Comic Books Historical And Critical Perspectives

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Historical And Critical Perspectives

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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Ted White

SOURCE: "The Spawn of M. C. Gaines," in All in Color for a Dime, edited by Dick Lupoff and Don Thompson, Arlington House, 1970, pp. 21-43.

[In the following essay, White profiles an early history of comic books, culminating in the creation of Superman and Batman.]

It's a story which has grown into modern myth—a myth which in some respects equals and parallels the myth of Superman himself—the story of how two boys, Jerome Siegel and Joe Shuster, fresh out of high school, sold their dream comic strip and achieved world fame.

As science fiction fans, Siegel and Shuster had published an early science fiction fan magazine, the title of which was, not so surprisingly, Science Fiction. It was a mimeographed publication and appeared in the early 1930s. In many respects, including the poor paper on which it was published, it resembled more closely fan magazines being published by s.f. and comics fans now than it did most of its contemporaries. Most of the material was written by Siegel, and all the illustrations were by Shuster.

As the myth has it, while still in high school, science fiction fans Siegel and Shuster dreamed up their science fictional superman: a man come to Earth from another planet, metabolically adapted for a greater gravity and far harsher environmental pressures than ours. Here on Earth, the superman would find his powers vastly multiplied, just as we would find ours greater on, for instance, the Moon.

According to the story, sample art and scripts for Superman were drawn and prepared for submission as early as 1935. M. C. Gaines remembered seeing it while he was associated with the Dell line of comics, but could not find a place for either the original concept or the crude rendering, in books that were then given over entirely to Sunday comics reprints.

The tale of Superman's round of rejections is very much like the story of the best seller rejected by 26 publishers before finding its home with the 27th—perhaps not entirely true, but certainly too colorful to ignore in the retelling. In any case, the team of Siegel & Shuster had sold some half dozen other original strips before finding a home for their baby Superman.

Let's backtrack for a minute, though. To understand the peculiar success story of Superman, one must have some understanding of comics publishing in the 1930s.

Newspaper comics were born around the turn of the century, and it was inevitable that someone, sooner or later, would begin collecting the daily and Sunday newspaper strips into book and booklet form. This began in the 1920s, with a variety of nonstandardized sizes and formats. On my shelf of oddities there is a five-by-seven "book" of Little Orphan Annie sitting next to a ten-by-ten collection of Mutt & Jeff, both products of the late twenties, and both printed in black and white.

In the early thirties, while young Siegel and Shuster were day-dreaming in math or science class over their Superman or their fan magazine, a man named M. C. Gaines created the comic book.

It was called Funnies on Parade, and it was the prototype for the successful Famous Funnies: it measured (approximately) seven by ten inches, was printed in color on newsprint, and was devoted exclusively to reprints of the popular Sunday comics features of the time, usually reprinting a complete Sunday feature on each page.

Gaines has simply taken the dimensions in which the Sunday comics were printed, and proportionately reduced them so that his book could be printed on the same color presses and use material prepared for Sunday comics publication. It was less a master stroke than eminent common sense.

Funnies on Parade was a trial balloon. It was followed by Century of Comics (so named because it contained 100 pages; it was a dime-store giveaway and had no price on it), and one or two other one-shots, including Famous Funnies. Apparently both idea and format were a success, because soon Famous Funnies was a continuing title and other publishers were coming out with imitations. (Famous Funnies outlasted its...

(The entire section is 45,852 words.)