When I was growing up, my hometown of Sparta, Illinois, had two very prominent industries. They were coal mining and printing. Both provided a good standard of living for its workers.
One, though, had the distinction of being the innovator and the single largest producer of its product in the world. That belonged to our printing industry. It was known to the world as World Color Press. We simply referred to it as the “Comic Book Factory”.
Our factory was instrumental in the creation of a new art form, the Comic Book.
World Color Press began in 1903 when the owners of the St. Louis Star decided they needed a way to handle the additional printing generated by the color printing needs for the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. The intent was to shut down the operation after the World’s Fair, but decided instead to focus on a new feature. It was the color “funnies” section of the Sunday newspaper.
The Sunday “funnies” became so popular that in order to accommodate the needs and make a profit, the “funnies” had to be reprinted in a magazine format. Thus, the prototype for the very first comic book.
By the close of World War II, this new form of reading material became the most popular form of newsstand material on the market. In order to keep up with the demand, a new state-of-the-art plant was built in Sparta, Illinois. Within five years, World Color Press became the largest producers of comic magazines in the industry.
Cheap newsprint and huge letter presses were used to produce mass amount of comics each and every day. According to an article “Stop the Presses: part 4”, published by CO2 Comics Blog, “World Color also played a significant role in how comic art was drawn. In 1956, they installed the first web-offset press in their Sparta plant. Web presses fed rolls of paper like ribbons over cylinders that were covered with rubber plates that held the images of the comics that would be charged with ink.
Our plant became world dominant in the industry because of its advances to the printing and distribution technologies. Sparta, consequently, became known as “Magazineland, U.S.A.” In its heyday, our Comic Book Factory employed as many as 1,000 people from the community. That represented about one third of our population.
Getting those magazines out was just as important as printing them. Magazine distribution companies located themselves around us. They also employed many people. Diamond Comic Distributors was one such company. In the early 1990s, it employed several hundred people.
Sparta is located about sixty miles from an interstate or major airport. Its lack of closeness to key roads and air routes eventually was too much of an obstacle to overcome. Both printing and distribution moved their operations closer to those routes. The loss of the printing industry was, obviously, a big loss to Sparta.
But Sparta is a resilient community and its people soon found a way to adjust to the new life style change. They learned to become more mobile. Many took jobs in the St. Louis area. Some moved closer to their new jobs but most would return to their homes after work.