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The History of Comics, Including Women. The Era of Diversification

The History of Comics, including Women, continues with the Era of Diversification. This is an era where Superheroes falter and other types of comics shine, like funny animals (Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories from Dell), youngsters (Archie), crime comics (Dell’s Dick Tracy). Now we have Superheroes, funny animals, romance comics, westerns, crime comics… While Dell set up to print Walt Disney’s Comics in 1940, 1941 is the year in which the most famous teenager of all times saw the light: Archie. His success was so staggering that he’s still published today.

Surprisingly, it was a team of two men created Young Romance #1. Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created romance comics back in 1947, a genre that reached its popularity in the 50s. (Of course, this would be what men thought women would like to see in the pages of a comic.)

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Young Romance #1 (Sept. 1947)

Western comics were also hot from 1948. Although breathtaking started back in the 1930s, it was in this time, thanks to media (think about all those Western movies that were famous back in the day). Soon, DC started to capitalize on the Western craze and transformed one of their Superhero title “All-Star Comics” into “All-Star Western.”

However, it seems that crime comics had more attention. Dick Tracy saw the light in 1948 under Dell. However, by this year, there were many groups across the US that wanted to ban comics. In some towns, people held public comics burnings to exorcise entire communities. In this environment, William Gaines, an American comic book publisher, among other publishers created the Association of Comics Magazine Publishers in July 1948 (ACMP). But, the ACMP faded away soon. According to Parents Magazine February 1950, 70% of comics contained objectionable material. And so, the heat around comics endured.

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(C) EC, Crypt of Terror #17

William Gaines inherited Entertaining Comics, aka EC Comics, in 1947. So, he replaced titles like “Animal Fables” for new titles like “Crime Patrol” and “Saddle Justice.” However, Gaines is better known for creating Crypt of Terror (later named: “Tales from the Crypt“) along with editor-writer-artist Al Feldstein in 1950. Other titles would include the Vault of Horror, the Haunt of Fear, Weird Fantasy, Crime SupenStories, Weird Science, etc.

EC created a fame for horror and gore. Readers loved the series so much that they even produced the first fanzines! However, by 1954 it was clear that things couldn’t go smoothly forever. By that time, many articles against comics had appeared in magazines, but it was “Seduction of the Innocent,” by Fredric Wretham, published in 1954 that made the final blow to comics. Even though his research was deeply flawed, this is the book that turned comics into weapons stating that they were one of the causes for so much juvenile delinquency.

So, the Spring of 1954 Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency in the US started to held hearings and called as a witness Doctor Wertham and Gaines. The clash was evident: while Wertham would state that the violence in comics was the primary cause of all evils, Gaines would not stop publishing his gory (and very lucrative) stories. While most publishers admitted that comics should be better suited for children, Gaines stayed defiant. No one would touch his Crypt!

The conclusions of the subcommittee were devastating: US kids were fed crime and horror through comics, and so they had to be eliminated. Media jumped on the wagon and started to say that comics were bad for children.

That’s why on October 25, 1954, the Code of the Comics Magazine Associaton of America established a conduct code for publishers. This was made by publishers: they were creating a self-regulatory Code of rules. Dell, DC and Archie had no problems because they were already creating unobjectionable material. Thus, they took this opportunity to eliminate competitors, especially those specializing in crime and horror (poor Gaines!)

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Dale Messick’s Brenda Starr

And in all this mess, what did female comic book creators do? As we’ve already seen, almost from the beginning of comics, comic book companies were employing women. For example, Tarpe Mills was producing on of the best action strips of the 1940s: “Daredevil Barry Finn.” The villain of this story tries to sell Hitler and Mussolini an invention to prevent the US from interfering. Finn ha the help of his friend Joan Hart, a young woman that looked like Mills. She used this heroine to later create her super hit “Miss Fury.”

Dale Messick created a strong heroine called “Brenda Starr.” She was a redhead, with sparkly eyes, and a badass reporter. Messick had submitted a sample strip to Captain Joseph Patterson, the publisher of the New York Daily News, but he rejected it. Mollie Scott, later president and manager of the Chicago Tribune- New York Syndicate, found the samples and hired her when Patterson died two years later (in 1948). Messick was creating a badass character, an action comic. She wasn’t fully accepted by her male peers and resisted joining the “National Cartoonists Society.”

