A KC COLUMN by KC Carlson
I’ve been watching this great documentary about the Beatles called Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years. The movie focuses on the band’s tours of America, the first of which took place in 1964. It played briefly in selected theaters a few weeks back, and I was happy to see it then, accompanied by my cousin Margaret (and her husband). Growing up, she was one of the biggest Beatles fans I ever knew, and I wanted to be sitting next to somebody who would be really excited about what was on screen, because I was going to be spending most of my viewing time analyzing exactly how these four young musicians from England pretty much defined pop culture for most of a decade and established a 50+ year legacy. Yeah, that ended up not happening, because I got swept up in the Beatle-ness of it all and just had a great time instead.
It’s a wonderful documentary, directed by Ron Howard (someone who understood the importance of pop culture as a young actor growing up on screen in both The Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days — both cult classics of their own). His direction really plays up the sense of elation the entire country had for these British musicians who, in short order, redefined music for young people. Eight Days a Week was recently released on home video, so I had the chance to study it at my leisure. Thankfully, the bonus features on the set did most of this for me, allowing me to just keep watching amazing stuff (like learning that teenage Whoopi Goldberg and Sigourney Weaver were both in attendance at Beatles concerts at this time).
Turns out the Beatles were also comic book fans (of various degrees). Eagle-eyed viewers of the Beatles film Help! have no doubt noticed that the crazy organ (which comes up out of the floor of their 4-in-1 flat/bedroom) does not come with sheet music, but instead, the rack holds about a dozen comic books (all DC Comics). (The plot, such as it is, for Help! is also very much “comic-booky” in style and structure. A Hard Day’s Night is the much better Beatles film, but Help! is more fun to watch repeatedly.) Years later, former-Beatle Paul McCartney wrote and produced a much-played Wings song for his Venus and Mars album called Magneto and Titanium Man, two prominent Marvel Comics villains.
But that’s enough about the Beatles…
LET’S TALK ABOUT ME
At the beginning of 1964, I was 8 years old. I don’t remember much about what I was doing then, but I was an only child living with my parents in Loves Park, Illinois — soon to move to Janesville, Wisconsin. I had already discovered comic books (probably around age 4) when I apparently had the mutant ability to find the comic rack in any grocery or drug store my mother had taken me to — usually within seconds of walking through the door.
Much later, this mutated into being able to find the nearest comic book store in any city I was plopped into within 30 minutes. When people asked me how I could do that, I told them that I could smell the comics. I was a terrible liar. What I was, was really good with reference material (like phone books and maps), and I had an excellent sense of direction. The sun is our friend (but, sadly, not a friend of comic books — at least not directly).
Mom easily read four novels a week for most of her life, not to mention every newspaper and magazine she could get her hands on. I often found it amusing that my father would stash his Playboy magazine under the mattress on his side of the bed, while mom would stash her National Enquirer and Weekly World News on her side. Of course, she encouraged me to read everything I could get my hands on. And I did… including their secret stashes when they weren’t around.
It was probably around 1964 that I was making my first transition in the subject matter of my comic book reading. It was around then I discovered DC Comics, most notably their Superman “Family” of comics (Superman, Action Comics, Superboy, Adventure Comics, and eventually Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen; Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane; and World’s Finest (which co-starred Batman and (usually) Robin)). Pretty soon, I lost interest in most of the Dell/Gold Key funny animal and cartoon-based comics (featuring most of the Hanna-Barbera characters, like Yogi Bear and Quick Draw McGraw) I had been reading. I never got away from them completely, though. Because of my grandma, I had a subscription to Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories for at least 20 years! (And kept up my reading of them!)
Let’s take a look at who was publishing comic books in 1964, the beginning of a major transition over the next decade for the comics industry:
DC was the powerhouse publisher in this era. There were better (and greater) comics publishers in the past (most notably Fawcett (who published the Captain Marvel line) and E.C. Comics (some of the greatest genre comics ever published)), but DC had outlasted all of them. DC was the top of the line, despite publishing some really boring and really juvenile comics. It’s been said (and not as a compliment) that DC’s comics of this era were “produced by guys in coats and ties”. DC was also one of the biggest supporters of the Comics Code Authority. They were one of the survivors (along with Archie Comics) to stay with the Code to the bitter end. (I know. I was there and got in trouble with them once while working at DC.)
