Mort Weisinger | Scriptwriting Techniques | Gardner Fox | Introductory Panels and Covers | Superman and the Mystery | Goofs | Science Fiction and Fantasy 1958 - 1964 | The Golden Age 1938 - 1941 | Techniques of Comic Book Historians | The Audience for Comic Books | Comics as an Intellectual Medium
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Mort Weisinger edited the Superman family of comic books, all of which aspired to turn out well constructed sf tales, often with a strong mystery aspect, month after month.
Weisinger's world is one of the most beautiful, imaginative and complex in the whole of art. It is full of detail after detail of the most remarkable imagination, all woven together in complex and supremely logical plots.
Weisinger's work is contemporary with children's science fiction writers, such as Donald Keith. Keith's aesthetic shows a strong similarity to Weisinger's, and both aimed at the same market of "intelligent children's stories", wholesome, science fictional, and ingenious.
Weisinger came out of science fictional tradition that simply disdained violence. He and the rest of the sf community often showed a strong pacifist slant. They felt that violence was the solution of people too stupid to understand science, or to use it to solve humanity's problems. Their heroes were engineers and scientists, not killer "heroes". This deep contempt for violence, and a deep respect for human reason in all its forms, permeated the sf of the 40's and 50's.
Weisinger, like the other workers at DC comics, used a different method of script writing than did Marvel Comics. At Marvel, the artist typically both plotted and drew the comic book first - although sometimes this plotting was done in collaboration with an editor or writer. The artist's work consisted of frames full of finished artwork, with blank captions and dialogue balloons. The artist would then give his work to the scriptwriter, who would write the dialogue and captions for the story. The whole approach has similarities to the process used to make many silent films, in which the filmmakers would create the plot and shoot the film footage, then turn their work over to a title writer, who would add titles to the footage.
At DC, a different approach was used. There, a scriptwriter would create a detailed script for a comic book first. This script would contain plot, captions and dialogue. It would also contain detailed descriptions of each frame in the comic, showing the characters, their actions, and the props and background of the frame. This script would then be given to the artist, who would illustrate the frame. This whole approach is similar to that used to make many sound films, in which a well planned script contains the story, action and dialogue for each scene in a movie, which is then photographed by the director.
At DC, the scripts were often the product of both a writer and a strong editor. Mort Weisinger edited the Superman family, while Julius Schwartz edited such science fictional works as The Atom, The Flash, Green Lantern, and Adam Strange. According to Gene Reed's Guides to the series, the writers of many of the Superman family scripts were Otto Binder, Leo Dorfman, Robert Bernstein, Bill Finger, Jerry Coleman and Jerry Siegel, while Siegel and Edmund Hamilton did The Legion of Superheroes. Many of the Schwartz titles were written by John Broome or Gardner Fox. Most of these men were veteran prose science fiction writers, agents, editors and fans. Many dated back to the 1930's, pre John Campbell's 1940's revolution of the sf field in the magazine Astounding Science Fiction. Weisinger did what is often considered to be the first ever history of the sf field, for a sf fan magazine in the 1930's. By contrast, Jerry Siegel differs from most of the above writers in not having a background in prose science fiction. Instead, he was the comics writer who, along with artist Joe Schuster, created Superman back in 1938.
I suspect that the reputation of Silver Age comics has suffered from factors that have nothing to do with their actual quality. They have been used as contrasting examples by advocates of other works. Some people who correctly admire realistic work in the comics medium dislike super-hero comics, and feel that if only super-hero comics weren't liked, that other types of comics would get more attention and praise. One can sympathize with these scholars, and their quest to promote the comics medium as a whole. Still, this argument contains a fallacy. It is possible that BOTH realist comics and super-hero comics have value, and that we should admire and be interested in both types. This is in fact my opinion.
Similarly, all sorts of enthusiasts for differing kinds of comic books - Marvel comics of the 1960's, relevant comics of the 1970's, more violent comics of the 1980's - have used DC Silver Age comics as an example of what their heroes were rebelling against. Once again, these arguments seem fallacious to me. One can admire more than one type of comic book. You do not need to denigrate one comics tradition to promote another.
Gardner Fox frequently wrote tales about attempts by outsiders to penetrate his heroes' secret identity. He was as fascinated by this theme as any of the writers of the Superman family. In Gardner's tales, the quest is usually perpetrated by a bad guy, unlike Superman tales, where it is more likely to be done by Lois Lane or some other sympathetic continuing character. This bad guy is usually the leader of a gang, and can use his henchmen to help him in his search; by contrast in Superman tales it is usually a solitary character who suspects. The bad guy usually uses a large number of high tech devices in his search - surveillance instruments, cameras, monitors, tracking devices and so on - it tends to look like a frighteningly efficient high tech operation.
