Holy Comic Cars, Batman!
Written by Matthew Hocker
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Following the Great Depression and World War II, the winds of change swept through America. While tensions with the Soviet Union escalated, the U.S. was on the rebound economically and socially. Manufacturing skyrocketed, creating millions of stable well paying jobs. As living standards continued to rise, so, too did consumer demand for new and improved products, including the likes of automobiles and comic books.
At first glance, cars and comics may seem like night and day, but both products underwent a makeover in the 1950s. Comic books had shifted from the Golden Age (1938-50) to the Silver Age (1956-70), a period in which comic book art improved by leaps and bounds. In the world of automobiles, meanwhile, recycled pre-war styling gave way to the iconic age of chrome and fins. During this period, these two seemingly disconnected forces united to produce some interesting pieces of cross-promotional advertising, some of which featured stars of America’s popular culture.
“Woody Woodpecker in Chevrolet Wonderland” (1954)
One such character was that of Walter Lantz’ Woody Woodpecker. First established as an animated short, the beloved bird landed his own series of comic books in 1947. So popular was he that Chevrolet enlisted Woody’s help in the form of a comic book promoting their 1955 line, titled “Woody Woodpecker in Chevrolet Wonderland” (1954). In it, Woody was guided through the manufacturing process of the 1955 Chevrolet, from conception to the big unveiling.
While the story featured Woody’s slapstick humor, it still remained informative. In one panel, Woody became so excited about seeing the proving ground that he ran through a wall. Soon after, a Chevrolet employee jokingly exclaimed, “Speaking from an engineer’s standpoint, I’d say he needs Chevrolet’s lower center of gravity!”
Later, Chevrolet employees drew analogies between animals and Chevrolet’s features such as, “the engine purrs like a kitten.” Taking these saying literally, Woody borrowed a menagerie of circus animals to compare with the car himself. In most cases, the car outperformed the animals in every way. For example, a sad and dejected-looking kitten was told, “you’d better get re-engineered by Chevrolet, kitty! By comparison, you sound like a loudmouth.”
“Roy Rogers and the Man from Dodge City” (1955)
Along with cartoons, the western genre dominated film and television throughout the fifties. Among the most memorable stars was Roy Rogers, whose image was plastered over seemingly every piece of merchandise imaginable: toys, lunchboxes, books, games, etc. Between 1948 and 1961, Rogers even had his own wildly popular series of comic books.
With Rogers a household name, companies sought out his aid in pitching their products, including Chrysler. At the 1954 Indy 500, America’s favorite cowboy posed for a photo in Dodge’s Royal 500 pace car. That same year, Chrysler released “Roy Rogers and the Man from Dodge City,” a special comic book promoting the 1955 Dodge. A crafty title, “Dodge City” referred to both the car and the successful 1939 western film of the same name.
Like many westerns, the comic book’s plot revolved around the pursuit of thieving bandits. At a stock car race, Roy Rogers had been given charge of handing the $10,000 prize to the winner. While he and sidekick Pat Brady were picking up the money, a ’55 Dodge Royal Lancer swooped in to steal 1st place. At the same time, two beady-eyed crooks awaited their return.
After holding up the two cowboys, the thieves escaped in a hijacked convertible. Realizing that his horse was no match for a car, Roy employed the use of the winning driver’s Dodge. Comically, the winner accompanied Roy, highlighting the features of the ’55 Dodge along the way; “…airflow ride control really smooths out these bumps!”
Before long, the trusty Lancer caught up with the criminals at their barn hideout. There, Roy and his gang bravely apprehended the two fiends. For his efforts, the Sheriff gave Roy a cash reward. When asked how he would use the money, his wife Dale Evans chimed in, “…invest it in a spanking new ’55 Dodge, Sam!”
“Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett in the Raid at Piney Creek” (1955)
While children of the fifties adored Roy Rogers, 1955 became the year of frontiersman Davy Crockett. Following the successful televised serials in 1954, Disney adapted the first three adventures into a feature-length film for 1955. Like Rogers, Crockett merchandise took the nation by storm, with little boys everywhere pining for their own coonskin cap and toy rifle.
Crockett-mania coincided with the hype surrounding the 1954 grand opening of Disneyland in 1954, so cross-promotional advertising was inevitable. In 1955, American Motors’ Hudson division and Disney allied with one another to release, “Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett in the Raid at Piney Creek,” a comic book distributed to children at dealerships. With the exception of Back to the Future, automobiles and the early 19th century don’t mix. Therefore, the only appearance of a car was on the back cover; a pink 1955 Hudson with actor Fess Parker in costume.
At the time, Hudson and Disney held a contest with prizes, and advertisements in the comic book urged children to encourage parents to enter. All they had to do was write, in 35 words or less, which of Hudson’s 8 exclusive features they liked best and why. Prizes were meant to appeal to kids and adults alike: an all-expense paid family trip to Disneyland and a chance to win one of three Hudson cars. The first grand prize package included a 1955 Hudson Hornet Hollywood Custom hardtop.
While these character-driven comic books can be found at the AACA Library, they are only the tip of the iceberg. Studebaker, Buick, Ford, Pontiac and Jeep all released comic books meant to both educate and advertise. If wanting to relive your childhood, why not swing by the Library and check out these unique pieces of automobilia?