Missed It By That Much

22 Publishers That Exited (or Got Pushed Out of) the Comic Book Business Right Before the Silver Age Kicked Into High Gear

Note: The years in brackets denote the period during which the company published comic books, not necessarily the lifespan of the company itself.  

1. EC Comics (1939-1956)

To this day, there are people who will swear the only reason the restrictive Comics Code Authority came into being was to push EC Comics out of business. This belief is supported by the specific wording of the Code imposed on all U.S. comic publishers in 1954, which forbade the use of “horror” or “terror” in any title (sayonara, Vault of Horror) and decreed that books featuring violent crimes or “scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism and werewolfism” (which is to say, almost every pre-Code EC book ever printed) were prohibited. EC had a creator-friendly reputation that attracted some of the best artists in the business, but it was not immune to immense public pressure, especially after publisher Bill Gaines’ disastrous appearance in front of a 1954 Senate subcommittee hearing on juvenile delinquency, where he was forced to defend a cover showing the dripping head of a decapitated woman. EC soldiered on for a while after the Comics Code came into force, publishing new titles about pirates, doctors and psychoanalysis(!), but Gaines basically told the CCA to go to hell when it objected to an anti-racism sci-fi story featuring a black astronaut. He shut down his entire comic line to focus on his sole remaining property, Mad magazine, which was safely outside the CCA’s jurisdiction. The rest, as they say, is history.

2. Fawcett Comics (1940-1953)
“Fawcett,” C.C. Beck once said, “was the greatest imitator in the world.” Curious words, coming as they did from the man who gave Captain Marvel, Fawcett’s greatest asset, his distinctive look. But DC Comics evidently agreed, launching a copyright infringement suit against Fawcett in 1941, shortly after the first Captain Marvel tale hit the stands. The case didn’t go to trial until 1948 (allowing Captain Marvel time to catch up to, and at times surpass, Superman’s sales numbers); when a judge ruled in Fawcett’s favor, DC appealed the ruling and dragged Fawcett back into the courtroom in 1951. At that time, the bloom was definitely off the superhero rose and Fawcett was diversifying its lineup (Westerns starring movie cowboys Tom Mix and Hopalong Cassidy were among its top sellers), but it knew it couldn’t survive without its top-selling character, and so Fawcett settled with DC in 1953 and discontinued its comic line. Fawcett Publications was later swallowed up by the wave of corporate takeovers that typified the media business in the latter half of the 20th century, but Captain Marvel and his crew still live on, as wholly owned properties of DC Comics, Inc. (So, who would you rather fight: Superman or his lawyers? Discuss.)

3. Fiction House (1938-1953)
“The most perused, but least read, of Golden Age comics” was how the Overstreet Comic Price Guide once described Fiction House’s offerings and… yeah, that just about covers it. Jungle girls in leopard-print bikinis? Check. Spaceship girls in shiny bikinis? Check. Normally attired girls tied to the front of airplanes in flight? Hey, why not? Jumbo, Jungle, Fight, Wings and Planet (among other titles) offered girls in the jungle, girls in the air, girls on distant planets and girls just about everywhere else. Fiction House owner Thurman Scott wasn’t a hands-on boss, but one thing he did insist on was personally approving every piece of cover art, believing (with good reason) that the right cover was all it took to sell any comic. Despite its cheesecake reputation, Fiction House was fairly progressive about hiring women writers and artists, and comic writer/historian Trina Robbins credited the firm for publishing stories about strong, independent women in an era when most female comic characters were, well, not. Despite the obvious appeal of its artwork, Fiction House was vulnerable to the same social and economic pressures affecting every other comic publisher of the day, and it published its last set of gams in 1953.

4. Fox Feature Syndicate (1939-1955)
Comics historian Nicky Wright probably said it best: “When historians describe sleaze, sex, and violence as Fox’s obsession, they are masters of understatement.” One of the oddest of the oddballs during the comic industry’s early years, Victor Fox supposedly started out as an accountant for DC Comics who struck out on his own when he saw the money to be made in publishing comics. Being one of the earliest competitors in a fast-growing field, Fox hired the best artists to produce its strips, including Joe Simon (who became Fox’s editor), Jack Kirby, Matt Baker, Lou Fine and a host of other Golden Age greats. Of course, back then readers didn’t pick up comics because they liked the artists who drew them; Fox looked at what sold on the stands and then pushed out titles that promised more of what readers wanted — more fights and superheroes when that was in hot demand, more sex and violence when readers started buying more of that (the Phantom Lady cover shown here is a typical example of Fox’s output). Decades before Fox News redefined audience pandering, Fox Comics (no corporate relation) was there first, and for its efforts it earned a bright bullseye on its backside when Dr. Wertham and friends started targeting comic publishers as unwholesome entertainment. Phantom Lady and Jo-Jo the Jungle King faced many adversaries in their time, but they were no match for the Comics Code Authority, and Fox went out of business very shortly after its introduction.