Gardner Fox wrote several stories based on polarities. There can be two men who are doubles of each other, and who keep trading places. There can be two superheroes, or a super-hero and a villain, each with a secret identity, who keep going back and forth between their identities. There can be two planets. The two polarities of the story keep oscillating between each other, trying to find some sort of goal. Eventually, the right combination is found, and the troubles of the story go away. A new equilibrium is found. One always uses analogies from physics to describe Gardner's tales - they have that sort of feel.
Fox can combine his story approaches. For example, "The Cluemaster's Topsy-Turvy Crimes" (Detective Comics #351, May 1966) is both a secret identity hunt, and a story based on doubles. This tale features Gardner's standard gambit of having two people in similar roles. Here the "doubles" are a criminal seeking Batman's secret identity, and Aunt Harriet, who is also seeking proof that her nephew Bruce Wayne is Batman. The two searches superimpose in unexpected ways, affecting each other, and helping Batman in the process. The image that springs to mind is the super-imposition of two beams of light, and the unusual effects that this can cause in physics.
Plot progress in Fox's stories often depends on the characters learning things. The hero will try to learn something about the bad guys; the villains will learn something about the secret identity and methods of operation of the hero; a good guy will understand some cryptic message or signal another good guy has sent him. As he learns these things, the plot moves forward.
In many ways DC in the early 1960's was the last stand of pulp magazine traditions. Most non-science fiction pulps died around 1953. The short story in slick magazines collapsed around 1956, as well. DC Comic books were in many ways illustrated short stories. Each story in DC comics was from 6 to 25 pages long. The comic books also dealt with a series of continuing characters, just as did many of the best pulp magazine stories. Many of the writers and editors at DC were in fact survivors of the 1930's science fiction pulps.
Comic Books seem to derive from the pulps, in several ways. Both media often feature series characters, who appear in a sequence of short stories with common backgrounds. Protagonists in both the pulps and comics often have secret identities. There are formal similarities, as well. Both pulps and comics feature brightly colored covers, illustrating some scene from one of the stories, intended to intrigue potential readers, and encourage them to buy the magazine. Inside the magazine, pulp stories also started with an illustration on their title page, showing some key highlight from the story. This opening illustration apparently evolved in the comics into what might be called the "introductory panel".
The Superman family stories, like many comic books, use a type of extra-narrative device rarely found in prose fiction: introductory panels. These show key events from the story, typically a plot highlight. It is tempting at first glance to regard these as simple advertising for the story, the way a Coming Attractions trailer is used in a movie theater. However, unlike a Coming Attraction, the interior panels were always planned as an integral part of the tale, and created by the same people and at the same time as the rest of the story itself. The introductory panels in particular tend to be major storytelling efforts in their own right: beautifully vivid, and full of storytelling and artistic detail.
They help to set up the basic themes and plots of the story, too, fixing them in the reader's mind as the storytelling goal of the tale. It is often artistically better for readers to know key themes of what is coming up. In Ancient Greece, plays were based on themes well known to the audience; they were familiar with the plot, but the treatment would be new. This knowledge actually helps readers to a deeper appreciation of the work.
In the letters page of Flash #116 (November 1960), Julius Schwartz said that the splash panel typically depicted one of the most exiting scenes in the story. By contrast, in Weisinger Superman family works, the splash often announces the key story concept. The Schwartz super-hero comics can be more episodic than the Weisinger ones, with the separate episodes often only loosely linked.
Virtually all of the Superman stories have a well done introductory panel in their stories. The covers are more removed from the stories. They were often done by a different artist. One suspects they were sometimes done at a different time from the scripting of the actual story, too, unlike the introductory panels. They also sometimes "cheat" in a way the panels do not. They often tend to give a distorted or even false view of the events in the tale, often distorting the relationships of the characters, adding conflict and melodrama to spice things up. This is not always true: some are extremely faithful to the actual stories. But a reader cannot "trust" any of them. The panels, on the other hand, are almost always extremely faithful parts of the stories to follow, ones which accurately portray some major event to come.
The letters column of Jimmy Olsen #63 (September 1962) seems to say that Weisinger (or one of his writers) came up with the cover idea first, before the story was written. A good cover idea then triggered a good story built around it - Weisinger presented this as a basic creative principle for the generation of Superman stories. This means that the story was often constructed to "explain" the cover, to develop a plot that would contain it. Sometimes the story that emerged was extremely close to the cover: for example, "The Superboy Revenge Squad" (1962) is completely faithful to its cover. In other times, the story seems downright remote. People tend to be much meaner on the covers than it the stories: the cover denizens are often friends who have turned on each other, or who are fighting. The stories inside often explain this away by saying the characters seem to be fighting, but are actually staging a hoax to confuse some enemy. Or that one person is doing something that looks harmful, but is actually for the other character's good.
Weisinger implied that not only was the sequence of cover-story a "business" procedure of the office, but that it stimulated creativity at the psychological and artistic level. If a author today would try to duplicate the writing of a typical Superman story, they would start by trying to come up with a really good cover idea, then see if they could develop a logical and interesting tale around it. This seems like an interesting model for writers to follow.
