for the Common Man
The Birth of the
Comic Book Industry,
It's a simple story, as familiar as any in the English language. A doomed planet explodes. A scientist places his infant son in a rocket ship destined for Earth. An elderly couple, the Kents, adopt the boy and name him Clark. Growing up, the youth demonstrates awesome abilities. He can leap tall buildings, bend steel in his bare hands, and outrun speeding locomotives. Fortunately, he pledges to champion truth, justice, and the American way. To the unsuspecting world, Clark Kent may appear to be just another mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, but he is no ordinary man. He is, of course, Superman.
Superman may have arrived from a distant planet, but his real origins lay in Cleveland, Ohio. It was there in 1934 that two high-school students and aspiring comic strip writers named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created the character. Lower-middle-class, second-generation Jewish immigrants, Siegel and Shuster believed in the American dream and embraced popular culture. Shy and unpopular in school, unsuccessful with girls, and insecure about their bespectacled appearance and physical abilities, they read body-building magazines, lost themselves in science-fiction magazines, and nurtured fantasies of power and success. If only it could be as easy as removing one's glasses. The epitome of the modern adolescent fantasy, Superman was the ideal that spawned an industry.
The Origins of the Comic Book Industry
The American comic book industry is a twentieth-century phenomenon with origins in the late nineteenth century. While the juxtaposition of words and images is as old as language itself, the nearest precursor to comic books is the newspaper comic strip, which became a familiar daily distraction for Americans as early as the 1890s. Syndicated strips like The Yellow Kid, Katzenjammer Kids, and Mutt and Jeff satirized the foibles of domestic life, social relations, and ethnicity in the tradition of vaudeville routines. Because of their humorous qualities, they became known as comic strips or "funnies." Even later, when newspaper strips and their offspring in magazine format featured serious narrative content, the term comic stuck. The first comic books perpetuated this trend with titles like Famous Funnies, Funnies on Parade, and The Funnies. However inappropriate it might be, the term comic has since referred to the medium of sequential art, regardless of the content.
The earliest comic books derived directly from comic strips, but in many respects they owed more to pulp magazines. Most of the early comic book publishers, in fact, came from the pulp magazine industry. Popularly dubbed "pulp" magazines because of the cheap paper on which they were printed, these publications in turn have antecedents in the sensational dime novels of the Civil War era. Like newspaper comics, pulp magazines enjoyed great popularity during the early decades of the twentieth century, but, unlike the widely appealing comics, pulps often catered to more offbeat tastes. Most featured action, fantasy, adventure, and suspense tales written by low-priced talent. Although some pulp writers, like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Raymond Chandler, and Ray Bradbury, went on to achieve greater literary success and fame, they were the exceptions. Pulps delivered cheap thrills and made few intellectual demands on their authors and their audience. For ten to fifteen cents, readers could purchase one of as many as two hundred fifty pulp titles available at newsstands each month. Titles like The Shadow, Captain Satan, Amazing Stories, and Startling Tales sometimes went to considerable lengths in their appeal to the sense of the lurid, sadistic, and grotesque. Existing alongside the well-documented 1930s market for best-selling novels like The Grapes of Wrath and Gone with the Wind was a less-heralded audience for pulp magazine tales like "Volunteer Corpse Brigade," "Cult of the Living Carcass," and "New Girls for Satan's Blood Ballet." The proliferation of such bizarre literature during the interwar years indicates that there existed a lucrative, and mostly young, market with tastes well outside of the mainstream.
In January 1929, pulp fiction met the comics when the pulp heroes Tarzan and Buck Rogers debuted as newspaper comic strips, soon to be followed by other adventure strips like Dick Tracy, Flash Gordon, and The Phantom. Also in that year, the newspaper comic strip appeared for the first time in something resembling a pulp magazine format. Since the turn of the century, newspaper syndicates had periodically compiled hardcover collections of comic strip reprints for sale in bookstores. In 1929 Dell Publishing became the first to experiment with a weekly comics magazine distributed to newsstands. The tabloid-sized publication, called The Funnies, featured original comic strips, puzzles, and jokes. Dell canceled the series the next year, after thirty-six issues failed to sell very well. But this experiment inspired other entrepreneurs to explore the commercial potential of comics magazines.
