Foreword

   It was Mark Hanerfeld’s tribute to Kubert’s Tor in Alter Ego #10 way back in 1969 that first tipped me to St. John comics. Kubert I knew, of course, but who was this caveman Hanerfeld raved about? I eventually acquired 1,000,000 Years Ago #1(the unwieldy real title of Tor) and came to know he spoke the truth. Over time, various St. John books drifted in and out of my collection. While they never attained the consistent quality across the board that E.C. had, there was a determined streak of originality running through the line. I began seeking out information about the company and was surprised by much of what I learned. Particularly regarding Archer St. John himself. The man and the company are virtually inseparable and I found I couldn’t tell the story of one without also telling about the other. My research led me down paths, and a few cul de sacs, I never expected.

   Certain aspects of the St. John story may be familiar and have been told in detail elsewhere. Those facts I give only cursory attention. Whenever feasible, I tried to direct the reader to the other sources.

   This article isn’t intended to be the last word on the St. John story, but hopefully it is a starting point.
                         
                                                Ken Quattro
                                                                          kquattro@comcast.net


Acknowledgments

   In addition to the specific sources cited within this article, I’d like to give special thanks to: Matt D. Baker, Michael Barnes, Jerry Bails, Jerry Beck, Roger Carp, Gene Colan, Arnold Drake, Ric Estrada, Michael Feldman, George Hagenauer, Joe Kubert, Joan Howard Maurer, Leon Maurer, Stephen O'Day, Trina Robbins, Fred Robinson, Jerome Lafayette St.John, Dr. Michael Vassallo, Jim Vadeboncoeur Jr. and Ray Zone. A special thank to Roger Jeffries for his uncommon generosity.

   Cited sources (other than the individual comic books) are noted by the yellow digits which link to the Endnotes page following this article. Additional sources are located on that page as well.


The Brothers St. John

   He shouldn't have become a comic book publisher.

   If his mother had her way, Archer St. John would have been a military man, an officer in the Army or Navy. That was expected of the second son. That was the tradition in her family.

   “…Archer, which had been my mother’s maiden name.1

   
The fact was, that although Archer would found the publishing company that bore the family name, he lived in the shadow of a more famous sibling.  His older brother, Robert, who should have become a clergyman if he had obeyed his mother's wishes, instead became a world famous war correspondent and author. Despite his peripheral role in Robert 's 1953 autobiography, This Was My World, it is through the words of his brother that we can glean most of the known details of Archer’s early life.

            
                     Title page from This Was My World by Robert St. John (1953)

   The St. John family was solidly middle class when they moved to suburban Oak Park, Illinois from Chicago in 1910. Archer, two years younger than Robert, would have been six at the time. The father, John (Strangely, Robert never named his parents in his memoir. Their names come from another source.), was a chemist, a pharmacist in today’s parlance, who moved his family to the upscale town to escape the encroaching squalor of the big city and to open a second drugstore. The children, however, quickly learned that they fell into the lower caste within the privileged community. They lived "south of the trolley tracks" and a world apart from those on the north side, like their family physician, Dr. Hemingway (who had a son named Ernest...).   

   The St. John's financial situation worsened when young Archer was in an automobile accident. He was thrown from the vehicle and his skull was crushed on a manhole cover. His mother, Amy, who had been a nurse prior to marriage, insisted that the surgeon allow her to assist in the operation that saved Archer's life.

   Out of necessity, she returned to nursing when her husband died from cancer in 1917. In the aftermath of his death, the family lost both drugstores.



            St. Alban's Episcopal Academy in Sycamore, Illinois (circa early 1900s).
  [photo courtesy of The Joiner History Room, Sycamore Public Library, Sycamore, IL]

   Robert left school to get a job and eventually joining the Navy to fight in World War I. Meanwhile,his mother remarried and Archer was sent off to boarding school at St. Albans Episcopal Academy in Sycamore, Illinois. Robert’s narrative doesn’t give any further details of Archer’s schooling. The next time he is mentioned is in the account of their coinciding encounters with the Capone mob.

 

Bullets and Ballots

   By the early 1920s, both St. Johns had become journalists. Robert was employed as editor and writer with the Cicero Tribune, while Archer had started his own newspaper in a neighboring town, the Berwyn Tribune. The older brother had continually crossed Al Capone with a series of revealing articles about his nefarious activities. Archer incurred Scarface’s wrath when he announced a special edition of his paper would expose Capone’s planned infiltration into Berwyn’s government by the manipulation of the upcoming mayoral election. On the same day, April 6, 1925, Robert was beaten severely in broad daylight by Capone and several of his thugs, while Archer was kidnapped off a public street and ‘taken for a ride’. Later that day, he was released, too late to publish his expose’, too late to influence the voters.

   “He had been handcuffed, blindfolded, and kept in a shack somewhere, then taken to a woods and set free, “wrote Robert, When he finally found his way home, his wrists were cut and he talked incoherently.2

   The newspaper accounts of the attacks tell a slightly different story.

   With Robert’s book as a guide, I asked George Hagenauer, comic historian, crime expert and good friend, to conduct searches of contemporary Chicago newspapers for me. Surprisingly, the Chicago Daily Tribune of April 7, 1925, told a somewhat different story than Robert. Although the two versions agreed on Robert’s assault, when it came to Archer’s attack they diverge.