It is unclear if Weisinger's remarks here are merely some off the cuff comments, or whether they refer to universal principles he always followed. Still, they are a rare glimpse inside the creative process of the comics creators.
Some of the Superman family stories were straightforward mystery tales, for example, the "The Incredible Delusion" (Lois Lane # 47). But others had puzzle plots, that while different from the traditional mystery, still shared the basic formal qualities of the classical mystery. For example, consider Lois Lane #48's three part story, "Hellene of Troy", "Cinderella" and "Florence Nightingale". Superman makes a bet with Lois Lane that she can't solve three riddles. He takes her back in time to three eras, and in each he challenges Lois to uncover the secret identity he assumes in that era. The stories are told from Lois' viewpoint, and neither she nor the reader knows Superman's new secret identity in the story. At the end of each of the three episodes, the answer is revealed. Clues embedded in the story are pointed out, that would have allowed the reader to deduce the solution to the mystery of Superman's identity. This is exactly the structure of the traditional puzzle plot mystery. There is no crime element in the tales, but formally they are identical to the puzzle tale.
Other Superman family tales do not have elements of mystery, but they do have concluding challenges to the reader's ingenuity. The Pete Ross tales in the Superboy comics are an example. Pete was Clark Kent's best friend. By chance he discovered that Superboy was Clark Kent's alter ego. However, Superboy does not know that he knows this. In most of the Pete Ross stories, Pete has to protect Superboy and his secret identity, without letting on to Clark that he knows the truth. Pete has quite a challenge to figure out how to do this. Implicitly, the reader also has to figure out how to do this. Pete is the viewpoint character in the tales, and everything the reader sees is exactly what Pete knows. These stories are formally similar to the mystery tale, in that the reader and the story's protagonist are challenged to come up with an ingenious solution to the situation of the tale. There is no mystery in these stories, but there is a quality of ingenuity. The Pete Ross stories begin with "The Boy Who Betrayed Clark Kent", and climax with the great two part story, "The Great Superboy Hoax; The Ordeal of Pete Ross". This latter work, scripted by Edmund Hamilton, is one of the most ingenious tales in the Superman family canon.
Such stories are perhaps somewhat similar to the "inverted detective story" of Freeman. There is no elements in the inverted tale hidden from the reader; yet there is still a "mystery" at the end of the inverted story, of how the detective is going to figure out who the killer is, and find evidence to incriminate him. Similarly, in the Pete Ross tales, there is the "mystery" of how Pete is going to help Superboy without giving his secret away.
Golden Age writers sometimes made noises that they would like to write mystery stories without elements of murder or crime. Agatha Christie's The Tuesday-Night Club Murders often refers to village mysteries solved by Miss Marple. These are not murder mysteries; they usually involved unraveling strange behavior my various inhabitants of the village. The mysteries are just tantalizing allusions; Christie never actually wrote any such tales. I think they would have been fascinating. Closer to mystery without murder are some of the stories in The Mysterious Mr. Quin, such as "The World's End". E.C. Bentley's "The Little Mystery" is a tale that begins with a mystery without any apparent crime element. Weisinger's Superman family of comics contains perhaps the largest collection of formal mysteries without crime.
Ads for forthcoming Superman family comic book issues often included the phrase "Challenge to the Reader!" to describe mystery plots in these magazines. Outside of the comics field, this phrase is strongly associated with the works of Ellery Queen. There is indeed something EQ like about the mystery plots in Superman. They resemble both EQ, and the Van Dine School of which he was a part. As in the EQ books, the detective work is intuitionist: solved by pure thinking, and usually by brainy amateur detectives. The frequent use of disguise and impersonation recalls EQ's detective Drury Lane. The show biz settings, and the many scholarly and intellectual characters also recall the Van Dine School. So do the many museums; the private collections of Jimmy Olsen's Superman souvenirs and Superman's Fortress of Solitude recall the many private museums in Van Dine school books. The Metropolis locale of the stories is a thinly disguised version of New York City, home of most of the Van Dine School writers. Also EQ and Van Dine school like: the consistently liberal politics of the stories.
Readers of the Superman family were encouraged to look for logical inconsistencies in the tales, then write to the editors about them. The letters columns were full of "goof" that the readers had spotted, which the editor then either attempted to explain away - sometimes it was the reader who has mis-analyzed the tale - or admit as an error. This whole process was widely viewed as a game; and it was often belittled by critics of the Superman comics, as proof of how trivial the whole enterprise was. But one can see a much deeper meaning to such reading strategies. First of all, it establishes the Superman mythos as a whole as a major element of all Superman family tales. Every tale is to be read with the mythos constantly in mind. The reader is encouraged to constantly think about how the current story relates to the mythos as a whole, and how its elements and developments are logical consequences of the mythos as a whole. This makes the mythos virtually a "character" in the stories, a living presence as important as a character in conventional fiction. We have seen how some of the writers used a similar approach: Otto Binder, especially, constructed his tales so that the mythos itself was an important component of them.
