Monday, June 8, 2015

A Journey Begins

Memory is often unreliable, and piecing together a moment from forty five years ago can be a struggle. I'm confident that it was a weekday when I stopped in a luncheonette with my Mother after shopping on Knickerbocker Avenue. I grew up in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn and candy stores, newsstands and luncheonette's were familiar sights. Staring at me from a spinner rack filled with paperbacks was a brightly colored book sporting a Superman logo, bat-symbol and familiar comic book "sound effects" lettering, the title in bold red: All In Color For a Dime

I don’t recall the particulars, maybe I had recently received money from relatives, since I find it hard to believe I cajoled my Mother to part with a whopping one dollar and fifty cents – a considerable sum to give a 10 year old – especially since finances were tight in our household. Somehow or other I left that store with a book that I still have in my possession – one which began my lifelong interest in the history of comics.  

 My copy, with loose front and back covers and inset pages has survived numerous moves for 45 years. I didn't see the original hardcover edition until many years later, but at $ 11.95 I doubt even my older brother John would have been able to afford it!

All in Color for A Dime was my first real introduction to the “golden age” of comics. I had some concept of an earlier era, dating back to the first time I saw one back in 1966. Marvel began reprinting the early Simon and Kirby Captain America stories beginning in Fantasy Masterpieces # 3 (June 1966). I was with my brother John when he picked up the following issue in a candy store down the block from my Grandparents house in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn.

 Fantasy Masterpieces # 4, August 1966. Jack Kirby penciled and inked the main image, surrounded by scenes from the interior stories. This comic book was one of the earliest I recall seeing on the newsstand. Marvel Tales # 4 was probably bought that same day by my brother John. Fantasy Masterpieces also included my introduction to pre-hero Marvel monster/fantasy fare.   

In comparison to Kirby's then current output on Fantastic Four, Thor and “Captain America” his 1940s art had an archaic, unpolished feel, pointing to a long ago, mythical time. In those days remnants of previous decades were all around us; television regularly showed movies from the 1930s and 40’s including the Universal monsters; radio and vaudeville showmen such as Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Jimmy Durante, George Burns, Groucho Marx, George Jessel and many others appeared on talk and variety shows; children were entertained by the comedy of Laurel and Hardy, the Little Rascals, Abbott and Costello; serials appeared every day on children’s programs such as Chuck McCann (Flash Gordon; King of the Rocket Men; The Crimson Ghost)  along with decades old black and white cartoons: Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Woody Woodpecker, Popeye, Mighty Mouse, Heckle and Jeckle, Betty Boop, Farmer Alfalfa, Ko Ko the Clown, Scrappy. The sights and sounds of the 1960s were intermingled with the fascination for an earlier era.   

Singer, pianist and master of Malaprop Jimmy Durante. His career dated back to vaudeville, Durante was a perennial on radio and a familiar face on television in the 1960s, appearing on talk shows, guesting on variety programs like Hollywood Palace and even headlining a musical/comedy series.

While Marvel reprinted the adventures of Sub-Mariner, Captain America and the Human Torch, National Periodical Publications (DC) occasionally presented an early tale of Superman and Batman in their 80 page giants. Even Archie, under their Mighty Comics imprint, often made reference of their earlier superhero era, reviving some characters in Mighty Crusaders, Fly Man and Mighty Comics Presents. The majority of interest, though, was in the present era. 

    The introductory page whets the readers appetite for what is to come.

All in Color for a Dime opened a door to a fascinating era when comic books were just beginning, revealing many of the field's pioneers. I learned more about both familiar characters (Superman, Batman, Captain America, Spider-Man) and complete mysteries such as Captain Marvel; companies including Fawcett, Hillman and EC and background on psychiatrist Fredric Wertham and the 1950s Senate investigation that changed the industry. Eleven chapters focused on costumed heroes and the people behind them, written by an array of enthusiastic, articulate and noteworthy authors including Ted White, Bill Blackbeard, Don Thompson, Dick Lupoff, Ron Goulart, Harlan Ellison, Richard Ellington, Tom Fagan, Jim Harmon, Chris Steinbrunner, and a name even I was familiar with from his scripts for Marvel, Roy Thomas. 

