The Roman Catholic Church has used pictures in the last two thousand some years to impart its eternally descried truths to the laity. From the crude woodcut images of Jesus, Mary and the saints to the detailed oil painting by Flemish northern Renaissance artists like Hieronymous Bosch and Jan Van Eyck, The Church has always stood apart from its Protestant and Jewish brethren in this regard
Secular Comic Books
A new popular art form arose in the 20th century which The Catholic Church and its United States-based publishing imprints, sought both to harness for its own purposes and attempted to control and suppress. Sequential art or comic art became popular with the appearance of the slant-eyed, night-shirt bedecked `Yellow Kid’ in newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst’s Sunday newspaper comic inserts. After purchasing The New York Herald, Hearst set loose on his inner city, working class, largely Catholic readers, the other comic strip that would resonate through the decades, `The Katzenjammer Kids.’
In panel after panel, `The Katz Kids’ and `The Yellow Kid’ were depicted in hilarious and unabashed subtly subversive acts of familial and societal control. Images of eyes being gouged, dogs being kicked and children falling down fire escape horrified educators and clerics, causing Hearst’s papers to being banned from public libraries and parochial schools. `The Katz Kids’ and `The Yellow Kid’ challenged both parental power and the ruling Protestant orthodoxy, leading many stodgy Waspish pundits to denounce the Sunday funnies. `The Yellow Kid’s’ subtle pro-Catholic and pro-immigrant overtones didn’t survive the Sunday papers, but `The Katzenjammer Kids’ continued on in comic book form right through the ’50s, under a different name, `The Captain and the Kids.’
The Rise of the Catholic Press
It was with the rise of an independent Catholic press, a product of the influence and confidence the Catholic Church was making in American society, that comics came to be manipulated for its own end. In 1822 John England published the United States Catholic Miscellany, which led many dioceses to start their own weekly journals. The American Ecclesiastical Review was a conservative reaction to the Catholic World which promulgated the modernist views of St. Paul Minnesota’s charismatic archbishop, John Ireland.
Our Sunday Visitor started by Father John Francis Noll of Fort Wayne, Indiana in response to anti-immigration, anti-papist views expounded by various newspapers and the longest running Catholic weekly in the US, impacted on the history of the American comic book in the form of the infamous comic book burnings, which is outside the purview of this paper.
By the late 1930s, the Sunday funnies had been folded and stapled into the comic book format that we have come to recognize. At first given away as promotions, they were soon being sold for 10 cents each. Comic books were part of the bundles of cheap paper reading material including pulps, paperbacks, magazines, digests and newspapers that were dropped off to drug stores, newsstands and soda shops early in the early morning by speeding delivery trucks.
At first, `funny animals’, bi-pedal locomoted talking pigs and rabbits were the most common subjects of comic books, but a pair of Jewish boys, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster would move the comic universe into a different direction. The appearance of National Periodical’s `Superman’ in Action Comics #1 in 1938 spearheaded the hero-action genre, the most successful in the medium’s long history.
Action heroes were popular with children and the only slightly older young men who were fighting for their lives overseas during World War Two. Like the down-sized Armed Force Edition paperbacks, comic books were a cheap harmless diversion in the long lulls between the moments of intense drama that was the life of a soldier.
In the era before the internet, TV, gaming consoles and social media, children had few outlets for their budding curiosities and imaginations. Some of the radio serials like `Dick Tracy’ and `Flash Gordon’ filled those needs and of course, there was still the newspaper comic strips. But with the standalone comic book, young boys and girls had something they could hold in their hands, hide from their parents, share among friends and call their own.
The Catholic Church has traditionally had difficulty holding the attention of children. The latter’s instinctive desire for freedom was thwarted when they were put in the bathtub and made to don trousers and dowdy dresses on Sunday morning to go to church. They had to be dead quiet as the ancient Tridentine Mass, with its strange monosyllabic chanting unfolded, the remote robed figure standing with their back to them. The Church saw the appeal that the new comic book was making to the younger set and through its burgeoning press and publishing imprints, sought to co-opt the medium’s power.
The First Catholic Comic
The first all Catholic comic was the Catechetical Guild’s Educational Society’s Topix, a one hundred plus issue run which started in November 1942 and is noted for the first professional work of Peanut’s creator Charles Schultz. Topix was the brainchild of Father Louis Gales from St. Paul Minnesota who was responsible for the Catholic Digest. Each issue of Topix featured a saint of the month and a regular feature about a pint-sized angel named Wopsy. Topix also had western stories, paralleling the trend in comics at the time, but the cowboys seemed to do nothing else but stand around talking about how to build a church. Volume 2, issue #8 was devoted entirely to Pope Pius X11. Topix was only published while school was in session. At its peak, it had a paid circulation of 600,000 and reached 5000 schools.
