by KC Carlson
To celebrate and honor the 60th anniversary of the publication of the first Casper the Friendly Ghost comic book, Dark Horse Comics presents a superb little slice of comic history for the kid in us all.
The hardcover Casper the Friendly Ghost 60th Anniversary Special reprints two first issues: the complete (including advertisements) St. John Casper, the Friendly Ghost #1 from 1949 and Harvey Comics Hits #61, from 1952, which is also known as Casper the Friendly Ghost #6, which also happens to be the first full-length issue of Casper published by Harvey Comics. And if you think that’s confusing… well, here’s a little mini-history about Casper.
The Origin of Casper
Casper’s actual origins lie not in comic books, but in the world of animation, and even then, the character was first conceived for an illustrated children’s book. The concept of a “friendly ghost” was originally dreamed up in 1940 by a Fleischer Studios animation worker named Seymour “Sy” Reit. He was initially an inker and inbetweener for the studio before becoming a gag writer for Fleischer’s Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons. Reit came up with a script for a potential children’s book and worked with fellow Fleischer animator Joe Oriolo to illustrate the story. Unfortunately, both were drafted into World War II before the project was completed.
When they returned from the War, they discovered that their animation jobs were gone. Paramount Studios (who were distributing the Fleischer cartoons) had taken over the cartoon operation, moved it from Florida back to New York City, and renamed the company Famous Studios. Famous had since began a new series of cartoons, Noveltoons, an anthology-type series featuring one-shot or recurring characters. In 1944, Reit and Oriolo sold their “friendly ghost” concept (as well as all future rights) to Famous for $200.
On November 15, 1945, The Friendly Ghost, the first Casper cartoon (although he wasn’t yet called Casper), debuted in theaters. Two more Noveltoons staring the friendly ghost were produced before finally, in 1950, Casper was awarded his own animated series. A total of 55 Casper theatrical cartoons were produced until the series ended in 1959. The cartoons were shown on TV, beginning in the late 1950s, to great success, and in 1963, new Casper (and other Harvey characters) cartoons were made for the TV show The New Casper Cartoon Show.
Sy Reit wrote gags for many of the new Casper cartoons, as well as writing for Little Lulu and Archie comic books and Mad Magazine. He also wrote over 80 books, many of them children’s books, before his death in 2001. Joe Oriolo remained in animation, eventually working on both Felix the Cat cartoons and comic books. By 1971, he owned the rights to the character and continued to market Felix toys and products until his death in 1985.
Casper the Friendly Comic Book
Casper entered the world of comic books in 1949, when St. John Publications acquired the rights to publish comics based on the Paramount/Famous friendly ghost. Despite the fact that three cartoons had been produced by this time, the character had yet to be given his distinctive name, and thus this first St. John issue was also the first public appearance of the Casper name! Other Paramount/Famous characters Baby Huey and Herman (of the cat & mouse team of Herman and Katnip) also make their comic book debuts in this first issue.
Not surprisingly, these first Casper comic book stories mirror the basic premise of the cartoons pretty closely – Casper wants nothing more than to be friends with everybody he meets, but because he is a ghost, most everyone runs from him in fear, leaving him sad and forlorn. What’s a little more surprising is that this is enough to depress the poor little guy enough to want to commit suicide! In this first issue, he attempts to throw himself off a high cliff to his death, and in issue #6, we see the bizarre sight of Casper tying himself to a heavy boulder and then throwing it into the ocean! Of course – since he’s already a ghost – neither of these events have their intended result. But still, this is a bizarre sight to see in a kid’s comic book!
St. John only published five issues of Casper between 1949 and 1951. There’s really not much to say about them, as the artwork is pretty generic and the writing is of that not-quite-English quality that so many of the Golden Age comics of the time display. Perhaps because of this, Harvey Comics was awarded the license from Paramount/Famous to produce comic books of their characters beginning in 1952, and new Casper comic book stories started appearing shortly thereafter.
Casper’s Harvey Home
Most folks today strongly associate Casper with Harvey Comics, but Harvey was in the comics business long before the character ever graced their pages. Harvey Comics began in 1942, and they were primarily known for publishing licensed characters from other media, including Blondie, Dick Tracy, Joe Palooka, the Green Hornet, and Sad Sack. However, Harvey also published quite a few of the notorious horror and crime comics of the 1940s that caused a stir.
The comics industry was in general disarray in the wake of Fredric Wertham’s book Seduction of the Innocent, which claimed (among other things) that such comics were a major cause of juvenile delinquency. This ultimately lead to the now-infamous Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency and their subsequent investigations into the so-called “lurid” industry. As a result, crime and horror comics vanished from the shelves virtually overnight.
Many comics publishers (most famously, EC Comics) either ceased publication or radically changed their publishing lineups. Harvey Comics was one that chose the latter course of action, and the acquisition of an instant kid-friendly line featuring Casper and his friends probably saved the company from extinction. But Casper wasn’t immediately awarded his own comic at Harvey – he had to work his way up!
Casper’s first Harvey appearance was as a back-up feature in Little Audrey #25, cover-dated August 1952. Next, he made another back-up appearance in Paramount Animated Comics #1 [better known as Harvey Comics Hits #60 (Sept. ‘52)] with fellow cartoon favorites Baby Huey, Buzzy the Crow, and the cover-featured Herman and Catnip. Yes, Casper wasn’t even cover-featured here! Finally, in the following issue of Harvey Comic Hits (#61, Oct. ‘52), Casper appeared in his sixth complete comic book, and his first at Harvey Comics. That’s the other issue reprinted in this 60th Anniversary Special.
