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Fred Van Lente Presents: 15 Unbelievable Moments In Comic Book History

by  in Lists, Comic News Comment
Fred Van Lente Presents: 15 Unbelievable Moments In Comic Book History

Currently, IDW Publishing is releasing a brand-new version of Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey’s classic comic book history series, “Comic Book History of Comics,” only with never-before-seen additional content and with the whole thing colored by Adam Guzowski (the original series was in black and white). Check the first issue out at IDW’s website. The second issue is due out later this month.

RELATED: True Crime: 15 Real-Life Comic Book Robberies

One of the things that Van Lente and Dunlavey make clear in the series is how there are so many fascinating connections out there in the world of comics, with comic book creators connected to famous people and events in ways that you might not have known about. We asked Van Lente to suggest some of the more notable examples of surprising connections and he delivered, complete with the section of “Comic Book History of Comics” that dealt with that topic! We then rounded out the list with three amazing connections between Jack Kirby and some of the most famous people in pop culture history.

15. “Yellow Journalism” Came from the Yellow Kid

yellow-journalism

Richard Felton “R.F.” Outcault debuted the comic strip that would soon be known as the “Yellow Kid” in an 1895 edition of Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper, the “New York World.” The strip (which became known as “Hogan’s Alley,” named after the neighborhood that the Yellow Kid lived in) soon became a sensation and sales of the newspaper skyrocketed. Inspired by the success of “New York World,” George Randolph Hearst purchased the “New York Journal” and began to hire away Pulitzer’s most valuable employees, eventually wooing Outcault away, as well. Amazingly enough, Pulitzer would keep on producing “Hogan’s Alley” comic strips, only by a new artist, George Luks. Meanwhile, Outcault had the Yellow Kid leave Hogan’s Alley behind for a new home, McFadden Flats, in the pages of the “New York Journal.”

The fight between the two newspapers over the Yellow Kid drew a great deal of derision from other newspapers, as well as news critics of the day. Both papers also drew derision for their seeming attitude that “sales are more important than the truth” when it came to their reporting. However, the specific critique of “yellow journalism” was first used by Elvin Hardman, editor of the “New York Press,” when Hearst began running Yellow Kid comics mixed into his editorial pages. The term was quickly picked up by others critics and soon became a generic insult for Hearst and Pulitizer’s newspapers.

14. The Fall of Fleischer Gave Rise to the King

fleischer-kirby

In the early days of animation, the two biggest studios were run by Walt Disney and brothers Max and Dave Fleischer. When cartoons were short and in black and white, the Fleischers were able to keep up with Disney, having great success with “Betty Boop” and “Popeye.” Even when Disney’s exclusive use of color on cartoons ended in 1936, the Fleischers were able to keep up, releasing a number of hit color “Popeye” cartoons. However, the turning point came with the advent of the feature animated film.

People forget today just how risky of a financial proposition it was back then to do a movie, spending money on producing a product that you wouldn’t be able to make any back on until it was finished. If the final film wasn’t a success, you were sunk. Disney, luckily, was successful with “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.” The Fleischer’s response, “Gulliver’s Travels,” was not a big enough success, hurting them enough financially that even their later hit series of “Superman” cartoons weren’t enough to keep them afloat.

The problem was that for Fleischer to even have a chance at making their money back on their expanded product line, they had to move out of New York City and to Miami, Florida for tax breaks and lower costs. As a result, they let go of their New York-based artists, which sent a whole pile of young artists scrambling for work. Many of them followed the same path of young Jacob Kurtzberg, who turned to the booming comic book industry. Kurtzberg used a number of pseudonyms before settling on the name he would be best known for – Jack Kirby. It’s possible that Kirby would have left Fleischer Studios even had they stayed (he hated the work there), but we’ll never know for sure.

13. Will Eisner Ripped Off Superman

wonder-man-eisner

Inspired by the success that DC Comics was having with its new superhero comic books, Victor Fox formed his own comic book company, Fox Feature Syndicate, and began putting out his own superhero comics. He hired Will Eisner‘s nascent comic book studio, Eisner-Iger (formed by Eisner and Jerry Iger, who would draw comic book stories and sell them to other publishers) to create a Superman knock-off called Wonderman. It hit the stands less than a year after Superman made his debut in “Action Comics” #1.

