|Edited by John Morrow||Jack Kirby Collector celebrates the life and career of the "King" of comics through interviews with Kirby and his contemporaries, feature articles, and rare & unseen Kirby artwork. Now in tabloid format, the magazine showcases Kirby's art at even larger size.|
The Mainline Comics Story: An Initial Examination
by and © Robert Lee BeerbohmFrom Jack Kirby Collector #25
A new splash page and other new art, like the page shown here, were used to fill out the INKY strips used for IN LOVE #3.
If Joe Simon and Jack Kirby had not picked Leader News to be the comic book distributor for Mainline Comics--their ill-fated self-publishing venture back in 1954--we might very well have witnessed them invent "The Mainline Age of Comics" by the time the 1960s Second Super-Heroic Revivals were in full sway. Mainline Comics most likely would have introduced us in some form to Challengers of the Unknown, The Fly and/or Spider-Man, The Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, quite possibly The X-Men, etc. Simon &_Kirby would have owned whatever was created in the early '60s, lock, stock, and barrel.
Think about it.
Leader News was also the distributor for Bill Gaines' line of Entertaining (EC) Comics, and the self-publishing team of Ross Andru and Mike Esposito issued such titles as Mr. Mystery (1951-1954) and Mr. Universe under MR Publications, Get Lost! (Feb-July 1954) under MikeRoss Publications, and many other titles through a still little-understood quasi-partnership with Stanley Morse. As we shall see, the fate of Mainline and other small independent publishers being distributed through Leader News was forever intertwined with Gaines' high media profile line of New Trend titles which centered on the horror, crime, suspense, war, science-fiction, and humor genres.
For more than a decade by 1953, the team of Simon & Kirby was synonymous with better-selling comic books--actually, the word "phenomenal" would be much more apropos--so much so that Simon & Kirby was the first creative team to have their byline printed on the cover of comic books as a specific selling tool.
Jack & Joe formed an equal partnership circa 1940, and for almost 20 years worked for many of the various comic book publishers, oft- times creating some of that company's star attractions before moving ever onwards to promised greener pastures. They broke into the comic book business through the sweat shops of Eisner and Iger, Lloyd Jacquet, etc. when a fully finished page brought a creator a mere $5 a page--if he was good.
From S&K, Martin Goodman got his top-selling title back in 1941, Captain America, followed a few months later with The Young Allies, among many other classic strips, which sold over a million an issue through all of World War Two. He would renege then--and again 25 years later--on royalty compensation promises made while the business was being built. Joe Simon told me, "Martin Goodman lied to us. He cheated us." (Martin's relative Arthur Goodman said recently he now believes Simon &_Kirby got a raw deal at Timely back then.)
Team Simon & Kirby soon thereafter went from Goodman to Liebowitz (following a very brief pit stop at MLJ, where Jack--sans Joe--basically drew just one cover) with the promise of huge royalties based on the number of copies sold increasing in the titles they contributed to. They accomplished what they were anticipated to do: They spiked upwards nearly everything they touched. DC sold many millions of Boy Commandos, clearly demonstrating a noticeable sharp upwards rise on Detective Comics' sales curve, prompting a breakaway title of its own dated Winter 1942. Joe told me, "All the service men were reading Boy Commandos. For a while, we were told by Jack Liebowitz that Boy Commandos was DC's #1 book."
A previously undocumented Kirby panel from the splash of the story "Fly Cop" in POLICE TRAP #4 (February 1955).
In addition to Sandman and Manhunter in Adventure Comics, they did The Newsboy Legion in Star Spangled. While they were away for the war they got substantial royalties from DC/National. The brash young team was easily where the term "hot" was coined as far as a creator's personal name stamp causing sales to go up--and they were very much in demand from nearly all the publishers they might want to work for.
(This was not a phenomena of the later era of the Direct Market. S&K sold out far higher numbers consistently, even more so than Claremont and Byrne at the height of that short-lived team's X-Men popularity and copy count salability, or the wunder-kinden of the former Image Comics consortium in their pre-Image days at Marvel or DC--to give it an historical slant for you younger readers trying to comprehend the many myths of the comics business I have been seeking to unravel for several decades now.)
