City of the Living Dead: An examination of Dystopia in American comic books.
In our last posting on Dystopia, it was stated that global fictional un-utopia came in two flavors: Literary Dystopia, which is an exercise in a big bad idea playing out on an individual (1984, Brave New World) and Pulp Dystopia, wherein whatever it is that went wrong is treated more or less as scenery (Mad Max, Hunger Games). While Literary Dystopia adheres to the plot conventions of Horror, Pulp Dystopia cleaves to tropes found in the Western, Romance or Fantasy genres. That Pulp Dystopia has such flexibility is one of the reasons for its current popularity. My own contention is that there is an attractive democracy to Pulp Dystopia, a world devoid of celebrities and distinctions in class. I believe that Pulp Dystopia and Fantasy are occupying the same popular space that Westerns once did.
Attempts to tie this new Pulp Dystopia back to the actual Pulp Magazine era are dubious. The pulp magazine form had faded by the time 1984 first hit the literary world. The other powerhouses of the dystopian form also came to us from the world of lit fiction. Our pals in the Sweats (linear descendants of pulp magazines, slick paper photo offset periodicals plying pulp genres) were still rolling off White Slavery and Nymphomaniac World War II tales at the time Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451 were setting the pace in hardbound form. Real contributions to Dystopia were made in paperback, such as A Clockwork Orange, but there is next to no connection between this and the world of pulp in terms of authors, editors or publishers. (1)
When it comes to popularizing Pulp Dystopia, I am laying the blame squarely at the feet of movies (Mad Max, Logan’s Run, Blade Runner, Japanese Animation), role-playing games (Gama World, Shadowrun, Morrow Project) and video games. That said, I may have cut the other spawn of the pulps, comic books, somewhat short as far as covering their contribution.
Comic Books have been parading dystopian themes since their inception. While researching another project I ran into a slew of titles with a dystopian bent. As a whole, the comic book presentation of dystopia peaked in the early 1950s, which indicates that it is breathing the same air as Literary Dystopia. Both the comic book version of dystopia and Literary Dystopia emerge at the same time and seem to have the same historical influences. While not exactly conforming to the later idiom of Pulp Dystopia, the Dystopia found in comic books is very distinct from the co-emerging Literary version.
In our last posting on dystopia, we traced the earliest emergence of Pulp Dystopia to a cycle of novels appearing in the character pulp Operator Number Five. This series, known as The Purple Invasion, was a late 1930s imagining of the WWII to come, albeit involving a fictional nation invading the United States. Much of the early comic book dystopia follows something along the same lines. Nearly every escapist action character took his or her turn at ending the paraphrased coming war. Comic book anthologies were replete with eight to ten-page Armageddons wherein a singular figure is instrumental in the defeat of some Asian or European dictator. Even Superman took a turn at this, in fact several. That certainly is a form of Pulp Dystopia. As opposed to going through the horror process of learned helplessness, the superhero attempts to solve the crisis. But this may be defining dystopia too broadly.
There were several superheroes who fit the Literary Dystopia mold of being trapped inside a pervading big bad idea, mostly set in the future. All-American Comics featured Gary Concord, the Ultraman, the superhero policeman of a world-wide government. Power Nelson was situated similarly, the sole superhero cop in a future world plagued with fantastic disruptions to civil order. Both Power Nelson and the interstellar dystopian Spacehawk wound up plopped down in 1940s America once real-world WWII became eminent. (Sorry about your future setting, the publisher needs you here now.) Super American took this concept one stage further. He lived in a future where everyone was a superman. Having lost some sort of draft lottery, he was sent back through time to aid the WWII Allied cause. Once the real war was under way, a lot of the paraphrasing and dystopian themes went by the wayside. One can argue whether WWII constitutes a dystopia itself (two racist totalitarian nations attempt to enslave the world), but the stories which play out do not follow either Literary or Pulp Dystopian formulas. (2)
Literary Dystopia does not pick up steam until after WWII and is largely inspired by the aftermath of that conflict. Mechanization had advanced to the point wherein an unprecedented amount of control over the populace could be exerted by authorities. Technology was now such that we could blow ourselves out of existence. With the fascist, racist, totalitarian empires defeated, half of the world had been enveloped by atheist, collectivist, totalitarian regimes. That’s a lot of angst.
Literary Dystopians broke the mold for popular novels. Not much action. Characters are uniformly Alice in Wonderland types. Backstory is ladled on. And then it plays out like a horror story. Breathing the same air, in 1947 comic/pulp publisher Fawcett released its own dystopian work.
