Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books

Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books

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by Michael Barrier
     
 

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Funnybooks is the story of the most popular American comic books of the 1940s and 1950s, those published under the Dell label. For a time, “Dell Comics Are Good Comics” was more than a slogan—it was a simple statement of fact. Many of the stories written and drawn by people like Carl Barks (Donald Duck, Uncle Scrooge), John Stanley…  See more details below

Overview


Funnybooks is the story of the most popular American comic books of the 1940s and 1950s, those published under the Dell label. For a time, “Dell Comics Are Good Comics” was more than a slogan—it was a simple statement of fact. Many of the stories written and drawn by people like Carl Barks (Donald Duck, Uncle Scrooge), John Stanley (Little Lulu), and Walt Kelly (Pogo) repay reading and rereading by educated adults even today, decades after they were published as disposable entertainment for children. Such triumphs were improbable, to say the least, because midcentury comics were so widely dismissed as trash by angry parents, indignant librarians, and even many of the people who published them. It was all but miraculous that a few great cartoonists were able to look past that nearly universal scorn and grasp the artistic potential of their medium. With clarity and enthusiasm, Barrier explains what made the best stories in the Dell comic books so special. He deftly turns a complex and detailed history into an expressive narrative sure to appeal to an audience beyond scholars and historians.

Editorial Reviews

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - Ron Wolfe

"Comics historian Barrier sets off like Scrooge McDuck in search of gold. He pans out the criteria of artists including Walt Kelly, John Stanley and Carl Barks, and stakes a claim for their work as deserving the same respect as classic literature."
Wall Street Journal - Will Friedwald

"In 'Funnybooks,' Mr. Barrier, whose previous works include a history of the Hollywood animated film as well as an excellent biography of Walt Disney, has set out to write a business history of Dell Comics. . . . For his study, Mr. Barrier draws on interviews, archives and his own astute knowledge of comics."

Times Literary Supplement - Paul Gravett

"Barrier re-immerses himself in classic comic books and emerges impervious to nostalgia."
CHOICE - J. A. Lent

"Funnybooks is the crowning achievement of Barrier's illustrious career. . . . Written with clarity, expressiveness, and enthusiasm, this is a book for scholars, historians, practitioners, and fans old and new."

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780520241183
Publisher:
University of California Press
Publication date:
11/28/2014
Pages:
432
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

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Read an Excerpt

Funnybooks

The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books


By Michael Barrier

UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS

Copyright © 2015 Michael Barrier
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96002-2



CHAPTER 1

Mickey in a Magazine


The story of Western Printing's comic books, and thus of the unlikely triumphs of Carl Barks, Walt Kelly, John Stanley, and a few other cartoonists, began with a man of a very different sort: Hal Horne, a peripatetic publicist who from offices on Fifth Avenue in New York City published the first nine issues of Mickey Mouse Magazine.

That particular Mickey Mouse Magazine was actually the third publication to bear the title. The first two, in 1933 and then in 1933–35, were monthly promotional pamphlets, sixteen pages in digest size, about half the size of a standard comic book. The first issue of the third version—the first Disney newsstand periodical—was published in May 1935 and identified on its cover as a "summer quarterly." It was exceptionally large for such a magazine, more than ten inches wide and thirteen inches high, and it cost twenty-five cents, an imposing figure for a children's magazine in that Depression year.

The price fell to a dime with the second issue, dated October 1935, the first on a monthly schedule, and the dimensions shrank, too, by almost two inches on each side. With the March 1936 issue the page count fell from forty-four to thirty-six, including covers, and the trim size shrank a little further. Times were tough, and Horne's print orders for the first three issues of the new Mickey Mouse Magazine had turned out to be far too ambitious. He ordered three hundred thousand copies of each issue but sold fewer than half. Horne scaled back subsequent print orders, but sales continued to decline. The problem was certainly not the very popular Disney characters, but rather the magazine's non-Disney content.

One author of that content was Irving Brecher, who in 1935 was a young gag man for what he called "the cheapest form of human life, small-time vaudevillians." He then became one of Horne's two "associate editors" for Mickey Mouse Magazine and wrote what he described many years later as "stories with wit in them that were amusing only to grown-ups." He invoked college humor magazines in describing his work, no doubt having in mind stories like "Frank Verywell in College by Horatio Algebra" in the May 1936 issue.

