Successfully scratched itches, part 5: Comix

This is sort of a scratched itch – but in a weird way, as it’s based on nothing more than an ad for Les Daniels’ Comix: A History of Comic Books in America seen in a comic book back in the mid-1970s. I was just fascinated by the cover (and wondered who that rope-swinging hero was). I found it so intriguing that there’s a ‘real’ book (like one that adults read) that treated comic books as a topic for serious discussion.

I was curious about the book for a time, but it seemed like something entirely unobtainable unless you ordered it from a comic book ad. (It never occurred to me later, when I was in, say, my teens, to look for it in the local public library.) Then I almost forgot about it as the years passed.

But about five years ago, my partner Sanja, who’s a television reporter, was doing a story about an old collector of many things (toys, pins, other knick-knacks and yes, comics) and she let me tag along on the shoot with her and her crew. I spent most of that time quietly poring over his bookshelves. As could be expected, he mainly had locally published stuff, but he had one shelf with some comics related material from Italy, Germany, the UK and the US. Including Les Daniels’ Comix. I couldn’t believe I was holding that almost mythical book in my hands. I flipped through and even thought about asking the guy if he would sell it to me (not a chance).

After that, though, I decided I really wanted the book – in part because I recalled how much I wanted it when I was a little kid – and ultimately I ended up finding a dirt-cheap copy on eBay a few years later (I had it sent to my sister’s place in Oregon ahead of a visit). More recently, I finally sat down and read the whole thing (as opposed to browsing through it and reading the reprinted comics). So I scratched yet another itch from my very early youth.

Was it worth the wait? Sure was.

Despite being incredibly dated – it’s kind of sobering to realize that  more time has passed since the book’s publication than had passed from the appearance of the first comic book until the book’s publication – Comix is still a pretty solid overview of comics history in America up to about 1970. And while I knew quite a bit of the stuff Daniels covers here, the book still contains a wealth of information, and many of Daniels’ insights are still useful and valid. However, the book is also interesting to read as a document of its time, when – in the wake of the 1960s – comics were finally being subjected to more serious, academic scrutiny, and this book was one of the first examples of that.

But Comix isn’t a rigorous scholarly study, and Daniels put particular emphasis on the stuff he really liked: the EC comics of the 1950s, the ‘new’ comics like Mad Magazine and similar publications that started to emerge in the late 1950s to skirt the Comics Code Authority, the first indie and underground comics and Marvel comics. Speaking of the Comics Code Authority, his chapter on how it came to be is a really outstanding overview of that whole sordid affair.

However, due to his biases and preferences, Daniels pretty much ignored some rather large sectors of the American comics landscape. Most notably, there is a complete lack of any discussion of Archie comics, even though by that time the whole Riverdale gang had been occupying a significant amount of real estate on newsstands and spinner racks for almost 30 years and – like it or not – was one of the powerhouses in American comics publishing. Well, Daniels didn’t like it, so he largely treated Archie like a, well, red-headed stepchild. Archie comics are only mentioned within the context of early spoofs of them that appeared in EC’s Mad, and in the discussion of the establishment of the Comics Code Authority, since Archie publisher John Goldwater played a key role in that process. Goldwater certainly deserves considerable criticism for his role in that whole series of events, especially since it was very likely a cynical ploy on his part to eliminate at least some of his competitors. That, however, doesn’t change the fact that Archie comics were indeed popular, sold well and merit consideration in any serious discussion of American comic books. Just as true back in 1970 as it is now.

And I’ve always had a soft spot for them myself…

In fact, Daniels pretty much ignored the whole “teen” comics phenomenon, just as he ignored another significant genre, the romance comics. They were still going pretty strong when Daniels was writing his book – they would only begin their decline some time in the mid-1970s – but they were apparently too formulaic and frivolous to be taken seriously.

This, however, is some pretty damn serious stuff.

It seems to me that in a way, Daniels fell victim to a form of intellectual snobbery that he noted at the very start of his chapter on the Comics Code – although he was talking about the dismissive attitude on comics by the wider academic and general public that held sway until the mid- to late 1960s (but to some extent still exists to this day, I’d say).

As apparent from the images I’ve posted here pretty much at random, the book contains a wealth of illustrative material, and it’s not just individual panels or pages interspersed in the text, but also separate sections containing complete sample stories from the various eras Daniels covered, including one color section (that one has a Disney ducks story by Carl Barks, an EC horror story, a Sub-Mariner story from the early 1950s and a Batman story, also from the 1950s).

