A Brief History of American Comics: Part 3.5- The Birth of a New Format

The 1940’s Part II: The Birth of a New Format

The idea of the comic book was cultivated in the early part of the 20th century, when in 1911, Chicago American issued a collection of Mutt & Jeff strips in an 18”x16” page book format; readers were requested to clip coupons from the newspapers and send them in with postage in order to receive the book in the mail. The collection sold 45,000 copies, vastly surpassing all expectations [4]. The great success of this project brought attention to the idea of combining comic strips into this new format. However, it would be decades before it was fully cultivated.

1st issue of The Funnies

In 1929, George Delacorte published an “experimental comic” entitled The Funnies (in reference to the common term used for comics at the time) by the Eastern Color Printing Company. The books included all new material, but was much less successful (possibly due to its appearance compared to a newspaper’s comic section), only lasting 13 issues [4].

The 1930s ended up being the starting point for the fully-realized comic book. In 1933, the Eastern Printing Company provided giveaway comic books by Proctor and Gamble, a promotional stunt by including advertisements for household products and other items they intended to help sell. The “books”, entitled Funnies on Parade, utilized color printing and were about 7 ½” x 10 ¼” in size, resembling more like a thin magazine rather than a book [3]. Based on the great realization in this stunt by P&G, the measurements of these small magazines became the accepted format for comic books that followed [4].

Although this utilized reprints of popular strips, it was considered a success and the idea stuck. In 1934, the Eastern Color Printing Company, encouraged by their prior success, produced the 1st commercial comic book, Famous Funnies. This book also generated good sales, and in 1935, New Fun, including original material, was released to the public [3].

While newspapers trended towards family-generated and light-hearted topics, authors of comic books generally focused on a rather opposing side of the spectrum. The new format for comics allowed for greater depth and stretches of material, often including more mature topics. Among the humor and adventure genres, detective comics became a big focal point in the comic book field throughout the late ’30s and whole of the ‘40s.

The War within Comics (cont.)

Comic book heroes were often put right in the midst of WWII fights.

Throughout the 1940’s, changes came to comic pages and in the lives of their readers and creators in the form of political voice. Although comics had introduced political thoughts previously/during WW1, WWII made it near impossible to avoid. Some comic strip heroes were offered as examples by joining the R.A.F., the Canadian Forces, and the Foreign Legion to fight the “Huns” [4]. Title characters like Joe Palooka (the first to do so) were seen fighting face to face with Japanese or German enemies [3]. Some heroes joined alongside the public with their own rallies or pro-Allied propaganda. The actions of these made-up characters became strong inspirations for real-life readers, even furthering the public morale [4].

Terry and the Pirates showed the most faithful depiction of American attitudes after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and dredged further into the realities of war. Despite the main titled character, the comic focused more on the collective heroic actions versus the act of an individual in war time. 1943’s Buz Sawyer and 1944’s Johnny Hazard, both comics about pilots at war, are also comparable comics to “Terry”[3].

Although the three prior mentioned comics were developed for civilian audiences, other comics were also developed specifically for being read by the Armed Forces. GI Joe, The Sad Sack, and Male Call are three titles from 1942 which, finding popularity by their initial audience, eventually sought commercial advertisement as well [3].

Detective Comics

A pre-Batman cover of Detective Comics, showing mature content well known of the detective genre

January 1937 brought the world Detective Comics comic book, which introduced comics focused on a single hero [3]. This series, which would eventually bring Batman into the world, was at first merely a collection of comics centered on detective mysteries. Kerry Drake and his conniving adventures hit stands in 1943, boasting real or realistic stories and featuring authentic use of police techniques. Other popular detective comics included Dick Tracy, and Charlie Chan, which each followed a similar concept and often including the same type of realism that readers had grown to become accustomed to [3].


Pulp comics came into the industry during the 1940s. Pulps were “untrimmed magazines named for the soft paper flecked with shreds of wood fiber on which they were printed. Publishers used pulp paper because there was nothing cheaper available. Pulps had little to do with quality.” Measured 9 ½” x 7 ½” and had 114–162 pages between two full color enamel stock covers. Ranging between 20k-80k words. They were weekly, monthly, bi-monthly, and quarterly comics, but there were always around 250 titles for sale at any given time. They also included any kind of story or idea, often adding more thrill and entertainment to the reader. Titled characters like The Shadow became popular and emulated [4].

Iconic cover of Superman’s first appearance in Action Comics

In June 1938, Action Comics made history with their introduction of the character Superman [3]. The premiere of Superman brought about several other heroes: Batman (May 1939), The Spirit (1940), Captain America (March 1941), Fantastic Four (November 1961), The Hulk (May 1962), Spiderman (Aug 1962), and many more to follow [5]. According to at least one source, Superman’s inspiration had strong roots in pulp star Doc Savage. The icon’s frame and build matches that of Doc, and even his name can be found from a Doc Savage pulp advertisement in early 30’s [4].

Behind the Scenes

The comic book industry not only opened up to more genres in the comic industry, but opened the industry up to a whole other demographic of workers- Jewish writers and artists [5]. The battles that took place throughout comic strips and books were often more than just storylines for greater sales. As example with Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shusta, both American Jews growing up in Cleveland, Ohio. Their ability to take to the pages and fight Nazis also showed their own plea for action based on what they saw as attacks against their own welfare.

As World War II persisted, comic book writers began incorporating their own Jewish heritage into the lives of their superhero characters. Allowing these heroes to join the war helped audiences to become more and more enveloped with war storylines, holding the attention of much of the industry. Of course, this also gave the great impact of providing a political voice to the comic book authors by offering their own call to action and presenting their own war cry against Nazi Germany (“Superman is a Jew!”) [3].

As World War II comes to a close in 1945, so does the Nation’s need for comic book heroes at war! What will this mean for the comic book industry? What happens when the Nation’s favorite warriors come home? Find out next time… in A Scroll in Time!

[1] Marschall, Richard. America’s Great Comic-Strip Artists. New York, NY. 1989. Print. 
[2] Blackbeard, Bill and Crain, Dale. The Comic Strip Century: Celebrating 100 Years of an American Art Form. Englewood Cliffs, NJ. 1995. Print. 
[3] Couperie, Pierre, Maurice Horn, Proto Destefanis, EdouardFrançois, Claude Moliterni, Gerald Gassiot-Talabot, and Eileen Hennessy. A History of the Comic Strip. New York: Crown, 1968. Print. 
[4] Steranko, James. The Steranko History of Comics. Reading, PA. 1970. Print.
[5] Weinstein, Simcha. Up, Up, and Oy Vey! How Jewish History, Culture, and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero. Baltimore, MD. 2006. Print.

Originally published at ascrollintime.blogspot.com on April 16, 2017.

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