Catholic comic books?
They existed, for more than 500 issues over 25 years, from bobby socks to bell bottoms. If you’re eligible for senior discounts and grew up eating fish on Fridays, you might remember Treasure Chest, a comic published in Dayton and distributed nationwide from 1946 until 1972. At its peak in the early 1960s, the title enjoyed a circulation of some 300,000.
Treasure Chest offered a grab bag of features: action stories, comedy series, single-page gags, puzzles, lives of the saints and “Heroes of the Old Testament”; biographies of scientists and retired athletes (Jesse Owens, Gene Tunney, Wilma Rudolph, and Babe Ruth among them) along with gentle lessons in civics, Catholic values, and other wholesome subjects.
Recurring characters included a science-teaching rodent, Professor Gunther Q. Mouse; pony-tailed home-economics guru Patsy Planner; teen adventurers Fearless Ferdy, Sock Jones, and flagship hero Chuck White. Chuck was notable at the time for his interracial circle of pals and for the doctrinal diversity in his own house: He was the son of a “mixed marriage,” a Protestant dad and Catholic mom.
The late comedian George Carlin included a Chuck shout-out during a signature stage routine (albeit as part of an anti-Catholic polemic) recorded on the 1972 album “Class Clown.”
‘YEAH, CHUCK WHITE FAN’
“Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, and Limbo,” Carlin mused. “Those were the four big places to go, yeah. Heaven was the only one they showed you pictures of. Drawings, I assume they were drawings, right? Artist’s conception of Heaven. Sometimes you’d find that in Treasure Chest, the comic book with Chuck White, the Catholic comic book.” When scattered applause erupted, Carlin responded: “Yeah, Chuck White fan.” (That’s Chuck on the cover at right, shushing a mob.)
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the series’ inaugural publication just after World War II, under the title “Treasure Chest of Fun & Facts.” (It later dropped the plural from “Facts” and ultimately pared to simply “Treasure Chest.”) The magazine first appeared in an era of growing social anxiety that comics were contributing to youth crime and other behavioral problems.
“Unless we want a coming generation even more ferocious than the present one,” a 1940 Chicago Daily News editorial warned, “parents and teachers throughout America must band together to break the comic magazine.” Fears peaked in 1954, when psychiatrist Frederic Wertham wrote an influential book, “Seduction of the Innocent,” alleging a link between comic books and youth crime.
‘HITLER WAS A BEGINNER’
The year “Seduction” was published, comic books came under investigation by the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, whose hearings welcomed Wertham (photo above) as a star witness.
“I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic book industry,” Wertham told the senators. “They get the children much younger. They teach them race hatred at the age of 4 before they can read.”
The pressure led to voluntary shutdowns of crime and horror titles that featured graphic content. It also spurred a consortium of publishers to prevent government regulation by establishing a self-censoring association, the Comics Code Authority, whose seal of approval appeared on comic books that met specific standards for wholesomeness.
But ahead of those investigations and reforms, amid a rising tide of the anti-comics crusade, the George A. Pflaum publishing company in Dayton sought to provide an example of how the form could transmit positive messages.
THE YOUNG CATHOLIC MESSENGER
The business had deep roots as a provider of Catholic-oriented reading for children. George Albert Pflaum, a job printer, founded the company in 1885 and began publishing “The Young Catholic Messenger,” a weekly newsmagazine for kids. (That’s him at right, and at the far left in the photo above, next to his wife at a Pflaum company picnic in 1904.)
“Legend has him taking it to the post office in a market basket,” said his grandson, Bill Pflaum, who joined the company in the mid-1960s.
The elder Pflaum died in 1907. His widow, Catherine Hughes, continued the business with the support of a Marianist brother. Eventually, the company fell to George and Catherine’s children, Marie Fischer and young George. (The second-generation George A. Pflaum, Bill’s father, never used “Junior” but gave it to Bill’s brother. Bill’s father was thereafter known as “George A. Pflaum Sr.”)
‘AN ANTIDOTE FOR COMICS’
By the 1940s the U.S. bishops had joined those who’d expressed concerns about the increasingly explicit nature of comics. That helped kindle George Sr.’s plan for a Catholic-oriented comic book. (He’s pictured above, sitting, with nephew James and sister Marie Pflaum Fischer, who owned 45% of the company.)
