Diamond Comic Distributors: a brief history.

I was going to write an article about an obscure superhero this week, but then I heard the news that DC is teaming up with Walmart to start selling comic books.

Image result for walmart

For anyone who doesn’t know, Walmart is going to start selling 100 page anthology titles for $5 starring Batman, Superman, the Justice League, and the Teen Titans in July.

Image result for dc walmart anthology

Personally I find this pretty exciting, partially because I’m a fan of anything that gets comic books into the hands of more people and expands the public profile of the medium that I love.  While some people may question my enthusiasm for supporting a mega corporation that engages in some of the shadiest business practices ever, I can assure you that Walmart is a step up from the current state of affairs.

For those of you who know what I’m talking about, yes it’s going to be one of those articles that confirms what you probably already know and yes, there will be much anger and rage.  For those of you who don’t, let’s delve into the history and reputation of the biggest distributor of comic books: Diamond Comic Distributors.

Image result for diamond distributors

very brief history of comic book distribution.

In the early days of the comic book industry, comic books were distributed like newspapers to newsstands and drug stores.

Image result for comic books on newsstands 1940's

It was a good place for comics at the beginning, but the system had three big problems.  For starters, comics suffered from the reputation of being cheap and disposable entertainment that wasn’t worth a whole lot of attention, so books tended to be shipped and sold in very poor condition by people who had no idea what they were talking about.

Image result for comic books in poor condition

Second, if a book didn’t sell well, the seller could rip the cover off of the book and return it to the publisher for credit towards the next order, which was very bad news for a publishing industry that survived off of very small profit margins and was perpetually going out of business.  And finally, the stranglehold that newspaper distributors held on getting a comic book out to the people allowed for censoring bodies like the Comics Code Authority to step in and impose their will on content.

Image result for comics code

If comics didn’t have this sticker on them, then distributors wouldn’t move the comic, ensuring that the comic would make nothing.

All of this started to change in the 1960’s with the rise of the underground comix scene.

Image result for comix

The comix scene was a network of alternative, underground, and controversial creators and artists who disliked the rules imposed on the comic book medium and protested by creating some of the raunchiest and explicit material I’ve ever seen.

No, I’m not showing this to you, go find out yourself if you want to learn more.

Naturally, no big newspaper distributor would sell this kind of stuff, so the creators created their own small time distribution models in places like San Francisco, where their comics were sold out of head shops and weed dispensaries.

Image result for head shop

Things would come to a head in 1972 when comic book dealer, convention organizer, and fan Phil Seuling,

Image result for phil seuling

approached publishers with an idea.   He would create a new distribution model where purchases were no longer returnable and where shops and retailers could order the specific number of books that they wanted, something that was unheard of at the time.  This idea, coupled with the fact that Seuling could offer retailers a discount if they bought a certain number of books, would lead to the decline of the newsstand model and the rise of the specialist comic book store.

Image result for comic book store

For a while this new system was a success.  Now, comics could be bought and sold faster, cheaper, and by people who knew what they were talking about and what they were doing.

And it only took two decades for all of it to go wrong.

The rise of Diamond

In 1982 a Baltimore comic book store owner by the name of Steve Geppi,

Image result for steve geppi comics

took over the sales accounts and warehouses of defunct comics distributor New Media and another distributor named Irjax.  He named this new company Diamond, after an imprint that Marvel had created for non refundable comics.

Mr. Geppi’s new venture quickly became one of the largest comic distributors in the United States, mostly because they actually knew what they were doing and were one of the most efficient operations in an industry.  Most of their rivals either went bankrupt due to poor business management, or were bought out by Diamond in the late 80’s and early 90’s.

By the mid 1990’s the comic book distribution business was dominated by three players: Diamond,

Image result for diamond distributors

Capital City,

Image result for capital city comics distribution logo

and Hero’s World.

Image result for heroes world comic distribution

In 1996 Marvel Comics, who was enjoying its position as the largest comic book publisher in the world and riding high off of a massive sales boom in the late 80’s and early 90’s, decided to buy Hero’s World and make them the sole distributor of all of Marvel’s titles.

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s pretty clear that Marvel was being a jerk during this whole ordeal so I’m not passing too much judgement on Diamond for what happened next.  Long story short, Diamond managed to outbid Capital City and become the exclusive distributor for DC Comics,

Image result for dc comics

and Dark Horse Comics,

Image result for dark horse comics

which made the largest comic distributor in the United States even bigger.

The Marvel/Hero’s World deal failed miserably.  Hero’s World didn’t have the infrastructure and ability to handle nationwide distribution for the world’s largest comic book publisher and folded after less than a year of business.  Out of options, Marvel went to Diamond cap in hand,

Image result for the godfather

and Diamond became the sole distributor of the entire American comic book industry.

