Adult Comic Books

Posted by on March 22nd, 2010 at 2:53 PM

As we’ve seen in our last couple of outings, newspaper comics fairly early in their history developed features for children as well as strips for adult readers, the original audience for newspaper comics. By straddling the gulf between childhood and adulthood with one foot in both, newspaper comics managed to survive as adult entertainment while also appealing to kids. The industry even developed a formulaic approach to the situation: the Sunday funnies were for the whole family (i.e., the kids), but the daily comic strips were for adults. And comic strip cartoonists were, for a time, advised to tailor their product accordingly.

Comic books, which were to pass through a similar phase in the 1930s, did not manage the same trick of retaining both audiences simultaneously even though they began with the same expectations as newspaper funnies. Comic books started out as publications for general, all-ages audiences. Adults as well as children.

The earliest comic books reprinted newspaper comics and were, therefore, targeting adult as well as juvenile readers—families, in other words, exactly the newspaper reading audience. No surprise: these books were, after all, reprinting a newspaper product. But the earliest comic books offering original material created expressly for comic books were also aimed at a general audience, an audience that conspicuously included adults.

The first such production was New Fun, and it arrived on the stands in early 1935. It was the concoction of Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, onetime cavalry officer who had launched a newspaper feature syndicate in the 1920s, selling serialized illustrated fiction. (In form, these serials were prototypical comic strips—sequences of pictures with narrative typeset text beneath them but no speech balloons. It was the same form that Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan took when illustrated by Harold Foster in 1929.) New Fun was published as a 10×15-inch tabloid and offered some material much the same as Wheeler-Nicholson had syndicated. In other words, it was aimed at a general audience.

In content, New Fun offered both humor and adventure comics. Each title was presented in the format of a Sunday strip—a single page with logo in a panel at the top. Just like the newspaper Sunday funnies and aimed at exactly the same audience: men and women as well as children.

That Wheeler-Nicholson had adults as well as children in mind as readers can be verified by looking at the advertisements in New Fun No. 1. In addition to ads for model airplanes, he published ads for razor blades, weight reduction, coin and stamp collecting (illustrated with a picture of an adult woman), and music lessons (with a woman illustration again). These sorts of products, as Ron Goulart points out in his 50 Years of American Comic Books (updated as 60 Years of American Comic Books), were staples in the ads of the pulp magazines of the day.

And Wheeler-Nicholson pursued the pulp tradition even more assiduously thereafter in manufacturing other comic books with pulp-sounding titles: New Adventure Comics (which eventually became simply Adventure), Detective Comics, and, in the summer of 1938, Action Comics.

Although the pulps were often bought and read by young people, they were envisioned as adult entertainment. In fact, publishers of pulps often claimed their magazines wouldn’t be read by youngsters because the vocabulary in the text was too mature for youthful readers to understand and would, therefore, act as a deterrent to purchasing by young people.

Wheeler-Nicholson’s comic books followed in these pulp footsteps. While the stories in the comic books had a pulpy flavor, the accompanying pictures made them attractive to youngsters, too. Again, the evidence suggests that these early comic books were geared to a general, all-ages readership.

Two other evidences of the original marketing intent of comic book publishers lurk in the medium’s early years. First, the ten-cent price during the early years of the Depression was not an amount that many (if not most) youngsters would be likely to afford. So publishers clearly expected comic books to be purchased by adults. A dime became more readily available late in the thirties as the Depression eased; and by then, comic book publishers had begun to target young buyers.

A second indicator of the publishers’ initial hope for an adult audience for comic books can be found in the history of Superman. Which we’ll inspect next time.

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One Response to “Adult Comic Books”

  1. jingard says:

    Another very interesting article. As a non-American non-pensioner, I was most interested in your comment about the ten-cent price. Would that have been out of reach of the average adult who wanted to treat their kid to a comic-book in the early Thirties? I ask this question after having spent a long time in a Lego Store at the weekend with two eager young consumers.