The Catechetical Guild was also responsible for a number of controversial `one-shot’ comics such as the anti-communist titles This is Tomorrow and Blood is the Harvest. The first edition of the stridently anti-secular, If the Devil Could Talk is highly desirable by comic book collectors, since it was withdrawn shortly after its initial release. Heroes- All Catholics Action Illustrated by `Heroes All Publications’ which also put out Catholic Boy had a five-year run starting in 1943. It was also intended for parochial use and was available only through subscription
Catholic Comics was published by William Bennett’s `Catholic Publications’ enjoyed a thirty-three issue run from 1946 to 1949. The art and writing were contracted out to Charlton which became a major player in American comics from the 1950s through to the 1970s. Catholic Comics lead character was Bill Brown of Notre Dame who gained extra energy on the gridiron when he saw the school cathedral’s golden dome. Other regular features were `Pudgy Pig’ and `A Tale of Aesop’. Each issue had the life of a saint and a report on Father O’ Malley’s CYO (Catholic Youth Organization). The November 1947 issue featured a story called `Tom Mercer Meets the Real Supermen’ in which the protagonist is caught reading a superhero comic book. Sister Mary admonishes Tom, telling him about the archangels in heaven. Humbled, Tom tears up his comic book and says “I was a chump for reading that trash. Thanks to you and the class for introducing me to some real supermen.”
Treasure Chest of Fun and Facts
Looking at the covers of these three books from comic’s Golden Age, the most lasting impression are the robust images of popular sporting heroes like Notre Dame’s Knut Rockne, which was bound to appeal to young readers. The publisher of maybe the best known Catholic comic of all, Treasure Chest of Fun and Facts, George Pflaum from Dayton Ohio was a media baron of sorts who also published `The Young Catholic Messenger’, `Junior Catholic Messenger’ and `Our Little Messenger’. Pflaum was active in the Catholic Press Association and was a founder of the Catholic Civics Clubs of America, a joint project with the Commission on American Citizenship of The Catholic University of America (CUA) in Washington, DC. The later’s archive contains all 508 issues of Treasure Chest. First published in 1946 and finishing up in 1972, Treasure Chest was issued bi-monthly until 1968 when it became a monthly release, although each issue was now double in size. It was issued over the summer months. only in 1966 and 1967. Treasure Chest was distributed through bulk subscription in schools and extensively used as teaching aids. The artwork was realistic, crisp and clean. An engaging eclectic mix of non-fiction illustrations and text as well as more typical comic sequences, Treasure Chest holds fond memories for many older Catholics.
A long-running storyline by Frank Ross called `Chuck White’ featured the son of a mixed marriage (Catholic and Protestant) and depicted racially integrated friendships. Other features included `Skee Barry- Salvage Diver USN’, `Rumpus Room’ and the `What if Fairy’ which appeared whenever a child pondered to ask `what if?’ Reed Crandall who also drew for Quality, Dell and Entertaining Comics(EC) was responsible for most of the `This Godless Communism’ stories, that ran in many Treasure Chest issues in the early 1960’s and have made those issues highly collectible in the secondhand market.
The last incursion of the Catholic press in the comic book medium by Patrick Frawley’s `Twin Circle’ newspaper is important because it kept afloat the venerable Classic Illustrated line for nearly half a decade before it expired in 1971. Although few new titles were added of these comic renditions of great literary works, most of the 167 previous continued to be lovingly reissued, many with new covers and interior artwork. Frawley, like Classics Illustrated founder Albert Kanter, was a multifaceted entrepreneur, who at one time owned `Schick’, maker of the first stainless steel shaving blade, `Paper Mate’ and `Technicolor’, which developed a film cartridge, the precursor of the videocassette. Frawley put his Roman Catholic faith in practice by financially backing Jesuit priest Dan Lyon’s `Twin Circle’ newspaper.
In 1964, after reading a Classics issue belonging to one of his children, he reached out to Gilberton, the holding company which owned CI, about buying the rights to the books. Finally, in December 1967 for $500,000 Frawley was able to seal a deal, adding CI to his portfolio. Albert Kanter was to stay on as a consultant for five years. All publishing operations were consolidated in Frawley Corporation’s West Coast offices. Postal regulations prevented the continuing inclusion of a separately sold item within the newspaper, as had been Frawley’s plan and he began to print CI serially within the
Twin Circle newspaper. CI’s longtime distribution arm, Curtis Circulation Company convinced Frawley to start putting stiff glossy covers on the books and raise the price to 25 cents. Apparently, Frawley never understood what it was to be, essentially a comic book publisher, including the practice of having to accept the cost of returned unsold copies. With boxes of crisp new CI’s filling up his warehouse. he decided to cut himself of what came to known as Frawley’s Folly on April 21, 1971, nearly 30 years after the first Classic Illustrated title The Three Musketeers’ hit the newsstands.
After 1972, Catholic-themed comics published by a publically identified Catholic publishing imprint ceased to exist. One-offs like Marvel Comic’s biography of Pope John Paul 11 and Saint Francis, however, continued to show the Catholic faith in good light. The Marvel empire has also created what may be the deepest penetration of the Catholic faith in the comic medium. The moral basis of superhero Matt Murdoc (Daredevil), whose mother was a nun is continually alluded to in the many comic books, graphic novels and movies in which he appears.
By Joachim Brouwer:
Joachim lives in Canada and has been published in Catholic Insight, The Hamilton
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