Noting that the incidents were …said to be co-related,” the Tribune reporter wrote, “(Robert) St. John’s brother Arthur (sic) and an advertising man on his paper, the Berwyn Tribune, were fired upon by a carload of men. Witnesses said that one of the bullets pierced St. John’s right arm.3

Detail from Chicago Daily Tribune article (April 7, 1925)

   Confused eyewitness accounts are quite common and nothing in Robert’s book supports this story. If Archer was shot, it seems logical that Robert would have mentioned it. The Tribune article further states,” …St. John staggered and several men dashed out and pulled him into the car. Hiding behind the closed curtains, they dashed away and St. John hasn’t been seen since.4

   The most sensational coverage of the incident occurs in the April 7th edition of the Chicago Herald and Examiner: Spread over seven columns, “EDITOR VANISHES IN SHOOTING MYSTERY“, screamed across the top of the front page.


       Seven column headline from the Chicago Herald and Examiner (April 7, 1925)

   (Robert had remembered a similar headline in his book, but he attributed it to the Chicago Tribune. As often happens, his memories of over a quarter century earlier were faulty.) The accompanying story, however, made the same error as the Tribune in naming the Berwyn editor as “Arthur“. One detail reported here that is missing from the Tribune account was that Archer had been assaulted on Ogden Avenue just outside of Berwyn. The supposed shooting, “…was believed to be a sequel to an attack in Cicero earlier in the day.5

An intriguing aspect of the story is that it appears that Archer, “had incurred the enmity of the mayor of Berwyn, Fred H. Rudderham, by editorial attacks on the mayor’s management and handling of public funds.” This ‘enmity’ apparently extended to the police department. The closing lines of the article matter-of-factly state that, “Berwyn police said they were not handling the investigation, “ and not to be outdone, “Cicero police said the same.”6

   Soon after these incidents, Capone purchased the Cicero Tribune in order to silence Robert. Faced with an obviously impossible situation, Robert quit and went into partnership with Archer on the Berwyn paper. "Archer was a good businessman, but it was a shoestring operation." That required them to perform every aspect of publishing from the writing and editing to setting type. "But we had no capital and had to go to extreme measures to keep our creditors from closing us out."                                          Column heading from                                                                                            Chicago Herald and Examiner                                                                                                         (April 7, 1925)

   Still, the brothers found time for things besides work.

   "...Archer and I would go off for an evening to Chicago's Near North Side and forget payroll and publication problems by taking part in semi-professional plays."

   "Archer played some major roles in the Little Theater productions."8

   Eventually, "Archer and I won our Berwyn campaign, for Capone finally gave up his ideas of a westward expansion and even stopped his sniping of us." That battle won and now bored, “There were also financial reasons for moving on,” Robert wrote, “As long as Archer and I had been content to live on black coffee and cigarettes, we had been able to get along…”.9  In 1927, Robert leaves the Berwyn Tribune for a job as managing editor of a paper in Rutland, Vermont. At this point, Archer departs from Robert’s memoir.

 

Model Railroading for Fathers and Sons

   Sometime in the early 1930s, Archer resurfaces in New York, as advertising manager of Lionel Trains Corporation. Seeking details, I contacted Roger Carp, senior editor of Classic Toy Trains Magazine. “His was an executive position, “ wrote Carp, “editing its magazine for hobbyists, placing ads in national publications and overseeing production of the annual consumer and dealer catalogs.”

   St. John’s editorial hand can best be seen in the Model Builder magazine Lionel began publishing in January, 1937. The magazine was a mix of toy train layouts, true railroad stories and ads for Lionel products.The beautifully colorful covers were illustrated by topnotch artists such as Gordon Ross and John Rogers and were obviously influenced by concurrently published comic books.

          

  Model Builder v. 1 #1 (Jan.-Feb. 1937)               Model Builder v. 1 #3 (May-June 1937)
           cover by Gordon C. Ross                                    
cover by Gordon C. Ross

While the content was comprised mainly of photographs, over time St. John apparently realized the potential of the comic book form. Indeed, he often employed future comic book artists. Years before he would draw “The Pie-Faced Prince of Pretzelburg” in Jingle Jangle Tales, George Carlson was doing spot illustrations for Model Builder.                                                                           George Carlson illustration from
                                                                     Model Builder  v.1 #6 (Nov.-Dec. 1937)



A page entitled, “Toots ‘n Whistles” in the October 1942 issue, featured artwork by August M. Froehlich. Froehlich was a frequent Classics Illustrated artist of such issues as “Black Beauty” and for Fiction House’s “Auro, Lord of Jupiter” that ran in Planet Comics.

In the February issue of the same year, a "W. Kremer" illustrated the true story of a young heroine named Kate Shelly. This has been identified as very early work by longtime Harvey artist, Warren Kremer. It should be noted that Kremer eventually worked for the St. John comics line a decade hence.