Secondly, it establishes a reading approach, where readers were constantly encouraged to think about the stories, logically analyzing them as they read. The genre of mystery fiction has a similar built in mechanism: the reader is always trying to logically deduce the killer from the clues in the story; this encourages the reader of a mystery to logically analyze each new plot development, comparing it for consistency with what has gone before, and its new logical consequences. Weisinger wanted the readers of his comics to use a similar analytical approach. But he was working in media that do not have such a built in mechanism: there is nothing about comics as a whole that demands such a reading approach, and one can easily write comic book tales that demand no analytic input from readers. So Weisinger was forced to encourage such reading strategies on his own, without help from tradition. One way was to constantly urge his readers to compare the current tale to the mythos itself.
Weisinger's peak years, and that of the Silver Age in comics in general, were also key years for prose science fiction. This was the era of Cordwainer Smith, J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick. These are still the most famous of all avant-garde writers to emerge from the ranks of commercial science fiction. Their work still resonates with a genuine sense of strangeness. (Less avant-garde sf writers of the era, but very distinguished artistically, were Clifford D. Simak and Fred Hoyle.)
It is hard to see much similarity between Weisinger's work, and their own. None of these writers dealt with continuing series characters. Cordwainer Smith created a unified mythos, shared by all his stories, although the other two writers did not; this does have analogues with Weisinger's Superman mythos. Smith and J.G. Ballard were major prose stylists. While the Superman writers often showed ingenuity in creating pithy dialogue that says much in a small space, none of them were creative prose stylists.
A major group of fantastic plays were created in this era, by such authors as Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Harold Pinter and Edward Albee. This was the famous "Theater of the Absurd". These authors were considered "literary" writers, not science fiction authors, although in retrospect their work seems to be an important contribution to fantasy fiction history. Like the science fiction writers, these authors were consciously avant-garde. This was also the period of the French New Wave films, and the rise of the avant-garde film in America. Clearly, it was a major era of avant-garde film and literature world wide. It was also a peak period of such Hollywood film makers as Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Vincente Minnelli, Samuel Fuller and Blake Edwards.
Fantastic television of the era included The Twilight Zone, and many shows imitative of it. These were mainly anthology series, filmed in black and white, that explored some sort of fantastic situation with both a sense of wonder, and considerable suspense. They also included frequent social commentary. The most creative of the sf anthology shows that appeared in the wake of The Twilight Zone, was The Outer Limits (1963 - 1965). This series pushed the formula towards full bodied science fiction, with richly complex plots, characters and direction. The filmmaker Roger Corman, who made a series of Gothic tales based on the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, and Curtis Harrington, who made a similar feature debut with the great fantasy Night Tide (1960), also seem related in a general way to the TV anthology series.
Although both the Theater of the Absurd and the TV anthologies were Weisinger contemporaries, neither seems very close to Weisinger - or each other. Together with the prose avant-garde sf writers, we see that there were at least four major traditions of fantastic fiction existing simultaneously, each with a flourishing audience and considerable public interest.
While this era has a name and a well defined personality in comic book history, the Silver Age, it is less clearly recognized as a distinct period by general historians. It is the era of early space exploration. It is also a key era in the Civil Rights movement. It was perhaps the most liberal era since the end of World War II.
The Silver Age (1958 - 1965) was the pre-Beatles rock and roll era.
Nearly all the comic book super-heroes of the Golden Age were created in a three year time period, from June 1938 to November 1941. This is a very short time span. Most of these heroes have had endless careers since: many of them were revived and refurbished during the Silver Age, and were even more popular in the 1960's than in the 1940's.
This period also played a role in the history of the animated film. The first film with Bugs Bunny in his modern form appeared then, A Wild Hare (1940).
The Golden Age was a period of great activity in the mystery field.
1) The intuitionist disciples of Chesterton were extremely active. Agatha Christie reached an artistic climax with her "final" Poirot stories, The Labors of Hercules (1939-1940) and Curtain, as well as And Then There Were None. Carr broke out into his main run of short stories, as well as major novels. Borges had his breakthrough with "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" (1940). Anthony Boucher published his main novels.
2) Brett Haliday and Raymond Chandler helped establish the hard-boiled detective novel.
3) Cornell Woolrich helped establish the "novel of suspense" as a publishing genre. He also did his series of pulp short stories about men who are suspected of a crime, beginning with "You'll Never See Me Again" (1939).
4) Many pulp series detectives were created: Norbert Davis, John K. Butler, Merle Constiner.
