American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1940s: 1940-1944 by Kurt F. Mitchell with Roy Thomas (book review).

As Kurt Mitchell points out in the introduction to ‘American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1940s: 1940-1944’, there are very few people alive who remember this era anymore and it needed experts alive on the subject so Roy Thomas roped him in. He went through 5,000 comicbooks for research.

Don’t think the size of the comicbooks were like we have today. In fact, they tended to average around 68 pages an issue which, even in wartime, took a lot of creativity and work and with paper rationing went down to 54 or less. The statistics will startle you. America had 1,800 daily newspapers as well.

The early 1940s were an important era. Granted Superman was created in 1938 and Batman a year later, they only really got up to strength in 1940 where Luthor, Joker, Catwoman and Robin were created. It’s rather interesting seeing the full names of some of the significant creators and as well as the names we are more familiar with. From the looks of things, DC Comics were aware that Bob Kane was not treating his ghosties well, especially as they were the creative force behind Batman and when he wouldn’t raise their wages, took them on instead on the same job. If you didn’t know much about this era, you are going to find a wealth of information here.

It’s rather weird seeing the first roll-call of the Justice Society Of America with no female members but knowing both Wonder Woman and the more humorous mumsy Red Tornado were around. I’ve always pondered on Hawkman’s odd wings until I saw the cover of Flash Comics # 9 and realised it looks like small feathers were used throughout than in proportion to the character. I also hadn’t realised that Johnny Thunder’s genie-like Thunderbolt couldn’t be seen by him for 11 issues. Like his latter counter-part, I can’t help wonder why people made of the first Green Lantern when no one but him knew he had a ring charger. Even with his modern-day counter-part its running around showing your weakness on your chest if people knew long the ring’s charge lasted.

Don’t think 1940 was all about National Periodicals. There were a lot of copycat comicbook companies around trying not to infringe copyright with the Blue Beetle looking the most successful. It goes without saying that Jack Kirby and Joe Simon’s careers were taking off, more so as they were hired by Timely, and Will Eisner’s studio was doing well, even if he was forced to split from business partner Jerry Iger. Of course, this is also the start of Eisner’s ‘The Spirit’ in the Sunday newspapers.

Going back to Timely, I did wonder on the recycling of character names over the years and realised because they had original ownership that they would want to keep them going. Oh, there was also the rise of Fawcett Comics’ Captain Marvel. Objectively, seeing the other cbarharacters out there, it looks like the only alien super-hero was Superman. Many of the super-heroes had similar powers to Superman but only Captain Marvel had a similar sales level. Looking objectively at the 5 years in this book, Superman was the only alien super-hero.

With 1941, we had the appearance and massive success of Captain America as created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby and their leaving Timely when the accountant showed how publisher Martin Goodman loaded the title with the entire company’s expenses to cut into their 25% cut. Talk about cutting off the hand that feeds you when they resigned.

The year was also the rise of Stanley Leiber as he was given a job by his uncle. We all know why Stan Lee changed his name so he could reserve his real name for when he switched to novel writing but considering from the previous year how many others changed their names, you do have to wonder at their reasoning which made me think. I don’t think there is one answer. For some it was to have a less Jewish-looking name and something simpler to pronounce and remember. Considering the number of companies, it did make me also consider how many worked for more than one at the same time. With World War Two getting into full swing, it was hardly surprising that the menace came up in American comicbooks and the realisation that more than children were reading them and also adults in the mix. The war also revealed how bad literacy was throughout the USA.

The amount of creativity in comicbooks back then is staggering. I’d love to know what a current modern day comicbook fan would make of that compared to what we have today. Granted not all of this material is going to be good but that’s true of any medium. Super-heroes were finding their feet and reading here, few were using the Superman or even the Batman prototype, just a zoot costume and exotic powers. Batman was getting his rogue’s gallery as they tested popularity of the villains.

Oddly, National Periodicals (I’m using that as a collective for what would become DC Comics than twin companies owning the characters at the time) were using their own prototypes hence the newly released Green Arrow had anything bat becoming an arrow. Of course, Wonder Woman had no one to compare to. It does appear that Captain America was used as a prototype as well bearing in mind the number of patriotic super-heroes being produced.

I’ve seen the guidelines National Periodicals gave to their writers as to what they couldn’t do to make their comicbooks acceptable to children before with not a whisper than kids would imitate them. A lot of them are reasonably sensible but some like not using ‘What the…?’ does make me wonder. Mind you, none of the other companies did a similar thing.