Mickey Mouse Magazine's level of inspiration was as low as that title suggests. The magazine offered a conventional mixture of short stories, poems, puzzles, and drawings, but the drawings, including those of the Disney characters, were often weak and even amateurish, the jokes lame, the stories pedestrian. Mickey Mouse Magazine was peculiar competition for the leading children's magazine of the day, the sober and literary St. Nicholas: The Magazine of Youth.

The strongest echoes throughout the magazine were of Hal Horne's gag file. Over the years, Horne had accumulated a huge file of around six million jokes on three-by-five-inch cards (along with magazine cartoons on larger cards), housed in several rooms in a New York office building. Horne rented selections from his gag file to a range of clients identified as "comic strip artists, stage, screen, and radio comedians, playwrights, columnists, governors, senators, house organs and advertising agencies." As to the nature of the gags in the file, there is a clue in Hap Lee's Radio Joke Book: Famous Gags of Radio Stars (1935), since "Hap Lee" was a Hal Horne pseudonym. A sample (setting aside the all too abundant racist and misogynist material):

"Young man, take your hands off my daughter's knee!" "Excuse me, sir, I was just going to say what a nice joint you have here!"


Everything in the book is generally similar.

Horne had connected with Walt Disney himself as director of advertising and publicity for United Artists (UA), the movie company that began distributing the Disney animated cartoons in 1932. In that role, he was identified as "editor" of the two giveaway versions of Mickey Mouse Magazine. On July 24, 1935, as the New York Times reported, Horne announced his resignation from UA to "organize and head a new advertising and publicity company in New York." By then, though, a new company called Hal Horne Inc. had been in existence for some time. Its name was on the first issue of the new Mickey Mouse Magazine, which actually appeared a couple of months before Horne resigned from UA.

As subsequent events were to show, Hal Horne Inc.'s financial foundations were fragile, and Disney, fearful of that, may have shopped the new version of the magazine to more established publishers before deciding to leave it with Horne. Years later, Ned L. Pines, who published a line of pulp magazines before becoming a publisher of comic books, said that "Walt Disney's magazine was offered to us for publication" in 1934. Pines turned it down.

Hal Horne was from all appearances an exceedingly restless and intense man, someone who, in Motion Picture Daily's words, "burned up the track as an exploiter and theatre operator" before he joined UA in 1931 and began "attacking his new job ... with characteristic vigor." His intensity did not translate into success as publisher of a Disney magazine. In a December 27, 1935, letter, Horne lamented to Roy O. Disney, Walt's brother and business manager, that the magazine "to date ... has cost me a terrific amount of heartaches and exactly $50,000, all of which seems such a crime when you consider the magazine has been loved by those who have read it." Roy was sympathetic. In February 1936 he wrote to Horne that he was "more concerned now with saving you from a loss than with trying to get any revenue from the magazine." Accordingly, he authorized Horne to publish the magazine on "a non-royalty basis" for the rest of the year.

Horne published Mickey Mouse Magazine for only a few more months, through the June 1936 issue, with sales declining almost every month. In early June, as the July 1936 issue went to press, Horne surrendered the magazine to a new publisher. He then became a producer for RKO Radio Pictures, which Walt and Roy Disney had chosen as their cartoons' new distributor three months earlier. In August 1936 Horne sold his "gag library" to Walt Disney for twenty thousand dollars, for use by the writers of the Disney animated cartoons and comic strips. They received it with a predictable lack of enthusiasm. Buying the library was probably, at least in part, Disney's way of compensating Horne for his losses on Mickey Mouse Magazine.

Herman "Kay" Kamen, a former Kansas City, Missouri, advertising man, succeeded Horne as Mickey Mouse Magazine's publisher. Kamen, in charge of Disney's licensing efforts since July 1932, was an energetic and resourceful businessman who had talked himself into a deal in which he and Disney split the proceeds from licensing the Disney cartoon characters to other companies. Kamen delivered on that deal, spectacularly, by traveling incessantly and licensing Mickey Mouse and other characters to hundreds of manufacturers. The official total, when Mickey Mouse Magazine began publication in May 1935, was 230.

