THE AMERICAN COMICS GROUPPrimary Product: Comic Books
Producing From: 1943-67
Noted For: Herbie, Adventures into the Unknown and more
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The American Comics Group wasn't a powerhouse of a publisher. It wasn't notably innovative, nor did it produce a great deal of outstanding material. But it had a style of its own, and it
maintained a steady presence on American newsstands for almost a quarter of a century. It's been gone quite a few decades now, but it's still well remembered by practically everybody who had more than a passing interest in comic books during its heyday, the 1940s through the '60s.
ACG had its roots in the Ben Sangor studio, which, starting in 1941, supplied ready-to-publish comic book features for several small publishers. Sangor's best customer was his son-in-law, Ned Pines, whose Fighting Yank, Supermouse and Woman in Red, to name only a few, came from there. Another of his customers was DC Comics. In fact, Sangor played cards regularly with DC's co-publisher, Harry Donenfeld. This came in handy in 1943, when he started publishing his own comics. Donenfeld bought into the company, supplying the seed capital; and Donenfeld's Independent News Distributors got the product onto newsstands.
By that time, superheroes were on the wane, so Sangor started out with funny animals. Under the name "Creston Publishing Co.", he launched Ha Ha Comics and Giggle Comics, both with the cover date October, 1943. These were followed in 1946 by Cookie (Archie-style teenage humor) and in '47 by The Kilroys (Blondie-style domestic comedy). Sangor's outfit (which used several names during this period, including Best Syndicated Comics and B&I) also experimented with licensing, doing Milt Gross's zany creations in 1947 and The Chicago Tribune's Moon Mullins in '49.
1948 was the year the operation settled on the name by which it's best known. That was also the year of ACG's one big innovation (unless you count Hi-Jinx, which pioneered in putting teenage humor in funny animal drag). Adventures into the Unknown was the first ongoing comic book series completely devoted to the horror genre. The newness was a bit marred by Avon Periodicals (Space Detective, Taanda) having put out a horror comic called Eerie the previous year, but that was only a oneshot. Also, ACG's offering was vastly eclipsed in quality and fame by EC's line, Tales from the Crypt et al. But it was still instrumental in settng the trend that had such a strong impact on the industry of the early 1950s. A companion title, Forbidden Worlds, was added in 1951.
During the early and middle 1950s, ACG published a wide variety of titles — Commander Battle & the Atomic Sub, Young Heroes, The Hooded Horseman, Romantic Adventures Adventures into the Unknown and Forbidden Worlds survived the 1955 advent of The Comics Code Authority, which killed off most crime and horror comics, by drastically toning down the content. With mild but often amusing fantasy stories, both continued for more than a decade after the Code came in. Editor Richard Hughes (who had started as a writer back when the company just packaged comics for other publishers) later said he preferred leaving out the grisly stuff, and was glad he no longer had to put it in just to stay competitive.
The company cut back in 1956, dropping the funny stuff and most things with continuing heroes. Hughes wrote practically all the stories from then on (using a wide variety of pseudonyms), and certain themes began to be seen repeatedly. One of them was the character with hidden depths — someone who looks inferior and ineffective, ridiculed by his peers, who turns out to have unseen qualities that make him much more worthy than his tormentors. One such character, Herbie Popnecker, who appeared in 1958, caught readers' eyes and was brought back for repeat performances. He eventually got his own title. If one thing from the whole of ACG's existence made a lasting impresion on the comics-reading public, it was Herbie.
By the 1960s, the ACG line was dominated by that sort of fantasy. But the rest of the comics industry was switching back to superheroes. Hughes, who had had enough of that genre back when he was writing The Black Terror and his ilk, resisted. But reader demand was incessant, and in 1965 he finally gave in. Adventures into the Unknown launched Nemesis and Forbidden Worlds launched Magicman. Hughes's lack of enthusiasm for the long-underwear guys was reflected in the readers' lack of interest in them. Both were gone within a couple of years.
By that time, the company was on its last legs, a victim of changing tastes. A few months after dropping the superheroes, it folded. Its final releases were dated August, 1967. Hughes moved to DC, where he wrote Hawkman, Blackhawk and a few other minor titles. He retired a couple of years later. ACG's assets were eventually acquired by entrepreneur Roger Broughton, who has made little use of anything it did besides Herbie.
American Comics Group articles in Don Markstein's Toonopedia: