The DC Comics Offices 1930s-1950s Part 2

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M.C. Gaines, Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz, 1940s, source and photographer unknown.

In 1939 the National Comics (or Detective Comics, Inc. or both) roster of comics included MORE FUN, ADVENTURE (was NEW COMICS), DETECTIVE and ACTION, and the oversize one-shot NEW YORK WORLD’S FAIR COMICS which would later become WORLD’S FINEST. The company was doing well, with their very successful properties Superman and Batman leading the way. There seemed to be room for expansion, even though rival publishers were already flooding the newsstands with their own comics. M.C. Gaines, creator of the standard comics format in 1933, came to partners Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz with a proposal to launch a new comics company, All-American Publications, but he needed funding. As always, Donenfeld was interested only if he had a share of the business. He agreed to fund the enterprise if Jack Liebowitz was made a partner. Gaines agreed.

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ALL-AMERICAN COMICS #1, MOVIE COMICS #1 © DC Comics, Inc.

The first two comics from the new company, above, hit the newsstands early in 1939. ALL-AMERICAN  was largely newspaper strip reprints, but did include new material as well. MOVIE COMICS was a new idea, making comics from black and white movie stills with added captions and dialogue balloons. It didn’t last long, only five issues. A new title, MUTT & JEFF, based on a popular comic strip followed, as well as ALL-STAR COMICS and FLASH COMICS in 1940. The Flash (now called the Golden-Age Flash) was the first of many new super-heroes published by All-American. His book also featured Hawkman, both created by writer Gardner Fox along with artists Harry Lampert and Dennis Neville respectively. Green Lantern first appeared in ALL-AMERICAN COMICS #16 by writer Bill Finger and artist Martin Nodell.

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Photo by Nick Carr from his “Scouting New York” blog, © Nick Carr.

All-American Publications set up shop in lower Manhattan in this building at 225 Lafayette Street, on the corner of Spring Street, shown here in a recent photo. The building was erected in 1909, and converted to condominiums in 1988. I’m not sure of the floor, but it may well have been the 7th, later the home of M.C. Gaines’ Educational Comics, then his son Bill’s Entertaining Comics (EC).

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Photo by Nick Carr from his “Scouting New York” blog, © Nick Carr.

Here’s the entrance to the upper floors, on the right side of the previous picture. I haven’t found any period photos from the All-American days, but it looks like the building’s facade is unchanged to me.

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Sheldon Mayer, 1940s publicity photo, photographer unknown. From “The Golden Age of DC Comics” by Paul Levitz, published by Taschen, © DC Comics, Inc.

Editing for Gaines was Sheldon Mayer. He’d been involved in comics nearly from the beginning, with his art and stories in Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson’s NEW FUN #1 of 1935 and many others after that. Mayer began working for Gaines in early 1936 packaging comics for the McClure Syndicate, and he’s one of the people reportedly involved in the selling of Superman to the company now known as DC Comics. Aside from his own comics like “Scribbly,” which began appearing in ALL-AMERICAN #1, Mayer was often described by other artists of the time as very helpful to them, and a fine editor. Working for the testy Gaines was not always easy, as Mayer reported in interviews, but nearly everyone seems to have liked working with Mayer, perhaps because he had a fannish enthusiasm for the young medium that other editors of the time did not. This photo is in his All-American office, with a framed, signed comic strip on the wall (I can’t tell what one) and below that what I think are production and publishing schedules. Mayer’s enthusiasm seems to come through in the photo, don’t you think? The relationship between All-American and National (or Detective) Comics was a close one throughout most of their short history, with each sharing house-ads for the others’ comics, and characters from both companies appearing together occasionally in The Justice Society in ALL-STAR COMICS. In 1940 Shelly hired a man named Ted Udall (also known as Wes Ingals and Ted Yigdal) as an assistant editor. Udall (1914-1977) had some comics writing experience, and would continue at All-American until he was drafted in 1942, then return from 1944 to 1946 before leaving comics.

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Wonder Woman co-creators William Moulton Marston (seated left), and H.G. Peter, and editors Sheldon Mayer and M.C. Gaines, 1942. Photo © DC Comics, Inc.

