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Fiction House
   
Fiction House:
History and Influences
Andrew Goldstein

Fiction House began as in the 1920’s as a publisher of pulp literature. Throughout the 20’s, they produced popular pulp magazines covering a wide range of genres such as war, western, romance, and science fiction. When sales dropped significantly due to the Great Depression, owner Thurston Scott decided that comic books were the wave of the future. In the late 1930’s, businessman Jerry Eiger and artist Will Eisner approached Scott about the production of a Fiction House comic book line. The Eisner/Iger studio was already well established by this point as a work-for-hire studio in the business of servicing a variety of comic book publishers. In September 1938, Fiction House entered the comic book industry with its wildly successful Jumbo Comics. This was a landmark issue in that it not only was Fiction House’s first entry into the field, but also the first appearance of Fiction House’s flagship character “Sheena, Queen of the Jungle,” and the first comic art published by comics legend Jack Kirby. In January 1940, Fiction House expanded its lineup by adding titles Jungle Comics, Fight Comics, and Planet Comics. These titles were all spin-off versions of the pulp titles Fiction House was already publishing, and Fiction House never strayed very far from its pulp roots either in subject matter or stylistically.

Although Fiction House was a smaller publisher than many of its contemporaries, they were remarkable on several levels. For one thing, they managed to acquire top-notch talent. The aforementioned Kirby, as well as Spirit artist Eisner stand out as arguably the two most influential artists in the history of comic books. To describe the impact of either of these two artists would take (and has taken) an entire volume itself. Suffice to say that both men permanently changed the way comic books would look; the way that comic book artists would approach the drawn page; and the development of comic books as a narrative art form. Even aside from these two artists, men like George Evans, Lou Fine, Mort Meskin and Robert Powell stand out as some of the more prominent names among Golden Age artists.

Fiction House was supplied with much of their artwork through Jerry Iger’s studio. The Iger shop had progressive hiring practices for the publishers of the day, largely thanks to Iger partner Ruth Roche. Reportedly, they had more female artists on their creative staff during the 1940’s and 50’s than any other studio. Artists Fran Hopper, Lily Renee, Ruth Atkinson Ford, and Marcia Snyder were given full credit for their work, their names displayed equally with the male creators. Hopper and Renee were nominated in 2000 for induction into the Women Cartoonist Hall of Fame – the “Lulu Awards,” presented by the Friends of Lulu organization. Fiction House was also the main home of artist Matt Baker, the first well-known African-American comic book artist. Baker was best known for his sensuous portrayals of women, but he also excelled at draftsmanship and pushed the limit with his experimental layouts. Thanks largely to AC Comics’ Fiction House reprints, Matt Baker is now being rediscovered by a new generation of artists, and has become something of a cult figure among comic book art collectors.

Matt Baker’s most famous creation, Phantom Lady (Fox Features) The pin-up style of artwork practiced by Baker and his colleagues took off like wildfire and soon became known as something of a genre in itself, known as “good girl art”. Good girl art was broadly characterized by buxom women in provocative poses, and in fact the good girl books were occasionally referred to as “headlight books” in the contemporary street slang. This school of art actually had a long history prior to comic books, dating back at least as far as the heyday of pulp fiction covers. The good girls of Fiction House, as with those of other publishers, covered a wide variety of genres: superheroes and crime drama were the most popular, but good girls also featured in westerns, sci-fi, war stories and virtually every other genre. The good girl bandwagon was soon jumped upon by other publishers such as Better Publications (with titles Startling Comics, Thrilling Comics, and Exciting Comics) and Fox Features' All Top Comics, Phantom Lady, Rulah, Zoot and a host of others.

Despite the inevitable criticism that would arise in regards to the good girl publishers using sex appeal to market their comic books, the good girls (and even their evil counterparts, the femme fatales) presented positive female role models. In an era in which female characters were typically used as cannon fodder or window dressing, Fiction House’s heroines were progressively active and independent. In the words of Trina Robbins, author of The Great Women Superheroes:

“most of [Fiction House’s] pulp-style action stories either starred or featured strong, beautiful, competent heroines. They were war nurses, aviatrixes, girl detectives, counterspies, and animal skin-clad jungle queens, and they were in command. Guns blazing, daggers unsheathed, sword in hand, they leaped across the pages, ready to take on any villain. And they did not need rescuing.”

Unquestionably, Fiction House’s most popular creation was Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. Sheena, the creation of Will Eisner, was a beautiful and powerful jungle queen. The jungle queen archetype did not originate with Sheena – it dates at least as far back as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Jane” and H. Rider Haggard’s “She.” But the sudden popularity of Sheena produced an entire genre of Sheena imitators, such as Tiger Girl, Rulah, Cave Girl, Camilla, Princess Pantha, Tygra and Nyoka, to name just a few. Sheena and the other jungle girls fought a variety of menaces, from Nazis to slave traders, but they (and their male counterparts, the jungle lords) generally followed the basic theme of the powerful and just hero as a bringer of civilization and order to wild, untamed lands. This same theme was prevalent throughout the comic book literature of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, and stretched across every genre – from sci-fi to westerns, from war stories to crime drama.