5. Lev Gleason Publications (1939-1955)
Even if EC and Fox had never entered the field, chances are the morality police would have found plenty of material in Lev Gleason’s comics to keep their anti-comic crusade going. Lev Gleason published a number of popular titles in the 1940s, including Daredevil (no relation to Marvel’s hero) and Boy Comics, but his biggest success was Crime Does Not Pay, a true-crime comic that featured short morality plays adapted from police files and court records. The images were often (hell, always) violent, but Gleason defended his book as proof that a life of crime always ended with criminals brought to justice (and to prove his point, he published numerous letters from readers thanking him for scaring them straight). Regardless of his intentions, the insane success of Crime Does Not Pay (which sold more than two million copies per issue at its peak) led to dozens of competitors trying to out-gore and out-shock each other, and the proliferation of titles featuring all manners of murders and mutilations gave parents and politicians ample material to fuel their crusade. Gleason spoke out against attempts to censor the comics in various op-ed pieces, but it was no use; he ceased publishing by mid-1955, shortly after the Comics Code came into effect.

6. Quality Comics (1939-1956)
Everett M. “Busy” Arnold was a printer who saw the potential in comics earlier than almost everyone else; he got into the game by buying an existing series from Eastman Color (the first company to get into the comics business) and hiring outside studios to produce his strips. He soon saw the value in keeping his talent close by, so he brought Will Eisner on board, and Eisner in turn brought over a number of artists from the studio he co-owned with his business partner, Jerry Iger. With the exception of DC Comics, Quality was perhaps the most prolific publisher of superhero strips during the Golden Age, with titles featuring the exploits of Plastic Man, Uncle Sam, Black Condor, Firebrand, Doll Man, the Human Bomb and many others. Quality was also the first to publish reprints of Eisner’s The Spirit, the lead feature in a weekly comic book distributed through newspapers between 1940 and 1952. Like most other publishers, Quality diversified its lineup when readers started to tire of superhero tales, publishing such titles as Broadway Romances and Buster Bear, but it wasn’t enough to keep the company afloat in perilous times, particularly when its sole horror title (Web of Evil) gave concerned parents enough cause to lump Quality in with the rest of the “bad” publishers. The company ceased operations with comics cover-dated December 1956, its characters sold to DC Comics to continue the good fight alongside their more famous brethren.

7. Avon Comics (1945-1956)
Avon Books was founded in 1941 by the American News Corporation; when it bought out pulp publisher J.S. Ogilvie Publications, the company was renamed Avon Publications to better reflect its diverse product line. Avon was always known more for its paperbacks than its comic division, but it can lay claim to being the first publisher to create a horror title, Eerie, which appeared as a one-shot in 1947 and returned in 1951 for a 17-issue run. Avon’s comic book lineup was typical of the age, with a healthy assortment of horror, Western, science fiction, romance, war, and funny animal titles… and Slave Girl, a curiously named two-issue series starring Malu the slave girl in the “land of adventure.” (Stop that.) The company hit its peak in the early ’50s with legendary artists like Wally Wood and Joe Orlando doing covers and interior art for EerieRocket to the Moon, Strange Worlds and other titles, but mounting public opposition to comic books and a mid-’50s economic recession made Avon’s comic division unprofitable, and it quietly exited the field in 1956.

8. St. John Publications (1947-1958)
Chicago’s Archer St. John started out as a journalist and sales manager for the Lionel model train company, where he edited the company’s hobbyist magazine. He left Lionel in 1945 to start his own publishing company, St. John Publications; his first books were typical humor titles of the day, but he hit the big time when he acquired the licence to publish comics based on the hugely popular Terrytoons characters (Mighty Mouse, Heckle & Jeckle, and others). It was a St. John comic that first named Casper the Friendly Ghost (who debuted as a nameless spirit in Paramount’s movie cartoons), and St. John also holds the honor of publishing the first (and second) 3D books ever published, in 1953. A disastrous foray into an all-3D comic lineup, combined with the social and economic pressures facing all comic publishers in the mid-’50s, made it more profitable for St. John to focus its attentions on its growing magazine division (Hollywood Pictorial, the first title in what would become the St. John magazine group, evolved from 1949’s Hollywood Confessions comic), and the final St. John comic staggered to newsstands in 1958. (A tip of the hat to Ken Quattro of ComicArtville.com, who published a terrific account of St. John on his site.)