"Kate Skelly" page by Warren Kremer (?)
 from Model Builder v. 6 #31 (Feb. 1942)

   Carp’s email to me concluded, “Lionel and other toy firms were prohibited by the federal government from using “strategic materials” (metal and rubber) to make trains and other toys after mid-1942. So Lionel had little to sell except items to the military. It cut back on its sales staff and advertising, so perhaps St. John was already gone--or was looking for another source of income…

   Archer may have left Lionel (for the time being at least), but a clue to his immediate future career may be found near the beginning of the 1942 edition of the Air News Yearbook. 10  This book, a compilation of airplane photos and facts culled from Air News magazine, contains a simple cryptic dedication:

            
                                  Dedication page of Air News Yearbook (1942)

 

The Flying Cadet Mystery


The first verifiable connection of Archer St. John to comic books appears on the contents page of Flying Cadet #1 (Jan. 1943). St. John is listed as editor and eventually, in the final issue, #17 (Oct. 1944), he’s named as the owner as well.

   Flying Cadet was a unique book, part comic, part magazine and aimed at, “…young men, between the ages of 15 and 19, accurate and clarified information that will be helpful to them in preparing themselves for aviation careers,” its stated purpose printed in issue #1. In many ways, it was quite similar to Model Builder under St. John.

                                                                                     Flying Cadet #1 (Jan. 1943)
                                                                                    cover by L. Meinrad Mayer

   The magazine portion was chock full of black and white photos and illustrations of airplanes and young pilots. The comic book section, which falls in midway through the book, is basically instructional material. In its premiere issue, the one identifiable artist of the comic book section is L. Meinrad Mayer, who also provided the cover painting. Mayer was an illustrator with a list of credits such as the Saturday Evening Post, but undoubtedly the fact that he was the primary cover artist for the Lionel trains catalogs starting in 1936 made him a known quantity to St. John.

Flying Cadet began looking more and more like a magazine soon after it’s debut. It increased slightly in size and virtually all of the covers were photos. Gone was any attempt at fiction, with all of the features now informational. L. Meinrad Mayer became the art editor in addition to his duties as the primary artist. The only other readily identifiable artist was Eric Sloane, a noted illustrator who handled the remaining art chores.

With its final issue, #17 (Oct. 1944), Flying Cadet underwent a dramatic change and was now more comic than magazine. Once again at standard comic book size, the change is obvious from the cover: a pure line drawn depiction of an airplane gunner.
       
       Bare-breasted woman cover on
          Flying Cadet
#17 (Oct. 1944)


The majority of the book is filled with straight up comic book features, like Buzz Benson (by Maurice Whitman), Grease Pan Gus, a humor strip, and Lt. Lela Lang, a female bomber pilot story written (and drawn?) by George Kapitan. Kapitan seems to have had a hand in most, if not all, of the stories in this issue. Meinrad Mayer and Eric Sloane were still around, but now with a greatly reduced workload.

F
lying Cadet was also the publisher of record for several other comic ventures. American Air Forces #1 (Sept.-Oct. 1944) was published by Flying Cadet before William H. Wise took over with issue #2. This followed the same comic/ magazine format as Flying Cadet.                                                                 
                                                            
                                                                      "Buzz Benson" story from Flying Cadet #17                                                                        by Maurice Whitman and George Kapitan

   Most intriguing of all are the several issues of Harry “A” Chesler’s Dynamic Comics that were published by Flying Cadet. At the least, issues 8, 9 and 15 had Flying Cadet in their indicia, as does Punch Comics #12.

   What does this all mean?

   Most likely, Flying Cadet was a surrogate publisher, established for its allotment of paper. During World War II, as comic historian Michael Feldman explained to me, “It was something like 75% of your consumption by weight the previous year. There was a maximum per publishing entity, so the more companies you had the more paper you could apply for.” This was a tactic employed most famously by Martin Goodman at Timely. Chesler apparently used the Flying Cadet name for the same purpose, even after the Flying Cadet comic had ceased publication.

   Since Chesler and his editor Phil Sturm were in the military sometime in 1942-43, he may have left Archer St. John as managing editor or possibly as some sort of business partner. There are other clues that suggest a link between Chesler and St. John.

   Several Chesler shop alums became prominent at St. John. The owner’s statement that appears in Dynamic #15 (July 1945), names Dana Dutch as the editor of this issue. Dutch, who was also a writer for Chesler from approximately 1944 to ‘46, later went on to be the main writer of St. John’s romance comics line. Worth mentioning also is Joe Kubert's apprenticeship at Chesler and subsequent time in that shop as an artist, circa 1945.

   The covers of Chesler’s comics routinely pushed the limits of taste with their gory and risqué subject matter. St. John’s Flying Cadet #17 takes a step in that direction with a cover portraying a topless woman on the side of a machine gun, foreshadowing by several years Chesler’s Dynamic #20 and Punch #20 with similar semi-nudity. At this time, few if any other comic book publishers took such daring chances. While such boldness could be coincidence, it seems unlikely.

   (It should be noted that St. John’s editorial office for Flying Cadet was in the Graybar Building at 420 Lexington Avenue, while Chesler’s editorial office was located at 163 W. 23rd Street. Although this doesn’t invalidate a link between the two, it does show that St. John enjoyed a certain amount of autonomy.)

   As St. John was starting his own imprint, he filled his comics with reprints, notably in Authentic Police Stories and Crime Reporter, from Chesler books. In 1953, St. John again dipped into the Chesler well with his one foray into a super-hero comic, Zip-Jet, which featured Rocketman reprints from Chesler’s Punch Comics. According to comic historian Jerry Bails, Chesler also packaged comics for St. John.



At first glance, Archer St. John and Harry “A” Chesler seem to be a very odd couple.

