The American comic book is inseparable from foreign policy, the great twentieth-century battles between capitalism and totalitarianism, and the political goals of the world’s preeminent military and cultural power. The history of the American comic book is a story of visual culture, commerce, race, and policy. These four fields are analogous to the four colors used to print comic books: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. They lie atop one another, smearing, blending, and bleeding to create a complete image. To separate them is to disassemble a coherent whole and to shatter a picture that in its entirety shows us how culture and diplomacy were entangled during the mid-twentieth century.
THE EARLY YEARS, 1935–1945
The period from 1935 to 1945 was defined by images of darkness and light. The comic industry itself—populated by otherwise unemployable immigrants, racial minorities, and political radicals—emerged from the shadows of the New York publishing world. In the mid-1930s, early comic books built on the sensibilities and style of newspaper comic strips like Flash Gordon and Tarzan and the crisp, fast-paced stories in mystery- and adventure-themed pulps like Black Mask and Doc Savage. These bold and incorruptible pulp heroes acted on behalf of the helpless and disenfranchised, meting out vengeance according to their own moral codes. Newspaper comic strips and pulps, though, were ephemeral; their stories and artwork appeared only once before landing in a trash can or a fishmonger’s store. This changed in 1933, when the Eastern Color Printing Company produced Funnies on Parade, a collection of reprinted comic strips. Although intended as a promotional giveaway, Funnies on Parade hinted at a secondary market for newspaper comic strips, if suitably repackaged. Similar titles followed, and when publishers ran short of reprinted material, they bought new artwork and stories.
By 1938, both “the economics and the poetics” of the comic book form were set: the young and marginalized creators in New York City were organized into shops (what one early contributor termed the “artistic ghetto”), where their unfettered creativity was channeled through assembly-line techniques to produce sequential artwork, which was packaged and sold at ten cents for sixty-four pages of text and images. From the outset, this combination of modern, industrial-scale production, uncensored talent, and low cost proved successful. Typical early comic books sold between two hundred thousand and four hundred thousand copies per issue, while initial issues of Action Comics, starring Superman, reached sales of nearly one million copies each. Soon, dozens, then hundreds of new titles altered the geography of the newsstand, flooding it with bright, cheaply produced tales of superheroes, fantasy, and mystery. The comic book combined elements of existing mass culture—pulps, comic strips, and films—into something new: a medium with wide appeal and enormous popularity that became associated almost immediately with young consumers. The comic book was far more complex than simple juvenile ephemera or a straightforward physical expansion of the newspaper comic strip. It was an uncensored space where writers and artists could voice their own fantasies and fears and a way for consumers to access images of violence, sexuality, and fantasy unavailable in more traditional media.
Unusually for the time, people of all kinds, including Jews, Asian Americans, and African Americans, produced comics. Joe Kubert, a Jewish, Polish-born artist, recalled, “You could be a genius, you could be a nobody, a little kid from Brooklyn like me, or some kind of nut. The doors were open to any and all.” Artist Edd Ashe remembered working with Chinese and Japanese Americans who specialized in lettering dialogue in comic books. Matt Baker, a Black artist from North Carolina, quickly established his expertise with “headlights”—comics focused on the female form. Artist and editor Al Feldstein, who worked next to Baker, recollected, “He could draw women—white women!—like nobody else.”
While the early comic book industry offered opportunities to writers and artists, it also extracted productivity from these men and women in ways that recalled the piecework laborers of New York City’s garment district. In assembly-line studios, exploitative bosses paid by the page within a work-for-hire system in which artists and writers surrendered all rights to their creations and typically labored in anonymity. Nick Cardy, an artist in the Eisner-Iger shop, one of the earliest and most successful comic book content producers, said, “My mother used to work in a sweatshop making pants. Well, we made comics.” The early comic book industry, then, provided a means of employment to marginalized men and women but also exploited their creativity and vulnerability, while shop owners and publishers benefited from the medium’s increasing popularity.
Not all early owners were capitalists. The “social idealist” and “bona fide communist” Lev Gleason, who left Eastern Color Printing in 1941, ran his company cooperatively with two editors, Charles Biro and Bob Wood. Like other publishers, he hired Asian American artists, including Bob Fujitani and Fred Kida, and he also hired female writers like Virginia Hubbell. Soon after founding his studio, Gleason encouraged his editors to create and produce a comic book that might attract the growing adult audience. They decided that a true crime–themed title would stand out among the dozens of superhero comics and named it Crime Does Not Pay. For Biro, truth and violence were inseparable; the reality of a criminal act was bound up in its brutality, which he insisted on depicting in lavish detail. Gleason and Biro’s stories also portrayed the effects of unregulated capitalism, critiquing a society in which wealth, violence, and corruption inevitably lured Americans from a more responsible path. Within Crime Does Not Pay, the social systems of mid-twentieth-century America—families, schools, and communities—all failed to dampen the lure of profit. And while criminals inevitably faced a violent death or punishment in the title’s final panels, the preceding pages suggested that dying young as a wealthy criminal might be preferable to living as a poor American.