Golden Age comic books were often cast into the mold of genres that previously existed in prose fiction and/or comic strips. These genres include:
To these pre-existing genres Jerry Siegel added three new ideas:
Super-heroes were a new kind of hero. But super-hero tales are not a new genre. Most super-hero stories created in the 1940's fall directly into one of the genres of tale listed above, such as urban detective tales, sports story, etc. While they had a new kind of hero, the actual plot of the tale is usually an example of a familiar, already existing genre. This has a number of consequences. For one thing, it tends to make the powers of the super-hero fairly superfluous. When a tale pits the Green Lantern versus a gang of urban racketeers, one wonders why the tale needs a super-hero as its protagonist. After all, ordinary human detectives had long battled racketeers in comic strips and pulps; why does one need a super-hero here? Often times, Green Lantern does little with his powers that might have been done by a regular detective. His powers help him in fight scenes with the bad guys, but otherwise are not much employed in the story.
The genres employed in the 1940's are both limiting and enabling. They are limiting, because they prevented writers from exploring the full potential of super-heroes; they were enabling, in that all the potential of detective tales, sports stories, etc, were available to help creature super-hero tales.
Comic books included super-hero stories side by side with non-super-powered characters. For example, Flash Comics included series about super-heroes The Flash and Hawkman, along with tales of spy Cliff Cornwall, Zorro-like Western good guy the Whip, and elegant detective and master of disguise the King. All of these heroes' tales are much closer to each other than one might suspect. When the Flash or the Hawkman fought crime, their stories seemed similar to the anti-crime episodes of the Whip or the King. The Flash might use his great speed against criminals, while the King would employ his skill at disguise, but the actual tales were a lot alike. This means that it is very hard to regard super-heroes like the Flash or Hawkman as forming a separate genre of storytelling. If a genre is defined as a category of stories that have common plot ideas, situations, characters and techniques, then one cannot separate detective tales starring the Flash from detective tales starring the Whip or the King. The Flash and Hawkman tales are not from a separate genre. Similarly, when the Hawkman had exotic adventures in Central Asia or the Valley of the Birds, his stories were not dissimilar to those featuring non-super-powered adventurers such as Dale Daring, Bruce Nelson, and the naval officers of Anchors Aweigh.
Around 1950, high quality science fiction began regularly appearing in such comics as Strange Adventures and Mystery in Space. These tales exploited the full plot possibilities of science fiction. They were far more imaginative and intelligent than the sf romances of the Flash Gordon era. These sf stories did not feature super-heroes; they were pure sf. In the late 1950's, such rich sf ideas were fully merged with the new super-hero sagas of the Silver Age that were being created, such as in the Superman family, the Flash, the Silver Age Green Lantern, and so on. Such tales offered whole new potentials for super-heroes that had rarely existed before. Silver Age tales also preserved the mystery and detective elements that were popular in the 1940's.
One can see a consciousness of new genres emerging in the later 1940's. First Simon and Kirby launched romance comic books. Then serious Western comics books emerged in the late forties. Then intelligent sf comics in 1950, with Strange Adventures. All of these look like a conscious, deliberate attempt by the comics industry to explore new genres.
Science fiction permeated super-heroes of the Silver Age in another way. Many super-heroes of the Golden Age had powers that were not too different from those of mere mortals. Many super-heroes tended to be much stronger and more coordinated than ordinary humans. But comic book heroes in general tended to be strong and athletically gifted. For example, the non-super-powered Batman was a great athlete who was strong in fighting and agile in swinging from buildings. So were many detective characters and world adventurers. This means that it is often hard to see much real difference between super-hero and non-super-hero stories of the 1940's Golden Age. By contrast, the super-powers of 1950's and 1960's super-heroes tend to be strongly science fictional. Superman has X-Ray vision that cannot penetrate lead, and which depends on his being on a planet with a yellow sun. This is a science fictional power. It marks a strong line of difference between him and non-super-powered humans, who have nothing that remotely resembles such X-Ray vision. Just as the sf backgrounds made Silver age super-hero tales strongly different from those of detective stories, so do the sf-defined super-powers they employ.
The sf comic books rarely included what Isaac Asimov called "Social Science Fiction". A Social Science Fiction story is one that shows the systematic impact on society of some scientific or technological advance. Asimov was part of John Campbell's much admired revolution in magazine science fiction of the 1940's, an era that is still known as the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Such a Social focus was considered a key part of an sf story by both the Campbell writers and their successors, who include most of the American prose sf writers from 1940 to the present. Social Science Fiction was considered a better, improved, more intelligent, more sophisticated and more artistic kind of sf than the allegedly crude kinds that often preceded it.
By contrast, the sf comic books usually had no "social impact" focus in their tales. We rarely saw future societies whose daily behavior had been transformed by some invention. There were exceptions, such as John Broome's "The Wooden World War" (1956), which looks at daily life in a future world where the use of wood is totally banned, but by and large the sf writers avoided such social backdrops.
