When Comics Weren't for
The mantra of the last decade or so has been dinned into our heads: "Comics aren't for kids anymore." Every newspaper article is headlined with it. And we rejoice. Jubilation has been running rampant. It has been a long time coming, this bruited about maturity in the medium. In the 1970s, when comics fandom was beginning to flex its muscle, the fan press wept and wrung its hands and hoped for a day when the purchasing public at large would recognize that some comics weren't just for kids. But only "some" comics were for adults. The rest were still, as always, for juvenile readers.
But that's only partly true. The "as always" part is not true. Comics weren't always for youngsters. Newspaper comics, for instance—the forcing bed for comic books—were aimed at adult readers from the very start. And a little mining of the history of the medium will unearth its truths.
Newspaper comics are called "comics" because of a heritage that is too often overlooked. The newspaper Sunday supplement in which newspaper comics first appeared in the 1890s was planned, initially, as an imitation of such weekly humor magazines as Puck, Judge, Life, and their ilk. These magazines were popularly called "comic weeklies" or "comics." So when newspapers began producing their imitation humor magazines every Sunday, these productions, like their inspirational predecessors, were called "comic weeklies" or "comics." Like Puck, Judge, and Life, the newspaper "comics" consisted, at first, of drawings (sometimes with humorous captions below them, usually in the form of a conversational exchange between two or more of the persons depicted in the picture), short funny poems and paragraphs, and a few somewhat longer comical essays. While the creators and editors of these publications surely imagined that children might enjoy parts of the Sunday supplement, the supplement as a whole was not created expressly for the entertainment of children alone. In fact, the supplement was doubtless aimed at the same audience as the paper itself targeted—purchasing adults (probably male) who might take the paper home for the rest of the family to read but who enjoyed it themselves, too.
The newspaper Sunday "comics," then, were intended chiefly for family consumption. And while families include of children, so did they also include adults, and it was to adults that most of the content was addressed. Most but not all.
Because the supplement contemplated that some of its readers would be the younger members of the family, a few of its features were tailored for children. A few but not all.
As a general rule, however, the early Sunday comic supplement had an adult audience in mind. The same audience that bought Puck, Judge, and Life. Not just kids.
As the 1890s drew to a close and the new century dawned, the newspaper "comics" focused more upon pictorial comedy than prose humor. Before long, it would be difficult to find a "comics" supplement that included any typeset text at all. And the pictures were more likely to be strips of pictures in narrative sequence rather than single drawings. The era of the true newspaper comic strip had arrived. The earliest performers in the "comics" were rather indecorous creations—the Yellow Kid and the rest of the unruly urchin population of the slums of New York, the Katzenjammer Kids and their scapegrace (not-to-say outright criminal) pranks, Happy Hooligan whose every effort at doing good was brutally punished by cops or landladies who beat him on the head or kicked him in the britches. Racial and ethnic stereotypes abounded, and much of the comedy was unabashedly physical. Crude stuff. Vaudevillian slapstick with a heavy hand.
The content of the newspaper comics pretty soon attracted criticism by Concerned Citizens who decried the medium's presumed deleterious influence upon the youngest members of the families to which the comics were addressed. The crude comedy was too vulgar for kiddie consumption, said the critics. The emergence of this criticism was partly a consequence of a growing sophistication among a population that had begun to see children differently than their Victorian antecedents had. Kids weren't just small versions of adults; they had child psyches that needed careful nurturing.
A fairly vocal and organized opposition to the Sunday comics managed to force the Boston Herald to discontinue its comic supplement altogether in 1908. Said the editors: "Comic supplements have ceased to be comic. They have become as vulgar in design as they are tawdry in color. There is no longer any semblance of art in them, and if there are any ideals they are low and descending lower."
At other newspapers, however, editors defended the comics as entertainment while at the same time acknowledging that they were not aesthetic achievements. At the New York World, Albert Payson Terhune wrote: "Nobody contends that the colored comic supplement is artistic. It isn't. It isn't for you and it isn't for me. It is for the people who don't care for fine shades of humor because they can't appreciate them. The man who finds Mark Twain, for instance, too subtle for his understanding has no difficulty in laughing at the right moment when he reads the adventures of Little Nemo."
