By Michelle Nolan
Many collectors love to tell stories of when they first encountered DC’s earliest Silver Age quarter comics during the 1960s. Kids instinctively knew they were getting a great deal.
When I began voraciously pillaging second-hand book stores for old comics in 1956 at age 8, I soon came to realize that the comics I was buying off the racks were something of an economic gyp.
I can’t remember the name of the first 52-pager (as those comics came to be known: 52 pages counting the covers) I found, but I think it was either a Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories or a Looney Tunes & Merrie Melodies with Dell’s cover blurb “52 Pages — All Comics!” Or maybe it was a DC with the classic cover box reading “A 52-Page Magazine.”
“Hmmmmm,” I’m pretty sure I must have remarked, since I had the genes for bargain hunting and frugality that have long since earned me the nickname Princess Penurious, “why are the comics I’m buying today only 36 pages including covers? That doesn’t seem fair.”
My loving parents, solid Eisenhower Republican businesspeople that they were, most likely said something like, “That’s just the way it is. Life isn’t always fair, even in the comic books. The publisher just wants to spend less to make more.”
The average kid would get it over it. I never did. Instead, I set about trying to figure it all out.
Now, be honest. Whether or not you have ever tried to figure out this economic stuff: If you like Golden Age comics, don’t you prefer getting a 52-pager (or more) to getting a 36-pager?
While I was forever duly noting the dates and identities of companies that published “big” comics — and being totally baffled why DC for a few years in the early 1950s published both 44-page and 36-page comics after the demise of the 52-pagers — I came across Superman Annual #1 in 1960.
This oversized gem — the first DC quarter comic book (other than the 1953 3-D Batman and Superman issues) since the 1944 Big All-American —— was also the first DC issue to thoroughly reprint and document a bit of history. In this case, it was not only stories, but also accurate cover images of the first issues of Superman, Superboy, Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen, and Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane.
I had never known what Superman #1 (Spr 39) looked like. I had yet to see the artistically rendered images of #25, #50, #75, and #100 portrayed on Superman #100. On the back cover of that wonderful Superman Annual #1, I was captivated by the image of Superman #1, which might as well have been published on Earth-2 for all the opportunity I would ever have to hold one! But wait — why would DC advertise “Pages of Action” on the cover of Superman #1? What sense did that make?
It made a lot of sense, if you were a DC executive and you ordered a cover touch because you didn’t want readers to see the full blurb as presented 21 years earlier: “64 Pages of Action.” After all, what’s the point of producing an 80-page (not counting covers) Superman Annual for a quarter, if you’re going to tell readers that 10¢ comics once contained 64 pages (not counting covers).
But — aha! — I figured it out! The clue: I had a coverless King Comics from 1940 with 64 pages! It took a few years, but my suspicions were confirmed when I first ogled a genuine copy of Superman #1: “64 Pages of Action.” It was proof that DC had been sensitive to the economics of the situation. Not only that, but DC had also taken off the “52-page” blurb on Superboy #1 when that cover image was reprinted.
Fast forward about five decades, and I have long finished collecting data and info on when and why most comics changed their page counts, thanks to the fabulous indexing work of the late Howard Keltner and Jerry Bails. At various points in the 1960s, when standard-sized comics had become 12¢ but still remained at 36 pages of content, I came to realize that there had been no consistency to page counts until the mid-1950s.
Well, there was some consistency. Almost all newsstand comic books were 68 pages (counting covers) until various points in 1943 (which ultimately became a huge part of their appeal to the first serious Golden Age collectors in the 1960s). World War II paper restrictions, along with manpower shortages (plus perhaps a desire to maximize profits), led almost all publishers to drop page counts to anywhere from 60 pages to 36 pages (counting covers) during the last two years of the war.
I’ve always wondered if comic-book readers cared much about this page-count business. Or even if they wondered about it. Pulp magazines also varied widely in page counts before, during, and after the war, but they also varied in price. For all I know, so did the slick magazines.
I do know most collectors cared about page counts in the 1960s and many of them still do — although quality matters, too. After all, the E.C. Comics of the 1950-1955 period were 36-pagers.
