St. Louis Is "Comics' 2nd City"

"Project Comic Con" convention comes to St. Louis Sept. 21-22

Author Mike Phoenix has written a history of the comic book industry in St. Louis titled "Comics' Second City: The Gateway History of the American Comic Book." He says St. Louis is second only to New York City for comics. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
September 06, 2013
Comic book conventions like the one coming to St. Louis on Sept. 21 get Mike Phoenix all excited. That's because this Crestwood fellow wrote the book on comic books.

Phoenix's book, "Comics' Second City: The Gateway History of the American Comic Book," sings the praises of St. Louis for being one of the nation's premiere comic capitals.

"Our local history with comics may be the reason conventions have been doing so well here," said Phoenix. "We had 30,000 people at a convention in St. Louis in March on a weekend with a record snowfall. They kept coming despite the weather."

In his book, Phoenix describes St. Louis as second only to New York City for comics. Among the reasons that St. Louis has been a comic book mecca: Joseph Pulitzer and his newspaper funny pages; the rise of World Color Printing; and, a mind-boggling bunch of talent for creating comic characters here in St. Louis.

"Comic books are the descendants of the American newspaper comic strip, and Pulitzer of St. Louis built his newspaper circulations, in part, with his funny pages," explained Phoenix. "Comic books can trace their lineage directly to comic strips."

Another St. Louis comic connection is the rise of World Color Printing, which printed New Fun Comics, the very first comic book from which the powerhouse of DC Comics would evolve. DC Comics has been home to the world's greatest super heroes, including Superman and Batman.

In chronicling the creative talent behind comics, Phoenix cites the work and research of another Crestwood resident, Dan Martin, who draws the Weather Bird today for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Martin is author of "See You In The Funny Papers," which catalogs dozens of world renown cartoonists with St. Louis connections.

"You really can't talk about comic books without mentioning some of the creative people who did comic strips whom Dan Martin has researched," said Phoenix. "People like Chic Young, George McManus, Phil Davis, Ray Moore, Al Hirschfeld, Mort Walker and, of course, Walt Disney."

The image above appears on the first page of Mike Phoenix's new book, "Comics' Second City: The Gateway History of the American Comic Book." In it, the "Silver Age Green Lantern" flies over St. Louis in 2002 in a splash page by Joe Staton from The Power Company Skyrocket #1, copyright DC Comics. courtesy of Mike Phoenix (click for larger version)
Creative genius and Missourian Walt Disney, who will soon be played by Tom Hanks in a biographical movie, brought many comic book super heroes to the silver screen.

Today, Marvel Comics, which includes Spider Man, Iron Man and the X-Men, belongs to the Disney Corporation. And that's the company named for the legendary Disney, whose own signature character, a pet mouse, was created in his Missouri animation studio in the 1920s.

Dark Time For Comics

In his book, Phoenix describes the golden age of comic books in the 1930s and 1940s. He also describes a resurgence for comic books in the 1970s. In between was a dark time for comics involving censorship — and, yes, there was a St. Louis connection.

"It seems like we go through cycles when everyone gets worried that something is corrupting our youth," said Phoenix. "In the 1950s, the fear was comic books and it was partly inspired by a book, 'Seduction of the Innocent,' which said violent and graphic comic books were causing juvenile delinquency."

Comic book burnings followed. So did Congressional hearings. U.S. Sen. Thomas Hennings, D-St. Louis, took on comic books in his role on the Senate Judicial Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency.

Comic book publishers closed and their employees were out on the street. Phoenix describes how one publisher, William Gaines, saw distributors drop his entire line of comic books, save one. That was Mad Magazine, which later went on to become highly successful.

Phoenix also interviews St. Louis comic book legend Dennis O'Neil, who blames the comic-book burning frenzy on the paranoid atmosphere of the McCarthy witch hunts. It brought an end to a golden era of comic books.

Interest in comic books saw a revival in the 1970s. Movies and TV shows involving super heroes resulted in a renewed interest. However, the golden age was gone forever.

Today, comic book art finds a place on the Web. The books themselves are gone from American newsstands. Comic books are largely the province of fan clubs and collectors. However, let it be noted tens of thousands of enthusiasts keep the comic book hobby thriving — and the comic conventions thriving – some here in St. Louis.

Project Comic Con

The Westport Sheraton will host Project Comic Con from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sept. 21-22. Collectors will abound as will a new breed of artists, designers, writers, animators, colorists, video and Web creators.

Peter Coogan of Webster Groves, who heads the Institute for Comic Studies in St. Louis, said he has been going to the national Comic Con conferences in San Diego, Calif., for years. As head of the institute, he lectures on such topics as the cultural legitimacy of comics at conferences.

"Comic books were once considered to be a disreputable medium," said Coogan. "They were like jazz, rock and roll, even the novel at one time. They were considered a lower form of art or communication. I think we know now they are part of the culture and cultural expression.

"In America, comics are viewed as all being super-hero stories for geeky kids who want to fantasize being somebody else," said Coogan. "There's a lot more going on than that, and especially at the global level. It's very interesting to see what is going on in other countries."

Coogan is in a unique position to promote comics study in St. Louis. As a graduate student in American Studies at Michigan State University in 1992, he co-founded the Comic Arts Conference (CAC) with Henderson State University communications professor Randy Duncan.

Also at Michigan State, Coogan wrote his doctoral dissertation on comic books and the theme of the super hero. He later published it as a book. He has held weekend comic book studies forums at Webster University.

"I've always been a reader of comic books," said Coogan. "At conferences like Comic Con, there are always a lot of investors looking at what might be available for sale. For me it's always been about the content."

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