Was 1960 Comic-Book Time? (Beautiful Balloons, CBG #1671, Nov 2010)

Maggie ThompsonJust as I’m writing this installment of Beautiful Balloons, Beloit College in Wisconsin is releasing its “Mindset List,” designed to demonstrate to “old people” just how the world is different from when they were “young people.” (www.beloit.edu/mindset/)
(A Google expedition can turn up the 2010 list; if the search includes “monkey see,” you’ll find a snarky questioning of the Beloit project that should provide a laugh or two. But I do digress.)
I had already been struck by something I’d turned up as I prepared the “Flashbacks” (our regular peek at the evolution of our world of comics) for the last couple of issues.
Last month (page 66 of CBG #1670), I noted for Sept. 3-5, 1960, “At the Pittcon (18th World Science Fiction Convention), with an attendance of 568 fans and pros in Pittsburgh, Dick and Pat Lupoff hand out the first issue of Xero, containing the first installment of ‘All in Color for a Dime’.”

1960

Half a century. Gee.
The next month 50 years ago, the evolution took its next steps to emerge from the ocean of popular culture. You can look at the “Flashbacks” feature in this issue of CBG — and see those steps noted. Because this is how things stood in 1960: A couple of months earlier [remember that issue dates for comics precede the dates they’re on sale], DC had released its first Silver Age annual (25¢) with Superman Annual #1 featuring 80 pages of reprints. Four years earlier, DC had begun the Silver Age with Showcase #4. By this point, then, DC had re-imagined, not only The Flash (including a dozen issues in his own title) — but also Green Lantern (including a couple of issues of his own title). On the other hand, Marvel was still a year away from reintroducing such Golden Age concepts as Plastic Man (in the form of Mr. Fantastic), Invisible Scarlet O’Neil (in the form of Invisible Girl) and The Human Torch (in the form of, well, The Human Torch).
But something was in the air in 1960.
It was Comic-Book Time.

Pittcon

You’ll find in this issue’s Flashbacks (page 66) what occurred following the Pittcon event.
Oh, but wait a minute. Let’s revisit Pittcon for a minute.
Keep in mind that, with its 568 attendees, Pittcon was the biggest science-fiction event of that year. As long as we’re peeking out of the WABAC machine (which we can do because Peabody’s Improbable History had begun the year before on Rocky & His Friends), we can note that 568 was an acceptable average attendance for the annual event. (Though larger cons had been on both Coasts and in Chicago.) Hugo Award winners at the con included Robert Heinlein (for Starship Troopers) and Daniel Keyes (for “Flowers for Algernon”). While there’s a bunch of data online concerning the event, what I have not been able to locate since is a schedule of events. That’s why my ongoing question remains: Was the banquet held before or after the convention’s costume competition?
Because at the convention we didn’t see the Lupoffs’ Xero #1 (which they distributed at the con). We didn’t know it contained a wonderful nostalgic article on Fawcett’s Captain Marvel comics; we only learned about it later from friend and magazine dealer Bill Thailing. (At which point, we did send for Xero and received a copy.) What we saw at the con was their entry in the costume competition: They went as Captain and Mary Marvel.



Dick Lupoff, Pat Lupoff

When Pat and Dick Lupoff appeared as Mary and Captain Marvel at the 1960 World Science Fiction Convention, they helped bring on comic-book time.


Is that why a bunch of us at the banquet (Hal Lynch, Bill Thailing, Don, and I) started to talk about comic books?
Or did the banquet happen first — and it was simply that autumn 1960 was “Comic-Book Time”?


Whichever the instigating factor happened to be, as we sat at the banquet table at Pittcon, a bunch of us talked about how much fun it was to attend an annual science-fiction convention, where we could meet the people who wrote and drew and edited the entertainment we enjoyed so much.
And … pause for effect here … we talked about how much fun it might be to have an event like this about comics.
Who writes comics? (We already knew that, for example, SF writer Ed Hamilton had written comics stories anonymously for DC.) Who draws them? (Artists for the E.C. line signed their work — so we’d begun to recognize a few styles — but who was “The Good Artist” who drew the stories about Uncle Scrooge McDuck in stories signed “Walt Disney”?) How did these pros work? Where did they work? Could we meet them? Talk to them? Tell them how much enjoyment they’d given us?
After the event was over, our questions didn’t go away. We talked about them with Bill; we corresponded with Hal. If you did have a comics fandom, what would you call it? “Fandom,” after all, meant “science-fiction fandom.” Hal cautioned, tongue in cheek, that we didn’t want to call it “comdom.”
And so our conversations went.

