Saturday, March 6, 2021

American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1950s

American Comic Book Chronicles
The 1950s: 1950 - 1959
by Bill Schelly
TooMorrows Publishing, August 2013
My review of the volume for 1965-1969 is here.

My review for the volume for the 1970s is here.

My review for the volume for the 1980s is here.

My review for the volume for the 1990s is here.

'American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1950s' was published in August 2013 by TooMorrows Publishing. The 'Comic Book Chronicles' series, as of March 2021, now covers the entirety of the period from 1940 - 1999. Hopefully the volume dedicated to the 2000s will be forthcoming.

Speculators / bookjackers at are asking for over $400 for a 'like new' copy of this book, which is ridiculous. You can find it for $46.95 at the TooMorrows website.

As with the other volumes in the series, the 239 pages of 'The 1950s' are divided into chapters for each of the 10 years under consideration. Each year is provided with a timeline for important events in American history and comic book history. Callout sections are devoted to ancillary topics, such as black artists and writers; woman artists and writers; the birth of the Sgt. Rock character; wash tone covers; etc.

Bill Schelly is a prolific writer on the topic of comic books and pop culture, and in this volume he ably manages the task of being informative, but also entertaining. Rather than a checklist of issues, this book is a narrative designed to provide anecdotes and observations on the publishers, writers, artists, and readers of the world of comic books during the 1950s. 

You don't have to be a collector or archivist of the comic books of the 1950s to find lots of revelations in the pages of 'The 1950s'. I, for one, had no real understanding of the collapse of the Atlas / Marvel comics publishing business in 1957, when a bad business decision on Martin Goodman's part left his books without a distributor. Goodman secured a punitive distribution deal with Independent News, who also distributed DC's comics. 

Atlas went from issuing 30 - 40 titles a month to only 8, an arrangement that stayed in force until mid-1969. Stan Lee, who edited Atlas's comics line, was forced to curtail job assignments for many writers and artists. That Lee and Marvel were able to overcome the limitations of the distribution chokepoint and bring Marvel into popularity in the 1960s is one of the more remarkable comebacks in comic book history.

Needless to say, the story of the rise and fall of EC Comics gets considerable attention in 'The 1950s', as does the April, 1954 Senate hearings on the evils of comic books. Schelly makes clear the economic costs of the decision, in the wake of the hearings, to adopt the Comics Code Authority and abandon comics that appealed to older readers. In 1952, 3,150 titles were published; in 1955, about 2,350; and in 1959, around 1,500. 

One observation that readily emerges from the pages of 'The 1950s' is the prominent role of TV franchises, kiddy comics, and teen humor titles ('Archie') in leading sales throughout the decade. In today's comic book world superhero titles continue to get the greatest attention, because of their impact on movie and TV revenues, but in the 50s, it was 'Lil Audrey, Donald Duck, Dennis the Menace, and Sugar n' Spice that best weathered the downfall of the horror and crime comics in the wake of the Senate hearings.

The closing chapters of 'The 1950s' cover the advent of the Silver Age with the Summer 1956 release of Showcase No. 4 and its updating of the classic character The Flash. No one really knew it at the time, but the team of writers Robert Kanigher and John Broome and artist Carmine Infantino were remaking the genre. Schelly makes clear how the innovations in plot and art in this early Flash tale laid the foundation for the revolution in superhero comics that took place in the early 60s.

Summing up, like the other volumes in the series, 'American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1950s' will be of interest not only to those intrigued by comic books, but to anyone interested in the popular culture of the United States. 

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