01 March 2008

Following the Money with Captain America

One of my theories of life is that a surprising amount of what we'd like to consider as artistic change is driven not by individual creativity or cultural trends, but by hidden financial incentives.

This "Follow the money" theory of literature reminds us not to forget that Dickens was paid by the word, or that Twain edited a chapter from Huckleberry Finn because he wanted to make it look better in a set with the shorter Tom Sawyer.

As another hidden financial incentive, I just read this example in the Comics Should Be Good column's periodic rundown of comics urban legends:

In the early days of comic books, one of the more intriguing aspects of comics was the presence of text pages in the midst of comics. . . . The truth of the matter is, to qualify for the second class bulk mailing rate (the same rate given to newspapers and magazines), periodicals were forced to include at least two pages of text.

Therefore, an amusing side effect occured. Desperate for text strips, the publishers would often print whatever was given them, which has led to some DREADFUL fiction over the years (this was Stan Lee’s first work in comics, churning out text pages for Timely when still in his teens).
Indeed, Lee's first professional publication was a two-page story in Captain America, #3, titled "Captain America Foils the Traitor's Revenge." He reprinted it--for nostalgia's sake--in Captain America, Sentinel of Liberty in 1979. It's a dreadful bit of prose, worthy of a eighteen-year-old who thought he was slumming under a pen name. The story leaves no emotion not spelled out, actually uses the word "interestedly," and has a typo in the final sentence. The pacing is only slightly better than Penrod's.

Such stories were long gone from comic books by the time I saw them. Why? The urban legends article explains what took their place:
However, as time went on, and fans became more involved in comics, publishers realized that letters pages could just as easily serve this purpose, so that is why comic books all went to include letters pages - so to achieve their mailing rate.
Marvel comic books also contained the "Bullpen" page in which Lee hyped other titles, praised "the mighty Marvel marching society" for our good taste, indulged in unmatched alliteration and superlatives, and generally dashed off the best prose of his career. And all because of postal regulations.

Those regulations changed in the 1990s, and fan commentary moved to the internet. However, superhero prose still tends to be poor.

(Comic book cover from the Grand Comic Book Database.)


Sam said...

perhaps it explains why I have a Scooby-Doo comix with a text story written/translated by someone who did not know Shaggy's name.

I wonder if those pages were bad on purpose. The last thing the comic companies want is to make kids think that reading a regular book might be interesting.

p.s. Too bad Twain didn't chop Tom Sawyer Abroad, too.

J. L. Bell said...

If Twain had cut out all the mediocre parts of Tom Sawyer Abroad, there wouldn't have been enough to sell as a book!