A Deep Dive Into The Golden Age of Comics With Historian Kurt Mitchell

Another in the series of columns documenting my New Year’s resolution to get through the giant pile of unread books I have here, this one has a twist. I’m not actually reviewing the book in question, though I think it’s terrific and you should all get it.

The book is American Comic Book Chronicles: 1940-1944, by Kurt Mitchell.

This is one of the TwoMorrows American Comic Book Chronicles series of coffee-table art books covering comic book history, gorgeously laid out with lots of cool graphics.

Unlike a lot of these art books that purport to be history, though, this one is scrupulously researched and has a lot of actual history in it. I know that because I know the author, and was privy to a lot of his struggles getting the manuscript pulled together.

Kurt’s been one of my good friends for the last twenty years. He’s actually the first of my internet comics buddies I met in real life, back when we were just two of the dorks hanging around the CBR message boards. Way back in 1999, when Y2K computer disaster was looking like it really might be a thing, Kurt invited me to come spend New Year’s Eve with him down in Tacoma and we could watch the fall of civilization together.

Civilization remained intact, to about equal parts disappointment and relief as far as the two of us were concerned. But a tradition had been born. Since then, we have spent every New Year’s Eve down at Kurt’s place, eating pizza and watching old movies and gossiping about comics. Julie married into this tradition a decade and a half ago and was as delighted as I was (and am) to be part of a holiday ritual that didn’t involve forced merriment with blood relatives. This last one in 2019 was special because not only did it mark twenty years for the solitary holiday tradition in the Hatcher household, but we got to celebrate Kurt’s new book. Yet another of the old CBR posse has turned pro, and Kurt’s debut is a really classy hardcover, too.

TwoMorrows sent me a review copy, for which I am profoundly grateful; but since I could not pretend to objectivity here, I decided to do a little interview with Kurt instead. And here it is.

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For our newer readers, give us the secret origin of your career at TwoMorrows. How’d you get this gig?

I’d been working on a history of DC’s Earth-Two stories of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s with the idea of pitching it to the folks at TwoMorrows. When Roy Thomas appeared at the 2005 Emerald City Comic Convention, my friend (and yours) Rob Allen insisted I show the work in progress to Roy. I must have made a good impression, because a few months later Roy contacted me and asked if I could write some plot summaries for the second book in his All-Star Companion series. That led in turn to my contributing more prominently to the following two volumes.

Plans were laid for Roy and I to co-author an Earth-Two Companion but TwoMorrows canceled the project due to DC increasing its licensing fees. The material we’d prepared ran instead in two issues of Alter Ego. Over the next few years, Roy occasionally commissioned an article for Alter Ego from me, including an overview of the first ten years of Marvel’s Avengers and a history of the Golden and Silver Age versions of The Flash, Green Lantern and Hawkman. It was that last assignment that prompted Roy to invite me to co-author the 1940s volumes of American Comic Book Chronicles. Then, when his other commitments forced him off the project, he suggested to publisher John Morrow that I should handle the books solo. I equivocated for a bit about taking the job—the sheer amount of work involved scared me, to be honest—but I ultimately manned up and signed on.

What is it about the Golden Age you find compelling? Did writing this book fan that flame or dampen it?

I’ve been fascinated by the pop culture of the 1940s, particularly the war years, for as long as I can remember, everything from big band music and Humphrey Bogart movies to rebroadcasts of old radio programs and the stacks of old Esquire and Fortune magazines kicking around our house. So when I first ran across the reprints of Simon and Kirby’s original Captain America stories running in Fantasy Masterpieces, I was instantly mesmerized. A few years later, I read Jim Steranko’s two-volume History of Comics and my world was never the same.

It’s funny: I thought going in to the ACBC project that I was pretty well-versed in Golden Age history. Three years, 5000 comic books and some 250 manuscript pages later, I realize I hadn’t known diddly-squat. As for whether it fanned or dampened the flame, I’d have to say a bit of both. It didn’t take long for me to realize that a majority of what was published, particularly the pre-war material, was complete crap. But the good stuff is really good, and that more than compensated for the dreck.

Most writers, when they take on a long-form project, find that it takes a completely different shape than they imagined. Did that happen here? Did you surprise yourself?

Oh yeah! The final product was nothing like I envisioned when I first came aboard. I remember feeling a bit handcuffed by the year-by-year format, but by the time I’d finished the second chapter I realized that series creator and editor Keith Dallas had absolutely made the right choice. It made it so much easier to ferret out trends and to follow the career paths of the artists, writers, and editors. Probably the biggest hurdle for me was wrapping my head around the idea that I wasn’t just writing about characters and their creators but about the business of comic books and about the historical context in which it operated. Fortunately, I’m a history buff. That’s why you’ll find quotes from heavyweights like William Manchester and Doris Kearns Godwin in the book. It was the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life—it felt at the time like researching and writing five term papers back to back—and I still have trouble sometimes comprehending that I actually did it, that I wrote this beautiful (thanks to designer David Paul Greenawalt) book and that people are actually buying it.

Can you give us an overview of the comics landscape surveyed in the book? It wasn’t just superheroes, I’m sure. What genres were represented on the stands? Comics publishers have traditionally always gone after the hot new thing…. what WAS that in the early 1940s?