If all of this sounds sketchy as hell, you’re right.  In 1997 the Department of Justice launched an anti trust investigation looking into Diamond.

Image result for department of justice

However, in 2000 the DOJ ceased their investigation, believing that further investigation was unwarranted since Diamond only controlled the distribution of comic books but not the distribution of all books.

Which doesn’t seem very fair at all.

The current state of affairs, or why Diamond is bad for business

Despite the fact that the Feds didn’t find anything wrong with Diamond’s business practices, it’s pretty clear that Diamond is a monopoly and certainly acts like it.

Image result for business monopoly

That’s what Diamond is now.

Since there is no competition to keep Diamond honest and promote fair business practices everyone has suffered and everyone has a reason to dislike Diamond.

Retailers dislike Diamond for their poor customer service, late shipping of orders, and sloppy business practices.

You can read a store owner’s own troubles here.

Seriously, I have a friend who owns a comic book store (who shall remain anonymous) who has told me that several colleagues still have to mail checks to Diamond every month in order to pay for orders.

Image result for shock

Mailing checks…in an age where everything is paid for online.

But retailers aren’t the only ones who suffer, publishers and creators suffer as well.

If you’re a small time comic book creator and you want to get your book out to stores and in front of prospective buyers than you better get really good at cold calling, because Diamond won’t even consider selling your book unless you can do at least $2,500 worth of business.

Sure, this is great news for bigger publishers who don’t have to worry about too much competition and can sell their books at a lower price point by offering bulk discounts, but even Marvel and DC have problems.

There was an infamous incident in 1986 where a comic book called Miracleman showed a graphic scene of a mother giving birth.

Image result for diamond distributors miracle man 9

There was some negative backlash against the scene, and Diamond responded by encouraging retailers to drop the title all together.

If this sounds like the echos of the Comics Code Authority, you’re absolutely right.

Quite a few creators have taken notice and aren’t very happy with the current state of affairs.  Don’t believe me?  Here’s a page from a Spongebob comic book that was given out during Free Comic Book Day.

mdabavd

So, that’s the way things are now.  Will this deal between Walmart and DC change things for the better, or is it simply an interesting footnote in comic book history?  Will this usher in a new era of comic book popularity, or are we simply trading one monstrous corporation for another?

Only time will tell, but I for one am going to be watching the future of comic books very closely.

Advertisements

Modern film, the Golden Age of Comics, and Wonder Woman

So this little movie is in theaters now.

Image result for professor marston and the wonder women

I haven’t seen it, although it is currently on my list of films to see, but I have seen the trailer and a good portion of the promotional media for the film.

A quick summary: the movie follows the real life journey and exploits of William Moulton Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman.

Image result for william moulton marston

In real life, Marston was a respected psychologist and the inventor of the lie detector,

Image result for william moulton marston

he was also engaged in an unconventional relationship with his wife Elizabeth and his partner Olive Byrne.

Image result for marston and byrne

As for the exact nature of their relationship, all you have to do is take a look at the comics that Marston wrote to get some idea of what was going on.

Image result for wonder woman bondage

Frankly, I’m glad this became a movie and I would love to see more films like this since the story behind the creation of some of our most beloved superheroes is often just as interesting as the characters themselves.

Personally, I would love to see a movie about the trials and tribulations of Supmerman’s creators Siegel and Shuster,

Image result for siegel and shuster

and we’re probably getting a Stan Lee film soon.

Image result for stan lee

but that’s not what I want to talk about today.

There’s a scene in the trailer for Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman where a group of people are burning a pile of comic books.

Image result for professor marston & the wonder women comic book burning

While I don’t like seeing anyone burning books this actually got me pretty excited.  This is the first time I’ve seen any movie talk about the decline and fall of the Golden Age of Comics and while it is presented as a backdrop for the story the movie wants to tell, it’s an important time in American pop culture where the nature and effect that art has on our minds and souls was being hotly debated.

So today I’m going to give a brief history of the comic book industry in the late 1940’s and 50’s and in order to do that we have to talk about:

The post war comic industry

After the Allies won the Second World War Americans everywhere breathed a sigh of relief and celebrated by coming home, starting a family, and giving up on superhero comics.

Image result for post world war 2 america

Yes, the infamous “superhero fatigue” that so many people say is  coming with this current glut of superhero movies is actually nothing new.

Naturally, the comic book industry reacted to this shift by switching to different genres and trying new things.  Post war America saw a boom in non superhero comics, especially romance,

Image result for golden age romance comics

humor,

Image result for golden age mad magazine

and horror comics.

