Sunday, October 23, 2011


You know the old saying about how imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

In comic books, however, that flattery was picking the pockets of someone else. In some cases it led to lawsuits and the destruction of the flattering entity. National Periodicals (DC) sued Fawcett over their Capt. Marvel (which had outstripped Superman in popularity and sales) and thus Fawcett was undone and it can be argued that superhero comics almost went away with the destruction of Billy Batson and his alter-ego.

Whenever one comic book publisher came up with a popular idea, there were always at least a few other publishers around ready, willing, and able to try to rip off that idea. When Harvey Kurtzman's MAD hit the stands it was an enormous sales success. In fact, Mad Magazine outlived its parent company and went on to spawn one of the highest selling publications in the world, and a couple of TV series.

And so it was that in this case other publishers fell all over themselves trying to ape Kurtzman's vision of the humor comic book. Most of those imitations fell flat, of course, but the threat was very much there and Bill Gaines and company figured that if someone was going to imitate MAD, then it might as well be the guys who were already publishing the original! Thus, was PANIC born.

PANIC lasted for twelve issues and was, in almost all ways, MAD with just a different title. It sported the same writers, same artists, same feel. If you pick up and read an issue of PANIC you wouldn't know you weren't reading MAD unless you looked at the cover title. And that's what they wanted. When you pick your own pocket the money ends up in the same place.

I've never read or heard what sales of PANIC were like, but they must have been decent for the title to have lasted as long as it did. The only thing that killed it off was the demise of EC as a comic book publisher. When William Gaines decided to leave comics and move strictly to the magazine format (thus escaping the Comics Code Authority), he allowed PANIC to be almost totally forgotten and vanish with his small raft of other Comic Code approved titles such as INCREDIBLE SCIENCE FICTION, PIRACY, VALOR, ACES HIGH, etc.

One of the main reasons for the existence of the Comics Code Authority in those days was to put EC Comics out of business. In this, they succeeded. Of course they ended up creating the single most profitable independently owned publication on Earth, but that's beside the point. the Code put EC down for the count, and that has to be one of the greatest crimes ever committed in the sad history of comic book publishing.

PANIC #8. Yeah, I'm buying old comics again. Newest addition to the collection. Here was Kurtzman and his team putting Jewish humor into the hands of every good little boy and girl. (Who are we kidding? It was almost all boys.)

Modern readers have pretty much no idea at all what the popularity of newspaper comic strips was once like. The American people once adored the funny papers. A popular strip could become a cultural phenomenon. The influence of a popular newspaper comic could not be underestimated. And once upon a time one of the most popular strips was ALLEY OOP. Here, Kurtzman and his band of humorists parody the caveman, Alley Oop. (Strangely--to me, a least--although Alley Oop had been around since 1939, the strip enjoyed its greatest popularity in the 1950s and early 1960s.)

Joe Orlando's humor. Quite different from his more dramatic work at EC, but still effective.

And the great Wally Wood lends his talent to skewering GONE WITH THE WIND.

No comments: