I’ve seen lots of reprints of comix printed in the '30s and '40s. The artwork looks depressingly crude and primitive compared to later comix. Why? I mean, it’s not as if they were inventing a new art form from the ground up. I’ve also seen newspaper comic strips from the same period and earlier,, and most of them look like Leonardos compared to the comic books!
The early comic books were cheap in every sense. Many of them were only a nickel or a dime. They were printed on poor paper. They were run by bad businessmen and crooks. They were thought of as sausage, ground out for people with defective mental taste buds. Their deadlines were impossible and called for more work than anyone could accomplish. So they attracted teenagers with barely adequate skills, like Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster. Or they were put out over a weekend, as one complete 64-page comic once was during a blizzard that shut down New York so the artists didn’t even have anything to eat.
If you were any good, you could find a better job. And even if you were good in that brief interval between Superman in 1938 and Pearl Harbor in 1941, you soon got drafted and put out of the business.
You can see the art get remarkably better in 1946 when everybody returned from the war, but that happened almost simultaneously with the bottom dropping out of the business and sales vanishing so that if you were good, you got out and did something else. Again.
Comic strips, however, had status, better deadlines, more space - some took up entire pages of the Sunday funnies, and so were able to reward the best artists with pay worthy of their talents.
And from what I can tell, nobody in the 40s cared much about the art in comic books. The stories were the draw. As long as the good guy biffed the bad guy it didn’t matter that they looked like slugs dropped from a tall building and run over by a dripping paint can.
The book to read on the early days of comics is Men Of Tomorrow: Geek, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book, by Gerard Jones.
Nothing to disagree with there, although I take exception to the idea that all, or even the vast majority, of Golden Age comic art was crude. Sheldon Moldoff’s stuff, on Hawkman for instance, is gorgeous, even if it is all Alex Raymond swipes. Also the art on most of the Fawcett Marvel family stories is very good, in particular Mac Raboy’s Captain Marvel Jr. stories and of course C.C. Beck’s work on the main Captain Marvel strips (although to be honest Beck’s cartoony style isn’t my cuppa). And that’s not to mention Will Eisner’s work all over the place, but in particular on The Spirit. Etc., etc. That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of crude artwork in comics of the period, but I think the most commonly available reprint material is concentrating on Batman and Superman, neither of whom were showcasing the best in art of the day (although they all have their charms).
Lou Fine’s work on the early Quality Comics heroes and Matt Baker’s Phantom Lady art were both amazing compared to their contemporaries as well.
I think the art got a lot better when other artists took over for the creators. God Bless Siegel and Shuster, but their Superman was extrememly crudely drawn (don’t really know which of them was the artist and which was the writer). Likewise, though he continued to receive credit for many years, Bob Kane was a much lesser artist than his many “ghosts.”
I have several “Greatest Stories” collections, and it sems to me the art got somewhat better (in general) in 1942-43, and got great, as mentioned above, after the war.