The Eastern Color Printing Company in Waterbury, Connecticut, handled the color printing for pulp magazine covers, newspaper syndicates, and Dell's The Funnies. In 1933 two sales employees at Eastern Color, Harry Wildenberg and Max Gaines, discovered that the standard seven-by-nine-inch printing plates, used to print Sunday comic pages about twice that size, could also print two reduced comic pages side-by-side on a tabloid-sized page. When folded in half and bound together, these pages would fit into an economical eight-by-eleven-inch pulp magazine of color comics. Gaines and Wildenberg proposed that the company print such magazines for manufacturers who could use them as advertising premiums and giveaways. Eastern Color agreed to support the effort and printed 10,000 copies of Funnies on Parade for Proctor and Gamble. After this venture succeeded, Eastern Color followed with larger print runs of two comic books featuring reprints of syndicated comic strips like Mutt and Jeff and Joe Palooka for Canada Dry, Kinney Shoes, and other youth-oriented manufacturers. In 1934, Eastern Color printed a half-million copies of Skippy's Own Book of Comics for Phillips Toothpaste, which gave them away to listeners of the Skippy radio show.
Max Gaines suspected that comic books had market potential beyond these limited ventures. Though he was an aggressive and resourceful salesman, he had fallen into financial difficulties during the early 1930s and saw in the comic magazines an opportunity to lift his family out of the Depression. He persuaded Dell Publishing to finance Eastern Color's printing of 35,000 copies of Famous Funnies, Series 1, a sixty-four-page collection of comic strip reprints distributed directly to chain stores for sale at ten cents an issue. The issue sold out, but Dell remained cautious. Surveys of potential advertisers revealed skepticism about the new comic magazines. Dell approached the American News Company, a national distributor based in New York City, about possible newsstand distribution. American News showed little interest, however, so Dell withdrew from the deal with Eastern Color and released its option to the name and concept of Famous Funnies. Gaines and Eastern Color continued the project anyway, and the American News Company, encouraged perhaps by recent newspaper stories about the popularity of "the funnies," cautiously agreed to distribute 250,000 copies of Famous Funnies, Series 2. The first issue, cover-dated July 1934, lost Eastern Color over $4,000. The sixth issue finally turned a profit, and by the twelfth Famous Funnies was netting Eastern Color about $30,000 each month.
Eastern Color's monopoly in the comic book field ended as soon as other publishers noticed its success. By 1938, an embryonic comic book industry comprised half a dozen publishers, most of whom were packaging reprints of newspaper comic strips. Dell Publishing reentered the comic book business in 1936 with titles like Popular Comics, The Funnies, and The Comics. From his new job at a printing company called the McLure Syndicate, Gaines supplied Dell with comics like Dick Tracy, Little Orphan Annie, and Terry and the Pirates. A businessman, not an artist, Gaines seemed to have little interest in the aesthetics of the medium that he was pioneering. His young editor Sheldon Mayer recalled that "it was a schlock operation ... we bought the [comics] material for practically nothing and slapped it together."
By 1936, newspaper syndicates that had been content to sell the printing rights to their strips for only five to seven dollars per page began to publish their own comic books. William Randolph Hearst's King Features Syndicate put out a line of comic books featuring characters like Popeye and Flash Gordon. The United Features Syndicate entered the field with reprints of its leading humor and adventure strips, Li'l Abner and Tarzan. Backed up by large capital, enjoying established distribution channels, and using characters with demonstrated market appeal, these publishers initially enjoyed the industry's highest circulation. Yet the field's future belonged not to the syndicates but to those entrepreneurs who suspected that comic books could be more than just repackaged comic strips. The future resided in the imagination and business instincts of individuals determined to somehow make comic books into a distinct entertainment medium.
In 1935, a forty-five-year-old former U.S. Army Major and pulp magazine writer named Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson started up a small operation called National Allied Publishing. From a tiny office in New York City, Wheeler-Nicholson launched New Fun and New Comics, featuring original comic material created by freelance cartoonists. The results generally resembled standard newspaper funnies but avoided the increasingly expensive licensing fees charged by the syndicates. Remembered by his associates as an eccentric and something of a charlatan, Wheeler-Nicholson started his publishing venture without having sufficient capital or business acumen. His editor, Vincent Sullivan, recalled that Wheeler-Nicholson "wasn't a very good businessman .... We were struggling all the time."
