Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Two Views of 3-D Comics

     There are problems inherent to writing this blog that I cannot overcome. My type of detailed research takes a long time. Following a lead may take weeks, months, sometimes even years. One discovery prompts another and that leads to yet another. Documents found must be analyzed, interviews must be conducted and transcribed, supporting material found. But the fact is that this kind of plodding research carries with it a curse. The people I write about, many of them my heroes, are human. Fantastically talented, but ultimately mortal. 
     During the several years (yes, years) I have spent putting this post together, two of men involved have passed away, Leonard Maurer and most recently, the great Joe Kubert. Tragically, he died before I was able to send a final list of questions in order to tie up some loose ends before making my post. That will now never happen.  --  Ken Quattro

     In the physical world, seeing in 3-D is easy. Our brain combines the images projected onto the eye's retina with various visual cues (such as perspective, shading and relative size) allowing us to understand the world in its three-dimensional glory.
      But to perceive a flat image three-dimensionally first requires two eyes. The binocular disparity between our two ocular orbs perceive everything from a slightly different vantage point. Optimally, the brain takes these two differing views, combines them, and comes away with the perception of three dimensions.
     In much the same way, there are two differing views of the creative story behind 3-D comic books and it takes both views to get a complete picture.
     As the tale of 3-D comics was inexorably tied to St. John Publications, I covered aspects of it when writing "Archer St. John and the Little Company that Could". Since my history was obviously St. John-centric, I began my research by contacting Joe Kubert and Leonard Maurer.
     Leonard (aka Leon or Lenny) was an eclectic, colorful, and somewhat eccentric, individual. His lengthy bio listed accomplishments from musician to engineer, from philosopher to inventor. It was in that last role, and as the brother of comic book creator Norman Maurer, that Leon is vital to the story of 3-D comic books. It is, in fact, his telling of that story upon which everything else herein hinges.


     It began for Leon Maurer when he and his brother Norman, along with their pal Joe Kubert, happened to be driving by the Paramount Theater on Times Square. Joe, according to Leon, looked up at the marquee touting its latest attraction, Arch Obler's 3-D exploitation epic, Bwana Devil, and said, "Gee, wouldn't it be great if we could make a 3-D comic book?"  1
     It sounded simple enough.
     Kubert had stated on several occasions that the idea first came to him when he was in the army, " Germany (1950/51) and saw a 3-D (photo) mag. I suggested a 3-D comic book. Norm Maurer and I worked it out."  2
     Norman Maurer elaborated. "We had worked all night and I'll never forget how we waited on the street for Woolworth's store in mid-town Manhattan to open because we figured we could get red and green cellophane from lollipop wrappers. We bought two packages and made a funny pair of glasses which, believe it or not, worked perfectly."  3
     But between the inspiration and the execution there was the critical technical process. That's where Leon Maurer came in.
     Following Kubert's speculative musing in front of the Paramount, Leon had a revelation. "Later, while driving home to Queens over the Midtown bridge, the whole process [of] depth shifts suddenly popped into my head," he told interviewer Ray Zone.
     "With the idea fully formed in my head, I immediately turned around, picked up some acetates, went back to Norm's hotel room, and explained the process to him. We then collaborated on a short, short story, and he went immediately to work with pencil, brush, ink and paint, following my technical instructions while I did the opaqueing. Around 2:00 AM we finished the real World's First 3-D comic book page entitled, 'The Three Stooges in the Third Dimension' starring Moe, Shemp and Larry."  4
     Certainly the concept wasn't new. British physicist Charles Wheatstone put forth the idea in the 1830s and soon began producing reflecting mirror stereoscopic devices that allowed the viewer to see his slightly offset drawings (and soon after, photographs) in apparent three dimensions. Not long after, in 1853, Wilhelm Rollmann of Germany described a technique using complementary colored images viewed through glasses fitted with red and blue filters to achieve the three-dimensional effect. Frenchman Louis Arthur Ducos du Hauron refined this anaglyphic technique for photographs; a technique that eventually provided the basis for the 3-D comic books.
     Was Leon Maurer aware of any of the previous efforts using anaglyphs? Or did the idea come to him "fully formed" as his recollection suggested?
     In any case, the three men took their sample page to publisher Archer St. John, for whom they were already producing several titles. Norm Maurer recalled that St. John, "...almost fell out the window when he saw the drawings which literally popped from the paper."  5 
     St. John was on board, with a 25% stake in the new company named American Stereographic which brought with it a guarantee of a six month exclusive license to their 3-D process. The comics were produced in secrecy as to prevent anyone from stealing the process and beating them to the newsstand. When ready, the date was set. It would hit the stands on Friday, July 3rd, as the country was going into the holiday weekend.