Chesler was a Runyon-esque character. “He'd come in wearing a hat on the back on his head with a watch chain in his vest," Gill Fox recalled to Jim Amash in Alter Ego #12, "He reminded me of a fight promoter, and he smoked a cigar.11  Gus Ricca’s cover to Dynamic #12 is most likely a nod and a wink to that description of his boss. A demanding employer, many of his former artists referred to his studio as a humorless ’sweat shop’. Chesler’s infamous ’frugality’ led to his being derisively nicknamed “Harry Chiseler” behind his back.

      Dynamic Comics #12 (Nov. 1944)
  with Gus Ricca caricature of Chesler

   Conversely, few comic book publishers, if any, enjoyed the respect and admiration of his employees like St. John. Intelligent, gentlemanly and generous, Archer was unique among his peers. John Benson in his wonderful exploration of St. John’s romance comics, Romance Without the Tears, quotes Archer’s son Michael, “My father bent over backwards trying to be kind and good to people and I think a lot of people appreciated his largess, and benefited in many ways from him.”12

   It’s always risky assuming too much in the murky, early years of comic book publishing. Comic packagers, of which Chesler was one of the most prominent, left their fingerprints everywhere and St. John’s connection to Chesler may be totally incidental. All of this taken into consideration, the Chesler-St. John link is deserving of further inquiry.

 

A Flying Mouse, The Friendly Ghost and Funny Men

   A pesky interval of several ‘mystery years’ passes from the time of Flying Cadet #17 in October ‘44 and the first comics published under Archer St. John’s own name. It is likely that St. John wasn't involved in the comic book industry during this period. A document dated December 14, 1944, written and signed by Archer on Lionel Train letterhead exists, wherein he indicates that he is working in that company's advertising department. Apparently, Archer was now the company's business manager. He left Lionel soon after, in early 1945. What he did at this point has yet to be determined.

                     
                     Archer St. John signature on letter dated December 14, 1944

   Vince Fago, who eventually worked on Little Audrey for St. John, once told interviewer Jim Amash of a lunch conversation he had with Archer in which, "...He told me he had $400,000 and didn't know much about publishing but he had the money."13  Presumably, this conversation accord as St. John was getting into the business, sometime around the end of W.W.II. In terms of comic book history, this was just after the so-called Golden Age and at the beginning of what easily can be called the Genre Age. The super-hero dominated comic books were waning in popularity and giving way to a variety of different genres: humor, Western and especially, crime.

   Archer St. John was well aware (or well advised) of this, as he never met a genre he didn't like. Or publish.

   Humor was first. The earliest comics of his eponymous company (indeed, the indicia credits Archer St. John solely and not yet St. John Publishing) were reprint books of comic strips from the United Features Syndicate (UFS) stable.

Probably the first book published under his imprint, Comics Revue #1 premiered sometime in 1947. Although the Overstreet Price Guide lists a publication date of June, no date can be found in the comic itself.14 The entire issue is devoted to reprints of Charlie Plumb’s Ella Cinders. Some, if not all, of the strips reprinted are from 1942-43 continuities, which leaves opens the possibility that the comic book was printed even earlier than the June ’47 guess in Overstreet.

Succeeding issues reprinted UFS stalwarts Hap Hopper, Iron Vic and Gordo. Jane Arden and Gladys Parker’s stylish gal Mopsy first appeared in Pageant of Comics in September ‘47 before getting their own St. John titles.
                                                                                       Comics Revue #1 (1947)
                                                                                     cover by Charlie Plumb (?)


Mopsy was the most successful of the UFS features for St. John. She not only appeared in 19 issues of her own title, a long run by St. John standards, but also as a back-up page in some of their romance comics. Spunky and sexy, Mopsy was an independent single girl far ahead of her time. Parker's unique drawing style set Mopsy apart from the predominately male drawn cheesecake in other comics. She apparently began producing original stories for the comic books early in the title's run, including the paper doll pages that were included in most issues.

As an aside, Mopsy #12 (Sept. 1950) contained the first comic art of future Atlas/Marvel artist Joe Sinnott on Trudi, a 5 page backup story.

              Mopsy #1 (Feb. 1948)
            cover by Gladys Parker

   Somewhat later, long running Tip Top Comics, another United Features product, spent some time at St. John before being acquired by Dell, as did Fritzi Ritz and her niece Nancy. The timing of the St. John publication of these 3 titles coincidentally allowed them to be the host to some of the earliest comic book appearances of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts.


The fortuitous (for St. John) strike by the Terrytoons animators in 1947 seems to have been key in the production of his first comics containing new artwork.

The New Rochelle, New York based animation studio was notoriously cheap by industry standards and in 1947, its animators went on an eight month long strike. During that time, either the licensing agreement with Timely comics ran out or was somehow voided by the strike. In any case, the last Terrytoons properties produced by Timely were dated Summer 1947, while the first St. John Mighty Mouse (#5) appeared with an August ‘47 cover date.

                                                                           Two views of a matchbook used by                                                                            Terrytoons to promote their comics.                                                                                             (circa late 1940s)


Whereas the Timely Terrytoons books were produced in-house under the editorship of Vince Fago, the St. John comics had art by Terrytoons animators such as the legendary Jim Tyer, J . Conrad (“Connie”) Rasinski and Art Bartsch, acknowledged by some to be the creator of Mighty Mouse. Bartsch drew many of the covers for the Terrytoon's books as well as the Mighty Mouse stories. He is even slyly inserted as a character in issue Mighty Mouse #12 (Aug. 1949) called the Great God Bartsch. The Terrytoons license proved to be fairly profitable for St. John as various Terrytoons characters appeared under their imprint over nearly the lifespan of the publisher.

   
  Mighty Mouse Comics #5 (Aug. 1947)
                Art Bartsch cover

   The success of the Terrytoons comics evidently led St. John to expand his licensed product base. The characters of another New York based second-tier animation studio, Paramount Pictures/ Famous Studios, made their comic book debut in September 1949 in Casper, The Friendly Ghost #1.



This comic carries the somewhat historic distinction of not only being the first venue to name Casper (not even his film appearances had yet gotten around to it), but it was the first time Baby Huey appeared in any medium. Drawn by animator Marty Taras, later a Harvey mainstay, this comic appearance hit the newsstands months before Huey’s screen debut on March 3, 1950. St. John gave up The Ghost (sorry…) with issue #5 (Aug. 1951). Interestingly, Little Audrey not only saw her first comic life at St. John, but lingered there a bit longer than the other Paramount characters until issue #24 in May of '52.


                                                                                                                            
                                                                                 Casper, the Friendly Ghost
#2, pg. 1
                                                                                                      (Feb. 1950)

   The licensed characterizations of notable comedians were also part of the St John line. It should be noted that the humorous depiction of real life comedians was unique at the time. National didn't take the plunge with the Adventures of Bob Hope until February 1950. Judy Canova and Milton Berle were similarly immortalized in that year. St. John led the (admittedly small) pack with the publication of Abbott and Costello #1 dated February 1948.

This title was not only the first of their three comedy team books, it was also the longest running, ending with issue #40 in September 1956. A probable reason for the success of this book (other than the continuing popularity of the comedy team itself) was that much of the art in the early issues was by the talented husband and wife team of Eric Peters and Lily Renée (Wilhelms) Peters. Renée (who only used her first and middle names professionally) was the star of the team and best known for her work at Fiction House on such features as Senorita Rio. While Renée also illustrated the St. John one-shot teen comic, Kitty, and a few stories for its romance titles, it was Abbott and Costello that provided the main showcase for her artwork.

      Abbott and Costello #1 (Feb. 1948)
      cover by Charles "Pop" Payne

A common practice at Fiction House that Renée knew well, was the advantages of ’Good Girl’ covers. Not surprisingly, her Abbott and Costello covers often featured an attractive young woman along with the comic’s stars. This obviously eye-catching device became the standard for the genre and was followed by Owen Fitzgerald on the Bob Hope comic and perfected by Bob Oksner on the Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis book. Eventually, a young Mort Drucker took over the majority of the art chores on Abbott and Costello. In an odd bit of placement, there was even a Son of Sinbad backup story in issue #10 (Aug. 1950) by Kubert, which appeared six months after the one and only issue of that comic was published.


                                                                                Abbott and Costell
o #2 (March 1948)
                                                                               cover by Lily Renée and Eric Peters

   Already a veteran comic book artist at a very young age, Kubert saw the new company as an opportunity, “I came to him (St. John). He was a publisher and I was an aspiring packager.”

Part of Kubert’s ‘package’ was lifelong friend, Norman Maurer. Maurer had been working as an artist for Lev Gleason on such series as the Little Wise Guys in Daredevil Comics. With him on board, Kubert suggested a potential comic for which Maurer was uniquely qualified.

In 1945, Maurer met Joan Howard, daughter of Moe, the mop-haired leader of The Three Stooges. Joan and Norman married in 1947 and that same year, Maurer negotiated an agreement with Moe, his brother Jerome (Curly) and Larry Fine. The contract, dated May 28th, entitled Maurer and the Stooges to 5 percent of the net profits from any comic book sales based on their movies.15

           Norman Maurer at work on a
                    Three Stooges page
[photo used with permission of Joan Maurer]




The Three Stooges
#1 (February 1949), contained stories adapted from their Columbia films, Uncivil Warriors and Hoi Polloi, written and drawn by Maurer. Kubert chipped in with a Mark Montage detective story.

The second issue in May of ‘49 continued with the same format. Despite the talent involved, the comic was canceled with this issue and the Stooges comic book franchise would languish for some time.

  
                                                                                 The Three Stooges
#1 (Feb. 1949)
                                                                                         cover by Norman Maurer


                 
 Splash page from "Uncivil Warriors"               
           Splash page from "Hoi Polloi"
              Norman Maurer art                                           
       Norman Maurer art

    October of ‘49 saw the premiere of Kubert’s brief venture into romance comics, Hollywood Confessions #1. A virtual one-man effort (Kubert had a hand in every story, although Hy Rosen penciled at least one.), this comic tried a unique approach to involve the readers. A house ad invited the readers to submit true stories that would be illustrated for future issues. There was even a cash award of ten dollars offered. This title had a curious evolution. It lasted one more issue under Kubert’s aegis, than became Hollywood Pictorial with issue #3 in January 1950 (with Matt Baker art). This change was short-lived as it morphed into (Western) Hollywood Pictorial, a Western movie magazine containing all photos and no artwork, with issue 4 in March. This was St. John’s first tentative movement into magazine publication, foreshadowing the direction of the company several years hence.