In the same editorial, Terhune contended that the comics were intended for "the most primitive people on earth—the children." This was undoubtedly but a rhetorical maneuver intended, in a backhanded way, to justify the crudeness of the comics. It was a maneuver which others adopted and would eventually change the public perception of the comics.
But Terhune also recognized that many of the readers of the comics were clearly adults—somewhat unsophisticated adults but adults, "the man" (an adult, mark you) who doesn't understand Mark Twain. Probably Terhune was thinking of the huge immigrant population of New York to which the World had always appealed. But that included adults, mostly adults: they were the ones whose coins purchased papers.
Still, newspaper editors did not altogether discount the criticisms of the Concerned Citizenry. Over time, the Sunday comics developed some morally uplifting features—like Richard Outcault's Buster Brown, whose misbehavior was always punished, resulting in a moral lesson for the day; and Carl "Bunny" Schultze's Foxy Grandpa, whose outwitting of mischievous boys likewise proffered a cautionary tale.
And so began the most intricate of dance steps. Editors knew that adults read the comics. They knew the Sunday comic supplement increased sales of newspapers. In an effort to appease the critics while continuing to publish the supplements, they claimed that the Sunday comics taught morality to the children who read them. And they also sought out or developed some wholesome comics that were intended chiefly for juvenile consumption—Little Nemo in Slumberland, Billy Bounce, The Upside-Downs, The Teenie Weenies, Mama's Little Angel Child, the comic strip version of Baum's Oz stories, and, later, of Peter Rabbit and Uncle Wiggily. But the more exuberant creations (Happy Hooligan, the Katzenjammers, and others) continued in the same pages, side-by-side with their more righteous brethren—albeit toned down somewhat.
The comics supplement as a whole was now suitable for juvenile readers. But "suitable" for children is not the same as "tailored specifically" for children. Features tailored expressly for children are, in effect, for children only. Features "suitable" for children are those that children can read and perhaps enjoy, but they're not intended for children only. Still, the effect of making comics suitable for the whole family—for children as well as adults—was the same upon the understanding of the general public as if comics had been concocted just for kids.
Whether you make comics expressly and exclusively for children or merely make them suitable for children, you are thinking about children as you make the comics. In effect, then, comics were being manufactured "for" children. Thus, by this rhetorical sleight of hand (or mind), the Sunday funnies as comprehended in the popular consciousness were for children. And by the same token, they were no longer for adults. Not exclusively. Or so it would seem.
But adults continued to read the comics. And cartoonists continued to produce comics aimed at adult sensibilities. That never changed. Bringing Up Father and Polly and Her Pals dealt in concepts that children could not fully comprehend; they may enjoy the pictures and even understand the jokes in some rudimentary way, but the satire implicit in the battle between Jiggs and Maggie over her social pretensions was undoubtedly beyond childish ken. Ditto the satire of the generational conflict that animated the comedy in encounters between Polly and her Paw and Maw.
Still, everyone quietly acquiesced to the pretense that the funnies were "for the children."
Meanwhile, the daily comic strip got underway in 1907 with Bud Fisher's A. Mutt (the forerunner of Mutt and Jeff), a comedy about a compulsive gambler the humor of which would be more appreciated by adults than by children, however tenuously they may have grasped its implications. And when Fisher started poking fun at San Francisco politicos in the spring of 1908, only adults could see and appreciate the allusions.
Newspaper comics, by straddling the gulf between childhood and adulthood with one foot in both, managed to survive as adult entertainment while also appealing to kids. The industry even developed a formulaic approach to the situation: the Sunday funnies were for the whole family (i.e., the kids as well as their parents), but the daily comic strips were for adults. And comic strip cartoonists were, for a time, advised to tailor their product accordingly.