National Publications (the comic book company now known as DC Comics) sued them, and Eisner had to testify at the hearing. For decades, Eisner always claimed that he sunk Fox’s case by telling the truth in his testimony. Eisner even drew a comic book story based on the incident in which he did just that. However, in real life, his testimony was as follows:

Q: At the time that you made the drawing marked with a capital X, had you in any way known or heard of the plaintiff’s character “Superman”?

A: No, sir.

Q: And at the time you thought of the phrase or words “The Wonderman,” had you at that time ever heard or had you ever known of “The Superman,” which is the plaintiff’s character?

A: No, sir.

Q: And until you heard of this lawsuit you, the creator of “Wonderman,” never read the strip “Superman,” is that right?

A: That is true.

Fox still lost the case and had to stop making “Wonderman.” They fired Eisner and Iger and began to hire their own artists. One of their earliest hires was Joe Simon. They later gave Jack Kirby some of his earliest superhero work.

12. The Mayor of NYC Offered Protection to Jack Kirby and Joe Simon

laguardia

A few years later, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby would be working together, launching the patriotic superhero Captain America for Timely Comics in 1940. The first issue of “Captain America Comics” depicted their hero punching Adolf Hitler. While World War II had begun a year earlier, it is important to note that the United States would not enter the war for more than a year after “Captain America Comics” #1 came out. Thus, at the time that Simon and Kirby released their comic book, they were making a bold political statement. Their comic angered Nazi sympathizers in the United States in particular, who were not too fond of these two young Jewish kids having their character punch out Hitler on a comic book cover.

Joe Simon later recalled how the then Mayor of New York, Fiorello Henry La Guardia, ended up stepping in:

We were inundated with a torrent of raging hate mail and vicious, obscene telephone calls. The theme was “death to the Jews.” At first we were inclined to laugh off their threats, but then, people in the office reported seeing menacing-looking groups of strange men in front of the building on 42nd Street and some of the employees were fearful of leaving the office for lunch. Finally, we reported the threats to the police department. The result was a police guard on regular shifts patrolling the halls and office.

No sooner had the men in blue arrived than the woman at the telephone switchboard signaled me excitedly. ‘There’s a man on the phone says he’s Mayor LaGuardia,’ she stammered, ‘He wants to speak to the editor of Captain America Comics.’ I was incredulous as I picked up the phone, but there was no mistaking the shrill voice. ‘You boys over there are doing a good job, ‘ the voice squeaked, ‘The City of New York will see that no harm will come to you.’

11. Patricia Highsmith Wrote Comics (and Dated Stan Lee!)

patricia-highsmith

Acclaimed novelist Patricia Highsmith, known for the thrillers “Strangers on a Train” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” as well as the semi-autobiographical romance novel, “The Price of Salt” (later re-titled “Carol” and recently made into a film of the same name), was surprisingly one of the most prolific comic book writers of the 1940s. After graduating college, she needed a way to make money until her prose career took off, so she worked for a number of comic book companies.

One of the companies she did a lot of work for was Timely Comics, which is now known as Marvel Comics. Her editor was Vincent Fago, who was in charge because the normal editor-in-chief of the company, Stan Lee, was in the Army. When Lee left the Army after the war, Fago actually set Highsmith up on a date with Lee. The two did not get along (Fago and Lee were unaware that Highsmith was a lesbian). When Highsmith’s prose career took off, she never spoke of her comic book career again and actually burned all records of this time in her life, which lasted seven years!

10. The “Crime Does Not Pay” Creator was Jailed for Manslaughter (and then Murdered)

crime-does-not-pay-bob-wood

In the early days of comic books, publishers were willing to switch approaches on a dime if a new fad or trend could make them more money. That’s just what happened at Lev Gleason Publications when two of Gleason’s editors, Charles Biro and Bob Wood, suggested doing comic books about real life criminals. They quickly changed the name of their superhero comic book, “Silver Streak,” to “Crime Does Not Pay,” which became a sensation. Soon, all comic book publishers were telling real life crime stories. The Comics Code, though, was partially designed to specifically eliminate the success of these violent comic books, and by the mid-1950s, true crime comic books were dead; pun intended.

Bob Wood then landed into trouble, himself. Wood had always struggled with gambling and drinking, and in 1958, he hailed a taxi and proceeded to tell the cab driver the following (according to the “New York Daily News”):

“I’m in terrible trouble. I’m going to get a couple of hours sleep and jump in the river.”

