There have been many accounts of the early years of DC Comics. This one has a particular focus on the physical locations and the staff of the company. Acknowledgments and references will be listed at the end, but I want to say up front that my article would have been much poorer without the excellent work of fellow logo designer and ace researcher Alex Jay.
From 1903 to 1913 a large area of central Manhattan was the scene of massive construction, centered on the new Grand Central Terminal train station and the underground rail lines that led to it. Many older buildings were razed for several blocks north of the Terminal itself at 42nd Street and Park Avenue to allow the dozens of rail lines to be built there. The Terminal was officially completed in February, 1913, and just celebrated it’s 100th year.
When the underground work was complete, prime real estate was quickly built over it, including many luxury hotels and office buildings. The area became known as Terminal City. Lots more pictures can be found HERE.
One of the new buildings, a 13-story cube filling the Lexington Avenue block between 46th and 47th Streets, is seen above, the Grand Central Palace. It was designed by Warren & Wetmore and Reed & Stem, who also worked together on the Grand Central Terminal building.
The Palace served for almost 40 years as the city’s main exhibition hall for all kinds of trade shows, from cars and boats to flowers and livestock. The first four floors held the exhibition areas. More about the trade shows can be found HERE.
Inside, a large open space was carved out of the second and third floors for exhibitions. The pool shown above was built for a log-rolling contest at a 1936 Sportsmen’s Show. So where does DC Comics come in, you’re wondering? I’m getting to that, honest.
Floors 5 to 13 of the building housed offices with a variety of tenants, including several pulp magazine publishers in the 1930s. I believe the entrance to the offices was through this smaller door on the north side of the building. I suspect the tenants of these offices, understandably, did not want the word “Palace” on their letterheads, and 480 Lexington Avenue was the mailing address they used. In the December, 1932 issue of “The Author and Journalist” magazine, an article tells of a pulp magazine producer, Merwin Publishing Company, moving to 480 Lexington. It was probably owned by Harry Donenfeld through his brother Irving, one of many pulp publishing companies Donenfeld had a hand in, and the first record we have of his presence in this building. I’ve written about Donenfeld’s many pulp companies in my previous article “Schnapp, Donenfeld and the Pulps.” Reports show Donenfeld and his companies on the ninth floor of 480 Lexington from 1932 to around 1960, including Independent News, the distribution company for all the magazines, and the comic book publishing company that would become DC Comics. See, I told you!
In 1933 (M.C.) Maxwell Charles Gaines (born Maxwell Ginsburg or Ginzburg) devised the format of the comic book when he repackaged some existing color Sunday comic strips into promotional pamphlets with new covers, titled FUNNIES ON PARADE and then FAMOUS FUNNIES. At first used as promotional giveaways, Gaines put a 10 cent price sticker on some and they sold out quickly at newsstands. A new media format was born, and Gaines was soon putting out more such comics on a regular basis.
Former military man and world adventurer turned pulp writer, Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson took note of FAMOUS FUNNIES and decided to try publishing comics himself. In addition to reprinted comic strips, the Major included new material in his comics, beginning with NEW FUN: THE BIG COMIC MAGAZINE cover-dated February, 1935. This was the first comic with new material, though it was much larger in dimensions than current comics. In fact it was tabloid size like the Sunday comic strips.
The above newspaper article found by Alex Jay is full of information about the new comic. First, we learn that it hit the newsstands on January 11, 1935. Next, it gives an address of 49 West 45th Street for National Allied Publications, Inc., the name of Wheeler-Nicholson’s new comic book publishing company. The second paragraph says the Major “secured the co-operation of The Eagle for the publication of this tabloid-size monthly.” We now know who printed the comic. It also implies a larger relationship between the paper and Nicholson that I don’t believe has been noted before, with the Major even recruiting his editor there. In the third paragraph, the staff of the comic (other than Wheeler-Nicholson) is listed: editor Lloyd Jacquet, assistant editor or cartoon editor Sheldon H. Stark, and art director Dick Loederer. More on them below, first the offices.
The building cited as the office of National Allied Publications, Inc. is still standing today, above is a recent picture showing floors six through twelve. The Major’s office was on the one second from the top, with four windows showing, and probably more set back.
On the left you can see the current ground-floor tenant, appropriately a book store. The upper floor entrance is on the right. The structure was built in 1922-23 by George Backer, designed by the firm of Sommerfeld and Steckler, and is 12 stories high. It’s one of three connected buildings built for Willard A. Hathaway, known collectively as the Hathaway Building at 49 to 53 West 45th Street. Hathaway’s furniture company was in the first to seventh floors (at least by 1956), the rest were rented as offices and/or apartments. Sale of the building was noted in a “New York TImes” article of April 6th, 1956, where many of these facts were found. I haven’t located any period photos from the 1930s. In a 1957 article, editor Lloyd Jacquet remembered the early days:
“When Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson set up his card table and chair in an eleventh-floor office of the Hathaway Building in New York that Fall of 1934, these most modest beginnings sparked off what can rightly be called the ‘comic book era.'”