Each chapter began with an introduction to the author. Many were known in the fan community, or would become prominent in later years. Co-editor Dick Lupoff wrote a chapter detailing the fascinating story of Fawcett comics and the origins of Captain Marvel, which, at one point, was the best selling comic book in the 1940s (his chapter, like many in the book, originally appeared in the science-fiction fanzine Xero). Lupoff's essay revealed that Captain Marvel was no longer published due to a lawsuit instituted by National over the Captain's perceived plagiarism of Superman. The sprawling court drama ended with Fawcett eventually losing and settling out of court. Captain Marvel and his assorted titles would cease publication. The real world was a little more complicated than the clear cut good and evil exploits of Captain Marvel.     

One of sixteen color pages included in the book was the cover to Marvel Comics # 1 by the then-unidentified Frank R. Paul.  

Don Thompson, who co-edited with Lupoff, wrote the chapter of Timely's "Big Three" (Human Torch, Sun-Mariner, Captain America) providing an overview of the Timely/Atlas/Marvel era. It was the first time I discovered characters such as the Young Allies or the name of Kirby's partner and co-creator of Captain America, Joe Simon. Thompson, together with his wife Maggie, produced one of the early fanzines, Comic Art, followed by Newfangles. The pair later became columnists and co-editors of the long running news/adzine The Buyers' Guide (later titled Comics' Buyers Guide).

 In "The Spawn of M. C. Gaines" Ted White wrote about the origins of Superman and Batman. There I learned the names of Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and discovered how involved writer Bill Finger was in Batman's early stories. White has had a long and versatile career as writer/publisher of science fiction fanzines and editor of book compilations; author; musician and music critic.   

Roy Thomas wrote about the other Fawcett heroes, including Spy Smasher, Captain Midnight and Bulletman. The only image in the book of Captain Marvel (and his alter ego, Billy Batson) was a reproduction of a house ad for Gift Comics. Aside from his prolific career in comic books, Roy continues to contribute to my knowledge of comic book history in his long running fanzine, Alter Ego.

 One of my favorite chapters was “The First (Arf, Arf) Superhero of them All” by Bill Blackbeard. From my earliest days I was enraptured by the animated adventures of Popeye, watching him on Captain Jack McCarthy’s kid show on WPIX, Channel 11 every day. At a young age I didn’t distinguish between the Fleischer, Paramount or King Features cartoons, but later grew to appreciate the imaginative, surreal, urban Max Fleischer black and white Popeye shorts as being superior to the rest. I had seen and possibly had a copy or two of the Dell/Gold Key Popeye comic book, but had no knowledge of the comic strip. Blackbeard’s essay revealed the origins of Popeye and his creator, E. C. Segar. It was a revelation to me, opening an interest in the comic strip exploits of this offbeat and truly funny character whose malapropisms, basic good nature and love of “aminals” was translated in Fleischer’s animated cartoons.

Bill Blackbeard was an important figure in the study and preservation of comic strip art. His books, essays and, perhaps most importantly, herculean efforts in saving the comic strip from destruction cannot be understated. You can read more about Bill Blackbeard here:

All in Color for a Dime was followed by an array of eye-opening publications. In the next few years my brother John’s Christmas and Birthday gifts to me included Superman from the 1930s to the 1970s; Batman from the 1930s to the 1970s and the Steranko History of Comics Vol’s one and two. In the pages of those books I discovered many names instrumental to the beginnings of comics including Bill Finger; Will Eisner; Jack Cole and Lou Fine, to name a very few. 

In 1971 Crown books published two hardcover books featuring reprints of classic material from National/DC's archives. The Batman collection included an introduction by E. Nelson Bridwell, editorial assistant, writer and editor at DC. The author noted Bill Finger's often hidden contributions to the genesis of Batman at a time when Bob Kane often received all the credit. Cover art by Carmine Infantino and Murphy Anderson.

