The recent deaths of actors Barbara Billingsley and Tom Bosley, who played iconic television parents June Cleaver and Howard Cunningham, got me thinking about the idealized era during which they both raised their respective sitcom families. Billingsley’s Leave it to Beaver ran from 1957-63, and has ever since remained a nostalgic symbol of the innocent, idyllic existence that many associate with this period in American history. Bosley’s Happy Days, which premiered more than a decade after Leave it to Beaver left the airwaves and ran for 10 years, was set roughly from 1955-65.
These shows aired or were set, a least partially, during what is known as the Golden Age of television, which Wikipedia places between the late 1940s and 1961. Perhaps not coincidentally, TV’s Golden Age began just as the Golden Age of comic books was drawing to a close. During this first comic book industry boom, monthly titles published in the millions featured hyper patriotic propaganda stories in which multitudes of superheroes dispatched Axis soldiers and Fifth Column saboteurs in droves. With the end of World War II, superheroes quickly fell out of vogue, and comic book sales plummeted. This led to a transitional period when genres like crime, horror, western, humor and romance grew in popularity with comic book readers (just as they soon would with television audiences).
Some comic book historians refer to this period from about 1945-1955 as the Atomic Age. During these early years of the Cold War, like most expressions of pop culture, comics reflected both the promise and the anxiety of the nuclear age.
Blasts from the past
As the name Atomic Age suggests, the growing nuclear arms race between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. was a frequent theme of comic books published during this period. Ace Magazines put out two titles from 1952-53 that mingled their warnings against Soviet nuclear-armed aggression with an oddly optimistic faith in the power of atomic weapons to prevent radioactive Armageddon. The cover of World War III #1 showed an atomic strike on Washington, D.C., with the ominous disclaimer, “The War that Will Never Happen if America Stays Strong and Alert.” Similarly, the cover of Ace’s Atomic War! #1 showed New York City going up in nuclear flames, something which the heading above the title warned, “Only a Strong America Can Prevent.” Issue #3 showed an equally horrifying retaliatory strike against Moscow. But issues #2 and #4 depicted oddly conventional looking warfare where the U.S. military was able to defeat the Red army through the liberal deployment of a diverse atomic arsenal. These fantastical portrayals of relatively benign nuclear warfare may not have been enough to offset readers’ latent fears of the grim reality, as both these comics titles only lasted for a combined total of six issues. (For an examination of a comic book series that depicts the only real-life use of nuclear-weapons against civilians, see my post on the manga epic, Barefoot Gen.)
Sitcoms like Leave it to Beaver helped relieve anxiety over a possible nuclear holocaust by focusing on the domestic tranquility and prosperity of post-war home life. But while the media largely tried to put a happy face on nuclear families and the communities they lived in, some comic books, like some television dramas of the period, revealed the dysfunction and fear covered up by polite smiles.
When Educational Comics publisher Max Gaines died in a boating accident in 1947, his adult son William took control of his father’s company. Formerly known for comic book titles like Picture Stories from the Bible, beginning in 1949, William Gaines introduced titles dealing with horror, suspense, science fiction, military fiction and crime fiction. Changing the name of the company to Entertaining Comics, better known as EC, Gaines published horror comic books—including Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror and The Haunt of Fear—that became notorious for their lurid stories and gruesome art. But EC had some of the best writers and artists working in comics at the time, and they often put their talents to telling all too realistic horror stories taken from current events.
In addition to EC’s signature tales of crime, horror, and science fiction, the company’s Shock SuspenStories, published from 1952-1955, also contained stories exposing the ugly truth behind the myth of the American dream. The anthology tackled controversial issues including racism, anti-Semitism, lynching, rape, anti-communist hysteria, fanatic nationalism, mob vigilantism and police corruption. Rather than merely exploiting the irrational violence of certain angry white men for mere shock value, these were strongly moral tales meant to open readers’ minds, broaden their perspectives, and inspire them to reevaluate what it means to be a true American. Below are samples of these stories by regular EC contributors, writer Al Feldstein and artists Wally Wood and Jack Davis, with links to sites where you can read the complete stories.
Panels from “The Guilty!” Art by Wally Wood. Read the entire story here.
Panels from “In Gratitude.” Art by Wally Wood. Read the entire story here.
Panels from “Hate!” Art by Wally Wood. Read the entire story here.
Panels from “The Patriots!” Art by Jack Davis. Read the entire story here.
Unfortunately, EC’s horror and crime comics drew the attention of parents, psychologists and legislators who feared the effect they were having on the psyches of America’s youth. In order to avoid congressional oversight, in 1954 comic book publishers imposed their own restrictions on content that made it impossible for EC to continue the kind of storytelling that had made it famous (see my previous post on censorship for more about the congressional crusade against comic books and the stifling effect it had on creative expression). Despite the collapse of his comic book publishing empire two years later, William Gaines was able to continue his social commentary through a humor magazine he introduced in 1952, with editor Harvey Kurtzman, called Mad.
Without EC to cast a critical eye on well-accepted social values of the time, virtually every comic book for sale on newsstands presented a unified front promoting the status quo. Foremost among these nationally held beliefs was a paranoid fear of communism and its assumed goal to conquer and enslave the world.