“What happened? Did you kill somebody?” the driver asked, jokingly.

“Yes, I killed a woman who was giving me a bad time in Room 91 of the Irving Hotel. Why don’t you call someone at a newspaper and make yourself a few dollars?”

A few years after Wood was released from prison, having served three years for first degree manslaughter, he was murdered himself over some unpaid loans. Crime really does not pay!

9. Wonder Woman’s Creator Helped Create the Lie Detector

marston-lie-detector

William Moulton Marston (who went by the pen name Charles Moulton), was the co-creator of one of the most famous superheroes of all-time, Wonder Woman. However, he had another contribution to society that might be even more significant. Marston was a psychologist, but in the 1920s, he also invented the systolic blood pressure test, working with his wife Elizabeth (who first noticed the association with her blood pressure and her moods). The systolic blood pressure test was one of three tests used together to form the polygraph, the most famous lie detector test. The polygraph test measures blood pressure, heart rate and respiratory rate to determine if someone is lying.

John Larson was the one who put the three tests together to form the polygraph, and other forms of lie detector tests had existed before Marston came up with his blood pressure-based test. However, since Marston is the most famous person associated with the test, he tends to get credit for creating it. It didn’t hurt that Marston actively promoted Larson’s invention in a series of advertisements based on the idea of someone not being able to tell a lie when it came to the reliability of a certain product (most notably, Gillette razors). It is especially interesting to note Marston’s involvement when you take into consideration that Wonder Woman’s magic lasso eventually became a bit of a lie detector test itself (although it did not serve that function while Marston was writing the series).

8. Santa Claus got EC Comics Banned in Massachusetts

santa-claus-banned

After the great success of their humor comic, “Mad,” the popular comic book company EC launched a slightly more risque spin-off called “Panic.” If “Mad” was PG, “Panic” was sort of an R, or at least a PG-13. The first issue lived up to its title, as it caused quite a panic in the state of Massachusetts, over the last story in the comic, drawn by the great Will Elder, who adapted Clement Clarke Moore’s classic (in public domain) poem, “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” It was filled with lots of twisted humor. Responding to a number of complaints received over the issue, Massachusetts Attorney General George Fingold announced that “Panic” #1 was to be banned in the state of Massachusetts because it “desecrated Christmas.”

As you might imagine, though, the Attorney General doesn’t actually have the power to just announce the banning of periodicals because they “desecrated Christmas,” and Fingold acknowledged as much, instead saying that what he was asking was for retailers to VOLUNTARILY “ban” the issue. That’s exactly what retailers in Massachusetts did, in great numbers. As you might also imagine, none of this publicity helped EC when the The Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency held their hearings on the effect of comic books on children a few months later in the Spring of 1954.

7. Hugh Hefner got Harvey Kurtzman to Leave “Mad”

hefner-kurtzman

The aforementioned 1954 Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency ended up destroying a good deal of the independent comic book publishers by the end of the 1950s. Essentially, any publisher that didn’t have either a hit superhero series (like DC’s “Superman”), a hit funny animal series (Dell’s Walt Disney products) or a hit teen humor series (Archie‘s whole product line and Timely’s “Patsy Walker”) were screwed. EC managed to stay in business by taking their one remaining hit comic book, “Mad,” and making it a magazine.

For years, people would often believe that “Mad” became a magazine so that it would be unaffected by the newly installed Comics Code, which was extremely restrictive regarding possibly offensive content. However, that was not the case. Instead, the change was a result of Harvey Kurtzman, the main creative force behind “Mad,” wanting to get into the magazine business. William Gaines later recalled:

I changed it because Harvey Kurtzman, my then editor, got a very lucrative offer from, I believe, “Pageant” magazine, and he had, prior to that time, evinced an interest in changing “Mad” into a magazine. At the time, I didn’t think I wanted to because I didn’t know anything about publishing magazines. I was a comics publisher. But, remembering this interest, when he got this offer, I countered his offer by saying I would allow him to change “Mad” into a magazine, which proved to be a very lucky step for me. But that’s why it was changed. It was not changed to avoid the Code. Now, as a result of this, it did avoid the Code, but that’s not why I did it. If Harvey had not gotten that offer from “Pageant,” “Mad” probably never would have changed format.