Image result for golden age horror comics

Post war America was actually a pretty good time for comics.  More people were spending money on entertainment, readers were getting older and more mature, and some of the greatest artists of the time were doing some of their best work.

Unfortunately comic books were confronted with a force more powerful than any super villain doomsday device: concerned parents.

You know how concerned parents thought violent video games were turning kids into mass murdering psychopaths?

Image result for video games corrupting young minds

Well, it turns out that that isn’t all that new either.  In the 1950’s comic books went through the same process and things would come to a head with,

Backlash, Dr. Wertham, and Seduction of the Innocent

Maybe it was the soldiers coming home from the war trying to process the violence and destruction they saw, maybe it was the Red Scare and the rise of anti Communist sentiment in America, or maybe comic books have a bigger place in our psyche than we think, but for some reason these hearings swept the American people into an anti comic fervor that saw a tremendous backlash against the art form.  This resulted in crazy events like mass comic book burnings as early as 1948,

Image result for comic book burnings

but sadly the real destruction would come in the form of a well meaning man in a suit and tie.

Every art form, at some point in its early history, has had a vocal opponent who claims that said art form is destroying our children’s minds and must be censored before it’s too late.

Rap music had Tipper Gore,

Image result for tipper gore

video games had Jack Thompson,

Image result for jack thompson video games

and comic books had Dr. Fredric Wertham.

Image result for dr, fredric wertham

Now, I don’t think Dr. Wertham did what he did because he hated comics or because he was an uneducated hack who was simply making wild accusations because he wanted the attention.  He was actually a highly respected psychologist who did a lot of good work, including providing cheap psychiatric care to under privileged children.

Image result for fredric wertham psychiatric care

Unfortunately, he noticed that a lot of the children under his care read a lot of comic books and he started to believe that it wasn’t societal woes or a poor home life that turned kids bad, but violent and disturbing imagery in the media the kids consumed.

Things would come to a head in 1954 when Wertham published his most famous work Seduction of the Innocent

Image result for seduction of the innocent

where he blamed comic books for the rise of “juvenile delinquency” in American youth.

The book was a hit and led to a Congressional hearing on the effects of comic books on children’s minds, and Wertham was the star witness.

Image result for congressional hearing on comic books 1954

The hearings were incredibly destructive for the comic book industry and effectively brought mass censorship to the medium.  Companies that depended on risque and controversial content to stay afloat, such as the horror and comedy powerhouse EC Comics were the hardest hit and were forced out of business.  The industry underwent a massive contraction and thousands of people lost their jobs as publishers went out of business left and right.

The Fallout

In an attempt to save themselves from excessive censorship the remaining comic book publishers formed an organization known as the Comics Code Authority.  It was an organization that reviewed comics before they could be published and made sure they followed a certain set of rules in order to ensure that they were suitable for children.

The most famous and notable legacy of the Comics Code was the stamp that appeared on the far right corner of almost every comic for the next forty years.

Image result for comics code authority stamp

While the Comics Code didn’t kill the comics industry it did cripple it so badly that it’s still recovering today.  Since comic book writers weren’t allowed to tell complex and morally ambiguous stories if they wanted to get their book published comics became simple and almost boring in their predictable story lines and basic morality tales.  Sure, mature and grown up comics existed, but they could only be found in small press, out of the way places such as the “comix” scene of the late 60’s and early 70’s.

Image result for comix

Eventually cracks in the Comics Code would start to show and historians widely believe that it lost its power after Amazing Spider Man #96 told a story where Spiderman helped a friend who was addicted to drugs and was published without the stamp.

Image result for amazing spider man 96

But if you ask me, the damage had already been done.  The Golden Age of Comics was a time where characters like Wonder Woman could talk about deep and meaningful issues like man’s tendency towards hatred and how women could bring about a more peaceful world, whereas the immediate post Comics Code publishing industry decided to celebrate its newfound freedom by throwing all subtlety out the window and indulging in a lot of violence for violence’s sake.  This,

Image result for violent 90's comics

is downright childish in comparison to the early issues of Wonder Woman.

Now, I firmly believe that we as a society have gotten better in dealing with art and the effects that it may or may not have on our minds, and I also think that the comic book industry telling better stories today than it did twenty years ago, but it is vitally important that we never forget why heroes like Wonder Woman were created and how important it is that we apply the same passion and thought into our stories today.

Image result for dr. marston and the wonder woman

Golden Age Showcase: The Mad Monk

Let’s take a bite into the comic book industry’s version of vanilla ice cream and talk about Batman.

Image result for batman

Batman is one of the most popular superheroes in the world for a reason.  He’s got a great design, he’s got a cool story, he’s got tonnes of history, but most importantly…he has great villains.