THREE DIMENSION COMICS #1  (1st edition, Sept.1953)
    In the August, 1953, WRITER'S DIGEST, writer Aron M. Mathieu recounted the frenzy that accompanied the release of THREE DIMENSION COMICS #1, featuring Mighty Mouse.
      The telephone swithboard of the Roxbury News Company flashed two red lights, and before the PBX operator inserted her first plug, two more lights beamed red at her. "Holy Cripes," she sang out to the bookkeeper who was passing her board. "I bet you billed GLAMOR to all the newsdealers again and forgot to send the magazine. Now I listen to them raise hell."
     "This is Stop 56," said the first voice, Schultz's by Main Street. "We're outta 3-D. I can use 16 more."
     "I'm Bellfontaine, your Stop 187," said the next voice. "Finally you got something we can sell so you give me 4. I need 18 more 3-D right away."
     But Stop 56 and Stop 187 didn't get any more, for the nation's craziest, zaniest fad, THREE-DIMENSION COMICS, had both kids and newsdealers by  their ears as they fought to buy 40,000,000 copies in one month, with only a fraction of the desired supply available.  6
     While Mathieu's number may be an exaggeration, the excitement stirred up by the comic's release was not. Others began to take notice. 
     "The competition, Ace, Dell, Goodman, National Comics, Pines and all the others who missed the boat," continued Mathieu, "were burrowing into printing techniques trying to issue their own 3-D comics before the kids ran out of quarters or their parents raised hell because of eye strain."  7
    "After terrific take off of MIGHTY MOUSE, 1st 3-D comic," stated the July 31, 1953, edition of American News Company's newsletter, THE LOOK OUT, "St. John is readying six companion pieces for August bow."  8
     The August 28th of the same publication breathlessly noted the, "Flood of 3-D titles to hit the stands in Sept. St. John's MIGHTY MOUSE leading the pack with a first issue sellout of 2,500,000 and starting 2nd issue with 2,300,000; additional 3-D comics on the way are St. John's 3 STOOGES, and WHACK!; Toby's FELIX THE CAT; Archie's KATY KEEN (sic); Fiction House's 3-D CIRCUS, and SHEENA...Independent  coming out with SUPERMAN, a 3-D book, not a comic."  9
     Throughout it all, Kubert maintained a pragmatic view.
     "We estimate that the first 40,000,000 comics we print will sell and then it will be all over," he was quoted in the WRITER'S DIGEST article, "Whoever gets his books out first wins. Publishers who come along next November will flop because of the 2 price and because many parents may say 3-D comics are hard on the kids' eyes."  10
     More money was to be made, they assumed, from licensing their technique.

Trade publication ad for American Stereographic Corp. (1953)

from ADVERTISING AGE (Aug. 3,1953) 
Topps TARZAN card and wrapper  (1953)
[attributed Norman Maurer art on wrapper]

     Then, amidst all of this good news arrived a letter, dated July 10, 1953, and addressed to American Stereographic Corporation.

    I have just learned that you are engaged in the business of producing, selling and distributing certain three-dimensional comic books employing a process invented and patented by me some years ago.     
    Your said acts constitute an infringement upon my rights and I demand that you cease and desist from all such activity forthwith.     This notice is without prejudice to the assertion of any and all claims for infringement that may lie against you.

Very truly yours, 
Freeman H. Owens

     Several years after first communicating with Kubert and Maurer, I met Al Feldstein at a comic book art exhibition. We arranged a phone interview, which I conducted in January, 2008. Except for a few bracketed prompts from me, and some minor edits to extraneous conversation, this is the transcript of his story. I have also included some informational material, within brackets, to provide context. 

     Let’s see. The inspiration was that Bill and I, for some reason, got very fascinated with 3-Ds.
     He bought this Stereo Realist, with a projector and a silvered screen, a special screen and had the polarized glasses. He’d go to Cuba. He liked to go to Havana. He photographed, with his Stereo Realist, the shows…know what I mean?
(laugh) and then he would show it to us, to me, the shows. We got fascinated with it, and we wondered how…3-D movies were out…you know, this was the Fifties. Early Fifties. We got fascinated with how we could put this into the comics. 