Why was all this negativity towards Messick? Women had been creating comics from the beginning, but these comics were considered “women stuff” like cute animals or children. However, Messick’s Brenda Starr was an action comic: she was trespassing men’s territory! That’s why she met so many resistance and negativity from the industry.

Thanks to Messick’s Brenda Starr, other action heroines appeared in comics. A year later, Wonder Woman, would be a hit. Wonder Woman was created by psychologist William Moulton Marston and artist Harry G.Peter back in December 1941, and first appeared in “All Star Comics.” She would be a major superhero in comics, but, she needed 45 years of wait to see a woman depict her professionally!

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Tarpe Mills’ Miss Fury

However, Wonder Woman wasn’t the first female Superhero to appear in comics.

In April 1941, Tarpe Mills’ Miss Fury was published (8 months prior the appearance of Wonder Woman). Mills had been creating several strips in 1938. However, to live happily in the medium, followed Messick’s steps: she changed her name to a sexually ambiguous one. The problem: her gender didn’t stay secret for long. Miss Fury lasted until 1951.

Women were dressing their heroines in cool clothing. In men’s strips, fashion was dull. But women were creating amazing fashion shows on comic book pages. Miss Fury and Brenda Starr had an excellent array of fashion from the 1940s.

So, if women wanted to draw action strips, they had to use male pseudonyms. Otherwise, they would be in deep trouble. Lots of women had to do so to work in the medium: Mabel Burk was Odin Burvik. She was hired as an assistant to cartoonist Coulton Waugh, and by 1944 she had taken his strip “Dickie Dare” (and married him).

By 1942, when the US had gone to war, most of the men drawing comics were drafted or had volunteered, leaving their jobs to women. Despite this, few women drew Superheroes. There were only two exceptions in the industry:

  1. Ramona (Pat) Patenaude (early 1940s): Blue Beetle, V-Man, The Green Falcon, Dr. Fung, The Vision.
  2. Peggy Zangerle (1948): Doc Savage, Red Dragon.
  3. There were, however, wartime heroine titles, like “Yankee Girl” by Ann Brewster; “Blonde Bomber” and “Girl Commandos” by Jill Elgin (1942 to 1945) and Barbara Hall (1941 to 1943). We can find other great examples, like Eva Mirabal, a real-life WAC (Women’s Army Corps) and probably the only professional Native American female cartoonist, drew “G.I. Gertie, while stationed in Ohio Wright Field.

    Fiction House, a publisher that hired more women than any other publisher during the 1940s, hired Jerry Iger & Will Eisner to create The Spirit. Fiction House had six titles containing stories with strong female protagonists. Many women who drew them were: Jean Levander, Fran Hopper, Ann Brewster, Lily Renée, Marcia Snyder and Ruth Atkinson.

    Fran Hopper started working at Fiction House in June 1942. She started fisxing mistakes, adding backgrounds, etc. Soon she made her first strip about a jungle heroine: Camilla. She also drew: Galle Allen & Her all Girl Squadron and Mysta of the Moon. From 1945 she was also freelancing for Timely Comics (Stan Lee was the editor) drawing Patsy Walker among other titles.

    Lily Renée Wilheim Philips was drawing covers for Fiction House. She was a Jewish refugee who had escaped Nazi Germany when she was a teenager. Her art was very beautiful, inspired in art nouveau. She’s best known for “the Lost World.”

    Remember that these women were drawing comics, but not writing them. Shile comic strips (newspapers) were usually written and drawn by the same person; the comic book industry was using the shop system, in-house artists and writers, and freelancers. So, different people were working on the same comic.

    Ruth Roche was the first major writer at Fiction House. She used ROd Roche as a pseudonym at times. She worked for other companies as well and wrote many comics.

    When the war ended, women in every industry were encouraged to give their jobs to men who were returning home. Women had been working in comics since 1901; men took back almost all the comics, especially action comics. By 1951, when Miss Fury ended, Brenda Starr was the only adventure strip that starred a woman and was drawn by a woman. Dark ages were here to stay for a while.

    Next: we’ll know what happens to the Code Authority, and find out what the Era of Retrenchment meant for comics.

    What we’ve learned so far:

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  • It is sad to see how there was an uptick in female drawn comics and slowly it came crashing down after the WWII. I hope the next post is positive!!!

    • Well…. I must admit we have to wait till the 60s…… 😮