The World Through Red and Green Glasses
While stationed in Germany, Kubert had seen magazines that reproduced photographs in simulated three dimensions.
This spark of an idea was rekindled to full flame when he, Norman Maurer and Norman's brother, Leon, happened to be driving past the Paramount Theater showing Bwana Devil. Written and directed by Arch Oboler, the cheaply made 3-D exploitation film, which promised, “A lion in your lap! A lover in your arms!”, was an immediate success at its November 1952 release and sparked a flood of imitators. According to Leon Maurer, Kubert’s remark upon seeing the movie marquee, “Gee, wouldn't it be great if we could make a 3-D comic book?”, inspired Maurer to return home and virtually overnight create the printing process that would result in 3-D comic books.
Bwana Devil one-sheet movie poster (1952)
In one long night, Norman Maurer drew the first 3-D comic page entitled, “The Three Dimensional Stooges in the Third Dimension,” to Leon’s specifications. Early the next day, the Maurers waited for the midtown Manhattan Woolworth’s to open in order to purchase lollipops. “…we figured we could get red and green cellophane from lollipop wrappers, “ Norman once recounted in The Three Stooges Scrapbook, “We bought two packages and made a funny pair of glasses which, believe it or not, worked perfectly.“22
Leon completed the technical aspects of the job and they took it to Kubert. Kubert in turn produced a panel featuring his caveman, Tor, using the new process. The three then took the pages and the concept to Archer St. John. Initially skeptical, St. John was shocked when he put on the makeshift glasses and viewed the artwork. He bought the concept on the spot and for it received a 25 percent stake in a partnership with the Maurers and Kubert in the American Sterographic Corporation, the company formed to license the new 3-D Illustereo process. For his financial input, St. John also received a six month head start before the process would be offered to other comic book publishers.
St. John house ad promoting 3-D comics.
July 3, 1953 was not only the Friday before a holiday weekend, it was also the
day the world’s first three-dimensional comic book went on sale. Officially entitled
Three Dimension Comics #1, the Mighty Mouse 3-D comic was a financial
bonanza. Selling over 1,200,000 copies at 25 cents each, the comic was credited
by the 1953 Encyclopedia Britannica Yearbook with being “…the World's highest
circulation periodical to date of issue.”23
(although this is dubious statistic since Dell alone had several titles selling
over one million copies per month.)
Three Dimension Comics #1 (Sept. 1953) [note: a second edition of this comic was published in Oct. 1953, which was slightly smaller in size and with a glossy paper cover.]
Flushed with success, Archer St. John ordered that the entire comic line be converted to the 3-D. Sensing that the new process was merely a fad, Kubert and the Maurers saw the looming disaster such a step could incur and begged St. John to back off his sweeping decision. St. John refused and the production of a full schedule of 3-D comics commenced.
“We took a whole floor of a building and set up an assembly line, “ Kubert
stated in a 1989 interview, “I began work on a 3-D Tor and Norman on a 3-D
Three Stooges.”24 The
process involved was time consuming, taking as long as one month per book. Acetate
cel overlays were opaqued on the back and then placed on top of the line art drawn
on Craft-Tint board. A hoard of artists were hired to pencil, ink and paint, including
Russ Heath, who traces his first work with Kubert to a Triceratops backup feature
in the Tor 3-D. Production commenced on comics as diverse as the humorous
Little Eva, The Hawk (a Western) and House of Terror. Each
underwent the 3-D conversion; each rewarded with steadily diminishing sales.
House of Terror #1 (Oct. 1953)
cover by Joe Kubert
“Suffice it to say, by the tenth or eleventh 3-D book,”
said Kubert, “sales were down to about 19%, so we had to stop publication of
The publics attention span was limited and as Kubert and the Maurers predicted,
the fad was waning. Complicating the situation, and surely guaranteeing its failure,
was the flood of 3-D product coming from other comic publishers. The six month
head start that St. John thought he had secured by his contract with American
Stereographic was an illusion. One month after the September cover date of the
first Mighty Mouse 3-D, Dell put out a 3-D version of Rootie Kazootie
and by the end of the year, more than a dozen others had joined the fray.
