In 1939 the American comic book, like the beavers and cockroaches of prehistory, was larger and, in its cumbersome way, more splendid than its modern descendant. It aspired to the dimensions of a slick magazine and to the thickness of a pulp, offering sixty-four pages of gaudy bulk (including the cover) for its ideal price of one thin dime. While the quality of its interior illustrations was generally execrable at best, its covers pretended to some of the skill and design of the slick, and to the brio of the pulp magazine.
The comic book cover, in those early days, was a poster advertising a dream-movie, with a running time of two seconds, that flickered to life in the mind and unreeled in splendor just before one opened to the stapled packet of coarse paper inside and the lights came up. The covers were often hand-painted, rather than merely inked and colored, by men with solid reputations in the business, journeyman illustrators who could pull off accurate lab girls in chains and languid, detailed jungle jaguars and muscularly correct male bodies whose feet seemed really to carry their weight.
Held in the hand, hefted, those early numbers of Wonder and Detective, with their chromatic crew of pirates, Hindu poisoners, and snap-brim avengers, their abundant typography at once stylish and crude, seem even today to promise adventure of a light but thoroughly nourishing variety. All too often, however, the scene depicted on the label bore no relation to the thin soup of material contained within. Inside the covers—whence today there wafts an inevitable flea-market smell of rot and nostalgia—the comic book of 1939 was, artistically and morphologically, in a far more primitive state.
As with all mongrel art forms and pidgin languages, there was, in the beginning, a necessary, highly fertile period of genetic and grammatical confusion. Men who had been reading newspaper comic strips and pulp magazines for most of their lives, many of them young and inexperienced with the pencil, the ink brush, and the cruel time constraints of piecework, struggled to see beyond the strict spatial requirements of the newspaper strip, on the one hand, and the sheer overheated wordiness of the pulp on the other.