Ghosts of Comics’ Past: January in comic history – a dead hero, fake news, inflation, and discrimination

By | January 10th, 2022
Posted in Columns | % Comments

Multiversity’s history column kicks off 2022 with topics ripped from today’s headlines, but pulled from the annals of the comic industry. See fake news that divided public discourse. Share the concern about inflationary pressure. Be disheartened at a story of people who are different than the majority being dehumanized. Enjoy this reminder than there’s nothing new under the sun, and start your new year off the right way by reading on!

January 1940
The star of January 1940’s “Pep Comics” #1 from MLJ was the patriotic Shield, but the comic also contained a supporting feature with Comet, a superhero created by Jack Cole. Comet’s powers of flight and eye beams were simple, but Cole was crafting an interesting variation on the superhero concept – while under a hypnotic spell, Comet used his eye beams to kill a civilian. Hunted as a murderer by the police, Comet is one of the earliest examples of a tragically misunderstood hero. However, Cole left the feature after a handful of stories and later writers did not explore the potential. Comet never amounted to more than uninteresting filler.

The Comet trudged on, selling but not really exciting anyone, until “Pep Comics” #17 in July 1941. In that issue, Comet rescued his brother but was shot several times in the process. The wounds proved fatal, and the Comet became the first superhero to die. The event wasn’t publicized, nor was it treated as a significant occurrence. It was a story-driven way to replace an unpopular hero with a newer alternative, with the added convenience of retaining the supporting cast. You see, the brother the Comet died saving wanted vengeance, and he created his own costume identity for the quest – The Hangman.

Aside from being the first legacy hero (kinda, as he didn’t reuse the name or share the powers), the Hangman was almost as non-notable as his brother. The only added bit of intrigue surrounding the Hangman came about six months later, when Captain America fought a villain named Hangman in Timely’s “Captain America” #6. MLJ noticed and threatened a lawsuit over the reuse of the moniker. Although this may seem like an overreaction to a rather generic name, you have to remember that it occurred less than a year after MLJ took legal issue with the shape of Captain America’s shield, so they were predisposed to assume bad faith at any hint of a swipe.

January 1949
The 1940s were a tumultuous and divisive time when it came to public opinion of comics. There were opinion columnists who hated the newfangled reading material for being inferior to the stuff they had grown up with. Scientists who studied the impact of reading comics and found no reason to be alarmed. Librarians and teachers who decided parents couldn’t be trusted with their children and wanted to act on their behalf. The populist leading the anti-comics crusade was psychiatrist Frederic Wertham who cited his case studies as evidence of children harmed by comic books.

In January 1949, an intrepid news reporter named Norbert Muhlen felt a responsibility to sort through the claims and find the truth. As part of his investigation, he requested access to Wertham’s case material so he could personally evaluate the doctor’s claims. Wertham refused to share any of his research, which you may not find surprising considering he did professional medical evaluations of minors. However, Wertham had no qualms about sharing detailed anecdotes with names changed to protect the minors. The true surprise was Wertham’s actual stated reason for withholding the material from Muhlen, which amounted to “If I show it to you, others may want to see it too, and I don’t have time to honor all the requests I may receive.” Muhlen was unconvinced by this reasoning, and published his opinion that Wertham’s claims were “not verifiable and not corresponding to the facts.”

Coming at the same time as other pieces critical of Wertham’s arguments, Muhlen’s piece helped to deflate Wertham’s standing in the public eye. Although Wertham had a resurgence of popularity about five years later, he always kept his research locked away from prying eyes. Even when his documents were presented to the Library of Congress at his death in 1987, it was with the provision that access to them be restricted until 2002. As that date approached, a petition by his family extended the restriction to 2010. When the material finally became available to the public, Carol Tilley published her findings that Wertham had manipulated, exaggerated, or fabricated all of his evidence. His entire platform had been baseless.

Continued below

January 1962
When comics hit newsstands for the first time in the 1930s, they were 96 pages and priced at a dime like all the other periodicals for sale. As inflationary pressures mounted, magazines like “Time” or “Life” raised their prices and kept their content the same. Comics, afraid of pricing themselves out of the children’s market, took an opposite track and continued charging a dime for a reduced page count. Thus the standard comic book fell from 96 pages to 80, then to 64, then to 48, and by the 1960s they were down to 32 with around 18 pages of story.

When inflation struck this time, the option to reduce pages again was unappealing. Production methods required a drop to be 16 pages at time, which would turn comics into flimsy pamphlets with stories about 12 long. Fans didn’t want less story. Creators didn’t want to suffer layoffs or pay cuts from a reduced work load. Distributors didn’t want such a fragile product. Publishers recognized that even if they did lower their page count to 16, it would be the last time they could do so and a price hike was inevitable. The alternative would be extinction.

Dell, the powerhouse publisher that had dominated the 1950s, had raised prices to fifteen cents in 1961 and been punished for it by readers who left in droves. When DC raised prices in January 1962, they restrained themselves to only a two cent raise. To soften the blow, they printed a letter to fans on the inside of all their covers that month explaining inflation in terms children could (hopefully) understand. It concluded by assuring readers that the increase was necessary to remain in business and that twelve cents an issue was a fair price, especially compared to Dell’s outrageous price tag. Since DC had some say over Marvel’s marketing at the time, Marvel raised their prices to twelve cents at the same time in a coordinated effort.

Children took this price hike personally. For kids who were used to buying their comic with one coin, the extra two pennies made paying for a comic more of a hassle. While two cents may not sound like much today, it was a 20% increase. That made a big dent in a child’s buying power, and many young readers had to reduce their purchases.

In 1996, the Toy Biz legal team went to court with an opinion about the X-Men that most fans would have found objectionable, if they had been aware of it. After nearly forty years of fighting for equality, Marvel’s merry mutants were attacked by the very company that licensed their licensed their likeness for toys and other merchandise. Before a judge, God, and everyone, Toy Biz argued that mutants weren’t human, and shouldn’t be treated like humans.

More specifically, their plastic incarnations imported from China, Taiwan, Vietnam, or any other country shouldn’t be subject to the same US trade tariffs as dolls. Mutants and superheroes, Toy Biz claimed, should be reclassified as non-humans like Godzilla, animals, or vehicles.

After six years of effort, the US Court of International Trade finally agreed with Toy Biz in mid-January, 2003. Mutants and superheroes would not be considered human by the government, and you and I could enjoy their toys at at slightly lower price. Or, since I don’t recall any price reductions on the toys I was buying, maybe Toy Biz kept the savings for themselves. Or, maybe inflationary pressure meant the price and profit stayed the same.

//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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