“Hey! That Ain’t Funny!”(Part 3)
Other Educational Comic Books
by Mark Carlson
in the Forties
In Parts 1 and 2 of “Hey! That Ain’t Funny!,” the rise of educational comic books in the early forties was chronicled. True Comics, Classics Illustrated, and Picture Stories of the Bible were all notable sales successes, as were publications geared specifically to Catholic youth. Far less profitable was a Protestant comic book named The Challenger, which espoused progressive attitudes towards interracial relations. After the war, two publishers took a chance by specifically targeting an African-American audience. Comic books marketed to teen-aged girls would prove more lucrative. Comics especially produced for science geeks and news junkies, not so much.
The Treatment of Blacks in Forties Comic Books
Tom and Sally of The Challenger comic book were the only serious depiction of adult African-American characters in the forties. Black men in the comic books were mostly limited to appearances as African natives in Tarzan and Sheena stories. Portrayals of black women were even rarer.
The most common continuing black characters in the funny books were highly stereotypical “comic” sidekicks. The Spirit was shadowed by Ebony White, Captain Marvel’s alter ego Billy Batson had a valet named Steamboat and a southern costumed hero named Johnny Rebel was assisted (incredibly enough) by a black servant named Rastus. There were also the token African-Americans of various boy gangs: Whitewash Jones of Marvel’s Young Allies being the most notable. The offensive treatment of blacks in Topix’ Wopsy series has already been discussed. Treasure Chest occasionally portrayed a black player on Chuck White’s football team in the late forties, but his name was never mentioned in any of the issues I’ve reviewed.
Over at Dell, a company noted for high editorial standards, the situation was only marginally better. In Animal Comics, cartoonist Walt Kelly drew a little black boy named Bumbazine in his “Albert and Pogo” series with both sympathy and realistic features. But he still ate watermelon. And the less said about Li’l Eight Ball, the bald-headed black boy of New Funnies, the better.
It is not an exaggeration to suggest that the only way African-American characters could be regularly featured in American comic books was to be boys that knew their place, both literally and figuratively. A strong and heroic black male presence in forties comic books was virtually non-existent. He might make a brief symbolic appearance in a very special story combating racism, as was the case in a forties Green Lama story, but he would be gone the following issue. The Classic Comics adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in November 1943 was notable, if not entirely laudable. Only Hecht’s True Comics and its associated titles would periodically feature respectful pictorial biographies of notable African-Americans.
White creators didn’t understand how their “innocent” creations could be considered offensive. C.C. Beck, recalling his creation of Steamboat for the internet magazine Hogan’s Alley, was unapologetic: Steamboat was created to capture the affection of Negro readers. Unfortunately he offended them instead and was unceremoniously killed off after a delegation of blacks visited the editor’s office protesting because he was a servant, because he had huge lips and kinky hair and because he spoke in a dialect. Whatever were they thinking? Beck went on to regret that a simple cartoon character was taken so seriously.
Negro Heroes and All-Negro Comics
Clearly, from Beck’s vignette, it’s clear that there was a growing sensitivity in the forties as to how black characters were portrayed (if shown at all) in mainstream mediums. But it was not until 1947 that comic books explicitly targeted a black readership. After years of very little positive, that year actually saw two such comic titles hit the newsstands.
As noted earlier, George Hecht the publisher of the True Comics line had seen to it that stories of African-Americans were occasionally represented. Even so, the precise timing of Negro Heroes still seems a bit suspicious. One suspects Hecht got word of an all-black comic book in the works and decided to beat them to the progressive punch. Whatever the actual reasons, an all-reprint issue of Negro Heroes appeared in Spring, 1947. The first issue was pulled together using stories that had previously appeared in past issues of his other comic book titles.
All-Negro Comics was published only a few months later in June. What had started as something entirely new was now the second such comic book to see print. Publisher Orrin C. Evans was clearly aware of his competition. This is apparent in what Evans claimed and didn’t claim in his opening issue editorial:
Dear Readers: This is the first issue of All-Negro Comics, jam-packed with fast action, African adventure, good clean humor and fantasy. Each brush stroke and pen line in the drawings on these pages are by Negro artists. And each drawing is an original, that is, none has been published ANYWHERE before. This publication is another milestone in the splendid history of Negro journalism. Evans also told readers they would also be exposed to the glorious historical achievements of Negro men and women within the pages of this comic book.