The magazine, Bill Pflaum said, “was designed to counter the quote-unquote ‘bad comics’ of the era. Treasure Chest was started as an antidote for comics, in the same way Young Catholic Messenger was started to counter the evils of the dime novel. They always had high literacy and content standards.”
Bill’s father started the project by hiring Milwaukee-based marketing researcher Henrietta Mackin to conduct a feasibility study. One challenge was obvious: Expenses would prevent Treasure Chest from being distributed like the major comic titles sold at newsstands and from drug-store spinner racks.
The strategy instead was to distribute Treasure Chest by subscription through parochial schools. Teachers would pass out copies to students right in the classrooms, sparing the company from prohibitive postal costs.
“My dad’s genius was aligning with the Catholic schools,” Bill Pflaum recalls. “He was very good at creating these relationships. As they grew, we grew.”
Treasure Chest’s inaugural issue bore a cover date of March 1946. (At right: the first issue, top, and the sixth and final issue of that first volume.)
Chuck White made his debut in that premiere issue. “This begins a new kind of story about a real boy,” a box on the splash page announced. “Follow the adventures of CHUCK WHITE, who thought he’d left not only his gang, but fun behind when he moved to Steeltown.” Chuck would reappear throughout the comic book’s long run, and for Treasure Chest readers the fun had just begun.
THE RED MENACE
Treasure Chest’s campaign for wholesomeness included patriotic tales reflecting the period’s militant anti-Communism.
That was vividly reflected in features titled “This Godless Communism” and “Is This Tomorrow.” The latter story conjured a nightmare vision of a future Communist-dominated America.
In something of an irony, the artist for “This Godless Communism” was Reed Crandall, known for his work on crime and horror titles published by EC (Entertainment Comics), prominent targets at the Senate hearings. Marquee EC artists on Treasure Chest’s roster also included Joe Orlando (a crime-story specialist who later worked for EC’s Mad Magazine) and “Ghastly” Graham Ingels, known for his pulp novel illustrations and horror renderings at EC (where he often signed his work with the single name “Ghastly”).
A COMICS CONSTELLATION
Standout artists for Marvel and DC also contributed to Treasure Chest. Among those were Murphy Anderson, with credits such as “Superman,” “Hawkman,” and other titles. (That’s an Anderson DC cover at right.) Others included Jim Mooney (“Supergirl,” “Spider-Man”), and Dick Giordano, who inked “Batman” and “Green Lantern” and later became DC editor. (That’s his inkwork above.) Treasure Chest also tapped notable illustrators from outside the industry, such as celebrated watercolorist Clara Elsene Peck and Cincinnati painter Wilbur G. Adam.
The Pflaum operation attracted that level of talent for a simple and obvious reason, Bill said: “Treasure Chest paid faithfully and paid above market. Artists knew they could depend on the regular pay and stability of the Pflaum company.”
Bill’s brother George A. Pflaum Jr. became the company’s general manager in 1956, then formally headed all operations when their father died of lung cancer in 1963 at age 60.
PETTIGREW FOR PRESIDENT
1964 found George Jr. overseeing publication of a milestone in Treasure Chest’s history: a series called “1976: Pettigrew for President.” As the title suggests, the story took place a dozen years into the future.
“Pettigrew” opened in the January issue, a few weeks after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the dawn of a U.S. presidential election year. The series would continue for 10 biweekly issues over the course of a school semester. Its hero, Timothy Pettigrew, was a fictional New York governor and presidential candidate from an unspecified major party.
“Pettigrew” interwove its narrative with lessons about presidential campaign history as well as information designed to teach young readers how the presidential primary system worked. Installments ended in cliffhangers as Governor Pettigrew overcame treachery from competitors and even survived an assassination attempt.
The drama unfolded through the eyes of a pre-teen brother and sister whose father served as Pettigrew’s campaign manager. Something readers didn’t see until the end was Pettigrew himself, except in silhouette or with his features obscured by foreground objects, panel borders, or word balloons.