Stereo Realist camera ad  (1949)

    He had a bonus party once, in which he gave out a one of those exotic 35 mm Konica cameras, which I loved, it was like $300-$400. I’d been using it prevalently. We had discovered some of these French (unintelligible) process…red and green process…I don’t know if it has a name or not…one of the two images is printed in red, the other is printed in green and with these glasses that of the two superfluous prints to test your eye, and the other eye…and you could see 3-D. it was planar imaging.
     I figured well, gee whiz, what we need to do is have two views of the same art. That will do it. So I spent one day, all morning, producing a kind of stage show. Not a stage show, but a stage setting. I had a tree, I had a gal sitting on an ashcan and a fence, a sidewalk, distant trees, etc., etc., and I set up my camera, and I turned one picture of it. It had depth, you know, like a stage setting. I set up my Konica and I took one picture and I moved it four inches, or so and I took another. 
     Then I had it developed. I had black-and-white film, which was high-contrast. I had the prints made and I got back a print of each of the two views that I took, and I said to Bill, "Let’s see what we can do with this," and so sent it down to the engraver, I guess at our own expense, and had a proof pulled. They printed a photograph of one of the views on a red plate, and one of the views for a green plate, and they produced a 3-D picture! It worked! I mean, you could see these planar differences, you know.
     The tree was way up at the front, the girl was toward the back, the fence went away from the foreground to the background, the sidewalk went away from the foreground to the background, the house across the street was behind the bushes, etc., etc.
     So, we look at this and I say, "Well, we achieved 3-D in a printed form, a comic book panel, but how could we ever have this for a book? What the hell! Are we gonna make stage settings for every panel? This is ridiculous!"
     So we abandoned it. I took it home and stuck it in with my memorabilia. Whatever. I had it framed.  

     Anyway, there was this guy from the School of Music and art that I went to when I was a kid named Lenny Maurer. Lenny was…well, I don’t know why he went to the school as he really wasn’t into his art, he was an art student...he used to get on the subway at  Franklin and I used to get on...I’d take the 88th at Flatbush…and we would play the harmonica together, play hooky and go to the Paramount, see Benny Goodman, blah, blah, blah. He lived over on Carroll Street somewhere in Brooklyn and I lived in Flatbush, on Eastern and 1st Street, and after graduation he went on to Brooklyn College and I went on and got out of touch with him.       
     Anyway, I went into the service. Then I came back, then one day in my apartment, when I was working for EC, Lenny got in touch and wanted to visit. I thought, “That’ll be great!” You know, my old best friend from high school. So, he came over to the house. Among other things we talked about, I was married, I’d been married since the service living with my first wife in Brooklyn in an apartment, and I showed him this proof. “Look at this. 3-D comics!” He looked at it, and he goes, “Gosh, it looks great!” And I told him how we did it and the problem we had.
     OK. Skip ahead a couple of years.
     St. John Publishing comes out with a 3-D comic book---I forget what it was…I think it was about a flying mouse
[it was Mighty Mouse]. God, there it was 3-D! How the Hell did they do it? We couldn’t figure it out. So I was desperate to put it out, a 3-D comic, because 3-D was hot. Movies were out, people, kids were fascinated with the glasses, in the theaters. And now with the red and green pictures on the publications. We saw this was being patent pending by American Stereographic. So, we got in touch with them and we had to come back with a legal disclosure. But Lenny Maurer and…uh, oh, God, I forgot the name of the artist...and Joe Kubert. So, they walk in and I’m shocked! It’s Lenny! What the hell’s Lenny got to do with comic books? I remembered that he told me he was with a textile business. Which was his father’s business, but I’m not sure exactly what he did, he was not a clothing outfitter(?)… I assumed he was doing nothing to do with (unintelligible), but he listened…so we listened to their spiel and they go through it, and the financial arrangements that American Stereographic demanded so that they’d release to us their method, blah, blah, blah, and they left.       
     And I said to Bill, “This stinks! Something‘s wrong!” Lenny Maurer…off my impression of this may be…has only a year or two years ago, whatever it was, I don’t remember…had just (unintelligible). “Something is fishy. Let’s go down to the library and look at patents.”       
     I don’t know what pushed us to do this.  Bill…he and I were good friends, we were adventurous, we would to games together, we would go to documentaries together. I pushed him into horror, blah, blah, blah. So we went into a nearby library and started to dig through patents. I got this feeling that I should look through patents that were expiring. That were close to their 15-16 year limit. [Patents used to expire at 17 years]
     Anyway, I’m looking and looking and looking and there it is!  My God! A patent for green images or cels and moving the cels. It was designed for photographing animation films so that they had a 3-D effect.
[Feldstein makes a side reference to Disney applications of the process] And then I see that there’s an addition which Freeman H. Owens basically had added for 3-D applications in other forms. Or something like that. I don‘t remember.      
     I said to Bill, “There it is!” I turned the page back a full (unintelligible) and there was a(n) expiring patent, in a textile process. (unintelligible) or something like that. I said, “Son-of-a-gun!" Lenny Maurer was looking for something for whomever he was working for in the textile company ran across this and a bell rang. And so he, figuring it was expiring, I guess formed American Stereographic with Kubert.      
     Now, this is all my conjecture. I'm not sure if that's exactly what happened.       
     So, we got to get to this Freeman H. Owens and we can make 3-D comics without American Stereographic. It was very clearly laid out how it was done. (unintelligible) …horizon was stationary, blah, blah, blah. We got to find this guy. Bill says, “How?” I said, “Well, now that I’m thinking of it, let’s go up into the library’s telephone book collection and start looking to see if he’s in the area or see how we can do it.       
     And so we look in the New York telephone book and like God was with us (laugh), here was Freeman H. Owens! (laugh) Down on 29th  Street or so.  (unintelligible) Freeman H. Owens lived in a brownstone, a little, you know, an odd little…and we go in and he greets us and we tell him this whole story. And he laughs he seems interested, and I said, “You know, it’s like your patent.” And Bill says, “We want to buy it.” He said, “It’s expiring, in like 6 months or so; 8 months.” And Bill says, “OK. We’ll just buy it for the balance, we want to have it, we want to own it so we can put out 3-D comics.” And Freeman said, “OK.”       
     Freeman later on became real friendly with us. Used to come to our Christmas parties and incidentally, he was quite a brilliant man. [Feldstein recounts a conversation in which Owens described a new plastic camera lens] That’s what he was. He was a great inventor, and made patents and that’s what he did until he died. 