In 1941 ALL-STAR COMICS #8 presented the introduction of the company’s first female super-hero, Wonder Woman. Created by Marston, a psychologist and inventor of the polygraph or lie-detector, with help from his wife Elizabeth, and long-time newspaper cartoonist H. G. Peter. While Marston was reportedly an early feminist, his heroine tended to get involved in a lot of bondage scenes that belied her warlike demeanor. In any case, Wonder Woman brought more sales to All-American Publications in her own title as well as SENSATION COMICS, both beginning in 1942.

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WONDER WOMAN #1, SENSATION COMICS #1, © DC Comics, Inc.

Note that, while these are All-American comics, the DC symbol is prominently displayed, and lettering on SENSATION proudly calls it “The Newest of the DC Magazines.” No wonder the identity of All-American Publications has long been so low-profile, it was even then.

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Whitney Ellsworth and Jack Schiff in the National Comics offices at 480 Lexington, 1940s. From “The Golden Age of DC Comics” by Paul Levitz, published by Taschen, © DC Comics, Inc.

Back at National, editor Vin Sullivan left the company in 1940, and former assistant and then associate editor Whitney Ellsworth returned to replace him. Sullivan worked next for the obscure Columbia Comics, then formed his own company, Magazine Enterprises, which published many comics and lasted until 1958. Ellsworth headed the National Comics line for many years, hiring and working with other editors as needed when the company output increased. Probably some time in 1940, Ellsworth took on Murray Boltinoff as an assistant editor (more on him later), and others would follow. As the 1940s progressed, Ellsworth seems to have delegated much of the actual editing to others, though his name was the only one listed as editor on the indicias throughout the decade. SUPERMAN gained his own title in 1939, and BATMAN joined him in 1940. When WORLD’S FINEST emerged in 1941, the company had five successful titles featuring their biggest draws.

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Robert Maxwell, Paul Sampliner, Harry Donenfeld, Jack Liebowitz, M.C. Gaines and Whitney Ellsworth in the National comics offices, early 1940s. Photographer unknown, from “The Golden Age of DC Comics” by Paul Levitz, published by Taschen, © DC Comics, Inc.

This photo shows a meeting of the company’s top executives, plus Robert Maxwell (Joffe), producer and writer of the “Adventures of Superman” radio show that ran from 1940 to 1951. With comics material in front of them, and a famous painting of Superman behind them, this must have been taken in a conference room at 480 Lexington, probably part of the executive offices of Donenfeld and Liebowitz. Paul Sampliner was the head of Independent News, Gaines the head of sister company All-American. Wish I could tell what they’re looking at. The painting was by pulp cover artist H.J. Ward, employed by Donenfeld’s pulps, and the painting was reportedly commissioned by Donenfeld to help promote the radio show. Take note of the emblem on Superman’s chest, a very early version that was soon retouched to look like this:

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Superman by H.J. Ward, © DC Comics, Inc.

Note the new emblem (still unusual as it has six sides for the only time I know of) and different hair style. This painting was considered lost for decades, then resurfaced at the Lehman College Library. You can read more HERE. While a fascinating story, its presence in the photo above with an unaltered symbol helps date and place the picture, and it appears in other pictures in the revised form as early as 1942.

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Jerry Robinson at his drawing board, 1941. Photo from “The Golden Age of DC Comics” by Paul Levitz, published by Taschen, © DC Comics, Inc.

In the early days of comics, a successful property like Superman and Batman, each appearing in many pages each month (and with most comics running 64 pages), was beyond the ability of one man or even a team of two to produce in enough quantity to keep the publishers happy. Siegel and Shuster had their own shop, hiring artists to help turn out stories, and essentially packaging the work themselves, including writing, lettering, pencilling and inking. This was the method for much of comics in the 1940s, based on the newspaper strip model, where the creator of the strip, usually the artist, put together a studio to produce the entire package. Bob Kane had lots of help with Batman, beginning with writer Bill Finger, and from 1939 artist Jerry Robinson, who began as a letterer and worked his way up through inking and pencilling to running the Batman studio for Kane in a year or so. Robinson helped create Batman’s sidekick Robin, his greatest foe The Joker, and designed the first Batman and Robin logos. While many comics companies continued to rely on comics shops to produce and package material for their books, National Comics gradually pulled in the writers and artists of their most popular characters to work in their own “bullpen,” or common work area at the 480 Lexington Avenue offices. While still working on a freelance basis, the artists and writers could use any open desk (writers) or drawing board (artists) to produce work for the company, and would be paid directly rather than by a shop or studio boss. Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson both became regulars in the offices, and Robinson recalled working alongside writers Finger and Jerry Siegel, and artists Joe Shuster, Jack Kirby, Fred Ray and Mort Meskin in the bullpen (probably mostly in the large production room) in the early 1940s. There were many others who spent time there as well as working at home. The studios or shops continued to provide some of the DC product, but National was gradually drawing in their talent for more direct control.

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Mort Weisinger, Bernie Breslauer and Jack Schiff, early 1940s. Photo from “The Golden Age of DC Comics” by Paul Levitz, published by Taschen, © DC Comics, Inc.

In the spring of 1941, Whitney Ellsworth hired a new editor, Mort (Mortimer) Weisinger. Weisinger’s background was in science fiction. He’d been a part of early science fiction fandom since his teenage years, and was involved in creating the earliest SF fan magazines or fanzines, along with fellow enthusiast and friend Julie Schwartz. Weisinger and Schwartz formed the first science fiction literary agency, working to sell stories for many well-known and lesser-known writers to the SF pulp magazines, but while Schwartz continued that business for a few years, Weisinger took a staff job with Standard Magazines, a pulp publisher. When Ellsworth hired him, Weisinger was already an experienced editor, and was put in charge of BATMAN, DETECTIVE and MORE FUN. Murray Boltinoff handled ADVENTURE and probably assisted on other books, like SUPERMAN and ACTION, ostensibly edited by Ellsworth himself. Weisinger also began working as a writer for the company, as did all the editors, and co-created Aquaman, Green Arrow and Johnny Quick. Things would soon change for many young men in America as the country went into World War Two. In 1942, Weisinger and Boltinoff were drafted and left to serve in the armed forces. Probably on Mort’s advice, Whitney Ellsworth hired two men who had worked with Weisinger at Standard Magazines, Bernie Breslauer and Jack Schiff. (Weisinger had actually worked under Schiff there.) They edited many of the National comics until the end of the war.

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Dorothy (Roubicek) Woolfolk with William Woolfolk, 1955, photo from ALL-STAR COMPANION VOLUME 1. Below, Dorothy Woolfolk (right) by Jack Adler, early 1970s, courtesy of Mike Catron.

Over at All-American, editor Ted Udall was also drafted, and to replace him Shelly Mayer hired Dorothy Roubicek, the first woman editor at either company. Like most editors of the time, she also wrote for the company on titles including WONDER WOMAN, making her perhaps the first female writer there as well. Dorothy worked at All-American from 1942 to 1944, leaving to marry her second husband, comics artist Walter Galli. Later she worked at Timely and EC, and married a third husband, comics writer and eventually best-selling novelist William Woolfolk. Dorothy returned to DC briefly in the early 1970s, editing many titles including the romance line.

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Larry Nadle, early 1950s, photo courtesy of his son Ken Nadle.

Also around 1943-44, Larry Nadle was hired as an editor at All-American, probably working on humor titles like MUTT & JEFF, an area that became his specialty. His brother Martin was already working as a humor artist in comics, including some at All-American beginning in 1940, under various names including Martin Naydel (but not Martin Nodell the GREEN LANTERN artist, different person). Martin may well have recommended his brother to Shelly Mayer.

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Sol Harrison (top right) at the Photochrome (Strauss Engraving) plant at 487 Broadway, 1943. Detail of photo from “The Golden Age of DC Comics” by Paul Levitz, published by Taschen, © DC Comics, Inc.

In 1943 All-American hired Sol Harrison as their art director. Sol had worked in the production and engraving side of comics since the very first issue of FAMOUS FUNNIES in 1934, had also worked as an engraver on the first issue of ACTION COMICS, and he briefly headed his own engraving company housed at 225 Lafayette Street, also home of All-American. Harrison got to know editor Shelly Mayer there, and Mayer recommended him to M.C. Gaines. In a 1970s interview, Sol remembered:

“It was a terrific association, because I always wanted to involve myself more in the creative areas of publishing. It wasn’t a month before the production manager who was there was fired. (M.C.) Gaines was constantly yelling at this man, and they just didn’t get along. He had been there for some time, handling the printing and the proofs and schedules. Gaines called me in to his office and said, ‘Sol, I want you to take over the production job.’ So I did.”

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Julius Schwartz, 1945, provided to ALL-STAR COMPANION VOLUME 1 by Schwartz.

In early 1944, Shelly Mayer needed someone to replace the departing Dorothy Roubicek, and was looking for an editor. Writer Alfred Bester was scripting GREEN LANTERN for All-American at the time, and told his good friend and agent Julie (Julius) Schwartz to apply for the job. Famously, Schwartz had never read a comic book, but bought a few to read on the subway on his way to the interview. “The best investment of my life,” he later wrote, as he got the job. Dorothy Roubicek told him his main task would be plotting stories with the writers and editing them, he wouldn’t have to deal much with the artwork. That was a relief to Schwartz, who said he knew nothing about art. Shelly Mayer handled the incoming art, and Julie soon found himself a secure place in comics, like his former partner Mort Weisinger at National.

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ALL-AMERICAN 68 WITH AA symbol, © DC Comics, Inc.

By the end of 1944, the All-American line-up included ALL-AMERICAN, ALL-FLASH, ALL-STAR, COMIC CAVALCADE, FLASH, FUNNY STUFF, GREEN LANTERN, MUTT & JEFF, SENSATION and WONDER WOMAN. The National (DC) Comics line included ACTION, ADVENTURE, BATMAN, BOY COMMANDOS, BUZZY, DETECTIVE, LEADING, MORE FUN, STAR-SPANGLED, SUPERMAN and WORLD’S FINEST. Comics sold quite well during the war, and things were looking good at both companies, but there was trouble behind the scenes at All-American. Beginning with January, 1945 cover-dates, the DC symbol was replaced by an AA symbol, and National characters were dropped from ALL-STAR. Apparently M.C. Gaines was not happy with his partnership arrangement and tried to distance his books from the National ones. He’d already been publishing some titles like PICTURE STORIES FROM THE BIBLE under his own copyright. Some time in 1945 the partnership with Jack Liebowitz (and the implied one with Harry Donenfeld) was broken up, with Harry Donenfeld and Paul Sampliner (head of Independent News, another Donenfeld company) buying out Gaines’ share. Gaines formed his own company, Educational Comics, staying at 225 Lafayette Street, perhaps in the former All-American offices.

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Bill (William) Gaines in his office at 225 Lafayette Street, 1950s. Photo from THE COMICS JOURNAL #81.

After M.C.’s tragic death in a boating accident in 1947, the company was headed by his son Bill (William) Gaines, who changed the name to Entertaining Comics, and took it into hard-core horror with titles like TALES FROM THE CRYPT, and wild humor with MAD. EC would remain at 225 Lafayette for some years.

The rest of the comics and their editors and production staff were moved to 480 Lexington Avenue, joining the staff of National Comics, and putting the entire DC line under one roof for the first time since late 1938. We’ll continue there in Part 3. Other articles that may interest you can be found on my LOGO LINKS page and my COMICS CREATION page.

 

 

5 thoughts on “The DC Comics Offices 1930s-1950s Part 2

  1. Rick Spence

    Great story. First I’ve heard of the falling-out between Gaines and Donenfeld. What an event that would have made: All-American vs DC! It should have been the comics event of 1945, but it was probably set aside for the good of the war effort.
    So why couldn’t DC do it now? File it under Elseworlds: “The comics event of 1945 is now the biggest event of 2014!”

  2. Bob Rivard

    Regarding 225 Lafayette Street, I was in NY in early 2004 and made a special trip there. The building was THEN being turned into condos, not in 1988. I grabbed the sales brochure. I took a lot of pictures of the construction and shared them with Al Feldstein who remarked that the rickety elevator with the iron gate door and Elevator Attendant controls hadn’t changed a bit. The building has a beautiful lobby with an ornate revolving door and large clock. Apparently the first floor used to be a bank,

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