We can do it ourselves

And, as you see in Flashbacks, the next month — with Don working at the Cleveland Press and me ensconced in my freshman year at Oberlin College — we figured we’d try our hand at communicating with like-minded folks to see what we could put together. We could use the mimeograph that Oberlin made available to students, and my dad had taught me how to cut mimeograph stencils. (There’s a skill you don’t see every day in 2010.)
And Don and I produced and mailed copies of Harbinger #1, a self-described “sighting shot, published in hopes of reaching as many potential supporters of and contributors to Comic Art as possible.” (You can read it at www.maggiethompson.com.)
There were mighty few basic books on the topic at the time. In fact, there were only three good reference books: Martin Sheridan’s Comics and their Creators (1942), Coulton Waugh’s The Comics (1947), and Stephen Becker’s Comic Art in America (1959). And Becker devoted more space to sports cartoons than to comic books.
It wasn’t until five years later that Jules Feiffer’s wonderful anthology The Great Comic Book Heroes was published. And, of course, it was five years after that that Arlington House published the collected essays in All in Color for a Dime. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

In October 1960, we began to plan how to spread the word that we were going to circulate an amateur magazine devoted to comics. We mailed 50 copies of Harbinger in January 1961. And we produced 75 copies of Comic Art #1 in the spring of 1961.



Comic Art #1 cover

I drew the cover of Comic Art #1, which we mailed to science-fiction fans and comics professionals in the spring of 1961.


Contents included an article by Dick Lupoff describing how he and Pat had come to include a comic-book article in the first issue of their science-fiction fanzine. (Xero went on to win a Hugo Award for best fanzine of the year in 1963.) He described the costumes: “The night of the costume ball, Pat and I showed up in our costumes: hastily devised Captain Marvel and Mary Marvel outfits. Mine was made from a set of long underwear and hers was nothing but a man’s red T-shirt emblazoned with felt lightning, plus a yellow sash. They were extremely popular costumes. Everyone from Doc Smith on down wanted to take our pictures. Why? … The only conclusion that can be drawn is that it was not us, nor our costumes themselves, that were popular. It was Captain Marvel and Mary Marvel, momentarily embodied in us, that drew the admiration and applause.” He continued, “Further, ‘All in Color’ has been the most letter-provoking feature of Xero, numerous people have requested copies, specifying that their motive is to obtain the comics articles, and if all the authors currently committed to write for the series come through with articles, the series will run well into 1962 before material runs out.”




Don Thompson, Maggie Thompson, 1961

Don and I had published and mailed Comic Art #1 a couple of months before we worked on my bike in the summer of 1961.



Other Comic Art #1 contents included quotations about comics, such as one from Gershon Legman’s 1949 book Love & Death, A Study in Censorship: “That the publishers, editors, artists and writers of comic-books are degenerates and belong in jail goes without saying; but what makes millions of adolescents willing to accept degeneracy too?” And the full text of the code of the Comics Magazine Association of America Inc.: “All elements or techniques not specifically mentioned herein, but which are contrary to the spirit and intent of the Code, and are considered violations of good taste or decency, shall be prohibited.”
Don introduced our publication and its goals. “I’m not completely happy with this issue; it’s too short and deals almost exclusively with comic books — I’d like to run material dealing with other facets of comic art, particularly comic strips. Watch for articles on Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby, Leonard Starr’s On Stage, Stan Lynde’s Rick O’Shay and Milton Caniff’s Steve Canyon, among others. If you have a favorite strip, how about doing an article on it?”
You can get an idea from this just how new to the world of comics we were. Like so many others, we’d been accumulating comic books for years, keeping some of what we’d bought, picking up an occasional back issue at thrift shops, and occasionally keeping a clipping here or there, when a magazine or newspaper carried a feature on something in which we were interested.


Maggie Thompson, Don Thompson, 1962, marriage

We had written more about comics by June 1962, when our fan activity became simplified. (We got married.)