With “Mad” now a successful magazine, Kurtzman ended up leaving anyways when Hugh Hefner hired him to launch a similar version of “Mad” for him. The result, “Trump,” was a flop. Kurtztman would do another satire magazine for Warren Publications, but Hefner didn’t forget Kurtzman either, and Kurtzman’s greatest commercial success ended up being his “Little Annie Fanny” comic strip in “Playboy” magazine, which he started writing in 1960 (working with his old EC colleague, artist Will Elder).

6. Julius Schwartz was Ray Bradbury and H.P. Lovecraft’s Agent

schwartz-lovecraft

Nowadays, most modern comic book creators were fans of comics when they were growing up. However, in the earliest days of comic books, the creators of the comics didn’t have any comic books around to be fans of. Instead, the people who later would have become comic book fans were instead fans of science fiction and fantasy pulp fiction stories. One of those fans was Julius Schwartz, who was friends with two other science fiction aficionados, Mort Weisinger and Forrest Ackerman. The three men put out one of the very first science fiction fanzines in 1932. Their connections to the various science fiction and fantasy writers compelled Weisinger to decide that he and Schwartz should form an agency for these types of writers. Weisinger later recalled:

When a writer writes a story out of town, he mails it to “Amazing Stories.” If it’s rejected, it has to go all the way back to California. So he sends it to “Wonder Stories.” Then it goes back and forth, because they send it blind. They don’t know what the editor wants. Now we talk to the editors, and he can find out if they want an interplanetary story of about six thousand words, or if they want this or that. Then we can relay this information to the writers. And of course we can become their agents and collect the usual fee of 10%.

Their agency, Solar Sales Service (Schwartz and Weisinger loved alliteration), handled some of the most famous science fiction and fantasy writers around. Their first clients were Edomond Hamilton and Otto Binder, but they also handled some of Ray Bradbury’s first work and some of H.P. Lovecraft’s last. Weisinger left the agency to become an editor for the pulps, where he would hire a lot of those same writers, particularly Hamilton. He then went to go work for National Publications’ comic book line (now known as DC Comics), where he became the long-running editor of the “Superman” line of comics (he had Hamilton and Binder write for him there, as well). Schwartz kept the agency up until business dried up in the early 1940s. He then ended up at All-American Comics, which had been working with National Publications and eventually was sold to National. There, Schwartz became its most famous and long-running editor, helping to start the Silver Age of comics when he re-launched a number of superhero characters at National, including the Flash, Green Lantern and the Justice League of America.

5. Fellini Visited Stan Lee

lee-fellini

Inspired by the success that Schwartz was having at DC Comics with the revival of their superhero line, the comic book company then known as Atlas Comics began putting out new superhero comics of its own beginning with 1961’s “Fantastic Four.” The comics were a hit and the company was soon re-named Marvel Comics. Of course, DC never stopped putting out superhero comics. The “Superman” line of comics were particularly popular throughout the 1950s, but they did not put out a large line of superhero comics before the Silver Age revival, apart from “Action Comics,” “Detective Comics,” “World’s Finest Comics” and a few others.

Still, this “Marvel Age” of comics brought a great deal of attention from around the world. The problem, of sorts, was that almost all of the attention was directed towards the Editor-in-Chief of the company, the affable and charming Stan Lee, who scripted almost all of Marvel’s early output (with his brother, Larry Leiber, scripting the stuff Lee did not). Lee was the co-creator of all of Marvel’s 1960s creations like the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the Hulk, Iron Man and Thor. However, the artists who created those characters along with him — most prominently Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko — did not get nearly as much attention from the rest of the world.

World famous film director Federico Fellini visited the Marvel Comics offices because he wanted to meet Stan Lee. Later, film director Alain Resnais did the same and even went further, hiring Lee to write a script for a film for him (it was never made). Lee’s fame was not undeserved, of course, but the way the world only seemed to acknowledge his contributions to Marvel Comics aggravated Kirby a great deal.

4. Hugh Hefner Inspired the Batman TV Series

hefner-batman

During the 1960s, the booming college student population (as all of the Baby Boomers began to go to college) led to the creation of so-called “college films” — those designed to appeal to young adults. One of these films debuted in 1965. It consisted of splicing together all the 1943 “Batman” serials as a film called “An Evening With Batman and Robin.” College students would then watch the film ironically, making fun of how kitschy the low budget serials were.