From his office on the north side of 45th Street between 5th and 6th avenues, Wheeler-Nicholson ordered a print run of 120,000 copies and arranged for distribution of his comic by S-M News Company (also known as McCalls). Jacquet reports the issue sold about 50%, quite good for a new magazine. By issue 5, NEW FUN was being printed by World Color Press in St. Louis, a longtime DC Comics printer, and by issue 12 of the now retitled MORE FUN cover-dated August, 1936, Harry Donenfeld’s Donny Press began printing the covers of the Major’s comics, the start of a growing connection between the two. Donenfeld’s offices were at 480 Lexington Avenue, a short drive or even shorter walk from Wheeler-Nicholson’s offices. Donenfeld’s Independent News Corporation took over the distribution of National Allied Publications early in 1937 as well.
Working with the Major on the first four issues of NEW FUN, and listed as the company’s first editor was Lloyd Jacquet, making him the first DC editor, and as the above newspaper article says, he had been on staff at “The Brooklyn Eagle” before joining National Allied Publications. Jacquet went on to found the first comics “shop,” Funnies, Inc., packaging comics material for various publishers through at least 1949.
I haven’t found a photo of Sheldon Stark, or any information about what he did before joining the Major, but he had a long career as a writer in many fields afterwards. Above is a recently reprinted comic strip he wrote, with art by Jerry Robinson, from the 1950s. His “Los Angeles Times” obituary says he “wrote for six decades for radio, television, film and stage. Educated at Dartmouth, Stark began writing for radio, churning out more than 500 scripts for adventure series including “Batman,” “Green Hornet” and “The Lone Ranger.” One of the earliest writers for television, he created scripts for the live show “Studio One” and later series such as “Hawaiian Eye,” “Ben Casey” and “Wagon Train,” the TV versions of “Batman” and “Green Hornet,” and “Quincy,” “The Man from UNCLE” and “The Virginian.” His first play, “Time of Storm,” produced off-Broadway, won a Best of Season Award in 1954. He also published a novel, “Too Many Sinners.” Stark helped form the Radio Writers Guild, which later merged with the Writers Guild of America, and held several offices in each organization. He taught screenwriting at UCLA and Santa Monica College.” Stark died in 1997.
I haven’t found a picture of NEW FUN’s first Art Director either, but above is some of his art for the book, as well as much better art of his from later years. Dick (Richard A.) Loederer was born in Austria in 1894. He studied at the Reinmann Schule in Berlin, and at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. In the USA, he worked in advertising in the 1920s, and as a book writer in the 1930s (“Ozark Mountain Folk”, “Voodoo Fire in Haiti”). Loederer also participated in the Works Progress Administration (WPA) painting murals in restaurants such as the Blue Ribbon Restaurant in New York City and Stoll’s Tavern in Troy, New York. In the “Brooklyn Eagle” article a previous job is noted as “art director in charge of animated cartoons for Van Beuren – RKO Film Corp.” You can read about the Van Beuren Studios, it sounds like they stopped making cartoons in the mid 1930s, which may have left Loederer available for this publishing job. Loederer developed a career as a fine artist, and he eventually returned to Austria, where he died in 1981.
Also contributing new comics pages to NEW FUN were cartoonists Vin Sullivan, Whitney Ellsworth and Sheldon Mayer. Sullivan and Ellsworth became associate editors under Wheeler-Nicholson in 1936, and Mayer was later an editor for the company too. Also in the issue was artist Raymond Perry, later a DC production staffer. And in issue 6, cover-dated October, 1936, two one-page strips appeared by Jerry (Jerome) Siegel and Joe Shuster titled “Dr. Occult” and “Henri Duval,” predating the arrival of their best-known creation, Superman by over two years.
Also in 1936, a second title began, NEW COMICS, in the smaller and now standard comics size with a cover by Vin Sullivan and edited by William Cook and John Mahon, with Vin Sullivan as assistant editor. I haven’t found any pictures of Cook and Mahon, but by May 1936 they had split with the Major to begin their own comic, THE COMICS MAGAZINE and then THE FUNNY PAGES, taking some of the Major’s artists with them. Their enterprise only put out five issues, and they seemed to have dropped out of comics after that. Clearly publishing at this time was a cutthroat business!
In late 1935, National Allied Publications, also called Nicholson Publishing Company, moved from their original location to 373 Fourth Avenue (now Park Avenue South). The building there was originally the Zindel Building, shown above soon after it opened. Notice the L shape surrounding another much lower building on the corner of East 26th Street and Park Avenue South. Alex Jay reports the owner of the Zindel Building, Miss Rosa Zindel, went bankrupt later in 1912 due to the high cost of fitting out and renting the property.
Many businesses and organizations had offices here, including the Wheeler Syndicate, whose star license was Bud Fisher’s “Mutt and Jeff” newspaper strip, as seen in the ad above, an interesting comics connection. There’s no family relationship between John Neville Wheeler, this syndicate’s founder, and Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson as far as we know.
On a recent trip to New York City I took this photo of the building at 373 Park Avenue South, the tan one at center. Most of the façade decorations are gone, but it’s the same shape and size as the original Zindel Building.
