With news that cartoonist Mark Martin has unearthed the 105 year old publisher of Zeus Comics, Zig Zoosman, and that he, health permitting, is scheduled to be a guest of honor at this summer's FantaCo Enterprises' FantaCon Centennial Celebration Convention, he asked me to write an article about the company for the program.
Easier said than done! There is little documentation on the comics and I'll soon be interviewing the publisher himself for more details. In my collection, I only had 3 Zeus Comics among thousands of titles from other publishers… until recently! In an odd coincidence, I was doing renovation at an old house in Portland, Maine, and when I tore down a wall, it was stuffed with old newspapers for insulation. Newspapers and a half dozen Zeus Comics.
With the popularity of a small line of pulp magazines (always keeping a step ahead of the police and moral squads due to its salacious content), publisher Zigmund Zoosman was persuaded to enter the new and burgeoning medium of comic books in 1941. The first title was VIM COMICS, featuring a lackluster squad of various superhero, adventure and humor strips. The comic was in the vein of Timely's Marvel Mystery Comics and MLJ's Pep Comics and was indicative of Zeus' penchant for exploiting trends, not creating them. VIM created a few short-lived spin-off titles and survived for a few years on a bi-monthly schedule, but then the name was changed (to protect the guilty) to VIOLENT CRIME, continuing the numbering and increasing sales.
Crime comics, by the 1950s, had become the bane of do-gooder groups, who blamed the comics for the rise of juvenile delinquency. Comics were accused of all kinds of deviant content, that were often only in the eye of the poo-pooing beholders. In Zeus' case, many of those accusations appear to be true! Their later titles feature all kinds of sadism, misogyny and questionable behavior.
Publisher Zig Zoosman was one of those from the comics industry that was forced to appear at a Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency to defend his releases, and while accused of many things, some of the more questionable elements escaped the Subcommitee's scrutiny.
Let's look at a few of their covers from the late 1940s. The actual title is VIOLENT CRIME CAN'T WIN!, but on the cover the "can't win!" is in the fine print. The cover of issue #48 (like most Zeus Comics) shows a half-nude woman, with bra and nylons exposed. It is littered with a pile of dead, bloody cops. Other articles include "100% True!" tales of killing, drugs and other crimes, with luxurious details on the techniques and rewards of crime… with the police only showing up in the last panel in a bloody climax to prove "violent crime can't win!" It also promises to teach the reader "How to Commit the Perfect Murder!"
Psychologist Frederic Wertham postulated in his indicting book on the 1950s comics industry that there was an 'injury to the eye' motif that ran through comics, and WEIRD MENACE # 13 seems to verify that with the cover story "I, the Eye Collector!" Rare for the era, the cover features a nude woman, strapped to a table about to have her eyes extracted. When confronted with the cover at a Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, Zoosman testified it was a coloring mistake and she didn't appear nude on every cover.
Asked if he released any comics with redeeming social value, Zoosman pointed to his RED NIGHTMARES titles which he said warned the youth of Communism. How many kids were deterred from following the red path by such tales as "Revenge of the Soviet Sex Slaves." and "Cosmic Commies." is debatable. Much like the crime comics, the protagonists are allowed to rape, pillage and corrupt throughout the story until American justice gruesomely prevails at the end.
Wertham also wrote of "headlight" comics, where young readers told him about comics featuring large breasts and double entendres for "those that know how to look." Zeus certainly exploited this on every cover they printed and even made it a focal point of their teen comics, upping the ante with triple entendres!
(Right) Dr. Frederic Wertham ponders a toy balloon with his likeness. They were manufactured by Zeus publisher Zig Zoosman and distributed to fellow comics publishers to blow up and vent their anger!
As seen on the cover in this article, STIFFIE was not shy to advertise their "headlight" status. Even the banner promising "Tops in Teen Titters" would make a dirty old man take a second look. Background signs subliminally inspire thoughts about "body parts."
(Right)Los Angeles Councilman Ed. J. Donovan displays supposed "nudie comics," including STIFFIE. The truth is that the 'nudies' weren't comics, and the comics weren't 'nudies.'
Even licensed titles feature very suspect content. Zeus released at least three comics based on popular bandleader, radio and movie star SPIKE JONES. As seen on the cover reproduced here, large-breasted women (aliens) are prominent and the cover gag suggests the taboos of mixed-race sex (the chicks are green!) and cannibalism!
