While fans and other funnybook boosters argue the role of comics in the greater body of mass media, very few specifics are given about what that role actually entails. Sales figures are bandied about like arcane formulas and (quite laudable) matters of accessibility and inclusion are given a good deal of discussion, but there’s also a good deal of fan-myopia when it come to the shape of this imagined utopia that boils down to “the stuff I like getting purchased and read by a larger audience.”
The truth is that there was a time when comics were poised to stand cheek-to-jowl with radio, films, and other print publications as a truly mass medium. The bid was short-lived, done in by the changing technologies of leisure, a crippling round of high profile controversy, and an (ongoing) series of bad business decisions by an industry that didn’t have a hell of a lot of financial wiggle room to start.
Enough artifacts of this era do remain, however, to demonstrate the form a masscult-oriented funnybook industry would truly look like — comics like Miss Melody Lane of Broadway…
…released by National Periodical Publications at the end of 1949.
Melody Lane and its slightly longer-lived sibling title, Miss Beverly Hills of Hollywood, were an attempt by National to chase the lucrative (and underserved from a comics standpoint) teenybopper demographic.
The target audience for the titles was that class of celebrity-obsessed young lasses who voraciously consumed illo-heavy lite-gossip and fan mags on the reg, and the books’ served up a sequential art spin on that formula — mild rom-com tales about small town girls trying break into the entertainment industry interspersed with celebrity bios, pin-ups straight out of the illustrative uncanny valley, and the requisite unfunny gag strips.
And if you wanted to know what Pitchfork would have looked like in the Truman era…
…or had a hankering to do the Hitch-Kick…
…Melody Lane had that covered, as well.
This was not an exercise in niche market evangelism. It was a calculated bid to appeal to what the target audience wanted, rather that what the publishers thought they should want. It reeks of pandering and sexist assumptions, but as the currency of its day — not as a retrograde artifact of arrested development.
Is it art? Not by my standards, but that’s par for the masscult course, no matter how much I wish it could be otherwise. Yet for all that calibration and pulse-measuring, neither Melody Lane nor Beverly Hills managed to catch fire among the anticipated target audiences. Starstruck bobbysoxers weren’t interested in getting off-model newsprint caricatures of stuff they could already get as glossy reprinted snapshots inside Photoplay or Life or a dozen other rags.
Outside of fan-circles, loyalty to a given medium is not enough when you can get a similar, more gratifying fix elsewhere. Unless you can make a compelling creative case to justify the choice of format, you’re essentially following Miss Lane and Miss Hills off the masscult stage and out the dimly-lit side door to Nobody’s Favorite.