There was also the further problem of a copyright infringement suit instigated by William Gaines.
According to Leon Maurer, Gaines had conducted a patent search which found a 1936 application (patent #2,057,051) by Freeman H. Owens titled, Method of Drawing and Photographing Stereoscopic Pictures in Relief, which detailed the preparation of a newspaper cartoon for reproduction as a stereographic relief picture. Unknowingly, Maurer had virtually duplicated Owens process.
Gaines purchased the Owens process from the inventor and proceeded to file infringement suits against all other publishers of 3-D comics, including St. John. The lawsuit was apparently dismissed, but the damage had been done and Maurer lost any chance of patenting and licensing the process to other publishers. Finding humor in an maddening situation, Kubert and Maurer lampooned the entire imbroglio in the first two issues of Whack.
story was framed with a pseudo-St. John cover and lampooned virtually every genre
then popular. Joe Kubert, who edited the comic along with Maurer, led off with
his take on the hard-boiled private eye, “Ghastly Dee-Fective Comics”,
featuring a hero who looked suspiciously like Dick Tracy. In turn, there was the
obligatory Western and romance parodies (by Bob Bean?) , a twisted Dave Berg story,
“Animated Horror Comics“, that married the unlikely genres of funny animal
Whack #1 (Oct. 1953)
cover by Norman Maurer
Most fascinating was a tongue-in-cheek look at the Kubert and Maurer shop itself, satirizing the frenzied state that accompanied the production of the 3-D comics.
The second issue, though, took on the more sordid aspects of the lawsuit in "The 3-D-Ts". It told the story of a comic publisher who is enraged by St. Peter (read that as: St. John) Publications success with their 3-D comics. Mr. Acme (the evil publisher) hires a spy to steal the 3-D process. Meanwhile, another publisher (Gaines?) hires an inventor (Freeman Owens?) to use one of his old inventions to produce 3-D comics, albeit years after the fact. The story ends with a caricatured Archer St. John (in his first and perhaps only appearance within the pages of a comic) beset by an army of lawyers serving him with lawsuits, and resulting in his acquiring a malady diagnosed as "the 3 DTs".
Page from Whack #2 (Dec. 1953)
art by Joe Kubert and Norman Maurer
(Incidentally, I contacted Leon Maurer and he was unable to remember whether anyone involved with American Stereographic had ever applied for a patent on their process. Despite the “Patent Pending” notation on the cover of all St. John 3-D comics, I was unable to locate a patent application in my own limited patent search.)
St. John, who had gambled all on the 3-D fad, was overstocked with unusable acetate and unsold comics. The ensuing financial losses nearly bankrupted him.
Comic history has, to this point, fixated on the 3-D debacle and ignored what was going on in the periphery of St. John Publications.
In June of ‘52, St. John made its run at the horror and science fiction genres. That month, Atom-Age Combat, Strange Terrors and Weird Horrors all debuted.
Combat was a truly strange comic. It was an anthology title that attempted
to tap into the twin Fifties fears of atomic war and alien (as in outer space)
invasion. The ’War of Wars’ series took place in the far off time of 1987
and starred Captain Don ‘Buck’ Vinson as a commando leader in an atomic war between
a NATO-like alliance and The Reds. The other continuing feature was traditional
science fiction fare about Earth’s ongoing struggle against an intergalactic enemy.
The third story was reserved for a standard war story set in the contemporaneous Korean conflict. Even the subtitle, “Stranger Than Fiction“ that ran on every cover never really made sense.
Atom-Age Combat #1 (June 1952)
unremarkable, but serviceable, artwork was rendered by the likes of Bob Bean,
Ralph Mayo and Bob Brown. More interesting as a historical artifact of its time
than a comic, this mish-mashed title never took hold and drifted along for 5 issues
in its original run. Inexplicably, Atom-Age Combat was revived late in
the ‘50s under the Fago imprint.
Relatively tame in comparison to many of their more horrific contemporaries, both Strange Terrors and Weird Horrors frequently featured covers by illustrator George Meyerriecks and interior art by the likes of Lou Cameron, John Belfi, Bob Brown, Gus Ricca and an occasional Kubert appearance.
