Cultural Bookshelf Makes Space for Comics

THE COMIC BOOK IN AMERICA: AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY by Mike Benton, Dallas: Taylor Publishing Company, 207 pp., $29.95

IN recent months, my three sons (ages 11, nine, and eight) have taken to comic books. With a vengeance. When we visit our public library, they check out a few regular books and stacks of comic books. Being a relatively normal American parent, I began to worry about this. I asked myself: ``Will not all this reading of comic books turn my children's brains to oatmeal?''

Then Mike Benton's hefty but attractive tome hit my desk and ``Eureka!'' I cried. There's nothing like a little history to put things in perspective.

``The Comic Book in America'' celebrates a unique American invention, the always popular, much maligned comic book. Mike Benton is a veteran comic book collector, dealer, and investor, and he owns a company that publishes educational comic books.

Benton first traces the historical development of comic books from 1896 to the present. Then he tells the stories of more than 50 American comic-book publishers, some of which existed for only a few years. Finally, Benton discusses 17 different comic-book genres. The book's detailed index makes it easy to locate a particular topic, theme, character, publisher, or person.

What spawned comic books, Benton explains, was newspaper comic strips. ``On February 16, 1896, the New York World newspaper tested its new yellow ink by printing it on the nightgown of a kid who appeared in a cartoon drawn by Richard Outcault.''

This ``yellow kid,'' as the public tagged him, became the first color newspaper comic strip, and he was such a circulation booster that comic strips soon were a standard fixture in newspapers.

Although book publishers almost immediately began to collect newspaper comic strips into hardback book form, the first true comic book didn't appear until 1933. In that year, the Eastern Color Printing Company of Waterbury, Conn., printed 10,000 copies of an 8-by-11 inch collection of Sunday newspaper comic strips. The Proctor & Gamble Company gave away this first ``comic magazine'' to customers who sent in coupons from soap products. The mastermind behind this idea was a salesman named Max C. Gaines, who became one of the founding fathers of the comic-book industry. ``In many ways,'' Mike Benton writes, ``the comic book is America's happiest contribution to world literature and entertainment.''

In 1938, two teenagers from Clevelend, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, showed Max Gaines a character they had thought up called Superman. Gaines took Superman to National Periodical Publications (later DC Comics), which recognized a star when they saw one and used him in ``Action Comics.''

So unexpected was Superman's popularity that it took almost another year before other publishers figured out what had happened. After that, however, the name of the game in the comic-book biz was superheroes, and they proliferated prodigiously.

The early 1940s saw the arrival of teenage comic characters, most notably Archie and his pals. And, surprise, surprise, the first appearance of Walt Kelly's Pogo Possum was not in a newspaper comic strip but in the December 1941 issue of ``Animal Comics,'' published by Dell.

Already in these early years, parental concerns began to surface about that ``escapist fantasy'' children were reading. To the rescue, in April 1941, charged the Parents Magazine Institute with ``True Comics,'' the first educational comic book, which featured factual stories about famous historical events, scientific discoveries, and heroic men and women. In the 1940s, Disney characters also arrived on the comic-book scene, and ``Classics Illustrated'' began its long and popular run.

Parents still worried, however. So, Benton says, in December 1944 the ``Journal of Educational Sociology'' examined comic books ``and surprised many adults by concluding that they did an excellent job of supplying children's needs for fantasy and imaginative reading matter!''

In the mid-1950s, however, comic books fell on hard times, in spite of the fact that they were building toward an all-time high in popularity. Benton summarizes the impact on the comic-book industry of the McCarthy era, with its search for Communists and child-corruptors around every corner. Comic-book publishers responded by establishing the self-regulatory Comics Code Authority, which imposed a strict set of standards on comic books. This, Mike Benton comments, ``would change comic books forever, and not necessarily for the better.''

On the verge of the 1990s, comic books are not just for kids. The comic-book format is a mass medium that carries everything from nudity, realistic violence, and drug-taking to Donald Duck and the perpetual teenager Archie.

``The Comic Book in America'' is an expertly written, beautifully illustrated history of a fascinating aspect of 20th century popular culture. After reading it, I don't worry about my kids reading comic books, but I do pay closer attention to the comic books they choose.

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