Or at least it looks the part. At first glance, Anarcho Dictator of Death seems to be some sort of arty expansion of the comics form, a “Complete Novel in Comic Strip Form.” Fawcett was one of the Golden Age of Comics Big Three sales leaders, a true innovator and top-quality operator. The Saint Paul-based firm was highly connected and very politically active. (3) Even before WWII had ended, Fawcett was sounding the alarm about communists through its spokeshero Captain Marvel. The firm seldom missed an opportunity to defend the free enterprise system or decry evidence of creeping socialism.
Taken in the best possible light, Anarcho Dictator of Death is a warning that the peace we have won requires defenders, that the peace is precarious and that there is a need to be vigilant against lingering forces of global division. But that is cutting this work way too much credit.
This is an unmarked superhero comic. Had Fawcett been interested in sending out a serious warning as to the return of fascism, they would not have waited three years after the war in Europe’s conclusion and might have used a higher profile hero--Captain Marvel, or more appropriately, Spy Smasher. (4) Instead Comics Novel features Radar, a back page non-entity which had been running as the last slot feature in Master Comics since 1943.
In my opinion Radar isn’t on the cover because he has no sales draw. The Radar feature does have an interesting backstory. This superhero was commissioned at the request of the US Government, its purpose to promote a Wendell Wilkie global good guy government version of the United Nations, complete with its own anti disrupting the new world order police force. (5) Radar’s origin was featured in the 35th issue of Fawcett’s top selling Captain Marvel Adventures title and includes a key role for their flagship hero Captain Marvel. In this origin it is revealed that Radar comes by his abilities naturally, being the son of a circus strongman and a Gypsy fortune teller. (Several sources have stated that Radar is a non-powered hero like Batman. This in not the case. Radar has that level of super strength which allows him to shoulder open an iron door but not quite snap out of a pair of handcuffs. He can read minds and has a remote viewing ability which accounts for his nickname.) At the end of his origin, Radar is requested to blaze the trail for an unofficial International Police Agency, acting as a global Jedi Knight answering only to FDR, Winston Churchill, Joe Stalin and Chiang Kai-shek. In the last panel it is announced that Radar is heading off to Master Comics to share anthology space with Captain Marvel Junior and Bulletman.
My best guess is that Anarcho Dictator of Death is an unused Radar serial, probably commissioned in 1945 for Master Comics. Radar appeared in several continued stories early in its run. Something went wrong with this story line between the time it was sent for art and the time it was completed. The first obvious issue deals with the people Radar supposedly answers to: FDR is dead; Churchill has been voted out of office; Chiang Kai-shek is being chased out of China; and Uncle Joe Stalin is no longer in the good guy club. By that time it was also becoming obvious that the United Nations was going to fall far short of its idealistic designs. Although Radar was still appearing in Master Comics at the time that Anarcho Dictator of Death was released, he had undergone the fate of all comic book counter-spies and aviators—he was fighting aliens from outer space.
Radar would disappear from Master Comics shortly after Anarcho’s release, replaced by Hop-a-long Cassidy. In Anarcho Dictator of Death, Radar’s International Police Force is an operational entity, with offices and prisons all over the world. His sidekick is a Kai-shek issued fellow international cop named Chen. They are engaged in rounding up fascist sympathizers at the onset of the novel. The tone is never dystopian, nor elevated above that of standard comic book fare, and any attempt at reading this for additional meaning will be dispelled midway through the first chapter. Far from channeling George Orwell, writer Otto Binder is doing a bad imitation of movie serial screen scribe George Plympton. The story is more about hidden doors than it is about politics.
Are there any Dystopian elements? There is a torture scene…
But Radar, being a superhero, shrugs it off and judo flips Anarcho into a troth of lye built into a hotel room’s floor. (Don’t ask.) As opposed to sending political warnings, Anarcho is about salvaging 48 pages of expensive comic art. They slid Anarcho into the slot of some cancelled comic title, stuck a two tone ‘arty’ cover on the thing—and issued it as a single title, without advertising, in order not to impact their circulation figures.
Anarcho is something of a rarity. There were some free-standing anti-fascist propaganda works in comic form, such as It Could Happen Here. Literary Dystopia only appears in earnest somewhat after Anarcho’s issuing. Other than occasionally sideswiping its feel, dystopia was largely ignored in the comics. Even the popular Horror/Mystery anthologies avoided dystopian themes, favoring more visual supernatural stories involving witches and zombies.
On occasion, dystopia was simply grafted onto other genres.