Image result for batman rogues gallery

Yes, it seems pretty cliche to talk about how awesome Batman’s villains are but we all know that Poison Ivy is awesome,

Image result for batman poison ivy

Mister Freeze is tragic and deep,

Image result for batman mister freeze

and the Joker needs no introduction.

Image result for batman the joker

But how does Batman manage to have so many great villains?

Easy, because he doesn’t kill them.

Batman’s aversion to killing criminals (even if the justice system he’s sworn to protect would have put the Joker to death a long time ago) and distaste at using guns is well documented.  With that being said, we’ve talked about how the Batman of the Golden Age wasn’t above using guns, or even killing criminals.

Image result for batman using guns

The Golden Age Batman was a much darker and violent superhero than a lot of modern iterations and as a result, he either needed equally dark and violent villains or a small army’s worth of disposable henchmen.

Image result for batman killing

Today we’re going to talk about one of Batman’s first adversaries, a creature of the night who wasn’t just violent and unquestionably evil, but one of Batman’s first important villains: The Mad Monk.

Image result for batman the mad monk

Origin and Career

The Mad Monk made his first appearance in Detective Comics #31 in September of 1939.

Image result for detective comics 31

He beat out the Joker by 8 months.

The character was created by Bob Kane and Garner Fox.

Image result for bob kane  Image result for gardner fox

Kane is the man who is widely credited with the creation of Batman (while he did play a part, a lion’s share of the credit does go to Bill Finger) and Fox is the man who helped create little known DC heroes like the Flash, Dr. Fate, and Hawkman.

The Mad Monk is special because he was the main villain for one of the first multi part stories in Batman’s career.  While the first super villain to face Batman in a multi issue series was the imaginatively named Dr. Death,

Image result for batman dr. death

The Mad Monk was a bigger, and much more mystical and terrifying, threat.

The Monk’s real name was Niccolai Tepes, a homage to historical crazy person and real life inspiration for the actual Dracula: Vlad Tepes aka “Vlad the Impaler”.

Image result for vlad tepes

The Mad Monk was a literal vampire complete with the need to drink blood, the ability to turn into a wolf, the ability to hypnotize people into a trance, and an assistant named Dala.

Dala.png

While it is unknown why the Monk wants to kill Batman it is made apparent that the Monk does know his secret identity as Bruce Wayne when he kidnaps Bruce’s girl friend Julie Madison.

The Monk and Dala hypnotize her and use her to lure Batman into a trap in Paris where he has to fight a giant gorilla.

Image result for batman the mad monk gorilla

After defeating the beast, Batman is captured and is trapped in a net dangling over a pit of snakes.  Because this is a comic book and nobody just wants to shoot their captured adversary.

Fun fact: This is the first time Batman ever uses the Batarang in comics.

Image result for batman batarang

After escaping, Batman tracks the Monk to Transylvania (because of course) and confronts the villain in his mountain castle.  The Monk puts up a good fight by transforming into a wolf but Batman manages to knock the wolves out and escape.

The comic ends with Batman shooting The Mad Monk and Dala as they lie in their coffins.

If you ask me, this was a brilliant display of common sense.  While I think the idea for the Mad Monk is cool, I certainly wouldn’t want an immortal blood sucking creature  roaming the streets of Gotham or anywhere else in the world.

So what happened?

The Monk remained dead for a long time, probably because he was just two scary and dark for the censorship police known as the Comics Code Authority.

Image result for comics code authority

But, like the vampires that he took his inspiration from, he would arise from the grave many years later.  In 1986 Gerry Conway, the co creator of the Punisher and the man who killed Gwen Stacy,

Image result for gerry conway

reworked the original 1939 story into a modern origin for the Mad Monk in the 1980’s.

Image result for gerry conway the mad monk

In the new version the Mad Monk was a former plantation owner who owned slaves in post Civil War America.  He and his sister Dala were attacked by their slaves and turned into the undead in a voodoo ritual.

Image result for gerry conway the mad monk

Personally, I preferred the earlier version better.

The Mad Monk manged to turn Batman into a vampire but was eventually defeated by a wandering priest named Father Green.

The character would be given another fresh coat of paint in 2006 when a six issue mini series was published by DC Comics entitled Batman and the Mad Monk.

Image result for batman the mad monk

It was pretty good.

The Mad Monk is a villain that has been mostly forgotten to history.  While he was a pretty one note character who didn’t have much staying power, and while he has been overshadowed by much more complex and interesting villains, he deserves a lot more attention and respect.

Image result for batman the mad monk

He was one of Batman’s first true challenges and paved the way for the rogue gallery that keeps us coming back to Batman comics again and again.

