Ghosts of Comics’ Past: 1943

By | April 17th, 2023
Posted in Columns | % Comments

Multiversity’s history column continues its year-by-year recap of comic industry history with a sequel to the previous coverage of 1940, 1941 (part 1 and part 2), and 1942.

Like every other part of life in 1942, World War II weighed heavily on comic books. Its effect on content could fill a book (and has!), but there were less visible impacts as well. There was a talent shortage as young writers and artists were drafted. Some, like Stan Lee and Will Eisner, were given comfortable desk jobs because of their skills and were able to continue sending scripts back from their posts. Others found their talents earned them more dangerous assignments, like Jack Kirby’s job scouting in Europe to draw maps.

The talent shortage caused a change in the way comics were produced. Publishers who had been buying their material from packing shops like Funnies Inc or Eisner/Iger began to rethink their strategy. They bypassed the shop managers to contact the creators directly and offer them staff positions. This had the multiple benefits. There was cost reduction as the shop owners no longer got a cut. Direct employment locked in known talent while also preventing that same talent from providing any material to a competitor (assuming no moonlighters).

Paper rationing also changed the comic landscape. Limits on their volume of paper forced publishers to cut back on their offerings. At the start of the year, books that had been 96 interior pages dropped to 64 (sometimes advertised as 68 by counting the insides and outsides of the cover). The creators involved tried to compensate readers by putting more panels per page, but stories also became shorter. By the end of the year, some were down to 52 or 48 because the government enforced an additional 15% reduction of paper usage. The way the output was reduced was of course left up to each publisher, and they could have chosen to keep their product at 96 pages by publishing two issues a month instead of three. Virtually none chose that route, since they could still charging a dime for the slimmer version.

Thus, the comic book industry had its most profitable year yet in 1943. Newsstands were selling 25 to 50 million comics per week nationally for an annual gross of $30 million ($500M in 2023 dollars). The demand for comics was so high, sell-through often exceeded 100% because readers desperate for the escapism were willing to buy damaged copies. Superheroes were still the most popular genre with multiple characters able to move a million copies per issue.

Success was not evenly distributed. Between the start of the comic industry and 1943, at least 45 different publishers had tried their hand at comic books. Half of them either gave up or went of of business within 10 years, only be replaced by 20 other starry-eyed entrepreneurs. The survivors felt established, however, and in 1943 they had the confidence to schedule issues themed around holidays for the first time. Before, they had relied on general inventory that would appeal to readers year round with a seasonal cover thrown in occasionally.

Who was buying all those comics? A better question might be “who wasn’t?” The Market Research Company of America found that 35% of Americans ages 18-30 regularly read six or more comics per month. A smaller segment (15%) of older demographics reported reading comics “regularly.” Elementary-aged kids were reading them “often” at a rate of 95%. They stretched their dime investment as far as they could by sharing and trading their purchases with one another until the average copy of any given issue was read by 6-10 people.

That kind of circulation attracted advertisers. Sweets Company of America was the first to utilize the comic format in their ad when they created Captain Tootsie. The character and ads were the work of CC Beck, co-creator of the popular superhero Captain Marvel. Captain Tootsie was essentially Popeye, but he used Tootsie Roll candies instead of spinach. After first appearing in “Ace Comics” #76 in June, new ads continued to appear in various publications for more than ten years. In 1950, Toby Press gave him a shot in his own book, “Captain Tootsie and the Secret Legion,” but only two quarterly issues were produced. The ad campaign was discontinued when comic sales plunged in 1955.

Continued below

Academia was also watching comics in 1943. When she noticed how enchanted her freshmen students were with the material, high school English teacher Fleda Cooper Kinnemen crafted and led a three-day lesson plan on comics. She used the same comics the kids were already reading and encouraged them to discuss the strengths and weaknesses in them. She used their responses to recommend prose books that aligned with their interests. Over the summer, the Child Study Association of America published the results of a survey by Josette Frank. In her commentary, she argued that superhero adventures filled the same emotional and moral purposes for readers as traditional fairy tales.

The US Government also recognized comics as a vehicle for morality tales and chose to harness that ability for its own purposes. The Office of War Information published the biographical comic “The Life of Franklin D Roosevelt: 32nd President of the United States of America.” It was intended for foreign readers and available in multiple languages, but New York Republican Congressman John Tabor took the floor of Congress to call it propaganda made to support Roosevelt’s run for a fourth term in office. The Treasury Secretary, Henry Morgenthou Jr, had an open letter featured in comics from several publishers asking kids to buy ten-cent war stamps instead of more comics. The Second World War Library Service maintained subscriptions to 18 magazines for troops overseas, and “Superman” was one of them. The government’s order of 100,000 copies represented 10% of the comic’s sales.

The military was also directly involved in comic books. The Marine Corp gave Vin Sullivan money to start Magazine Enterprises and produce “United States Marines,” a comic containing both fact and fiction. In addition to the funding, the Marines cooperated with Sullivan’s creative teams to get the material correct. Only four issues were published during WWII, but in 1953 the title was revived for seven more issues during the Korean War. The Navy commissioned six special issues of “Superman” for distribution among sailors to improve literacy. Disney created “Winter Draws On” and the Spandules characters for the US Air Force, and Street & Smith released “Aviation Cadets” in partnership with the Naval Bureau of Aeronautics.

Actors from the private sector got involved in the action too. Nelson Rockefeller donated $50,000 (~$875k in 2023) to the Parents’ Institute so they could translate their anti-Nazi stories in “Real Heroes” and “Our Future” into Spanish and Portuguese for European distribution. Albert Cantor, publisher of “Classics Illustrated,” negotiated bulk sales to the American Red Cross, who forwarded 5-10 million copies of the comic adaptations of classic literature to the front lines.

In publisher news, Fawcett claimed the title of largest company by circulation with 47 million copies sold from only 14 titles. Dell was largest by output with 120 unique issues in 1943. By diverting some of its paper allotment from prose books to comics, it was least impacted by rationing and only skipped one scheduled issue of “Animal Comics.” DC and its All American subsidiary severed legal ties to become separate entities. This move allowed them to file for paper rations individually and increase their take. Late in the year, MC Gaines released his first comic using the Educational Comics (EC) name: a 236-page publication reprinting four issues of “Picture Stories from the Bible.” Churches and synagogues bought it in bulk and supported nine printings. Timely/Marvel was averaging five comics a week with average print runs of 500,000. More than a third of them were comedy, and one of the jokes was to include extensive credit boxes that listed roles like lettering for the first time.

A few comic characters made the move to other media in 1943. The Archie Andrews radio program began on May 31 and was heavily promoted on Archie covers. Columbia Pictures put out the first episode of the Batman serial in July. Batman’s butler Alfred was created for the serial but was introduced to readers in “Batman” #16, cover dated for May. The “Batman and Robin” newspaper strip began on October 25 and enjoyed a short three year run.

//TAGS | Ghosts of Comics' Past

Drew Bradley

Drew Bradley is a long time comic reader whose past contributions to Multiversity include annotations for "MIND MGMT", the Small Press Spotlight, Lettering Week, and Variant Coverage. He currently writes about the history of comic comic industry. Feel free to email him about these things, or any other comic related topic.


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