They only cost a dime, but during the Dirty ’30s that was a fortune.
Big Little Books looked like a block of four-colour wood, but they freed the imagination of kids trapped in a troubled world they didn’t create but would soon have to join. They couldn’t afford the prices of platinum age era comics, often tabloid-sized books or hardcovers that cost 15 cents and more. But these 10-cent BLBs brought to them the magical worlds of action movie stars, battle-hardened heroes, space adventurers and cowboys.
Beside Whitman – by far the largest printer of BLBs and the inventor of the name that stuck to the genre – other publishers included Saalfield (which called its books Little Big Books), Goldsmith, Lynn, Dean and Son, and Dell.
Today, they are snapshots of a bygone pop culture, a collectable genre with the oxymoron name. BLBs as a collectable take a backseat to other similar genres from the era, especially comics that exploded in the late 1930s and early ’40s. And that’s a shame.
The miniature books, pulp in nature, were born between the Platinum and Golden Ages of comics and reached their peak in the 1940s. Initially, most material was reprinted from newspaper strips, like Blondie and the Katzenjammer Kids, and plunked into BLBs. Often, they were just more than 400 pages and dimensions were more often than not 3-5/8 inches by 4-1/2 inches and 1-1/2 inches. They were designed that way so children with small hands could easily handle them. The books often alternated text with art, but there were variations on the theme. Some had only art, while others offered only text.
Later editions introduced flipbooks, where pages can be flipped quickly to show movement similar to a cartoon. Various editions of the same books existed, some with soft covers, others with cardboard covers. The collectible has its specific ages like comics. The BLB Golden Age ranged between 1932 and 1938, the Silver Age from 1938 to 1949 and the Modern Age from 1950. They are graded similar to the way comics are, from Poor at the bottom of the scale, to Fair, to Good, to Fine, to Near Mint and finally Mint. The Overstreet Price Guide grades them in Good, Fine and Very Fine/Near Mint, reflecting they were well read and finding any in higher grades, that is above Fine, is difficult and does command a significant premium in its market. Split spines, yellowing pages, tears and other damage are common. It was a long fade for the genre. They peaked in the ’40s, but were eclipsed by comics, which took over as the dominant form of popular culture by the 1950s.
A few readers may remember the 1960s and 1970s Whitman BLB books of Batman, the Fantastic Four, Road Runner, Flipper, Space Ghost and Lassie that were available in the newsstand aisle of major stores like Dominion, in my case St. Clair Avenue West at Oakwood Avenue in Toronto. While mom shopped for food, I scoured the newsstand for the latest in these odd-sized publications that I had never seen before. I never wanted to go home, at least, not empty-handed. The last gasp apparently was a reboot attempt in the 1990s by Chronicle Books that included Star Wars and Xena titles. The most collectable and valuable titles of the genre include those that still have familiarity today, such as Mother Goose, Popeye, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Bugs Bunny and company, Dick Tracy, Tarzan, Terry and the Pirates and Disney characters, including Mickey Mouse and Bambi. A variant version of Mickey Mouse the Mail Pilot in Very Good condition sold for $7,170 at auction last October, but many titles are available in the $10 to $100 range, peanuts when compared to many of the comics’ prices from the same eras.
The once marquee titles reflect a pulp culture that has faded into the dustbins of history, including Skeezix Goes to War (1944), Buz Sawyer and Bomber 13 (1946), Kay Darcy and the Mystery Hideout (1937), The Hockey Spare (1937), A G-Man in Action (1940), Calling W-1-X-Y-Z Jimmy Kean and the Radio Spies (1939), Chester Gump in the City of Gold (1935) and Don Winslow, U.S.N. (1935). Western tales claimed a large chunk of titles, everything from the radio heroes, like Lone Ranger and Billy the Kid, to Zane Grey’s novels. It also was in the forefront with the then fascinating and burgeoning field of science fiction: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century A.D. (1933); Flash Gordon on the Planet Mongo (1934); Jack Swift and his Rocket Ship (1934); and John Carter of Mars (1940). Among the most coveted are BLBs that crossed into movies, such as It Happened One Night with a Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert photo cover, David Copperfield with a W.C. Fields cover, The Last Days of Pompeii, Our Gang Adventures, Men with Wings, The Three Musketeers, and Mickey Rooney Himself. Some of the most valuable titles include Mickey Mouse, Dick Tracy, Mother Goose, Popeye, Laughing Dragon of Oz, Buck Rogers and the Big Little Paint Book.
There are only a few comics and ephemera dealers who dabble in BLBs, as they do tend to move slowly. Finding the right person can be difficult. An antique dealer who runs into a box of them might want to consider auctioning or offering them on eBay. It could be among the best ways to find that elusive buyer for a collectible market where most of the items are, compared to comics, reasonably priced but sadly ignored.
Among the expected artists attending the inaugural Orillia Comic-Con on May 21 at the Geneva Convention Centre on West Street South: Brampton-based artist Ty Templeton, Deadpool and X-Force creator Fabian Nicieza, and Bob Layton, Marvel veteran artist and a co-creator of Valiant Comics, who was an apprentice of comics legend Wally Woods. General admission is $15, but children under 12 get in free with a paying adult. There is a Cosplay party and contest with a $20 cover. Visit www.orilliacomiccon.com Previous column: Conan roots for Game of Thrones
Let’s Talk Comics with Rob Lamberti, who started collecting comics when the going price was 12 cents an issue and Peter Parker really was a teenager. He dabbled in the comic convention circuit in the Toronto area for a while, but stopped to concentrate on his career as a not-so-mild- mannered crime reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, where he hoped he managed to record a little bit of history the past three decades.