For example, Gardner Fox wrote a series about one man, Adam Strange, who teleported between Earth and Rann. He did not write a story about a time when teleportation between the planets was routinely available to everyone on Earth and Rann, and the effects on both societies after this took place. Such a story would be Social Science Fiction. It would not inherently be better or worse than what Fox wrote, in my opinion, but it would be a fundamentally different kind of story.
The sf comics often focussed on situations that were inherently different in approach from Social Science Fiction. Otto Binder loved tales of First Contact between humans and aliens. He also liked Cosmic tales about humans reshaping the Solar System or the surface of the Earth. These are one-time only events with plenty of intrinsic interest. One does not have to examine their long-term social impact to create an interesting story. The Pirandellian stories that many authors wrote about sf authors who have sf experiences are also inherently non-Social.
It is important to emphasize that Social Science Fiction is a completely different concept from social commentary. The two ideas are utterly unrelated. There is plenty of social commentary in the comics, which were constantly offering opinions on Civil Rights, totalitarianism versus democracy, scientific progress, refugees, world hunger, and other important social issues of the day. In fact, one can argue that there is a higher average quantity of social commentary in sf comics than in American prose sf, although I do not have solid statistical information to back up this claim. There is no no reason why Social Science Fiction should be an especially good vehicle for social commentary. For example, a novel about how anti-gravity changed society would not necessarily be a good vehicle for commenting on Civil Rights or totalitarianism. Please see my index to social commentary in comic books.
There is a standard approach prevalent today among comic book scholars. It does not have a common name; I've dubbed it the historical method. Articles about comic books using the historical method pay close attention to the following signposts:
Historians using the method pay special attention to changes in the above categories. For example, if a common book gets a new writer or editor, the implications of such a change will be explored in depth. If a comic character moves from one magazine to another, this will be highlighted.
The historical method is used so frequently that I suspect that many comic book scholars think that it is the only way to write about comic books. Its use is taken for granted.
In my articles, I have consciously tried to explore new methods of comic book analysis, different from the historical method. It is not that I think the historical method is bad. Actually, I think it is terrific, and that articles written using it tend to be very good. But I also think it has limitations. It does not give a complete picture of comic book history, leaving many things out.
The historical method tends not to look in-depth at individual stories, unless they are origin tales, or deal with life-altering events in their characters' lives. This means it often ignores 90% of the actual material in a comic book. Much of this material will be of extremely high quality.
The historical method does not require the historian to judge the artistic quality of individual stories, or to try to explain what makes the good tales good. A reader of such an article will not know at the end what individual stories in the comic the critic thought were especially good.
I have tried to do both of these things in my articles. I have tried to look at all the stories in a comic book. Then I have come up with an response to the comic story as an artistic experience. Is this a good story? What is the story trying to say? What beautiful forms and patterns are contained in the plot of the story? (Silver Age comic book writers are magnificent plotters.) Does the story work as a piece of storytelling? Are the artist's pictures beautiful? What feelings do they convey? What techniques does the artist use?
All of my comic book articles open with a list of the stories I enjoyed reading in the magazine - the ones I thought were the best. You, the reader, might well come up with a different list. But at least you will know what I actually thought about the stories, and their quality.
Virtues of the historical method. The historical method is objective. It has the fault that it does not require the historian to make any sort of personal artistic response to a comic book story as a story. But the corollary to this is that its ideas are objectively verifiable.
In other words, we all might disagree what the best stories are in a comic book's history. But we can all agree on which are the origin stories of the different characters. The identity of these origin stories is an objective fact, independent of any one critic's tastes or prejudices. So are events such as new writers or artists, or crossover appearances of other characters.
The historical method is a tool that sweeps up almost all the objective facts about a comic book's history, and presents them to the reader. It ignores all the subjective responses to a comic book, including what it is actually like to read the stories, and what the tales are like as works of art. (This is using the word art in its broad sense, to include both the arts of writing and painting.)
The historical method has some other virtues. Origin stories tend to almost always be of very high quality, in my judgment. I think this is partly because comic creators lavished extra care on them, and partly because the freedom of origin tales, and their emphasis on fresh imagination, stimulated the creativity of comic book writers and artists. So the emphasis on origin stories in the historical method does tend to focus attention on some very high quality stories, even as it tends to ignore some good non-origin tales.
I hope my articles will not be construed as an attack on the historical method. The historical method will always be needed, a necessary approach to the understanding of any comic book. But it is not sufficient. We have to also use other approaches, if we are to fully understand our comic book heritage.
Much of the most imaginative writing produced in America in this century has been in comic books.
Many of the best comic books have not been seen since their original publication. During the 1960's and 1970's, comic book publishers themselves reprinted much of their best previous work, selling these reprint comics through the same grocery store and pharmacy outlets as their new comics. This gave comic book readers of the era a chance to catch up on the best work of the past. This reprinting has largely come to a halt since 1975.