Comic book company showcase: EC comics

Happy Halloween everyone!

Image result for halloween pictures

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.

Image result for maxwell gaines

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.

Image result for eastern color printing comic

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

Image result for dell comics famous funnies

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

Image result for jack liebowitz

and began publishing material under the name All American Publications.

Image result for all american publications logo

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

Image result for golden age wonder woman

Green Lantern

Image result for alan scott green lantern

and Hawkman

Image result for golden age hawkman

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

Image result for dc comics logo

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.

Image result for educational comics max gaines

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.

Image result for educational comics picture stories from american history

Image result for educational comics picture stories from the bible

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.

Image result for ec comics william gaines

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,

Image result for ec comics crime stories

war,

Image result for ec comics war stories

and science fiction.

Image result for ec comics science fiction

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

Image result for ec comics vault of horror

The Haunt of Fear,

Image result for ec comics haunt of fear

and most infamously, Tales from the Crypt.

Image result for tales from the crypt comics

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.

Image result for seduction of the innocent

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.

Image result for congressional hearing on juvenile delinquency

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.

Image result for comics code authority sticker

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.

Image result for mad magazine 1950's

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.

Image result for mad magazine

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.

Image result for tales from the crypt 1972 movie

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.

Image result for vault of horror movie

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.

Image result for creepshow movie

Image result for creepshow 2 movie

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.

Image result for hbo tales from the crypt

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.

Image result for fantagraphics ec comics library

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.

Image result for ec comics crypt keeper

Golden Age Showcase: Lance Lewis

I love superhero stories, but every now and then I get tired of men and women with impossible powers and I want to read something else.

When I get tired of reading about superheroes like Superman and Spider Man I like to turn to the science fiction category.  Granted, while superheroes and sci fi do share a lot of similarities, some times it’s nice to just relax with a book about normal human beings using their intelligence, fists, and cool sci fi gadgets to solve all the world’s problems.

Image result for batman

Okay, not that one.

Thankfully, this was something that comic book publishers understood as far back as the 1940’s and the folks at Standard Comics were more than willing to accommodate the need for non superhero stories with strange and fascinating science fiction stories about space men and aliens from the future.

Let’s talk about the detective from the 22nd century: Lance Lewis.

Image result for standard comics lance lewis

Origin and Career

Lance Lewis first appeared in Standard Comics’ Mystery Comics #3 in 1944 during the post war boom in non superhero comics.

Comic Book Cover For Mystery Comics #3

Although is first appearance didn’t credit the author or artist, later issues revealed that the character was written by Bob Oskner,

Image result for bob oksner

who had done some early work for Timely Comics and made his name in humor comics but would later find steady work at DC in the 1970’s,

Image result for bob oksner superman

and was drawn by Graham Ingels, a man who would become famous for his work on EC Comics’ Tales from the Crypt.

Image result for graham ingels tales from the crypt.

Anyway, back to Lance Lewis.

Comic Book Cover For Mystery Comics #3

Our hero was a detective from the distant future tasked with keeping the solar system free from bandits, brigands, and other criminals.

In his first adventure Lance was tasked with overseeing a race between two space ships that belonged to two rival companies who were vying for a lucrative delivery contract.

Comic Book Cover For Mystery Comics #3

Comic Book Cover For Mystery Comics #3

Sadly, the race did not go well and Lance was tasked with solving the murder of one of the pilots.

Comic Book Cover For Mystery Comics #3

What’s rather interesting is that this story did present a genuine mystery for the reader, who was left with no idea how a pilot could have been killed in the middle of space without a mark on him or without any apparent sabotage to the ship.

It turned out that the ship was sabotaged by the competition.  The rival company hired a saboteur to drill microscopic holes into the ship’s engine which led to all the air escaping from the ship.

Comic Book Cover For Mystery Comics #3

There are a couple of things that are pretty noteworthy about this comic.  First, the art style is pure “ray gun gothic”, which was an art style that was very popular in early science fiction of the 1940’s and 1950’s.

Image result for raygun gothic 1950's

Image result for raygun gothic 1950'sWhat I’m saying here is that the art is awesome and I personally think there should be more of it.

Second, you’ll notice small lines of war time propaganda on the bottom of the page.

Comic Book Cover For Mystery Comics #3

Such were the times I guess.

Lance would get a girlfriend named Marna in the following issue after rescuing her from a group of evil blobs from Saturn who were bent on total domination of the Solar System.

Comic Book Cover For Mystery Comics v2 1 (4)

Then he took a three year hiatus and would return as the cover character on Standard’s Startling Comics #44 in March of 1947 to capitalize on the boom of non superhero themed comic books.

