Home On the spot A Report on Early SF comics – Ahrvid Engholm (Sweden)

A Report on Early SF comics – Ahrvid Engholm (Sweden)

28
0

 

 

 

 

When Superman made his Swedish debut, he was called “Titanen från Krypton” (“The Titan from Krypton”) and had yellow pants…

As a little kid I read the Swedish Superman magazine, my probably earliest encounter with an SF setting, alongside the German TV show “Space Patrol” which came around the same time. Since those young years I have never been very much into comics, though I probably read more of it than average, I usually visit the yearly comics festivals in Stockholm and have a number of contacts in the comics field.

…he later became Stålmannen (Steelman).

Superman is called “Stålmannen” in Swedish, ie “Steelman” – we had to use the “S” on his chest and he is “The Man of Steel” after all. When first published in Sweden, in the weekly pulp Jules Verne Magasinet/Veckans Äventyr the years 1940-47, he was labeled “The Titan from Krypton”, referred to in text as “Övermänniskan”, “Over-man”, ie “Superman”, and had yellow pants! Later it was changed to “Stålmannen” and blue pants. He obviously became popular. The magazine began a department called “The Swedish Steelman of the Week”, portraying athletes and sportsmen, and started a Steelman Club. Superman had his own Swedish comic book 1949 to 1999.)

A couple of sites now offer downloading of scanned old public domain comics from mainly the 1940’s and 50’s. We have:

http://digitalcomicmuseum.com/

http://comicbookplus.com/

The number of old comic books available is said to be more than 25 000! You need to register to download, but it is free and fast. The comics are usually in the formats .CBR or .CBZ, which normal PDF readers can’t show. You could use the SumatraPDF reader which is good for these formats (as well as PDF and EPUB), with free download from eg: http://blog.kowalczyk.info/software/sumatrapdf/free-pdf-reader.html .

The reason these comics are in the public domain is, as I understand, that US copyright law required registration for copyright. It would cover 28 years, with the possibility to re-register once for a total of 56 years. If you didn’t re-register, copyright lapsed after 28 years and as later legislation wasn’t made retroactive lapsed copyright stays that way. Many older publications weren’t re-registered and are thus now in the public domain.

I downloaded a sample of comics with titles that seemed like they would have science fiction contents, from the early 1940’s to the late 1950’s. We have, for instance:

n  Atomic Age Combat (1952), Atomic Attack and World War III (both 1953; I only mention the year of the comic book I downloaded, not the entire lifespan of publications, but many were short lived), with a content you can easily guess. Atomic War is here! The evil Russians attack and the brave American lads shout “Ouch!” as an atomic bomb detonates a mile away and duck and cover into their foxholes, before emerging with blazing guns below the mushroom cloud. The bombs seem rather “small” – the much more powerful hydrogen bomb hadn’t really arrived yet – and they are survivable unless you are very unlucky. In the skies jets fight it out, many with futuristic designs resembling winged rockets. Radioactivity is sometimes mentioned, but more in the manner of something annoying that you can brush off. Sometimes the enemy is communist China (reflecting the Korean War) and it is all a great adventure.

 

There were TV spin-offs, like Captain Video (1951) and Tom Corbett Space Cadet (two magazine versions, 1953 and 1955). I have seen a couple of episodes of the TV shows – they are available somewhere – and the comic books follow the original characters and background. Though the artwork in these early comics often is crude, it is reasonbly good in the 1951 Cpt Video and the 1955 Tom Corbett (and awful in the 1953 version). A typical Cpt Video adventure deals with the evil Dr Hypnox who wants to steal our Video friend’s scientific secrets to dominate the world. But after a chase in spaceships, a couple of fists on the doctor’s jaw and a big explosion in the end, his plans have to be postsponed. Cadet Corbett is more interplanetary. The blurb for a 1955 adventure: “The terrible dangers of dark space are sometimes as great as the evil plots that hide in the hearts of some people! The SPACE CADETS discover this when the blast off on…THE SPACESHIP OF DOOM!”. The settings are much more varied than in the TV shows, as far as I can compare. The shows were made live in a studio, at least early on, which limited the plots quite a bit. The magazines also have extra stories not realated to the title character, usually of the skiffy type. The 1955 Tom Corbett even has two pages (I’ll get back to that) called “Space News” with short science related news pieces.