Kamen had been based in New York since 1932, so there were no geographic obstacles to his taking charge of Mickey Mouse Magazine. Moreover, by 1935 there were in Kamen's offices, as the New York Times reported, "workrooms where Disney artists, trained in the technique of the Hollywood studio, draw the countless pictures used in Mickey's commercial undertakings." Whatever that meant, exactly— there is scant evidence in Mickey Mouse Magazine of 1936–37 of successful training in how to draw the Disney characters—Kamen at least had plenty of people available to fill the magazine's pages. But despite his success in licensing the Disney characters, Kamen was no more successful as a magazine publisher than Horne had been. Success for a Disney magazine would come only when that magazine became a comic book, but in 1937 that was not a conclusion that anyone connected with Mickey Mouse Magazine had yet reached.

Disney comics of a sort, self-contained gag pages with dialogue balloons, appeared sporadically starting with Mickey Mouse Magazine's first issue, but when the magazine began reprinting full-color Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonies Sunday pages, as of the July 1937 issue, they stood apart from the rest of the contents by virtue of their crisp professionalism. That issue was also the first since the very first one, in 1935, to have half its pages in full color, and it was the first to be published not by Kay Kamen Ltd. but by a new corporation that borrowed Kamen's initials: K.K. Publications.

K.K.'s address was the same as that of the Kamen firm, 1270 Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, but there was a signal of major change in the fine print that identified the magazine's owners and its status with the post office. There was now "additional entry at Poughkeepsie, N.Y."—that is, authorization to mail the magazine from that city eighty-five miles north of Manhattan in the Hudson Valley. Poughkeepsie had become the site in October 1934 of Western Printing & Lithographing Company's first plant outside its home base of Racine, Wisconsin, on Lake Michigan. Western was by then already a leading publisher of children's books, and in 1937 it was on the verge of also becoming a publisher of children's magazines—comic books included.

Western traced its origins to September 1907, when Edward Henry Wadewitz, a son of German immigrants and the twenty-nine-year-old bookkeeper for a Racine ship chandlery, bought the West Side Printing Company, a struggling basement print shop. The purchase price almost equaled what the print shop owed Wadewitz in fees for the bookkeeping services he had provided in his spare time. Wadewitz knew nothing about printing, but he wanted a business of his own, and within a year he took on a partner, Roy A. Spencer, who was an experienced printer. The company—incorporated as Western Printing & Lithographing in August 1910, after the addition of lithographic presses—grew steadily until by 1914 it occupied a six-story building in Racine.

Western entered book publishing on February 9, 1916. As the chief creditor of a failed Chicago publisher named Hamming-Whitman, it acquired all of Hamming-Whitman's assets, including its unsold books and the Whitman name. Later that month, Western set up Whitman Publishing Company as a subsidiary and began manufacturing and selling its own juvenile books.

By the 1930s, Western was producing not only children's books under the Whitman name, but also dozens of titles for other publishers. It was, besides, a leading producer of playing cards, games, and greeting cards, as well as being a large-volume commercial printer. In 1934, as a company publication said, Western was "looking for a site in the East, preferably within 100 miles of New York City, primarily to better and more economically serve the very substantial eastern markets." Western found what it wanted in Poughkeepsie: an empty 125,000-square-foot building on the Albany Post Road. The new plant had been built twenty-five years earlier to make Fiat automobiles when that Italian company was trying to establish itself in the American market.

When K.K. Publications came into existence in 1937, there was already a strong link between Western and Disney. Western was one of the earliest licensees for Disney books—an association that had its beginnings on April 19, 1933, when Samuel E. Lowe of Whitman wrote to Walt Disney. He explained that Whitman had just launched the Big Little Books, chubby little books that fit in the palm of a child's hand and told their stories through text and drawings on facing pages. Lowe sent Disney the first two, which were based on the popular comic-strip characters Dick Tracy and Little Orphan Annie. (The drawings were taken from the comic strips and the text adapted from the dialogue balloons.) He wrote: "Dick Tracy came out about two or three weeks before Christmas [1932], and we have printed over six hundred thousand of these books. Orphan Annie has been out about five weeks and we have printed over six hundred thousand. In the case of Dick Tracy we are already publishing a second book and we are planning to do the same with Orphan Annie.... We wonder if it is possible to get the right to Mickey Mouse in a book of this kind, which is different than anything already published."

