A century is one of those chunks of time that resonates. Something that is 100 years old is considered an antique; Wikipedia notes that an antique is “an object that represents a previous era or time period in human society.”
And 1914, I recently noticed, was a year that brought America several creators who would enrich what was not then known as “popular culture.” 1914 was a true turning point, bringing to the world gifted innovators in a field that did not yet exist: the field of comic books.
Classic pulp artists Hannes Bok, Edd Cartier, and Virgil Finlay were born in 1914 within a month of each other.
Well-known comics artists Vince Alascia, Henry Boltinoff, Lou Fine, Ward Kimball, Paul Norris, Mac Raboy, and Saul Steinberg were born in 1914.
Let’s face it: Every year probably produces a number of notable creators.
But, speaking of “notable,” consider this (doling out their names in alphabetical order): In 1914, Bill Finger, Joe Shuster, Jerry Siegel, and John Stanley were born.
Bill Finger wrote countless comic-book stories, many of them anonymously, brainstorming with artists during the story sessions and writing the earliest tales of icons Green Lantern and Batman.
Artist Joe Shuster and writer Jerry Siegel co-created a number of comic-book stories and characters, but, of course, their signal triumph was the creation of Superman.
Writer-artist John Stanley worked in anonymity for almost his entire career and told me once that he had produced stories in such volume that it would have been impossible for him to provide even the beginnings of his comics bibliography. Best-known for his storytelling comic-book tales featuring Marjorie Henderson Buell’s Little Lulu, his work also includes chilling horror stories. (Hey, he even killed Raggedy Ann and Andy!)
As I began to consider the milestone of 1914 from the standpoint of the comic books that were to come, it occurred to me to consider the term that has become standard in our field.
… is 12. The entertainment we treasure when we are 12 is what tends to form our own view of what constitutes The Golden Age. It is the time when our imagination is captivated by popular entertainment. It is what we return to when we think of the fictional heroes we love best. (By 1944, critic Gilbert Seldes, born in 1893, wrote, “The fact is that comic strips have taken a direction in the last few years which may be good for them but is certainly not pleasing to me. The result is that I am less interested in them, less informed about them, and less enthusiastic than I was in 1924 when I last wrote about them.” In 1924, they were certainly closer to what he had loved when he was 12.)
In any case, when the comics creators born in 1914 were 12, their Golden Age was 1926.
What was that pop-culture world in which they lived? What would they try to capture when they, themselves, became comic-book pioneers? Walt Kelly (born only a year before them) shared the experiences of those kids in Five Boyhoods (edited by Martin Levin in 1962). Before he was 12, “The curious wringing envy with which some of us would stand around the home of a man who owned an automobile was a sign that we recognized wealth.” He recalled parades held at the end of World War I.
And, “On rainy days we might lie around each other’s houses looking at Mutt and Jeff cartoon books, all of us determining to become cartoonists and rich. Or we might read from the tattered copies of Horatio Alger and decide we’d go straight, rescue somebody beautiful with golden hair, preferably the local magnate’s daughter, and become head of the firm—very wealthy, respectable, and, above all, kind to the poor. Other books were the Boy Allies series, the Battleship Boys, and, of course, the Frank and Dick Merriwell books.”
Without the newsstands so common in later years, newspapers and magazines were often delivered by kids in the early years of the twentieth century. Kelly had seven customers on his Saturday Evening Post route. “It should be added that none of these unfortunates ever received the Post until I had spent most of the day dawdling through my own copy, laughing at [stories of the black detective by Octavus Roy Cohen] Florian Slappey, marveling at Norman Rockwell, and envying Charles Livingston Bull, who had the greatest name for an animal artist I have ever heard.”
Obviously, the earliest comics were to be found in daily and Sunday newspapers. Kelly wrote, “Their main attraction to us boys were the sports scores and the funny papers. We decided that we’d be either great sports writers, great athletes, or great cartoonists. It was hard to choose.” As he grew older, he even became fascinated by the political cartoons of “Ding” Darling.
Consider some of the other seeds that would flower in stories in the 1930s and 1940s. When their creators were little kids, World War I (and the draft) pulled many family members to Europe, transcontinental phone service and Prohibition began, many friends and family members died of the flu, and women got the vote and their hemlines began to rise. Listening to phonograph records were established entertainment, while listening to radio became more common, and early “radio plays” were introduced.
In fact, storytelling had morphed from a time in which dramas were performed in person by actors to a time in which people around the world saw actors’ performances preserved in film. Kids and grownups went to the flickers, and Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and more, more, more were adored.
And, yes, censorship pressures had long since begun. Martin Sheridan wrote in his 1944 edition of Comics and Their Creators, “Comic strips always have had a number of opponents. During the pre-war period from 1910 to 1912, vigorous campaigns were waged by women’s clubs, religious organizations and magazines to eliminate the comic supplement from the newspaper. One speaker said, ‘the comics tend to make children too smart, because of their glorification of the cheeky, disrespectful child. The newspaper should not be sold to children under sixteen, at least. Its chronicle of scandal, sin and crime gives a distorted view to the child.’ ” Hmm.
In any case, by the Golden Age of comic-book pioneers, they had easy access to such comic strips as Bringing up Father, Krazy Kat, The Gumps, Gasoline Alley, Minute Movies, and Little Orphan Annie. There were already adventure pulp magazines aplenty. Moreover, in that Golden Age of 1926, Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories began.
And then what? The ’20s were already “roaring.” Then sound came to films—with The Jazz Singer and animation’s “Steamboat Willie”—and the first color movies were exhibited. Popular culture was doing pretty well for itself.
And then came the Depression.
And young men who’d been entranced by Tarzan and Sherlock Holmes and Douglas Fairbanks and The Bat and The Man Who Laughs and The Shadow and Gladiator—they began to make a living crafting their own stories. Incorporating elements they’d loved in their personal Golden Age.
And here we are. Consider the babies born in 2014. What memorable entertainments will be part of their Golden Age in 2026?
What will the formats be by then? How will they be distributed? I was surprised to read that newsstands weren’t routine community businesses in 1914. Will newsstands even exist—at least, in cities—by 2014?
For that matter, how will the entertainments themselves evolve? Will the characters so well established for comics fans today but so little known to the public at large (think: Guardians of the Galaxy) be considered old hat? Or classic?
The stories our creators are planning now will be part of the Golden Age of today’s babies. I think those kids will be in for a world of fun.
Maggie’s World by Maggie Thompson appears the first Tuesday of every month here on Toucan!