Comic books, which were to pass through a similar crucible in the 1930s, did not manage the same trick of retaining both audiences simultaneously even though they began with the same expectations as newspaper funnies. Comic books started out as publications for general, all-ages audiences. Adults as well as children.
The earliest comic books reprinted newspaper comics and were, therefore, aimed at adult as well as juvenile readers—families, in other words, exactly the newspaper reading audience. No surprise: these books were, after all, reprinting a newspaper product. But the earliest comic books offering original material created expressly for comic books were also aimed at a general audience, an audience that conspicuously included adults.
The first such production was New Fun, and it arrived on the stands in early 1935. It was the concoction of Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, onetime cavalry officer who had launched a newspaper feature syndicate in the 1920s, selling serialized illustrated fiction. (In form, these serials were prototypical comic strips—sequences of pictures with narrative typeset text beneath them but no speech balloons. It was the same form that Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan took when illustrated by Harold Foster in 1929.) New Fun was published as a 10x15-inch tabloid and offered some material much the same as Wheeler-Nicholson had syndicated. In other words, it was aimed at a general audience. In content, New Fun offered both humor and adventure comics. Each title was presented in the format of a Sunday strip—a single page with logo in a panel at the top. Just like the newspaper Sunday funnies and aimed at exactly the same audience: men and women as well as children.
That Wheeler-Nicholson had adults as well as children in mind as readers can be verified by looking at the advertisements in New Fun No. 1. In addition to ads for model airplanes, he published ads for razor blades, weight reduction, coin and stamp collecting (illustrated with a picture of an adult woman), and music lessons (with a woman illustration again). These sorts of products, as Ron Goulart points out in his 50 Years of American Comic Books (now available in an updated edition as 60 Years of American Comic Books), were staples in the ads of the pulp magazines of the day. And Wheeler-Nicholson pursued the pulp tradition even more assiduously thereafter in manufacturing other comic books with pulp-sounding titles: New Adventure Comics (which eventually became simply Adventure), Detective Comics, and, in the summer of 1938, Action Comics. Although the pulps were often bought and read by young people, they were envisioned as adult entertainment. In fact, publishers of pulps often claimed their magazines wouldn't be read by youngsters because the vocabulary in the text was too mature for youthful readers to understand and would, therefore, act as a deterrent to purchasing by young people.
Wheeler-Nicholson's comic books followed in these pulp footsteps. While the stories in the comic books had a pulpy flavor, the accompanying pictures made them attractive to youngsters, too. Again, the evidence suggests that these early comic books were geared to a general, all-ages readership.
Two other evidences of the original marketing intent of comic book publishers lurk in the medium's early years. First, the ten-cent price during the early years of the Depression was not an amount that many (if not most) youngsters would be likely to afford. So publishers clearly expected comic books to be purchased by adults. A dime became more readily available late in the thirties as the Depression eased; and by then, comic book publishers had begun to target young buyers. A second indicator of the publishers' initial hope for an adult audience for comic books can be found in the history of Superman.
Jerry Siegel and his artist partner Joe Shuster had invented Superman as a comic book character, but the comic book publisher they sold the idea to gave up his comic book plan. And so Siegel and Shuster tried, starting in about 1933, to sell Superman as a comic strip to newspaper syndicates. Among the objections we've heard in the traditional accounts of this futile effort is that the concept was simply too outlandish. Readers wouldn't believe that Superman was possible. Newspaper comics were for adult readers, remember. Families. Children, too, of course; but adults were seen as the chief audience. So the objection to the Superman notion was that adults wouldn't believe it. It wasn't realistic.
The passion for realism in the funnies was evident in the emergence just then, during the mid-thirties, of the realistically illustrated comic strip: Alex Raymond's creations (Flash Gordon, Jungle Jim, Secret Agent X-9), Hal Foster's (Tarzan then Prince Valiant), and Milton Caniff's (Terry and the Pirates)—all drawn as realistically as possible in order to support the illusion of reality that the otherwise exotic adventure stories must convey. Superman simply wasn't in step with this trend. Not because of the artwork so much as because of the very concept of a super-powered flying man. And comic book publishers apparently felt the same way. If we are to judge from the reasons many gave for rejecting Superman: they rejected him because they didn't think readers would accept the concept. Too unrealistic.