Flush from victory after World War Two, and able to command a substantial profit-_participation in their books (between 25% and 50%), the creative team of Simon & Kirby basically created and then popularized the romance comics genre aimed at mainly female readers with titles such as My Date, Young Romance, and Young Love. Innumerable romance-oriented knock-off titles from all publishers became legion. S&K's supernatural entries were Black Magic and Mort Meskin's brainchild, The Strange World of Your Dreams. The crime genre was covered by them in titles like Justice Traps the Guilty and Headline Comics. The magic that was Simon & Kirby was making a lot of money for the lucky publishers working with them.
M. R. Reese, General Manager of Crestwood Publishing Co., Inc. wrote it thusly in the March 1952 issue of Newsdealer in an article entitled "The Comics Are Growing Up":
"...It remained for an astute observer to foresee the coming of the cycle and to make future plans accordingly. A case in point is the team of Simon & Kirby. They are two artist-writers whose high flying, hard punching Captain America and Boy Commandos had already earned a prominent place among the other best-selling comic characters of their type.
"It took a war to give Jack Kirby and Joe Simon a new _perspective, a position where they could observe at close range the people who were reading comics--the boys who were now men and demanding comics for men. And it stood to reason there were also the little girls who once saw in the comic super-hero a protecting brother, and were now willing to trade vigor for tenderness."
In a short, revealing bio in The Merry Marvel Messenger #1 (1966), Jack wrote (with nary a mention of Joe Simon, back when no mention of Joe Simon was allowed anywhere in Marvel Comics):
"Everyone hustled out of uniform and began raising families. I invaded Harvey Comics, drawing Stuntman, Boy Explorers, Boys' Ranch. Rushing into other strips, I did a teenage feature called My Date, an adventure satire named The Flying Fool, and a bit of whimsy labeled The Rich Rabbit. There was nothing to be done then but innovate Romance Comics, pulverize the underworld in Headline Comics and Justice Traps the Guilty, and play Edgar Allan Poe in Black Magic. With Fighting American, I was ready for laughs. But fooling around with the 3-D madness and Captain 3-D gave me the vapors. When I came out of the fog, I found I'd also done Win-A-Prize Comics, Bullseye, Foxhole, [In Love] and Police Trap."
Jack Kirby says he came out of a "fog." There was almost a year during 1954 of euphoria in that "fog."
The fog: A telling word for the creative mindset Jack and Joe experienced back in the mid-1950s which lasted for some years; a heavy word as they both struggled to maintain themselves at various levels of the comics business. Then the industry had a down time circa 1955-1957 which saw the implosion of dozens of publishers when more major distributors went bust, culminating with the collapse of century-old American News. Hundreds upon hundreds of creators were also knocked out of work, never to return to the comic book business.
Jack also referred to a decade of boom times stemming from 1945 through 1955; a decade some people these days are calling The Atomic Romance Era. Bill Gaines coined much of that era as a "New Trend" in comic books. It was most definitely an exciting time for highly creative comics work, as well as a time for substantial profits for many in the comic book industry. Dozens of "new trend" titles were tried out by all publishers and discarded with impunity. Everybody was copying everybody else if they thought it was selling, glutting the stands with imitation after imitation. America became awash with way too many millions of comics.
(I believe one could rightfully date the "Silver Age" of comics earlier than the first half-step of The Flash in Showcase #4 (1956), back to 1952 with the advent of such blockbuster-selling titles as Carl Barks' Uncle Scrooge Four-Color #386 and Harvey Kurtzman's Mad #1. It was also the year which saw the highest number--1158--of Simon & Kirby pages published. All S&K material was earning them percentage royalties. They knew no other way for almost 15 years.)
Joe Simon told me during a recent phone interview that Young Romance, Black Magic, etc. were selling in excess of a million per issue, but there were some serious questions concerning proper royalty remuneration from the Crestwood publishing people at the time. Joe said, "Crestwood was stealing from us right from the get-go. It almost went to litigation." Joe and Jack decided in late 1953 the best course of action for their young families was to take the plunge into self-publishing. This was an effort to maintain better control over their _creativity and also reap the financial rewards they knew they had been making for others for such a long time.
Jack and Joe also wanted to create comics for what was perceived to be an adult market; the demographics of the day suggested a comics-reading 12-year-old of 1940 was now a 25-year-old comics reader of 1953. Publishing was something that the two of them had wanted to do for a long time and it was only by late 1953 that they had made the necessary connections to get proper distribution. It didn't matter how good the product was if it couldn't be seen out in the marketplace.
Hence, by late 1953 was born the concept of Mainline Publications, Inc. Nevin Fidler, who had been involved editorially with Prize Western, became their business manager. He had also been an office manager at Crestwood and dealt directly with the distributors and other vendors necessary to make a comic book company function. Joe says Fidler was mostly a "front person" so the Crestwood people wouldn't find out, since the S&K studio was still doing books for them. Joe says, "He was a very bright young man--he was our age. He did the business work so we could create. We didn't have any other employees for that type of work."
While still maintaining their contractual output for Crestwood just in case they bellyflopped, S&K took every royalty penny they had built up since the end of World War Two, along with the distribution clout of paper and printing broker George Dougherty, Jr. (a long-time paper broker for the lumber industry whose father had been one of the printers at Eastern Color on Funnies On Parade back in 1933) who was fronting the paper. A commonplace 25% deposit was advanced by Leader News to World Color Press in Sparta, Illinois against projected sales to cover the printing and engraving costs. Joe and Jack felt they were making all the right moves utilizing the expertise of Nevin Fidler, who also owned a small piece of the action. On the surface it all seemed like wise, sound business moves.
Unfortunately, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham got a pre-publication excerpt for his book Seduction of the Innocent in the November 1953 issue of The Ladies Home Journal, seriously fueling fires which would soon rage out of control, culminating the following year in a moment of national hysteria. LHJ was very influential amongst America's mothers of the day.
(This was nothing new for this women's magazine. LHJ's earliest savage frontal assault on the comics began by 1909 attacking such legendary strips as Katzenjammer Kids, Happy Hooligan, Buster Brown, Foxy Grandpa, and others as unfit for children's consumption.)
The November 1953 LADIES HOME JOURNAL cover headline reads "What Parents Don't Know About Comic Books." Look what book the kid is reading in this photo from Dr. Wertham's article!
Joe wrote in his wonderful book The Comic Book Makers (Crestwood, 1990):
"Comic book publishers were dropping out of the business in wholesale numbers. The printers grew frantic. It was a necessity of their business that the presses keep running. When the presses were silent, printing companies still had to pay overhead, so they were more than willing to back a new comics organization if it showed promise. Since Simon & Kirby had one of the strongest creative records in the business, a printing salesman (George Dougherty, Jr., the same man who fronted paper to EC, MikeRoss Comics, Toby Press, Lev Gleason, Martin Goodman, and many other comic publishers) urged us to start a new line financed by very liberal printing credit.
"In the spirit, Jack Kirby and I established our own corporation, Mainline Comics, Inc. We [eventually] rented an office from the Harveys at 1860 Broadway--the same office where we had done the 3-D comics... We started with four new titles--Bullseye, Western Scout; Foxhole (war adventures written and drawn by veterans); In Love (each issue a complete romance novelette); and Police Trap ("true" stories told from the policeman's point of view)."
Their first bi-monthly title released was Bullseye, Western Scout (cover-dated July-August 1954), which debuted in May of 1954--just a few weeks after the initial Senate Subcommittee Investigations centered on comic books had been televised live to the nation, and Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent had begun to frighten a lot of parents. The editorial office was listed in the indicia as Mainline Publications, 119 West 57th Street, New York 19, New York. Joe insists they always worked Mainline out of 1860 Broadway, with the West 57th address most likely their accountant or attorney's place of business, since "it's a pretty expensive address there."
Bullseye's origin is told in a three-chapter book-length saga which spans the entire book. "The Boy," "The Youth," and "The Man" enables us to watch Bullseye grow up following a massacre perpetrated by "renegade" Sioux Indians led by the villainous Yellow Snake. Kirby supplied the art for the first chapter and the splash to the second, with other Chapter 2 pages featuring John Prentice pencils and John Forte inks. Chapter 3 is definitely Prentice doing the majority of the penciling with Meskin evident a bit on the splash. Other recognized creative elements on Bullseye so far include Bob McCarty and Charles Nicholas.