The idea of atom bomb secrets being stolen by America’s enemies is absolutely terrifying. Atomic weapons spreading into the hands of unscrupulous parties is the thing of nightmares. That one’s fellow citizens—your neighbors—might be so low as to give aid to the process of disseminating world ending weapons to foreign powers is enough to evoke paranoia. Sadly, all of the above happened and is still happening today. But it happened first in this 1950 Avon comic book.
Atom bombs were supposed to make war obsolete. The Korean conflict proved that this wasn’t the case. Our pals in the war comics business weren’t quite sure what to do.
Some of these are disguised anthologies about the Korean conflict, dressed up in atomic bunting for additional sensationalistic sales appeal.
Comic books in the early 1950s are shameless.
All of these are series books. Atom Age Combat was published in two series, one in the early 1950s and one in the middle 1950s.
Although most of these war anthologies are fairly pedestrian 1950s era stuff, there are many examples of Armageddon and Post-Armageddon tales in their pages.
The trend largely petered out by 1957. At that point most of the war comics publishers went back to depicting WWII--which is where they stayed until the demise of the war genre in comics.
The bulwark genres of comics in the 1950s were Horror/Mystery, Romance and True Crime. (6) This is a reversion to the mean, since these were the same genres which propped up the remaining pulps. Although Dystopia was an extension of the Horror/Mystery genre—a horror story writ very large—there was all of one horror comics anthology which routinely ran it.
This is a minor title from a minor publisher and only a minority of the stories fit even the Pulp Dystopian mold. As with most horror, it’s mostly monster stories.
Big Brother, Energy Shortages, Environmental Collapse and the other boogey men of Literary Dystopia are hard to do in eight-page comic book chunks. That said, comics did like to ape the globally oppressive feel of Literary Dystopia. Lacking time for a backstory, comic books substitute something visual as an analogy. It’s a big bad thing and it’s in the midst of winning. Our hero has given up on the idea of defeating the thing or saving other people and is instead simply focused on surviving it. Or the hero is fighting a seemingly hopeless rear-guard action. It clings somewhat close to the conventions of Literary Dystopia, only with a physical monster taking Big Brother’s place.
This may be the first zombie graphic novel. Zombies were popular in all mediums in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Most comic book publishers of the time were only willing to produce comic books in series form. This publisher, Avon, sells comic books by the issue. If they have a strong story idea, they will make a title for it, even if it’s only a one-time thing. (7)
Aliens also make good Big Brother stand-ins. There was a flurry of UFO sightings in the late 1940s which led to something of a pulp fiction craze. This particular graphic novel (they were called comic books at the time) was written by Walter B. Gibson, the primary pulp writer of The Shadow.
Dystopian themed anthologies do start to appear in 1950s comics, but they are all weird genre grafts. Comic book Dystopia falls into the broad general category of “Space and the Future Suck, Too.” If we include oddball works such as St John’s Tor we could add “Prehistory Was No Fun, Either” or the raft of still strong selling jungle books, “The Wilderness Also Sucks.” The underlying message is that there is no geographic escape to conflict, that no matter where you go oppressive existential threats will greet you. That may not be a form of dystopia, but it is hardly the warm and fuzzies of Star Trek.
Most of these are from Charlton Comics, a firm known for its nimble capacity to triangulate trends.
Of these, the most successful title is Space War—a dismal, violent vision of the future.
Some of these anthologies did feature continuing characters, inhabitants of offshoot dystopian realms unrelated to the other stories. There were also a few dystopian character titles, all in the Space and the Future Sucks, Too category.
Major Inapak is pitted against an evil global Earth government, leading a rebellion in the remote space colonies.
Captain Science lives on a future Earth which is being invaded daily by a coalition of alien space nations.
Space Busters: Alien invasions have become so pernicious that a global Earth government has decided to go after them like an organized crime task force.
Commander Battle and his Atomic Sub find numerous uses for end of the world weapons. Although the premise is as close to Literary Dystopian as it gets, most plots are typical Bug Eyed Monster hunts. It seems to have been the inspiration for a later Irwin Allen television show.
My initial intention was to chronical these titles and extrapolate their possible influence on the development of Pulp Dystopia. Not all of my ideas are any good. As any student of evolution will tell you, some paths just dead end.
While comic books acknowledged Literary Dystopia, their approach is strictly cosmetic. Key to the early dystopian form are disasters propelled by human bureaucracy. Like mental powers, bureaucracy isn’t a particularly visual thing. If you substitute vampires or aliens or zombies for Big Brother, you’re not dealing with dystopia but rather a more pedestrian aspect of science fantasy. Pulp Dystopia focuses more on the effects than the causes of a crisis, and was never chanced on as a repeated literary construction in comic books.