Freeman H. Owens posing with his 16 mm 
home movie projector  (1924)
[image acquired from the Freeman H. Owens Photo Page website]
    [Freeman Harrison Owens had a long and storied history in the film industry. He was a cameraman in the Silent Era and has been credited with developing the synchronization of sound to film. He held around 2,000 patents in his lifetime. He was also the plaintiff in several copyright infringement lawsuits.]
     But anyway, he sold us what was left of his 3-D patent. Of course, we didn’t have any claim on any prior commitments he had on any planar camera or anything like that. We got it just for the use in this 2-dimensional printing process. Anyway, we went ahead and started to do the 3-D comics. We told American Stereographic to go screw themselves.  I don’t know how many other people they convinced with their patent pending, but
(unintelligible)when we found the copyright. And we did our 3-D comics. By then, the fad was dying. It’s now coming back. I don’t know how successful our 3-D comics were.
     To kind of explain. I went home, I lived out in Hudson (unintelligible) and I made drawing boards. You know, lap type drawing boards with rings. We had a punch that made 3-hole loose leaf punches for paper, that were adjustable. I would make a set of…at that time I had sheets of vinyl or whatever it was to draw on, it was treated for ink drawings. It was the same as the cels the animation studios were using. I got these cels. I made sets of these cels, I made six or seven of these boards, whatever, for the artists. I fixed it so the punch would change position of the sheet for the foreground was, I think we moved it, I think I was experimenting with almost a half-an-inch and then like, three eighths, then like a quarter, then like an eighth. We did, I don't know how many sheets, I think it was four levels--I don’t remember exactly.
     [I think EC used six levels. That’s what I’ve read. You got down to six levels.]
     Six levels? I had five adjustable levels?
[Yeah, that’s what I’ve read.] I don’t remember; I really don’t. Check around on our 3-D comics, I think they still work.
     I made these things, and of course, we pay these artists extra because they had to draw these panels, then turn the sheets over and opaque the art, just like animators do. In black and white. And we put out, I think it was three, 3-D comics…or two and we didn‘t print the third, I don‘t remember. You have to clarify that for me, too.

