Excerpt from The American Comic Book Chronicles

From The American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1950s

© copyright 2013 by Bill Schelly


It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom,
it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief,
it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light,
it was the season of Darkness ….

— Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

The 50s:  The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

For some fans of American comic books, the 1950s was the most exciting era in the medium’s history. For others, it was the mediocre, confused period between the comics of the 1940s (the Golden Age) and the second rise of the super heroes in the 1960s.

Count me among those who believe comics of the ’50s are among the most exciting ever published.  They’re singularly fascinating for they not only encompass a proliferating variety of genres and titles, but showcase work by many writers and artists—the second generation of comic book creators, if you will—whose work was often more sophisticated than that of their predecessors.  In addition, it’s the only period when comic books were brought before a U. S. Senate Subcommittee, which led to massive changes in the medium that echoed through the Silver Age and beyond.

How can the era that produced the classic comics of EC (Tales from the Crypt, Weird Science, et al) and the start of the Silver Age of comics with the publication of the new Flash in Showcase #4 at DC not be considered among the “best of times”?  The same would be asserted, I’m certain, by the fans of Carl Barks’ masterful work on Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge, and those of John Stanley’s brilliant stories of Little Lulu and Tubby.  Harvey Kurtzman’s Mad can hardly be considered mediocre.  Indeed, it’s one of the great publishing success stories of the twentieth century, in both creative and financial terms.

Those who are only interested in super hero comics will naturally gravitate toward the 1940s and the 1960s (and beyond), but those who appreciate other kinds of comics find much of what they’re looking for in the 1950s.  Beyond the costumed hero fare still being published, there was also horror … crime and detective … Western … science fiction … jungle … teen humor … war … newspaper reprints … romance … funny animal … sports hero … educational … adventure … adaptations from other media (movies, radio, TV) and more.  1950s was the era when extra-thick 25-cent comics became common, and the innovative 3-D comic books were invented.  The tremendous variety of titles and genres of comics of the 1950s is one of the era’s greatest virtues.

On the other hand, it’s important to remember that the colorful costumed heroes didn’t disappear entirely in the 1950s.  Indeed, over 60 of them, both old and new, fought crime in the pages of the 52-page and 36-page comics of the era, including Martin Goodman’s first attempt to revive the great triumvirate of Captain America, the Human Torch, and the Sub-Mariner.  DC brought new costumed heroes to life in the 50s, such as the Martian Manhunter, Adam Strange, the Legion of Super-Heroes and Supergirl.  Even the Flash and Green Lantern—nominally “revivals”—were new characters only loosely based on their Golden Age counterparts.  Others invented new heroes too, characters who continue to fascinate, including Captain 3-D, Fighting American and the Fly from Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, that amazingly talented creative team.

Comic books in the form we know them had been in existence just sixteen years as the year 1950 arrived.  The super hero boom during World War II, which had largely been responsible for establishing the industry, had faded, but comic book sales had stabilized after a post-war lull.  New genres came along, several of them catering partially to older readers, both male and female.  The industry itself seemed poised for a successful decade.

What came in the 1950s, instead, was the most turbulent decade in the history of comics, and, as a result, one of the most interesting.  It was a time when comic books gained national attention, and not in a good way.  With the establishment of the self-censoring Comics Code Authority in late 1954, comics were forever changed, and over half of the publishers were forced to close up shop in the next two years.  Dozens of talented writers and artists were compelled to look for work elsewhere.  Tragedies piled up when some of the greatest in the field died young, among them Jack Cole (creator of Plastic Man), Joe Maneely (the star artist of the Marvel/Atlas comics line) and Matt Baker (master of depicting the female form).  Even television’s Superman, George Reeves, was felled by a speeding bullet in the decade’s last year.

“Worst of times”?  Yes, the dark side of the 1950s is an aspect that also can’t be denied.

Ultimately, with the birth of the Silver Age beginning in 1956, the industry rose phoenix-like to push ahead with comics designed to appeal to the rising tide of baby boomers.  They provided a burgeoning readership hungry for more colorful and fantastic entertainment than what they found on black-and-white TV or in the movies of the day.  Before computer graphics had come to cinema, only comic books could really satisfy that need.  And so, the baby boom inspired a comic book boom, and suddenly comics found their own New Frontiers just as the nation did with the arrival of 1960 and a new, young President.

The 1950s … the best of times, the worst of times…. Does the saga of the American comic book get any more fascinating than this?

— Bill Schelly

Table of Contents

Introduction & Acknowledgements
Chapter One:  1950
Variety on the Newsstand
Chapter Two:  1951
Before the Storm
Chapter Three:  1952
Chapter Four:  1953
EC Soars, Fawcett Crashes
Chapter Five:  1954
Comics in Crisis
Chapter Six:  1955
Chapter Seven:  1956
Birth of the Silver Age
Chapter Eight:  1957
Turbulence and Transition
Chapter Nine:  1958
National Takes the Lead
Chapter Ten:  1959
The Silver Age Gains Traction
Appendix: “Elegy” by Larry Stark
Works Cited/Bibliography