Comic book company showcase: EC comics

Happy Halloween everyone!

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A while ago we did a write up of an old comic book publisher called Camera Comics and since that post did pretty well so we decided to do something similar.  Today we’re going to talk about a comic book publisher from the 1940’s, but this publisher isn’t obscure or unknown.  In fact, this publisher was one of the greatest comic book companies ever created, a company that pioneered the comic book as an art form, and one of the founding fathers of the horror comic.

Ladies and gentlemen: EC Comics.

Origin

The company was founded by a man named Maxwell Gaines.

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If you don’t know the name you definitely know his work.  Gaines actually helped pioneer the modern comic book in 1933 when he worked for a company called Eastern Color Printing and was struggling to come up with an advertising idea for one of his company’s clients.  He would up packaging newspaper comic strips into a magazine format with an included coupon from the client.

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In 1934 Gaines published a collection of stories called Famous Funnies through a company called Dell Comics.

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It was the first book of its kind to be distributed through newsstands and is widely considered to be the first American comic book.

Gaines would continue to publish original material and in 1938 he partnered with a man named Jack Liebowitz

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and began publishing material under the name All American Publications.

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Liebowitz just so happened to be a co owner of another comic book publisher named Harry Donenfeld, who owned a company called National Publications and agreed to fund All American Publications.  Gaines and Liebowitz would go on to publish little known characters such as

Wonder Woman

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Green Lantern

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and Hawkman

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In 1944 Donenfeld would buy All American Publications and merge it with National (and several other companies) to form a company called DC Comics.

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While many people would have probably have just taken the money and enjoyed the retired life secure in their legacy, Max Gaines wasn’t done by a long shot.

Gaines used the money from the sale to start his own company: Educational Comics.

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Gaines decided to not focus on superhero stories and published educational and historical stories instead.  Titles like Picture Stories from American History and Picture Stories from the Bible were going to be published and marketed to schools and churches.

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While it could have been a great direction for the company to go in, the plans were sadly derailed when Max Gaines died in a boating accident in 1947.

The company would be taken over by his son, William Gaines.

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William wanted to take the company in a new direction.  While he kept the Bible stories he decided to change the name to Entertaining Comics and publish non educational material.

The new EC Comics quickly gained a reputation as a publisher of high quality comic books. Among their many innovations was a letter section in the back of a comic book where artists could communicate with their fans.  This was a first in the publishing industry and would go on to become a staple of comic books.

Another thing that EC did was adopt the novel idea that their artist SHOULDN’T be treated like complete and total garbage.  This may seem like a strange thing to bring up but you have to remember that a lot of early comic book publishers didn’t pay their artists very well and didn’t give them the credit they deserve.  EC was unique in that it paid their artists well and encouraged them to develop their own styles and techniques.

This paid off big time.  EC Comics attracted some fantastic artists for their stories about more mature subject matter such as crime,

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war,

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and science fiction.

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But by far their biggest sellers were their horror titles such as The Vault of Horror

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The Haunt of Fear,

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and most infamously, Tales from the Crypt.

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These weren’t your average comic book story.  More often than not they would feature tales of wicked people suffering gruesome and ironic fates which were narrated by macabre individuals such as the Crypt Keeper.

Times were good and in the late 1940’s EC comics became known for its fantastic art and lurid storytelling.

So what happened?

In a perfect world EC Comics would have gone on to become one of the greatest and most popular comic book companies in the world and would have helped to advance the medium of comic books into a legitimate art form.

Unfortunately we don’t live in a perfect world and in 1954 a German psychologist named Fredric Wertham published a book called Seduction of the Innocent, which claimed that comic books were corrupting the minds of American children.

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The backlash grew so strong that there was a Congressional hearing to investigate the rise of juvenile delinquency in America and the comic book industry suffered.

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In response, the industry leaders banded together and created the Comics Code Authority.  It was a regulatory body that established certain guidelines for what could be published and distributed to children.  A company could still create any comic they wanted, but if they wanted to get it distributed they had to submit it to the Comics Code for approval and get a stamp if they wanted to see their book sold to make a profit.

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The Code decimated the industry and EC comics was hit especially hard since you were no longer allowed to publish comics with words like “horror”, “crime”, or “terror”.  You can read the full list of limitations here.

Despite poor sales and a decimated title library, EC Comics did manage to survive.  Despite the fact they couldn’t publish any of their old comics they had a small title simply titled Mad.