In late 1936, Major Wheeler-Nicholson was looking to add a third title to his roster. Though a successful writer, the Major was not a good businessman and publisher, and he was out of money. He approached Harry Donenfeld, who agreed to lend him the cash to launch DETECTIVE COMICS, the first comic with a single theme, but only under a new company, Detective Comics Inc., co-owned by Donenfeld’s business partner, Jack Liebowitz (more on him soon). The first issue cover-dated March, 1937, above, had a cover by associate editor Vin (Vincent) Sullivan.
By issue two, a month later, the address is 432 Fourth Avenue, which remained the listed address for DETECTIVE COMICS until it was taken over by Donenfeld and Liebowitz the following year. Commenting on the frequent moves, the Major’s grand-daughter Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson writes, “I know he was struggling financially during this period so I’m sure this was all motivated by lack of funds.”
The company was simply Detective Comics, Inc., and it was only at this address for about a year. In 1959 the part of Fourth Avenue above Union Square had its name changed to Park Avenue South. Fortunately, Alex Jay’s research shows the street numbers remained the same, and the building at 432 Park Avenue South is the one Detective Comics, Inc. was in.
The building is 16 stories and was completed in 1914, designed by Warren & Wetmore and Robert T. Lyons. It stands on the northwest corner of 29th Street, and you can see the entrance to the upper floors on the right above.
While the lower floors are fairly plain, the upper parts of the building have lots of handsome details like this large and elaborate corner decoration. I haven’t found any record of what floor Detective Comics, Inc. was on.
By the time issue 14 of DETECTIVE COMICS was published in early 1938, Nicholson was bankrupt and had been forced or bought out of his comics companies, which were purchased by Harry Donenfeld, Jack Liebowitz, and possibly Paul Sampliner. Vin Sullivan became the editor of DETECTIVE. Whitney Ellsworth left for Hollywood around that time.
Donenfeld and Liebowitz soon combined the two Nicholson-started companies into one, calling all of their line National Comics and their company Detective Comics, Inc., though the names were used somewhat interchangeably. By issue 31 of MORE FUN, cover-dated May 1938 (indicia above), we have Vincent A. Sullivan as editor. While the publisher is listed as Detective Comics, Inc., the address is 480 Lexington Avenue, home of all or most of the Donenfeld companies. Detective Comics, Inc. had moved in with the rest of National Comics around that time. Eventually the Detective Comics name remained only in the corner symbol “DC,” and the comics company was called National Comics Publications, Inc. or National Comics, Inc. (As with all Donenfeld companies, there is a maze of cross-ownership and varying publisher names that makes it hard to summarize.)
The partnership of Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz began in 1929 when Harry took on Jack as his personal accountant. Liebowitz had an accounting degree, a conservative approach, and a shrewd mind for business, complimenting Donenfeld’s outgoing salesmanship and risk-taking personality. Together they built up the Donenfeld holdings from a small pulp publisher to a major magazine publisher and distributor. Many of the magazines they owned were taken over from the original owners when those parties couldn’t pay the printing and distribution bills owed to Donenfeld. They acquired their comics in much the same way, I believe.
Early in 1938 National Comics decided to launch a new title, ACTION COMICS. (Some comics historians believe the idea came from Major Wheeler-Nicholson.) The cover and lead feature, Superman, was the beginning of the super-hero era in comics, one still prevalent today. Writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster had been trying for several years to sell the idea as a comic strip, with no luck. Somehow the property ended up in the hands of editor Vin Sullivan at National Comics (there are varying stories of how), and when published the character and the book were a sensation, soon imitated by National and many other publishers, but perhaps never improved on. The pair of creators from Cleveland were not good businessmen, and the deal they made with National Comics for the rights to Superman has long been held up as an example of creator exploitation. The courts are still dealing with the eventual lawsuits and countersuits all these years later. But, for now, Superman was making money for everyone involved, and the future looked bright for the company that would one day become DC Comics.
One more piece of that success arrived in early 1939. Bob Kane had begun getting jobs as a comics artist and cartoonist in 1936, working for a number of companies and titles including National’s NEW FUN and DETECTIVE. Most of his work was of the humorous type, though he did some adventure strips as well. With the sudden success of Superman, National editor Vin Sullivan was looking for another costumed hero for DETECTIVE, and asked Kane for his ideas. With lots of help from writer Bill Finger (more on him later), Kane came up with the dark side of the super-hero equation, Batman, debuting in DETECTIVE #27, and providing another big hit for the company. While Kane’s art was perhaps not well suited to super-hero art (and he soon added assistants and “ghost” artists to improve it), he ended up with a much better financial deal than did Siegel and Shuster, though that came some time later. In the beginning he was happy to sign a contract that gave him lots of work supplying Batman pages to the company at a good enough pay rate to allow him to sub-contract a lot of the work to others. (Note that I had a quote here from Bob Kane himself about his original contract that someone trustworthy told me was completely inaccurate. I should know better than to quote Bob on anything…)