The comics are best remembered, though, for the three covers ( Strange Terrors #4 and Weird Horrors # 6 and #7) by the enigmatic William Ekgren. These covers were unlike anything before and rarely since. In later times, the word “psychedelic” was frequently used to describe them.
Page from Weird Horrors #8 (June 1953)
art by Joe Kubert
Ekgren himself remained a mystery. This was his only comic book work and despite
the efforts of comic book historians, nothing was known about him. It became something
of a small obsession for me to find out what I could about Ekgren and the story
of that search is told in my article, “Who is William Ekgren?” (Soon to
be published in Craig Yoe's Modern Arf!
magazine.) In brief, I 'found' Ekgren along with some amazing images of his
artwork, including an unpublished comic cover.
Terrors #4 Weird
Horrors #6 Weird
(Nov. 1952) (Feb. 1953) (April 1953)
they contained the Comic Code forbidden words of “Horror” and “Terror”, Strange
Terrors and Weird Horrors died long before the Code came into being
on October 26, 1954. In time, Weird Horrors was replaced by Nightmare,
a vehicle for Ziff-Davis reprints, which in turn evolved into the even more innocuously
titled Amazing Ghost Stories.
St. John even made a halfhearted venture into the fading super-hero genre with its two issue Zip-Jet. The comic was a reprinting of the Chesler (that connection again…) characters, Rocketman and Rocket Girl. To be accurate, the stories were reworked, the characters renamed (now, collectively called the Zip Jets) and even re-colored. The cover to the first issue, in fact, was actually the splash page of the Rocketman story in Scoop Comics #2 (Jan. 1942).
Originally published in Punch Comics as well as Scoop in the 1940s, and featuring Ruben Moreira artwork, the duo came and went in the early months of 1953.
Zip-Jet #1 (Feb. 1953)
cover by Ruben Moreira
Humor comics were a mainstay of St. John's repertoire from its beginning and continued throughout its existence. Although there was a long and apparently profitable relationship with Terrytoons, many of the humor titles were short-lived. Titles such as Bingo , Basil, Little Ike, and Lucy, the Real Gone Gal, all lasted a handful of issues.
worthwhile one-shot was Kid Carrots (Sept. 1953). The creation of Gene
Hazelton, it was an oasis of wonderfully frenetic artwork in a desert of look
alike efforts. Hazelton, making his one and only foray into comic books, was yet
another veteran animator, having worked for Disney, Warner Brothers and later,
Hanna-Barbera, where he helped create The Flintstones.
Page from Kid Carrots #1 (Sept. 1953)
art by Gene Hazelton
In the wake of the 3-D bust, a weakened, but persevering company struggled on into 1954. The Kubert magnum opus, Tor, continued for 3 more issues, Maurer‘s Three Stooges lived on for 4 more.
Often overlooked is the fourth comic produced by the Kubert-Maurer shop (outside the 3-D books), Meet Miss Pepper. The April 1954 humor book was a collaboration of Kubert, Maurer and Bob Bean and portrayed the comedic adventures of a pretty, young school teacher. This was an obvious attempt at cashing in on the contemporaneous radio and television series, Our Miss Brooks. As with many St. John comics, the artwork is outstanding. Unfortunately, this rare display of Kuberts talent for humor only lasts one more issue. (Bob Bean eventually became a movie director, and in time, reunited with Kubert as an instructor at his art school.)
Miss Pepper #5 (April 1954)
cover by Joe Kubert and Bob Bean
An anomaly in the Approved Comics title provides one of the true unrecognized gems of St. John's comics. Daring Adventures (Approved Comics) #6 (May 1954) is the rare exception in that line of reprints, in that it is made up of all new material (despite the assertion in Overstreet). The Robin Hood cover is by Baker and predates by several years his rendition of that character at Quality Comics. Inside, Enrico Bagnoli beautifully illustrated "The Son of Robin Hood," Edd Ashe handled the art chores on "Devil's Arena," and the masterful Bernie Krigstein drew both "Frog Men Against Belzar" and "The Terrorist".