Orrin C. Evans had been part of more than a few journalistic milestones in his life. Evans was one of the first African-American writers to have a mainstream reporting job at a major city newspaper, namely the Philadelphia Record. He risked his own safety by writing critically about segregation in the Armed Services during World War II. After the war was over, however, Evans lost his job when the Record shut down during a worker’s strike. Rather than sit idle, Evans decided to pursue an idea that had been percolating inside his head for some time.
Evans, like those protesters who had complained to the editors of Captain Marvel, had noted the lack of admirable black characters in comic books. He approached some of his former colleagues at the Record about publishing a comic book written and drawn for and by black people. He then approached a number of writers and artists in Philadelphia, including his own brother, and pulled together the first fifteen cent issue of All Negro Comics. The relatively higher costs of a low print run may have contributed to the cover price in an industry where nearly every other comic book only cost a dime.
The lead feature of All Negro was the two-fisted police detective Ace Harlem. Harlem was ably drawn by an artist named John Terrell. Evans’ brother George contributed Lion Man, who was arguably America’s first black costume hero.
The United Nations send the “college-educated” and well-dressed Lion Man to the Gold Coast to protect a huge deposit of uranium there. But when ready for action, Lion Man doffs his urban attire and strips down to a decorative loin cloth, complete with matching head and arm bands. He even adopts a kid sidekick along the way, an African orphan named Bubba.
More comical adventures were generated by Sugarfoot, a traveling musician who was accompanied by a jive-talking pal named Snake Oil. Other, less notable humor features filled out the comic book.
For a beginning effort, All Negro wasn’t too bad. Evans had the artwork prepared for a second issue but he now unable to obtain newsprint from his original source or any other, as it turned out. It seems reasonable to wonder if this sudden paper shortage was actually motivated by racism. Unbroken, Evans returned to newspaper work and ultimately became an editor at the Philadelphia Bulletin, a pioneer in that as with nearly everything else in his career.
As for All Negro’s competition, Negro Heroes only managed one more issue before it also ceased publication. That final issue may have been published in cooperation with the National Urban League. Publisher Hecht featured popular baseball star Jackie Robinson on the title’s final cover.
Jackie Robinson would prove popular enough to be featured in six issues of his own comic book (issued by a different publisher) in the early fifties. But for the forties, this would be the end of comic books featuring African-Americans in starring roles. It was an idea that would turn out to be decades ahead of its time.
Science, News and History
After his success with Picture Stories From the Bible, Max Gaines was enthusiastic about producing other educational Picture Stories titles. The earliest issue of Picture Stories From American History had first appeared in 1944, even as conflicts were escalating between Gaines and his business partners Jack Liebowitz and Harry Donenfeld.
Things finally came to a head in 1945 and Liebowitz and Donenfeld bought Gaines out for half a million dollars. But Gaines retained the rights to his brain children, the Picture Stories comic books. And his settlement gave him plenty of capital with which to play, Gaines did not stay out of publishing for long.
Gaines started by reprinting his old Picture Stories titles under a new E.C. (for Educational Comics) logo. To his existing titles, he added Picture Stories From World History and Picture Stories From Science in the spring of 1947. Other titles in his new E.C. line-up were children’s books such as Animal Fables, Dandy Comics, Land of the Lost and Tiny Tot Comics. It appears that the former educator was trying to give the wholesome Parents Comics line a run for its money.
While Gaines’ heart was in the right place, his comic books were poorly drawn and even worse for a publisher poorly distributed. By the summer of ’47, Gaines had lost $100,000 in the pursuit of his dream. The noble experiment would go no further, for that summer Gaines was killed in a freak boating accident. His son, Bill, had different ideas about what sold comic books. His infamous horror comics and wildly successful Mad Magazine would be the results of his efforts. That wouldn’t happen until the fifties. The more immediate step was that Bill cancelled any further production of the Picture Stories line.