An interesting thing is that several of the well-known sf pulps seemed to have “companion” comic books, with names and logotypes connecting to the original pulps.

We have Amazing Adventures (1950, logo resembling Amazing Stories), Planet Comics (1945, Planet-Stories like logo) and Startling Comics (1942, dito Startling Stories). Starling Comics even has adventures of a Captain Future, who however has nothing to do with Edmond Hamilton’s pulp hero. The comics version has superpowers, can fly, doesn’t live on the moon and his uniform is totally different, just an ordinary superhero. The artwork in my issue of Amazing Adventures is rather good and the cover is a painting from the lead story “The Asteroid Witch”. Most comic books had coloured ink drawings for covers. Planet Comics also has reasonably good artwork, while Startling Comics does a rather poor job. Not all stories in the sf-ish mags I downloaded are sf. Startling Comics has detective stories, a pirate adventure and a short western story too. Planet and Amazing are true to the genre in the issues I have, though. A couple of them have one-page science factoid comics, like “The Amazing X”, “The biggest/tallest/first/etc Y”, “The invention of Z”.

 

Some of the early comics artwork could be rather primitive.

And about science, we have the eduational Science Comics (1946) and the all-adventure Captain Science (1950) with standard adventures not worth going into. Science Comics tries to educate. Its story “How Museum Pieces are Collected” opens for some adventures among wild animals, but also shows how museum staff prepare items for exhibitions. “Radar: It Sees the Universe” has a lot of technical info, and a cute story is “Ant Civilization”: “For a tour through a typical ant community, let us imagine that you in some magical way are reduced in size..let us suppose too that the ants are dressed like human beings and can speak out language.” We learn about electricity in “How Energy Makes Things Go”, we have a page of “Home Science Experiments”, one with “Science Oddities” and finally the tale of “Walter Reed, the Man Who Conquered Yellow Fever”. Not too bad for a young kid who wants to learn about the world.

“Space stories of the future”, indeed. A rocket pack would be very practical so you don’t turn up late for work.

  

Comic books with “space” in the title are common: Space Detective (1951), Space Action (1952),  Space Westerns (1952), Space Adventures (copyright year missing in the scan, but it looks early 50’s).

Cowboys in space. You can get everything in comic books!

Space Westerns has two straight western stories, and two skiffy ones. In one a flying saucer lands among a bunch of cowboys, in the other a cowboy is kidnapped by aliens because a planetary queen needs his services. Space Detective is more action than deduction, with stories like “Batwomen of Mercury”, “Metal Murderers of Mars” and “Slave-ship of Saturn”.

It is the same with Space Action – we would be disappointed otherwise – and Space Patrol. A story in Space Adventures is about two interplanetary policemen finding someone smuggling the strong drink “fluvia” to Mercury, where it is illegal. As they are left without fuel for their rocket, they find that their seized “fluvia” works splendidly as replacement fuel! The quality of the stories varies a lot, and so does the artwork. But there are always a lot of rockets, planets, spaceships, aliens, rayguns, etc.

I won’t go through all of the around 20 sf related comic books I downloaded. And it is only a small dip into an ocean of 25 000+ comics anyway. Most of them also have very interesting advertising, trying to sell exciting gizmos and toys to the readership of (mainly) young boys. You can buy everything from a secret deciphering ring to a replica of Flash Gordon’s spaceship, things usually made of cheap plastic and a bit disappointing when they arrive.

Here’s an interesting thing: of my comic book sample, nine had short sf stories in text, and others had other text material – science news, competitions, editorials, etc – usually running to exactly two pages. I have read somewhere that the US postal service in those days required publications to have a minimum of two pages of text to be distributed under cheaper magazine rates. (Those without text pages probably went through other channels, directly to the newsstands.)