The first fanzine I purchased was The Comic Reader # 92, dated December 1972. It featured news and information on Marvel, DC, Charlton, Gold Key and Warren (including cover reproductions and publication dates); movie and media news, fanzine reviews and articles. Editor Paul Levitz soon turned his talents to a long career at DC as writer/editor and later executive positions including a stint as president and publisher. Alan Kupperberg cover art.     

Two years later I discovered the world of fanzines when I noticed a small image in the window of a used bookstore in Ridgewood, Queens (where I had recently moved to). Back in those long ago days stores were not often covered with metal gates and you could actually view there wares. My brother John and I were familiar with its claustrophobic interior filled with books, records, magazines and, of course, old comics. We were also acquainted with the proprietor, Pat, having journeyed there from time to time in search of old treasures. It was a Sunday and the store was closed (in that period most stores were closed on sundays) but the following day I returned and bought The Comic Reader # 92, the first of what would be many fanzines I would buy over the decades. There I learned further information on comic books both old and new, read interviews with writers and artists and was hooked by a sense of youthful enthusiasm that was infectious.   

Flashback # 7 reprinted Pep Comics # 1 (January 1940). Published by Alan Light, who also spearheaded the news/adzine The Buyers Guide for Comics Fandom, these reprints consisted of thick cover stock and black and white interiors. Irv Novick cover art. From the collection of John Caputo.   

As I got a little older and could afford it I returned my brother’s generosity, buying him comic book related gifts (which, of course, I got to read too!). They included Alan Light’s Flashback series, which reprinted entire issues of golden age comics in black and white. In an era when there weren’t many reprints available this was a big deal. Still in my brother's collection, titles include Human Torch # 5 (reprinting the Torch-Sub-Mariner scuffle); Captain Marvel Jr. # 1; Special Comic # 1 (Hangman) and Pep Comics # 1 (featuring the Shield), the latter two Archie/MLJ titles; I may have picked them because none of the material had ever been reprinted. I recall John and I being amused by one of the back-up features, Sgt. Boyle. Accustomed to war heroes with rugged names like Sgt. FURY, Sgt, ROCK and Captain SAVAGE, Sgt. Boyle didn't quite compare. Other gifts included Horror Comics of the 1950’s, a sampling of EC comics' outstanding work, The Comics by Jerry Robinson and (I believe) The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics by the aforementioned Bill Blackbeard, a massive tome that included examples of many obscure comic strips.   

My exploration through comic book history is an ongoing and continually fascinating adventure. In the past few decades I’ve been able to write about comics and their creators in fanzines such as Comic Book Marketplace and Alter Ego, essays in Marvel Masterworks collections, captions in Taschen’s 75 Years of Marvel Comics book and, of course, here on this blog.

In his recent book If These Walls Could Talk major league pitcher and broadcaster Jim Kaat summed up his love of baseball history:        

“…I still consider myself a student of the game. I’ve never lost my curiosity or love of baseball. My eyes are always open to something new. A question is always poised on the tip of my tongue…”   

Kaat could just as easily have been speaking about film, art, music, poetry…or comic books. 


Booksteve said...

Your story is very similar to mine, right down to the Fantasy Masterpieces (which I remember sitting on the floor at Woolworth and reading while my Mom shopped). I carried ALL IN COLOR... with me on trips and to school until I virtually memorized it! Many years later, the first book I was ever published in was edited by the man who wrote my favorite ALL IN COLOR...chapter--Jim Harmon. The book was an anthology and also featured a new short story by ALL IN COLOR...editor Dick Lupoff!

Nick Caputo said...

Hi Steven,

Great story! That book had an incredible group working on it and it remains a treasure in my collection.

Kid said...

I've heard of the book (read about it back in the '70s, I think), but never read it, so I'll maybe keep an eye out for a copy when I have the dosh. It's good to see that you have the original comics, fanzines and books you got as a kid, Nick. I've had to re-acquire replacement copies for the ones I had over the last 30-odd years in order to indulge my nostalgia. (And I'm old enough to remember when Woolworth's actually sold comics.) Fascinating post.

Nick Caputo said...

I don't have everything from those long ago days, Kid. Some stuff was sold, misplaced, given away or lost over the decades, but I'm glad I still have some of those treasures.