2006 — Volume 2, Number 2

“Hey! That Ain’t Funny!”(Part 2)

Religious Comic Books
in the Forties

by Mark Carlson

In Part 1 of “Hey! That Ain’t Funny!,” readers were introduced to comic book idealist George Hecht, publisher of True Comics and the Parents line of comic books. The entrepreneurial instincts of Albert Kanter, the founder of Classics Illustrated, were also scrutinized. This installment finds other publishers trying to tap into the new market for morally uplifting comic books.

Picture Stories From the Bible

Classic Comics had missed the boat in not adapting the best-selling classic of all. The Bible. That challenge was met by M.C. Gaines, one of the publishers of DC Comics. Gaines called his effort Picture Stories From the Bible.

Inside of Max Gaines, comic book entrepreneur was a frustrated educator. Gaines had gone to school to become a teacher and later worked as an elementary school principal. Once into comic books, Gaines oversaw the creation of fantastic heroes such as the Flash, Hawkman and Green Lantern. But the energetic Gaines harbored a secret dream of producing comics that would be seen as having actual educational value. The recent success of Parents’ True Comics and Gilberton’s Classic Comics made that dream seem all the more feasible. Choosing to adapt the Bible in comic book form, however, remained an act of considerable chutzpah.

Gaines selected Montgomery Mulford as writer and editor of this ambitious project. Mulford was no veteran of comic books, but he was a Sunday School teacher and had written articles for young people in numerous church magazines. Together, Gaines and Mulford assembled an impressive board of religious advisors, comprised of eleven leaders of the Catholic, Protestant and Jewish faiths. All three religious versions of the Old Testament were consulted in the preparation of the adaptation. Don Cameron was selected as illustrator, an adequate but non-dynamic storyteller. By the Fall of 1942, the first quarterly edition of Picture Stories From the Bible was ready for printing. “For the first time in colored continuity,” its cover boasted. Calling the effort a comic book was apparently felt to diminish its importance.

Each of the eleven advisors commented on the adaptation in the text pages of that first issue. Most notable among these was Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking. Wrote Peale, “Mr. Gaines has put the Bible stories into the modern comic form without sacrificing the accuracy of the Biblical text, and with all due reverence.”

What was lost was something else—namely, dramatic appeal. Story execution and artwork were notably bland. Although the serpent was allowed a brief chuckle after tempting Eve, in Gaines’ adaptation generally the stories hewed closely and perhaps overly cautiously to the Biblical text. Nor was the artist allowed to take advantage of opportunities for visual grandeur. It took only two cramped panels to build Noah’s Ark. Even more disappointing, only four pairs of animals were shown entering it.

“I don’t care how long it took Moses to cross the desert,” Gaines is purported to have said, in a story recounted by Frank Jacobs. “I want it in three panels.”

Even the text pages were rather middle-of-the-road, claiming inspirational rather than explicitly religious intentions in publishing the series. “We see that the Bible lives today,” Gaines wrote on the back cover of issue #2. “Much of our civilization is based on its ideas… A book which has endured so many centuries and has so powerfully affected the lives of so many people must commend itself to every American boy and girl.”

Such an earnest effort naturally engendered a great deal of praise. Even so, Gaines still came under criticism for the cover illustration on his second issue. David was portrayed standing over a fallen Goliath, sword raised, ready to slay the giant. “Too violent,” he was told by critics. In future editions, the scene was replaced by four sedate panels taken from within the comic.

Despite that small bump in the road, DC’s four-issue adaptation of the Old Testament was clearly a financial success. A “Complete Old Testament Edition” of 232 pages was issued in 1943. That same year, Gaines reported total sales of one million copies for all five editions. He proceeded to divide $3500 of profits between the various advisory groups, according to historian Steve Mitchell (Comics Buyers Guide, 5/17/85, p. 54). A hardcover version of the Old Testament edition was published by Bible Pictures Limited two years later.