Comic books are also are rarely available in most libraries. So few people have read most of these comic books for nearly thirty years. There are now three groups of people who have actually read these comics: 1) a handful of collectors of old comic books; 2) a somewhat larger group of middle aged people who still have vivid memories of these comics from their childhoods in the 1960's; and 3) people who live near or who have traveled to Michigan State University (MSU) in East Lansing, Michigan, and have read some of the 150, 000 comic books in their collection. I fall into category 3 - my web site is almost entirely researched at MSU.
Consequently, few people have any familiarity with older comic books at all. It is not that people have read older comics, and decided they were no good. Instead, what we have is a large population that has simply never seen the old comic books at all.
Comic books during the 1936-1975 era were largely read by people under 22. Quite a few parents read comic books with their kids, and there certainly were some highly knowledgeable adult fans and scholars. But readership was overwhelmingly juvenile. This was different from movies. The same professorial savant who read Pindar in the original Greek would go off to the movies on the weekend, laughing at the latest Cary Grant or Bob Hope comedy. Scholars as a class were familiar with movies. They lacked the deep scholarly cinematic knowledge of a Bazin or a Leyda, but still they were familiar with many of moviedom's marvels.
By contrast, I think that most professors and intellectuals had no experience with comic books after they had reached the age of 10 or so. When science fiction comic books began exploding in quality after around 1955, most scholars and intellectuals simply did not read them, and knew absolutely nothing about what was happening in them. Professors who were adults in the 1950's or 1960's had no idea that something spectacular was happening in the comic books kids were reading. They remembered the often crude comic books of their own youth in the 1930's or 1940's, and simply assumed that all comic books were similarly and equally bad. And the younger generation of scholars, who were kids after the main wave of sf comics in 1955-1965, were equally ignorant. Nothing in either their childhood or their adult educations informed them of the burst of quality in sf comics.
Professors did read the one panel cartoons printed in magazines like The New Yorker, Look, Punch and other publications. Large numbers of professors were familiar with the work of Charles Addams, for example, the gifted cartoonist of the humorously macabre who appeared in The New Yorker, and in paperback books available at many newsstands. Most professors undoubtedly regarded cartooning as a minor art, and cartoons as inferior to serious literature. Yet, if you had tried to tell an auditorium full of university faculty in 1960 that Addams was a talentless hack who never made a good cartoon in his life, they would have rebelled. Many, many people in the audience would have objected. They would have insisted that Addams was quite good of his kind, witty, clever and atmospheric.
By contrast, if you had tried to make any sort of statement to the same faculty audience about such sf comic books as Mystery in Space or Strange Adventures, then at the peak of their glory, the professors would have been completely baffled. Most of them would never have heard of these comics, and few if any would ever have read a single story in them. The thought that any adult should read a comic book for any reason, other than possibly checking up on their children's reading material, would have seemed completely alien to them.
Many of the books that adults thought so important in the 1960's now sound dubious. Are Sartre or Mary McCarthy really of such cultural importance? In fact, is any of the "serious fiction" of the 1960's, treated with such reverence then, really as good as the comic books of the period? Why were grown-ups so deeply and rigidly convinced of their ideas about what to read back then?
Comic books used to be hugely popular in the United States. In 1948, 85% of all US children read comic books. Even when I was a kid in the 1960's, comic books were available in every supermarket and drug store - the two locales in which Americans did most of their shopping, in those pre-mall days. Most of my friends read comic books. In every friend's basement, there was a large pile of old comic books.
Comics also flourished without advertising. The only ads for comics were in other comic books. Each comic book was full of ads, announcing the next releases of the publisher's titles. Otherwise, there seem to have been no ads for the comic book industry whatsoever. This is very different from the movie business over 1980-2003, for instance. People only go to today's movies if they are the subject of massive advertising campaigns on TV, radio, magazines and newspapers. The cost of a film's ad campaign often approaches or even exceeds the cost of the movie. I frequently go to low budget "art films" without ad campaigns. When I try to recommend these films to friends, they dismiss them out of hand, with the words "I never heard of them". Most people feel that any film without a huge ad campaign is not worth bothering with. One also notes the saturation campaigns of "negative advertising" that dominate today's political campaigns. Americans today seem unwilling to move towards any cultural event that is not heavily advertised. By contrast, comic books flourished for decades without any advertising at all.
Kids also made a conscious choice to buy a comic book. They had to go to a store, pick out a comic book, and use their allowance money or chore earnings to buy it. Unlike TV and hit songs, which arrive automatically in most people's homes through TV or radio, people had to make a substantial effort to buy a comic book.
Comic books were apparently "good" enough to get kids to read them, without ad campaigns, without an automatic delivery system, without being free. This is almost unheard of in modern media. Kids thought comic books were "good", and went to the store and bought them. There is nothing in today's media empires that is this "good". The public is deeply indifferent to the output of our modern media empires, and needs deep cajoling to participate in their current product.
