COMIC SUPERHERO EDITION
A Classic Column
From May 5, 2000
DO YOU REMEMBER
3-D COMIC BOOKS?
Well, John Stanley Does!!
So, Listen Up Folks!
By JOHN STANLEY
By the summer of 1953, I was busy trying to see every 3-D movie that came out of Hollywood, and there were enough of them that I was averaging about one a week. During this time of discovery, I was already reading comic books and each Saturday afternoon paid a breathless visit to Speed, my local magazine man, looking for the latest E.C. horror titles--"Haunt of Fear," "Tales From the Crypt" and "The Vault of Horror." I also bought Gaines' "Weird Science" and "Weird Fantasy" mags, and never missed an issue of Gaines' two graphically realistic war comics, "Frontline Combat" and "Two-Fisted Tales," edited by Harvey Kurtzman.
These comics, with their superior artwork and writing, appealed to me in a way that most other comic books hadn't. I was very aware of Kurtzman's work, as I also faithfully was buying each issue of "Mad," a satirical comic designed initially by Kurtzman to satirize other comic books, making fun of their characters and advertisements. Some of the E.C. magazines had carried a biography and picture of Kurtzman on the inside cover, and knowing about the creative minds behind my favorite comics had become all-important to me.
It was sometime in July of that year, as the 3-D movies were coming faster than I could duck all the stuff flying out of the screen, that I discovered an oversized magazine book with the huge title "THREE DIMENSION COMICS" taking up almost half the cover. Below the title was a drawing of Mighty Mouse flexing his muscles, and across the bottom of the cover was depicted a pair of 3-D glasses, the kind with the red and blue lenses (called "anaglyphic"). Although I had never cared much about Mighty Mouse and other "funny animal" comics, I instantly purchased this one for 25 cents, the most I had ever paid for a comic at a time when 10 cents got you all the four-color kicks you needed.
Just to discover a 3-D comic book was a special thrill. Even though the simplistic artwork wasn't what I bought comics for, the illusion of depth, as I told all my school chums, was "neat!" Mighty Mouse engaged in an outer-space adventure involving Terrytown's "leading rocket scientists," a "combat space ship," a shower of meteors and bad-guy cats. Now my vigilance for all things 3-D had to be divided between the movie theater and Speed's magazine shop.
A release of the St. John Publishing Company, "3-D Mighty Mouse" was the innovative idea of a comic-book artist named Joe Kubert. While stationed in Germany with the U.S. Army in 1950, Kubert had found a German movie magazine with red-and-blue anaglyphic photographs and attached glasses. (Sometimes the "blue" would be identified as "green" in some later 3-D magazines.) Kubert had convinced comic book publisher Archer St. John to pay for his experiments with the process, and had brought in another artist, named Norman Maurer, to help him work out a 3-D system whereby the panels were drawn onto acetate. This allowed Kubert to draw each level of depth on a separate cel, similar to the way animation artists can separate characters from backgrounds for cartoons and full-length animated features.
"3-D Mighty Mouse" was a smash hit all across the country and suddenly the rush was on throughout the comic-book printing world to get as many 3-D magazines onto the newsstands as possible. Kubert's next effort was one of the best of all the "depth" comics: "Tor," the adventures of a prehistoric caveman and his chimp pal, Chee-Chee, in a "primordial world" that would have brought joy to the heart of Steven Spielberg and/or Michael Crichton.
Tor, armed with a stone axe of large proportion, wrestled with a giant turtle and battled a Tyrannosaurus Rex, when he wasn't watching them battle each other. "Tor" was a remarkable comic that captured a prehistoric world in graphic detail. It had the added feature of "blinkeys," one-page featurettes. Close the left eye and the page rendered one story. Close the right eye and an entirely different story emerged.
Maurer, meanwhile, had secured rights to the "Three Stooges" movie characters, an easy enough task since he was married to the daughter of Moe Howard. Maurer wrote and drew some excellent comedy stories featuring the slapstick trio. Each panel was packed with visual gags, with the "idiots" in stories titled "Two Drips and a Droop," "Nightmare of Benedict Bogus" and "Pie-Rates Reward." (In the 1960s Maurer would produce four full-length features starring the Three Stooges.)
St. John Publications, aware of the popularity of Gaines' popular horror comics, next brought out "House of Terror," an anthology of supernatural tales. The first story, "Picture of Evil," featured a splash panel of a man fleeing from a huge evil head of Satan, horns and all. The other stories, "Violin of Death," "The Curse of Khar" and "The Devil's Chair" were good spine-tinglers drawn by the always-excellent Kubert.
With "Mad" magazine and its countless imitators flooding the market, St. John issued a book that is now considered a classic, one of the most readable of all 3-D comic books: "Whack," again edited and drawn by Kubert and Maurer. This was a zany collection of parodies, ranging from a stab at Dick Tracy, westerns ("Tales of the Woolly West") and the best story of all, "3-D-Ts," a spoof of the 3-D trend itself, with Maurer and Kubert making fun of themselves and all their competitors. Another nice St. John issue was "Daring Adventures," its cover a dramatic action scene betweeen a great white shark and a skin diver thrusting his knife into the shark.
Speaking of competitors -- other publishers were now jumping into the lucrative 3-D market, and I was buying up their books as fast as I could find them in Speed's shop. I was now sometimes making two visits a week to the store, I was that anxious about finding this never-ending flood of new material.
One of the most astounding discoveries I made was "Adventures in 3-D," a superb comic from Harvey Publications. I had been a fan of Harvey, as their "Witch's Tales" was one of the best of the E.C. imitations of the period. Two excellent artists, Bob Powell and Howard Nostrand (the latter had a style that resembled Jack Davis'), illustrated five excellent adventure stories, each with a surprise O.Henry-style ending. They ranged from science-fiction ("Breaking the Time Barrier!") to horror ("The Hidden Depths"). The latter was a superior "chamber of horrors" tale with a smash ending. The cover had a leopard that looked like it was leaping off the page.
