MARVELS OF SCIENCE

Marvels of Science #2, April 1946 The Atomic Age panel

See also Future World Comics for another 1946 science comic.

The atomic bomb changed everything overnight. Even the comic book business.

While poking around old comics for Ray Guns in Early Comic Books, I kept stumbling across references to Marvels of Science. Never heard of it? Neither had I. So I kept poking.

Charlton Publications traces its predecessor companies back to 1931. It starts murky and gets murkier. John Santangelo Sr. created a company to print song lyrics magazines. Sounds like a good idea in the days before the internet and the money poured in. But copyright laws were around then as well and Santangelo got busted. He served time in the New Haven County Jail and while there met Ed Levy, an attorney disbarred in a political scandal. When they got out Levy knew how to legitimately license publishing rights and they restarted the publications, successfully. The Charlton name was invented because, coincidentally, both John and Ed had babies named Charles.

Back to murk. Wikipedia has this version of what happened next:

The company's first comic book was Yellowjacket, an anthology of superhero and horror stories launched September 1944 under the imprint Frank Comunale Publications, with Ed Levy listed as publisher. Zoo Funnies was published under the imprint Children Comics Publishing; Jack in the Box, under Frank Comunale; and TNT Comics, under Charles Publishing Co.. Another imprint was Frank Publications.

Other sources, like Don Markstein's Toonpedia, dissent:

The publisher was Frank Communale, whose comics publishing activities are sometimes conflated with Charlton, a long-extant publisher that entered the comic book field a couple of years later. Reasons for this are twofold. First, Charlton later took over Yellowjacket Comics; and second, both were located in Derby, CT. Just as earlier comics history enthusiasts had concluded from skimpy evidence that Marvel Comics had called itself Timely during the 1940s, some seem to have jumped to a conclusion that Communale and Charlton were one and the same.

Standing as refutation is the fact that Charlton was already publishing other cheap magazines under its own name. Also, Charlton was later known for buying titles and unused inventory from failing publishers, so the fact that they took over publication of Yellowjacket isn't proof of anything.

Markstein died several years ago and so may not have been able to update his information. If Yellowjacket wasn't Charlton, was Zoo Funnies? The first, November 1945, issue - labeled 101 on the cover in a bit of cuteness to make newsstand dealers think it was an established ongoing product - had a different publishing address in Derby, CT - near the prison - than did Yellowjacket or Marvels of Science. Coincidence or obfuscation? One company, two, or three? The consensus online is that Charlton was behind all three names.

Marvels of Science #1, March 1946 cover

Marvels of Science #1, March 1946

One thing everybody agrees upon is that Marvels of Science is the first comic to bear the Charlton name. The cover to that first issue is progress in motion, with a speeding streamlined locomotive and a powerful plane, though why the artist didn't use a jet plane, the subject of the first story, is a mystery. So is the identity of the light bulb building at lower right, which appears nowhere inside. The cylindrical skyscraper in the middle gets a page of its own. No one named Charlton existed within the company, and the use of "Ted Charlton" in a letter from the publisher is more cuteness, an invented name for readers to identify with.

Marvels of Science #1, March 1946

You can tell from the table of contents on the cover that the technological advances brought out of the war dominate the comic. One article title remains of interest today: "Wonder World: Present and Future," a white bread, middle-class image of what America was supposed to look like, then and always.

Marvels of Science #1, March 1946 Wonder World 1
Marvels of Science #1, March 1946 Wonder World 2
Marvels of Science #1, March 1946 Wonder World 3
Marvels of Science #1, March 1946 Wonder World 4
Marvels of Science #1, March 1946 Wonder World 5
Marvels of Science #1, March 1946 Wonder World 6

As always, the ideas presented are a fascinating blend of hits and misses, of underestimating change and being overoptimistic, and of the better world for all that would be the inevitable product of progress.

 

Innumerable marvels are promised in the future by men of science and chemistry, and the world of tomorrow is certain to become a wonder world of amazing proportions. ... An era that has already begun today!

The tiny super-efficient coal furnace looks distinctly odd today while getting bread from the sea is head-scratching. Cordless appliances are commonplace today but don't get their power beamed through the air, a notion that started with a crazy idea of Nikola Tesla's and somehow never vanished. Soy beans were another miracle product that were supposed to have a million uses but never quite lived up to the hype. Wrinkleproof fabrics were a small step into the future but the camera that didn't use film is a fantastic prediction even if no hint of how it might work is given. Television transmission from airplanes is big thinking but the reality of satellite broadcasting was beyond all but a handful of people in the world. All in all a fascinating slice of the hope-filled life that beckoned in the Earth's one prosperous country at the end of a war that devastated the rest of the world. Americans as a whole would fail to recognize how fantastically fortunate they were, with consequences that would drive world and domestic politics forever after.

Marvels of Science #2, April 1946 cover.jpg

Marvels of Science #2, March 1946

The Wonder World in issue #1 strangely made no mention of atomic power. The lack was made up for in the next issue with a short feature on "The Atomic Age."

 

The bombs that devastated Japanese cities took the world by surprise, but not because no one expected them. The power of the atom had been understood for a half century and dozens or hundreds of writers had explored the possibilities of atomic power both to build weapons and to supply seemingly inexhaustible power. After World War started, however, the government imposed a security lockdown on the mention of anything atomic. Not just atomic bombs or atomic power, but any words even suggesting the possibility that the U.S. might be working toward taming the atom: heavy water, cyclotrons, atom smashing, and the names of the radioactive elements themselves. Although leaks inevitably occurred, the disappearance of the subject in popular media developed a collective amnesia hard to fathom today. Yet  atomic power had always been portrayed as a marvel of the far future, prized but not accessible to current technology. Its appearance fully developed was as startling as President Truman riding down Pennsylvania Avenue in a flying saucer. Anything was possible now, everything was within our reach.

