Not all that long ago, we looked at the first Book-Length story to appear in SUPERMAN, a link to which is posted below.
But working on it got me thinking: what was the first Book Length story to appear in comic books at all? The answer is a little bit complicated, and depends on what we would consider a genuine Book-Length adventure.
The first time a comic book featured a story that covered the entirety of the comic book it was printed in was ALL-STAR COMICS #3, in which the Justice Society of America met for the first time. An overview of that issue, from the 1970s Famous 1st Edition Treasury-sized reprint, can be found at the link below.
Here’s the thing, though: while there was a framing sequence that carried throughout the issue, the individual chapters of ALL-STAR COMICS #3 had been created as individual stories. So while the issue had a Book-Length element to it, it wasn’t truly what I’d consider a Book-Length tale. The same is true of subsequent issue of ALl-STAR COMICS–they’re closer, in that the Justice Society are all contending with aspects of the same situation. But the events in each of the sub-chapters are their own thing, and created by different creators much of the time. So, again, these feel more like an anthology of connected stories rather than a true Book-Length adventure. The same is true of the few other contenders for the title such as DAREDEVIL BATTLES HITLER #1 in which the boomerang-wielding her pairs up with the assorted leads of SILVER STREAK COMICS to sock it to the dictator and his Axis powers.
So, putting aside stories that are really individual, separate episodes that are connected by a coming theme or spine, what is actually the first genuine Book-Length story in the history of comic books? Well, having dug around on this question a bit, I believe the answer is this story from ALL-FLASH QUARTERLY #2 cover-dated Fall of 1941.
The Flash had been created in late 1939 by writer Gardner Fox and artist Harry Lambert in the pages of FLASH COMICS #1. By the third issue of FLASH COMICS, responsibility for illustrating his adventures was handed over to artist Everett E. Hibbard, who’d continue in that role throughout much of the 1940s apart from the war years when he was working as part of the war effort. Together, they made the Flash a popular character, and after the success of SUPERMAN and BATMAN within their own magazines, the editors at All-American Comics were looking to put out their own solo series headlining their most popular character. (At this point in history, All-American was a separate company from National Comics, the publishers of SUPERMAN and BATMAN, though it was partially owned by the same people. That is why the All-American books carried the DC bullet on their coves and why the All-American characters were a part of the Justice Society alongside a number of National Comics players. Eventually, in 1945, All-American Comics was sold to National and the whole outfit was merged into one operation.)
But the publishers at All-American Comics had a problem: they couldn’t just call their new book THE FLASH without it being completely confused with FLASH COMICS, where the character was also featured. They made a contest out of naming the new series, running notices in the pages of ALl-STAR and FLASH COMICS. No winner was ever announced so far as I can tell, so it’s anybody’s guess whether the chosen title, ALL-FLASH COMICS (initially ALL-FLASH QUARTERLY), was the brainchild of a fan or somebody on staff. The latter seems likely, but who can say? Either way, ALL-FLASH COMICS #1 was set up similar to SUPERMAN #1 and BATMAN #1, and carried four separate stories of the Fastest Man Alive, along with a short two-page summary of his origin at the start. But issue #2 added something different into the mix.
In ALL FLASH COMICS #2, while they still broke it up into four chapters in the manner of the solo series that up until then had been released, writer Gardner Fox and artist E.E. Hibbard produced a single epic adventure, one that occupied a staggering-for-the-time 52 pages. (The cover and opening splash page promise a 64 page adventure, but they, uh, exaggerate.) It’s a sweeping adventure that covers more than a decade in the course of its story–which opens the door to some questions. You see, as I mentioned earlier, the Flash had only been created in 1939, so he had only been active for two years at the most as a swift super hero. But as this story covers the events of a decade, it’s a mystery as to how the timeline of it fits–everything is framed pretty much as though it’s happening “now” despite that passage of time. I’m guessing that Fox and Hibbard, as well as their editor Shelly Mayer, just assumed that the kids dropping their dimes weren’t going to ask these sorts of dumb questions, they’d simply enjoy the ride.
The story itself is like a hard-boiled Warner Brothers B-movie, and concerns a criminal calling himself The Threat who, in an act of revenge against the District Attorney who sent him to prison, kidnaps the DA’s son and raises him as his own child, and with an abiding hatred of the DA and the law. But his efforts to turn the boy, now called Roy Revenge, against his actual father are thwarted by his daughter Ann, who brings the Flash into the mix. Eventually, everybody’s real identities are uncovered and revealed, the actual father and son are reunited, and Roy and Ann decide to marry–which is only a lot weird given how they were raised. The Flash gets to be swift and spectacular several times along the way–he was also responsible for jailing the Threat in the first place, thus making it difficult to reconcile this story with the actual passage of time. But it’s mostly a family crime drama with a guy in a winged helmet turning up every so often to keep things lively.
This Book-Length format really served to differentiate ALL-FLASH COMICS from everything else, and it was repeated on a regular basis for the next few years, as well as adopted from time to time in GREEN LANTERN and WONDER WOMAN and elsewhere. But the anthology format remained the default standard for comic books throughout the era, and it wasn’t until the 1950s that having a single story span the length of a comic book became more largely in vogue.