The month after Bullseye #1, Jack and Joe brought out Police Trap #1 (August-September) and In Love #1 (August-September). The cover of the first issue of In Love promised "Adult Reading" in a "Book-Length Love Novel" with a full-length Kirby and Simon story told in three chapters. Titled "Bride of the Star," it's about a woman who "had to share her husband with a million women fans who adored him! An intimate peek at the men and women who live and love behind the scenes of big league baseball." In addition there is a two-pager, "After the Honeymoon," and a three-pager, "Marriage or a Love Affair." Other recognized contributors to In Love so far include Carmine Infantino, Mort Meskin, Charles Nicholas (inker), Jack Oleck (writer), John Prentice, Tom Scheur, John Sink, Bill Draut, Hy Fleishman and Art Gates.
Police Trap #1's cover told us "Here are the scenes you read about but never see--the thousand dramas that take place in your police station." This comic book was made up of a series of short vignettes of four to six pages apiece pointedly portraying police in an ironic heroic light as seen through their eyes. Stories include "The Capture" (4 pages) by Mort Meskin, "Masher!" (5 pages) by Bill Draut, "Beer Party" (5 pages) by John Prentice, "Grafter" (5 pages) by Bernard Bailey, "Zany" (half-page) by Art Gates, and "The Beefer" (6 pages) by Joe Albistur. Recognized creative talents on Police Trap so far include Ross Andru, W. G. Hargis, Rocke Mastroserio, Bob McCarty, A. C. Hollingsworth, Al McWilliams, Jack Oleck (writer), Charles Nicholas (inker), Jack Kirby, and Joe Simon.
In Love #1 also has a cryptic in-house advertisement (shown at left) for a possible fifth title named Nightfighter, which never saw print because Mainline didn't survive long enough to add a super-hero to their fledgling line. Its promo blurb "Battle stories written as they are lived by the men who marched and cussed... and died! Here is your father--your brother--and your son, touched by the hand of war!" was undoubtedly meant for Foxhole, their highly-personalized war book--and fourth title--which was not yet advertised by name. Foxhole #1 (Sept.-Oct.) appeared on the stands the following month. Joe Simon had met Ken Reilly and Bill Draut through the Coast Guard combat art department in Washington, DC during the war. Jack Oleck was Joe's wife's brother-in-law and became a prolific comics writer. Many of the people working for Joe and Jack were friends of theirs they threw work at. Other recognized creatives on Foxhole so far include Bob McCarty, Ken Reilly, Joe Albistur, Art Gates, Mort Meskin, John Augustin, and Jack Oleck (writer).
Simon, Kirby, and their bullpen were a constant powerhouse of innovative new ideas, and these four titles comprised the self-publishing venture known as Mainline Publications. During the fall of 1954, Simon & Kirby's infant comics company secured a permit for second class printed matter for their subscriptions located at P.O. Box 3, Sparta, Illinois. Their editorial offices were still listed as being at 119 West 57th St, NY.
In Love #3 is basically made out of Joe and Jack's unsold newspaper strip from 1947, Inky. Most of the story consists of these strips Jack had drawn seven years before, cut up and pasted together to fit a comic book format. Most of the original art to this story still exists, and we know Jack drew an occasional panel or so in 1954 to tie it all together. The entire first and last page were drawn especially for this issue. Many people particularly like this story because some of it is autobiographical. Jack's statement about inspiration is especially telling about himself in the last couple of panels on page 4: "A man doesn't search for an inspiration... it explodes in his mind!!"
According to the Jan.-Feb. 1955 cover-dated issues, Simon & Kirby officially moved into space rented from Alfred Harvey at 1860 Broadway, NY 23, NY at this point in time. Joe told me they had been loath to let Crestwood's owners know their self-publishing plans until they had gotten firmly established. "We were never really at the 57th Street address. We had a two room office space at 1860 Broadway. We (had been) setting a pattern in play so the guys at Crestwood couldn't figure out what we were doing." The March-April issues have an additional address of South Justinson Street, Wilmington 99, Delaware. This could have been one of George Dougherty's addresses right before they made their plans public. The Statement of Ownership (dated Sept 1954) in Bullseye #5 lists Editor, Jack Kirby; Managing Editor, Joe Simon; Business Manager, Nevin Fidler; Stockholders: Jack Kirby and Joe Simon.
