Multiversity’s history column is back with three new items themed around acknowledgment from outside the comic industry. This time we’re starting with an overview of 1960 before diving into specific events from 1970 and 1990.
The 1950s were a rough period for most comic books because of fallout from Senate inquiries and the implementation of the Comics Code Authority (CCA), but 1960 was a year that heralded big changes.
Two publishers, Dell and Gilberton, had such pure reputations they had thrived without the CCA seal while it smothered others. Their hold on the market began to falter when sales of Dell’s most popular books, “Uncle Scrooge” and “Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories”, fell below one million copies per issue and never recovered. Both were still top sellers, but their decline was a sharp contrast to improving sales in other genres. Meanwhile, circulation of Gilberton’s perennial seller, “Classics Illustrated”, peaked around 262,000 copies. The audience for these “study aides” was being stolen by the upstart Cliff’s Notes.
Publishers experiencing growth this year were experimenting with new material. DC had begun reviving superheroes a few years earlier, and by 1960 they had enough on hand to form the Justice League in the pages of “The Brave and the Bold.” Archie Comics continued trying to duplicate DC’s success with characters like the Fly, and Charlton entered the superhero game with Captain Atom in “Space Adventures” #33. In the fall, Harvey Comics introduced Richie Rich, who gained a massive readership over the next ten years.
During this innovative year, American novelist and poet John Updike delivered a lecture to the Bristol Literary Society. As he discussed various forms a novel can take, he told the audience that he saw no reason a talented artist couldn’t create a comic masterpiece. This is the earliest example I’ve come across of someone outside the comic industry acknowledging the form’s potential and importance. It seems no one listened to him, because it was a full ten years before someone else picked up on the idea. Sort of.
The first attempt at an academic history of comic books came in 1970 as part of a larger work. Dial Press had ambitious plans for a 31-volume set of American history, and commissioned Michigan State University English professor Richard B Nye for the installment on the popular arts. “The Unembarrassed Muse” presented almost 500 pages of material on prose, opera, radio, dime novels, and American genres like the western and science fiction. Most important to this discussion, there was a 25 page chapter devoted to comics. It started with Outcault’s work from 1890 and focused primarily on newspaper strips before getting to the comic book magazine in its last five pages.
It was accurate but pretty bare bones, and omitted some surprising things. For example, it mentioned comic popularity peaking in 1953-54, but only makes a vague claim about TV and radio stealing the audience before backtracking and clarifying that they didn’t actually steal that many. The only reference to any criticism of comics is when Nye says television “diverted a good deal of criticism away from the comic book” (p240). There’s no mention of senate hearings or the CCA, and Wertham is alluded to only once as “a psychologist”. Still, it was a first attempt and was only intended to be a brief overview for a general audience.
Maybe this book was a hit in 1970, maybe it wasn’t – I know it’s an obscure one now. Nevertheless, it started a series of events that had a huge impact on comics in academics. Nye must have had big hopes for the book’s long term potential, because he anticipated that future historians might want to verify the claims he made. To ensure that would be as easy as possible for them, he donated about 6000 comic books to the MSU library. Of course, no one there knew what to do with them – how do you file such a thing?
They sat in boxes for five years, at which time a young librarian named Randall Scott began adding them to the library’s OCLC computer catalog system. This system, which was shared by libraries around the world, did not have a preset format for comics. Scott’s decisions impacted how comics were cataloged in every other library using the OCLC system. Four years later, Scott began expanding the collection. In the 1980s, the library abandoned the “sample collection” plan in favor of a “complete collection”. It began adding back issues of commentary from “Comics Buyer’s Guide” and “The Comics Journal” so comic scholars could have a place to do thorough research on the medium. Eclipse Comics was the first publisher to donate free copies of their comics to the library.Continued below
Scott is still at MSU, and he’s been championing comics to other libraries for decades. He regularly provides articles to library trade magazines with tutorials for librarians looking to start new collections. The MSU collection surpassed 300,000 pieces in 2018, and it’s all accessible by the public for free.
By 1990, everyone knew Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” was something great. The story had begun in 1977, found new life in 1981, and the first volume was collected in 1986. It received universal acclaim, and the big question was when it would be finished.
Making great comics isn’t always easy. In a larger sense, making great art of any kind isn’t always easy. Lots of outside factors can impeded a creator’s process. Money’s a big one, and if you have enough money it can go a long way to reducing the other factors. Spiegelman knew this, which is why he applied for a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship grant. You can learn more about the grant here, but it’s basically a competition among creative professionals for large sums of cash with no strings attached. They’re not even required to have a finished work to show when the grant ends.
Spiegelman was awarded a Fine Art grant in 1990, and it allowed him to complete the second half of “Maus”, which was published in 1991. The Guggenheim judges probably felt the award was justified when Spiegelman got that special Pulitzer Prize in 1992.