You can imagine my excitement when I discovered a companion magazine from Harvey, "True 3-D," with five more dynamite stories by the same artists. There were also more "blinkey" pages, only I always felt that Harvey used this technique the best, presenting two variations of the same story as you shut one eye to read each of them.
At Harvey, a major comic book artist, Jack Kirby, created what he felt would be the ultimate 3-D hero, called "Captain 3-D." The 3-D goggle-wearing champion of justice could travel through time and space to reach a magical place called "The Third Dimension." Although 99 per cent of the previous Harvey magazines had sold, "Captain 3-D" smashed into a wall of indifference and would never be seen again.
Another major publisher to jump onto the 3-D band wagon that fall of '53 was National (or DC Comics). "Superman," an oversized magazine with an imposing image of the Man of Steel standing gallant watch over the safety of the Universe, featured the splash panel: "In Startling 3-D Life-Like Action." There was also the promise that inside the reader would find "Super Glasses." "The Man Who Stole the Sun" was a Lex Luthor adventure featuring an underground city and a massive tidal wave threatening to engulf Metropolis, told with the use of "four layers" and not the usual "three" used by cheaper companies. It was a selling sensation, with more than a million copies being gobbled up that fall.
DC instantly prepared a follow-up book starring Batman and Robin, with the Penguin as the guest villain in a tale called "The Fowls of Fate." That story was followed by the amusing "The Robot Robbers," with villain Jawbone Bannon creating an army of evil robots with laser rays that fire through their visors (a direct steal from Gort of "The Day the Earth Stood Still"). But by December '53, the market had been so saturated that the public didn't respond this time, and the Batman book sold so poorly that the editors at National decided to drop the idea and go back to good old-fashioned 2-D comic stories.
But others were still plunging ahead, though not into lucrative waters. Dell brought out "Rootie Kazootie" and "Flukey Luke" in a process called "3-D-ELL." Toby Press tried with "Felix the Cat." Western magazines included "The Hawk" (one of the lesser efforts from St. John) and "3-D Tales of the West." Something called Steriographic Publicatons issued "3-D Romance" and "3-D Love," which were actually pretty good books with gritty romances. Atlas, Stan Lee's imprint that specialized in E.C. imitations, used a really crummy 3-D method for "3-D Action" and it was the least effective of all the magazines. (And yet years later I would see one sell for $25 at a comic-book convention.)
Fiction House decided its jungle heroine, Sheena, would look good in her skimpy costumes in 3-D settings and issued one magazine--this would prove to be her last appearance in comic magazines. (Sheena would return as a TV series in 1957 starring the magnificently constructed Irish McCalla, but that's another story.) Fiction House also tried a funny animal magazine, "3-D Circus," but it, like all the others of its genre, was a failure.
Making a one-time appearance was fashion gal and "pin-up queen" Katy Keene in an oversized magazine from the Archie Comics line. Artist Bill Woggon fit the shapely gal into costume designs that had been submitted by her fans from all over the country. Although the art was only three-level depth, and the content is less than exciting storywise, "Katy Keene 3-Dimension Comics" is a coveted collector's item today.
The last company to join into the competition was the best of all the comic publishing companies, William Gaines' E.C. , which had waited just a little too long for its own good. While the two books from E.C. were excellent, and the artwork and writing superior to most of the others, they came in early 1954 at a time when the market had been oversaturated. "Three-Dimensional E.C. Classics" was an anthology of various kinds of E.C. stories--horror, war, satire, science-fiction. Bernie Krigstein's "Monster From the Fourth Dimension," for example, would emerge one of the best stories ever done by Gaines' staff. The follow-up mag, "Three-Dimensional Tales from the Crypt of Terror," were old stories from "Tales From the Crypt" and "The Vault of Horror" that had been redrawn with new gruesome touches. Each story was introduced by Gaines' horror icon, the Crypt Keeper. By far they are the best of the 3-D trend of that time.
The fact that his magazines barely sold at all, with only 300,000 copies of each being printed, was the least of Gaines' worries in the spring of 1954, when the 3-D comic book and movie craze came to a resounding finish. A book called "Seduction of the Innocent," written by child psychiatrist Dr. Frederic Wertham, purported that juvenile delinquency and other crimes were directly a result of comic books. E.C.s and their kind were poisoning the minds of young America, and America was wallowing in crime. Batman and Robin, the good Dr. Wertham declared with a straight face, were clearly homosexuals. And so a senator named Estes Kefauver called Gaines before his U.S. Senate subcommittee investigating the causes of juvenile delinquency, racking him over the fire for showing "an axe-wielding man holding up the severed head of a blonde woman" on the cover of "Crime Suspenstories." Gaines tried to defend himself but there was nothing he could have said that would have changed anyone's mind that day.
Gaines was ostracized by the comic-book industry, which refused even to distribute his comics at the newsstands. He was finally forced to drop all his genre titles and focus on developing "Mad" from a comic into a magazine. That magazine would eventually sell a million copies an issue and make Gaines a millionaire. He would never try to publish comic books again.
With the sudden disappearance of 3-D comics, and the 1954 debacle at E.C., I began to buy fewer and fewer comics. There would be revival cycles of 3-D in comic format over the years, and I was always there buying them up. But these newer sprees would never equal the excitement I felt that year of 1953, when 3-D opened up to me new horizons and vistas, and changed my life forever. It was a golden time that is now gone, but I will never forget it.
©2000 by John Stanley.
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