The year is 1946, and you are smack-dab in the middle of the golden age of comics (1938-1955). Both Germany and Japan have surrendered. The United Nations’ first meeting in Long Island is held. The Atomic Energy Commission is established. Frank Capra‘s “It’s a Wonderful Life” featuring James Stewart and Donna Reed is released in New York.
Young men sent off to war are returning from overseas as hardened veterans while teenagers are growing up in a new era of relative economic abundance – both with access to a still inexpensive .10 cent form of entertainment (a movie ticket in 1946 was .35 cents).
At this time, The Market Research Company of America found that 70 million Americans (roughly half of the U.S. population) read comic books.(1) By comparison, about 51 million read a daily newspaper in 1946. In 1947 there were 40 million radios in U.S. households and just 44,000 television sets (30,000 of which were in the New York area) (2).
Most comic book titles sold between 200,000 and 400,000 copies per issue. Each bimonthly issue of the Superman title sold an average of 1.3 million copies (3). Circulation figures suggest that the best-selling superhero title of the era was Fawcett Comics’ Captain Marvel, with 1.4 million copies per issue (4).
But television wasn’t standing still. In 1947, Motorola introduced the VT-71 television for $189.95, the first television to sell for under $200. With the drop in television set prices, increased leisure time and additional disposable income the percentage of U.S. households with a television set rose from only 0.5% in 1946, to 55.7% in 1954, to 90% by 1962 (5).
And it was in 1954 (spurred by Fredric Wertham‘s book Seduction of the Innocent) when opposition to graphic depictions of violence and gore in crime and horror comics, and sexual innuendo of what enthusiasts would come to call “Good Girl Art,” prompted the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency hearings. Concerned about forced regulation, publishers formed a self-regulatory body called the Comics Code Authority (CCA). In combination with the exploding popularity of television, CCA essentially ushered in the end of the golden age of comics.
The term Good Girl Art (GGA) originated in the early 1970s when The Comic Book Price Guide consultant David T. Alexander inserted the term in comic sale lists to highlight specific panels and covers with sexy women. It was a good artistic depiction of females, at least from a male point of view.
From that time forward the phrase Good Girl Art became widely used by the comic collecting community to indicate a style of artwork in which attractive female characters are portrayed, sometimes provocatively, in locations such as outer space and the jungle. But to describe GGA as just sensationalism to sell comics would miss a richer underlying framework of characterizations. The artwork covers a wide spectrum including “damsel-in-distress,” villain, “perfect wife” and “cutesy bad-ass” among other female character stereotypes. During World World II woman had taken up welders and riveters (a.k.a. Rosie the Riveter) by the millions, and their strength, determination and contributions were reflected back in numerous comic book “Wonder Women” characters who did battle with evil axis.
The peak period of comic book Good Girl Art was in the golden age of comics. Leading artists of the genre included Bill Ward (Torchy) and Matt Baker. Arguably the king of Good Girl Art, Baker was one of the few African Americans working as a comic artist at the time. The creativity and skill of these and other artists left a legacy we can still admire and enjoy seventy years later.
(1) Sanderson Vanderbilt, “The Comics,” Yank: The Army Weekly, 23 November 1945.
(2) Shagawat, Robert. “Television recording – The origins and earliest surviving live TV broadcast recordings”. Early Electronic Television. Early Television Museum. Retrieved April 20, 2011.
(3) Bradford Wright. Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America. (Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press, 2001)
(4) Morse, Ben. “Thunderstruck”. Wizard #179 (September 2006)
(5) Number of TV Households in America, Television History: The First 75 Years.