KC Column: Les Daniels and the Early History of Comic Book History Books

KC Carlson

KC Carlson


by KC Carlson

The first book about comic book history that I ever bought was Comix: A History of Comic Books in America in 1971. It was written by Les Daniels, who passed away November 5, 2011. Little did I know at the time that it was one of the very first books specifically devoted to comic book history. I was 15 years old when it was published.

Comix: A History of Comic Books in America

Comix: A History of Comic Books in America


It was a weird-looking book. Designed by the Mad Peck Studios, it featured no recognizable characters on the cover — just a crudely drawn illustration of a seemingly heroic figure dressed in an all-yellow costume with a banana insignia (on his back?) and a face-covering mask tied in a topknot. He has apparently jumped from a in-flight biplane holding a rope (attached to what?). After landing on a nearby prop plane (with a prominent painting of a sexy tropical girl on the fuselage, labeled Miss Under Stood), the hero punches an evil-looking pig pilot who is wearing coveralls. In the top right-hand corner of the book there is a fake comics code symbol which reads: “Approved by Kids for EARTH.” My mom took one look at it and said “I’m not buying that for you!” So I was on my own, if I wanted it.

I remember having to save up for it because it was relatively (for the time) expensive — $7.95! Comic book cover prices were in flux between 15¢ and 20¢ in 1971, so using 20¢ as a base, Comix: A History of Comic Books in America cost the same amount as almost 40 comic books! Luckily, I had multiple paper routes at the time, so I had saved up enough in just a couple of weeks.

It was probably a good thing that mom didn’t pay for it, or she would have insisted on looking though it — only to discover that it also covered the then-new underground comics, most of which were decidedly adult-oriented. That chapter of the book was a real eye-opener for me as well, as there weren’t too many underground comics in Janesville, Wisconsin, in the early ‘70s (or at least, I never saw them). I didn’t encounter any in person until around 1973, when I was in Madison for a couple of weeks for a journalism conference, where I discovered State Street. Oddly enough, I saw my first issue of still-digest-sized The Comic Reader fanzine alongside the undergrounds.

Comix: A History of Comic Books in America turned the tables on most of the comic strip histories that I had purchased earlier. They were all great books, but always, comic books were just treated as a bastard offshoot of the comic strips. (Many early Golden Age comic books simply reprinted newspaper comic strips in pamphlet format.) In Daniels’ book, newspaper strips get a brief mention in the opening chapters, then it’s comic book characters all the way. There are spotlight chapters on funny animals, E.C. Comics, post-Comics Code comic books, the Marvel Comics 1960s revolution, and the aforementioned chapter on undergrounds. At the end of each chapter are reprints of complete stories, most in black & white, but there is also a 16-page color section. The stories include Superman, Batman, Blackhawk, Plastic Man, Sheena, a selection from Crime Does Not Pay, a Carl Barks Donald Duck story, the Fox and the Crow, several E.C. stories (both horror and Mad parodies), selections from various Warren titles (Creepy, Eerie), Golden Age Captain America, early Fantastic Four and Dr. Strange, a Steranko horror tale, and classic underground work by Robert Crumb, Spain Rodrigues, Gilbert Shelton, Jay Lynch, Skip Williamson, and others.

Of great interest to me was the chapter on the Comics Code Authority. That was one of the first places I saw an in-depth discussion of what the Code really meant (censorship) and how the Code was forced to evolve in the late 1960s due to the rapidly changing attitudes of that frantic era. Studying the Code became a major hobby of mine at the time, and I eventually wrote two papers (one in high school and one in college) on the subject. These were difficult to research as the Code operated in near-secrecy, at least as far as the general public was concerned, so Comix: A History of Comic Books in America became a significant source of information for me about its history and inner workings.

Daniels didn’t talk down to his readership. Since I was only 15 and naive (i.e. dumb) when I first read this, I probably didn’t understand half of it, so I kept reading and re-reading it, hoping to will myself into adulthood, so I could fully grasp the parts that weren’t yet clicking for me. I’ve probably read it a dozen times over the years, understanding more with each turn of the page. Such was my desire to learn everything I could about these odd little publications and (as I was learning) their occasionally disturbing history.

ELSEWHERE…

All In Color For a Dime

All In Color For a Dime


Comix: A History of Comic Books in America wasn’t the only book about comics at the time. 1970 also saw the publication of three other major works about comics. All in Color for a Dime, edited by Dick Lupoff and Don Thompson, was a collection of articles about various characters and comic series reprinted from the 1960s science fiction and comics fanzine XERO. This mass market paperback had a cover that looked like a Johnny-come-lately Batman TV show cash-in, prominently featuring brightly colored sound effects (KRASKK!). The insides were much better, with essays written by Harlan Ellison, Roy Thomas, Ron Goulart, Bill Blackbeard, Lupoff, Thompson, and others. Later, it was reprinted in a much more permanent format and joined by a sequel, The Comic Book Book.