While EC had done more than any other single comics company besides Simon & Kirby to create a "New Trend" away from failed super-hero dominance in comic book publishing in the last half of the '40s, ten years later a small cabal of other larger publishers conspired in a series of moves to knock out some of their heaviest competitors. They are easy to identify as they were essentially the last ones standing by 1957 in their Comics Code club, outside of George Delacorte and Helen Meyer over at Dell Publishing who would have nothing to do with such a group.
Just as Mainline launched its initial public offering, millions of copies of EC comic books began being returned after Bill Gaines did a meltdown live before the public, during nationally-televised hearings on April 21 and 22, 1954 before the Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency. Senator Robert C. Hendrickson, Chairman, was interrupted by Senator Estes Kefauver, one time Presidential Hopeful, during a general philosophical discussion with the only comics publisher with the nerve to show up. In discussing what constitutes good or bad taste in a comic book, Gaines was asked if the cover of Crime SuspenStories #22 (May, 1954) fell into such a category.
Kefauver: "Here is your May 22 issue. This seems to be a man with a bloody ax holding a women's head up which has been severed from her body. Do you think that is in good taste?"
Gaines: "Yes sir, I do, for the cover of a horror comic. A cover in bad taste, for example, might be defined as holding the head a little higher so that the neck could be seen dripping blood from it, and moving the body over a little further so that the neck of the body could be seen to be bloody."
Kefauver: "You have blood coming out of her mouth."
Gaines: "A little."
Kefauver: "Here is blood on the ax. I think most adults are shocked by that."
Shocked they were. Fueled by hundreds of anti-comics media reports which outmatched the previous public outcry of the late '40s, Gaines' ill-fated live TV Senate exposure, and Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent, it was very easy for comics distributors under fire from local religious groups to say they were personally doing something about it by not carrying ECs--and Mainline stayed with Leader News.
By the end of 1954, the huge comic book market known as Los Angeles County was passing a bill to ban comic books within its jurisdiction. Many other local governments were following suit. There was even a bill which left the floor of the California Legislature which the Governor refused to sign citing "First Amendment" scenarios. Things got very dicey rather quickly for the comics industry after a hiatus when they thought they had batted down the flames from the late '40s.
Joe Simon revealed in The Comic Book Makers that his shock over the crash is still evident all these years later. He discovered, "Comic books, which had been living high off odd villains for years, became the villain itself as America waged an unrelenting war against the depravity of the horror, violence, and crime of the big-selling magazines. The title (Justice Traps the) Guilty was too often superimposed or placed on top of a pile of comic books in photos illustrating the daily media coverage of the comic book outrage... the moral vigilantes directed their outrage to the news media, which eagerly jumped on the anti-comics bandwagon... even the once-aloof syndicated strip was finding itself caught in the turmoil [when] anti-comic book fanatics railed that any teenager could learn to pull off a crime simply by reading the Dick Tracy detective strip, which was once endorsed by FBI chief, J. Edgar Hoover."
Soon, gone were the days when one in three periodicals sold in the US was a comic book. The team of Simon & Kirby had successfully ridden the wave of success in the comic book business for 15 years (1940-1955) before hitting the rocky shore of American public opinion which had been swayed by major forces in the country bent on demonizing an easy victim--a victim that millions had been reading and now hastily swore they did not. Jack mentioned coming out of "the fog" in 1955. Perhaps that clouded his judgment in a lot of issues which crept up during 1956, and into the glory days of his work for Martin Goodman in the '60s.
Joe Simon wrote, "The sudden demise of EC Comics [horror and crime titles] had put Leader News in a financial crisis and they soon folded their tents, leaving us holding an empty sack. Mainline Publications became insolvent, an innocent casualty in the final victory by "The People" against the vile forces of Horror Comics.
"After the mid-'50s comics crash, it just wasn't fun any more. A lot of things worked in those days, a lot of things didn't. It was a lot of fun to do for a very long time. We were very lucky."
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