The films became popular and soon began playing elsewhere, including at Hugh Hefner’s famed Playboy Club in Chicago. While playing there, ABC executive Yale Udoff was in attendance and was amazed at the response by the (mostly young adult) audience. He called his bosses at ABC, as he knew they had already been examining the idea of doing a TV show based on a comic character, and he strongly recommended they adapt Batman. “Batmania” soon ensued around the globe.

3. Paul McCartney Dedicated a Song to Jack Kirby

kirbydrawsmccartney

On Paul McCartney’s 1975 Wings’ album, “Venus and Mars,” there is a song called “Magneto and Titanium Man.” It is a cute, fun song where three Marvel villains from the 60s commit a robbery — Magneto, Crimson Dynamo and Titanium Man. The inspiration for the song came while McCartney was on vacation in Jamaica with his family. He had to keep his kids entertained, so he and his wife Linda would buy them a bunch of comic books every Saturday. McCartney had been a comic book fan as a kid and now he found himself interested in these modern comic books, and they inspired him to write the song when he got back to recording the album.

Later in 1975, Wings went on an international tour to support the new album. In June 1976, they made their way to California. Gary Sherman, brother of Jack Kirby’s assistant Steve Sherman thought that Kirby and McCartney should meet. So, he came up with the story that Kirby had a drawing that he wanted to give to McCartney. Eventually, McCartney’s people agreed and Gary just had to tell Jack that he had to now do a drawing for McCartney! Kirby, in his typical awesomeness, whipped up a great drawing of Magneto, Paul, Linda and the band in less than an hour (a detail from which is shown above). Paul thanked Kirby for the drawing and for helping to entertain his kids during the vacation. He gave Jack, Gary and Jack’s daughter Lisa tickets to the show that night. At the concert, McCartney introduced Kirby, “In the audience tonight, we have the creator of Magneto and lots of other comic characters, and I’d like to dedicate this song to Jack Kirby.” He then played “Magneto and Titanium Man.”

2. Johnny Carson Insulted Jack Kirby

johnny-carson1

Jack Kirby was a part of the disastrous launch of Harvey Comics’ “Captain 3-D” comic book, which came out right when the 3-D comic book boom had exploded. Years later, in 1982, Kirby drew another 3-D comic, along with the great Ray Zone, called “Battle of the Third-Dimensional World.” Along with the comic, they included 3-D glasses that had on them “Jack Kirby, King of the Comics.”

At some point soon afterwards, Johnny Carson did a bit involving the glasses, and it soon turned into a riff on the tagline on the glasses. Carson was quite put off that this Kirby guy was calling himself the “King of the Comics” when famed stand-up comic fan Carson had not even heard of him. Carson asked his sidekick, Ed McMahon, if he had heard of him. “No,” said Ed. The bit went on for awhile, with Carson ripping Kirby the whole time. Kirby was quite upset about the whole thing and even considered legal action against Carson. Ultimately, things were resolved amicably, with Carson devoting time on his show to apologizing to Kirby for his mistaken comments. So the King of Late Night and the King of Comic Books had an interesting crossover!

1. Jack Kirby and Frank Zappa Almost Worked Together

zappa-kirby

The late Frank Zappa was a big comic book fan. He even advertised his albums in Marvel Comics in the 1960s! Later in his life, Zappa ended up living in the same neighborhood in California as Jack Kirby. Zappa was a huge Kirby fan, so he took the opportunity to strike up a friendship with the legendary comic book artist in the early 1980s. Kirby visited the Zappa household and he and Zappa smoked (tobacco only, don’t get any ideas) together while talking about various topics. Zappa’s son, Ahmet, later recalled that Kirby made a point of noting that he felt that his “Fourth World” stories were an influence on the “Star Wars” films (“Empire Strikes Back” had only recently been released at the time).

A year later, Zappa had his biggest commercial hit with a surprising song featuring his 14-year-old daughter, Moon Unit Zappa. It was called “Valley Girl,” which mocked the slang of California teens of the time (stuff like “I am so sure” “Barf me out” and “Gag me with a spoon”). While mocking “Valley girls,” it ended up making the slang even more popular! The song’s success inspired Zappa to ask Kirby about trying to do a “Valley Girl” comic strip. Kirby even put together some sample strips.

valleygirl

The strip was not picked up, though.

Thanks to Fred Van Lente for his suggestions for this list! “Comic Book History of Comics” #2 is out later this month.

What other amazing comic book connections can you think of? Let us know in the comments section!

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