Adventures #6 (May 1954)
cover by Matt Baker
quick sidestep here to mention that even some of the ads that appeared in many
of the St. John’s comics of this period are worth noting.
Perhaps partially created to find recruits for the army of artists needed to produce the 3-D comics, was the ad by Kubert and Maurer offering comic art lessons at a charge of $1.00 per lesson. It would be fascinating to know if any professional comic artists began their careers by subscribing to these lessons. In any case, it is hard not to notice that this foreshadows Kubert's art school two decades later.
Then there were the ubiquitous full page ads for Lionel Trains, including a classic one that ran in the 3-D books. It's not clear if there was some sort of special arrangement between St. John and Lionel, but given Archer's previous ties to the toy train company, he may have called in a few favors to get them to purchase so much advertising in his comics.
ad offering art lessons One
of the Lionel Trains that ran in
by Maurer and Kubert. St. John's comics, circa 1953-54.
It had the long and somewhat vague title of Special Senate Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce, but its chairman, Estes Kefauver had a very specific interest at this time.
Reply of St. John Publishing Co., New York, N.Y.
August 23, 1950
We have had the value of an eminent educator's experience in formulating our own comic code. This authority influenced our thinking a great deal and was responsible for our adapting the policy I have already outlined.
The preferred comics group (sic) published by the St. John Publishing Co. are the only comics published by this company. We publish comics through no other company or corporation or under any other name.
Enclosed you will find issues of the comic books published by our company during 1949 and 1950.
If we can be of further service, please call on us.
Very truly yours,
Richard E. Decker,
Kefauver was seeking an issue to build his presidential aspirations upon and seized upon the public furor over juvenile delinquency. The claims by New York psychiatrist Dr. Fredric Wertham linking comic books to this problem both fed the publics outrage and provided Kefauver with a convenient target.
publishers determined that some sort of action had be taken to stave off restrictive
legislation and quiet the public hue and cry. Despite
their earlier assurance of a self-regulating code, when the industry's preemptive
Comic Code was enacted in October 1954, St. John signed on.
Based upon its relatively tame output, St. John Publishing would seem to be an unlikely candidate for government scrutiny. However, in his scathing indictment of comic books , Seduction of the Innocent (1954), Dr. Wertham had used several St. John comics as the sources of some of his most inflammatory imagery. In a company that had built its reputation on Mighty Mouse and romance, how was that possible?
Early on, when Archer St. John was concerned mostly with finding material to fill his books, he filled them with Chesler shop reprints. In particular, crime comic reprints. It was this incidental re-publication that Wertham saw and then used to single out a few damning panels.
Police Cases #3 (Aug. 1948) Authentic
Police Cases #6 (Nov. 1948)
"Outside the forbidden pages of de Sade, "An invitation to learning."
you find draining a girl's blood only
in children's comics."
Reporter #2 (Oct. 1948) [as
published in Seduction of the Innocent]
"Children told me what the man was going to do with the red-hot poker."
The U. S. Senate released its Comic Books and Juvenile Delinquency Interim Report with an appendix listing of comic book publishers and titles as of Spring 1954. At that time, St. John (officially named Preferred Comics Group, which encompassed the Approved Comics line as well) was credited with publishing 55 comic titles.27 Although the number was a bit inflated by redundant titles (i.e.: Tor and 1,000,000 Years Ago! are listed separately) it was the high water mark for the publisher. The boom of the 3-D experiment puffed up the numbers and by the time this report was actually published, the bust had begun.
The prevailing belief throughout comic book fandom is that Wertham, Kefauver and the subsequent Comic Code, mortally wounded a thriving industry. The truth is, that while Wertham, et al, did indeed affect editorial policies, most comic book publishers left the field for a variety of reasons, generally financial. Then too, there was also the presence of a formidable new medium. As Wertham noted:
Television is on the way to become the greatest medium of our time...Television has a spotty past, a dubious present and a glorious future. That alone distinguishes it from crime comic books, which have a shameful past, a shameful present and no future at all.28
A far more direct factor dictating St. John’s withdrawal from the comic book market was the collapse of its long time distributor, American News Company. Long involved with the comic book industry, the giant distributor’s ANC monogram had appeared on St. John’s comics since their inception. At one time American News had a virtual monopoly on distribution of periodicals in North America, but because of, “…troubled economic times including investigations of mob involvement and tactics,” writes Michael Feldman, “They closed down their distribution division in early 1957.”