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Gaines decided to publish the title as a magazine, thus avoiding the Comics Code, and the new Mad Magazine continued to sell well and is still around today.

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Gaines would sell EC Comics to the Kinney Parking Company in the early 1960’s.  The history of that deal is way to complicated for this article but long story short, EC Comics would eventually be owned by the same company would later own DC Comics and Warner Communications.

William Gaines would die in 1992 and despite all the terrible things that happened to the company that he and his father built, the one thing that is ensured is their legacy and great comic book creators.  Even though they had been decimated by the backlash against comic books in the 1950’s EC comics still had a fantastic reputation among fans and creators alike.

In the 1970’s Tales from the Crypt was licensed as a horror movie.

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The movie followed the anthology style of the comic books and was a big enough hit to spawn another movie based off of the EC Comics title The Vault of Horror.

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In the 1980’s there were two movies titled Creepshow and Creepshow 2.  Both of them followed the EC horror comics format, both of them were influenced by EC Comic stories, and featured scripts written by Stephen King and George Romero.

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In the 1990’s HBO would take Tales from the Crypt and turn it into a long running horror anthology series that lasted for ten years.

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The legacy of EC Comics would be ensured, but if you’re interested in reading the original work then have no fear, reprints are here.  While many publishers have made a killing off of reprinting these fantastic stories they are currently being republished by Fantagraphics Books.

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In a world where superheroes dominated the comic book landscape EC comics dared to be different.  To this day they are well known for their fantastic art work and exceptional storytelling abilities.  They were the founders of the modern horror comic and deserve a place as one of the greatest, and most chilling, comic book publishers out there.

Happy Halloween everyone, sleep well.

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Golden Age Showcase: All Negro Comics #1

So this show just came out on Netflix.

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I freaking love it.  The actors are awesome, the soundtrack is phenomenal, and while it’s probably the least “comic booky” of all the shows Marvel puts out, it is a fantastic homage to the 1970’s blaxploitation films that the comic took influence from.

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Luke Cage was a product of the 1970’s, a time when American black culture was really coming into its own, and comic books responded with a whole bunch of new and interesting black characters, including Luke Cage himself.

Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #1 (1972)

Black Lightning #1 (1977)

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While black people and culture would come into its own in the late 60’s and early 70’s, black people were actually part of comic book culture from its very beginning.

In a lot of the Golden Age Comics I’ve read over the course of this blog I’ve come across a lot of black characters.  The downside is that the overwhelming majority of these characters were not exactly culturally sensitive.

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However, that didn’t stop black people from looking at the racism and stereotypes prevalent in the early days of the comic book industry and trying to do something about it.

It a time when it was still illegal for a black man to use the same restroom as a white man.

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there were black people who took a look at comic books, this new form of mass entertainment that was capturing the hearts and minds of millions, and said,

“we deserve our own comic books and we’re going to make them ourselves.”

Today we’re going to look at the first comic book created by black people, for black people.

Comic Book Cover For All-Negro Comics #1

Origin

Despite what you might think by looking at the cover, this comic has a hell of a pedigree behind it.

The idea for the comic came from a man named Orrin C. Evans.

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Mr. Evens was a reporter from Philadelphia.  Not only was he a reporter, he worked for a paper called the Philadelphia Record

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and was the first black reporter to work for a mainstream newspaper.

When the Record went out of business in 1947 he teamed up with several of his former co workers from the newspaper and published All Negro Comics #1 in 1947.

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Evans was a member of the NAACP and a strong advocate for racial equality and it shows in the very first page of the comic, where he explains that the comic was created to educate people about the contributions and accomplishments of black people in America, celebrate those achievements, and “to give American Negroes a reflection of their natural spirit of adventure and a finer appreciation of their African heritage”.

 Comic Book Cover For All-Negro Comics #1

This was a comic written by black people, drawn by black people, for black people and the stories and artwork are pretty darn good.

It was a 52 page anthology comic that had a bit of everything.  Besides the introductory letter there were prose stories along with a collection of diverse stories from crime mysteries and comedies.  There were even some PSA’s and “crime doesn’t pay” advertisements.

Comic Book Cover For All-Negro Comics #1

Some of the more notable characters were figures like Ace Harlem, a detective who managed to chase down and capture a pair of thieves who held up a barbecue restaurant and killed its owner.

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the man was intelligent, observant, and capable of dishing out a beating when he needed too.

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Another story was a single page comedy featuring a character named “Lil’Eggie” who suffered at the hands of his over bearing wife.