Max Gaines wasn’t the only one who was having a hard time making educational comics sell. The dropping of the atom bomb had prompted a renewed interest in science amongst American children, or so comic publishers hoped. Ace issued its Science Comics in January 1946, complete with an illustrated history of atomic research. Charlton chose a more action-packed approach for its Marvels of Science, first published in March that year. In it, a youthful Sid Greene illustrated the story of German atomic scientist Niels Bohr and the Allied effort to help him escape from Nazi persecution. But the two comic books lasted only five and four issues respectively.
Future World Comics, published by George W. Dougherty, promised a “preview of the world tomorrow.” Its second issue speculated on the possibility of a “flying subway” car that would take passengers from New York to Paris in just an hour via a tunnel beneath the ocean floor. Dougherty might have done better pondering Future World’s present. The second issue would turn out to be its last.
Over at DC, Liebowitz and Donenfeld decided to venture into the territory that has so excited their former partner. The first issue of Real Fact Comics hit the newsstands in April of 1946. The cover heralded “true picture stories from the drama of life.” This was perhaps gilding the lily; inside, readers got the scoop on “Raffles the Bird that Talks” and the amazing “Ghost of Guam.” That same issue also set the record straight on whether Jean Laffite was a pirate or patriot! Surely a burning question in the minds of American youth. Or maybe not...
No wonder that DC figured out a way to get Batman and Robin on the cover of Real Fact Comics #4, promising readers the “true story” of their creation. And the adventures of Tommy Tomorrow, the first man to set foot on a foreign planet, began to appear sporadically with issue #6. Tommy’s tales were intended to be “the real facts” of how space travel might actually happen. It was a bit of a stretch, but a necessary one to inject some excitement into the title. It might have galled Gaines, had he lived, to see their effort achieve relative success while his struggled so. Real Fact ran for 21 issues, until 1949.
Lafayette News tried a bolder experiment. Emile Gauvreau, best known for his association with the New York Graphic and Mirror newspapers, tried to break into a new field by portraying breaking news in monthly comic book form. The result, Picture News, got a fair amount of early publicity for its novel approach. Declaring itself interested in “liberal and significant issues,” the first January 1946 edition featured the atom bomb on its cover, flames filling a bright sky. “Will the atom blow the world apart?” the accompanying text blurb asked urgently. “George Bernard Shaw warns: It’s liberty if we don’t watch our step.” Lighter news stories featured heiress Barbara Hutton and cartoonist Milt Gross.
Gauvreau had 350,000 copies printed of that first issue. Overly optimistic, he increased the print run to half a million for the second issue in February. Not above efforts to goose sales, Gauvreau showed a mild to moderate preoccupation with atomic carnage. It wasn’t enough. Targeted to both an adolescent and adult market, Picture News was something of a mishmash. It folded after nine issues.
With paper in easy supply after the war, it seemed like everyone was getting into the educational comics act. The Jacquet art shop, which had produced educational material for both Classic and True Comics, decided to eliminate the middle man with its Your United States one-shot. Published the same year as Picture News, it was a bland effort no great surprise comprised of a page of info on each of the 48 states. Mayflower House published one issue of its patriotic America in Action in the Winter of 45/46.
Separate But Equal Comics for Girls and Boys
With paper restrictions a thing of the past, Parents’ Magazine moved to entirely revamp its comic book line. Central to these plans was a significant reformatting of Calling All Girls. With its January 1946 issue, Calling All Girls switched to an all text and photo format. Parents’ historian Amos Slate described the motivation for the shift in these terms: Time and correspondence from teen readers made it increasingly apparent that the “quality group” of young ladies to whom it appealed preferred a more grown up publication, so Calling All Girls shed its comics as of the December 1945 issue. The move turned out to make good business sense. Sales for Calling All Girls per issue went from 590,000 in 1945 to an impressive 880,000 in 1946.
To make up for the loss of Calling All Girls as a comic book, Parents’ announced four additional titles, each one aimed at a specific target audience. True Comics remained as its flagship title, with a paid circulation of 570,000 holding steady in ’45 and ’46.
Assuming comic books only appealed to young female readers, Parents started up a new hybrid text and comics title called Polly Pigtails. Polly Pigtails was specifically targeted for girls aged seven to twelve. There was a syrupy feature called the Pigtail Club (female members were called Pigtailers) and, later, Polly Pigtails in her own series. Polly solved mysteries so tame that Nancy Drew seemed positively racy by comparison. Also in ample supply were the pre-teen antics of Tizzie. The usual mix of fashion, cooking and hobby tips filled out the text sections of the magazine. Polly Pigtails was intended as sort of a starter magazine for girls who would then graduate to Calling All Girls.
