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Ghosts of Comics’ Past – 1942

By | May 16th, 2022
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When this column covered 1941 last year, there was so much to talk about that I split the material into one article on the industry in general and a second article focused on activities at certain publishers. I’m going to restrain myself a bit more for coverage on 1942 and give it all to you in one shot. Enjoy!

By the Numbers
In 1942, depending on how you count and whose numbers you believe, there were between 143 and 168 regularly published comic titles. Cumulative sales ranged from 12 million to 15 million copies a month. Seventy five percent of those sales were direct to children instead of their parents, and a majority of the remaining sales were to members of the armed services, as comics were available on every military base.

Even though children were the primary purchasers, their comics were often shared with friends and older family members. In Indiana, a study found school age students were reading an average of five comics per child per day. Contemporary industry estimates said every purchased copy was read by four people. Surveys found that 50 million Americans read comics on a monthly basis – not too shabby for a population of 125 million. Annual industry sales were pegged around $15 million with profits around $8 million. Respectable sources likes “Business Week” and the “New York World Telegraph” were covering the young industry and treating it seriously.

World War II
America’s entry into World War II had an increasing impact on comics through 1942. In February, Street & Smith released “Remember Pearl Harbor,” a 45-page propaganda comic that retold the events of the December 1941 attack. Many superheroes had already been fighting the Axis powers, but now virtually every hero encountered enemy soldiers or homegrown saboteurs. In fact, the Office of War Information actually reached out to publishers with concerns about how easily the Axis was being beaten in comics, since young readers might wonder why the real army was having such a hard time.

In the summer, the Treasury Department commissioned Al Harvey’s Family Comics to release “War Victory Comics,” the first government-sponsored comic book. The 36-pager featured popular comic strip characters showing kids how they could buy war stamps. It sold for a nickel, half the standard price, and all profits were donated to the USO. The release coincided with a letter from the Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthou Jr, that appeared in over 100 comics with cover dates of June or July. Directed at young readers, it told children how they could contribute to the war effort.

The most direct impact the war had on comic books was also one of the least obvious: paper rationing. The US Government had been preparing to enter WWII long before Pearl Harbor, so rationing plans were drafted and ready to be implemented right away. Most of the historical focus on rationing is on average households, but suppliers and producers had their own restrictions. In the case of publishers, their paper stock allotment was based on the volume of their pre-war output. Not only were existing publishers prevented from expanding their product lines, but new publishers were effectively locked out of the market.

Continued below

There was one loophole: existing publishers of other material could choose to use their paper allotment however they saw fit. Only the Catechetical Guild went this route, creating “Timeless Topix” in November. Containing bible stories and Catholic history, the comic had limited newsstand distribution but reached millions of children through parochial schools. Perhaps because of the rationing, or maybe just to save money, the covers were on the same newsprint used for the interior pages instead of a glossier stock.

Popular Content
There were two genres growing in popularity in 1942. The first, funny animal stories, wasn’t new but found a new level of success when “Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories” began featuring original Donald Duck stories as their lead feature. Although artists weren’t allowed to sign their work because Disney wanted to maintain the illusion that everything was done by Walt, readers could tell a difference in quality from story to story. One creator, later identified as Carl Barks, debuted in the anthology “Four Color” #9 in April and was known by fans only as the “good duck artist.” Dell added the title “Donald Duck” to their line up in August with more of Barks’ work. While other publishers snatched up any remaining cartoon licenses, Marvel’s “Krazy Komics” featured Ziggy Pig and Silly Seal , the first funny animals created for comic books.

The other genre gaining notoriety was crime stories, which was new to comics in 1942. The first crime comic, “Crime Does Not Pay,” debuted from Lev Gleason Publications in June. Created by editors Charles Biro and Bob Wood, the concept was so unusual that newsstand dealers weren’t sure what to do with it. The first issue, which was numbered 22 for postage purposes, barely broke even with sales around 200,000 copies. By the end of the year, sales were up 50% to over 300,000. That trend would continue through the rest of the decade until it was selling over a million copies, and imitators were plentiful.

Simon & Kirby
Despite their success with Captain America, Marvel boss Martin Goodman fired Joe Simon and Jack Kirby from their staff positions for moonlighting at DC. Eighteen year old Stan Lee was promoted to replace Simon as the company’s editor, but by the end of the year he was enlisted and submitting his scripts from an army base. In August, Goodman cancelled his contract with the packaging company Funnies Inc, bringing all of his comic production in-house for the first time.

Simon and Kirby were happy to move to DC, where they received better pay and were the first creators to get bylines on a comic cover. Their first work appeared in “Adventure Comics” #72. In April, their Dead End Kids-inspired Newsboy Legion appeared in “Star Spangled Comics” as an instant hit. In June, their their similarly-themed Boy Commandos debuted as a backup feature in “Detective Comics” #64. They were another successful creation, and their stories began appearing in “World’s Finest” too. Late in the year, Boy Commandos were promoted to their own series and the first issue had sales in the 1 million copy range.


//TAGS | Ghosts of Comics' Past

Drew Bradley

Drew Bradley is a long time comic reader whose past contributions to Multiversity include the Minding MIND MGMT, Small Press Spotlight, and Tradewaiter columns, along with Lettering Week and Variant Coverage. He currently writes history-based articles. Feel free to email him about these things, or any other comic related topic.

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