I remember trying as a small child to tell adults, both in the neighborhood and at school, that comic books were really good, and that they should try reading them. This had a zero percent success rate. None of the adults were a bit offended. They would smile sweetly, tell me I was a good boy, and completely dismiss any possibility of their reading comics. Apparently, they deeply believed comics were for kids only. There were no expressions of curiosity. The barriers were deep.
All the adults I knew thought that reading comics was great - for kids. No one ever tried to criticize or discourage either any of the kids in the neighborhood or me from reading comic books.
I have a general purpose curiosity about all works of art. Any work of art of any kind seems potentially interesting. There is always a fascinating possibility of artistic expression in it, the chance that it might be beautiful or imaginative or moving. Consequently, I try to ignore barriers that might keep me from experiencing a work of art. Walls that suggest an art work might either be too high brow or too low brow, too avant-garde or too conventional, too commercial or too non-commercial, or designed for some other age group, are just obstacles towards enjoying the work and what it contains. An experimental opera, a work of sound poetry, a comic book tale about the Legion of Super-Heroes: they are all potentially interesting and worthwhile.
Examined today, comic books often seem drastically different from many people's image of them. Silver Age comics (1955-1966) are G-rated, have no sex, only small amounts of violence, are politically liberal but anti-Communist in tone, and contain no racial stereotypes. Many are brilliantly imaginative in plot, and drawn with beautiful art by master craftsmen. This sounds like an entertainment paradise. They stand in amazing contrast to much of the sleaze oozing out of today's media empires.
Comic books are also surprisingly intellectual. They have very complicated plots, that need real mental attention to follow. Many have ingenious mystery plots, that challenge the cleverest readers. Many comic books are science fiction based, and can include surprising amounts of science in their stories - comic books were always striving to be educational. The art in comic books is also complex and elaborate. Many comic books are part of long story sequences, that stretch over many issues. Understanding a comic book often involves relating its plot to a long previous history of the characters. I think most people today do not realize how immensely complicated and intellectual many old comic books are.
Paradoxically, old comic books, originally read mainly by children, are far more intellectual than most entertainment produced today for adults. People today, used to the relentless violence and lack of plot in today's books, TV and films, might find old comic books far more high brow than anything they are used to experiencing. They will be unprepared for the complex plots, sophisticated social commentary, and a medium that emphasizes storytelling and plot over violence.
Comic books are not "easy to read". It takes time and mental effort to read any of the higher quality old comic books. Partly, I believe, this is because how "dense" the material is in old comic books. Unlike novelists, TV scriptwriters or pulp magazine writers, comic creators were not encouraged to grind out huge quantities of padding in their tales. Many novelists of the last fifty years have typed madly, trying to stretch their book out to 300 pages. Often, they have had enough real material to make a good thirty-five page story. By contrast, comic creators have been challenged to squeeze a complex plot into a six or eight page comic book story. In a good comic book story, every panel and every line of dialogue advances the plot. This means a six-page story, with six panels per page, contains 36 plot twists, one for each of the story's 36 panels. Many of today's novels do not contain 36 major plot developments. And all of this is squeezed into six pages of printed comic book material. Mentally absorbing 36 plot developments takes time. It does not happen in five minutes. The reader often pauses, and thinks about what is happening. The rich plotting often triggers delight and joy in the reader.
We know from many historical accounts, about the enormous care taken in the plotting of comic book stories. Each Silver Age tale was typically the subject of a many hour meeting, during which the editor and writer would refine the writer's original plot ideas. Then the writer would go back, and often put even more work into developing the plot. People did this with enthusiasm; editor Julius Schwartz summed it up: "I love plotting".
I do not have historical material dealing with the comics industry, showing the causes of such rich plotting. But the presence of thousands of comic books stories, all sharing the same "dense plotting" aesthetic, is evidence that some strong factors were present in the comic book industry encouraging this approach. Speculation as to its cause: there was strong editorial pressure on comic scriptwriters to plot this way. Comic writers were perhaps rewarded for the "quality" of their work, and a standard of quality was clearly "density of writing". They were admired - and re-hired to write their next story - if they came up with a script in which every panel was densely packed with material. Producing "lots of plot" was also perhaps regarded as a way of holding the reader's attention, and entertaining the reader. A final speculation: there was a comic book "culture" shared by editors, writers and readers, that expected comics to be densely plotted, and which held up such writing as a cultural norm.
The influence of mystery fiction, is perhaps another factor. Comic book editor Julius Schwartz is on record as stating his love of mystery fiction. His favorite author was John Dickson Carr, who also emphasized complex, dense plotting in his books. There was a shared aesthetic, between the great puzzle plot masters of mystery fiction, such as Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr, and old comic books.
Comics have often been compared as a medium to movies. Both combine text and pictures. They also remind one of such other multi-media as opera and ballet.