Roy Disney's response was positive—with sales figures like those in Lowe's letter, it was unlikely to be otherwise—and later in 1933 Whitman published its first two Disney books—a Mickey Mouse coloring book and a Big Little Book, titled simply Mickey Mouse, that reworked a 1931 episode, "Mickey Mouse and the Gypsies," from the Mickey Mouse comic strip. Before long, Western was producing all the Disney-licensed books, whether they were published by Whitman or some other company. In 1937, two and a half years after the opening of Western's Poughkeepsie plant, its close relationship with Disney found additional expression in K.K. Publications and Mickey Mouse Magazine.

In a 1979 memorandum, Howard Anderson, who was working for Kay Kamen in 1937 and later became Western Printing's executive vice president and chief financial officer, recalled K.K. Publications' genesis:

K.K. Publications, Inc., came into existence in April 1937 for the purpose of taking over the publication of the Mickey Mouse Magazine.... [I]t was owned 60 percent by Kay Kamen, Ltd., and 40 percent by E. H. Wadewitz....

When K.K. Publications, Inc., was formed Western took over the printing of the magazine. In mid-1938 the subscription promotion and fulfillment function was moved from Kay Kamen's office in New York to Western's plant at Poughkeepsie.

The Mickey Mouse Magazine (circulation 45,000) continued to be published by K.K. Publications, Inc., until the fall of 1940. It was not a profitable venture and it was decided that a change in format was necessary. In September 1940 it was decided that Western, through K.K. Publications, Inc., would take over the entire ownership. The 60 percent of the capital stock in K.K. Publications, Inc., which had been owned by Kay Kamen, Ltd., was transferred to two other individual Westerners, R. S. Callender and F. J. Leyerle, thus putting 100 percent ownership within Western. At the same time it was decided to discontinue the Mickey Mouse Magazine and in its place a new publication, namely Walt Disney's Comics and Stories, was born.


Assuming Anderson's circulation figure is correct, Mickey Mouse Magazine's sales had continued to slide since Hal Horne's departure—a slide that may have been all the more galling because a new and competing children's magazine, Curtis Publishing's Jack and Jill, was proving to be far more successful. In June 1939, eight months after Jack and Jill's launch, Curtis claimed that monthly circulation had risen to 125,000, at a cover price of twenty-five cents, the same as the fading St. Nicholas, versus Mickey Mouse Magazine's dime. In light of such a marketplace defeat, converting Mickey Mouse Magazine to a comic book might have seemed like an obvious and appealing response. But by mid-1939, two years after reprinted Disney comic strips began appearing in the magazine, they had never established much more than a toehold, usually taking up only five pages. Despite the occasional ballyhooing of the comic strips on the cover of the magazine, there was always the sense that its editors begrudged the pages given to them.

Mickey Mouse was listed facetiously as editor on the magazine's masthead, but the real editor by the fall of 1938, as identified in an annual statement required by the U.S. Post Office, was Lily Duplaix. She was the wife of Georges Duplaix, a French artist who had worked for the Artists & Writers Guild, a whimsically named Western Printing subsidiary, from around the time it opened its doors in Manhattan in 1935. The Artists & Writers Guild—which was in no sense a true guild—packaged children's books for other publishers, thereby generating printing work for Western. By the time Georges Duplaix became its director in 1940, the Guild was making a serious effort to drive down the prices of such books, to increase their sales and take advantage of the Poughkeepsie printing plant's economies of scale. Western's price cutting bore fruit most spectacularly in the Little Golden Books, priced at twenty-five cents each when Simon & Schuster first offered them in 1942. In Leonard Marcus's words, "It soon became clear that, at twenty-five cents, millions of parents would take a chance ... by purchasing Little Golden Books not just one at a time but by the handful."

Such mass-market books were, along with the children's books that Western published under its own Whitman label, regarded with distaste or worse by most other trade publishers, by traditional booksellers, and especially by librarians. Those people had even less use for comic books. Mickey Mouse Magazine's gingerly handling of its comic-strip content amounted to a sort of confession that giving the comics more prominence really would doom the magazine, and thus the people associated with it, to permanent pariah status.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Funnybooks by Michael Barrier. Copyright © 2015 Michael Barrier. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author


Michael Barrier is the author of Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age and The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney. He is also coeditor (with Martin Williams) of A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics and coauthor (with Harvey Kurtzman) of From Aargh! to Zap! Harvey Kurtzman’s Visual History of the Comics.

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