A New Direction
the fragility of the comic book industry, late in 1952, Archer St. John had taken
his publishing company in a lucrative new direction. Under the alternate Eagle
(which became, eventually, Flying Eagle) Publications imprint, the inaugural issue
of a digest-sized crime pulp Manhunt (Jan. 1953) was released and made
an immediate impact. It featured an incredible lineup of authors and was illustrated
throughout by the omnipresent Matt Baker in some of his earliest attempts at magazine
Manhunt v. 1 #1 (Jan. 1953)
first issue alone contained short stories by Ed McBain, Cornell Woolrich, Ross
MacDonald and the first installment of a new Mickey Spillane novel. A critical
as well as a financial success, Manhunt quickly became the leading outlet
for crime writers. St. John had finally found success as a magazine publisher.
Manhunt #1 Matt Baker illustration
Feeling the affects of his heavy investment in 3-D comic books and the ensuing collapse of that market, Archer shifted his focus to the far more profitable magazine line. The success of Manhunt quickly spawned companion crime titles: Mantrap, Menace, Murder and Verdict, as well as a Western digest, Gunsmoke. Meanwhile, the comic book titles began fading away, with only the hardiest, Authentic Police Cases, the various romance books and a few humor comics, making it into 1955. Even the showcase comics of Kubert and Maurer, Tor and The Three Stooges, died before the end of ‘54.
Not that he had given up on comic books totally. A January 6, 1955 contract exists showing that St. John and the comedy duo Laurel and Hardy had agreed to a revived comic book series. Although the document gives the impression that a new series was planned, all that came of this was a reprint of the original 3 issue run.
Apparently, St. John still had faith in the comedian based comic as the Jackie Gleason series premiered with a September ‘55 cover date. The comic featured characters Gleason played on his hugely popular television show such as Reginald Van Gleason, The Poor Soul and of course, Ralph Kramden. Short-lived like so many other St. John series, this comic lasted only 4 issues.
Gleason #1 (Sept. 1955)
The New York Times article of August 14, 1955 reads like the opening lines of a James M. Cain novel:
PUBLISHER FOUND DEAD
Archer St. John Succumbs in Friend's Penthouse
Archer St. John, 54 years old (sic), publisher of Secret Life and other magazines, was found dead yesterday afternoon in the penthouse apartment of a friend, the police reported.
The friend, Mrs. Frances Stratford of 170 East Seventy-Ninth Street, told the police he visited her Friday night in her six-room duplex penthouse and complained about 10:30 o'clock the he felt ill. “He lay down on the couch,“ she said. At 11:30 A.M. yesterday she found him still there and was unable to rouse him. Mrs. Stratford called a physician, who pronounced Mr. St. John dead. The police listed the cause as an apparent overdose of sleeping pills, pending an autopsy. Mr. St. John had been staying at the New York Athletic Club. He maintained an office at 545 Fifth Avenue.29
The scarcely hidden smirk of the opening sentence notes that St. John was the publisher of “…Secret Life and other magazines... “Just published and with a cover date of October, Secret Life was St. John's entry into the scandal magazine market dominated by titles such as Confidential and Hush Hush. Like virtually every other publishing venture of his, Archer tried to put a twist onto an established genre. "Secret Life combines the elements of Romance and Revelation into a single, exciting package," promised the house ad in the second issue.
defensively, the ad continues,"Secret Life is not a magazine of
castigation. Each of the stories has a reason for being printed--an intimate,
newsworthy reason. Though Secret Life will open doors that previously never
have been opened, shake skeletons never before shaken in numerous Big Name closets,
the stories and presentation often will be sympathetic. It all depends on the
Secret Life v. 1 #2 (Dec. 1955)
Obviously, the irony of this statement wasn't lost on the uncredited scribe who wrote the Times piece. “The friend, Mrs. Frances Stratford…,” drips with Eisenhower-era disapproval; a raised eyebrow and a knowing look.