Comic Book Cover For All-Negro Comics #1

and then there’s my personal favorite: “Lion Man”

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Lion Man was an American college educated man who was sent to Africa at the behest of the United Nations in an attempt to safeguard a large natural deposit of uranium in order to prevent evil men from seizing it to make a bomb.

Comic Book Cover For All-Negro Comics #1

He had a sidekick named Bubba, who was often more trouble than he was worth.

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He tried to be helpful.  After Lion Man stopped the evil Dr. Sangro from seizing the mountain,

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Bubba tries to help by using a machine gun to attack the assailants.

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the plot is foiled, but Dr. Sangro survives to fight another day.

What I really like about this comic is how it portrays the traditional “African savage” with a lot more respect than other comics from the time.  Granted, Lion Man is American and Bubba does fall into a lot of the tropes that belong to annoying, mildly racist sidekicks, but when all is said and done it is probably the fairest and most reasonable portrayal of black men in Africa in the 1940’s.

The comic had good writing, good artwork, and a heartfelt message behind it.  It was a great representation of what black people could do for comics and deserves a place in the history books as the first comic of its kind.

So what happened?

While there were plans for an All Negro Comics #2 but the title was doomed from the start.

For starters the comic was only distributed to segregated African American communities

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which meant that the audience for the comic was sadly limited.

Second, the price for the comic was 15 cents during time when every other comic was selling for 10 cents.

And finally, good ol’ fashioned racism reared its ugly head when everyone from the people selling the newsprint the comic was printed on to the distributors who put the comic on newsstands refused to do business with Evens and his business partners.

All Negro Comics would only last a single issue, even though we don’t know how many comics were sold it’s safe to say it didn’t sell very well.  However, I like to think that this comic represented an important moment in comic book history and the history of race in America.

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For the first time, a group of black people looked at an industry that was overwhelmingly created by and for white children and said “No, we can create comic books and stories that deserve to be told too” and they did.

There’s no way of telling what the impact of All Negro Comics had on the black community at the time, but it’s important to recognize and acknowledge it as a foundation for black people in comics.

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Golden Age Showcase: The Blue Blaze

Last week we talked about a robot made entirely of rubber, and he appeared in the anthology title Mystic Comics #1.

I’ve been noticing that a lot of the superheroes that have appeared on this blog series actually got their start on this title so it got me a bit curious, who’s the man on the cover?

He’s clearly a superhero and capable of handling himself in a fight.  It appears that he’s incredibly strong and fearless if he’s able to hold all those monsters at bay and from the bullet striking him in the chest it appears that he’s practically bulletproof.  Also, it seems that he really likes the color blue and sadly, that costume isn’t very original or exciting.

So who is he?

Well, it turns out his name is the Blue Blaze and, bland costume aside, he’s actually pretty interesting.

Origin and Career

The Blue Blaze’s real name was Spencer Keen and while his date of birth isn’t known it’s established that he was a young adult in 1852.

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His father was Dr. Arthur Keene of Midwest College

who had discovered a mysterious “blue blaze” that had the power to bring dead animals back to life.

Spencer had been visiting his father while on his way to a costume party, where he had chosen to wear the blue suit that would eventually become his superhero outfit.

Unfortunately, they were living in the Midwest of America where tornadoes are incredibly common.

Sadly, this was before advanced early warning systems were in effect and the tornado destroyed most of the town, killing Arthur Keene, most of the town, and shattering the container that contained the Blue Blaze and spilling it on Spencer.

In the wake of the incredible tragedy the town tried to recover.  However, in the confusion of the disaster, nobody bothered to check and see if Spencer was dead.  In a rather horrific twist of fate he was buried alive and remained buried until the 1940’s.

Fortunately for him, the strange substance of the Blue Blaze didn’t just keep him alive, it gave him “strength a thousand fold by means of substrate dermatic rays” (whatever the hell that means) and in 1940 he arose from the grave because he “was made conscious of the slow dominion of evil”.

His subsequent adventures would reflect his rather grisly origin.  His first opponent was a mad scientist named Dr. Drake Maluski

The Doctor’s grand scheme was to reanimate corpses into an army of zombies in order to take over the world, proving that our fascination with zombies is nothing new and will probably never die.

Maluski Zombies

It should be noted that on the spectrum of violence in early Golden Age comic books the Blue Blaze took the “I have no trouble with using lethal force” approach and the evil doctor was killed when his lab exploded.

In his second adventure the Blue Blaze confronted another mad scientist named Karl Barko.

