Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Redskins Are Dangerous and Other Lessons

By Stephen Ausherman

MARCH 2, 1998:  In 1919, Captain Joseph Patterson of Chicago's Daily News sought to increase readership by creating comics that appealed to the public's morbid fascination with crime. Soon after, "Dick Tracy" was created. Following the success of the "Dick Tracy" strip, its artwork was recycled into a cheap but unique book form in 1932. And Big Little Books were born.

Text on the left, pictures on the right, these comic books ran up to 500 pages and could still fit in the back pocket of your favorite dungarees. They covered everything from Little Lulu to Little Women. However, with the exception of Charlie Chan and Brenda Starr, the serial heroes were white males. While most villains were also white males, minorities often were portrayed as menacing caricatures.

"Things were indeed black and white, good or bad," author Steve Posner writes in his new book about the phenomenon, The Big Book of Big Little Books, "just like Americans wanted them to be. We still do."

That American spirit is evident in the dialogue of The Plainsman: "We've got to do what Abraham Lincoln said--help make the frontier country safe for the white settlers." The accompanying picture shows a Native American with a rifle, the caption reading: "Redskins Armed With Rifles Are Dangerous."

Though the stories often lacked intelligence, their commercialism showed real innovation. These books were used in conjunction with other forms of media. That is, a kid could read about his favorite hero in the Sunday comics, then buy the Big Little Book and then tune in every afternoon to the radio program. Soon, Hollywood recognized the marketing potential and began releasing Big Little Book versions of popular films. Text on the left, film photo on the right. It was a hit with the kids; and if they had any Depression-era dimes left, they could watch the movie, too. Four media outlets for one action series: Multimedia hype marketing was born.

Still, it was literally nickel-and -dime stuff compared to today's interactive media kiddy blitz. Now kids have the "Power Rangers" TV show, the Power Rangers Movie, the Power Rangers Live in Concert and the Power Rangers commercial encouraging them to buy the Power Rangers action figures and video games.

But perhaps it's even more disturbing to witness a grown man fall victim to nostalgia and develop an insatiable urge to buy his childhood things again. Author Bill Borden explains how he relapsed 30 years when he encountered four Big Little Books in an antique shop. He bought them all, then went on to acquire 500 more over the next three years. Not content with seeing the fat little books just sit on his shelves, he decided to present them to his peers. Hence, The Big Book of Big Little Books came to be. The spiral of hype continues. Today, these 10 cent books cost anywhere from $12 to $1,000.

But Borden and Posner aren't the first to publish on the subject of Big Little Books. Collector Larry Jacobs put out an even bigger book on Big Little Books a year earlier. Though Jacobs' book includes a reference and value guide, and an apparently more reliable history, it lacks Chronicle's patently charming presentation. And that's key for firing up the synapse gaps in failing memories.

Finding someone who can reminisce about Big Little Books is harder than finding the books themselves. But once you do, you'll hear stories more interesting than the books ever told. Present them with this Big Book of Big Little Books and watch their eyes light up and years roll back and memories gush forth in the way old folk tell it.

"We pinched empty pop bottles from construction sites to get money for those books and didn't give a tinker's damn for anything else," says one old-timer from Chicago, where one book and an hour of radio programming could turn the South Side into Lone Ranger country. The imagination ran rampant: Flash Gordon's art-deco spaceships were real; Mandrake's magic really could solve mysteries and the Chicago Police Department really did care about justice.

After all these years, the names are still familiar: Betty Boop, Buck Rogers, Tarzan, The Phantom, The Green Hornet. Maybe it was more than hype. (Chronicle, cloth, $16.95)


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