It only made sense that Gaines would publish a three issue adaptation of the New Testament in 1944. Written and drawn by the same creative team, the first two issues were reprinted as “The Complete Life of Christ Edition” the next year. A “Complete New Testament Edition” arrived not long after. With Picture Stories From the Bible, Gaines followed Kanter’s Classic Comics strategy in issuing second and third editions of the material at hand. By the fifties, over five million copies of “colored continuity” had been sold. The comics also found use in over two thousand Sunday Schools across the country.

Several imitators followed, but with limited success. Standard Publishers beat Gaines to the press with the Jesus story, with a three-issue Life of Christ Visualized (1942-43). Standard followed up with the Life of Joseph and Life of Esther Visualized in 1946 and 1947 respectively.

In 1945, L.B. Cole produced The Living Bible for an independent publisher. As always, Cole’s covers were visually striking. The first issue of The Living Bible adapted the story of Paul, while the second featured the stories of Joseph and Jonah. Cole tried to underscore the serious intent of the title by having the letterer forgo word balloons and convey any dialogue in the narration. But all this did was make the inferior artwork seem even more static than it might have otherwise. The final issue of The Living Bible featured a contemporary story of wartime chaplains.

Authentic Publications issued an oversized, 16-page comic book called The Eternal Bible in 1946. It only lasted one issue.

Only Gaines found success with a decidedly ecumenical, inter-faith approach. His only real rivals in the religious sphere would come from self-identified Catholic publishers.

The Cathechetical Guild

The success of comic books of all stripes was undeniable. Religious publishers, especially those in the Catholic Church, began to question the wisdom of leaving such a powerful medium exclusively in the hands of secular publishers.

The first Catholic comic books were printed in November 1942 by the Catechetical Guild Educational Society. The Guild was the brainchild of Father Louis Gales who operated out of the Archdiocese of St. Paul, Minnesota. In 1936, Gales — along with two other priests — had already launched Catholic Digest, the most widely read Catholic periodical in the country. But he was not one to rest on his laurels.

Gales understood the power of popular media over children. He established the Catechetical Guild with the express purpose of distributing uplifting literature to Catholic youth. By 1942, he guided the Guild into new territory, serving as managing editor of a fledgling comic book he called Timeless Topix. Within a year, Gales wisely shortened the title to a single word.

At first, Topix featured mostly historical reenactments of Christians who had displayed their courage and religious values in the face of hardship. Each issue featured a “saint of the month” and an adaptation of a Bible story, as well as a mix of other material. Topix also had the distinction of featuring the first professional work of Peanut’s creator, Charles Schulz! No one would have known his promising future from his Topix material. Amazingly enough, Schultz was only hired as a letterer.

One of the quirkier features ever to run in Topix revolved around a pint-sized angel named Wopsy. The cherub (the creation of Father Gerald F. Scriven) had starred in a series of children’s books published by the Guild in the early forties. Mostly text accompanied by simple line illustrations, the books told the story of a guardian angel so small that he could only watch over a baby. But that baby just happened to be the first black child baptized as a Catholic in a remote African village. Wopsy’s job was to insure the safety of the child’s soul, all in whimsical fashion, of course.

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By 1948, Wopsy stories were being visually adapted for comic books. In the February issue of Topix (v. 6, #5), Wopsy has to save baby John from the efforts of his own father. The father, named Bugomi, is having second thoughts about his son’s baptism by the missionaries. That night, he secretly delivers baby John to the men of the Leopard Society, who are dancing around a fire with pagan abandon. The baby’s soul will soon be lost if Wopsy doesn’t act fast.

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The little angel promptly leads a pair of lions to the scene, urging them on. “Come on,” he says. “I’ve got something for you to do.”

But things don’t proceed as the guardian angel hoped. The lions don’t immediately attack. Determining that the big cats are afraid of fire, Wopsy extinguishes the flames with a puff of angelic breath. The lions promptly pounce on the ungodly gathering, as a chastened Bugomi whisks his son to safety.

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“I won’t do it again,” Bugomi declares, handing his son over to a decidedly white priest. Wopsy looks on approvingly from atop a tree as the priest walks with the baby in his arms, Bugomi a respectful two steps behind.

Needless to say, the Wopsy books are no longer in print. 

Later issues of Topix also starred a Western hero named Pat McGuire. Topix was one of the few comics in which cowboys stood around talking about building churches. (Parents’ Tex Grainger was the other!)    