Indeed, the apparently sordid circumstances of St. john's death was fodder for rampant speculation, just as his life had been. It would be remiss not to mention the rumors of his drinking, his marital infidelity and even his sexual orientation. As John Benson diplomatically notes in his book, "St. John was a complicated man."30
Archer had much to live for. In addition to Secret Life and the ongoing
success of Manhunt, St. John had taken the leap into the realm of slick
men's magazines with the upcoming publication of Nugget. Nugget
was cast in the Fifties Playboy mold as a magazine for the sophisticated
male reader. As he frequently did with his new publications, Archer, in his role
as editor, provided the raison d'être for the magazine in its first
issue (Nov. 1955):
Nugget v. 1 #1 (Nov. 1955)
"NUGGET is a young man's magazine; a man with taste, a good sense of humor, a keen eye for feminine beauty; a man with vitality who is interested in life and has a zest for living."
This would hardly seem to be the words of a man contemplating suicide.
By its second issue (February 1956), Nugget had new name at the top of the masthead. With the death of Archer, his son Michael replaced him as publisher. The death of the comic line, for all intentions, came soon after.
Well into its deaththroes, the struggling comic line apparently purchased the majority of its comics inventory from Al Fago. Fago had broken his ties to Charlton, where he had been managing editor, and was now a comic packager. The most notable Fago connection to St. John is, Do You Believe in Nightmares?, a short lived title from late 1957. The first issue is basically a one-man show for Steve Ditko, who drew the cover and all but one of the interior stories. The second issue, as well as the last story in #1, featured Dick Ayers artwork. These comics were originally produced for Charlton, but ended up at St. John when Fago left abruptly.
You Believe in Nightmares? #1
(Nov. 1957) Steve Ditko cover
Atom-Age Combat also came into the Fago fold and in its one issue St. John reincarnation in February 1958, looked just like a Charlton product. In an ironic twist, Charlton’s acquisition of certain titles like Fightin’ Marines and Fago’s purchase of Atom-Age Combat for his own imprint, were reminiscent of St. John’s own raid of the Ziff-Davis inventory just a few years before. St. John's longest running publishing relationship ended as the Terrytoons license went to Ned Pines and continued under his self-named imprint.
One uniquely progressive move Michael made (perhaps in respect to his late father’s wishes?) was relinquishing all rights to the caveman, Tor, to his creator, Joe Kubert. This rare bit of generosity in a time long before creator’s rights were acknowledged, allowed Kubert to walk away from the company with his signature character; one that he has revived several times, including as an unsold 1959 comic strip collaboration with Carmine Infantino.
Kubert, as everyone knows, became firmly entrenched at DC as both artist and editor
and eventually founded his namesake comic art school.
Panel from proposed Tor strip (circa 1959)
by Joe Kubert and Carmine Infantino
[© Joe Kubert]
Both Kubert and Maurer made a brief stopover at Lev Gleason; Kubert on Crime
Does Not Pay (the post-Code version) and Maurer back on the ‘Little Wise Guys’
in Daredevil. In the short term, Norman Maurer found work with Timely /Atlas,
primarily on the Wyatt Earp title and even attempted to sell a Sunday strip
entitled Hub Capps.
Panel from proposed Hub Capps Sunday strip (circa 1959)
by Norman Maurer [using Stooge-inspired pseudonym of Jay Howard]
His primary responsibilities, though, were as the manager and caretaker of the Three Stooges franchise. This meant everything from the production of their movies, to the licensing of their name and their subsequent cartoon and comic book incarnations. Maurer also became the producer of such films as the semi-classic, The Angry Red Planet, a 1960 science fiction flick. He had a short reunion with Kubert as the artist on the “Medal of Honor” backup series that ran in several DC, Kubert-edited, war titles from 1971-76. Sadly, Maurer passed away in 1986.