THE BIG REVEAL
Not until the closing panels that spring, when Pettigrew accepted his party’s nomination, was the candidate revealed to be African-American. A concluding text box offered this message:
“Would he win? Well, the year was 1976. It was the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Could he win? Well, it would depend in part on how the boys and girls reading this grew up and voted – in 1976. It would depend on whether they believed, and indeed, lived those words in this Declaration – ‘all men are created equal.’”
“Pettigrew for President” was written by Berry Reece, a veteran journalist who’d covered politics in the segregated South where he’d grown up. Mr. Reece hailed from Yazoo City on the Mississippi Delta, which he describes as having been “about 3% Catholic and 5% Jewish.”
He’d enrolled at the University of Notre Dame, where one of his major influences was a political science professor, Roger Peters. “He brought me face to face with the tragedies of slavery and the Civil War,” Mr. Reece said in a telephone conversation this week from his home in suburban Baltimore, where he lives in retirement at age 84.
COLD WAR COUNTERINTELLIGENCE
After graduating from law school at Notre Dame, Mr. Reece entered the military. That took him to U.S. Army Intelligence School at Fort Holabird, Baltimore, where he finished first in his class.
Army counterintelligence assigned him to the divided city of Berlin, Germany, in the thick of the Cold War.
“We were surrounded by Soviets and nukes on either side,” he recalled. (At right is Mr. Reece in Berlin in 1958.) During his time there he flew home to marry “my life’s best friend,” Mary Jo, now his wife of 58 years and mother of his three daughters.
Discharged from the Army in 1958, he’d left with a strong sense of life’s impermanence, and abandoned his plans to practice law.
“Berlin was the most stressful time of my life,” he said.
”I knew I had one life to live. Journalism was my first love, and I knew I was better at writing and editing than I’d be on my feet in a courtroom.”
SOUTH, THEN NORTH
He’d already worked a college summer as sports editor for a Mississippi newspaper run by Hodding Carter, the Pulitzer-winning editorialist who’d battled the White Citizens’ Council. Carter, who called the Council “an uptown Ku Klux Klan,” became hailed as the “Spokesman for the New South.”
“Hodding Carter was one of my heroes,” Mr. Reece said.
Mr. Reece also had experience as a night police reporter for the South Bend (Indiana) Tribune. In a Mississippi roiled by the ascendant Civil Rights movement, he was named political columnist for the Jackson Daily News, then covered state politics for United Press International.
He came to Dayton in 1960 to edit Young Catholic Messenger, hired by the third-generation George Pflaum, a former classmate at Notre Dame.
“George was a super-smart and interactive manager,” Mr. Reece recalled. “Not a micro-manager but a big-thought guy, and a very fine man.”
A VISION FOR RACIAL UNITY
Not long after Mr. Reece was named editor of Treasure Chest in 1962, he hatched the concept that became “Pettigrew for President.”
“Pettigrew was my first story for Treasure Chest,” he said. “I came up with the idea because at that point America was very divided. I’m a liberal moderate. The Pflaum publications’ emphasis included patriotism and equality, so I sold them on the idea that we had upheaval going on in the country, that racism had long been a hypocrisy in America.
“I was thinking about kids, legal debate and respect for the law, Constitutional ideals of equal opportunity. I started thinking about how America might unite through a black leader.”
Pettigrew’s story ends with his triumph at his party’s 1976 National Convention, after besting devious Vice President Matt Fizz, stiff-necked Secretary of State J. Charles Cadwallider III, and pompous Senator Willard Oilengass as standard-bearer.
The idea of hiding Pettigrew’s face, Mr. Reece said, was to let readers form their ideas about him before his race was revealed. “George read it and he bought it,” Mr. Reece said.
HEROES WITHOUT FACES
The ‘Pettigrew’ art was assigned to Joe Sinnott, a rising star at Marvel Comics who’d already inked two fledgling titles there, “Fantastic Four” and “The Mighty Thor.” Mr. Sinnott faced the imposing challenge of creating a vivid main character but hiding his race.
“There was an aviator comic strip from the ‘30s called ‘Smilin’ Jack,’” Mr. Sinnott recalled by telephone this week from his home in Saugerties, New York. “Smilin’ Jack had a co-pilot named Downwind Jaxon. The artist, Zack Mosley, never showed Downwind’s full face. He said that was because Downwind was too good-looking to draw. He’d only show Downwind’s head from behind, or have his face hidden by a propeller or something. I thought of that characterization when I did Pettigrew.”
