The Original Comic Shop
Today’s comic fans hear the term comic shop and it could only mean one thing; your local comic book and hobby specialty store. So when reading the title “The Original Comic Shop” readers will assume that this is some sort of article about the dawn of the direct sales market. Those readers would be wrong. This article is going to focus on the other, original, use of the term “comic shop”. The term was used well before the direct sales market and specialty store industry began.
Originally the term “comic shop” was used to refer to the freelance or independent production studios often used to produce content for the major comic book publishers from the 1930s through the 1950s. After investors and publishers realized that comic books were not only legitimate entertainment, but also quite profitable at the time, there was a boom in demand for new original material.
Up until that point comic books had largely been made up from newspaper strip reprints, and small bits of new content produced by publishers in-house. As publishers began to run out of re-print material, and fans wanted new stories of their favorite characters, demand rose for new strips. The high demand for new comic book material gave rise to a new industry; the comic book shop. These shops would employ large teams of creators in order to create original work. The shop would produce new original content and package it for sale to numerous publishers in the United States. A large amount of content was produced by American shops for publishers in Europe and other locations overseas.
Many historically famous comic books such as Marvel Mystery Comics, Pep Comics, True Comics and many more were produced by outside comic shop studios. Timely (known as Marvel today), Fawcett, and DC all used material produced by comic shops on a regular basis for many of their popular titles.
In the mid-1930s the comic book industry was still dominated by publications that were made up of collections or albums of old newspaper strips. Around this time the only people producing any new comic content were Nicholson Publishing Co., owned by Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson and entrepreneurs William Cook & John Mahon, former employees of Nicholson Publishing. Nicholson produced a few reprint series but also published More Fun Comics and New Comics, primarily with new material created by staff artists.
After leaving Nicholson on less than friendly terms, William Cook and John Mahon began to publish comics such as Funny Pages and Funny Picture Stories. These were mostly made up of original material that they created.
Although there was a demand for new material the industry was still shaky, and by no means a guaranteed investment.
The industry was on the verge of a boom for new material however. An entrepreneur by the name of Harry A. Chesler was the first to come up with the idea of starting up a production studio that would produce, package and provide outside content for comic book publishers. This would target publishers who wanted to save money from having to hire their own in-house production team. At this time, original features were much shorter than they are today, as short as two pages. Although the stories were shorter, the books required much more content than today’s comics, as the average 1930s comic book had a total of 64 pages. Chesler opened up shop in 1936 and offered his artists and writers a starting salary of $20 per week, with the stipulation that they had to produce a minimum of four pages per week to stay employed.
The work space was as unique as the new and burgeoning industry. The foreman or manager would work out of his own individual office, a larger office was used for all the writers, and then one big open room had rows of drawing tables where the artists would work. Many well known and historical comic creators got their start at the Chesler shop including; Gill Fox, Charles Biro, Jack Cole, Bob Wood, Jack Binder, Robert McCay and many others. Chesler also formed Chesler Publications and had his comic shop staff produce the content for two titles; Star Comics and Star Ranger. Star Ranger was the very first known western comic book. After six issues of each comic, Chesler sold them to Centaur Publications, but continued to produce the content for the books and sell it to the new publishers.
Although very little of the content from Chesler’s shop would be deemed “successful” it did prove a valuable training ground. Many of his artists moved on to greater things. By 1939 Chesler’s shop was producing content for some of MLJ’s most well known series’, such as Blue Ribbon Comics, Top-Notch Comics, Pep Comics and Zip Comics. Unfortunately for Chesler many of his top artists defected and went over to MLJ to become staff members. Charles Biro joined MLJ as a production supervisor, and with him brought along Bob Wood, Edd Ashe, and Irv Novick.
During the 30′s a new comic magazine called Wow debuted, mixing new and old comics for content. The magazine had its own production staff, but folded after only four issues. After Wow dissolved, Editor Samuel Maxwell Iger and Wow artist Will Eisner formed their own comic shop which opened for business in early 1937. Iger was the salesman of the studio while Eisner drew content and did some of the management. The studio employed other former Wow artists including Bob Kane. Eisner and Iger were fortunate enough to also hire future comic greats such as Jack Kirby and Mort Meskin. The Eisner & Iger shop produced a large amount of material for European publishers and then would try to find American outlets for the material. Unlike other studios that were always shaky, Eisner & Iger’s shop was quite successful and was always growing, adding new talent on a regular basis. When Jack Kirby quit the shop to go on his own, Eisner & Iger replaced him with a young Lou Fine. The studio would also welcome future greats such as Klaus Nordling, Bob Powell, Alex Blum, and many more into the fold. Eisner & Iger also produced content for publisher Victor S. Fox. Among the material produced for him would be Mystery Men Comics which gave birth to new heroes such as The Blue Beetle.
The number of famous artists and well-known characters produced by this shop really does exceed imagining. Without this shop, characters like the Ray, Doll Man, the Black Condor and more would never have existed. Although today they aren’t considered “A-List” characters, in their time they were as important to the readers as our characters are to us today. All of this work went on to influence and shape future comics to come.
In the summer of 1940, Will Eisner and Maxwell Iger had a falling out. The two ceased to do business together. The operation split into two separate comic book shops, the Eisner Shop and the Iger Shop. Some creators were faithful to Eisner and went with him, some chose to stay with Iger. Eisner took some of the titles handled by the shop with him.