I'm not aware of any official governmental effort to downplay the association of the atom with bombs - certainly it never reached science fiction writers who would spend the next several years in a downward spiral of doom and apocalypse - but the good side of the atom, unlimited clean power in a world where industrial cities like Pittsburgh lay buried in smoke and dirt, reached many times more readers than the tiny group of sf fans.

So, months before the Atomic Energy Commission was formed "to promote world peace, improve the public welfare and strengthen free competition in private enterprise," Charlton hit the same bullet points. Automobiles might "travel 5,000,000 miles on one small pellet of uranium" and uranium could "provide power for private homes at less than one-tenth a cent a kilowatt hour," a mind-boggling improvement over the pellet-using coal furnace in the previous issue. (The mother on page 2, panel 4, saying "Junior, please put an atomic wafer in the power box, will you, dear?" has to be one of my favorite all-time depictions of a future that seems eons rather than decades in the past.)

Atomic power would help farmers, bring power to rural areas, conquer diseases, and bring "peace and prosperity" to the globe as written in the smoke of "gigantic rocket ships [that] may be able to fly a thousand miles per hour!"

Marvels of Science #2, April 1946 The Atomic Age 1
Marvels of Science #2, April 1946 The Atomic Age 2
Marvels of Science #2, April 1946 The Atomic Age 3

Issue #3, May 1946, finally put a jet plane on the cover. Although that image is also in the "Aviation of Tomorrow" article, its odd shape is never explained or even talked about. The gizmo on the lower left isn't anywhere inside. Your guess is as good as mine: better, probably.

Marvels of Science #3, May 1946

Marvels of Science #3, May 1946

The marvels are left futuristic this issue, although the writers finally caught up with the coaxial cable, obviating the need for television transmission by airplane. Another publisher's letter from "Ted Charlton" mentions a proposal that seems even crazier to us today than it must have then, although it too is nowhere "in this issue."

In this issue are many examples, illustrated and in story form, of wisdom and science combined to make a better world for us all to live in. For instance, Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker's [a World War I hero aviator and the CEO of Eastern Air Lines] advocacy of using atomic bombs to melt and crack the Polar ice caps, thus making available presently inaccessible deposits of gold, coal, copper and other materials we need for reconversion and the rehabilitation of the world. These ice caps can reach a depth of 1800 feet and many scientists feel that the project would require the use of more atomic bombs than we are now equipped to produce. Nevertheless, the idea is appealing and worth studying because its fulfillment lends itself to combined world effort - another case for U.N.O. [United Nations Organization] handling.

Marvels of Science #3, May 1946 IFC

Didn't scientists know what that would do to the sea level? Actually, they did. A February 2, 1946 editorial in the New York Times blasted the proposal as all the people in Derby - who undoubtedly read the Times - should have known. Even so, the use of atomic bombs as a giant shovel was glibly tossed about by many, one of the many reasons why futuristic progress via technology soon started dismaying the public rather than enchanting it.

New York Times, February 2, 1946

The fourth and last issue of Marvels of Science featured a cover depicting a futuristic Oz, of tall buildings rising from an ocean reachable by the network of superhighways than spanned its surface.

Marvels of Science #4, June 1946

Marvels of Science #4, June 1946

The image of Truman is inside, but the larger citiscape is entirely absent. One of the claims that Charlton made was that every aspect of their comics was controlled in-house, so it's hard to understand the lack of co-ordination between covers and interiors.

Or, worse, the lack of co-ordination between one panel and the next, as in this introductory page to how to make a pin-hole camera. Out of context, a panel that says the stars are "hundreds and hundreds of miles away" seems to be one of the biggest science bloopers ever, but the very next panel - which also puts the characters inside rather than outside during the same conversation - shows that the writer knows that stars' light takes hundreds of years to travel to the Earth. Was a different artist/writer tasked to substitute a last minute new splash panel without seeing the rest of the art? Old comics are full of mysteries.

Marvels of Science #4, June 1946

Charlton must have been running out of ideas by this issue, otherwise why else would they run a full feature on the Precipitron? Despite the four-syllable quasi-scientific name, the Precipitron was nothing more than an air purifier.

The only futuristic piece in the issue was "Mapping the Moon." Only two pages long, the article told of a surprising use for the brand-use art of radar: mapping bodies in space. A close read reveals that the writers had gotten ahead of themselves. The images of the moon were from telescopes. All the Army had done was bounce a single radar signal off the moon. No matter. That and the text feature "A Trip to the Moon Soon?" gave off vibes of marvels that "Death to the Insects" and "Wax Sculpture Master" utterly lacked.

One more early comics experiment, one more failure. Marvels of Science was canceled and no science comics took its place. Charlton would stay in the comics business for another forty years, always a minor player, always following the trends to whatever genre was selling, sometimes combining genre in unique ways, my favorite being Space Western Comics.

Space Western Comics #40 Sept.-Oct. 1952

Space Western Comics #40 September-October 1952

Other companies would rise to the bait of such a seemingly surefire seller as science comics in an era when science and technology dominated all thinking in the U.S. None of them lasted. Despite Marvels of Science billing itself as "A Comic for Youngsters and Adults," adults had better sources than quasi-accurate picture stories and youngsters soon got hooked on television space operas. More sophisticated illustrated nonfiction books for children moved into the market - much better than the textbook covered in Moving Ahead - and eventually took it over.

December 21, 2021