    [You put out two and there was a third one made, but it was never published.]
     Then, we had to go to Buffalo, after we had the artwork back, we drove the engraver  nuts ‘til he understood what the heck we were doing when we said, “Now, you photograph this set,“…it was a page…five times, that’s what you say we did…and I bound up the sets and they photograph that as one picture, through the set. Then by shooting it through the cels and…I’m not sure whether the artist
(unintelligible) turned in a distance one panel and I didn’t shoot it. Then they shot that again. And they had two black-and-white photographs. Just like when you pulled my proof, you pull a proof, and that’s how we got the whole book together.
     We were doing this, it was clumsy, it was time consuming, it was really tough. But, it was better than making stage settings.


      Now wait a second…I sent boards with seven punch holes, and they did this one page, they did it with three different planes, I said, “Just figure out  the planes,” and then I did the shoot. That’s what I remember. Anyway, with the engraving costs and the printing costs…I don’t know whether Bill made money or not. But I know we didn’t do the third one.
     Anyway, the next problem was after we had the proofs and it was all working, we had to have glasses made, you know, to bind into the covers, the issues. We had to go up to Buffalo, New York, where the Greater Buffalo Press was located, where EC was printing its comic books, to talk to them about how to print this and how to mix the paints…to print the inks, rather…to effectively work with our glasses, which we had, these green glasses, which they were making. 

     It was all pretty wild. That’s my story of 3-D.


     Freeman Owens July 10th letter to American Stereographic set off a chain reaction. At the same time Kubert and the Maurers were trying to peddle their "3-D Illustereo" process, they became engrossed in an escalating war of dueling letters with Owens.
     Apparently unaware of Freeman's relationship to Bill Gaines, Leon Maurer sent the publisher a letter introducing him to their Illustereo process and offering him a chance to license it for his own comics.

Leonard Maurer to Bill Gaines
     Meanwhile, Owens (through his attorneys) upped the ante by next sending a letter to St. John Publishing informing them of his claim of patent infringement. 

Owens to Archer St. John

     Maurer reacts to Owens first letter by denying knowledge of any patent they may have infringed upon. He further requests that Owens send him the number and date of the patent he was referring to.

Maurer's response to Owens

    Archer St. John gets into the action by parroting Maurer's letter. He too asks for Owens' patent number and its date.

St. John's response to Owens

     Owens responds to Maurer with his patent number and its date.

Owens third letter to American Stereographic

     Maurer acknowledges receipt of the patent information and informs Owens that he has ordered a copy. In the meantime, Maurer requests that Owens meet with him to discuss the matter.

Maurer's response to Owens

          Owens sends St. John the same patent information he sent to Maurer previously.

Owens third letter to American Stereographic

     Owens (and presumably his attorneys) decide to swing for the fences. Their next letter goes out to the powerful distributor, American News Corporation. This cease and desist letter was likely designed to interfere with the newsstand distribution of the St. John 3-D comics.

Owens letter to American News Company

     Taking it even further, Owens contacts St. John's largest advertiser--Lionel Trains Corporation--and informs them of his patent claim. Probably unknown to Owens, Lionel and Archer St. John had a longtime connection going back to his days as their advertising manager. 

Owen's letter to Lionel Corporation

     Even after a month of ever-increasing threats from Owens, it appeared that Maurer was still unaware of the inventor's connection to Gaines.

Maurer's second letter to Gaines
    A lawsuit seemed inevitable. But even if the Maurers, Kubert and St. John were bracing for that likelihood, surely they never could have suspected what would occur on August 3rd.



1 Zone, Ray, "Leonard Maurer: 3-D Comics Pioneer",

2  Kubert, Joe, letter to author, March 31, 2004.

3  Lenburg, Jeff et. al., THE THREE STOOGES SCRAPBOOK, pg. 119  (1982).

4  Ray Zone, op. cit.

5  Jeff Lenburg, et. al., op. cit., pg. 125.

6  Mathieu, Aron M., "3-D Comics Knock 'Em Dead", WRITER'S DIGEST, Aug. 1953.

7  Ibid.

8  The Lookout staff, THE LOOKOUT, (July 31, 1953).

9  The Lookout staff, THE LOOKOUT, (Aug. 28, 1953).

10  Aron M. Mathieu, op. cit.

Additional general information obtained from the NEW YORK TIMES archives, ARKANSAS BIOGRAPHY: A COLLECTION OF NOTABLE LIVES by Nancy A. Williams and Jeannie M. Whayne, Selected Attempts at Stereoscopic Moving Pictures and Their Relationship to the Development of Motion Picture Technology, 1852-1903 by H. Mark Gosser, "Seeing in Three Dimensions" by Jonathan Strickland, "Anaglyphs Perfected" from PHOTOGRAPHIC TIMES, July, 1896, issue.