I’ve been a bit of a junkie lately. A pre-code junkie. I’ve been going a little crazy buying hardcover reprints of early 1950’s “Atlas” comics. That’s the name Marvel Comics had at the time. They changed over to “Marvel” in the 1960s. It’s an era of comics that I’ve had very little familiarity with until recently. I can trace my interest in those comics to two specific things. The first is the book “Ten Cent Plague” and the second was “The Steve Ditko Archives: Volume One”.

“Ten Cent Plague” is a book that tells the story of comics in the 1950s and how they became the object of a morality crusade. The persecution went all the way to the U.S. Congress. It was bad. Basically if you were involved with making comics back then you didn’t admit it. People who made comics were seen as one step above child molesters. Lives and careers were ruined. The book ends with a long list of artists and writers who never worked in comics again. It’s a sad story for those of us who love comics.

“The Steve Ditko Archives: Volume One” was my first chance to read non-EC Comics (EC Comics are the most famous comics of the 1950s with names like “Tales From the Crypt” that we all recognize from their influence on TV and the movies) from the early 1950’s. By the time 1954 rolled around comics in the U.S. were self-censored by an industry body called the Comics Code Authority. All comics had to be safe for children. It didn’t matter that many were being written for and sold to adults. Since the Steve Ditko stories were before the comic code (Pre-Code) they were uncensored. Not that they were racy, gory, or anything we would think of today as overly adult but they were different from censored comics. I found them the be fascinating from a creative and historical point of view. But they were also Ditko, one of the best comics creators around, so I didn’t think to be interested in comics from other creators from that time. Of course I didn’t know a lot of them either.

That all changed when I decided to read “Marvel Masterworks: Atlas Era – Strange Tales: Volume Two”. That book has been sitting on my shelf, unread, for about two years before I picked it up a couple of weeks ago. And I couldn’t put it down. It was filled with stories that were made by uncensored minds. There didn’t have to be happy endings, good didn’t always triumph over evil, sometimes good wasn’t even around, and death could lurk around any corner. There is a freedom to the stories that wasn’t around post-censorship. They weren’t all great stories but some were. And they were all different than the censored eight page horror stories I was used to.

I found it interesting that there were so many good cartoonists in this early 1950’s work. It makes sense. Sure there were some talented, famous guys just starting out. Guys like John Romita and Gene Day who later went on to become well known but there were a lot of others who were the ones mentioned in “Ten Cent Plague”. Guys who never worked in comics again. But they had been working in comics for a while. American comic books were invented in the late 1930’s so by the early 1950’s they were well established and some artists had been working in comics for five or ten years. They were talented veterans exploring new story ideas and growing up with the medium. Until censorship killed it all.

I had known that Marvel was collecting “Atlas Era” stuff in their “Masterworks” line but wasn’t paying much attention to it. I bought a couple of volumes of “Tales of Suspense” and “Tales to Astonish” that are filled with familiar names, Kirby, Ditko, Ayers, Sinnott, and Heck but those “Atlas Era” books are from the late 1950s and are Post-Code. They’re creative and enjoyable but nothing like the Pre-Code comics. I only bought the Pre-Code “Strange Tales” book back in 2009 because it was on sale for cheap. I didn’t even realize that is was a Pre-Code collection. Now I hopped online to see what other pre-code collections were out there.

One thing I’ve learned from collecting hard cover reprint collections over the past few years is that the ones that go out of print can rise in price quickly. Or they can linger in print for years. You never know. I find Amazon the easiest way to tell if a book is still in print because if it’s not then they only have used copies. Or other merchants who sell through Amazon have used copies I should say. I found about five volumes that were out of print already. Prices had started to rise on some of them but I still found copies at decent prices. Only one was above the fifty dollar mark and being that the original retail price was sixty dollars I don’t think that qualifies as real expensive just yet. They must have printed more copies of the earliest volumes because I found copies of a couple of the earliest ones at twenty five bucks a piece. All told my spending spree over two weeks was about a hundred and fifty dollars. That’s a lot of money for me so I must have had the fever.

I am thoroughly enjoying all the books I’ve read so far. Each one also comes with a nice historical introduction by a guy who has made a specialty out of studying the history of the era. Since comics didn’t usually have credits in those days he does his best to identify the creators involved. Plus he gives us what background he knows on who they were, what work they did, and what work they went on to do. As a fan of both history and comics I find it all fascinating.

Unfortunately, like in the stories, there is sudden death among the 1950s creators too. One of the main, and most talented, artists of the Atlas Era was a man named Joe Maneely. I had only seen a few of his stories before this, mostly westerns, and was not familiar with the breadth and scope of his work. It’s really good stuff. He was a talented and prolific artist who was a favorite of editor Stan Lee’s. In reading about the history of the era I found the reason I’m not too familiar with Maneely’s work was that he died young. It was in the late 1950’s and he was only 32. I read up on the internet about him and found he died by falling between NJ Transit train cars on his way home one night. No one really knows how or why he fell since he was by himself but I guess that’s why they have those “Don’t Ride Between Cars” signs on trains. You really could fall. It makes me a little sad and pensive to discover the work of a man only to discover he died so young and so long ago. But then again I’m happy to have discovered it at all.