'Action! Mystery! Thrills!' Captures the Weird Spirit of Comics' Golden Age

Like everyone else of my generation, I'd be lying if I claimed any sort of real, first-person nostalgia for Golden Age comic books. My own love of the medium was born on a Weigel's spinner rack in the 1980s and nourished in the tightly-packed longboxes of that glorious little hole in the wall that Knoxville nerds knew simply as Ziggy's. By the time I came along, comics were becoming gritty, self-aware, and cynical. Black Canary lost her sonic superpowers—not to mention the functionality of her reproductive organs—when she was tortured by drug dealers in Mike Grell's The Longbow Hunters; DC readers paid 50 cents a pop to call a 1-900 number and vote in favor of the Boy Wonder's bloody death at the hands of the Joker.

Which makes Action! Mystery! Thrills! Comic Book Covers of the Golden Age 1933-1945 all the more wonderful. Compiled and restored by comics historian Greg Sadowski, this new volume from always-reliable Fantagraphics Books serves up 176 covers from a decade when comics were still trying to figure out what they were—and what they could be. Arranged chronologically, the collection begins with 1933's Funnies on Parade, which many consider to be the first comic book (it was a mail-order freebie, but you had to send in coupons from Procter & Gamble soap to get it), and concludes with 1945's Animal Comics #12, featuring art by the great Walt Kelly. In between, Sadowski offers up an incredibly diverse gallery of forgotten superheroes, pistol-toting gangsters, cartoonish Nazis, and talking animals. Each cover has been painstakingly restored to pristine condition, and is presented in full color on glossy paper. It's as close to browsing the comics rack of a World War II-era drugstore as most of us will ever get.

Don't assume your grandmother would approve, though. Since all of the covers on display here were published before the Comics Code Authority nearly censored the industry to death in the mid-1950s, some of them are shockingly violent—and weird—even by today's standards. On one cover, a woman's hair catches fire as her head is shoved onto the eye of a gas stove; on another, a deformed brute drools onto a bound woman's bare feet as a rat crawls into his eye socket. The volume wraps up a few years before horror comics really caught on, but the medium's relationship to its adult-oriented cousins—the era's sometimes-gruesome shudder pulps and violent crime magazines—is evident. No one ever said pop-art history has to be pretty.

Sadowski, who did a bang-up job on 2010's Four Color Fear: Forgotten Horror Comics of the 1950s, is one of the most adept chroniclers of comic-book history working today. He offers succinct but informative notes on each cover, but his most notable achievement in this volume is his selection of covers. The notes are helpful and fun, but it's the progression of images itself that is the most telling. Covers have always been comics' primary selling tool, so it makes sense to use them to illustrate the evolution of the medium. Over the course of the book, we watch comic books become, well, comic books. Some of the Art Deco-inspired covers are terrific—the book features work by guys like Will Eisner, Bob Kane, and Joe Shuster, as well as lesser-known and remarkably skilled illustrators like L.B. Cole—but even the weaker entries give us a strong sense of the comic book's formative years. Not its birth, as Canadian comics artist and writer Ty Templeton points out in the book's foreword, but its adolescence.

And a troubled youth it was. Some of the imagery in this volume might be hard to take—Sadowski makes no apologies for the era's shortcomings, and doesn't shy away from the overtly racist and misogynistic covers that often found their way onto the dimestore wall—but it's always fascinating. And, since Sadowski is an exhaustive researcher and a tireless collector, you can also count on most of the covers being ones you haven't seen before. At a perfectly reasonable $29.99, it's a must for any comic-book fan's library.