Iron Curtain call
While superheroes had been the primary comic book opponents of Nazi and fascist aggression during the industry’s Golden Age, when the communist threat reared its ugly head, comic book creators initially turned to regular people (pretty much all men) to hold back the Red hordes. Cold War comic book heroes included members of the U.S. military, the FBI, and yes, the Treasury Department.
From 1951-56, T-Man, a Quality Comic Publication, related the hair-raising adventures of Treasury Agent Pete Trask, “World Wide Trouble-Shooter,” as he traveled the globe thwarting the nefarious schemes of “Iron Curtain tyrants,” “merciless Red killers” and, appropriately, a “commie paymaster.” Although it was the threat of Soviet expansion that every issue warned its readers to beware, one notable story foreshadowed a blow against international democracy struck by the United States.
In T-Man #3, cover dated January 1952, Trask travels to Tehran where the U.S., British, and Iranian governments are negotiating an oil treaty. In the midst of the proceedings, someone appearing to be Pete Trask bursts into the room to heap outrageous anti-Muslim abuses on the Iranian diplomats who abruptly end the negotiations. Of course, the real Trask eventually arrives to reveal that the meeting crasher was a disguised Soviet spy sent to stop the treaty, which is subsequently signed. (You can read the entire bizarre story here.)
In reality, it didn’t turn out to be the KGB that subverted the will of the Iranian people. Less than two years after T-Man #3 was published, the intelligence agencies of the U.S. and U.K. orchestrated a 1953 Iranian coup d’état that overthrew the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, who had recently nationalized the country’s oil industry. Mosaddegh was replaced by U.S.-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, whose rule was so unpopular it lead to the 1979 Iranian Revolution that put Ayatollah Khomeini‘s Islamic Republic in power.
With so many upstanding civil servants making a name for themselves by taking on the Reds, it was only a matter of time before comic publishers got the idea to bring some of their forgotten superheroes out of retirement and send them into the fray.
Hopping on the anti-communist bandwagon, Atlas Comics attempted a revival of some of its WWII-era superheroes in 1954. After being out of print for more than four years, Captain America, Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch made a tentative attempt to recapture the hearts and minds of our nation’s youth. Now proudly billing himself as a “Commie Smasher” rather than a “Sentinel of Liberty,” Captain America led his two cohorts on a full scale land, sea and air assault against Soviet and Red Chinese forces. But the alleged communist threat didn’t seem menacing or exciting enough to peak readers’ interests, and no one really missed these characters when their titles were canceled again after just a few issues.
The world wasn’t quite ready for superheroes again, but it soon would be.
The second universally recognized era in comic book history is known as the Silver Age. It is generally agreed to have begun with the appearance of a new and improved Flash in the October 1956 Showcase #4, published by DC Comics (one year before Leave it to Beaver first aired and one year after the first season of Happy Days supposedly took place). The Flash was the first of several superheroes introduced by DC that were based on Golden Age predecessors. These characters exemplified the trust in government and fascination with science that most people shared at the time. The Flash’s alter ego, Barry Allen, was a police scientist, Green Lantern belonged to an intergalactic police force and Hawkman was a police officer from another planet. Soon, these and other new and old DC Comics superheroes joined forces as the Justice League of America, to better protect the public and preserve established authority.
Inspired by DC’s success, Atlas Comics, now going by the name Marvel Comics, began a superhero Renaissance that revolutionized the comic book industry. And it would never have happened without communism.
The title that began it all was the November 1961 Fantastic Four #1, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. It tells the story of scientist Reed Richards, his fiancée Sue Storm and her teenaged brother Johnny, and Reed’s pilot friend Ben Grimm, who gain unique super powers from cosmic rays they are exposed to during the test flight of an experimental rocket. Richards recklessly took the ship up without adequately testing its radiation shields because of the urgency of beating the Russians into space. The following year, Lee and Kirby told the tale of scientist Bruce Banner’s transformation into a monster in The Incredible Hulk #1. Banner turns into the Hulk after a Russian undercover agent causes him to be caught in the blast from a gamma radiation bomb test. In 1963, Lee and his brother Larry Lieber, with artist Don Heck, told the origin of Iron Man in Tales of Suspense #39. It begins when millionaire munitions manufacturer Tony Stark is mortally injured by a landmine while conducting a field test of one of his latest weapons in Vietnam. Captured by communist Chinese guerillas, Stark pretends to go along with their demand that he build them weapons. In reality, he secretly constructs a mechanized suit of battle armor he uses to make his escape.
Just as Soviet Russia and the People’s Republic of China played a role in the origins of the Fantastic Four, the Hulk and Iron Man, they also provided a steady source of super villains for them to fight. These included the Red Ghost, the Gargoyle, the Abomination, the Crimson Dynamo, Titanium Man, Radioactive Man and the Black Widow (who later became a superhero). But as the Marvel Universe expanded, communism began to be seen as less of a threat than America’s overreaction to it, and superheroes started finding their rationale for existing, and their foes, elsewhere.
By the mid Sixties, the world of the Cleavers and Cunninghams was beginning to change. As television exposed viewers to the Civil Rights movement and expanding Vietnam War, people gradually grew more questioning of the government institutions they had trusted for so long. By the time the Silver Age of comics drew to a close around the end of the decade, comic book creators and readers were beginning to see the past 20 years of American history in a new light.
In Part 2 of this post I look at how the 1950s and 1960s have been portrayed in comic books written and published years later.