A peek into the wonderful world of 3D comics

A peek into the wonderful world of 3D comics
Treasures from the John Ryan and Graham McGee comic collections
30 April 2015

I love 3D movies, amusement park attractions, and the occasional computer game, so imagine my delight when I discovered there were also 3D comics! Once again my favourite National Library collection was full of surprises and took me down a path of discovery.

The John Ryan comic collection includes an Australian edition copy of the world’s first 3D comic, Three Dimension Comics: Starring Paul Terry’s Mighty Mouse, published in 1953 by the St. John Publishing Company in New York. The men responsible for creating this landmark publication, were Joe Kubert, Norman Maurer, and Lenny Maurer.

The comic publishing business was extremely competitive in the 1950s, so these three men set about devising a way in which they could pull ahead in such a competitive market. During his stint in the army, Joe came across an item featuring photographs which had been published in 3D that were brought to life when viewed through glasses with one red lens and one green lens. While driving past a movie theatre one night that was showing a 3D movie, he recalled the 3D photo publication and was inspired with his friends to create the world’s first 3D comic.

Joe and Norman were the cartoonists of the trio (Lenny had a print background), and set about drawing their test art on layers of acetate, discovering along the way that the more layers they used, the greater the depth of field.

The part of this whole process I absolutely love the most was finding out that Norman and Lenny waited one morning for their local supermarket to open, just so they could buy some lollipops to get the red and green cellophane wrappers needed to construct their makeshift 3D glasses! Such a priceless anecdote! These days, 3D glasses consist of a red lens and a blue lens.

Lollipops and 3D glasses

Lollipops and 3D glasses 

The St. John Publishing Company loved the trio’s 3D examples, and gave them the go-ahead to produce a 3D comic … as long as the first one off the rank was Paul Terry’s Mighty Mouse. It took the men three days to complete the artwork, which they then took to a printing company in Washington, as they were worried that word of what they were working on would be prematurely leaked if they were to use a local printing company.

Three Dimension Comics: Starring Paul Terry’s Mighty Mouse, was a wild success once released. It completely sold out of its first print run, unheard of in the comic business, and went into a second print run, selling over one million copies.

With the success of their first 3D comic, Archer St. John, the boss of the St. John Publishing Company, set his sights high and set out to flood the market with more 3D comics. He expanded his offices, took on more staff, and attempted to buy out stocks of acetate and newspaper print to prevent other publishers from succeeding in the 3D comic business.

When I first came across Three Dimension Comics: Starring Paul Terry’s Mighty Mouse in the John Ryan comic collection, I was so excited (I still am!)—therefore, I was very surprised to hear that 3D comics were just a flash in the pan. I thought children in particular would be transfixed by images popping out at them from the pages they held in their hands. On further research, I found that the market was suddenly flooded with so much 3D material, that people got sick of it pretty quickly.

Publishers didn’t know what their success rate for each title was until four months after titles went on sale and the results came back. This would be the St. John Publishing Company’s downfall and send it into bankruptcy. Two short years after the wild success of Three Dimension Comics: Starring Paul Terry’s Mighty Mouse, Archer St. John passed away from an overdose of sleeping pills at the age of 51.

Three Dimension Comics cover

Three Dimension Comics cover (issue no. 1)

This title is from the John Ryan comic collection, and a copy is also available from the general collection. It contains two space adventures, and one jungle adventure.

The companion pieces are Paul Terry’s Terry Bears in “Silence Please”, Dimwit, Paul Terry’s Terry Bears in “Unexpected Return”, and Sourpuss. The Terry Bears pieces are real gems in particular, due to their simple humour that really hits home.

Excerpt from Paul Terry’s “Terry Bears in Silence Please” (3D glasses required)

Exerpt from Paul Terry's "Terry Bears in Silence Please" (3D glasses required)

Paul Terry’s Mighty Mouse in Men of Sola!

Frame from “Mighty Mouse in Men of Sola” (3D glasses required)

Frame from "Mighty Mouse in Men of Sola" (3D glasses required)

With Doctor Volter and the fire brigade’s help, Mighty Mouse saves Terrytown from colliding with the fire planet, Sola.