                        

Hollywood Confessions #1         Hollywood Pictorial #3                Hollywood Pictorial #4
           (Oct. 1949)                                 (Jan. 1950)                               (March 1950)

It should be noted that the house ad in Hollywood Confessions had a return address for Jubilee Publications, although the indicia names St. John as publisher. Jubilee was also the publisher named in the Stooges comics. the reasons why St. John used this surrogate company name is unknown. The prior reasoning which was a dodge around war mandated paper shortages, no longer applied. Michael Feldman explained a likely scenario:

"...shifting titles from publishing name to another was a strategy to keep each company below a tax level plateau. A company earning $100,000 might have to pay at a 30% rate, but two earning $50,000 only paid 20%, and so on."

      House ad for Jubilee Publications
    Hollywood Confessions #1 (Oct. 1949)


   More puzzling is his one-title publishing imprint, Blue Ribbon,
which fronted the like-named comic of rotating humor and romance genres.

Other Jubilee titles also appeared in 1949. Among them was Northwest Mounties, Western Bandit Trails and World’s Greatest Stories, a Classics Illustrated- type comic aimed at a younger audience.  As with many St. John comics of the period, this title lasted only two issues. The first issue adapted Alice in Wonderland and the second, Pinocchio. Both were nicely drawn in an animated cartoon-like style by an artist who simply initialed all his work, “EC”. Comic art sleuth Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr. has offered the opinion that it was the work of Ellis Chambers.

To add to the confusion, Jubilee appears sporadically in indicias at least until 1953 (i.e. Whack #2, Dec.1953).
 
                                                                                                                        
                                                                             World's Greatest Stories
#2  (May 1949)

                                                                                     cover by Ellis Chambers (?)

                                                         

Late in 1949, two new Kubert creations were published with cover dates of February 1950. Secret Missions was a comic book version of Admiral Ellis Zacharias' book and radio show of the same name that dealt with his career as a military intelligence officer.


The other comic, the aforementioned Son of Sinbad, was Kubert's take on the swashbuckling offspring (and namesake) of the legendary sailor. Kubert’s Sinbad looked very much like Douglas Fairbanks Jr. who, not so incidentally, starred in the 1947 film, Sinbad the Sailor.



       Secret Missions #1 (Feb. 1950)
               cover by Joe Kubert


   Two of the title character’s run-of-the-mill stories are elevated by Kubert’s dynamic and rapidly maturing artwork, while the third Sinbad story looks to be a Carmine Infantino effort with a Kubert assist. The issue is filled out by a Matt Baker-esque, but probably not Baker, “Omar of the Magic Robes” backup tale that wouldn’t have been out of place in one of St. John’s romance titles.

   Fine artwork notwithstanding, neither this comic nor Secret Missions made it past the first issue. However, the lone Kubert Son of Sinbad story in Abbott & Costello #10 suggests that at least one more issue of that title had been in the offing.


                                                                                    Son of Sinbad #1 (Feb. 1950)
                                                                                           cover by Joe Kubert

   It is likely that poor sales weren’t the sole reason for the demise of these comics. The Kubert/ Maurer partnership had run into an insurmountable obstacle: the Selective Service Administration intervened when it drafted Kubert in 1950. This event effectively curtailed not only his contributions to the fledgling publisher, but apparently also those of his partner Maurer. More than two years would elapse before either creator’s work would appear again in a St. John comic.

The third comedy team, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, made their comic book premiere in Laurel and Hardy #1 in March 1949. This series was drawn by Reuben Timmons (nee Timinsky), who was yet another St. John artist best known for his animation work, with a career extending from Betty Boop to A Charlie Brown Christmas. This short lived title ran only 3 issues in this incarnation.


    Laurel and Hardy
#1 (March 1949)
         cover by Reuben Timmons

Then There Were Giants

   It didn't take St. John long to realize a cruel fact of comic book publishing: Unsold books were returned and the publisher had to find a way to recoup at least some of his losses. As others had before him, Archer St. John decided to repackage these remaindered comics by removing their covers and binding several of them together in new covers. He certainly wasn';t the first publisher to do this, but as was his style, he put a new spin on it.

   The common practice of the time was to bind two or three comics into one package. St. John's 1948 volume of A Treasury of Comics consisted of 16 remaindered comics! Further, the package was contained within bookboard covers. Archer even wrote a preface to this book that not only describes its purpose, but gives some insight into the man himself:

  "This volume has been compiled for the laughter and enjoyment of boys and girls; and is dedicated to those artists and writers who, with skill, imagination and good taste, are producing wholesome entertainment and amusement for millions of readers; adding dignity, scope and influence to this new technique of story-telling, the continuity of dialogued illustrations, called comics.
   In this book are sixteen comics magazines which, in the opinion of the editors of this publication, are representative of the best stories of the year, worthy of preservation and of a place alongside Moby Dick, Tom Sawyer and Treasure Island, on library shelves.
"

                                                                                      ---Archer St. John

   This statement could stand as St. John's vision for his new publishing company. It's doubtful many of his contemporaries would have as eloquently described their offerings as a, "new technique of story-telling, the continuity of dialogued illustrations, called comics." Fewer still would have dared to compare them to literary masterpieces.