Topix was distributed exclusively to parochial schools and was only published while school was in session. A paid circulation of 200,000 copies after one year soon rose to 600,000 by 1946. Over five thousand schools in all received the publication (per Mitchell, CBG, 5/17/85, p. 54)

Much like Kanter and Gaines before him, Father Gales saw the potential in reprinting his comic books. He issued a hard-covered book entitled Men of Battle in 1943, which consisted of 160 pages of reprints from early issues of Topix. Selling for a dollar, the book actually cost more than the original issues it collected. He later published two editions of New Men of Battle in 1949, each consisting of five issues of old Topix issues rebound with wraparound cardboard covers.

The value-laden stories of Topix doubtlessly influenced many parochial readers. But Father Gales’ greatest success by far was achieved when he decided it was time to warn Catholic youth against the growing threat of communism.

Is This Tomorrow?

Is This Tomorrow was published in 1947 by the Catechetical Guild, boasting the provocative subtitle “America Under Communism!” On the cover, communists are physically attacking three Americans: one white, one black, and one a priest! Behind this violent tableau, the American flag is nearly hidden by flames. For the first time an educational comic book succeeded in being as visually vivid as its super-hero rivals. Inside, the story was as compelling as its politics were suspect.

All 48 pages of Is This Tomorrow (no question mark was included) is devoted to a single story. The reader learns a terrible drought is threatening the nation with starvation. American communists promptly decide this is the opportunity they’ve been waiting for to take over. The chief communist is named Jones, a grey-haired intellectual sporting glasses and a goatee. Jones asks his head of propaganda for an update.

“By far the most successful approach has been the “front” set-up,” his associate reports. “As you know a few of our boys start a ‘front’ to oppose fascism or intolerance or something else that is unpopular … (Then) we get prominent left-wing speakers and give ourselves plenty of publicity.”  

Manipulating strings across a map of the United States, Brown explains how “we’ve been training writers and editors for years to follow the party line.”

The communists start their plan to cripple America by calling for massive strikes. While Jones allows that the communists must “never make the mistake of thinking that American labor is communist,” he nonetheless boasts how “we are able to trick labor into letting communists control some unions.”

By the ninth page, the author of Is This Tomorrow has managed to cast doubt on the legitimacy of anti-fascist organizations, labor unions, popular media, and left-wing speakers in general.

Kicking their plan into action, the Communists turn workers against farmers, whites against blacks and Christians against Jews. Armed union members shoot and kill police officers. With the Speaker of the House already in their pocket, the Communists assassinate both the President and Vice-President. The new President initiates rationing. Fearing the crisis is still insufficient to motivate their power grab, the Communists destroy remaining food stores and blame the fascists for it. (Oh, those poor misunderstood fascists…)

Jones takes over for the ineffectual new President. He assassinates top military leaders who advocate acting against the unions that are still engaging in massive, nationwide strikes. The communists kill ministers who speak out against them. Schools begin teaching children that they are to obey the state and not their parents.

When a brave Catholic fellow tries to kill Jones, the wily leader declares the whole thing a Vatican plot. And then the Communists turn against the unions. Workers now are forced to work under slave labor conditions and are whipped when they put up a fuss. If only they had kept their mouths shut in the first place.
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The story reaches its climax when a young Catholic boy turns in his parents for still practicing their religion. The Communists smash a statue of the Virgin Mary, hidden in the family’s basement, with an axe.

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Pushed to the breaking point, the boy’s father hands him over to the Communists. “You’ve got his soul,” the father declares, as the boy looks on, more than a little shaken. “Now take his body, too.”

“Incredible?” a back cover blurb asks in bright red ink. “It is unbelievable — that such a small group could ever dream of enforcing its will upon the majority. But remember that a group far smaller than the number of Communists living and working in America today seized control of Russia in 1917…

“If you want to keep on living in freedom, you must know who the Communists are — and their methods of working … You owe it to yourself to know all about the invader. He knows more about you than you suspect.”

