s closet perusing PD on your iPad, and have rejoined the rest of your co-workers.  Good for you!

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But . . . just between you and me, if you happen to have some Beggin’ Strips Lite, I’m sure we can come to an agreement of sorts . . .

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2 Comments

  1. Amazing to see how much of an influence comic books have had on the modern world, especially at only 80. Comics look good for their age.

  2. The wild thing about comics is the entire history of the medium is practically one unbroken series of happy accidents, literally right from the start. Just about any attempt anyone’s ever made at planning something successful to any great degree has never really worked out, or at least not to the degree that the off-the-cuff stuff did.

    My takeaway from studying this early stuff is that these creators were often working under such tight deadlines that they didn’t have time to second guess or overanalyze their work, so they just learned to trust their gut instinct and go with that.


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