“Dell Comics Are Good Comics”:
Donald Duck, Pogo, Little Lulu & more
In 1943, George Delacorte Jr., Dell’s no-nonsense publisher, explained that he had diversified into comic books to reach “…children who have not leaned to read as yet, and to those who perhaps mumble with their lips as they read.” Despite Delacorte’s disdain towards this market, when Dell’s in-house advertising trumpeted that “Dell Comics Are Good Comics”, this was no empty puffery.
When self-appointed moral guardians after World War II tried to link the reading of comic books with delinquency and perversion, Dell averted criticism and the industry’s strict Comics Code because they had avoided superheroes, horror or other genres and relied mainly on licensing wholesome properties from other media. This giant of American publishing ran an office in Hollywood to keep in with Walt Disney and other studios. The wonder is that Dell Comics were not only good for you and of good quality, but also that in such a profit-driven industry for a juvenile audience, certain writers and artists crafted lasting triumphs of the medium.
Starting in the 1960s, Michael Barrier was among the earliest historians to reappraise what was routinely dismissed as “kiddies’ stuff”. He founded the magazine Funnyworld in 1970, wrote the first study of the life and work of Dell Comics’ greatest Donald Duck cartoonist Carl Barks (1981), and co-edited The Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics (1982). For his latest book, Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books (University of California Press), Barrier re-immerses himself in classic comic books and emerges impervious to nostalgia. He castigates the crudity and shal- lowness of most “Golden Age” comic books (which are often “clotted with dialogue”) and dismisses the whole genre of romance comics which, in his view, “resisted producing any material of value”. His biggest criticism is that “it seems never to have occurred to anyone that the best comic book stories might reveal themselves fully only through many rereadings”.
Barrier finds this depth at Dell, whose best titles he hails for not being made by children (or immature young men only a few years older than their readers), but by adults creating for children. He pinpoints crucial aspects in Dell’s approach which enabled these writer-artists to flourish: the publisher expected eight panels per page rather than the typical six and, with no pages sacrificed to external advertising, could accommodate longer, more complex tales of up to forty pages. Most other companies opted for anthologies of truncated short stories.
Walt Kelly’s Deep South possum Pogo, Carl Barks’s Donald Duck (and his addition of the miserly Uncle Scrooge), and John Stanley’s Little Lulu, based on “Marge” Buell’s cartoons of a mischievous girl, get Barrier’s closest scrutiny, but equally rewarding are his insights into less-celebrated contributors, such as the editor Oscar Lebeck, Dell’s Hollywood representative Eleanor Packer, the scriptwriter Gaylord Dubois and masters of chiaroscuro illustration, Jesse Marsh (below on Tarzan) and Alex Toth.
Barrier skilfully weaves their careers and creations into Dell’s corporate rise, from a risky start in the early 1940s, to the company’s commercial and creative peak in the 50s. Dell’s “slow fade” is a sobering lesson in publishing misfortunes and misjudgements. Media panic and Senate hearings about harmful comic books impacted even on Dell’s increasingly self-censored fare: revenue fell from 30 per cent in 1952 to 7 per cent in 1960. To offset this, Dell reduced the extent of each title, constraining creators to shorter, blander stories, and added more adverts. A brief, disastrous price rise from ten to fifteen cents didn’t help.
The company folded in 1973 but quality reprints of their greatest output continue to affirm the company’s old slogan that “Dell Comics Are Good Comics”. It would be hard to imagine a more thorough and persuasive analysis than Barrier’s Funnybooks of the inspiring way in which Dell produced such “Good Comics”. It’s a recipe for both success and disaster which others could learn a lot from. Long may these stories and art continue to inspire generations of cartoonists from Robert Crumb to Chris Ware and win over yet more readers of all ages.Posted: April 7, 2015
An edited version of this book review first appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, April 3rd 2015.