Sheena first appeared in Jumbo Comics and was popular enough to warrant a second title (appropriately named Sheena). Her popularity outlasted Fiction House itself, and extended across television and cinema as well as comic books. In 1955-56, Sheena starred in her own television serial, played by former Varga girl and B-movie actress Irish McCalla. In 1984, the role was taken up on the silver screen by actress/model Tanya Roberts (the film was a critical and financial failure). In fall of 1999, Sheena was resurrected for television yet again: this time the role was played by former Baywatch actress Geena Lee Nolin in an action-adventure show very much in the vein of the popular Xena, Warrior Princess. At the same time, Galaxy Publishing, Inc. launched an animated, web-based serialization of Sheena’s adventures. In comics, Sheena was revived in 1998 by London Night Studios. Fans of the original reviled this Sheena, as she had traded in her blonde locks for red hair and her trademark leopard skin for leather. Under London Night’s treatment, Sheena was transformed from a “good girl” into a “bad girl” (more on them later). The original Sheena has fared much better: her adventures, and many other Fiction House original comics, are regularly reprinted in various AC Comics publications.

Unfortunately for Fiction House, some of the attention placed towards their trademark good girls was bound to be negative attention. This attention came in the form of a man named Frederic Wertham. Wertham, a New York psychiatrist, published Seduction of the Innocent in 1954. This book was an attack on the comic book industry, claiming that the reading of comic books resulted in an increase in juvenile delinquency. In SotI, Wertham followed on the heels of previous criticism against comic books, such as children’s author Sterling North’s 1940 editorials and author Gershom Legman’s 1949 Parade of Pleasure.

The pulp magazines, too – which Fiction House continued to publish throughout the 40’s – had been under attack for some time. In the 1930’s, New York’s mayor La Guardia cracked down on pulp publishers, imposing a code of decency. Vanity Fair and American Mercury magazines both published attacks on the pulps. President Herbert Hoover, concerned about the pulps, formed the Committee on Recent Social Trends to investigate them for “attitude indicators” that would reveal approval or disapproval of such matters as religion, morality, and communism.

But it was Wertham’s book that proved most damaging to Fiction House, as it was Seduction of the Innocent that lead to the 1954 senate hearings that resulted in the creation of the Comics Code Authority. The CCA was a desperate attempt by the comic book industry to install a strict code of censorship, lest such censorship be imposed by future legislation. This code prohibited any controversial or potentially offensive subject matter. In short, the comic book industry was dumbed-down and sanitized.

Wertham’s attack and the senate hearings were largely directed towards EC Comics and their line of horror publications. Fiction House, however, gave Wertham plenty of ammunition. The lascivious portrayal of women, and costumes and poses that displayed the female form, were one obvious (and some would say legitimate) complaint.

Another complaint of Wertham’s was the existence of “bondage covers.” Bondage covers were any comic book in which a victim was tied up. Indeed, it was typical of Fiction House comic book covers to depict one of more persons bound in ropes or chains. However, this is one of the many cases of misinterpretation on Wertham’s part. Whereas Wertham saw this as a representation of sexual deviancy, the tying up of a hero or heroine was a standard plot device of adventure storytelling, the use of which extended long before comic books as well as into other popular media. Ironically, the citation of bondage covers in SotI has made them highly sought-after by collectors today.

Wertham also criticized the depiction of violence against women. This was a somewhat legitimate observation, but Wertham seemed to miss the fact that the threat was almost always an implied one: acts of violence were rarely carried out, and the covers of most books were in fact more lurid than the contents. These accusations (and certain other ones, such as the negative portrayal of minorities) are among Wertham’s more justified observations. SotI also made some absurd claims, such as: the insistence that Superman was a fascist, Batman and Robin promoted homosexuality, and that romance comic books tempted girls to a life of prostitution.

The Comics Code Authority loosened its requirements over the years, revising the code once in 1971 and again in 1989. In the early 90’s (nearly four decades after Fiction House’s demise) the good girl books were echoed by a new trend: the bad girls. Like the good girl books, the bad girls’ books featured sexy, independent heroines. Unlike the good girls however, the bad girls frequently featured motives that were morally ambiguous. The bad girls displayed exaggerated sexuality: they would often be depicted fighting crime in little more than a thong and spiked heels, and artists would typically depict feminine anatomy that was caricatured to the point of absurdity. The bad girl publishers made no secret that the showing of scantily clad women was a selling point.

Despite the predictable backlash against the bad girls, the bad girl trend continues to this day, although it has tapered off somewhat. Surprisingly, the bad girls have a strong female following. In the words of one female comic book reader, “I’m a woman and I don’t have the slightest problem with the way women are portrayed in comics. I love to see powerful women kicking ass and I don’t particularly care how they’re dressed when they do it If you don’t like the way the women look or are bothered by the emphasis of certain body parts, don’t read the book.” Many of the women who read bad girl books are encouraged by the fact that the heroines are both powerful and sexy; or else they are willing to brush off the heroines’ exaggerated attributes as mere fantasy, just as male superheroes have been portrayed as being excessively masculine for decades.

The bad girls of the early nineties have given way to a new wave of heroines in recent years. The trend of largely endowed, violent heroines continues in popular titles such as Wildstorm’s Battlechasers and Top Cow’s Witchblade. However, other books such as Promethea (ABC), Birds of Prey (DC), Tomb Raider (Top Cow), and Buffy, the Vampire Slayer (Dark Horse) offer female readers alternatives in which the protagonists’ beauty is portrayed as merely coincidental to her other abilities.

Disclaimer: The author of this essay does not wish to give the impression that he condones sexist portrayals of women in comic books or in any other medium. However, it is my belief that “good girl art” and its descendant “bad girl art” are parts of comic book history that should not be overlooked, and that the preservation of creators’ rights is ultimately preferable to censorship.

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