But it was not only true crime comics that were full of the sort of violence, cynicism, and racism absent from newspaper comic strips. As early as 1938, in an adventure in Amazing Mystery Funnies, teenaged hero Dirk the Demon stabs an older villain to death with a knife, before seizing another criminal and announcing, “Now I’ll just bang your head on the floor—pleasant dreams!” In an issue of Mystery Men Comics from 1940, spies gun down FBI agents, and wild men choke women to death. Chinese villain Chen Chang “plots with fiendish wiles against the white race he hates” and tortures “worthless white man” Richard Kendall, his heroic opponent. Even stories intended to combat racism, published by the progressive Gleason, included vicious images of non-White characters. In “The Lesson of Dr. Boggs,” drawn by Dick Briefer—who also drew for the communist Daily Worker—the White Pirate Prince frees a group of enslaved Black people and attempts to sail them back to freedom in Africa. But the men and women speak in a singsong dialect and prove helpless without the aid of the prince. The prince and the liberated Africans are confounded by the evil Dr. Boggs, whose crew includes an Asian villain, replete with bright yellow skin, long mustache, and queue.
Even the early adventures of Superman, who premiered in Action Comics in 1938, depicted the superhero as short-tempered and pessimistic. The character’s young co-creators, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, drew inspiration from science fiction and crime pulps, and in his initial appearances, Superman acts much like a superpowered Sam Spade, bound as much by street morality as the rule of law. In his first adventure, Superman hurls an abusive husband through a wall, shouting, “You’re not fighting a woman, now!” Then, while trying to save an innocent woman from the electric chair, Superman smashes his way into the governor’s mansion, roughs up the governor’s assistant, and when faced with a gun, screams, “Put away that toy. This is no time for horseplay!” Later, when investigating corruption in Congress, Superman drags a recalcitrant suspect by his foot, pulls him out a window, and threatens to electrocute him unless he talks. After a squad of crooks fruitlessly tries to machine-gun Superman, one thug exclaims, “He won’t die!” Superman replies, “Glad I can’t say the same about you,” and then hurls the crooks out a window, their machine guns wrapped around their necks.
Crime Does Not Pay and Action Comics, along with countless other titles, could include such graphic imagery and cynicism because, unlike movies and radio, they were unregulated and uncensored. But they were also disreputable, ranking, as Bradford Wright notes, just above pornography in the minds of much of society. Not coincidentally, Harry Donenfeld, a founder of the company that became National Comics, was in the early 1930s the publisher of girlie pulps and “art nudies” like Hot Stories and Gay Parisienne. Victor Fox, publisher of titles including Crimes by Women, was a well-known hustler. He became notorious for ripping off Superman, for which Donenfeld successfully sued him, and for failing to pay the writers and artists who supplied him, by 1939, with four hundred pages of material every month. He was willing to spend money only on racy cover artwork, which he used to attract adolescent and adult consumers. This was a world that rewarded production speed, lurid artwork, fantastic narratives, and new ideas, however exploitative.
THE WILD YEARS, 1945–1955
In August 1949, a new issue of Crimes by Women arrived at newsstands. It opened with “The Knife Woman,” a western-themed story about Jean Terry, a young rancher who witnesses her father’s murder by three thieving sheepherders. Renowned for her skills with a bowie knife, Jean sets out to avenge her father’s death by killing the three men responsible. When she finds the first man, Jean wounds him with her gun, so that she may kill him with her bowie knife, a weapon “wonderful for carving up varmints like you.” As the wounded man whimpers, Jean tells him, “Stop your blubbering. It’s only a li’l nick on your gun hand! And nothing compared to the carving I’m gonna do.” Jean kills the second sheepherder in a similar fashion, before hunting down the last of her father’s murderers in a local town. She scoffs at his “blubbering,” warning, “It won’t help you,” as she stabs him to death in full view of the local sheriff and townspeople. Now on the run, Jean chooses suicide over capture, stabbing herself in the chest as the sheriff and his deputies surround her.
Within a nation that increasingly defined itself as advanced by the availability of jobs and power to women, comics like Crimes by Women, crowded with brutal and cruel images, were an affront. They depicted White American women as murderers, gangsters, and thieves and as both perpetrators and victims of violence. Comic book protagonists ran wild, killing innocents and criminals alike within a corrupt system that seemingly rewarded violence and revenge while mocking the concepts of family and friendship. Although the stories were billed as cautionary tales, criminals received justice only in the final panels of the narratives, often in a way that seemed insincere. The preceding pages made clear that crime could, in fact, pay; it was quite lucrative and thrilling for both women and men. Jean Terry not only murders the men that killed her father but also escapes justice by committing suicide. This was a profound shift from wartime superhero comics, in which the victims of violence were typically stereotyped Japanese characters or Nazis. In Crimes by Women, White women hurled acid at each other, fought with police officers, and forced men to dig their own graves. Like jazz or movies or Jackson Pollock’s modernist art, American crime comics proved popular abroad, indicating a market for the least-constrained products of American popular culture. Which, though, would define the United States internationally?
Excerpt reprinted with permission from Pulp Empire: The Secret History of Comic Book Imperialism by Paul S. Hirsch, published by The University of Chicago Press. © 2021 by The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved.