Ph.D. student in history at the University of Maryland
What does the trajectory of comic books during midcentury America look like if we move away from the traditional, deterministic framing of Superman to Wertham to Comics Code? What do these tenuous years look like if we focus our attention instead on those that took a more dispassionate view of comics, promoting their use in education and the development of socially-constructive messages and endorsing what came to be known as multimodal literacy? (Tilley 2017, Jacobs 2013, 65-99)
This is but a brief survey of the National Social Welfare Assembly Comics Project, a twenty-year public relations project between the National Social Welfare Assembly (NSWA), an administrative confederation of organizations that promoted health, civic engagement, and youth development, and National Comics Publications (NCP), the immediate predecessor to DC Comics. involved the publication short one-page comic stories aimed primarily at youth. Topics tackled by the strips include racial discrimination, respect for elders, stay-in-school conversations, and many more. Over the course of the Comics Project’s near twenty-year run, they published over 170 public service announcement comics, and by the project’s cessation in 1967, they provided over a million reprints of these comic strips to public service organizations across the country.
The project got its start when Vernon Pope, head of public relations for NCP, wrote to John Moore, an assistant director at the NSWA, in January 1949. Pope wanted to show that NCP’s comics were a cut above the rest in light of renewed criticisms of comics, and wrote to Moore, offering space in NCP’s comics “exclusively as a means of communication between organizations and the youth of America.” The NSWA sent the idea to their Public Relations committee, who approved the project in a trial capacity. The committee overseeing the project, known as the National Advisory Committee for the Comics Project, acknowledged the still-present controversy over comics but came to a consensus that one could not wholly condemn nor embrace comics, dedicating themselves to improving the medium. That these professionals, who came from diverse areas like public relations, religious advocacy, scouting, and health advocacy, believed in the didactic power of comics was a serious testament to comics’ cultural palatability when the general mood seemed to view comics as low-class and crude.
The project’s first strip starred NCP’s Archie competitor, Buzzy, and extolled the virtue of staying in school for America’s youth, stressing that completing their education would be of more benefit than dropping out of high school to work. (Schiff et al., 1949) The strip received favorable mention from the New York Times and TIME for giving comics a socially constructive purpose. (TIME 1949, New York Times 1949) A 1951 readership study performed by NCP showed, as the committee hoped, a high degree of reader interaction. Studying reader responses to advertising, the report indicated that the selected PSA led next-highest ad for men and women by nine and fifteen percent respectively but dipped for children and was third out of seven ads for that demographic. A project the following year with the American Friends Service Committee that sought to collect shoelaces to be sent overseas netted 1,310 letters from all fifty states and five countries. After a number of successful years and reports, the chair and secretary of the advisory committee for the Comics Project sent a report to the NSWA’s executive committee, which recommended that the NSWA take the project out of its “experimental phase” and run it in an official capacity.
They would need that official support in the coming years, as Fredric Wertham, ever the enemy of comic books, attacked the Comics Project in late 1954, accusing the NSWA’s affiliate organizations of being a front for evil comics companies, calling them “the chorus helping to advertise the fascist Superman, lesbian Wonder Woman and the homosexual Bat Man!” (Wertham 1954, 404) The criticism, however, did not sway the Comics Project nor their subscribers, as they mailed 65,000 copies of their comics that year, and counted nearly 200 New York City schoolteachers on their mailing list. The committee began their most ambitious project in November 1956, sending strips to 31 Detroit-area schools, and tracking teacher and student engagement.
By the 1960s, however, NCP was in turmoil due to the restrictions of the Comics Code, enacted in 1954, and increased sales pressure from Marvel Comics. These new realities, compounding an increasing turnover in advisory committee chair and general member positions, rang a death knell for the successful and well-received Comics Project. Despite their downturn, they published their most successful comic during this period. Titled “Smoking is for Squares!”, the strip debuted alongside the famed Surgeon General’s Report of 1964, which definitively linked cigarette smoking with cancer. (Schiff et al., 1964) The American Cancer Society, who had a staff member on the Comics Project advisory committee, ordered at least 700,000 reprints, claiming later they had ordered over one million.
NCP’s need to respond to the changing business climate of the 1960s ultimately spelled the end for the Comics Project, despite the wide success of “Smoking is for Squares”. Jack Schiff, an influential, long-tenured editor at NCP and the Comics Project’s main point of contact, retired after a company directive came down that forced writers out of editing positions, replacing them with artists. (Gabilliet 2010, 61) Jack Liebowicz, president of NCP, felt that was Schiff was irreplaceable, explaining to the NSWA that he could no longer justify the loss of advertising revenue in his comics. The Comics Project’s final meeting took place on May 10, 1967, though they would not disband officially until August 1968 after trying in vain to find a new sponsor for the project.
All told, the Comics Project, with its hundreds of socially-aware comics and diverse set of professional advisors came to be an unprecedented partnership between a comics company and social service organizations with a special eye toward the development of youth in America. Responses to the committee’s work showed that attitudes towards comics in the 1940s and 1950s were not as pessimistic as some may have us think, bore out professional divides with regard to youth, and spoke to the crisis of authority in the 1950s.
“Comics to Carry Messages to Children; August's to Tell 10,000,000 'Go to School'.” New York Times, 18 Aug. 1949.
Gabilliet, Jean-Paul. Of Comics and Men: A Cultural History of American Comic Books. Translated by Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen, University Press of Mississippi, 2013.
Jacobs, Dale. Graphic Encounters: Comics and the Sponsorship of Multimodal Literacy. Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.
Schiff, Jack, writer. Art by Graham Place. Letters by Ira Schnapp, “Buzzy Says Stay In School – Give Yourself a Break!” Action Comics #137, August 10, 1949. Print.
Schiff, Jack, writer. Art by Sheldon Moldoff. Letters by Ira Schnapp. “Smoking is for Squares!” Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #80, August 27, 1964. Print.
“Take It from Buzzy.” TIME, 29 Aug. 1949, p. 46.
Tilley, Carol. “Educating With Comics.” The Secret Origins of Comics Studies, edited by Randy Duncan and Matthew Smith, Routledge, 2017.
Wertham, Fredric. “The Curse of the Comic Books.” Religious Education, vol. 49, no. 6, 1954, p. 404.
Evan R. Ash is a Ph.D. student in history at the University of Maryland studying the cultural history of the American 1950s, particularly anti-comics advocacy and childhood. He is preparing a dissertation proposal titled “The Strange and Baffling Eyes of Youth”: Comics, Children and the Moral Landscape of Twentieth Century America. He has presented his research at the conferences of the Comics Studies Society, Midwestern History Association, and recently the Flyover Comics Symposium. He is the current vice-president of the Comics Studies Society Graduate Student Caucus and can be reached on Twitter @evanthevoice.
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