Is This Tomorrow initially sold for a dime a copy. It was so successful that multiple editions were ordered. At some point, some group or organization bankrolled its free distribution among parochial schools. That this colorful story was intended for children is clear. My tattered copy, “distributed as a public service by the Cathechetical Guild,” has the name Robert Wynne, Grade 5-A written across the bottom of the cover in a childish drawl.

When all the dust had settled, it’s estimated that over four million copies of this anti-Communist polemic were either sold or distributed across the country. However much one might disagree with its tone, the comic book still made for compelling reading. It does not seem unreasonable to suggest that Is This Tomorrow contributed, in its own small way, to the anti-Communist paranoia that would come to a boil in the early fifties. To be Catholic, it seemed to say, was not only to be anti-Communist, but anti-union, anti-Hollywood and anti-left as well.

Other Catholic Comic Books

The appearance of Topix was soon followed by Heroes All Catholic Action Illustrated, which was published from 1943 to 1948. Heroes All Catholic was issued by the publishers of Catholic Boy, a text magazine which had already experimented with comic inserts as early as 1941. As its name suggests, Heroes relied heavily on illustrated biographies of courageous church figures.      

It came as no surprise that other publishers of Catholic youth magazines tried to emulate the success of the Father Gales’ Catechetical Guild. The world of parochial publishing was a small one; after all, nearly everyone involved in creating educational materials for parish youth were priests. One of Father Gale’s colleagues at the Guild had previously worked at Catholic Boy. A cross-fertilization of ideas was inevitable.

Heroes All Catholic, like Topix, was intended only for parochial use and was available through subscriptions solicited at school. Clerical entrepreneurs were ready to test other markets. In 1945, Father Myron Florey of Scranton, Pennsylvania tried issuing his Paradise on Parade on newsstands. Florey also published a companion comic book, Pictorial Catechist, for classroom use (per Mitchell, CBG, 5/17/85). However, neither effort achieved notable success.

Catholic Comics arrived on the scene in June of 1946. It was published by William Bennett of Catholic Publications, Inc., but art and editorial duties were handled by the fledgling Charlton Comics staff. Its lead character was Bill Brown of Notre Dame, a collegiate sports star who was once spurred on to victory by catching a glimpse of the school cathedral’s golden dome! Other regular series in Catholic Comics were Pudgy Pig and “A Fable of Aesop,” the latter always ending with a non-religious moral. Each issue also included the requisite hagiography as well as a contemporary adventure of Father O’Malley’s C.Y.O. (Catholic Youth Organization).

Catholic Comics was wholesome, if pedestrian fare that shared the “concerned” parent’s disdain for fantastic heroes. This was nowhere more apparent than the text feature in its November 1947 issue, “Tom Mercer Meets the Real Superman.” In it, Tom is caught reading a superman (not capitalized) comic book in parochial school. To his surprise, Sister Mary doesn’t punish him but instead tells him about a group of real supermen, the angels! At the end of her story, Tom quietly asks for his funny book back. 

“Slowly and deliberately Tom tore it,” the text informs us, “once, twice, three times, then threw the pieces into the waste paper basket. ‘I guess I’ve learned my lesson, Sister. I was a chump to be wasting my time reading that trash. Thanks to you and the class for introducing me to some real supermen.”

If seemed as though the editors of Catholic Comics believed a child’s passionate interest in super-heroes represented a peculiar sort of idolatry. Angels not withstanding, Catholic Comics folded in 1949. By comparison, a rival Catholic publication would show remarkable longevity.

Treasure Chest of Fun & Fact

George Pflaum, the publisher of Youth Catholic Messenger, entered the religious comic field in March of 1946. His entry, entitled Treasure Chest of Fun & Fact. Treasure Chest, was considerably more contemporary in tone than most other Catholic comics, mixing in a healthy dollop of modern-day stories of young people with the requisite Biblical adaptations and stories of saints. It appeared every two weeks throughout the school year.

The first issue of the publication featured an open treasure chest on the cover. Inside, it promised a diverse range of series that included Skee Barry, Salvage Diver U.S.N., the Robinson’s Rumpus Room, and the What If Fairy. This last series featured a feminine fairy who appeared whenever a child uttered a fanciful what if. “What if salt could talk and tell us where it came from?” a young girl wondered idly over breakfast. The What If Fairy immediately appears and a salt shaker promptly comes to long-winded life. Another story in that inaugural issue explained how pancakes came to be, though luckily no sentient flapjacks were on hand for that one!