The First Harvey Casper
As well as the aforementioned second suicide attempt, in the Harvey issue, Casper befriends a lonely baby octopus (who is so ugly that no one will play with him) and proceeds to lock them both in an underwater safe. The comic then plays fast and loose with the laws of physics. (For example, Casper can escape from the safe because he’s a ghost, but he can’t open the safe because he doesn’t know the combination, but he can reach his hand into the lock to open it from inside. Umm, exactly how?) This is actually a really sweet little story that parents today would be horrified to see because of that kids-locking-themselves-inside-a-refrigerator terror that all parents have.
In the second story, Casper goes to ghost school. (They’re called boopils – get it?) All of his classmates are making things to scare people with, while Casper writes an essay called “How to Make Friends”. In another story, Casper’s the only one who can find a lost baby (piglet, as it turns out – there are no humans in the early Harvey Casper stories) by using his feet like helicopter blades to hover in the sky, an unusual feat that we don’t see too often. Finally, two bank robbers (weasels, by their looks) decide to use Casper’s house as a hideout. Of course, he scares them away, but their car is stuck in the mud so they can’t flee, so they go back to the house. Casper eventually realizes that they’re robbers, so while he’s calling the police on the phone, one of the robbers puts his gun up to Casper’s temple – and fires two bullets right through his head! Yikes! I know he’s a ghost, but golly!!
There are other bizarre moments as well, as when Casper inadvertently interrupts a couple (of bears) behind a beach umbrella – and it’s very obvious that the bears have been canoodling in private before they are interrupted. We also see a fleeting glimpse of Casper’s mother, a lady ghost. This seldom ever happened again, and subsequent questions about Casper’s actual origins or parentage were never answered in the comic books. Finally, we learn in a fact-file-type feature that Casper occasionally lives behind old tombstones – and we see the oddly smiling face of Casper from behind a crumbling grave marker. Very eerie… and odd.
My favorite parts of the book were the old advertisements, which the indicia reminds us “no longer offer any viable goods or services.” Thus, I am bummed that I can no longer order “The Chevalier”, the miracle Health Supporter Belt that lifts and flattens your bulging “bay window!” Because I really envy men who can “keep on their feet!” You can wear it to work, evenings, even while bowling! Plus, it comes with not one, but two air-cooled, scientifically designed detachable pouches. If you don’t like your “Chevalier”, you can return it during this Free Trial Offer. Please keep in mind that this advertisement for a man’s girdle is appearing in a comic book (and one starring a friendly ghost)! Who did they think was reading this ad?
Plus, there’s a comic strip ad featuring then-popular kid star Margaret O’Brian. At first glance, I thought was one of those ubiquitous Hostess Fruit Pie ads. Close – it’s for Margaret O’Brien’s Candy Kitchen, where you can make your own lollipops and candy apples!
Casper’s History at Harvey
Harvey was to be a much better home for Casper and his friends than St. John was. First off, they immediately got access to one of the very best, and most recognizable, artists of the era in Warren Kremer. He became art director of the entire line and was particularly responsible for its look in his hands-on involvement with virtually every cover. The Harvey covers are beautiful in their simplicity. Most feature a simple, direct gag or iconic pose, usually presented with either minimal or no background elements at all. Because of this simplicity, the Harvey covers literally leapt off the stands, and most people who owned these comics as kids can still recall the covers with incredible clarity. Besides his cover work, Kremer also drew an incredible number of Casper (and Richie Rich) stories. He is easily one of the most prolific artists in the history of comics.
Another artistic element that added to the freshness of Harvey’s line was the fact that a large number of artists that worked on the cartoons moved over to draw the same characters in the comic books, especially after Paramount closed their animation studio in the 1950s. (A number of the cartoon writers made the move as well.) Just a few of the artists that worked on the early Casper stories include Bill Hudson, Steve Muffatti, Marty Taras, Tom Golden, and Dave Tendlar.
The folks at Harvey (most notably editor Sid Jacobson) realized early on that the “Casper wanting to be friends” schtick was very limited. The comic book stories came to be set in an “Enchanted Forest” setting, with new characters for Casper to have adventures with, including Spooky, Wendy, the Ghostly Trio, Nightmare (the horse), and Stumbo the Giant. After this premise was well established, most of the early pre-Enchanted Forest stories were seldom reprinted (making many of the recent Harvey book collections a real treat).
The following issue of Casper he could finally call his own, as issue #7 of Casper, the Friendly Ghost would be the beginning of a very long and successful run at Harvey Comics, virtually unstoppable until 1994. All while becoming the flagship character for the company as well as the world’s most recognizable (and friendly!) ghost!
Casper the Friendly Ghost 60th Anniversary Special is a must-have for any serious comics collector or kid’s comics fan. This affordably priced hardcover is a gorgeous presentation of Casper’s first two important comic appearances – and will also save you thousands of dollars and the hassle of trying to track down the originals. The fantastic design and production work is once again by the talented Leslie Cabarga, who was also responsible for the beautiful work in the five-volume Harvey Comics Classics series – also published by Dark Horse and also highly recommended. The first volume in that series is a Casper collection and features over 100 early Casper stories.
While researching this, I was very appreciative of the work of Jerry Beck (who wrote the introduction to the Harvey Comics Classics Casper volume) and Mark Arnold (The Harveyville Fun Times) in understanding the sometimes-confusing history of animation and Harvey Comics.
KC Carlson has been working in, around, and adjacent to comic books since the 1970s, most notably for DC Comics as an editor (including Collected Books) in the 90s. KC’s Bookshelf is an ongoing attempt to catalog the great comic book collections and history books that should be on your bookshelf.
The covers to Harvey Comics Hits #61 and Casper, the Friendly Ghost #7 come from the Grand Comic-Book Database.