While this blog focuses mainly on the American comic strip in the first half of the last century, we have a soft spot here for comic books of the pre-code, pre-superhero era. For a brief shining moment after World War II, the comic book medium tried in vain to lurch into adulthood. Romance and crime genres especially aimed for older audiences. And the trend peaked with the horror, suspense and sci-fi comics of EC. The backlash was severe. Political hearings threatened government regulation, which the industry pre-empted with a self-censoring “Comics Code” that effectively consigned the American comic book to decades of the arrested adolescence of the superhero genre.
One of the most unusual and noteworthy books on comics in the last year is Michael T. Gilbert’s Tops: The Complete Collection of Charles Biro’s Visionary 1949 Comic Book Series. Gilbert has unearthed the lost history of one of the great failures of post-WWII comics publishing, the two-issue run of TOPS, Charles Biro’s ambitious attempt to make a comic in a format and with content suited for adults. Biro and partner Bob Wood had already become rich and famous with “real life” crime stories they provided to Lev Gleason’s wildly popular Crime Does Not Pay comic, and Gleason agreed to publish what proved to be Biro’s folly.
Mimicking the size and seriousness of LIFE magazine, TOPS also blended genres, some suspense, short fiction, word-heavy “illustories” and a lot of topical social issue stories (juvenile delinquency, world government, wife swapping). They leaned on top notch artists like Reed Crandall, George Tuska, Dan Barry and Dick Briefer. As Gilbert points out in the hefty history and commentary that wraps the full reprints of TOPS’ two issues, the adult themes and artistic prowess anticipated, if not full matched, what Al Feldstein and Bill Gaines’ EC crew would master a few years later. And to be honest, as much as this TOPS reprint is welcome and lovingly done, the reason for the magazine’s failure in the late 1940s is pretty obvious. TOPS really wan’t very good. The storylines are more tedious than engaging, heavy on sociological detail and bloated by so many irrelevant story branches they lose narrative energy quickly. Crandall’s artwork stands out. But Biro’s was a good intention at adulting comics that eventually was executed much more artfully by all the folks Gilbert cites as successors: Feldstein, Gaines, Kurtzman.
And yet, this TOPS reprint and backstory sharpens the history of an important road not taken by comics in this country. Some within the industry like Biro, along with Will Eisner, Simon and Kirby, and the EC crew, understood this medium was capable of transcending its reputation as a children’s’ entertainment. Biro’s TOPS and its tagline, “The Adult Magazine of Dramatic Picture Stories,” was just the most explicit instance of an impulse among other cartoonists that was about to be aborted. Constrained by our native prurience and suspicion of mass art forms, American cultural leaders (politicians, psychologists and the industry itself) recoiled from the comic book’s lurch into adolescence. But instead of killing the medium they simply infantilized it. While Japanese, South American and European cultures saw comics mature along more adult trajectories, America consigned the medium to childish fantasies of heroism, violence and power that, alas, have only grown more acceptable across media. Luckily, America had a generation of young artists raised on the possibilities that EC and MAD suggested and eventually rejected the rank silliness of mainstream comics in an underground movement that rediscovered the road not chosen.