THERE’S a new straw in the wind. It is America’s million-dollar-a-month craze for comic-strip magazines. This enormous business has grown up in less than two years — in the two years since Munich. The magazines are not just reprints of the comic pages: in fact, for the most part they feature different characters and a different formula. They run to serious supernatural-scientific episodes — a sort of Jules Verne-Tarzan combination. It is true that Superman and Flash Gordon of the newspapers belong to this type, and that they in turn were fathered by that old-fashioned hero of tomorrow, Buck Rogers — passed by before he was caught up to, a has-been before he was an is. However, the superhero is rare in the newspapers, whereas he is almost half the population of the magazines.
‘Ten million sales each month . . . convinced dealers everywhere . . . there’s monies in the funnies. . . .’ That’s the chant of the news trade journal. ‘Poisonous mushroom growth . . . ten million . . . sex horror serials . . . every month. One million dollars are taken from . . . America’s children ... for graphic insanity.’ That’s the deep bellow of a big book reviewer.
Hit Comics, Weird Comics, War Comics, Planet Comics, Shadow Comics, Startling Comics, Super Comics — that’s what gets Kidbrother America to put up twelve million a year: twelve million dollars in greasy small coins, warmed by dirty small palms; twelve million chivvied or cheated for, earned by sweat or by swindle.
Who ought to be worrying about all this? The marble manufacturers ought to be having board meetings; car loadings in agates must be slipping. The lead soldiers that used to march out of Germany into our nurseries like an inanimate fifth column are as out of date now as trench warfare. The Buck Rogers Blitzkrieg on the printed page has put them out of business.
There’s another group that should be meeting in alarm. Popeye, Orphan Annie, and Li’l Abner should unite for mutual defense against the Blue Beetle and Speed Martin. Yesterday’s children may still follow the sterile romance of Li’1 Abner and the antics of the arrested orphan, but in the eyes of Kid-brother America the intricate and rich personalities of these heroes of olden times have lost their appeal. Now the monotonous iron jaw of the Batman, Iron Vic, Captain Future, and Superman alone holds interest.
Still, if the marble manufacturers are holding board meetings, they have not told the press. If Hitler charts the reverses of his myrmidons of lead, DNB does not tell. If Iron Vic and Captain Future have got to Berlin, the censor has managed to keep it out of the headlines. Hearstman Popeye has fought no Arrow-collar Hercules. Spinach apparently is not going to save us. The only people who are publicly on record about this cataclysmic situation are the people interested in children’s books. They are conducting a crusade in the manner of the old war against the early comic strips, but without the old conviction.
Meanwhile, the important thing is the kid brother’s frantic demand for comic magazines. America’s kid brother saves hard for his comic book, and, after he has read it, it becomes a sort of currency with him, to be swapped for other comic-strip magazines. Here’s paper money based on something more permanent than gold.
It is a commonplace among those who have to do with children’s reading that the purely imaginative story is no longer of interest. They will tell you that children are more practical now, and that they read the story of the milkman or the grocer and leave the old Red Fairy Book on the shelf.
That is what people say; but in truth it is only the times that have changed — the child remains the same. The kid brothers don’t mind the imaginative, but they do dislike the irrelevant. The trouble with the fairy books is that they are irrelevant. Any kid can see that it takes more than a fairy godmother to get you out of trouble these days. A magic carpet may have been O. K. when horseless carriages were a wonder, but the only way to get clear of radio and television is by rocketship.
What has not been seen either by the angry book reviewer or by the twenty million helpless parents is that a new age of magic is upon us. Now that war comes graphically into the living room by wired photo and by transcribed air raid, now that the record can stick among the screams of terrified other children, our children have done what man has always done when faced by a sorrow too great for understanding: they have turned to magic. Not since the Indian with his scalping knife lay outside the stockade has the grim reality of physical destruction lain so close to the protected familiar circle of childhood. The frontier is with us again, and an old instinct keeps Kid-brother America from checking his weapons outside his darkened bedroom. Nowadays a man of ten had better sleep with his ray-gun under his pillow — especially if the last broadcast is still ringing in his ears.
In the comic magazine there is some sadism, and a great deal of brutality. The themes and plots of the picture stories are completely formless. No feat of magic is out of bounds, yet the implications of limitless power are never faced. You find a bulletproof giant putting in a lot of time and overhead straightening out a small-time love affair. This he will do in the midst of death and bloodshed, leaving mechanical monsters undisturbed if they will but gorge themselves on less conspicuous characters. The kid brothers revel in it, just as their grandfathers reveled in the gruesome details of Grimm — and just as their grandfathers’ grandfathers reveled in the Old Testament.
How will the kid brothers learn concentration on such a reading diet as that? It is hardly a reading diet at all, since it is mostly a picture language. Why won’t they be shellshocked by these graphic inter-planetary wars? How are they ever to take up the quiet preoccupations of the adult?
Why also are these things so real to the kid brothers? And what will the quiet adult preoccupations of the next decade be? How do you train the nerve of a dive bomber? Old America figures on re-creating the world it remembers; young America can judge only by what it sees and hears every day, and frantically it trains itself for the war of tomorrow.
Papa, who used to be in the A. E. F., is saying, ‘Well, we’ll have to do it again.’ Big Brother in college, who’ll have to do the doing, is demonstrating against his warlike elders. Nobody has time for the kid brothers, yet they alone are spiritually armed. Weird Comics, Science Comics, Wonderworld Comics, Speed Comics, Hit Comics, and Crack Comics! Let’s not be too eager to take them from our children, brutal and supernatural though they may be. At least right is sure to triumph here in the end, and here alone Kidbrother America can train in security for the world of radio-roto-terror.