Given the success of that title, it seemed only natural that Parents’ would introduce a comic book entitled Calling All Boys. Also targeted towards boys was Sports Stars (1946), featuring true stories of famous athletic figures, past and present. Calling All Kids was introduced as a new magazine for younger readers, replacing the poor selling Funny Book. The editors at Parents’ Magazine were clearly trying to develop a franchise with their “Calling” titles.
But publisher Hecht was having a hard time successfully targeting his female readership. Polly Pigtails was found to be too juvenile in execution for many girls who still were interested in purchasing comic books. Sales that first year were a meager 250,000 per issue. Sweet Sixteen was started in September of 1946, to recapture the comics-oriented teen girl who was no longer well-served by either Calling All Girls or Polly Pigtails.
Sweet Sixteen was heavily geared towards glamour, with movie star bios included in every issue. From the first issue on, each edition also featured the ongoing adventures of Dorothy Dare, Hollywood Stunt Girl. Dorothy’s stories were not half as exciting as they could have been, but she remained a step up from Polly Pigtails.
Also included in Sweet Sixteen was a typical Parents’ feature, the Four O’Clock Club, “girls just like you with loads of ideas for you class coke-clique.” Somewhat more appealing was the series, “When Mother was 16,” which would begin with a mother and her 16-year old daughter, but soon flashed back to the teen antics of Mom when she was the same age. Text pieces on fashion and careers filled out the new book. But sales on Sweet Sixteen were worse than expected, starting out at a weak 230,000.
Polly Pigtails also continued to struggle. The title was shortened to Polly: The Girls’ Fun and Fashion Magazine in the late forties, because many girl readers had complained to the magazine that pigtails were no longer fashionable. But the editors, in turn, worried “that Polly suggested to many readers that it was exclusively a comic magazine which, of course, it isn’t.” The last issue of Polly saw print in late 1949, and the new decade would see the title changed one last time to Girls’ Fun and Fashion Magazine. Polly and Tizzie were still a part of the mix, but neither fish nor fowl, Girls’ Fun and Fashion only lasted five more issues.
The Teen Scene Emulators
There were not a lot of publishers in the forties who attempted to compete with Parents’ in producing this bland, but highly acceptable mix of comic books and text. Lev Gleason produced two issues of Young Life in 1944 before transforming it into Teen Life for three more issues the following year. Both incarnations boasted a mix of comics, movie and music news, sports, fiction and fashions. One issue even included an article by Duke Ellington on swing.
Two adjoining text features in Teen Life #3 allowed guys and gals to complain about the opposite sex. “Why must men be such dopes?” Bette Ann Kimmel wondered. “Oh these women,” complained Robert Brody. The editors timidly noted that they “present the exchange of gripes on these pages because we think you readers might find them helpful as well as amusing. Maybe you’ve got some ideas of your own on the subject. Send them in and we’ll pass them on to our readers.”
Teen Life tried to appeal to both male and female teen-agers, to its detriment. Articles on pro basketball stars shared space with articles on autumn dances. Ill drawn humor features named Alvin and Teen Canteen fleshed out the comics section.
Keen Teens, published by Magazine Enterprises from 1945 to 1947, featured a similarly ill-conceived mix of movie photos, comics and helpful text features. It also inexplicably included newspaper strip reprints of Claire Voyant, an attractive heroine with psychic powers. The magazine, lacking a clear focus, folded after six issues. A far more legitimate threat to Calling All Girls would come out of the publishing house of Martin Goodman.
Miss America Wants You!
At first, Miss America looked nothing like a teen interest magazine. In its debut issue, published by the same folks who put out the Human Torch and Sub-Mariner, Miss America was devoted to the costumed adventures of its titular heroine. With its second issue, the title was lengthened to Miss America Magazine. Multiple text features and a new teen humor series (Patsy Walker) were added. As many comic fans know, the good-hearted, red-headed Patsy would become a Marvel standby for over twenty years.
