By George S. Elrick and anonymous (Whitman)
I bang on a lot about comics as an art form and (justifiably, I think) decry the fact that they’ve never been given the mainstream recognition other forms of popular creative expression enjoy. I also encourage all and sundry to read more graphic narrative (I’m blurring my own terms here by including any product where text and image work co-operatively to tell a story, rather than simply a sequence of pictures with words attached), and I’m judicious and even selective (really and truly – there’s stuff I’m never going to share and recommend because by most critical criteria, it’s better off ignored and forgotten).
However sometimes I’m caught in a bind: I tend to minimise the impact of nostalgia on my beloved world of “funnybooks”, but so often that irresistible siren call from the Golden Years will utterly trump any hi-falutin’ aesthetic ideal and proselytising zeal for acceptance and recognition.
Superman Smashes the Secret of the Mad Director is such a product from a simpler time when it could be truly said that everybody had seen some sort of comic in their lives (not so easy to claim these days, I fear): a standard paperback more probably released to capitalise on the groundbreaking Saturday morning cartoon series ‘The New Adventures of Superman’ (first hit for the fledgling Filmation Studios) than on the periodical delights of the “World’s Best Selling Comics Magazine!”
The half-hour cartoon show was a huge success, running three seasons; initially piggybacked with Superboy in its first year, (beginning September 10th 1966), expanding into The Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure in 1967 and finally The Superman/Batman Hour in 1968. It was cancelled in September 1969 due to pressure from the censorious Action For Children’s Television who agitated against it for its unacceptably violent content!
As was the often the case in those times Big Little Books were produced under license by Whitman Publishing (the print giant that owned Dell and Gold Key Comics) in a mutually advantageous system that got books for younger readers featuring popular characters and cartoon brands (Man From U.N.C.L.E., the Monkees, Shazzan!, Flintstones, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Batman, even the Fantastic Four amongst literally hundreds of others) into huge general store chains such as Woolworth’s, thus expanding recognition, product longevity – and hopefully sales.
Don Markstein’s superb Toonopedia site defines Big Little Books as: a small, square book, usually measuring about 3″x3″, with text on the left-hand pages and a single full-page illustration on the right. Big Little Books were originally created in the 1930s, to make use of small pieces of paper that had formerly gone to waste when magazines were trimmed after printing. By running a separate publication on paper that would otherwise go in the trash, the printer was able to create a salable product almost for free.
Big Little Books were an ideal way to merchandise comic strip characters, as the drawings could simply be taken directly from the strips themselves. Big Little Books flourished during the days of pulp magazine publishing, which mostly came to an end after World War II. The form was revived in the 1960s, partly as a nostalgia item, and has been used sporadically ever since. These latter-day Big Little Books are generally printed on better paper, and some, at least, have color illustrations.
This novel for children, written by BLB mainstay George S. Elrick, is slightly different, having no colour illustrations on its 166 interior pages and reformatted like a bookstore paperback of the sort that proliferated during the 1960s “Camp Superhero Craze” (check out our archived review for High Camp Super-Heroes – B50 695 – for a handy example), and tells a rather good action/mystery yarn about a demented movie maker whose search for ultimate realism draws investigative reporters Clark Kent and Lois Lane into a pretty pickle…
To be frank the illustrations are pretty poor, originals not clipped pictures, but ineptly traced from reference material provided by comics drawn by the great Kurt Schaffenberger. Still, the wholesome naivety, rapid pace and gentle enthusiasm of the package surprised and engrossed me – even after the more than forty years since I last read it.
It’s a crying shame that the world doesn’t take comics seriously nor appreciate the medium’s place and role in global society and the pantheon of Arts. Still, as long as graphic narrative has the power to transport such as me to faraway, better places I’m not going to lose too much sleep over it…
© 1966 National Periodical Publications, Inc. All Rights Reserved.