The current Pulp Dystopia TV hit Walking Dead did start as a comic book, but it doesn’t have much in the way of precedent within the comic book form. Even as a comic book, it has more to do with copping the feel of George Romero movies than advancing any idea from the world of four color sequential art.
This is not to say that Walking Dead is the only modern era comic book to have played with Literary Dystopia or Pulp Dystopia. The Kamandi and Kilraven (War of the Worlds) series put the post global disaster themes front and center. (8) Underground Comix anthologies such as Class War, Slow Death and Zap ran stories set in a decadent version of after the fall of now. True to Pulp Dystopian form, many were more interested in exploiting the shock value of leather clad women walking their sex slaves like dogs than explaining exactly what circumstances may have led to this. Mainstream comic book publisher Charlton had at least two continuing titles set after doomsday.
Comic books have generally had little truck with dystopia in any of its forms and have lacked the influence to impact the new Pulp Dystopian form. That the medium has dodged having an influence for 60 plus years does not mean that it will continue to do so. As long as Pulp Dystopia remains an ascendant genre, the chances of it making a strong showing in the graphic novel form remain high. It is a mainstay of the Japanese version.
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(1) There was a non pulp separation in Science Fiction, led by the digest title Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy. In this new school, science fiction was getting away from the camoflague Western Space Opera, bug eyed monster hunting, action plotting emphasis found in the pulps and more towards relativism and relevancy. Ray Bradbury, though a pulp era author, was a part of this trend and his Literary Dystopian work Fahrenheit 451 is one of the better examples.
(2) Most comic book superhero stories are set in what I have dubbed the Modern Thrills genre. It’s the real world but… your wife is a witch… there are secret societies of vampires lurking about… there are occasional super powered beings. Everything else is normal and the supernatural elements that do exist do not have the sway to make overall changes in society. Instead, the normal world sort of seals up wounds made by the fantastic hermetically, showing no lingering signs that anything out of the ordinary has transpired.
(3) Fawcett was well situated to withstand the sort of criticism that would later engulf other comic book publishers. Not that they were any less vulgar. Just in Anarcho they run an extensive torture scene and portray the people of Tibet as being demon worshippers. As opposed to policing their content, the firm had hired the First Lady and the daughter of Freud (along with Admiral Byrd and a bevy of other luminaries) to sit on their editorial board. These people were surely not reading the 60 comics per month Fawcett produces. It’s pure bribery. The names of these prominent establishment Americans on their comic book mastheads provided a very nice political smokescreen.
(4) Spy Smasher was Fawcett’s big hitter in the comic book spy game. He had been featured in an early WWII movie serial and appeared in several of the firm’s comic titles. It’s a big seller, drawing better than their licensed Captain Midnight title. Come the end of the war, however, both the Ovaltine owned Captain Midnight and Fawcett’s own Spy Smasher are in existential trouble. With no war raging, neither of these guys has a reason for being. Fawcett took the typical tact of sending Captain Midnight into outer space. Spy Smasher, at about the same time as Anarcho’s release, was re-christened Crime Smasher and then did a fast fade from view. Like Anarcho, Crime Smasher was given a one shot title and was never heard from again.
(5) The US Government does seem to have a Department of Messing With Cartoon Characters. Weird as it seems, this is not the first record we have of the government making such a request. The popular Don Winslow of the Navy character was also commissioned by the government, supposedly to aid in recruitment. Winslow’s adventures in comics, radio and the silver screen were just as fantastic as anything Captain Marvel participated in. At this point Winslow was also appearing in Fawcett comics.
(6) This was only the case of publishers who had failed to find a niche to monopolize. Post the collapse of Fawcett, Superman’s publisher DC Comics had a monopoly on the diminished superhero genre. Archie had a monopoly on teen humor. Dell Comics had a monopoly on licensed animation characters. Post the emergence of the Comics Code, the True Crime genre would vanish. EC wound up with Mad Magazine, to this day the best selling comic book in America. Harvey would chance on a theme of dysfunctional weird kiddies (Casper, Richie Rich). Everyone else scrambled.
(7) In general, distributors of the time wanted a commitment from the comics publishers. A publisher had to provide X number of new titles a week, mostly for distribution to local pharmacies. Avon was unusual, being effectively distributor sponsored. It was piggybacking its comics off of a system geared to circulating paperback novels.
(8) Kamandi was a very imaginative Jack Kirby work, however it’s standing on the shoulders of previous dystopian lit and not making much of a unique contribution. It reads more like a jungle comic than Pulp Dystopia. The Kilraven series was a continuation of War of the Worlds and in the end seemed to be more about a post apocalyptic Marvel Universe than a real world dystopia.