Like so many other comics collectors in 1961, we didn’t know many others who were similarly accumulating material. [Let me pause here to tip the Thompson topper to a man named David Pace Wigransky. When it comes to devotees of the art form, he was in there following the field from the time he was a kid. At age 14, he even wrote a defense of comics in response to a Fredric Wertham article in The Saturday Review of Literature. (Wigransky’s letter appeared in the July 24, 1948 issue.) In the 1960s, learning of the Lupoffs’ interests, he sent them a box containing something like 9 cubic feet of clippings and other reference material he’d saved over the years. The Lupoffs gave the box to us. And (after removing some material for our own use) we passed the remainder on to Bill Blackbeard and the San Francisco Academy of Comic Art. By now, it is part of the Ohio State University comics collection, which we hope would have pleased Wigransky. According to Michael T. Gilbert in Alter Ego years later, Wigransky wrote a book on Al Jolson (Jolsonography) in 1969 and died that year.]
What we were doing in 1961 caught on enough that we had to increase our circulation to 125 when we sent out Comic Art #2 in August that year. But part of what was catching on was contact with people who’d been working on their own comics-connected publication.


 


Maggie Thompson, Dick Lupoff, Pat Lupoff, Comic Art #6

Fans often worked together to get the job done. Dick and Pat Lupoff helped collate and staple Comic Art #6 when we visited their home in 1966. Thanks again, guys!


Speaking of Alter Ego


While those of us in science-fiction fandom had had the benefit of decades of established communication methods, people new to those methods were finding their own way.
Wikipedia calls Alter Ego put together by Jerry Bails and Roy Thomas “one of the earliest superhero comics fanzines,” but that’s just being cautious. Alter Ego was the first such, far’s I know. Produced via spirit duplicator (rather than the mimeographed method the Lupoffs and we used), Alter Ego was the first concerted effort (Spring 1961) to increase a comics-fan publication’s circulation. Jerry and Roy reached out to current comics readers — and those readers responded. We asked Jerry in 1976 for more information on himself. He wrote, “In 1934 they stuck a 10¢ sticker on me and put me up for sale. Wore a Superman sweatshirt at 7, dyed it blue, along with a sugar sack. Stole my sis’ blue petticoat and with a pair of scissors made myself a Batman costume for Halloween.” Thanks to Jerry and Roy, the world of comics fandom began to expand.

Footnotes

• Those who were around Back in the Day are correct to note that there had been a few scattered earlier amateur publications with comics connections. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster even began their work together as science-fiction-fanzine publishers, and E.C. comics inspired its own universe of aficionados. But I’m talking in “Comic-Book Time” about a fandom with an unbroken growth from its inception to today.
• The Lupoffs didn’t win the “Best Group” costume competition at Pittcon. Mom, Dad, my sister Mary, Don, and I did — in Mom-crafted “Five Fannish Senses” garb. Just saying.
• Let’s remember to pay tribute again to DC Editor Julius Schwartz, who maintained letters columns complete with names and addresses so that fans who didn’t already know each other could communicate. In fact, it was Julie who loaned Jerry Bails copies of Xero as an example of what Alter Ego could be.
• As we wrote in Comics Feature #9, two decades after those formative years: “The majority of the comics fans [of the early 1960s] was not the SF fans who were also interested in comics art. It was not the critics of political cartoons, animated cartoons, strips, funny animals, satire, and the like. It was, by and large, fans of comic-book super-heroes. Or, as Jerry Bails once said to us, ‘If the character has a mask and a cape, then I’m interested.’ … It was the thrust of comics fandom in its infancy; it was comic-book super-hero fandom.”

 


Leonard Darvin, Don Thompson

The world of comics fandom grew slowly. It took a while for its conventions to grow enough to approximate what we'd seen for science fiction. It wasn't until John Benson's 1966 event in New York City that the Comics Code's Leonard Darvin (above left) debated Don (above right), and I could talk face-to-face with Maurice Horn and Gil Kane (below).



Maurice Horn, Gil Kane, Maggie Thompson

From left: Maurice Horn, Gil Kane, Maggie Thompson



Dell Checklist

With little information available on the world of comics in 1961, we began projects to provide it. That was the year we wrote (without success) to Dell to try to identify its Four Color line. We were finally able to publish the list in 1968.



Maggie Thompson, Don Thompson, Taia, Ibis

Geeks? Us? We went as Fawcett's Taia and Ibis when we attended the 1962 World Science Fiction Convention. (That year, the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society attended as The Justice Society of America. You'll learn more about their participation in CBG #1672.) Oh, and it should be pointed out that we only went in costume to the actual masquerades at conventions. The rest of the time, our comic-centric activities were more focused on collecting and writing about comic books -- and comic strips and magazine cartoons and so on.


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