For whom? For children?
Not likely. Children were expert at believing in outlandish concepts. They believed in talking animals (Uncle Wiggily, Peter Rabbit), sentient dolls (Raggedy Ann and Andy), and the like. Children believed that Dorothy could transport herself back to Kansas by clicking her heels together, so why wouldn't they believe Superman could fly unaided?
No, it was adults who were imagined as unlikely to believe in Superman. And since adults were the presumed buyers of comic books at that early stage, no comic book publisher was about to take a chance on Superman. Until Siegel and Shuster took their creation to McClure Syndicate. There, their creation fell under the gaze of a teenager named Sheldon Mayer, who, not being entirely an adult, believed in the concept at once. Mayer couldn't persuade McClure officials to take the feature on, however. But he persuaded his boss, Max Gaines, to offer it to Harry Donenfeld, who had inherited Wheeler-Nicholson's comic book empire. And Donenfeld's editor, Vincent Sullivan—another teenager—was then assembling content for the first issue of Action Comics, and he believed in Superman, too.
The rest, as they say, is history. But the history usually overlooks another seldom explored fact: at some point, comic book publishers began manufacturing comic books more for children than for adults.
Probably, it started with Superman.
The success of Superman, as we all know, resulted in a host of imitators flooding the newsstands. And it was with this development that comic book publishers began to tailor their product for a juvenile buyer. The superheroes in long underwear were like circus performers—strong men and trapeze artists. And circuses were for kids. Comic book publishers became ring masters in the newest show in town, a show for kids.
And once the show was seen as unabashedly aimed at youngsters, the usual carping began, the traditional chorus of objection to comics—the same objectors with the same objections that had pestered newspaper publishers about newspaper comics. The Ever-vigilant Concerned Citizens who maintained that comic books (like the Sunday funnies) were garishly colored. They would corrupt incipient artistic appreciation in the youth of America. And the action adventure stories in comic books (which partook, remember, of the sleazy pulp adventure tradition) were vulgar and constituted a bad influence on the children who were members of families whose parental figures purchased comic books for family consumption. Once again, publishers undertook to make their product "suitable" for children. But this time, they would almost entirely forsake adult readers.
The idea that comic books were for children was first voiced by the critics of comic books; but it was quickly embraced by the publishers. Once Donenfeld realized that Action Comics was selling chiefly because of Superman, he also realized that juvenile readers, who could believe in such outlandish beings, promised a better audience for exploitation than adults. And his fellow publishers—all stampeding to cash in on the popularity of Superman with their own longjohn legions—snatched at the same idea.
Adults still read comic books. And the soaring sales figures during World War II when comics provided reading material for American servicemen around the globe attest to this phenomenon. But editorial direction at publishing houses urged writers to write or juveniles. And when comic strip and comic book characters made it into radio, their programs were usually sponsored by products kids would be interested in. (Although at first, as Jerry Bails remembered on an Internet list discussion I started on this topic, one program was sponsored by motor oil. It is to Bails, by the way, that I am indebted for several of the nuances in this speculative argument.)
And with the advent of such comic book titles as Walt Disney's Comics and Stories, Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, Funny Animals, Our Gang, and the like, the transformation was complete. Even if all comics were not geared to young readers (and certainly the Lev Gleason comics— Boy, Crime Does Not Pay, Daredevil —were too packed with verbiage to appeal much to youth), the rhetorical posture of the industry tilted to the young. And public perception inclined in the same direction.
And it has ever since.
I won't, here, rehearse the threadbare tale of how comic book censorship was inflicted on the industry by itself. All I wanted to point out this time was that comics, in newspapers and in books, started as adult, not juvenile, reading matter. Newspaper comics never surrendered their all-ages turf. But in comic books, it's taken us over sixty years to reclaim the territory that comic books first staked out in the mid-thirties.