Paul Terry’s Mighty Mouse in Jupiter Saboteurs

Frame from “Mighty Mouse in Jupiter Saboteurs" (3D glasses required)

Frame from "Mighty Mouse in Jupiter Saboteurs" (3D glasses required)

Some cats from Jupiter steal Terrytown’s secret defence documents and attempt to blow up Defence Headquarters. Mighty Mouse gets rid of the bomb just in time, but the cats escape, so he gives chase through space, the route of which is highly populated by asteroids and lots of near-misses!

Mighty Mouse runs into trouble, and is captured by the cats, who keep him subdued with their gas guns. On the way to taking Mighty Mouse to their leader, he recovers and overpowers the pilot cat. The other cat escapes, but Mighty Mouse catches up to him and takes both cats back to Terrytown and returns the secret defence documents.

Paul Terry’s Mighty Mouse in Jungle Dangers

Frame from “Mighty Mouse in Jungle Dangers” (3D glasses required)

Frame from "Mighty Mouse in Jungle Dangers" (3D glasses required)

Jerry and Donny attempt to make a new speed record in their jet, but crash in the jungle. As there’s no rescue ship nearby, Mighty Mouse steps in to save the day. Unfortunately, Buzzer, who is in radio contact with the wrecked jet, accidentally gives Mighty Mouse the wrong directions, causing Mighty Mouse to have to fight a man-eating plant and discovering that gryfs aren’t extinct after all.

The crashed jet’s radio dies after Jerry and Donny sent the initial SOS message, so Jerry goes off in search of help and ends up in a temple of cats who want to sacrifice him to their god. Mighty Mouse finds Jerry just in time, and they return to the plane, where Donny has fixed the radio and sent for a rescue ship.

Adventures in 3D cover

Adventures in 3D cover (Vol. 1, no. 1, November 1953)

Adventures in 3D is from the Graham McGee comic collection. It is a thoroughly entertaining read, as it contains a number of stories over a variety of genres such as science fiction, adventure and horror, to keep everyone happy. The depth of field in Breaking the Time Barrier and Jungle Drum stories in particular, are quite amazing and exciting, especially coming from 1953 when the 3D trend was just taking off.

And do you know how most people can’t stand advertisements, whether they be on TV or in reading matter? Well, when said advertisements appear in 3D, even they suddenly appear exciting and beg to be studied with great interest. The stand-out advertisements in Adventures in 3D, are: the Harvey brand of comics; the Believe It Or Not! magazine featuring the Human Pin Cushion (walks miles in the blazing sun with fifty spears embedded in his flesh); and, the Joe Palooka comic about boxing—the victor really sends the defeated man flying out the page at you!

Human Pin Cushion advertisement

Human Pin Cushion advertisement

Breaking the Time Barrier

Frame from “Breaking the Time Barrier” (3D glasses required)

Frame from Breaking the Time Barrier (3D glasses required)

In the year 1975 at a secret US Army Advance Rocket Base, three top army pilots, scientists and technicians are chosen to work on finding their way to the fourth dimension—time—by breaking the time barrier.

Three months later, and after extensive tests, three men await blast off. The rocket ship they’re in has had a time reactor installed, which they hope will help them achieve their project goal.

Once out of Earth’s orbit, the men start the time reactor and break the time barrier. All of a sudden, they’re under attack from an unknown spaceship that has originated from Mars. After a touch-and-go battle, the men shoot the enemy rocket down and it crashes back down on Mars. The men follow to see who was responsible, and find that it was … themselves from another dimension! A few seconds after discovering their other selves have perished, they follow suit.

Jungle Drum

Frame from “Jungle Drum” (3D glasses required)

Frame from Jungle Drum (3D glasses required)

Jim and Flora are the only survivors in a Central African settlement that has been attacked by dreaded Khiva cannibals. In a constant battle to stay alive, they race through an onslaught of flying arrows, to their bark boat on the river.

It is two days travel to the next settlement, and they deal with aggressive hippos, crocodiles, rapids, a waterfall, giant flying ants, big cats, leeches, dirty swamp water, and the biggest killer of all—raging sun and no food or water.

While Jim and Flora do make it out of the jungle alive, the sight that meets them in the clearing was not what they were expecting.