I started thinking about all this when comics historian Dan Stevenson recently found a copy of Blazing West #19 (Sep-Oct 51), a 36-page issue from the American Comics Group. Aside from the fact that this may be the only comic book ever published with a bear, a dog, a girl, and a masked hero astride a horse on the cover, there was something else that caught my eye.
The banner strip across the top — all ACG comics carried a banner strip — was blank! I had never seen a blank banner across an ACG comic book. At this point in the tiny company’s history, the banners on most of their titles said “Giant 52-Page Size! Buy No Less!” In fact, those words carried into 1952 on the ACG titles that still had 52 pages.
So, at the same time legendary ACG editor Richard Hughes was cautioning his readers to “buy no less!” than 52 pages, he began publishing Blazing West with 36 pages. The mind boggles! By the buy (pardon the pun!), Blazing West #17 (May-June 51) had the “Buy No Less!” banner. (#18 is the only issue I’m missing.)
There was a degree of consistency to the way most publishers shrunk their comics in the 1940s and 1950s. For example, Dell and Archie retained the 52-page size for their best-selling titles until points in 1954, but both companies had long since reduced to 36 pages titles they perceived as lesser. One would think they might have done the opposite, but apparently they worried that their best-sellers might slip in circulation if they were downsized.
Likewise, DC abandoned the 52-page format with comics dated in the autumn months of 1951 — except for Superman and Batman, which retained the 52-page format for another year. (Two decades later, DC returned to the 52-page size for a bit more than a year.) Such bestsellers as Action, Adventure, and Detective were cut only to 44 pages until about midway through 1954, while many others in the DC stable were immediately reduced to 36 pages.
I still can’t help wondering what had been the bigger shock: paying a dime for 52 pages one month in 1951, then for only 36 pages the next month — or plunking down a dime one month and 12¢ the next month a decade later.
As far as I know, Quality Comics reduced all its titles to 36 pages early in 1949, and so they remained until the company canceled or suspended 22 of its 30 titles (including all 14 of its romance titles) late in 1950. The eight titles that were not canceled — most notably Blackhawk, Plastic Man, Police Comics, and Doll Man — all briefly became 52 pages once again starting late in 1950. Blackhawk, by far Quality’s most successful title of the era, remained 52 pages for 12 full issues, from #33 (Oct 50) through #44 (Sep 52). By 1952, Quality once again had a full line of comics, but only Blackhawk was a 52-pager.
Fiction House briefly published 36-page issues during the paper-restricted years of 1945-46, then returned to 52 pages for several years. But beginning in 1949, following the appearance of Planet Comics #61 (Jul 49, the last 52-page issue of Planet), the firm gradually reduced all of its titles to 36 pages — a few in 1949, a few in 1950, and a few in 1951. The fabled firm’s two best-selling titles — the monthly Jumbo Comics featuring Sheena Queen of the Jungle and Jungle Comics featuring Tarzan knockoff K’a’anga — each remained 52 pages through the July 1951 issues, with Jumbo #149 and Jungle #139.
In contrast, Fawcett was all over the map, publishing either 36-pagers or 52-pagers in the late 1940s and early 1950s for most of its titles, until dropping to 36 pages for good with issues dated in mid-1951. Likewise, Timely issues also varied in size during the same period. In contrast, Lev Gleason (with the popular Crime Does Not Pay, Daredevil, Boy Comics, and Black Diamond plus others) finally ended its long-running 52-page consistency at just about the same time as DC.
In other words, there was pretty much utter chaos — from the standpoint of page counts — for a full decade until 1954, when the major publishers released the last of the 52-pagers and 44-pagers. Comic-book publishers generally figured that a “generation” of devoted readers was about six or seven years, so by 1960 they thought that the only DC readers who remembered 52-pagers or more were in high school or college. The only younger readers who knew about those hallowed bargains were budding historians and data nuts — like me.
So now you know why the cover reprint of Superman #1 did not tell you there were 64 pages of action. But you have to admit — it was pretty neat to buy a giant DC comic book for a quarter, right?