It’s not always easy spotting a comic book trend in real time, but it becomes much easier (and a lot of fun) with hindsight. As the Golden Age drew to a close, horror was one of the new genres really getting a foothold in the industry. With this in mind, the editors of numerous long running superhero and adventure titles tried to tap into the horror vein to stay afloat. It didn’t work, but it was a fun experiment.
The late 40s was a strange time for Captain America. World War Two was over and the threat of the Red Menace hadn’t quite peaked. What was a patriotic superhero to do to boost sales? The first step was to introduce more macabre themes, and replacing the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner with the much spookier The Witness. Even he was replaced by straight ahead horror stories with titles like “Tomb of Terror” and “The Thing in the Swamps”. The title was switched to Captain America’s Weird Tales, and although his name appeared on the final issue – he’s nowhere to be found inside. The final issues of this series are highly desired in among Golden Age collector and were priced out of my budget decades ago.
Sensation Comics had been home to Wonder Woman and a host of other heroes since 1940. As tastes changed, so did Sensation Comics, to the point where it may have arguably become the first All-Female comic book, as it went through a Romantic Period just prior to the shift to horror. The change at Sensation was much more abrupt than with Captain America, as with issue #106, Wonder Woman, Dr. Pat etc… were gone and replaced by Johnny Peril and other horrific and suspenseful strips. I guess DC didn’t think the change was sufficiently drastic as they changed the title to Sensation Mystery with issue #110. The experiment would only work for a while, and the series was cancelled a year later.
A little known fact about Fiction House’s Jumbo Comics is that it feature the first ongoing horror strip in comics. Ghost Gallery began in 1942, but the fine folks at Fiction House correctly guessed that showcasing Sheena and assorted jungle animals on the cover would generate greater sales. By 1952, however, the powers-that-be felt that the world was finally ready for the Ghost Gallery to be featured front and center on the cover. It is rather odd seeing Sheena take a back seat for the final 7 covers, and her strip was demoted to the very back of the book. Again, the switch to horror must not have helped sales as Fiction House would not be part of the comic book world for much longer.
Many people will say that it was the DC lawsuit that scared Fawcett out of the comic book business, but I think plummeting sales had more to do with it. During the 40s, the Marvel related titles were reportedly selling in the millions. I can only assume that it was a dip in sales that led to the horror themed covers and stories that began to appear in the early 50s. Fawcett had introduced a line of great horror titles, and those themes permeated into the world of Fawcett City, to the point where Dr. Death became an ongoing strip in Captain Marvel Adventures. Of course, as well all know, the writing was on the wall for Fawcett and the Marvels. It’s a shame, because some of these latter day pseudo-horror issues are among the best Fawcett ever produced, and they are getting tougher and tougher to find at reasonable prices.
There are many, many more examples of this trend. I'm even considering doing a piece on horror themed westerns at some point. Many of these books had relatively low print runs in the early 50s, and can be quite tough to track down, as compared to their 40s counterparts. Happy Hunting!
For more random comic book chatter - stop by my blog: Seduction of the Indifferent