Here’s what they had on sale in January and February of 1964. I had to choose two months together because so many of their titles were published either bi-monthly or eight times a year. (People forget that DC actually didn’t start publishing many monthly comics titles until the 1970s. I’m guessing they were desperately trying to catch up to the Marvel juggernaut of the late sixties, once Marvel was finally out of an extremely restrictive distribution situation (which was discreetly controlled by DC).) Here’s how DC’s line-up of titles broke out back then:
Superman-Related Titles: Action Comics; Adventure Comics; Superboy; Superman; Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane; Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen; World’s Finest
JLA-Related Superheroes: Aquaman, The Atom, Batman, Detective Comics, The Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, Justice League of America, Wonder Woman
Odd Super (or not) Team/Adventure titles: Blackhawk, The Brave and the Bold, Challengers of the Unknown, Doom Patrol, Metal Men, Rip Hunter Time Master, Sea Devils
War Titles (“The Big Five!”): All-American Men of War, G.I. Combat, Our Army at War, Our Fighting Forces, Star Spangled War Stories
Humor: The Adventures of Bob Hope, The Adventures of Jerry Lewis, The Adventures of Dobie Gillis, The Fox and the Crow, Sugar and Spike
Romance: Falling in Love, Girl’s Love, Girl’s Romances, Heart Throbs, Secret Hearts, Young Love, Young Romance
Mystery (substituting for “Horror”) Comics: House of Mystery, House of Secrets, Tales of the Unexpected
Sci-Fi: Mystery in Space, Strange Adventures
Miscellaneous: 80-Page Giant, Showcase, Tomahawk (the lone remaining “Western” title)
I had my favorites, mostly from the Julie Schwartz stable (focusing on superheroes and science fiction). One of the best things he did in this era was revitalize Batman — a notable fix that lasted (with upgrade tweaks) for close to 30 years. I loved the Superman books as a kid, but as I grew older, I grew out of all of them. (The notable exception was the Legion of Super-Heroes series, which actually went AWOL for large chunks of time starting in the late ‘60s. It’s also currently absent, but I hear rumors of a revival soon-to-come.) The quality of the titles from this DC era was really dependent upon the editors (and the talent they hired). This is especially apparent in the Odd Super (or not) Team/Adventure titles category, where I was fascinated by some (Doom Patrol, Metal Men, Challengers) and bored by others (Rip Hunter, Blackhawk).
Only some 30 years later, I got interested in the DC Romance line — long after it had all been cancelled. Truth to tell, I was mostly interested in the artists and covers, but I was amazingly surprised at the long-term storytelling of many of their serialized storylines, some of them sustaining for years.
Meanwhile, Marvel was still under strict restrictions on their distribution, which couldn’t exceed 12 comic books a month. They got around that by not publishing everything monthly.
In early 1964, six of their comics were published every month: Amazing Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Journey Into Mystery (starring Thor), Strange Tales (at the time, a split-book with the Human Torch/the Thing and Doctor Strange), Tales of Suspense (Iron Man, but Captain America would begin in #59 – with a tease in #58), and Tales to Astonish (Ant-Man/Giant-Man and the Wasp, but by the end of the year they would be replaced by the Hulk and Sub-Mariner).
Bimonthly books included the recently introduced Avengers, X-Men, and Daredevil (but it wouldn’t be long before all three went monthly), plus westerns Kid Colt Outlaw, Rawhide Kid, and Two-Gun Kid; girl comics Millie the Model, Modeling With Millie, Patsy Walker, and Patsy and Hedy; and the popular Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, also soon to go monthly… but then later, still monthly, but only every other issue was new… so a half-reprint series.
Overall, I think Marvel’s slow growth due to their distribution limitations might have actually helped them in the long run. Since they couldn’t flood the market with new characters (until decades later), that meant a less-crowded Marvel Universe —so that these characters got more of a chance to shine. Didn’t work for me, though. I didn’t start reading Marvels until 1970, such was my early love for DC. The only reason that I ultimately gave them a try, was the cheap cost. By 1970, I was earning my own money and could buy more comics. Since they still only cost 12 cents, that meant an additional 10 Marvel comic books a month only cost me $1.20!!! (And this was before they were taxable, at least in Wisconsin.)
THE OTHER GUYS
Gold Key Comics had recently spun out from Dell Comics in 1962 (taking all of the Western-owned licenses, including powerhouses Walt Disney and Hanna-Barbera, with them). In January, Gold Key published 14 comics — four Walt Disney, four Hanna-Barbera, two westerns, two jungle comics, and two comics based on TV shows you’ve never heard of now. Over the summer, they increased publication to more than 20 individual comics, including personal favorites like Hey There, It’s Yogi Bear; P.T. 109; Disney’s New Adventures of the Phantom Blot; Jonny Quest #1 (and only); and Magilla Gorilla Vs. Yogi Bear for President. (That last one had to have been a much better election than our most recent one. Or at least one with more pic-a-nic baskets and bananas!)
