Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Century The 100 Page Comic Monthly #1 and the Australian Silver Age

Century The 100 Page Comic Monthly #1 is quite a momentous issue in the K.G. Murray line of reprint comics: it inaugurates a new format for the DC reprints; it introduces a new style of cover by Hart Amos; and it marks the beginning of the Australian Silver Age experience.

Let’s begin with a rundown of the contents:

Superman: The Million-Pound Mistake (original title: The Million Dollar Mistake)
Al Plastino
(Superman #102, January 1956)

The Adventures of Rex The Wonder Dog: The Two Four-Legged Champions!
John Broome/Gil Kane/Bernard Sachs
(The Adventures of Rex the Wonder Dog #26, March-April 1956)

Hopalong Cassidy starring William Boyd: The Time Bandits of Twin Rivers!
France Herron/Gene Colan/Ray Burnley
(Hopalong Cassidy 105, #September 1955)

The Green Arrow: The Bewitched Bow!
George Papp
(World's Finest Comics #80, January-February 1956)

Superboy The Adventures of Superman When He Was a Boy: The Great Kryptonite Hunt!
Curt Swan/John Fischetti
(Superboy #39, March 1955)

The Legends of Daniel Boone: Boone--Son of Chief Black Fish
Nick Cardy
(The Legends of Daniel Boone #1, October-November 1955)

Batman with Robin The Boy Wonder: The Joker Announces Danger
Bill Finger/Sheldon Moldoff/Charles Paris
(Batman #97, February 1956)

Zatara The Master Magician: Arabian Knight!
Ralph Mayo
(World's Finest Comics #51, April-May 1951)

Superman: The Rainbow Doom
Al Plastino
Superman #101, November 1955

Detective Chimp: The Mystery of the Missing Mummy!
John Broome/Carmine Infantino/Joe Giella
(The Adventures of Rex the Wonder Dog #26, March-April 1956)

Johnny Quick and his Magic Formula: Robinson Crusoe, 20th Century
Ralph Mayo
(Adventure Comics #155, August 1950)

Superboy The Adventures of Superman When He Was a Boy: Superboy, Stowaway!
Otto Binder/Curt Swan/Creig Flessel
(Superboy #42, July 1955)

The Legends of Daniel Boone: The Fugitive of Cherokee Point
Nick Cardy
(Legends of Daniel Boone #1, October-November 1955)

plus fillers:
Misnamed Animals (0.33 pages); Bygone Prisons! Al McLean (0.5 pages)

A New Format
The publication of Century #1 inaugurated a new format in the K.G. Murray stable - it was the first of the regular 100-page anthology titles, which superseded the 24- and 32-page pamphlet format in the mid/late-1950’s (note: the page count includes front and rear covers).

My friend James Zanotto argues that the impetus for this revamp was a perceived range of threats to the viability of the line, such as the introduction of television in Australia in 1956 and the lifting of import restrictions in 1959, as well as reflecting changes in the content of the material published by DC. I agree with James that these and possibly other domestic factors were instrumental in the format changes. K.G. Murray does appear to have been driven to experiment with the format in the search for a competitive edge.

This appears to be the rationale behind the colour experiment of 1956 in which 24-page black and white titles such as Superman, Superboy, Batman and Super Adventure Comic were upgraded to 32-page “color” (sic) titles for approximately a year without a price rise. They reverted to black and white for the duration of their tenure, suggesting that particular experiment was not feasible long-term. Either that, or the ‘bang for buck’ factor of the 100-pagers made the black and white anthologies a far more attractive prospect to the Australian comics reader who was already accustomed to reading superhero and adventure comics in black and white.

Century #1 features contemporary DC material published for the first time in Australia. Along with non-superhero features such as Hopalong Cassidy, Rex, The Wonder Dog and Daniel Boone, the title also offered first-time printings of the popular Superman, Batman and Superboy superhero stories. This was parallel to the 32-page eponymous titles which were still being published, and would run for another 2 or 3 years. The prominence of the popular superheroes on the cover suggests they were still deemed to command 'top billing'.

That the top tier characters shared space with second or third tier characters was no great surprise to the K.G. Murray comics reader in 1956. One was accustomed to seeing a Johnny Quick feature alongside Superman and Batman in Super Adventure Comic, or a Green Arrow back-up story in Batman’s comic.

What would have surprised the young reader picking up Century #1 is the array of genres presented under the one cover. Century #1 not only contained westerns and adventure stories alongside the superhero stories, but also some more oddball features such as Detective Chimp. Future issues would include humour and funny animal strips. To my knowledge, this range of variety was a first for K.G. Murray, at least in terms of packaging DC properties.

I expect this mix of genres and repackaging of features was also instrumental in the change of policy regarding the titles in the K.G. Murray line. As the 24- to 32-page pamphlets were phased out and the new line of 100-page anthologies took over, the traditional eponymous titles such as Superman, Batman, Jimmy Olsen etc. were replaced on the stands by the generic Century, The Hundred Comic Monthly, Five-Score Comic Monthly, All Favourites Comic etc. They may have been generic titles without a hint of the specific features contained inside, but they certainly evoked largesse in terms of the amount of material.

There were two exceptions to this rule - Super Adventure Comic, which already sported a suitably generic title, but would nevertheless also be upgraded to a 100-page anthology with a new #1 issue; and Superman’s Supacomic, which was launched in 1958 and had the proverbial ‘bet each way’ by retaining the Superman name in the title, yet still managing to sound like an anthology (the title was changed to Superman Supacomic with the sixth issue).