Image result for startling comics #44

The rest of his appearances were pretty standard “sci fi detective” affairs, where he would solve a case that involved some strange technology or evil alien race with his girlfriend.

His last appearance was in Startling Mystery Comics #53 in September of 1948.

Comic Book Cover For Startling Comics #53

His last case deserves special mention because it is an honest to goodness clever bit of writing.

Lance and Marna are on Jupiter watching a broadcast of the Planetary Music Festival, a music competition that has a huge cash prize for the winner.  Lance brings Marna’s attention to a little boy who is incredibly skilled with the violin.

Comic Book Cover For Startling Comics #53

However, Lance is interrupted by his superiors ordering him to investigate a mysterious accident in space where a cargo ship was destroyed, which was strange considering that it wasn’t carrying explosives. Comic Book Cover For Startling Comics #53

Things get weirder when Lance finds out that the boy’s manager, an evil looking Mr. Gorman and his associate Namar, placed a stack of greeting cards onto the ship that exploded.

Comic Book Cover For Startling Comics #53

Comic Book Cover For Startling Comics #53

Long story short, it turned out that Mr. Goman and Namar were blackmailing shipping companies into paying protection money and would blow up the ships of people who refused to pay with specially treated cards that were coated with an atomic explosive that was set off when a certain tone was played over the radio.  The person who set the tone off was the boy who was playing the violin.

Comic Book Cover For Startling Comics #53

The comic has a happy ending, in turned out they boy wasn’t in on the plot and was only playing to support his mother, and the criminals are all brought to justice in one of the best written Golden Age stories I have ever read.

So what happened?

Lance Lewis was actually published by one of Standard Comics’ imprints, Nedor Comics.  Nedor and its sister company Better Publications were folded into Standard Comics in 1949, a few months after Lance Lewis stories stopped being published.  While I can’t say for sure why these stories stopped being published (mostly because everyone involved either isn’t talking or is dead) I’d like to speculate and say that this merging was due to financial troubles at Standard Comics and Lance and company got lost in the shuffle.

That being said, Lance Lewis would have a brief revival in the early 2000’s thanks to one of the greatest modern comic book writers alive today: Alan Moore.

Image result for alan moore

Alan Moore started a company called America’s Best Comics in 1999.

Image result for america's best comics

One of the series he created was about a “science hero” named Tom Strong,

Image result for america's best comics tom strong

The series proved popular enough to warrant a spin off series known as Terra Obscura in 2003.  It was a series about an alternate Earth on the other side of the universe and utilized a lot of the old Standard Comics heroes that had fallen into public domain.

Lance Lewis made an appearance Tom Strong #12 as a time traveling scientist who sent himself back to World War 2 so he could fight in “The last good war”.

He would die three years later when he was killed by a villain named Mystico who needed to obtain the heart of a time traveler.

Lance Lewis was an interesting case study of the Golden Age.  While many people, including myself, dedicate most of our time and effort into studying the old superheroes we tend to forget that there were comic books that told other types of stories as ell.

Lance Lewis may not have had super powers, but he was definitely a hero using his brains, fists, and toys to deal out justice to the criminals of the future.

Image result for lance lewis golden age comics

From the Golden Age into the Silver Age

Happy Holidays everybody.  After a fairly long hiatus we’re back!  Ready to talk about all the crazy and glorious moments and characters that make up the history of comic books.  Now since we’re at the end of the holiday season and into a new year is there a comic book character can we talk about that incorporates both Christmas and New Year’s into his/her mythology? Is there any super hero or super villain we can talk abou…Calendar Man, we’re going to talk about Calendar Man.

Calendar_Man_0001.jpg

Now the Calendar Man is an…odd super villain to say the least.  First and foremost he is absolutely NOT a Golden Age villain.  His first appearance was in Detective Comics #259 in September of 1958 and he looked like this.

Detective_259.jpg

He was a gimmick villain, someone who committed crimes based around a certain theme or strange line of reasoning and in his case Calendar Man committed crimes based around the seasons of the year.  You’ll notice that I’m not talking that much about his backstory or motivation.  That’s because Calendar Man only had one appearance in the 1950’s and wouldn’t appear in another comic book issue until 1979.

So why are we talking about this one off gimmicky comic book villain that disappeared for over 20 years after his first appearance?  Because Calendar Man is actually a pretty good case study into the history of comic book superheroes after their Golden Age debut.