9. Ace Comics (1940-1956)
Ace Comics was practically synonymous with “typical Golden Age comic publisher,” coming complete with oddly named founder (Aaron A. Wyn), origins in the pulp magazine business, a move into comics shortly after the 1938 introduction of Superman, a heavy focus on superhero strips in its early years, and a gradual expansion into other genres as the public appetite for superhero antics started to fade. Magno the Magnetic Man and Lash Lightning were among Ace’s biggest stars in the early days, with titles like Super-Mystery Comics, Our Flag, Banner and Four Favorites following their adventures. And like most other publishers, Ace’s true-crime and horror titles landed them in hot water when the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency formed in 1953 to explore the effects of comic books on America’s youth. Suffice to say Ace couldn’t count on the senators being avid fans of X the Phantom Fed or Doctor Nemesis, and they completed their “typical Golden Age publisher” act by closing shop shortly after the Comics Code took effect.

10. Hillman Periodicals (1940-1953)
Well, those gangsters get points for creativity, I’ll give them that (though you’d think that even a blindfolded pilot would hear the muffled screams of a trussed-up damsel right in front of him). Airboy was Hillman’s biggest draw by far, first appearing in Air Fighters Comics in 1941. He fit in perfectly for the spirit of the time, what with his flashy superhero name, boyish good looks and direct involvement in World War Two, but like most other wartime heroes his popularity took a hit after V-J Day, and his comic was grounded in May 1953, the same month that Hillman ceased publishing all its war, romance and horror titles. (The Heap, another Hillman character that appeared in the back of Airboy comics, was an ambulatory mass of rotting vegetation that predated Marvel’s Man-Thing and DC’s Swamp Thing by several decades, and it was almost forgotten by the time the other two muck monsters emerged from their swamps.) Airboy returned for a brief time in the 1980s when Eclipse Comics brought him and other Hillman characters back to life, but since then, nada.

11. Magazine Enterprises (1943-1958)
Vin Sullivan was there at the very beginning, working as an editor at what would later be known as DC Comics in 1935 (he was the editor who bought the first Superman strip from Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and he was the cover artist for Detective Comics #1). He left DC in 1940 to edit a line of comics for the  McNaught Newspaper Syndicate, then struck out on his own to publish original comics as the head of Magazine Enterprises. His first title, A-1 Comics, was the beginning of a small empire that drew from the talents of some of the top Golden Age artists, including Frank Frazetta, Dick Ayers, and Bob Powell, among others. (Gardner Fox, who wrote many, many classic stories for DC, was chief writer of the ME comic line.) Curiously, given the fact Sullivan started out at DC, ME had virtually no superheroes in its stable, with its biggest stars including the Western/horror hybrid Ghost Rider, the jungle goddess Cave Girl, and any movie or TV star it could get to appear in its books. By 1956, ME was only publishing a few now-forgotten humor titles like Clubhouse Rascals and Mighty Atom, and Sullivan closed up shop in 1958.

12. Superior Publishers (1945-1956)
Kids from Toronto and Winnipeg loved the Golden Age comics as much as their American cousins, but World War Two brought with it wartime restrictions on what could be imported into Canada (not surprisingly, American comics weren’t seen as being terribly vital to the nation’s war effort). A number of Canadian publishers, most of them based in Toronto, seized the opportunity to publish their own books alongside reprints of titles they bought (or outright stole) from American publishers. The end of the war put most of those shops out of business, but Superior (formerly Dynamic Publications) held on, reprinting American books for Canadian readers and distributing original books in U.S. markets. Journey Into Fear, Strange Mysteries and Mysteries Weird and Strange were some of Superior’s better-known original series, but its real bread and butter (at least stateside) were its plethora of romance titles: My Secret, Our Secret, My Secret Marriage and G.I. War Brides, among others. The horror comics died with January 1955 cover dates as the Comics Code took effect; the romance line lasted only a year after that. As a Canadian might say, “Aw gee, that’s too bad, eh?”

13. Ziff-Davis Publications (1947-1957)
Ever wondered what the computer magazine writers wrote about before computers were invented? Well, now you know. (You know what they say: “Once you go chrome, you never go home.”) Ziff-Davis was publishing sci-fi/fantasy magazines like Amazing Stories when someone got the idea of offering free comics as premiums to subscribers. They hired Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel to edit the new comic line, which were eventually sold through newsstands. No surprise, Ziff-Davis relied heavily on sci-fi and fantasy for subject material, with hand-painted covers giving the books a pulp-magazine feel that helped them stand out on the shelf. Westerns, romances, and movie-star biographies were also among their offerings, but their biggest seller by far was the gung-ho war title G.I. Joe (no relation to the classic toys), which debuted in 1950. Never as invested in the comic business as the others on this list, Ziff-Davis sold most of its titles to St. John in 1953, choosing to publish only G.I. Joe until its June 1957 issue, when Joe finally made peace with America’s enemies.  

