When Superman Was Woke?

Everyone is familiar with Clark Kent’s (aka Superman) origin story. Orphaned by cosmic circumstance, rocketed to Earth, fostered by the midwestern Kents, superpowered by our planet’s physics, and taking on his secret identity as the milquetoast reporter are a story etched in modern American pop mythology. Less attention has been paid to his political roots. Every comic strip in the adventure genre especially has an identifiable political slant most obviously in its choices of wrongs to right and the villains it constructs. The famously conservative Chester Gould in Dick Tracy and populist Harold Gray in Little Orphan Annie were the most overt. Less obvious was the implicit imperialist sensibilities implicit in Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates and most of the adventure pulps that characterized non-Western cultures as at best quaintly primitive or at worst inherently brutal.

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Dick Tracy Battles The JDs: Flattop Jr. and Joe Period

Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy was created in the 1930s as a response to the romanticization of gangsters and declining respect for law enforcement. And throughout its run under the notoriously conservative artist made no secret of his disdain for many modern trends. In the 1950s when mania around “juvenile delinquency” dominated popular culture, Gould added to his famous rogues gallery a few of these teen terrorists. Most notable for its outright weirdness (even for Gould) are the 1956 episodes spanning Joe Period and Flattop, Jr., the son of one of Tracy’s most famous nemeses of the prior decade.

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Chester Riley, Al Capp, and Dr. Wertham: The Great Comics Crisis of…1948?

Conventional wisdom holds that the infamous moral panic around crime and horror comics bloomed in 1953 with the popularization of Frederic Wertham’s dubious “research” in general magazines and the formation of Senate subcommittee on juvenile delinquency. But the proliferation of Wertham’s landmark Seduction of the Innocent (1954) diatribe against comics, and the haranguing of Senators Kefauver and Hendrickson was just the culmination of a controversy that had accompanied the rise of more adult and violent comic books throughout the 1940s. Parents worried about the bullets and blood that flew across the color pages of blockbuster titles like Crime Does Not Pay and its many imitators long before the EC titles and their followers horrified parents and legislators even more.

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Best Books of 2022: Bungleton Green and the Mystic Commandos

Bungleton Green was the longest running comic strip in the history of American Black newspapers, and an extended reprint of its greatest, wildest period during WWII is long overdue. But New York Review Comics has come through with this well-designed volume embracing artist Jay Jackson’s 1943-1944 sequence Bungleton Green and the Mystic Commandos. The strip began in 1920 with Leslie Rogers’ rendering of his eponymous character as a comic shirker, gambler and goof in the model of Moon Mullins or Barney Google. When the Chicago Defender’s prolific cartoonist Jay Jackson took the reins in the early 1930s, he made Bungleton into more of an adventurer, riding a genre that dominated the 1930s with Dick Tracy, Terry and the Pirates, Flash Gordon and Little Orphan Annie. Meanwhile, Jackson was also freelancing artwork for the science-fiction pulps and honing his skills as a “good girl” artists, skills that would soon inform a major turn in his weekly strip work.

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Best Books of 2022: Two Eras of Alley Oop

V.T. Hamlin’s caveman epic Alley Oop has been reprinted in several formats before, but Chris Aruffo and his Acoustic Learning Press have exceeded predecessors in several respects. First, the series reprints in parallel the two major eras and artists of the run, V.T. Hamlin’s original and most creative storylines of the 1930s as well as Dave Graue’s wildly imaginative takes on the Oop world in the 1970s. Even better, these dailies are being released in a regular quarterly cadence and at a very affordable price. Finally, these are the cleanest versions of Alley Oop I have seen. Hamlin’s fine line and unique visual style really pop here. Acoustic has also picked up the Sunday reprint series dropped by Dark Horse years ago. And coming in 2023, the reprint series will leap into the 1950s, promising event larger renderings. Hats off to Aruffo for this ambitious and disciplined publishing project. I don’t know if he is profiting at all from all of this, but I certainly hope so. He is doing God’s work.

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Best Books of 2022: TOPS – When the Comics Tried Adulting

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.

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Best Books of 2022: Minority Report: Revisiting Bootsie/Breezy/Dayenu Dayenu

One of the biggest blind spots in the history of American comic strips is the community newspapers that spoke to and out of the ethnic minority experience for decades. About Comics is engaged in one of the most important reprint projects in reprinting some of these overlooked comic strips. Throughout the 20th Century, Black, Italian, Eastern European, Jewish and other native and emigre minority communities generated newspaper networks that applied their own lenses to local, national and international affairs. They produced unique takes on modern American culture rarely seen from the dominant comics syndicates. Few of the comics artists and serial strips have been reprinted in any depth…until now. Their inclusion in the American comics canon is long overdue.

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