Redrawing the New York-Comics Relationship

Subjective Ramblings and Peripheral Thoughts from the Edges of a Comics Studies Project

Book Review: Michael Vance’s “Forbidden Adventures”

The history of the “Golden Age” of American comics has been told time and time again, so the standard outline of comic book production should be pretty familiar to most readers. (N.b.: That does not mean that it will not be subject of numerous posts to come.) In the wake of Superman’s success in mid-to-late 1938, the number of comic book publishers grew exponentially. The demand for new material, which had been keenly felt even earlier, kept growing, and several people were ready to supply. Shops, or packaging houses, where complete comic books were conceived, created, and put together, began to pop up. The nowadays most well-known of these are Harry “A” Chesler’s (the A stood for “anything”) house and the one founded by Samuel Maxwell “Jerry” Iger and Will Eisner. But these shops were far from the only ones, even though most of the others seem to have wandered deep into the foggy backwoods of history and gotten lost. Thanks to the efforts of Michael Vance in his Forbidden Adventures: The History of the American Comics Group (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996) however, the 1941-1967 history of the Sangor shop – so named after its founder, B. W. Sangor – and the American Comics Group that grew out of it, has been preserved.

The Sangor shop’s origins is the same as the other well-known houses; Sangor saw a need for material and resolved to fill it and thereby make a buck. What is most noteworthy about this shop, however, is where Sangor chose to do so. In the late thirties, animation was also a booming industry, and artists were flocking to California and Florida. Sangor, who knew people below the Mason-Dixon line, decided to tap those resources, establishing studios where moonlighting animators from Disney, Fleischer, and other animation houses could find work to stretch their own paychecks. Throughout the first half of the 1940s, the Sangor studio provided both New York and California-made material for many now-forgotten comics publishers and at least one of the contemporary industry’s big survivors, DC.

By 1947-1948, the Sangor shop evolved into the American Comics Group (ACG). They initially focused on funny animal and humor comics, but soon started adding titles. In 1948, they added a Western; in 1949, an espionage title; in 1950-51, two adventure titles (one of which would turn into a war comic when EC Comics sparked an industry trend in that direction), and then two more in 1954. But none of these did well. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, ACG tried jumping on other bandwagons, including 3D comics and superheroes, with little success. ACG’s romance titles, introduced in 1949 to join and cash in on the trend first set in motion by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon in 1947, proved much more succesful.

The only ACG line to beat them were the horror comics, a trend which they themselves initiated with Adventures into the Unknown #1 in fall 1948. When EC launched their own now-legendary and soon more influential horror comics in early 1950, several other publishers had already walked in ACG’s footsteps. The level of gore in horror comics kept increasing, leading to widespread attention and negative feedback. ACG hung in there for quite some time after the Comics Code Authority was established as an industry self-censoring agency after the anti-comics moral panic of the early 1950s. They even had a couple of the rare few titles that thrived while many publishers were forced to close their doors. But by the 1960s, the writing on the wall was becoming legible and in 1967, ACG quit producing comics for sale, retaining only the wing of their operation that was involved in commercial giveaways.

Forbidden Adventures is a good and informative read, although very slim at 128 pages. The chapters are short, and I often find myself wanting more. Even so, it’s packed, brimming with valuable interviews and details on otherwise rarely discussed topics. The book doesn’t only deal with the history of the Sangor shop and the American Comics Group, but also sheds light on the interrelationship between different prominent figures in American comics history and provides an early narrative of how writers and artists were treated by the publishers (now a commonplace in comics histories). It also provides capsule biographies of important and otherwise rarely discussed figures in comics history, like editor Richard Hughes, whose influence in ACG and American comics history was significant; not least because his CV includes the creation of the first horror comic book. And it touches on an often dismissed fact of comics history: the Sangor shop and the ACG were clearly founded on a nationally distributed creative foundation and continued to enlist freelancers from all over the country and even abroad throughout their active years.

I would recommend Forbidden Adventures to anyone who wants to move beyond the standard narrative of comics history and get a slightly more nuanced picture. If you can’t find the book, which is long since out of print, a 2006 issue of Alter Ego reprints most of it.

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