Calendar Man first appeared in 1958 and it’s important to understand that comic books, and comic book superheroes in particular, did not do well in the 1950’s.  After the Second World War ended and the various heroes were done kicking Nazi butt

178e9bf44a4431f7cfd163945444d6e5.jpg

superheroes began to fade from the public image they had previously enjoyed.  Instead people turned towards more mature and grown up comic book subjects and comic book companies obliged with an outpouring of other comic book genres like Westerns

982245.jpg

crime and noir comics

Crime_Does_Not_Pay_42.jpg

and horror titles.

4fd3cf72ab50631061ca1e12d73bde3b.jpg

In a move that will probably surprise nobody reading this, the parents of the children reading these titles weren’t all too thrilled to have their precious innocent children risk being corrupted by such filth (certainly puts a lot of more modern talk about how things like video games and rap music is corrupting our youth today doesn’t it?) and things came to a head in 1954 with the Senate subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency held a hearing on whether or not comic books were responsible for an apparent rise in delinquent behavior in American children.  You can read the full text of the hearing here.

Senate-Subcommittee-Hearing-Comic-Examples-300x225.jpg

The hearings, coupled with the publication of the now infamous book Seduction of the Innocent by child psychologist Dr. Fredric Wertham,

Seduction_of_the_Innocent.jpg

who just so happened to be the star witness in the Committee hearings, led to a slew of bad press for the comic book industry.

This led to the creation of the Comics Code Authority.  The CCA was an industry created organization that was designed as the main censorship body for comic books for the following decades.  Rules dictating how much blood could be shown, how the main characters could behave, and what was considered to be “in good taste” were strictly enforced through CCA approved stamps.

Approved_by_the_Comics_Code_Authority (1).gif

Any comic book not carrying this stamp wouldn’t be able to find a distributor and therefore wouldn’t sell.

So what does all this have to do with Calendar Man.  Well as I said before, the 1950’s weren’t a very good time for superheroes.  A lot of the early superheroes were morally dubious, emotionally complex, and even had no qualms about killing people.  All of this went out the window with the advent of the Comics Code Authority.  Superman survived, he even became the first super hero with a live action tv show,

George-Reeves-Superman.jpg

but he became an incredibly watered down version of his former self.  Instead of taking care of criminals as a pretty violent vigilante

action1shuster.gif

There was…this

silveragegrounded.jpg

Batman was the same way too.  While the early Batman had few qualms about killing people

17t0gy2c3xnkkjpg.jpg

The Batman of the 1950’s became this…

bat_119_8.gif

(kinda puts the Adam West Batman into perspective now doesn’t it?).  While Batman and Superman were hit with some pretty dramatic changes in the 50’s it’s only because they were the ones that were able to really survive.  Dozens of hero titles were abandoned because they either didn’t sell well enough or were far too violent and dark for the Comic Code Authority.

Back to Calendar Man.  If the new wave of censorship hit heroes hard it was even worse for the villains.  Not only were the bad guys unable to kill people or enact some sort of crazy scheme that could destroy half the city, they were now forced to always loose by the end of the comic.  This led to a stream of strange and often pathetic bad guys during this time period.  Some of them…kind of worked like Bat Mite who was introduced in 1959

Batmite.jpg

And the late 1950’s saw the introduction of most of the Flash’s current Rogues Gallery, so there was that.

80pg4_53.jpg

But you have a lot of very safe, non threatening bad guys who use some sort of gimmick as their trademark and wind up committing crimes that really aren’t that serious, and a villain like Calendar Man is a perfect example of this.

The Calendar Man would appear in the 1970’s looking like this.

He was reworked from committing crimes based around a season to basing crimes around the days of the week (his real life name was Julian Gregory Day, a play on the Julian and Gregorian calendars) and here’s just a taste of some of the costumes he used throughout his career.

like I said, he was a gimmick.  However, all that would change in the 1990’s.  Up until the 1990’s the old Comics Code had slowly been waning in power and publishers started paying less attention to it.  This would result in all the glorious sex, violence, and drug use pouring back into the medium and culminated in 1986 with the publication of two of the greatest comic book stories ever told: Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns

1.jpg

and Alan Moore’s Watchmen

download (4).jpg

Quick note: there is much more to the death of the Comics Code Authority than these two books but for the sake of time I’m using these two titles to show the return of the “dark” comic book to mainstream media.

So again, what does this have to do with Calendar Man?  Well the boom of mature material in comics during the 1980’s left the floodgates open for more dark re imaginings in the 1990’s, and boy did the industry deliver.  Although Calendar Man was still treated as a joke during the early 90’s, he was part of a team of second string super villains called the Misfits in 1992,

Misfits_001.jpg

Everything about the character would change in the 1996 limited series The Long Halloween.