By the sixth issue, Miss America, the heroine, was out of her own magazine. Etiquette and grooming tips were in. The title now read Miss America for Teen-Agers, though it might just as well have read “for teen-age girls.” Each issue featured a photo of an attractively attired gal on the cover and boasted an assortment of comics, charm, fashion, text stories and movie info inside. The magazine had quickly morphed into a format very similar to that of Calling All Girls. Ironically, this was the very same format that the Parent’s title was planning to abandon.
Publisher Martin Goodman (only 37 at the time) sensed real potential in this new type of comic book. Miss America was an opportunity to tap into the underserved female market. He was already aware of the national network of Miss America Clubs that met in department stores. (At this time, I’m unclear on whether there was a “Miss America” licensing entity that connected the clubs, Goodman’s comic, and the increasingly popular beauty pageant by the same name.) The department store would donate space for parties, dancing and socializing. Boys were welcome only by invitation.
Goodman decided to sponsor a related chain of girls’ clubs called Teen Hand Arts Clubs. The clubs would use the Miss America Club rooms but focused on developing arts and craft skills instead. Girls who won club contests were featured in issues of Miss America. In a promotional article in the February 1946 issue of Magazine World, Goodman somewhat expansively said he hoped all of this would lead to a national exhibit of his readers’ artistic efforts.
To assist him in developing this new readership, Goodman appointed an all-female advisory board of society women and career gals. Members included Aileen Fogarty, a former foreign correspondent and war widow, and movie actress Loraine Day. Editorial efforts for Miss America were based “in a suite in the Empire State Building, turned out by a noted interior decorator with plenty of Peter Hunt furniture and emphasis upon American primitives in the way of Art.”
It is unclear just how popular Goodman’s clubs became, but the Magazine World article suggested it was a nationwide effort. The same article noted that Miss America already had “a paid circulation of nearly a million.” This may have been something of an exaggeration, as sources in 1945 document sales at 490,000 per issue. Whatever the exact number, the comic book was clearly a success. A survey of girls at a Cincinnati fashion show revealed that Miss America readers were predominantly adolescent girls, aged thirteen to fifteen.
Miss America was now selling well enough to justify editor Stan Lee in starting another mixed comics/text magazine named Junior Miss in 1947. In terms of its comics content, Junior Miss featured two teen series: yet another cute redhead named Cindy Smith and Georgie, a male teen inexplicably fond of his loud, checker-board coat. Letter columns suggested the female readership didn’t take to Georgie and he was soon replaced by a more benign, bespectacled teen named Homer.
Short stories, beauty tips and contests filled out the rest of Junior Miss. For twenty-five cents, readers could obtain featured dress patterns from Junior Miss’ “pattern department.” Girls could look for pen pals or submit limericks in the hopes of winning the promised dollar for publication. Far from naughty, these “teen type” limericks were downright moralistic. One winning entry from Connie Holmes of Monument, Kansas went like this: “There once was a young lady named Rose/who made fun of other girls’ clothes/She just looked about/And soon found out/She had no more friends, but just foes!”
The market for teen comic-text hybrids faded with the decade. Miss America sales dropped from 420,000 per issue in 1949 to 260,000 the following year. Goodman and Lee made the decision to drop text features from both Miss America and Junior Miss and turn them into conventional teen humor comic books.
Summing It Up
Educational comic books as a genre never truly caught on and always remained a small portion of the total comic book market. But for a period in the forties, they remained a small but viable alternative to mainstream comics. Once the war was underway, criticism of comic books dropped off markedly. Compared to the horror of war, the issue of comic book violence must have seemed like small potatoes. It was not until the post-war period, and the rise of the more violent crime comic book, that interest in censoring comic books once again took on a life of its own. By then, insiders knew it would take more than a few well-intentioned comic books like Calling All Girls and Classics Illustrated to stem the tide.
All comments, corrections or additions to this ongoing history of the comic book industry are always welcome. In coming issues of Nostalgia Zine, watch for a forties history of Lev Gleason villains, Iron Jaw and the Claw. Also keep an eye open for my exploration of a wild, reckless and oddly endearing period of American comic books: the era of paper rationing, 1942 to 1945. I’ve always loved exploring the backwaters of comic book history, and trust me, it doesn’t get much more murky than the story of the short-lived publishers that flourished some of them illegally while the war wore on!