Matt Baker was still doing freelance work for St. John (and Flying Eagle) well into 1955. Indeed, the premiere issue of Nugget contains what are probably the first published Baker illustrations of female nudes. Nevertheless, by ‘54, for all intentions, he had already moved on to other publishers. Quality Comics was one of his clients, as was Dell where he and his longtime inker Osrin drew 3 issues of Lassie.
The last few years of his life, Baker worked on various Timely/ Atlas comics with Vince Colletta, whose inks often rendered Baker’s pencils unrecognizable. As detailed in Alter Ego #47, Baker tragically died far too young from heart disease in 1959.
Detail from Matt Baker illustration in Nugget v. 1 #1 (Nov. 1955)
[Caution: clicking on above image leads to the full drawing containing nudity.]
The final St. John comics appeared in 1958, a bedraggled lot of reprints and uninspired offerings. L‘il Ghost (“He‘s so cute!”, read the cover blurb) , the Fago shop’s ironic imitation of Casper, was one result. Meanwhile, Michael St. John concentrated on the far more successful Flying Eagle magazine line.
Manhunt was now boasting on its covers that it was the
“World’s Best Selling Crime-Fiction Magazine“. In an effort to boost circulation
even more, in March 1957 the digest sized magazine went to a larger format, in
keeping with the other men’s magazines of the day. The
new format almost immediately drew unwanted attention.
Li'l Ghost #1 (Feb. 1958)
The April 1957 issue of Manhunt, only the second in its new, larger format, was withdrawn by authorities from newsstands in New Hampshire. On March 14, 1957, a Federal grand jury in Concord indicted Michael St. John, general manager R. E. Decker and art director Charles W. Adams for depositing for mailing a publication, “containing obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy and indecent matter.”
issue in question is remarkably tame seen through today’s eyes. The Al James'
short story, 'Body on a White Carpet', the cover and one interior illustration
were the offending pieces cited by the court. The James’ story is barely risqué
and never explicit and no illustration in the magazine seems worthy of censorship.
Prevailing contemporary mores and the court saw it differently. St. John and the
others were eventually found guilty, which prompted an appeal on their part.
Manhunt v.5 #4 (April1957)
cover by Tom O'Sullivan
The appeal process dragged into 1961, when, in the First Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Woodbury ruled against them. In Flying Eagle Publications, Inc. v. United States (273 F.2d 799, 803), he dismissed Flying Eagle’s contention that they were publishing primarily legitimate material with the observation that an, “ ...obscene picture of a Roman orgy would be no less so because accompanied by an account of a Sunday school picnic,” and that the publication, “portrays sex with a loose lipped, sensuous leer," setting a standard that is frequently cited in obscenity cases even today.
Ironically, at the time of it’s conviction, Flying Eagle was also publishing the far sexier, Nugget. A shadow of its former self, Manhunt lingered on until 1967, while the last remaining bit of the St. John lineage lived on ignobly in an increasingly raunchier version of Nugget.
Requiem for a Publisher
St. John Publishing has lingered in the shadows of comic book history for far too long. Certainly, its legacy suffers since much of it’s output was padding: inventory bought from other publishers, reprinted material and inconsistent shop work. That was more a result of financial necessity, though, than editorial vision. The best the company had to offer was innovative and frequently brilliant. Consequently, rarely has there been a company more reflective of it’s publisher than St. John.
he failed frequently as a businessman, Archer St. John should be remembered as
the risk-taker who took a chance on the graphic novel concept, who recognized
and nurtured the talent of two dynamic young creators, who rolled the dice on
a revolutionary three-dimensional printing process, who bucked prevailing attitudes
and hired the artistic genius of a great African-American artist.
The same Archer St. John who years before had gone toe-to-toe with Scarface himself.
Virtually ignored by history and forgotten upon his death, Archer St. John deserves better. “He was one of a kind,“ as Arnold Drake told me, “He earned a happy ending.”
Appropriately, it is Joe Kubert who provides the perfectly succinct epitaph:
“He was a helluva nice guy.”
This article isn't finished!
am sure there is more to the St. John story than is covered in this text.
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