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Saturday, October 10, 2009


I've stated in earlier essays that I consider the bulk of mainstream American comics to have been directed primarily toward juveniles-- which for convenience's sake I'll define as anyone too young to vote-- even though obviously some comics, like the pulp magazines that preceded them, were intended to skew more toward older juveniles.

But there isn't a unanimity of opinion on the mattter. This site printed the following opinion:

"Obviously, many of the below comics [from the Wertham survey] are not intended for children. While all of them were probably read by children, they were not necessarily the intended audience for them as far as the cartoonists were concerned. Harvey Kurtzman’s Frontline Combat, for example, was written with a military audience in mind, and Kurtzman frequently received fan letters from men in the military."

When this excerpt was posted here on THE BEAT, I responded:

"I don’t see how these Golden Age comics could not have been “intended” for children– if not by the cartoonists, then by the publishers.

I’m sure a lot of adults sneak-read the comics, especially those that had quasi-adult themes. But I’ve never seen any history of the period that didn’t affirm that the bulk audience for comic books was made up of juveniles, and that the publishers all knew that comics could only succeed by selling to that audience, though some books favored the older set of juveniles."

Poster Eric H. responded, in part:

'Mr. Phillips, A lot of the crime and horror comics continued the traditions of the pulps and “spicy” magazines both of which had a significant adult audience.

Here’s a quotation from “The Monster Show: a Cultural History of Horror” by David J. Skal:
“The circulation figures for comic books during the early fifties are impressive even today: in 1950 50 million comic books were being printed and distributed every month. They were being read mostly by adults (54 percent, according to one Dayton, Ohio study), and by 40 percent of everybody in America above the age of 8.”

When you consider that the population of the U.S. was about 152 million people in 1950, 50 million comics is a huge number. Most people probably wouldn’t have thought anything of reading a comic. But then SOTI and the hearings made them out to be dirty, seamy things, so most adults no longer wanted to be associated with that material. And to top it off, the code ensured that most of what was published from then on was only going to appeal to an audience of children."'

There's something to be said for this view, in view of the aforementioned study and at least one other I've seen cited elsewhere. And I've already stated myself that comic books helped force the pulp magazines out of business by usurping much of their place on newsstands, though I would modify Eric H.'s statement to give cheap paperbacks their share of the credit for killing off the pulps.

However, as stated Eric H.'s judgment requires a great deal of supposition. One can fairly say that a lot of servicemen read comics on the front, though in the early 40s most of these would have been juvenile-oriented works like SUPERMAN and CAPTAIN MARVEL. It's quite likely that some publishers in the late Golden Age tried to capitalize on this exposure by concentrating on genres that might have more adult appeal for those audiences than superheroes, such as crime and horror. And some adults may have read them just as the previous generation read the pulps.

However, one should keep in mind that the pulps were a disreputable source of reading-material, and that to whatever extent comics might have taken their place, they would have inherited that same bad odor, irrespective of the effects of the anti-comics hysteria that arose in the postwar years. In contrast, the medium of the cheap paperback, that other famed Pulp-Killer, only had a bad reputation as long as it concentrated on lurid subject matter, which the paperback-medium shed as it began publishing more societally-acceptable fare. So I would maintain my view that even if some adults partook of comic books from time to time, the majority of those that wanted pulpish thrills probably turned to the paperback more quickly than the comic book. So while I don't dismiss out of hand all contemporaneous studies of comics-reading adults, they still don't weigh that heavily against the then-dominant opinion that comics were for kids.

Why did so many concerned mothers and lawmakers of the period accede so easily to the notion that comics should be for kids? Kiddie comics, far more than superheroes (no longer very popular by the late 40s), were the culprit here. Bad as the pulps' reputations might have been, no one ever considered them the domain of small children, as there were no kiddie pulps along the line of a LI'L DOC SAVAGE. The anti-comics polemics of both Wertham and Legman make clear that they think mass-market comics should have been kept clean for kids (though neither of them was entirely consistent as to how "clean" the kiddie-comics were). Kiddie-comics were the origin of the Pedagogical Paradigm that still pervades comics-criticism, even now that there are hardly any kiddie-comics, or kiddie-readers, to be found.

So it isn't supportable that comics simply stepped into the vacancy left by the pulp magazines. As to whether they were ever dominantly intended for juveniles or not, the determining factor would have to be whether or not the advertising for even the theoretically-adult comics of the period was directed at adults or juveniles. I don't have any information about the specific advertising in EC's magazines, but I did ask one fan with some knowledge of the originals, who asserted that EC used to issue phrases like, "Kids; send in your dimes" for items like glossy reproductions of the Crypt-Keeper and the Old Witch.

I'm sure William Gaines would have liked to have converted adults to his "picto-fictional" tales. Adults were where the money was. But dominant evidence suggests that he was still playing to kids, albeit the older ones. With the possible exception of the Kurtzman war books, I would put most of the ECs, as well as comparable older-juvenile works of the time, in the category of "juvenile pulp."

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