Harvey Comics published only 12 comic books in January 1964 (and not a one of them starring Richie Rich). In December, they doubled that by publishing 24, only three of which were Richie Rich-related. (Compare to five Sad Sack comics). One other was one of my all-time favorite comic book titles — Little Lotta in Foodland. Where was Foodland, anyway? Was Condiment a suburb? Of course, there were plenty of Casper, the Friendly Ghost; Wendy the Good Little Witch; and Spooky, the Tuff Little Ghost, as well as Little Dot, maybe the first comic book about being OCD over polka dots. (Trivia: Her seldom-used last name was actually Polka.)
Yikes! There were a whopping 24 Charlton comic books published in January 1964. They all look kinda run-of-the-mill to me — which was generally the story of Charlton except for a handful of special stuff (that mostly came much later). And Steve Ditko! Can’t forget him! I didn’t buy a lot of Charlton books at that time, probably because they had lots of distribution problems. (I think they did their own for a while.) I got offered a large collection of Charlton comics about 15 years later, and only after I bought them, did I discover that there was a lot of great work being done there that not many people were aware of… until fanzines!
ACG published a handful of titles regularly in 1964, including Adventures into the Unknown, My Romantic Adventures, Unknown Worlds, Forbidden Worlds, and Herbie (#1 in February!). ACG was another company that apparently wasn’t distributed where I was, because I don’t recall ever seeing any of their comics on the racks. If I had, I would have bought Herbie (the Fat Fury), just because it was so strange and awesome. And if I had been older (and had figured out what an brilliant artist Kurt Schaffenberger was), I would definitely have sought out more of the ACG line.
Archie Comics published eight comics in January 1964, all of which had “Archie” in the title, except Pep and Laugh. Archie’s Girls Betty & Veronica celebrated 100 issues in February in an all-Dan DeCarlo issue. By the summer, most of the core Archie characters (except Veronica… they had to save somebody, right?) had become superheroes with names like Pureheart the Powerful (Archie), Captain Hero (Jughead), and Superteen (Betty). Of course, Reggie was the villainous Evilheart. This was kinda fun (but not very good) for about a year, and then they all became spies. (Archie was The Man From R.I.V.E.R.D.A.L.E.) Really!! I’m not making this up!
Dell Comics was still around in 1964 as a pale shadow of what it was without all the Disney and Hanna-Barbera titles. They limped along publishing between 4 and 12 comics a month. My favorites were Clyde Crashcup (from animated The Alvin Show) and John Stanley’s Thirteen “Going on Eighteen” (although I didn’t actually read this one until many years later). They also sold a ton of John F. Kennedy comic books, published in June 1964. (I wonder why…) I bet if you were around back then, you own one (or three)…Dell is also “famous” for Millie the Lovable Monster, Burke’s Law, and Petticoat Junction comics. No, not really… I’m so bad…
Warren published one magazine in 1964: Famous Monsters of Filmland. I was not a big fan of monsters, nor this magazine, so I have nothing else to say about it. Creepy #1 began in 1965, and it’s a lot more interesting if you ever want to check it out sometime. Dark Horse has been archiving both Creepy and its companion Eerie for years now. These were some of the best horror comics published and a logical successor to the classic E.C. comics, occasionally by some of the same artists.
MORE COMICS THAN YOU’LL EVER BELIEVE EXISTED
According to the website Mike’s Amazing World of Comics (an amazing site that all comic fans should have permanently bookmarked), 107 comic books were published in January 1964. In July 1964, with additional Annuals and Specials, that total would jump to 160 comics. By December, the total number would drop back to 122. To put this into perspective, these days, Marvel and DC Comics alone publish at least 300 comics and collections a month, especially if you count all of their various alternate covers. Any glance at the thickness of any current issue of Diamond’s Previews should tell you how crazy the current comic book market is today.
Were comics better back then? That’s a loaded question that I’m not willing to tackle. Comic collecting certainly seemed a lot more fun, despite there not being any full-service one-stop comic book stores offering most (if not all) of everything published. In the 1960s, I accumulated my collection by comic shopping at grocery stores, drug stores, department stores, gas stations, truck stops, billiard parlors, the Belvidere Oasis (a huge interstate rest stop), and even vending machines. I went so far as to swap comics with my barber shop to get things I’d never seen elsewhere. And it was fun doing that. Sometimes I miss that.
KC CARLSON can play for hours at Mike’s Amazing World of Comics. Especially fun is his database of (all?) the Hostess comic book ads starring a huge and diverse cast of comic book characters from many different publishers. It’s like its own little Parallel Cream-Filled Universe. Check it out!
WESTFIELD COMICS is not responsible for the stupid things that KC says. Especially that thing that really irritated you. Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!