The History of Comics, Including Women. The Era of Proliferation (Part 1)
The History of Comics, including Women, continues with the Era of Proliferation, a productive time for comics, but a depressive one for the economy. In the Era of Invention part 2 we discovered all about frivolous flapper girls. However, the Depression would have no place for them. In a time, of restriction and harsh economic conditions for many, the need for hope was enormous. America was facing the organized crime that came from the 1920s, but it was the crash of the Black Tuesday of October 29, 1929, that created the massive catastrophe. Millions of dollars were lost, many people committed suicide, crime rose, and the roaring flashy attitude of the 20s died away.
No wonder, we saw the rise of Pulp heroes like the Shadow or detectives like Dick Tracy. During the 1930s radio heroes dominated the arena. One of them was the Shadow. Crossmedia started with the radio, so Pulp heroes (and Superheroes as well) would have their radio shows. Walter B. Gibson, under the nickname of Maxwell Grant, would write hundreds of Shadow stories from April 1931.
Dick Tracy was born in 1931, just when the Depression was very harsh and the Prohibition emboldened the mob. It was created by Chester Gould. He worked as a detective till the 1970s. His character remains one of the most iconic in American History. Dick Tracy would later become a great influence on Jim Gordon, the confident police officer from Batman.
But the Depression would bring something else, a new type of Superheroes. Two high-school students from Cleveland would create one of the most famous characters of all time: Superman. Writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster created Superman in 1933 when they created a story called “The Reign of Superman.” In this story, the main character was very much like Lex Luthor, bald and evil. However, after this experiment, they decided to make of Superman a Superhero.
Superman’s Superhero fashion had direct influences from the circus strongmen. Superman had super powers, super muscles and was the pinnacle of masculinity.
Siegel and Shuster tried to sell Superman without many luck, till DC editor Vincent Sullivan decided to purchase the feature for Action Comics. For their first 13-page story $130USD to split between the two. And like this, they sold Superman.
The positive things that Superman brought were the sheer triumph of the comic book industry. Superman sold millions of copies for the first time! However, there was an adverse effect: from now on, comics would be associated with adolescent power fantasies of strongmen, super muscular men, in tights! The millions of copies that Superman sold would put in stone this image.
But, what did this mean for women cartoonists? As the crash of 1929 made the flapper strip fade away, something else took its place: the Depression strip. It usually featured unglamorous characters with real problems, like poor households, orphans or girls who needed to earn a living.
Martha Orr created the ultimate Depression strip in 1932: Apple Mary. The strip told the story of Mary, an old lady who sold apples in a street corner. When Orr married, the strip was taken by Dale Conner, an artist who would only sign with Dale. The writer of the story was Allen Saunders. In short, the comic was soon signed as Dalle Allen, and the title changed to “Mary Worth’s Family.”
Edwina Dumm had started her career as a cartoonist in the Columbus Daily Monitor back in 1916, probably as the first female political cartoonist in the US. She drew many types of cartoons, but one of them was female pro-suffrage ones. She created the strip “Cap Stubbs and Tippie,” a cartoon that run until 1960. The cartoon changed a lot, but from 1930s Dumm was given a little dog. The dog became more famous than the other characters of the strip.
[Note: historians consider Apple Mary the first dramatic strip created by a woman, and Tippie the first continuity strip created by a woman. However, according to Pretty in Ink, by Trina Robbins, the first action continuity should go to Caroline M.Sexton, who has been but entirely forgotten. ]
Caroline M. Sexton created Luke and Duke in 1934 and signed it as C.M. Sexton. It’s a cartoon about the adventures of to US doughboys and Yvonne, a beautiful Belgian orphan. It’s located back in WWI, and it’s drawn like Belgian strips, in the style of Hergé’s TinTin. According to Robbins, this cartoon seems to be the precursor of Bill Mauldin‘s WWII cartoon Up Front.
Dale Messick would create “Brenda Starr” in 1940. Although her name was Dalia, she changed it to the ambiguous Dale so that publishers and editors wouldn’t reject her strips about a sexy reporter who goes on adventures. She, like many other cartoonists, had unsold strips. One of them was “Weegee,” a Depression Strip that she created before the Depression even hit. She also created “Mimi the Mermaid,” a strip about a mermaid. We wouldn’t see a mermaid until 1990 when Walt Disney produced The Little Mermaid! She was 60 years ahead of her time!
And while men seemed to keep busy with the new Superheroes, detectives, and action stories, women had a place in the comic industry writing and drawing stories about families, kids, and cute dogs. With the exception of “Brenda Starr,” most female cartoonists kept with Kewpies and Depression strips.
Meanwhile, the success of Superman brought copies. Publishers were eager to create other Superheroes and jump into the waggon of Superman’s goldmine.
Donenfeld’s accountant, Victor Fox, left DC and moved to a different floor but on the same building. He formed the Fox Features Syndicate and commissioned an imitation of Superman to the Eisner-Iger shop. It was called Wonder Man and it appeared on May 1939 on Wonder Comics #1.
Unfortunately, it only lasted two issues. Why? DC sued Fox for copyright infringement. Despite this drawback, Fox would continue to create their heroes, like the Blue Bettle.
Despite Superman’s success, soon, in 1939, a Superhero inspired in the Shadow would see the light. Or, better, the night! It would be the time for Batman!
Next: we’ll take a look at Batman, what a shop system is and other types of role models, like Archie.
What we’ve learned so far:
- The History of Comics, Including Women. The Era of Invention (part 1)
- The History of Comics, Including Women. The Era of Invention (part 2)
- The History of Comics, Including Women. The Era of Invention (part 3)
Want to read more about this? Try:
- The Power of Comics : History, Form and Culture
- Pretty in Ink : American Women Cartoonists 1896-2013
- Dreamers of a New Day : Women Who Invented the Twentieth Century
[These are affiliate links. I only recommend things that I love.]
Oh I’d love to see the Mini the Mermaid strip 🙂
I’d love to read it too! I tried to find it online, but it’s nowhere to be found… I wonder if there might be any printed edition? Most of the work of these ladies is super hard to find 🙁
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