Only one Treasure Chest series survived the first half year of publication. “Chuck White” was described in its opening installment “as a new kind story about a real boy. Follow the adventures of Chuck White, who thought he’d left not only his gang, but fun behind when he moved to Steeltown.”

Dark-haired and often brooding, Chuck White participated in a serialized story set in real time. Cliffhangers relied on emotional climaxes as often as physical threats. Here was a teen-ager who could be sullen, reckless and well meaning in equal measure. Chuck was even prone to talking back to elders when upset. As Chuck prepares to leave his home town in the opening installment, one rough and ready buddy tells him that they’ll miss him. “Yes,” agreed another with a grin, “but the cops won’t!”

Chuck’s father is happy his new job requires them to move. (Chuck’s mother deserted the family years before.) He’s eager to give his son a fresh start away from the bad company he’s been keeping and tells him so. 

“Aw, Pop,” Chuck complains. “Those guys are okay.”

Even though they’re not Catholic, Chuck’s father decides to enroll him in a parochial school on the recommendation of a trusted co-worker. Father Carroll, the athletics coach, tries to take Chuck under his wing, but Chuck resists. By the end of second episode, Chuck’s gotten into a fist fight with Joe Kelly, the football star Father Carroll asked to befriend him.

Nor do things get better any time soon. By episode five, Chuck has been arrested due to his passive part in a grocery store break-in. Readers accustomed to quick and easy turnarounds must have wondered what was going on. A judge ultimately removes Chuck from the custody of his father, who works a night shift and thus is unable to properly supervise him. He assigns the supervision of Chuck to Father Carroll and the kindly old lady who owns the grocery store in question. And on that equivocal note, the first year of episodes of “Chuck White” ended. Readers had to wait until the fall to find out what would happen.

Chuck’s metamorphosis into the upright fellow many readers of Treasure Chest recall took place gradually over the next school year. An excellent athlete, Chuck is encouraged to join the high school football team where he promptly lets early success go to his head. His school ends up losing the city championship because Chuck can’t control his temper and punches a member of the opposing team for taunting him. The resulting foul invalidates a key touchdown. Chuck is promptly (and understandably) ostracized. Joe’s sister, Janie, is one of the few students who try to comfort him.

The series continues to confound expectations in later episodes. When Joe and Janie’s little brother is trapped in a burning building, Chuck rushes in to try and save him. But by the end of that installment, Chuck’s the one who needs rescuing. Father Carroll manages to help, but ultimately all three require the assistance of trained firefighters to escape. His courageous effort helps Chuck reclaim the trust of his classmates.

But Chuck has not suddenly sprouted good judgment. His zest for fast cars leads him back into the company of the gang that got him arrested in the first place. More out of foolishness than anything else, Chuck gets entangled in a scheme to resell stolen cars. Getting Chuck out of trouble requires his father and Father Carroll to travel back to his home town to find his mother. By the end of the school year, Chuck’s family is on the verge of reconciliation.

Rarely had a comic book teen-ager been allowed to be as complicated (foolish, heroic, hot-tempered and generous in spirit all at once) as Chuck White. Nor were the lessons taught to him by Father Carroll and his foster mother always simple. After Chuck’s ego got him into trouble yet again, Father Carroll reminds him that his considerable athletic abilities are a gift from God.

“Isn’t it rather silly,” Father Carroll asks, “to get the idea that you are somehow responsible for having talents and, therefore, superior to others? … There is absolutely no reason in this world to get a swelled head about anything.”

Chuck White gradually grew into the hopeful vision those around him stubbornly held onto. In some ways the series seemed as much a guide for parents and mentors as it was for teens. Unfortunately, as Chuck became more mature, he also became less interesting, though he only retained a boyish bravado for some time. Now he would avoid an unnecessary fight at school, even if the other boys branded him a coward. He would also age at a rather normal rate, graduating from high school and (in later years) from college as well.

