by Don Mangus, HA Comic Art and Illustration Art Expert
May 6, 2010
The adjective iconic fits Joe Simon and Jack Kirby's original Headline Comics #25 cover art as snugly as a hit-man's glove. Heritage Comic and Comic Art Signature Sale 7021 offers this startling "pre-Code" crime classic with its own fascinating back story, tied to a Golden Age genre-killing controversy.
Describing this macabre masterwork, I was struck by its bold inscription, "To Dave Wigransky — best wishes and good luck — Joe Simon and Jack Kirby."
David Wigransky — the name was hauntingly familiar. Then, I recalled where I had read it. Cartoonist and comics historian Michael T. Gilbert had written an extensive piece on Mr. Wigransky for his Mr. Monster's Comic Crypt article, Cain Before Comics, in Alter Ego #90 (December 2009).
As Mr. Gilbert put it, "During the Golden Age, many parents believed that comic books were a corrosive influence on their children. Critical articles by Dr. Fredric Wertham and other 'experts' blamed them for every ill from juvenile delinquency to pimples. But comic fans still had their defenders, even then. David Wigransky, a teenage comic book fan who, outraged by Wertham's claims, stood up and fought back. Young David wrote a powerful letter in the July 24, 1948 issue of The Saturday Review of Literature defending his favorite reading material."
Titled Cain Before Abel, the vintage TSROL article reproduced in the Alter Ego feature began, "Editor's Note: Of the numerous replies we received to Dr. Fredric Wertham's article 'The Comics — Very Funny' and John Mason Brown's 'The Case Against Comics,' one of the most interesting is that written by fourteen-year-old David Pace Wigransky of Washington, D. C. Young Mr. Wigransky, who has just completed the tenth grade at the Calvin Coolidge Senior High School, is a devoted reader and collector of comic books. He tells us that he now owns 5,212 such books and 'intends to make drawing them his profession and life's work.'"
(For an in-depth look at Mr. Wigransky's letter, kindly seek out Mr. Gilbert's article in Alter Ego #90).
The blood-chilling Simon & Kirby cover offered in our auction would have been cited by crime comic critics as a "smoking gun," exhibit I (for ironic) for those self-appointed "prosecutors" in the mounting controversy. It would be offered as "iron-clad proof" of the outlaw influence of the "true crime" comics -- the genre that Dr. Wertham M. D. would condemn in his alarmist 1953 screed, Seduction of the Innocent, the Influence of Comic Books on Today's Youth.
In 1954, the U. S. Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency launched its grandstanding probe into the allegedly unhealthy influence of the comic book industry was having on America's youth. David Wigransky's TSROL letter was read again in an ill-fated "defense" of the industry. The insights of this teenaged fan were recorded in the official transcript. Ultimately, it was for naught - a majority of the comic publishers in effect pleaded nolo contendere and soon formed their self-censorship program, the Comics Code Authority. After that, wide-open crime comics were rendered DOA.
This uncensored Simon & Kirby "pre-Code" thriller is emblematic of the waning moments before the coming storm of this turbulent era. As a superlative work of art, with connections to both the "defense" and the "prosecution" of pre-Code comics, and with ties to two of comics' most famous creators, their critics, and a key, outspoken fan, this cover has a cultural cachet that certifies it as iconic.
In the closing of his Alter Ego article, Michael T. Gilbert followed up on what became of the aspiring comics artist and outspoken fan, David Pace Wigransky. While he never became a professional comic book artist, Mr. Wigransky did find his way into print again after a fashion. He wrote a book, Jolsonography, devoted to entertainer Al Jolson in 1969. Sadly, it was reported Wigransky died the same year, while still in his early thirties.
Pre-Code crime comics, DOA — a case of suicide or murder? You make the call.