M.L.J. Magazines were equally prolific and also had their first death of a super-hero with The Comet with his brother taking over as the Hangman. Speaking of which and probably the biggest jaw-dropper in this book was discovering that editor Anner Sundell and writer Toni Blum were using what would become the ‘Marvel Method’ to speed up production.

Strictly speaking, Hawkwoman/Hawkgirl was never a side-kick. The first of these was the Kitten in Helnit Publications Cat-Man Comics # 5. Considering the male-orientation in comicbooks, you do have to wonder what the fairer sex was reading.

Oh and just in case you think super-heroes were the only big thing, we also have the first Archie Andrews comic, looking less like his later look and a half-way house towards a certain ‘Mad’ character some way down the line. At the end of the year, we also see the arrival of Jack Cole’s Plastic Man’ and the start of bendable characters.

I thought 1940 was busy but 1941 just kept building on that. There really is a lot to read here and so many surprises. It might be worth having an article comparing the patriotic super-heroes in ‘Alter Ego’ for this period some time more so if you thought that the Batman and Robin prototypes were the templates for all the rest. That’s not to say all the rest relied on side-kicks. Of course, WW2 was creeping in and the super-heroes wanting to sign up and how the creators had to get around that. As writer John Wells is quoted, saying that if Superman had joined the war, he would like quickly licked the Japanese and Nazis in an afternoon.

Oddly, Superman tries to enlist as Clark Kent and fails when he reads the eye chart in another room by mistake which we see the sample strip here. Fawcett’s Captain Marvel is advised by the wizard Shazam to look after the home front. Mind you, as Billy Batson, he would have been too young. Carl Barks also starts his comicbook career on Donald Duck. The most significant thing is the paper reductions forcing many companies to cut back on the number of comics and page count they produce, not helped by how many creators were enlisting or being drafted for World War Two. Seeing how some of these publishers got around that and how some came up illegally to do it proved comicbooks were a licence to make money.

I have to confess that I haven’t seen much of the art associated with and criticised of Wonder Woman when it comes to bondage. Seeing a few samples here, I’m not wholly convinced. I mean you would have to use chains or, as shown here, barbed wire, to hold Wonder Woman because she could break out of ropes in a trice. Maybe things would have been balanced had we seen Superman chained up more often.

1942 is also the first time the original Green Lantern uses his ring oath as written by Alfred Bester. Archie Andrews is beginning to look more like his more recognisable self and is even a star of his own radio show, albeit with little of the trappings of comicbook counterpart.

Even though he was in the army and Timely Comics were now releasing a host of humour titles, Stan Lee looks like the first person to instigate a credits page in them, although with everyone jumping around to help on different strips they might not have been wholly accurate and publisher Martin Goodman dropped it in 1943. Even so, that is a significant move in seeing bi-lines and fascinating to have seen it being carried out back then. Seeing how the various comicbook companies had to deal with a paper shortage and yet selling well is an odd contradiction, certainly when creativity was active and some female creators getting in through the door.

With 1944, it’s rather interesting seeing a young Gil Kane and Frank Frazetta getting into the business. Then the list got longer as I spotted other names including Ray Kinstler, Matt Baker, Gene Colan, Dick Sprang and the rise of Julius Schwartz changing from SF literary agent to editor at All-American Comics.

There is so much to absorb in this book. Seeing the effects of World War II in general and how it applied to the American comicbook industry will make you think that nothing was new. The two biggest revelations above with the Marvel Method technique didn’t start with Stan Lee but he ensured credits were given for a time. Likewise, the number of women breaking in. With so many creators being recruited into the war effort, it also gave the opportunity for new younger talent to come forward. They probably would have anyway but it made it easier for them.

If you want to learn more about the history of American comicbooks then this book is a must because so much of what we have today came from this period. It’ll be interesting to see the second book of the 1940s and what happens next. A staggeringly revealing book.

GF Willmetts

September 2019

(pub: TwoMorrows Publishing. 288 page illustrated hardback. Price: $45.95 (US). ISBN: 978-1-60549-089-2. Direct from them, you can get it for $39.06 (US))

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One thought on “American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1940s: 1940-1944 by Kurt F. Mitchell with Roy Thomas (book review).

  • As you know I have the two sixties volumes and just finished the seventies book. I was just about to start the 40’s when the weekly newsletter pinged in and I flipped through the recent reviews and saw this. Heartily agree with you geoff. These are , for my money, the best and most comprehensive history of the comic book industry that I have ever read.


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