During the 1940s, America was the ‘superhero’ of the world, coming to the rescue of Europe and the Pacific with its extensive military powers. It’s not surprising that the comic book superhero flourished during those period, both amongst the troops and with readers at home. Timely’s Captain America had even punched Hitler in the face on the cover of his comic. Following the end of World War II, though, with the world at large introverting into what was to become the Cold War, the popularity of superheroes declined. Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman continued to sell, but stories of cowboys and war gradually replaced other titles. Science fiction began to grow in popularity, especially with its themes of alien invasion, which mirrored the cultural shift towards paranoia. DC launched Strange Adventures and Mystery in Space while Timely Comics cancelled Captain America, the Human Torch and Sub-Mariner series, replacing them with horror, science fiction and Western genres as well as teen humour and romance. Both Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were cutting their comic book teeth on romance work after the war.
Meanwhile, over in Britain, comic books had taken a different turn. From the 19th century heritage of story papers, periodical children’s publications similar to a literary magazine, but with illustrations and text stories, a book-like format grew. Full of close-printed text with few illustrations, these ‘penny dreadfuls’ were essentially no different from a book, except that they were shorter and contained serialised stories to encourage ongoing sales. Charles Dickens had edited a similar kind of thing and many of his novels began their lives in the pages of similar publications. However, in this cheaper version, aimed at working class boys, plagiarism was common and sensationalist tales of horror and the supernatural, featuring pirates, highwaymen, and detectives ran into the early part of the 20th century.
The essence of their success was their accessibility: they were cheap and easily read. They filled the vacuum for the poorer segments of the population where literacy was rising but economics blocked access to theatre or more expensive forms of entertainment.
The emphasis on illustrated stories began to take hold in parallel to this: Ally Sloper's Half Holiday (1884) a weekly comic paper was probably the first comic book or magazine to feature a regular character, cost one penny and was designed for working class adults. It told how Ally, the recurring protagonist, ended up in trouble after some mischief. Towards the end of the 19th century, some of these magazines simply reprinted British and American material, previously published in newspapers and magazines, without permission. Profits rocketed, especially from the youth market, and so publications followed the money accordingly. By 1914, most ‘comics’ were aimed at eight- to twelve-year-olds and contained a great deal of slapstick humour and mischievous children or teenagers ‘getting their come-uppance’.
These publications evolved into cheaper newsprint paper and black and white stories which were released in anthology formats, with strips one or two pages in length. A single issue of a comic contained about a dozen separate strips, featuring different characters in ongoing adventures, with each episode ending on a cliffhanger. As the British model was based on a magazine format, some comics with articles and photographs featuring actors, pop stars, technological advances, sport and so forth. War stories were popular after 1945, naturally, with the memory of the war so recent.
In the early 1950s, the American and British strands of the comic book crossed almost by accident. Copies of Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror arrived as ballast in ships from the United States. These were at first read only in the ports of Liverpool, Manchester, Belfast and London, but soon British versions of Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror were printed in London and elsewhere. There was an outcry: Parliament passed the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act in 1955 prohibiting ‘any book, magazine or other like work which is of a kind likely to fall into the hands of children or young persons and consists wholly or mainly of stories told in pictures (with or without the addition of written matter), being stories portraying (a) the commission of crimes; or (b) acts of violence or cruelty; or (c) incidents of a repulsive or horrible nature; in such a way that the work as a whole would tend to corrupt a child or young person into whose hands it might fall.’ So British comics were specifically restricted from following the popular American format. A similar backlash against ‘lurid’ horror comics was to follow in the United States.
The popular British comic The Eagle published by Hulton Press was one result of this. First published from 1950 to 1969, it was founded by Marcus Morris, an Anglican vicar from Lancashire, specifically in order to communicate the church’s message more effectively. Morris and artist Frank Hampson proposed the idea to several publishers with little success, until Hulton Press took it on. The Eagle was hugely successful, with its first issue selling almost one million copies. In colour on the front cover was its most iconic hero, Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, created by Hampson with meticulous attention to detail. As was common in British comics, The Eagle also contained news and sport sections, cutaway diagrams of machinery and a members’ club. Soon a number of comics were launched in a similar format, such as TV Century 21, Look and Learn and TV Comic.
With the rise of television, though, comics began to decline. Titles such as Valiant and Tiger published by IPC and reprinted American Marvel Comics material in the Power Comics range including Smash!, Terrific and Fantastic created popular cultural heroes or introduced American figures to British youth, but the arrival of colour television in Britain in 1969 inevitably influenced the comics market. Television was rapidly filling the vacuum which comics had once been able to fill: TV was even cheaper and easier to access.
Comics were compelled to respond if they were to survive, and they did, as we will see in the next instalment.