14. United Feature Syndicate (1936-1955)
The company that delivers Dilbert, Marmaduke and other comic strips to millions of readers every day was also the first newspaper syndicate to get into the comic book business. Tip Top Comics debuted with an April 1936 cover date; the series (initially edited by Lev Gleason of Crime Does Not Pay fame) consisted of reprints of newspaper strips starring Tarzan, L’il Abner and other United properties. Despite the heavy reliance on reprints, there were a few stabs at original characters; who could forget the first time they read the exciting adventures of Mirror Man or the Triple Terror? (Oh, right, that would be everyone.) By the beginning of 1955, United sold its top three titles (Tip Top, Fritzi Ritz and Nancy and Sluggo) to St. John and shut down the rest. While it’s unlikely they were forced out of the comic business by the new Comics Code (it’s hard to imagine books starring the likes of Nancy and Sluggo, the comic-strip kids seen here, raising the ire of the CCA), it’s safe to assume United no longer saw the value in printing comic books in those politically charged times. Nothing personal, comic fans; it’s just business.

15. Toby Press (1949-1955)
Speaking of L’il Abner, Toby Press was founded by Elliot A. Caplin, the brother of cartoonist Al Capp and a comic-strip writer in his own right. Toby Press published reprints of Capp’s strip as well as licensed-character comics starring John Wayne, Gabby Hayes, and other popular stars of the day. It wasn’t around for a long time, but the small publisher managed to put out an impressive array of titles in a variety of genres: war (Tell It to the Marines), funny animal (Felix the Cat), Westerns (Billy the Kid), romance (Young Lovers Romances), and medieval adventure (The Black Knight). There was even a two-issue series starring Captain Tootsie, the muscular mascot for the Tootsie Roll candy treat. But while variety may be the spice of life, it didn’t save Toby from the fact that kids in the ’50s preferred to watch their Westerns and cartoons instead of read them, and Toby’s final issue, Felix the Cat #61, hit the stands cover-dated June 1955.

16. Sterling Comics (1954-1955)
So what do you suppose was going through the officer’s mind shortly before this scene? “Hmm, that man sitting next to me on this roller coaster sure looks familiar… holy cow, it’s ‘Mad Dog’ Mulligan, who just robbed the First National Bank and obviously decided to celebrate a successful heist by spending the rest of the day at the carnival! I suppose I could quietly arrest him when the roller coaster stops, but he might recognize my police uniform and try to make a break for it halfway through the ride… and I just can’t take that chance!” Martin Smith edited a line of comics that never grew beyond three titles at any one time, and his decision to enter the comic field with a pair of true-crime (The Informer) and horror (The Tormented) comics right before the introduction of the Comics Code suggests he was less than perceptive in his business dealings. Still, credit where it’s due: he had the good sense to hire Mike Sekowsky (later of Silver Age Justice League of America fame) as his main artist, and the short-lived Captain Flash series (11/54) can lay claim to introducing one of the few new superheroes of the 1950s. So that’s something. Post-code, Sterling created watered-down horror and mystery titles with its final book, My Secret Confession (9/55), lasting just one issue.

17. Aragon/Gilmor/Key Publications/Stanmor Publications (1951-1955)
Stanley Morse owned four different comic companies with very little difference between any of them in terms of output, though Aragon leaned more towards sci-fi and horror and Stanmor tended to publish more than its share of war comics. Typical of the time, the artwork was dependably bland, with the exception of Basil Wolverton’s contributions to Mister Mystery and Weird Tales of the Future. Radiant Love, Daring Love, Weird Mysteries, Prize Mysteries, Real Adventure, Tender Romance — Morse’s titles continued in the grand Mad Libs tradition of mixing and matching a handful of adjectives with little regard for the actual stories inside the books, as long as they met the basic criteria for the genre. That — and the fact that books like Weird Chills offered up plenty of bondage, blood draining and torture just as the anti-comics frenzy of the ’50s was reaching a fevered pitch — helps explain why none of Morse’s titles lasted long enough to see the end of 1955.