“Hiding Pettigrew and doing all the crowd scenes was a lot of work, but a lot of fun,” Mr. Sinnott said. “I loved that story. I finally had to draw Pettigrew’s face in the last panels when he’s walking to the podium at the convention. What’s amazing is that I drew him almost like Barack Obama.” When Pettigrew was published, Obama was 2 years old.
A WONDER FROM MARVEL
Mr. Sinnott, a Navy veteran of World War II, got his start in comics in the early 1950s. Some of his earliest labors were for Timely Publications, which morphed into Marvel a decade later.
He’s best remembered for his tandem work on Marvel’s “The Fantastic Four” with co-artist Jack Kirby (example above), but Mr. Sinnott’s credits also include “The Avengers,” “Captain America,” “The Defenders” and other Marvel titles. His inked the debut appearances of such classic Marvel characters as the Mighty Thor, the Silver Surfer, Dr. Doom, and Galactus.
Before “Pettigrew,” Mr. Sinnott already had done some penciling and inks for Treasure Chest.
POPES, POETS, AND POP ART
‘Pflaum must have seen my work, so he started giving me assignments,” Mr. Sinott said. “The first thing he’d assigned me was a biography of Joyce Kilmer, the poet. He gave me a lot of biographical stories because he liked my likenesses. I did Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and all the pope stories.”
One of those was a biography of Pope John XXIII, which ran a year before its subject died in 1963. “I had started working on ‘The Fantastic Four,’ but then that work came from Pflaum. So I called [Marvel editor] Stan Lee and took a hiatus from Marvel.”
“The Story of Pope John XXIII” was re-issued as a hardcover volume in 2014, when John XXIII was canonized. (Purchase information is on Mr. Sinnott’s website.) More than 20 years after it first ran, he inked a special Marvel biography of a later pope, John Paul II; cover at right.
His original art for that series, recolored for higher-quality paper, remained available because it survived a devastating theft at Mr. Sinnott’s home during the early 1980s. Stolen, however, were some 220 pages of original Treasure Chest art, including “Pettigrew for President.” The artwork has never been recovered.
The theft included original art for some of Mr. Sinnott’s favorite stories including his pencils and inks for 1964’s “Red Victim,” a biography of Bishop James Edward Walsh, the Maryknoll missionary who was then still a prisoner in China. “I sure wish I had that one back,” Mr. Sinnott said.
“My studio is upstairs at my home,” Mr. Sinnott explained. “I used to have young people come there once in a while, kids who wanted to be artists and wanted tips on how to draw.” One such boy, about 16, was visiting and kept making trips down the stairs as Mr. Sinnott talked to the kid’s father on another floor.
Shortly after father and son had left, Mr. Sinnott noticed his Treasure Chest envelopes were missing. “I had the police investigate, but I couldn’t prove anything,” he said. “That was 35 years ago, and I haven’t seen it since.”
KEEPING THE FLAME ALIVE
“Pettigrew” wasn’t the end of Mr. Sinnott’s role in breaking comic books’ racial barriers. Two years after “Pettigrew’s” publication, Mr. Sinnott handle the inks on the “Fantastic Four” issue introducing the Black Panther, mainstream comics’ first black superhero. (Panel above.)
Mr. Sinnott semi-retired in 1992, but still works for Marvel legend Stan Lee. (Photo at right shows Mr. Sinnott, left, with Lee in 2012.) Mr. Sinnott continues to ink Sunday installments for the syndicated “Amazing Spider-Man” comic strip, as he’s done since the early ’90s.
A LIFETIME IN COMICS
‘I’ve been with Stan for 66 years,” he said. “Can you imagine? Stan will be 95 in December and I’ll be 90 in October. That has to be a record for comics.”
But Treasure Chest holds a place in his heart, as it has since he first began admiring the magazine after younger siblings brought it home from their Catholic school in Saugerties.
“If you had told me back then, when I was reading those Treasure Chests, that I’d draw for them someday, well, holy Moses, I’d have been on Cloud Nine.
“I miss Treasure Chest. I was really sorry when that book went belly-up. It was very educational, and believe me, it had some great stories and artists. I did all those superhero books for Marvel, but my favorite art was for Treasure Chest.”