Calendar Man went from a flashy, non threatening, and pretty pointless character to looking like this

1268925-calendermen.jpg

It’s a pretty marked difference.  Going from a lighthearted gag character that nobody took very seriously to a full blown psychopathic mastermind the Calendar Man became an integral part in one of the definitive Batman stories of the 90’s.  This marked a revival for the villain.  In one of his most recent he had an appearance in the Arkham game series

Calendar Man is a strange case in comic book history.  He got his start as a one off super villain that probably wasn’t expected to go very far.  He had a strange power set, a strange gimmick, and an even stranger costume.  However, due to the changing nature of the industry, especially into the more modern era, he was re invented and turned into a capable villain who could hold his own against some of Batman’s lesser villains.  He’s an interesting case study and the perfect bad guy to kick off the new year.

 

 

Golden Comics Showcase #4: Ghost Rider

Today we’re going to talk about Ghost Rider.

448909

No not that one, this one.

ghostrider02

As I have stated time and time again the Golden Age of comics was a bit…weird and it may seem difficult to believe now but there once was a time when superheroes were not the reason kids bought comic books.

After the Allies punched Hitler’s dream of a thousand year empire for real the superhero comics fell by the wayside.  Post WW2 was filled with all sorts of different genres like romance,

download (27)

Supernatural and horror stories,

77496aae8cb7460642338830800c1ffe

and Westerns.

West_22_D

There was a time when Westerns, with all their stories about lone gunmen bringing justice to the wild frontier and some questionable stereotypes of American natives and Chinese, ruled the comic book world.  In fact, Timely Comics, the company that would later become Marvel Comics, survived the post war years by producing Westerns, some of which were worked on by Stan Lee himself.  Into this post war Western boom rode the Ghost Rider.

Origin and Career

The Ghost Rider was originally conceived as a Western vigilante lawman named Rex Fury aka “The Calico Kid”.  He had a standard pulp and superhero origin where he decided to adopt a colorful costume to fulfill the kind of justice he believed the system couldn’t deliver.  He would ride a black horse called Ebony and travel the West disguised as a bumbling salesman in order to fool criminals.

Calico_Kid

He was assisted by a Chinese migrant worker named Sing Song (yeah, stereotypes and lack of cultural sensitivity was another hallmark of the Golden Age) who helped Rex after the Calico Kid saved him from being framed for murder.

However, Rex Fury was being published just as the comic industry was changing from vigilantes and outlaws to more mature books so Rex was given a new origin and costume.  After Rex is attacked by a white bandit named Bart Lasher who disguises his crew as a group of blood thirsty Indians (like I said…not very culturally sensitive) and throws the hero and his sidekick into a swirling abyss known as the Devil’s Sink.  Rex and Sing Song survive and Rex decides to adopt a more supernatural guise to terrify criminals and the superstitious.  By covering his clothing and cape in phosphorous he is able to appear as a glowing white spectre known as “The Ghost Rider”

ghostriderme1

You can read his origin story here, although I should warn you it is not for those who are easily offended at traditional stereotypes of Asians and Native Americans.

After adopting this new persona the Ghost Rider began his new career as a vigilante that terrified would be criminals as a ghost like creature.  Due to the growing popularity of horror comics in the early 1950’s the Ghost Rider’s enemies became more supernatural as well, from criminals impersonating monsters including such as the Harpy and Frankenstein’s monster.

tumblr_nna2pbFYYu1rvhk4ho1_500

GR10-000

But by 1952 he was fighting actual supernatural threats such as a dragon.

GR1 07

So what happened?

1954 happened.  That was the year a child psychologist named Fredric Wertham published a book that is infamous to the comic book industry, Seduction of the Innocent.

200px-Seduction_of_the_Innocent

Wertham was concerned that comics filled with violent images and supernatural stories were corrupting the youth of America and would lead to misbehavior and juvenile delinquency (a popular form of media coming under fire because of fears that it might turn children into savage little psychopaths?  THAT’S new!).  There was a Congressional hearing were Wertham testified.

download (28)

And rather have Congress and a mob of angry parents put them out of business the comic book companies got together and created the Comics Code Authority, an organization that would monitor every comic ever published and censor images or themes that were deemed too risque.  One of its most enduring legacies was the CCA stamp which you can find on a lot of older comics.

download (29)

Despite their best intentions the Comics Code was devastating to the industry.  Crime comics were heavily censored (you couldn’t show a crime being committed and the criminal had to  always lose in the end) and horror and sexually themed comics were outright banned.  This led to a lot of companies going out of business with only the big titles like Superman and Batman holding the kind of numbers that allowed them to survive.

Sadly the Ghost Rider was one of the many characters to fall victim to the new era of comics and his title was ended in 1954.  The good news is that he is currently in the public domain so if anyone wants to resurrect the character they are more than welcome to.