One of the biggest surprises for me was just how dominant super-heroes were on the newsstands, especially during the first three years of the decade. They commanded the covers and leadoff spot of virtually every comic line that featured them.

But the back pages of those same comics were filled with strips devoted to other genres: science fiction, crime and mystery, war, horror, aviation, sports, espionage, jungle, pirates, pretty much every kind of story you’d find in the pulp magazines except romance.

The first real breakout hit outside the capes-and-tights crowd was Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories, which quickly became one of the bestselling titles of all time and served as the herald of a flood of funny animal comics. Bob Montana’s “Archie” was another big trendsetter, and within a year became the first humor character to be given his own solo title.

Crime Does Not Pay was the first of the infamous crime comics that got the medium’s critics wound up in the late ’40s and an immediate hit. Comic books starring movie cowboys “Gene Autry,” “Tom Mix,” and “Roy Rogers” were early outliers of the explosion of westerns in 1948-49. Classic Comics, later retitled Classics Illustrated, got its start in 1941, as did the non-fiction True Comics from Parents’ Magazine Press. Even religion was represented by titles like The Life of Christ Visualized and Picture Stories from the Bible.

So there actually was a lot of variety if you looked for it, but you had to wade through an army of costumed crusaders to get there.

What were the standout strips and characters that you think have been unjustly forgotten?

There’s a lot of outstanding material in the Dell titles that deserves more attention than it gets. Everybody knows about Walt Kelly’s early “Pogo” stuff in Animal Comics, but his work on Fairy Tale Parade and the title feature of Our Gang Comics is every bit as good. The “Raggedy Ann and Andy” series by Gaylord DuBois and George Kerr is just terrific.

George Carlson’s work for Eastern Color’s Jingle Jangle Comics is inspired nonsense that deserves to be collected in book form, as does Basil Wolverton’s “Powerhouse Pepper,” the screwball comedy he did for Timely/Marvel. I really enjoyed Better’s “Supermouse,” the first funny animal super-hero created for comics. “Buzzy” by Alvin Schwartz and George Storm, DC’s answer to “Archie,” had me laughing out loud, which is rare.

Another teen humor series, Ace’s “Hap Hazard,” has some great supporting players. The Fiction House strip “Wambi the Jungle Boy” is consistently entertaining and features incredible wildlife art. Over at Quality, Jack Cole’s “Midnight” was every bit as good as his “Plastic Man,” and later episodes by Paul Gustavson are of equal merit. “The Barker,” which Cole also had a hand in, is another Quality strip that deserves more attention. Everyone justly praises Will Eisner’s “The Spirit,” but the weekly’s back-up features “Mr. Mystic” and “Lady Luck” are also outstanding, particularly after the first year.

Probably my favorite overlooked comic is George Marcoux’s “Supersnipe,” about a young comic collector who raises havoc while pretending to be a super-hero. It’s both extremely witty and beautifully drawn.

But when we talk about “unjustly forgotten,” I tend to think more of artists than characters. There are so many outstanding illustrators who don’t get the attention they deserve because they either never worked on a popular character or were too old-fashioned in their storytelling, artists like Harold DeLay, Charles M. Quinlan, Jack Warren, Harry Parkhurst, Charles Voight, and Henry C. Keifer—and those are just off the top of my head. I sincerely hope my spotlighting them in the book helps boost their reputations.

What strips or characters struck you as inexplicably successful, or even just what-the-hell-were-they-thinking material? What was the weirdest comic you ran across?

When it comes to weird comics, it’s hard to top the work of Fletcher Hanks. His stuff is so willfully bizarre that it’s irresistible.

Then there’s Art Pinajian’s “Madame Fatal,” whose hero does his crimefighting dressed in drag. In fact, crossdresing characters of both genders pop up surprisingly often. Some of the later super-heroes, like Eastern Color’s ‘”Music Master” and “Rainbow Boy,” were really scraping the bottom of the barrel when it came to superpowers.

From a modern perspective, the era’s propensity for grotesque racial caricatures definitely lies in what-the-hell-were-they-thinking territory. Even the strips that treated such characters with affection—like The Spirit’s sidekick Ebony White or Jack Cole’s Chinese detective “Wun Cloo”—are painful to read. As for “inexplicably successful,” I was amazed at how dull “Superman” often was in comparison to many of his competitors. It’s not surprising that “Captain Marvel” eventually outsold him. But, really, most of the big-name strips and characters earned their success.

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So there you go. The book is available from TwoMorrows here, a listing that includes sample pages for the curious. Kurt and I both hope you’ll check it out.

Back next week with something cool.

7 Comments

  1. Edo Bosnar

    Have it. Read it. Highly recommend it.
    What I really liked about the book is that it’s a very serious and exhaustive account of American comics from 1940 to 1945, yet it reads like one of those engaging magazine articles – it’s really hard to put down.

    Interesting that you asked Kurt about comics he thinks are unjustly forgotten. One thing I found myself doing quite often as I was reading, and afterward, was visiting the Digital Comics Museum to check out some of the titles and features he mentions.

  2. Jeff Nettleton

    Hope to be able to read that in the future, as I am also a history buff, especially comics.

    I’ve had the pleasure of conversing with Kurt at the Classic comic Forum and he’s always been encouraging in my own review pieces and historical looks at indie comics

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