I’m assuming that this aspect more than anything else probably made this a popular book to check out of the library by young comics fans for quite a few years after its publication (which, again, never occurred to me back in the day). The copy I have is actually a former library book, which is why I got it so cheap (seriously, I think I paid $4 total).

It even still has the due date card and pocket in the back!

However, the drawback to that was a few pages torn out of the last chapter about underground comics (two pages of the comics reprints, but also one page of text). Here I have to give a big tip of the hat to Redartz, the proprietor of the blog Back in the Bronze Age, who scanned the missing pages from his own copy of the book and sent them to me.

All in all, I have to say that I’m really glad I finally have this book. It’s a really nice piece of comics history and a rather enjoyable read.

*  Note: that if you click any Amazon link to a book in the post (only one in this case), and end up buying anything, a (very) little something comes back to us here at the Atomic Junk Shop. Thank you.

4 Comments

  1. Terrible-D

    I have a circular story about this book. It was a book in my middle school library. I checked it out multiple times. The last was when my father discovered the language in the Mr. Natural strip reprinted in the aforementioned section on underground comics. He wasn’t prudish by any stretch, but he thought the content was a bit beyond my age group. He called the school and asked the librarian to review the content, upon which they removed it from the shelf. In the following years I mostly forgot about the volume. Occasionally it would come up in my thoughts, but I couldn’t recall the title or author. Just last year I came across the book in a second hand store. Not just a copy, but THE copy from my school. According to the shop owner it had spent the last 20 odd years in the hands of a private collector whose widow was trying to de-clutter. For $3 I couldn’t pass it up, if for nothing more than the coincidence.

    1. Edo Bosnar

      Ha! That’s a great story, and you can’t beat the price.
      That actually reminds of me of something that puzzled me when I was searching for copies online: the wildly varying prices quoted by booksellers and individual vendors at sites like eBay. Some, like the sellers we got our copies from, were offering it for a few bucks, while others treated it like some rare collectable and quoted prices in excess of $50-$60 or more (often for pretty worn, banged up copies based on the attached photographs).

  2. Jeff Nettleton

    Saw the ads for it, in comics; but, never came across a copy in the wild (I have scans of it, now). I did come across some similar stuff, through the local library system, in the late 70s. I had found the Nostalgia Press first volume of Flash Gordon, and checked it out and wanted to read it again and asked for it. It was now gone from the system (probably stolen, I’d be willing to bet); but, they did turn up 3 related books for me. The first was about sci-fi and comics and was filled with stuff about Buck Rogers toys and stuff (like the Rocket Skates and the Daisy pistol). The second was Maurice Horn’s World Encyclopedia of Comics, which introduced me to a ton of stuff and sparked an interest in foreign comics. The last, I believe, was another Horn title, Sex in the Comics. I’m not sure; but, the book covered some Underground stuff (as did World Encyclopedia) and some foreign adult stuff. I distinctly recall panels from The Adv of Phoebe Zeitgeist. Later, I got a copy of Horn’s other books (his encyclopedia of newspaper comics and Sex in the Comics) and saw the same panels I recalled, which is why it might have been that book.

    The prejudice against Archie and teen comics and genre comics, especially romance, seems to fit with the shift of comics as a mass medium to that of niche collectors. It’s only gotten worse, since then, as even books by people like Ron Goulart gloss through Archie, other than him being a breakout success and pushing out everyone else at MLJ. Even worse, most of them don’t admit that Harvey ever existed, even for their horror, sci-fi and crime comics, unless they talk about things cited by Wertham (and that was usually focused on EC and Phantom Lady getting tied up a lot, as well as the whole Batman and Robin thing and Wonder Woman and the Amazons). There, too, romance comics are practically non-existent, beyond Simon & Kirby creating the genre, and even westerns tend to get short shift (as do war comics), apart from talking about comics chasing tv audiences. At least the Kubert and Kanigher war comics get brief mention.

  3. I read the Daniels book in my early teens and reached similar conclusions to yours, though I couldn’t articulate exactly what dissatisfied me about it.

    Regarding snobbery, Peter Stanfield’s “Horse Opera” makes a similar point about Westerns: Gene Autry and other “singing cowboy” movies were more popular and far more of them were made than the A-list Western movies but genre historians prefer to ignore them and focus on “Stagecoach” and “Cimarron” as the “real” Westerns.

    Tim Hanley’s “Betty and Veronica” does a good job looking at Archie Comics — I enjoyed it and I’m not an Archie fan.

    David Hajdu’s “Ten Cent Plague” is a fantastic book on the anti-comics crusades of the 1950s. “While the City Sleeps,” which is an excellent film, vents about crime comics as a how-to handbook for aspiring criminals.

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