The important factor is that all the regular monthly and bi-monthly titles would be anthologies, and although most would settle into extended periods of featuring a particular character or property as the main drawcard (eg. Justice League of America in Mighty Comic and All Favourites Comic), or rotating a major feature on cover duties (eg Flash and Wonder Woman on The Hundred and World’s Finest Comic Monthly), or mainly focusing on third-tier superhero features or non-superhero features (All Star Adventure Comic and Five-Score Comic Monthly), the day of the standard eponymous 24- to 32-page pamphlet K.G. Murray title was numbered.

The New Amos style
It is not only the first of the new anthology titles to feature a cover illustration by Hart Amos, but it introduces a new style of cover by Amos.

Amos was already a dab hand at producing new K.G. Murray covers for series such as Superman and, in particular, Super Adventure Comic. The covers he produced for these series were largely generic images, typically featuring Superman, Batman and Robin in a style based on the US World’s Finest covers as exemplified by Win Mortimer. This was no coincidence as, similarly to the US World’s Finest series, Super Adventure Comic contained both Superman and Batman stories, and hence generic shots of the two main players together conveyed the contents to the buyer.

With the advent of the larger anthology titles, a similar challenge was presented, but on a larger scale. Contriving a situation in which Superman and Batman and Robin (or, as was often the case, Superboy) appeared together was one thing; exercising the same creative staging for cross-genre characters was another. And besides, there was no longer the crutch of adapting existing US covers for this little task.

For these anthology covers Amos adopted a light and playful montage style for scenes or situations contrived to incorporate a variety of characters within a single frame. For example, Century #1 features Hopalong Cassidy, Batman, Daniel Boone, Superboy and Rex, The Wonder Dog, all duly labeled as if by introduction, envisaged in the smoke bombs erupting from the cannon fired by Superman who, of course, needs no introduction.

The imperative for character identification was obviously felt in the early stages of the new anthologies. The characters are namechecked again on the covers for Century #2 and Superman Supacomic #1, but labelling would not be the norm.

The style of cover image Amos produced for the early Century issues would shortly feature on a range of titles, in particular Colossal Comic, Mammoth Annual and Gigantic Annual, but also early issues of All Favourites, Mighty Comic and Superman Supacomic. Future illustrations would feature these and other heroes making snowmen, eating ice cream, singing Christmas carols, or appearing on cards and photos or decorations, but the general template was set here. Indeed, Amos produced two distinct styles for the anthology covers, but I will address this in another blog entry on Amos.

The Australian Silver Age
In effect, the launch of Century #1 heralds what I think of as the Australian Silver Age Experience. By coincidence or providence, Century #1 appears almost simultaneously on Australian stands as Showcase #4 appears on US stands. The cover date for Showcase #4 is September-October 1956; Roy Thomas confirms Showcase #4 was on the stands on July the 4th 1956 (see Alter Ego #60, July 2006 editorial p.2); the advertiser’s date code for Century #1 is 1/7/56, suggesting Century #1 was on the stands on or about the 1st of July 1956. That’s close enough for me!

Just as the Silver Age marks a revitalisation of the superhero comic which builds up a head of steam over the next few years, so does Century #1 kickstart a revamped format for the presentation of the silver age material for an Australian audience. In the ensuing two decades the various titles will change in size, shape, price and even name (especially in 1965), but the preeminence and longevity of the K.G. Murray line of predominantly US DC reprints of the Silver Age can all be traced back to the launch of Century #1.

Now, I’m quite aware that the question of what does and does not constitute the beginning or the end of the Silver Age or the Golden Age or the Bronze Age is a hoary old chestnut in fandom, and I’m loathe to stir debate on this front here. For my purposes, I simply acknowledge that the Silver Age is a useful shorthand periodising term with broadly accepted currency which is relevant to superhero comics from the mid-1950’s through the 1960’s, with particular emphasis on the DC range of superhero comics.

All I am claiming for Century #1 is that it marks the start of the Australian ‘experience’ of the Silver Age DC comics, nothing more, nothing less. (I am certainly not claiming it takes the hallowed place of Showcase #4 or any other such candidate - so keep the knives at bay, fanboys!)

For the record, I have been able to verify as of a few days ago that “The Mystery of the Human Thunderbolt” was reprinted in Australia, in The Hundred Comic Monthly #3, circa December 1956, around the same time as Century #6 was published. (If anyone has a copy of The Hundred Comic Monthly #3 they would like to sell or trade, please contact me via email.)

Another curious fact about Century #1 is that the contents have all been reprinted 12 years later circa early/mid 1968 in various other K.G. Murray issues. Superman Presents Wonder Comic Monthly #36, Superman Presents World’s Finest Comic Monthly #’s 34 and 37, Mighty Comic #’s 63 and 64, and All Star Adventure Comic #49 each contain reprints sourced from Century #1, amounting to a virtual reprint of this issue. (Well, almost all – I have not yet spotted reprints of the Johnny Quick feature and the “Chief Black Fish” Daniel Boone story – but I would not be surprised to find them in other comics circa 1968.)

This is not an unprecedented practice by K.G. Murray – for example, much of All Favourites Comics Annual #1 was reprinted in Colossal Comic #39; and indeed, the Colossal title itself is filled with reprints sourced from the K.G. Murray pamphlet era. Yet it is curious to see the contents of Century #1 plundered for miscellaneous back-up features in a range of issues within a relatively short concentrated period of time. I plan to cover this odd phenomenon in a later blog.

Lest I forget, I would like to formally acknowledge the Grand Comics Database and the AusReprints site as two of my main references for credits and other data quoted in my blog. I’d also like to thank my friends Mark Cannon, Mark Muller, Kevin Patrick and James Zanotto for their various contributions.

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