Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Volume Three, Number Nine

As you'll recall my intentions were to comment on the picking up of the license for the Archie superheroes by DC this time out. After giving it some thought though I've decided to take the next few installments and write about these characters and the MLJ/ARCHIE ADVENTURE SERIES/MIGHTY COMICS GROUP/RED CIRCLE COMICS GROUP history after which I'll comment on what I think about DC's newest project. The material you are about to read in this installment and the next few installments was written by me and originally published in "The People's Comic Book Newsletter" Vol. 4 No. 36 Jan. 24, 2001. Enjoy.

While a great deal has been written over the years about Archie Andrews and his pals the same cannot be said about Archie Comic Publications' superheroes. Few people seem to know that not only Archie Comic Publications get its start-under a different name mind you-in 1939-as a publisher of superhero comics but that it was one of the more innovative comics publishers in the industry. This article is an attempt to rectify that and while space limitations prevent me from going into a great amount of detail I hope that I can at least cover the more important points regarding Archie Comic Publications' superhero history.

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THE BEGINNING: MLJ Magazines (named for its three founders; Maurice Coyne, Louis Silberkleit and John Goldwater) came into being in 1939 with its first comics title, "Blue Ribbon Comics". But before the creation of MLJ Magazines, two of its founders had previous experience in the magazine business. John Goldwater got his start as a purchaser of out-of-date American magazines which he bought for a penny each and then shipped them overseas for re-sale. This venture eventually lead to Goldwater meeting up with Louis Silberkleit who at the time was a pulp magazine publisher. Silberkleit got his beginnings in the offices of pulp magazine legend Hugo Germback who was behind the publication of "Amazing Stories", the first pulp devoted entirely to science fiction. While working for Germback, Silberkleit became friends with another employee, Martin Goodman. In the early 1930s Silberkleit and Goodman left Germback to set up their own pulp fiction publishing company, Red Circle. Under the Red Circle imprint the pair published a number of titles including "Two-Gun Western", "All Star Adventure" and "Sex Health". During their years together Silberkleit and Goodman were relatively successful but nowhere near as successful as they would become after their partnership dissolved in 1937. After both publishing pulps individuals over the next two years in 1939 Goodman went on to launch a line of comics that would eventually evolve into Marvel Comics Group while Silberkleit would become one-third of the partnership that would start the company that eventually became known as Archie Comic Publications.

"Blue Ribbon Comics" #1 hit the stands late in the summer of 1939. Cover-dated November 1939 chances are that appeared around the same time as Martin Goodman's "Marvel Comics" #1. The first issue of "Blue Ribbon Comics" was fairly uneventful with its most exciting strip being a Rin Tin Tin imitation titled "Rang-A-Tang". It wasn't until issue #2 that "Blue Ribbon Comics" began to feature superheroes with the introduction of a rather oddly named character called "Bob Phantom". Despite his less than heroic name "Bob Phantom" (whose abilities included intangibility) had a moderately successful run. As well as appearing in "Blue Ribbon Comics" #s2 to 22 his strip also ran in "Top Notch Comics" #s 3 to 25 for a total of 44 appearances.

"Blue Ribbon Comics" itself ran for a total of 22 issues on a somewhat irregular schedule with its final issue cover-dated March 1942. But while lasting only for less than two dozen issues "Blue Ribbon Comics" none the less featured a number of memorable characters including "The Fox", "Doc Strong", "Mr. Justice", "Inferno, The Flame Breather" and "Captain Flag". Unfortunately, with the possible-and to some today surprising-exceptions of "Bob Phantom" and "Inferno The Flame Breather" none of the series had much staying power. So when MLJ Magazines had to drop a title to give "Hangman" his own book (a practice during World War Two by comics publishers due to paper shortages at the time; when a publisher wanted to launch a new periodical an existing one had to go or merge with another comic) "Blue Ribbon Comics" was the obvious candidate. As is often the case though in the comics world "Blue Ribbon Comics" didn't become a permanent resident of comic book limbo. In 1949 St. John Publishing revived the title for six issues and from 1983 to 1984 Archie Comic Publications brought it back again as a Showcase-type comic. But more on that later.

While "Blue Ribbon Comics" didn't exactly take the comics industry by storm, MLJ Magazines had better success with its second title, "Top-Notch Comics". We'll be exploring that comic and more about the early days of MLJ Magazines in the next installment of E-Dispatches later this week.

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