In 1939 a new comics shop opened up, called Funnies, Inc., owned by Lloyd Jacquet. Jacquet was not any type of comic creator, but had experience working with Nicholson Publishing and Centaur Publishing. Funnies, Inc. was unique. It offered a 50-50 split on sales with the core comic creators, and also allowed them to work from home. Artists and writers only had to come to the office in order to drop of work and pick up new assignments. Jacquet assembled his first team from creators he had worked with at Centaur Publications, such as Carl Burgos and Bill Everett. The studio would later hire such artists as Bob Wood, Paul Gustavson, Mike Roy and writers such as Ray Gill and Mickey Spillane. The studio produced a very rare comic called Motion Pictures Funnies Weekly as a giveaway at movie theatres. This comic features the very first appearance of Bill Everett’s Sub-Mariner character. Paul Lauretta, former assistant to Joe Shuster on Superman, contributed American Ace to the freebie.
When the owner of Timely Publications, Martin Goodman, came to the studio for new material, the group created a titled called Marvel Comics. This new title would feature stories of the Sub-Mariner, Human Torch, the Angel, and Ka-Zar. These characters continue to be popular today, and this comic would come to influence future comics, and the industry itself, decades later.
The name was eventually changed to Marvel Mystery Comics, but in any event the characters proved successful and became a massive hit for all those involved. American Ace also showed up in the comic as well as the original version of the Vision, created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. The biggest draw in sales for the series was when the characters stories would cross over, most notably when Human Torch and Sub-Mariner would battle each other, or later when they teamed up. The studio would also produce comics for the Curtis Company such as Blue Bolt, the original Daredevil, and Everett’s other water based character Hydroman.
Meanwhile, Jack Binder, who has worked his way up to art director for the Chesler shop, decided to leave and start his own operation in the early 1940′s. The Jack Binder comic shop would become the most infamous comic shop of the era. Scholars would later comment on the artwork churned out by the shop as some of the most abysmal art ever featured in professional comics. Binder’s approach to creating comics was much more of an assembly line mentality. Rows of desks were placed in a large room. One row would be writers. When a writer was finished he’d initial the page and pass it to the person next to him in the next row, which would be an artist. This artist would do layouts, then the page would be passed to the next row where another artist would draw characters, the next row drew backgrounds, the next row inked characters, the next row inked backgrounds, and so on. Binder had a very small number of artists who were actually talented, such as Mac Raboy, Andre LeBlanc and Bill Ward. Despite the lackluster quality of the work the studio would go on to work on such comics as Doc Savage, Bulletman, The Shadow and Captain Marvel Adventures. The Jack Binder comic shop shut down in 1943 when most of the staff was drafted into World War II. Binder remained with very little help and continued to produce work for such titles as Mary Marvel.
Maxwell Iger continued his shop and produced a lot of “good girl” comics and true crime comics. Most notably his shop produced a renewed version of the Phantom Lady as well as the EC line of comics.
Will Eisner’s shop also flourished. Eisner’s studio began producing 16-page comic books for newspaper syndicates as a supplement to their Sunday papers. For this project, Eisner created his legendary character the Spirit, which would star in each weekly comic book, along with shorter features starring Lady Luck and Mr. Mystic. Eisner’s shop also landed a deal with Quality Publishing to produce many of their now classic comic series, with Eisner serving as editor. Eisner and his artists would create Blackhawk and Uncle Sam for Quality during this time. By this time, Eisner had changed his business and payment operations for his studio. The Eisner shop was paid $15 per page for comic work, which was passed on to the individual creators of the comics after the shop deducted a small agent’s commission.
Trying to mimic the success of people like Funnies, Inc. and Eisner & Iger, many other comic shops popped up throughout the 40s and 50s. Many were started by amateur, and even experienced, artists who wanted to grab a larger piece of the profits now being generated in comic book production. Most of these shops lasted only a very short time, and none reached the success of the other shops mentioned earlier.
Many historians look back on these days of comic production in a negative way, regarding them as sweat shops. Although it is indeed true that artists revealed that some of the conditions in these comic shops were less than ideal, it is also important to remember the significance and contribution they made to the comic book industry. Many of these original comic shops gave us some of our greatest and most respected comic creators and gave birth to many well loved characters.
Exactly how many comic greats these shops produced is hard to nail down. Aside from those that we know for sure, there was a desire by most of these shops to look larger and more professional than they were, in order to gain credibility. Shop owners would often encourage artists and writers to use multiple pen names. Many creators used several names, and so a comic shop that employed a production team of 15 people would often appear to be employing a staff of over 45 artists and writers. Some artists never revealed their real names, some never publicly divulged which pen names they used, and some changed pen names several times without ever using their real names.
We do know that after the advent of the modern superhero, the comic chop era was one of the most influential eras in comic industry history. The failures and successes of those adventurous entrepreneurs helped to create the foundation which the modern comics industry was built upon and continues to build upon to this day.
When the anti-comics movement of the 1950′s, led by Dr. Fredric Wertham, led to a crash in comic book sales most shops went out of business. A few of the more successful ones survived, but when the comics industry began to rise again, many publishers wanted more control over their final product and so replaced their need for comic shops with a hired “bullpen” of in-house staff or individual freelancers.
Author Mike Gagnon would like to acknowledge the writings of Ron Goulart, which served as valuable research material for this article. Mr. Gagnon would also like to thank Editor Michael Dean of The Comics Journal for his help and assistance with info and finding much needed research material.