   This prodigious Treasury was produced for two more years and in the meantime, St. John began to package smaller remaindered books. Notable among these was 1950's Little Audrey Yearbook which contained 8 comics and the aptly named Giant Comics Edition, which varied content and size from issue to issue. Eventually, remaindered copies of Authentic Police Cases, Mighty Mouse and the various genre comics were repackaged into giant 100 page issues as well.

          

        Little Audrey Yearbook (1950)                          Giant Comics Edition #12 (1949)
                                                                                         cover by Matt Baker



The Third Man

Beginning the same month as Abbott and Costello, Authentic Police Cases was St. John’s first venture outside strip reprints or the humor genre. Apparently trying to cash in on the then popular crime comics, St. John’s entry in the market was, at first, nothing more than a vehicle for reprinted Chesler comics. The first issue (February 1948) featured a cover by Paul Parker and on subsequent issues, Bob Lubbers, the second Fiction House mainstay to work for St. john.

It was the third Fiction House regular that would have the greatest
impact on the fledgling publisher. Beginning with Authentic Police Cases #6 (Nov. 1948), the covers and much of the interior art would be drawn by Matt Baker.

  Authentic Police Cases #6 (Nov. 1948)
               cover by Matt Baker

   Archer St. John had apparently decided to build his company upon the skills of just a few creators. Likely this decision was financially driven. A small publisher like St. John wouldn’t have the resources to put together an in-house ‘bullpen’. Still, he proved to be an uncanny judge of talent. Building upon his inventory of licensed material and reprinted Chesler shop artwork, St. John’s selection of Kubert, Maurer and Baker gave him a potent artistic triumvirate.

By the time Baker’s art began appearing in Authentic Police Cases (in actuality, his first St. John comic work was in Northwest Mounties #1 and the cover to Crime Reporter #2, both October ’48), he had already established a reputation for depicting beautiful women while working for various publishers. However, the venerated status that Baker has attained today obscures the realities of the time period.

                                                                                 Matt Baker and Archer St. John
                                                                           in front of Grauman's Chinese Theater
                                                                                 [photo used with permission of
                                                                                 Fred Robinson & Matt D. Baker]
                                                                           

   “He was the first Black artist to work in mainstream comics,” notes legendary writer Arnold Drake, “Which convinces me that St. John got him at a bargain rate…but any publisher in the industry could have gotten Baker for that same bargain price based on race. Since they didn't do it and St. John did do it, which marks Archer as a liberal.


St. John, or one of his editors, went even further to find other artists to help Baker on Authentic Police Cases.

Starting with issue #15, Enrico (“Martin”) Bagnoli’s art began gracing the interiors. In a style heavily influenced by Alex Raymond, Bagnoli worked long distance, very long distance. Based in Italy, the artist would receive and send his assignments via registered mail. Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr. in Alter Ego # 32 tells the complete fascinating story of Bagnoli and the other Italian artists assisting him, such as Antonio Toldo and Antonio Canale.16

  Page from Authentic Police Cases #18
     (April 1953) art by Enrico Bagnoli

   Baker’s importance to St. John would only increase over time. With Kubert and Maurer gone, he became the major artistic force at the company. Whether the subject was Westerns, crime or war, Baker was dependably solid. His most lasting impact, though, would come in a genre for which he was perfectly suited.


Romance and Lust

   St. John early on realized the potential of the romance comic boom and began publishing its first comics of that genre in 1949. Teen-Age Romances #1, dated January of that year, established Baker immediately as the source of the de facto “look” of their line. Baker not only drew all of the line drawn covers for the romance titles, he penciled most of the interior stories.

It is noteworthy that several of the early issues of Teen-Age Romances were of a slightly larger size, had photo covers and were partially filled with the articles, ads and columns befitting a magazine. It seems that once again St. John employed the tried and true format that he had used on Flying Cadet and that Timely was currently using on Miss America Magazine. Apparently the experiment didn’t work as it soon went back to being a pure comic book.

                                                                               Teen-Age Romances #1 (Jan. 1949)
                                                                                              Matt Baker cover.

   Out of all the comics published by St. John, the romance comics were routinely its most successful. Over the life of the company, as many as 20 different romance titles were published under their imprint. The distinctive storylines of the romance comics led John Benson to state in his book that the strong-willed heroines and the guilt-free tone of the stories were a conscious theme suggested by Archer St. John himself and manifested by the ubiquitous writing of Dana Dutch.

                 
     Cinderella Love #25 (Dec. 1954)                         Teen-Age Romances #43 (May 1955)
                 Matt Baker cover                                                  Matt Baker cover

   It should be noted, though, that Baker, as well as the other romance artists and writers worked under the editorship of Marion McDermott (who was also editor of Authentic Police Cases and Fightin‘ Marines). In a publisher sorely lacking an identity, she maintained consistent quality in each of her comics, in all genres.

   Starting with Baker as her primary artist, McDermott’s books featured work by a small, but talented, group of freelancers. Apparently, she brought out the best in each.

   "...I walked into St. John's Publications and was lucky enough to meet romance editor Marion McDermott, who loved the way I drew pretty girls and gave me an assignment on the spot, " artist Ric Estrada wrote to me. He fondly recalled the "Lovely Marion McDermott," who assigned him, "...scads of stories for Teen-Age Temptations, Teen-Age Romances and others. She praised the fashionable dresses I drew on my girls as opposed to the humdrum styles by other artists." Gene Colan, who was hired by McDermott to work on Fightin' Marines, described her as being, "very very nice," and that he remembered, "...trying different techniques while working for her."