The short stories (in one case even three pages) are 6-7 000 characters or about 1 000 words, and usually uncredited. The credited stories I find are (and I don’t know if the names are real or pen names):

“The Victory of Klon” by Garold S Hatfield (Planet Comics, and that is a three-pager).

“Orbital Error” by John Martin (Captain Video).

“Don Tyler’s Triumph” by Robert Wallace (Thrilling Comics).

 Worth noting is that all of the comic books are in full colour. Some may have an individual one-page story in only black and white, and maybe that’s because the editors didn’t have time to colour it. It would be available for that page too, but as I understand most of these publications where produced in a rush, with adrenaline and stomach acid pumping as the poor editors and artists worked overtime to meet the deadlines.

If we compare to the Swedish comics market, most of our comic books were in black and white in those days. Donald Duck was always in colour and some comics for younger kids too, but otherwise it was b/w. Superman was in b/w until the early to mid 70’s; that what was I read as a kid and I never minded it (today I don’t mind b/w films either). Sometimes it think that colour can hide poor, rushed artwork. That Swedish comic books were in b/w is, I guess, due to a smaller market. Colour printing is more expensive and a smaller market means smaller sales and income. I understand that the US Superman comics (which began in 1939, after the character had been introduced in Action Comics in 1938) could sell well above 1 million copies. Swedish Donald Duck, the most popular comic book on our market, could at best sell more than 250 000 copies (in 1971; the 2011 figure was 63 000) and the perhaps most popular adventure comic here, the local version of The Phantom, in the late 1970’s sold around 160 000 (compared to 24 000 now, according to the latest figure).

In the US comic books became highly controversial because of Fredric Wertham‘s book Seduction of the Innocent (1954), blaming comics for everything from juvenile deliquency to drug addition. There was a wild debate, including senate hearings, and the industry formed a Comics Code Authority to “clean up” things and ban horror, sex, too much violence and all things considered “immoral”. See the list of what the sensitive youth needs to be protected from here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comics_Code_Authority .

Approved comic books had a CCA stamp on the cover. That some didn’t like this later lead to the establishment of “underground comics”. The CCA system has now collapsed since major publishers have withdrawn from it.

In Sweden a similar debate began with Nils Beijerot’s book Serier Barn Samhälle (1954; “Comics Children Society”), and publishers tended to be careful about comics contents, but a formal system of industry censorship was never adapted. A major event was the trial against leading underground comics publisher Horst Schröder in 1989, for claimed “violence pornography” in breach of the Freedom of the Press Act. He was acquitted.

Oops! A little atomic bombs hits the US Congress. That can’t be healthy…

Finally, a few words about these old comics. Even if the stories usually are ridiculous and some of the artwork really poor, old comics have a certain charm. That’s not always the case with modern comics. Some of them go on and on in complicated plots that make no sense, like when a publisher has the silly idea of “rebooting their ‘universe’ “, in a desperate attempt to stir up interest in a field slowly going down. Internet, computer games, social media and such today grabs the kids’ time and attention. Others comics of today are “artsy”, a mix of psychedelia and postmodernism, or they have characters walking around in life being depressed all the time, or the writers and artists have Important Social Issues to push down our throats – as if TV and newspapers aren’t full of it already.

I’ll never be a huge devourer of comics, but if I’d have to choose what to read I think I’d prefer comic books from a few decades back to much of what is published today, even if today’s artwork generally is much better.

Comic Book+ has 25 000 old comics, now in the public domain, for free download.

© Ahrvid Engholm

Ahrvid Engholm

Ahrvid Engholm  is a swedish author, editor, journalist and SF fan.

 

 

 

Previous article“Doctor Sleep” by Stephen King: Danny Torrance is back!
Next articleSF Literary Evenings with the British Writers Paul McAuley and Richard K. Morgan in Bucharest

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.