Advertising for freelance contributors willing to work at a rate of five dollars per page, Wheeler-Nicholson attracted young, untried cartoonists hoping to break into the comic strip field as well as experienced but unemployed illustrators needing temporary work. Despite the enthusiastic and occasionally accomplished efforts of these cartoonists, the titles sold poorly. Distributors were still loathe to handle them, vendors did not want to give them valuable newsstand space, and readers seemed wary of gambling their ten cents on a collection of unfamiliar funnies. As bundles of comic books returned to his office unsold, Wheeler-Nicholson fell increasingly into debt to his staff and, more importantly, to his distributor, the Independent News Company. In 1937, Independent's founders, Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz, entered into partnership with Wheeler-Nicholson and contributed the capital to launch a third title, Detective Comics. From this title, the company later took its new name, DC.
As the title promised, Detective Comics differed from the "funny" comic books that had come before it. Announcing itself loudly on the newsstands with a sinister Oriental face leering from the cover, Detective Comics signaled a new direction for the industry. It featured adventure and mystery series like "Speed Saunders and the River Patrol," "Buck Regan, Spy," and "Claws of the Dragon," derived not from newspaper funnies but from movie serials and pulp fiction. Visibly more adventurous than other comic books, it contained more inventive page lay-outs, larger panels, and heavier shading to create atmosphere. Most importantly, Detective Comics signaled a new formula for comic books. Humor was giving way to crime-fighting.
In 1938 Donenfeld and Liebowitz bought out Wheeler-Nicholson's interests in the company. Under their sound management, DC grew into a more viable publishing operation. Liebowitz managed business affairs in their New York office, while editor Vincent Sullivan supervised the work of freelance writers and artists. Their control of the Independent News Company allowed Donenfeld and Liebowitz to circulate their own comic books and establish connections to build a solid national distribution network. The sales of their comic books, still without a marketable "star," remained unspectacular for the time being, but their investments would soon yield results far beyond anyone's expectations.
To accommodate the fledgling publishers, several comic art studiosor "shops," as they were called within the industryopened up. Staffed with editors and freelance cartoonists, the shops sold completed comic book stories to publishers who lacked the resources or knowledge to produce their own material. One of these studios was the Universal Phoenix Syndicate, or the Eisner-Iger shop, established by Will Eisner, an accomplished cartoonist in his early twenties, and S. M. Iger, an amateur cartoonist, entrepreneur, and editor of a failed entertainment magazine. Both had been struggling financially, and, according to Eisner, the two men financed the entire operation with fifteen dollars. They promptly attracted a number of clients, including a pulp magazine publisher called Fiction House and Everett M. Arnold, an entrepreneur from the printing business. Shops like this one filled a crucial function in launching the comic book industry, because, as Eisner recalled, "Most of the publishers had no way of knowing whether or not they could even produce the material; they didn't even understand how to produce it."
Comic book production in the shops was a collaborative process, much like a creative assembly line. "We made comic book features pretty much the way Ford made cars," Eisner recalled. "I would write and design the characters, somebody else would pencil them in, somebody else would ink, somebody else would letter." This process contributed to the visual sameness and formulaic stories of many early comic books. After selling the completed stories to publishers and paying the freelance staff, Eisner and Iger split a net profit of $1.50 per page. It made for a small but relatively profitable business during the Depression years. As Eisner later boasted, "I got very rich before I was twenty-two."
The shops attracted young cartoonists fresh out of art school and self-trained enthusiasts with little experience beyond doodling. Also on the shop staffs were older, more experienced illustrators and cartoonists who needed whatever work they could find in lean economic times, even if it meant stooping to draw crude "funny-books." Comic book work for freelancers was neither prestigious nor profitable, and it was for the most part an anonymous affair. Few artists received credits or bylines for their work, and those who did frequently used pseudonyms anyway. Publishers generally preferred their freelancers to remain anonymous so that readers would not easily notice inconsistencies resulting from staff turnover. The work-for-hire system, in which the publisher claimed all rights to the characters created for its titles, further encouraged this anonymity.
Artists often did not want to be publicly associated with their comic book work in any case, fearing it would damage whatever professional reputation they hoped to achieve in other fields. In the artistic profession, comic books ranked just above pornography. Eisner recalled that the comic book industry was "a kind of artistic ghetto in which people with authentic, if offbeat talents had to suffer the disdain of the mainstream." Many of the artists approached the field "as kind of a stepping place ... dreaming of becoming a syndicated cartoonist for the newspapers, or going into book illustration." While Eisner and his colleagues generally enjoyed their work, they did not suspect that comic books had much of a future. Indeed, they may not have had, were it not for the arrival of a savior from the planet Krypton.