With the help of effective storytelling as exemplified by the Chuck White series, Treasure Chest  managed to outlast all of its competitors, still being distributed in Catholic schools until 1972. While numbers aren’t available for its early years, Treasure Chest maintained a circulation of 300,000 or higher throughout most of the fifties and sixties.

Protestants Pick Up the Challenge

Protestant sponsored comic books were virtually non-existent in the forties, perhaps because they lacked the vast network of parochial schools that supported the likes of Topix and Treasure Chest. Nonetheless, the Interfaith Committee of the Protestant Digest gave it a try. The end product, The Challenger, only ran four issues. But it was a very interesting four issues.

The Challenger was unique in its stated purpose as “a magazine pledged to fight race prejudice, discrimination and all other forms of fascism in North America.” To that end, editor Gerald Richardson rounded up the creative talent, including an up-and-coming young artist named Joe Kubert.

Challenger stories were action-packed and sometimes violent. They were a far cry from the usual religious/educational comic book. In “Scapegoat,” for example, a Jewish man was framed for murder in the Old West. In “Samurai’s Scourge,” a Japanese-American tricked a whole troop of Nips, his term, into imprisonment.

Joe Kubert’s “Olive Press” was even more political in tone. It portrayed the monopolistic opportunism of the owner of an olive press in Greece. When the olive growers form a cooperative to oppose him, the press owner allies himself with the Nazis. With the war over, the story ends with an appeal for money for those “bastions of democracy,” the cooperatives! Readers were encouraged to contribute “what you can” to the Freedom Fund of the Cooperative League located in New York City. The Cathechetical Guild, this wasn’t.

But the most interesting feature in The Challenger was a regular series called the Challenger Club. Comprised of Don and Margie, a white couple, and Tom and Sally, a black couple, the Challenger Club of Centralia College set out to challenge racism wherever they found it! Far from just standing on a soapbox, the four friends lived their principles, too. Don and Sally might share a dance together (Tom had no taste for the dance floor) and Don and Tom would openly hug each other, not caring who thought ill of it.

The challenges to racial acceptance the four friends faced were often complex and malevolent. In one story, Coach Plung of an all-white Southern college refuses to play Centralia unless their coach benches his black players. When the coach refuses, Plung’s players decide to compete anyway. Frustrated to the max, Coach Plung appeals to a racist benefactor of Centralia College named Crasty.

Crasty is only too happy to help Coach Plung. “I’ve been trying to run the Negroes out of this school for over two years,” he laments, “ever since they came north to work in our war plants” But Crasty and Plung’s scheme ultimately fails and the players on the Southern team end up starting a Challenger Club of their own.

The Challenger was certainly an ambitious effort, trying to address wrongs that other comic book publishers neither dared nor probably cared to mention. A far more conventional Protestant effort began in May of 1949. Like its Catholic counterparts, it was issued by a preexisting religious publisher.

The folks at Cook had been publishing three small magazines for use in protestant Sunday Schools: Boys’ World, Girls’ Companion and What to Do. All three had included the adventures of Tullus, a Roman warrior of the first century who spent his time rescuing fellow Christians from persecution. When all three periodicals showed signs of losing readership in the late forties, the editorial powers at Cook collapsed them into a single comic book called Sunday Pix. A five cent, eight page color weekly, churches could order Sunday Pix en masse to be distributed during their Sunday School classes.

Sunday Pix would show real staying power. Early issues included tales of “heroes of the Christian faith” to counter all those stories of Catholic saints found in other religious comic book. The adventures of Tullus could still be found, as well as pictorial adaptations of classics, starting with “The Gold Bug.” The serialized adaptation of the Bible, familiar to many children of a certain era, didn’t begin until 1959. But that’s a story for another article.

Did the radically different racial politics of Topix and The Challenger whet your interest for more information on the treatment of blacks in forties comic books? Then you’re in luck. Comics marketed to African-Americans, teen-age girls and even science geeks are all covered in the dramatic conclusion of “Hey, That Ain’t Funny!” in the next issue of Nostalgia Zine. As always, all comments, corrections or additions to this ongoing history of the comic book industry are encouraged!

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