With all their hyper-hetero, over-sexualized content in crime, horror and humor books, what would be their take on romance comics? Look no further than title named GRAPHIC FORBIDDEN FANTASY, which is very, very strange. However, unlike any comic title ever, this seemed to be geared to a Sapphic audience! All the stories appear to lean towards many sensitive moments between women, and after experimentation and heartache, much like the crime comics where justice is served in time for the last panel, the female protagonists find a man that is right for them. Who this comic was geared for is a question… lesbians or fans of lesbians? Regardless, it is an early example of fairly mainstream homoerotic literature.
(Above right) Was this the target demographic for GRAPHIC FORBIDDEN FANTASY STORIES… Women who wear slacks?
Though little is known about the Zeus Comics line, even less is known about the creators. There are no credits, by-lines for the most part, and if there are, they're most likely pseudonyms. Most do not appear to have worked for other comics publishers besides Zeus, though some found work in advertising and porn. The most well-known is Carl Koenig (the publisher's nephew), who signed as Vance Steele. He did many of the Zeus covers and later was the art director for New York City's local Dumont TV station affiliate. If other, more well-known cartoonists got their start at Zeus, they sure are quiet about it.
(Left) 8000 wonderful comics burnt at one Vancouver event. Canada still has anti-crime & horror comic laws on the books, as this author learned the hard way as editor of the comic magazine Monsters Attack!
(Above) Oh, the weird, criminal horror! Assemblyman James Fitzpatrick, Chairman of NY State Joint Legislative Committee to Study Publication of Comics, watches as Senator Robert Hendrickson, chairman of the Senate Juvenile Delinquency Committee points out a particularly egregious cover of WEIRD MENACE.
After the Senate debacle, Zoosman tried to regroup his line with a sure-fire seller: a comic based on a Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis motion picture… a movie about comic books! Zoosman had served as a consultant for the film Artist & Models, providing the artwork for the fake comic company Martin works at in the movie, and was evidently the inspiration for the over-the-top comics publisher played in the film by Eddie Mayehoff. Unfortunately, DC Comics had the rights to Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis in comic books, so Zeus had the rights to a Martin & Lewis film, but couldn't use Martin & Lewis, or mention their names. Zoosman solved this by basing the title on a comic character in the flick.
(Above) The comic that killed Zeus! Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis make a Marilyn Monroe sandwich with some Bat Lady garnish. The only known existing image of the BAT LADY comic, as all copies were ordered destroyed after a lawsuit.
BAT LADY (played by Shirley MacLaine in the movie) became the star of a comic that was a weird mix-up of superhero-crime-horror and romance, but this being after the Comics Code, a lot of those words were not allowed to be used. Furthermore, even without Martin & Lewis, DC Comics, and its parent company, the powerful Independent News Service, had a major problem with a character sporting the name "BAT" in it. Worse for Zoosman, the new Comics Code is prominently plastered on the cover, yet Zeus did not have the comic reviewed by the Comics Code board nor were theye even a member. After surviving public burnings of their comics, Zeus could not survive the court-ordered round-up and destruction of every single copy Bat Lady Comics. DC soon premiered Batwoman in order to cover their legal butts in the future.
Ads in the comics herald other titles that deserve introspection, like WHIP OF THE BLACK LEATHER KID, ALL-COLORED (?!) COMICS, GYNECOLOGICAL MYSTERIES and CRIME IN SPACE! As seen by the covers reproduced here, there was a lusty, unbridled, yet crude creativity in the Zeus titles. The story behind them and their ultimate fate is still a mystery… a mystery that may be solved once I'm able to interview the publisher for the Fantacon Centennial Celebration Convention Program, released at FantaCon in September, 2013!
(Left) After being chased out of the comics industry, Zig Zoosman kept his fingers in publishing, mostly soft-core nudie mags and comic strips that were notoriously sold under the counter.
***UPDATE*** As of 04/01/13 Mort Todd has been made exclusive licensing agent for the ZEUS COMICS line and is planning to release reprints in the near future. For more info, contact email@example.com
In the video above Mort Todd talks about his discovery of "$10,000" worth of Zeus Comics.
Mort Todd is a comic creator, filmmaker, animator and music producer. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of Cracked magazine and Marvel Music. Currently he is directing TV commercials, devising some TV series and publishing comics and photo novels.
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