Barko was an inventor and in his story he was attempting to run a protection racket where he would blow up mine shafts filled with people if the mining companies didn’t pay up for his inventions.

While Barko attempted to use gadgets such as “freeze rays” and special explosives to combat the Blue Blaze but was quickly defeated and shipped off to a mental institution.

His third adventure was a battle against another mad scientist called “The Star Gazer”

who was using star rays to create monsters that fought for him.

Star-Monster (Earth-616)

I bring this up because this adventure was the cover story of Mystic Comics #3, and his home to what I think is one of the greatest comic book covers ever.

The Blue Blaze would go on to have one more adventure where he traveled to Eastern Europe in order to stop the Trustees of Hate from provoking a war between the fictional countries of Borsia and Gratzia.

While the Trustees of Hate were headed by the awesomely named “Dr. Vortex”, the Blue Blaze defeated them fairly easily.

So what happened?

His battle with the Trustees of Hate would be his last and Blue Blaze would disappear from comics in August of 1940.

However, the writers must have thought that they should leave a backdoor open in case the Blue Blaze would make a comeback because in his last adventure they make it known that every time he defeats evil he travels back to the grave in order to wait for the next crime to solve.  For some reason there are strange cosmic forces at work that move his body around to “new centers of crime” and when he is needed he will wake up to do battle with the forces of evil again.

To date the Blue Blaze hasn’t had a modern incarnation or revival like some of his other Golden Age companions.  Looking back it is easy to see why, his costume is kind of boring and while he does have a cool origin story and fought some pretty interesting villains it is easy to assume that he simply got lost in the crowd.

Which is a shame because when you consider all the other mythical/demonic/undead heroes and villains Marvel has in their library:

I think the Blue Blaze would fit right in with the right writer and costume change.

4th of July Special: My top 5 Superman stories

Happy Fourth of July everyone!

and what better way to celebrate American independence than to look at the greatest American superhero ever created.

Is there anyone in modern fiction that embodies the ideals of truth, justice, and the American way?

Well, technically that last part isn’t exactly honest.  The “American Way” part of the motto wasn’t added until the 1950’s in an attempt to make Superman more politically friendly and “safe” for kids.  The original Superman had no problem threatening politicians and destroying homes in the name of justice and fair treatment.

Still, all things aside, Superman’s commitment to fighting for the little guy does make him an important figure in American pop culture.  He’s been dissected, discussed, and re interpreted countless time throughout the decades and today I would like to talk about five of the most important and/or interesting Superman stories ever told.

I believe that these five stories focus on a major aspect of Superman’s character and attempt to explain who the Man of Steel is and why he is, and must remain, the way he is.  This list is not designed to be an extensive description of the plots of each of these stories and I highly encourage you to check them out on your own.

Note: This list is my opinion and my opinion only.  If I left out your favorite Superman story please feel free to let me know in the comments.

5. Superman: Red Son

Writer: Mark Millar

Artists: Dave Johnson and Killian Plunkett

Date published: 2003

A huge part of Superman’s personality and character stems from the fact that he grew up on a small farm in the middle of Kanses, the heartland of America.

His parents raised him the best way they could and gave their adopted son Clark the values and moral compass that made him the hero he became.

“Red Son” asks the question: what if Superman hadn’t landed in Kansas?  What if he had landed in America’s ideological opponent: the Soviet Union?

Without going into too much detail it’s safe to say it doesn’t end very well for America and instead of being instilled with values that promote freedom and individual liberty the new Soviet Superman becomes something akin to a Big Brother figure, watching over the people of the world as an authority figure rather than a benevolent guardian.

4. What’s so funny about Truth, Justice, and the American Way?

Writer: Joe Kelly

Artists: Doug Mahnke and Lee Bermejo

Date published: 2001

Unlike most titles on the list this is not a stand alone story, rather it’s an arc in the Action Comics title, which is the long running Superman series that started in 1938 and only ended in 2011 (we’ll get to that).

This story is a discussion on one of the biggest questions a lot of readers have about Superman: why doesn’t he just kill his enemies?

Now, some superheroes do kill,

and some superheroes used to kill

but had that part of their character changed due to editorial mandate and the need to keep a running stable of villains.

While Superman has had his fair share of violent streaks, he has remained pretty committed to not killing his enemies for a very long time.  Even though he has the power to wipe out entire solar systems

and many people have pointed out that, by letting the bad guys he captures live, they have gone on to cause even more death and destruction.

Seriously, in order for a villain to present a threat to Superman they either have to have enough power to rack up a body count in the billions or wield enough intelligence and influence to control countless numbers of people.

“What’s so Funny about Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” answered that question and gave a pretty good reason as to why Superman doesn’t just kill his enemies, no matter how much they may deserve it.

The story starts with Superman coming face to face with a group of heroes known as “The Elite”

They are a group of erstwhile heroes who have no qualms about killing the villains they capture, much to the delight of the people of Earth and the dismay of Superman.

Things come to a head and the Elite and Superman wind up fighting each other.

It is very much an ideological battle that asks a whole lot of questions.  What is the purpose of a hero?  What is the proper use of power?  How far should a hero go in order to keep the peace?

All of these questions are answered in a fight that I believe is one of the best fights in comics.  Granted, the story can be a little heavy handed and self serving at times, but the story shows why Superman must remain the way he his, why he is still relevant it today’s society, and gives us a glimpse into the terrifying vision of a Superman who has no problem killing people.

3. All Star Superman

Writer: Grant Morrison

Artist: Frank Quietly

Publication date: 2011

This is the most modern Superman story to appear on the list and one that answers the OTHER big question about Superman: how can you make a man who is literally invulnerable interesting?

Morrison tackles this question by doing something brilliant: he kills Superman.

Basically, an accident near the sun saturates Superman’s cells with radiation and he only has a short while to live before he disintegrates into energy.

The story is about the last days of Superman on Earth as he says goodbye to Louis Lane.

manages to defeat Lex Luthor one last time,

and comes to grips with his own mortality and several of the stranger bits of the Superman mythos.

This is Superman at his most basic essence.  He’s not protecting a cause, he’s not working with any other hero, he’s a God among men and he is doing everything he can to help.

This series is also home to what I consider to be the greatest page in all of comics.

I tear up every time.

2. Action Comics #1

Not only is this the first appearance of the Superman we know and love, it’s the first American superhero comic ever published.

We owe so much to this comic it’s difficult to describe.  Everything from the costume,

to his secret identity,

To his strange origins define so much of what it means to be a modern day superhero.

Granted, there were other masked vigilantes around before Superman and yes, there are plenty of heroes who have gone on to eclipse the Man of Steel in popularity but I think it is important to remember that without this,

there would be none of this.

1. Superman and the Clan of the Fiery Cross

This isn’t a comic book, it’s a story that ran as a radio serial between June 16th, 1946 to July 1st, 1946 and I believe it is the single most important Superman story ever created.

Post war America had a problem with a group called the Ku Klux Klan.

For anyone who might not know, the Ku Klux Klan (or KKK for short) is a vile hate group that was formed by white men in the American South in order to protect American societ, just as long as that society was white and Protestant Christian.

Unfortunately they are still around and while they used to campaign against the inclusion of black people into American society

they continue to exist today as a force campaigning against immigration and what they perceive as an invasion of America by foreigners.

So why am I talking about this?  Well, in the 1940’s a human rights activist and investigative journalist from Jacksonville Florida named Stetson Kennedy decided to go undercover and investigate the Klan.

He uncovered a whole bunch of the Klan’s secrets from how they ran their meetings, to how they were organized, and even what their secret handshakes looked like.

He actually discovered that beneath the violence and horrific racism the Klan was pretty stupid and after a while he was ready to report his findings to the world.

Unfortunately this was going to be difficult since the Klan was big and Kennedy had no idea if the police of newspaper editors he could share his findings with were members.

So Stetson went to the writes of the popular Superman radio show and together they came up with a 16 part radio drama where Superman fought and defeated “The Clan of the Fiery Cross”.

I won’t talk about the story, you can read a synopsis here and listen to it here if want the original serial complete with ads for Kellog’s Pep, but what I do want to talk about is the real world impact that story had.

The story claimed to expose real Klan codes and practices and in 2005 a book called Freakonomics stated that this single radio serial was the biggest contributor to the decline in Klan membership in the 1940’s.

Whether it’s true or not the fact remains that Superman helped fight and bring down one of the worst and most vile hate groups in American history.

No other hero in popular culture has had that kind of impact on our society and way of life, and that is why this story is the greatest Superman story ever told.  It doesn’t matter how many people like Superman or if people thing he’s too powerful or boring.  What matters is that he is there for us as an example of pure, unadulterated good in the world and worthy of being the champion for the ideals of truth and justice that America was founded on and strives to live up to.

 

Happy July 4th everyone.