Three D Blinkey

Even though this story only runs for one page, I cannot stress how amazing and ingenious it is. Red Toppe and Truman Blue battle over gold in the Wild West. While you may think that is nothing new, the way the story is told, is … even all these decades later. You see, the story consists of six frames. Five of those frames are printed in red and blue ink, but when you don the 3D glasses, the pictures don’t appear in the traditional 3D fashion. The trick with this story is, you read each frame first with your left eye shut (while wearing 3D glasses), and then again, this time with your right eye shut. There are two completely different pictures contained within the one frame. It is so awesome (when read correctly, the pictures are 2D). I was so blown away by this strip and the way it was presented, that it took me two readings to discover what had become of the gold that Red Toppe and Truman Blue were fighting over.

What the naked eye sees

What the naked eye sees

Blue frame

What the right eye sees while wearing 3D glasses with your left eye closed

Red frame

What the left eye sees while wearing 3D glasses with your right eye closed

 Frames from “The Hidden Depths” (3D glasses required)

Frame from The Hidden Depths (3D glasses required)

The Hidden Depths

A man regains consciousness in a dark room, just as a guillotine comes crashing down nearby. Scrambling to get away, and with no sense of direction, the man dodges a flying axe and Frankenstein’s Monster, before crashing through a trap door. The jolt brings back a fraction of memory, and the man realises he’s in a house of horrors. Crawling out of the trap door, he approaches the first person he comes across, for help, but they run away, screaming, as do the elderly couple he comes across next. He’s eventually approached by the proprietor, who is about to give him a telling off for scaring his customers (isn’t that the function of horror houses?!), but even he runs off.

The man eventually finds his way outside, but finds himself the target of an angry mob. Running back into the ‘safety’ of the house of horrors, the man suddenly comes across a rear stairway leading into a cellar that seems very familiar. When he lays eyes on the bubbling vat of wax, he suddenly realises why people have been screaming and running away from him—it’s because he is a gruesome wax figure that has come to life within the house of horrors. On that realisation, he throws himself back into the vat that gave him his life, on the decision that death was better than hate and loneliness.

The Snowman

Excerpt from “The Snowman” (3D glasses required)

Frames from The Snowman (3D glasses required)

An ill-fated expedition have been climbing through snowy mountain ranges for three weeks, on the hunt for the legendary Snowman, who people have been talking about for the last 20 years, but never seen. Lunt, the expedition’s leader, is so blinded by the thought of success, that he pays no heed to the well-being of his party, who perish one-by-one. Lunt himself doesn’t have a happy ending, either … though he does end up finding the Snowman.

Frame from "Sand" (3D glasses required)

Frame from Sand (3D glasses required)

Sand tells the story of a soldier who was separated from his comrades during a sandstorm in the desert. This soldier made it to the shelter of the Oasis of El Alidaz, where he got his fill of water, and waited for his comrades to arrive. Unfortunately, the soldiers they were fighting, the Desert Panthers, turned up first and set a trap, killing every last one of the soldier’s comrades. The man’s dead spirit keeps watch from the oasis to this very day.

To read Three Dimension Comics : starring Paul Terry’s Mighty Mouse and Adventures in 3D in their entirety, and other titles in the John Ryan and Graham McGee Comic Collections, I highly recommend a visit to the Special Collections Reading Room at the National Library of Australia during opening hours. Don’t forget to bring some 3D glasses*, as the pair that accompanies Adventures in 3D are no longer effective. I got my personal pair with a sheet of wrapping paper at the Smiggle store in my local Westfield Shopping Centre.

*Not the kind you use to watch movies with – I’ve already tried that and it doesn’t work.

I’d like to thank my brother, Owen Carriage, for separating the blue and red frames for the Three D Blinkey section of this blog post for me, as well as taking an artistic shot of the lollipops and 3D glasses.

Such wonderful old images and a look at how the process worked.
Thanks very much, George - I'm glad you enjoyed my post. It was a challenge to get the images for Three D Blinkey, so it was very handy having a photographic little brother at hand!
Great investigative work Alison, thanks for sharing.
I had so much fun researching this subject, particularly when I discovered how the guys waited outside their local supermarket to get lollipop wrappers to make the 3D glasses with! I'm glad you enjoyed reading this post, Debbie.
what is the Mighty Mouse comic worth?