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Atomic Age Comics

NOTE:

The following was a letter to the Comics Buyers Guide, and though it’s not really an article it covers some of the high points of the ‘lost age’ of comic books, between 1946 and 1957

Dear Editor

As much as i liked Mr Silver Age’s comments on the demarcations between the golden and silver ages of comics, I think they’re a little fuzzier once you look at them.

Even though I think a second sub age actually began in 1946 and is best exemplified by the revamped Fox comics of that period, with a content again directed towards adults, as the pre war comics had been, while the 1942 - 1946 war era comics were directed more towards children, for the purposes of this letter I’ll agree on 1949 as the end of the golden age.

But as Mr Silver Age defines the beginnings of the silver age, he makes a mistake in identifying its origins only in the products of Marvel/Atlas and DC comics, yet during the first half of the 1950s there was a lot of newsstand activity elsewhere

1950 saw the last hero issue of Daredevil, but the title continued till 1956. Capt Marvel, Capt Marvel Jr and Whiz lasted till late 1953, and the Marvel Family till 1954. Fiction Houses’venerable golden age titles such as Jungle and Jumbo lasted till 1953 - 4. Quality comics’ Dollman ran till 1953 and Plastic man till 1956, as did Blackhawk before being taken over by DC in 1957

As for new hero titles in the 1950s, Marvel’s Marvel Boy began in December of 1950 and ran two issues. 1951 and 1952 saw a lot of space action, with Captain Science, Jet, Space Detective and Farrell’s Rocketman. I know these aren’t ‘real’ hero books to some, and i know the slippery slope you get on trying to make a distinction between these books and Atlas’ Speed Carter Spaceman or Fox’s Rocketship X, or even the long running Planet Comics (1940 - 1953), but they should be mentioned as DC’s 1951 Captain Comet is sometimes considered an early silver age book, and no one would consider the classic Adam Strange series to be outside the norm for silver age hero books. Also in 1952 was a new Spirit series by FIction House.

1953 saw St. John’s Rocketman reprints (actually rewritten stories from Chesler Studios’ art of the previous decade) in the title Zip Jet. Late 1953 is where things heat up, with December of that year ushering in Atlas’ revamping of Young Men 24 featuring the Human Torch, Captain America and Submariner. During the next 9 months Atlas would not only produce 5 hero issues of Young Men, but turn Men’s Adventures into a companion book, and relaunch Torch, Cap and Subby in their own books, all lasting 3 issues, with Sub Mariner running till late 1955. Also debuting in Dec 1953 was Simon & Kirby’s (and Meskin’s) Capt 3 -D, arguably the first new hero created in the 1950s.

Late 1954 saw Charlton reprinting the Fox Blue Beetle in two issues of Space Adventures before giving him 4 issues of his own book the next year, with new material beginning in the 3rd issue. Farrell gave us #1 issues of Black Cobra, Phantom Lady, and Flame, mixing new material from the Iger Studio with reprint material . Also released in Nov 1954 was Capt Flash #1, another contender for first silver age title

Early 1955 produced two more titles from Farrell: Samson, and Wonderboy, both again, containing mixed new and reprinted material. Magazine Enterprises offered The Avenger (the first new hero to begin a title with code approval) and Strongman, and Mainlaine hit the stands with Simon and Kirby’s Fighting American. Harvey published Simon and Kirby Stuntman reprints in Thrills of Tomorrow, and Black Cat reprints in that heroine’s title.

All of this is well before John Jonzz’ beginnings in Detective 225, dated November 1955. Between then, and the September 1956 cover dated Showcase 4 with the first silver age Flash story we have two issues of Charlton’s Nature Boy, one issue of Tales of the Mysterious Traveler, and October 1956 gave us Atlas’ Yellow Claw #1, which would’ve been in preparation before Showcase 4 was distributed.

And this is just the hero books. the mid 1950s gave us a wide array of cop, western, scifi, fantasy, jungle, romance, teen, juvinile, movie/tv and humor books as well. Many publishers like Lev Gleason and Ace continued publishing new material and old packagers like Al Fago tried their hands at publishing, as did new companies. The first IW reprints were issued in 1958.

Mr Silver Age dismisses this time by saying nothing stuck, nothing brought the public back again, and indeed, the majority of these books lasted 3 or 5 issues, but during the 3 years before the accepted start of the silver age (Showcase 4) there was more new hero material in more titles by more publishers than during the 3 years following the official start. 17 titles by 6 publishers, not counting DC, Fawcett, or Quality. If this isn’t part of the Silver Age, what is it?

Even if you dismiss the majority: Rocketman, Marvel Boy, Capt America, Submariner, Human torch, Phantom Lady, Flame, Wonderboy, Black Cobra, Samson and Blue Beetle as being reworkings of earlier characters, even though they contained new material as early as late 1953, you still have a group of new characters created specifically for those times, and looking back they retain the character of those times. The new material created for those characters is easily discernable from the reprints of a decade earlier. The story themes are different, they are for a different audience and the art is, for the most part, different. The differences between a 1947 and a 1954 Blue Beetle or Phantom Lady are as great as those between a 1947 and 1954 Superman, Batman, or Blackhawk.

Captain 3-D is dismissed as a gimmick book, but nonetheless, it's new action hero material dated Dec 1953 and by Simon and Kirby to boot. Capt Flash #1 is dated Nov 1954, and has a look (lovely Mike Sekowski art) and story that are easily recognisible as silver age, as does Feb 1955’s Avenger 1 with scripts by Gardner Fox and art by Bob Powell. If that isn’t silver age i don’t know what is. Ditto the new S&K material in April 1955’s Fighting American #1. The art and story are much more like their obviously silver age Harvey work of later that decade or their Fly for Archie than their Captain America of only a little more than a decade previous. Even Charlton’s Nature Boy #1 of March 1956 is clearly a silver age comic released a full half year before Showcase 4, and #3, the last issue was published February 1957.

Mr Silver Age understands that these names, Platinum, Golden, Silver, Bronze, Tinfoil ages are given in hindsight. Nobody ever said in 1938 ‘OK, we got Superman, now it’s the golden age!’ and the golden age didn’t end in 1946, even though it started to end at that time, and a wave of books was cancelled or changed contents from hero to humor. The golden age didn’t really end in 1949 even though there was another wave of cancelations. As I’ve shown, there were many golden age heroes and adventure titles that lasted well into the 1950s and many golden age heroes were reworked during that time, and it was during that time that the first silver age books began to appear.

The ‘lost decade’ of the 1950s turns out to have been pretty interesting upon closer inspection. It’s here that you can see the last of the dull Neanderthals of the golden age coexist with their more clever cro magnon cousins of the silver age. If you look at the Simon and Kirby Fighting Americans and Captain 3-D next to the Simon packaged Harvey fantasy books, and Archie Fly and Shield, some of which Kirby is a collaborator on, next to the solo Kirby on Yellow Claw, Green Arrow and Challengers of the Unknown, and then the Lee and Kirby monster stuff or early Fantastic Four, they form an interesting whole. In no way are Capt 3 D and Fighting American any less sophisticated than their later counterparts.

The best of the 1950s esoteric material contains a handful of classics that still read well today. Marvel reprinted many of the Yellow Claw stories in the late 1960s, as well as some of the 1950s Cap, Torch and Subby stories in Fantasy Masterpieces. Fighting American was released in hardback. Bill Black is reprinting the very fine Capt Flash and Avenger series. Alfred Harvey reprinted some of Bob Powell’s Man in Black stories several years ago.


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