   Baker himself blossomed under McDermott. As art director of her books, Baker's artwork became noticeably more mature , more illustrative, particularly his exquisite romance covers. Surely this was the pinnacle of his career.

Crime Reporters

   Was it a secret wish by a publisher that had once been a crime reporter to be the star of his own comic book? I can't say for sure, but the title did keep popping up on some early St. John publications...

                  

  Pageant of Comics #2                  Crime Reporter #2               Authentic Police Cases #8
          (Oct. 1947)                                  (Oct. 1948)                                (Aug. 1950)
cover by Russell E. Ross              cover by Matt Baker                 cover by Matt Baker

Romance and Lust

In 1950, St. John published a digest-sized comic with a single book-length story and called it a Picture Novel. Illustrated by Baker and inker Ray Osrin, in many ways It Rhymes with Lust was the prototype of the modern graphic novel. A detailed synopsis of the book’s plot can be find in Alberto Becattini’s terrific ’Baker of Cheesecake’ article in Alter Ego #47.17

The credited pseudonymous author, “Drake Waller“, was in fact the writing team of Arnold Drake and Leslie Waller. I contacted Mr. Drake for details about the creation of this historic book and although he has told this story before, I was taken with the vividness of his words and the detail of his recollections:

            It Rhymes with Lust (1950)
   with art by Matt Baker and Ray Osrin


   “In 1949 (published in 1950) Leslie Waller and I created "Picture Novels". We were both at school (he at Columbia and I at NYU) on the GI Bill of Rights. To augment the $20 the government paid us weekly, we collaborated on some comic book stories. Pulps were being driven off the market by a combination of paper-back books and comics. Les and I sold a couple of Western tales to Ziff-Davis.

   As we worked with the comics form, we reasoned that for the ex-GIs who read comics while in the service and liked the graphic style of story telling, there was room for a more developed comic book--a deliberate bridge between comic books and book- books. That was the idea we took to St.John.

   We were prepared to make an oral pitch. But about 3 A.M. (I did my best work in those early hours) the morning of D-day, I set out to demonstrate the idea physically.

   I took a comic book and folded it in half. Then I drew a two-page layout of a faked story, "One Man Too Many" and pasted it into that folded comic. After which I drew a cover: a nasty guy with gun in hand who's just discovered his woman in another man's arms. The fact that it was mounted on that folded comic demonstrated how easy the transition would be for a printer already set up to produce comics.

   My drawings have always been crude but clear. They demonstrated the idea more than adequately. (I have the yellowed remains of those layouts.) I also came up with the logo that would adorn the cover: a paintbrush and a pencil crossed over a book cover and the letters PN, for Picture Novels.

What we planned was a series of Picture Novels that were, essentially, action, mystery, Western and romance movies ON PAPER. "Lust" would have made a good Joan Crawford or Barbara Stanwyck film (both often played beautiful-but-treacherous women. And "Lust" was about one such.).


We had never worked with St. John before this. But the grapevine said that he was an independent publisher who took chances on new ideas and was prepared to give the innovator(s) a piece-of-the-action. Also, Les and I were convinced that the mainstream publishers (DC, Marvel and Dell) would never share a copyright or a piece of the profits with the creator.

St. John proved to be as good as the rumor. The art, by Matt Baker, was great…The whole thing shaped up as a fine first effort. The trouble came when it was time to market it.


       Panel from It Rhymes with Lust
      art by Matt Baker and Ray Osrin   

   This new-sized product needed special placement on the newsstands and in the shops. You had to convince the public-- and more than that, the distributors and retailers-- that this was a new idea that would soon sweep the market. There would be no space on the stands for this one odd-ball-product. (Actually, St. John released two. The second one, a mystery yarn, was a disaster, both story and art. Les and I had nothing to do with it.)”

Most likely, Drake is referring to the The Case of the Winking Buddha. Printed in black and white, the artwork of former Caniff assistant Charles Raab illustrated a story by pulp writer Manning Lee Stokes. Despite Drake's critique, Raab's art was solid and very reminiscent of his work on the Kerry Drake and Charlie Chan comic strips.

   Also in 1950, St. John published two digest-sized Western comics: Slash-D Doublecross and two issues of Midget Comics (subtitled Fighting Indian Stories). Unlike "Lust" and "Winking Buddha", neither of these books was conceived as a full length novel, rather, they were traditional comic stories reformatted to digest size.
                                                                    Page from The Case of the Winking Buddha
                                                                                 with art  by Charles Raab (1950)


              

   Case of the Winking           Slash-D Doublecross (1950)    Midget Comics #1 (Feb. 1950)
        Buddha
(1950)

   Drake continued, “I don't think there is much question that It Rhymes with Lust was the first graphic novel. It wasn't a stumbling, accidental creation. Les and I knew exactly what we set out to create. The fact that it was essentially a ‘B Film’ on paper, rather than the more sophisticated products that came 25 years later and called themselves 'Graphic’ speaks to the change in the readership over those years. The sons and daughters of the veterans who went to school on the GI Bill were a very different market than the one that Les and I dealt with back then. I have no idea what the first Picture Novel would have been had we had that broader, deeper audience.”

 

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by Ken Quattro
                         © 2006

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all artwork and images © St. John Publishing or respective copyright holders.