‘I WASN’T PROPHETIC’
Berry Reece (the editor depicted in the panel above) left Pflaum publishing within about a year of writing “Pettigrew,” heading to National Geographic as an editor and writer. (Photo at right is Mr. Reece in 1966 with daughter Maria.)
“I didn’t want to stay in comic books for very long,” he explains.
He signed on with Houghton Mifflin Co. in 1969 as editor of a book series on law and the Constitution, a project offering history texts for high school and elementary students.
“It was a time of tumult of young people having no respect for the rule of law,” Mr. Reece said. “This was designed to teach them its importance.” He retired from the company, now Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, in 2009.
Did he think of Pettigrew when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008?
“I actually did because NPR and the New York Times interviewed me about Pettigrew,” Mr. Reece said. “I told them I wasn’t prophetic, I just had a dream. But Pettigrew was not so much a dream as a hope in my heart.”
THE NEW FRONTIER
When the Sixties had dawned, Treasure Chest was more successful than ever, and it seemed that the coming decade could only continue that ascent. (Photo above is the celebration of Pflaum publishing’s 75th anniversary in 1960. At right is company president George A. Pflaum Jr. in about 1960 with catechetical editor Gerard Pottebaum.)
But changes in the industry, and in the Church, would exert a profound effect on the Dayton publisher.
Bill Pflaum came aboard in the midst of the upheaval, after graduating from Notre Dame with an English major and earning his master’s at The Catholic University.
VATICAN II AND TIDAL CHANGES
‘After the second Vatican Council, in the mid-60s, we launched a series of new catechetical publications called Discover, for primary grades; and Witness, two levels for grades 4-8,” Bill said. “They were focused on CCD classes but were adopted in some parochial schools.
“As the windows of the church, and its schools, were thrown open, in flew [competing publisher] Scholastic and My Weekly Reader in full assault on the Catholic market,” he said. “Economies of scale allowed them to substantially undercut us on price. As the number of nuns in the schools shrunk, so to a rather significant degree did our secondary sales force.
“We tried a variety of strategies, launching an adult trade division, publishing film strips and other ‘new media,’ publishing a hard back series of personality development textbooks. Some of these were successful, some not. What was successful and made us a desirable acquisition was a line of books on film as art for the high school level.”
As for Treasure Chest, by the early 1970s the comic book industry as a whole was suffering decline, with sales dipping especially for young children’s comics. By then the Pflaum company had been sold. Treasure Chest folded with its 510th issue.
In 1971 Bill (right) joined the Mazer Corp., a Dayton-based specialty printer, where he started creating content for educational publishers. “We wrote, designed, and produced a lot of religious education materials, as well as content across the el-hi curriculum,” he said.
Bill’s brother George died in 1981. Bill, 77, (right) is retired and living in the Dayton area, though he’s in the midst of a move to California. The Pflaum family has continued its commitment to art patronage and other civic philanthropy in Dayton. They recently donated the bright yellow sculpture titled “Fluid Dynamics” on Patterson Boulevard downtown. “The work symbolizes the role that water and air played in the development of Dayton,” Bill said. It’s dedicated to the memory of their publishing forebears, all of whom were born, lived, and worked in the downtown area.
Bill Pflaum serves as trustee of The Seedling Foundation. The nonprofit supports programs at Stivers School for the Arts, a Dayton public magnet school. He’s also a supporter of One Faith, One Hope, One Love. Bill dedicated his contribution to Fostering Vocations, appropriate for a man whose family has been so long concerned with youth formation.
TREASURE CHEST’S FINAL SPLASH
Treasure Chest’s last issue, dated Fall 1972, featured a Chuck White story on its cover. The story ended with an exhausted Chuck sacked out in the back of a police car after foiling a pair of robbers. The exit line had one of the cops saying “How about that? He’s asleep.”
And asleep he still is. The issue’s final strip ended with a man trying to board a boat but falling into the drink, an apt metaphor for Treasure Chest’s disappearance into history.
But the comic book made waves during its long run. Collectors, of course, can find issues of Treasure Chest at sources such as eBay, and the University of Dayton maintains bound copies. The Catholic University of America has posted a digital collection.
Even if Treasure Chest was buried long ago, it remains a treasured memory.
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