Steranko History of Comics

Steranko History of Comics


Also in 1970 was the first volume of the Steranko History of Comics. This eventually turned out to be a great project, although there were times when many of us wondered if it was ever going to be published. Initially only available through an ad in Marvel Comics, the book (an oversized softcover) was delayed for so long that my mom actually got a consumer reporter for the Chicago Tribune involved with tracking down its non-appearance because she smelled a rip-off (and because Supergraphics wouldn’t respond directly to “where the hell is it?” inquiries for about a year). Eventually, it arrived in the mail (all beat to hell) — and turned out to be one of the most amazing books about comic books ever. (Worth the wait? Not at the time for 14-year-old me.) An even thicker (and better) Volume Two was subsequently published, and that was it. The other two of the projected four volumes were never produced.

Amazingly, it’s still available, as I occasionally see re-listings for it in Previews. I doubt that we’ll ever see the the remaining volumes, but the existing ones were so great and important — they feature some of the only interviews with many long-gone Golden Age creators — they really deserve to be republished in a more permanent format. I hope that happens some day.

Also debuting in 1970: The first volume of the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide, in a privately published edition. Most comics fans didn’t know about this book until its first professionally produced and distributed edition (Volume 5, 1975), which was when I first discovered it in a local bookstore.

BACK TO DANIELS

DC Comics: Sixty Years of the World’s Favorite Comic Book Heroes

DC Comics: Sixty Years of the World’s Favorite Comic Book Heroes


Les Daniels was also a novelist, with five books about the vampire Don Sebastian de Villanueva, beginning in 1978 with The Black Castle, and four additional novels over the next dozen years, most of which featured elements of historical fiction. But Daniels is best known in the comics field for writing the authorized histories of both major comics companies. Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the Word’s Greatest Comics came out in 1991 and DC Comics: Sixty Years of the World’s Favorite Comic Book Heroes in 1995 (updated and revised in 2003). [Aside: the latter was the first (and perhaps only) comic book history I have been mentioned in. And I did, briefly, get to meet Les once in the DC offices, where I gushed like a fanboy about Comix: A History of Comic Books in America for about 30 seconds.]

The Golden Age of DC Comics: 365 Days

The Golden Age of DC Comics: 365 Days


Daniels subsequently did more work for DC in the 90s, writing the official histories of DC’s Big 3 characters in Superman: The Complete History (1998), Batman: The Complete History (1999), and Wonder Woman: The Complete History (2000), as well as The Golden Age of DC Comics: 365 Days, all designed by Chip Kidd.

Batman: The Complete History

Batman: The Complete History


All of his “corporate” books were extremely well-written and researched, as well as clear, concise, and to the point. Perhaps too concise. While I always learned new details and cherished new quotes from favorite creators in these books, I felt they were a little too polished and slick. After I spent a few years inside the business, hearing some great well-traveled (and perhaps occasionally off-color) stories about the characters and the creators, I wondered why those stores weren’t in any of the books. I think I got the definitive answer about that at Steve Bissette’s website last week. Steve was close friends with Les and said:

“…it must be noted for that community that since the 1990s books Les authored were all company (DC, Marvel) sanctioned projects, Les often bemoaned the great stories he wasn’t permitted to share about comics history—and there were some doozies. Alas, many comics pros (rightly) complained about the laundered nature of some of those character histories (the Superman book above all), complaints Les weathered knowing had he had his way, those histories would have been far more insightful and revealing than they were. Still, it was work, and Les was a working writer.”

I should have known better. I doubt the real history of comic books will ever be put down in cold hard type (or bits and electrons, as it were). That’s what hotel rooms and bars at conventions are for.

BTW, don’t miss the link for the great online interview with Les that Steve posted at his site.

Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comicsv

Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics


Finally, I’m bouncing you over to Tom Spurgeon’s The Comic Reporter for pulling four of the best Daniels quotes from Comix: A History of Comic Books in America and then putting them in context in a single sentence (plus you get an excellent shot of the book cover). If you’re interested in insightful reporting on comics beyond who’s drawing incentive covers, The Comics Reporter is a must-bookmark comics site.

KC CARLSON SEZ: While researching this piece, I discovered that Les Daniels was also an accomplished musician (banjo player), who once recorded an apparently little-known record album with one of my comedy heroes — Martin Mull — called In The Soup. I thought I had all of the Martin Mull albums. Apparently, I don’t. Even in death, Les Daniels is teaching me new things.

For more on great comic book histories, please check out my earlier overview on them here.

 

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  1. KC Remembers Les Daniels » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    […] author of a number of notable books on comic history, passed away earlier this month. KC’s latest Westfield column remembers Daniels’ Comix: A History of Comic Books in America as the “first book about […]

  2. Beau Smith Says:

    Very nice article and well said. I truly enjoyed this. Thanks, KC.

    Beau

  3. Chris Duffy Says:

    Great piece, KC. Let’s hope Les’s notes are intact somewhere for some future look at comics history. I met Les once when I was working for Mike Carlin–what impressed me immediately about Les was what an awesome radio voice he had. Did he ever do any acting?

  4. Ed Newby Says:

    My purchases followed the same pattern as yours, though living on a farm I picked up the necessary money by hauling hay, chasing cattle, and other farmlike activities. I agree with your assessment regarding earlier books focus on newspaper strips. I bought a copy of the Jules Feiffer book and though enjoyable, to my thinking didn’t go far enough.

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