18. Stanhall Publications (1951-1954)
Owned by brothers Michael and Stanley Estrow and staffed by chief writer Hal Seeger, Stanhall got its name from combining Stan and Hal’s names together (Seeger was an animator who would go on to produce such cartoons as Milton the Monster and Batfink in the ’60s). Humor was Stanhall’s biggest-selling genre, with G.I. Jane (about the humorous adventures of a buxom blonde in the army) its longest-running title; others included the teen humor title Oh, Brother!,  the funny-animal title Muggy Doo, Boy Cat, Broadway Hollywood Blackouts — and The Farmer’s Daughter, a curiously risqué title about a succession of randy travelling salesmen trying to score with the beautiful daughter of a crotchety old farmer. Simpler times. In late 1954, Stanhall transferred its titles to other companies owned by the Estrow brothers and quietly went out of business.

19. Star Publications (1949-1955)
Do you get the feeling that “flaming” meant something different back in the 1950s? (Also, that’s a little too close to the campfire for some late-night canoodling, don’t you think?) Artist L.B. Cole had more than 1,500 comic covers to his credit by the time he formed Star in 1951. He started by taking over titles from Novelty Press and 1949 and published hundreds of titles over the next six years. Its huge output spanned the usual genres (crime, Westerns, romance, teen humor, funny animals), with even some experiments in combining genres, like the comic seen here. For all its efforts, Star never produced one single strong character or title, and its books were sold mainly on the strengths of Cole’s covers. No surprise, then, Star followed the herd and repackaged some of its anthology titles as lurid horror books; even its jungle book, Terrors of the Jungle, focused heavily on chills and thrills. The death of Cole’s business partner in 1955 spelled the end of Star, and Cole moved on to Gilberton’s Classics Illustrated comics before signing on as editor for Dell Comics in the ’60s.

20. Comic Media (1951-1954)
And the award for the most generic name for a comic company goes to… seriously, that’s the best name they could come up with? At any rate, Comic Media was the company behind a number of imprints (Artful Publications, Harwell, Biltmore, Allen Hardy Associates, Mystery Publishing) that published romance, adventure and horror books.  And when we say horror, we mean horror — the covers for Horrific and Weird Terror often featured either a corpse’s face or a leering head that had been shot, stabbed or otherwise disfigured. In late 1954, Comic Media announced it would add new horror (House of Horror) and romance titles (Love and Kisses) to its stable, but they never materialized. Its final issue, Terrific #1, hit stands cover-dated December 1954; it sold its remaining romance titles to Farrell and its Western/adventure books to Charlton Comics.

21. Farrell Comic Group (1952-1958)
Like most publishers of the day, Robert Farrell published his books under a number of imprints, including Ajax-Farrell, Excellent Publications and Four Star Publications. Dr. Wertham and other anti-comics crusaders suggested this practice was a deliberate ploy to confuse parents trying to find out who was behind the lurid crime and horror books that were allegedly warping the minds of their children, when a more simple explanation is that, in an age before brand awareness, publishers didn’t think readers really gave two hoots about who published the books. Farrell launched at the peak of the horror and war boom with titles like Voodoo, Haunted Thrills, Battle Report, and Fantastic Fears; Westerns, romances and a Mad rip-off (Madhouse) were also on the menu. Farrell stayed afloat during leaner times by becoming the ghoul of the comic book graveyard, snapping up titles and artwork on the cheap from Star, Comic Media, Fox and other defunct publishers. None of its titles lasted long enough to attract reader interest, though, not even the few superhero titles that Farrell tried to market (Black Cobra, Samson, Wonder Boy) during the deepest depths of the superhero depression. Farrell threw in the towel in 1958, probably because there were precious few comic publishers by that time left to exploit.

22. Eastern Color (1933-1955)
Somehow, it seems appropriate to end this list with the company that started it all. As I noted in a previous list, Connecticut’s Eastern Color Printing Company is where someone first got the idea to produce comic books as we know them today, first as a promotional item for clients and then as a new and profitable medium in its own right. Famous Funnies was the first-ever comic title to hit the stands, and it was the flagship title for a small empire that introduced readers to Movie Love (movie stars! in love!), Reg’Lar Fellows Heroic Comics (starring, um, non-reg’lar superheroes), Buster Crabbe Comics (ask your grandparents), and George Carlson’s Jingle Jangle Comics, a kids’ humor and adventure book that could easily compete against any Dr. Seuss book or Don Martin Mad image in terms of sheer visual lunacy. Some of the most sought-after comics today are the later-run Famous Funnies issues featuring Frank Frazetta cover images of Buck Rogers; alas, few saw the book’s artistic merits at the time, and Eastern Color would clash with the CCA over the supposed encouragement of juvenile delinquency in its Heroic war comic. Eastern Color ended Famous Funnies with issue #218 (7/55) and phased out its own comic line, focusing instead on printing advertising flyers and Sunday comic supplements until it closed up shop in 2002.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s