Note: all images below © DC Comics, Inc. except as noted.
When you were a kid reading comics, did you ever wonder about who made them? Did you ever want to visit the place they were made? It sounds like a great idea to me, but sadly it never occurred to me then. What can I say, I was a dumb kid sometimes. What makes it more frustrating is that I would have had an excellent chance in the 1960s of visiting what were then the offices of DC Comics at 575 Lexington Avenue, as seen at A in the above map. Our family had two maiden aunts who lived together in an old rent-controlled apartment near the corner of 53rd street and Second Avenue in Manhattan, at B on the map, a mere five minute walk away! If only I’d known that the company would give tours to kids who wrote or called or even just showed up there, though they usually only did so on Thursday afternoons. I loved comics as a kid, and on our regular visits to see our aunts in Manhattan I always took that opportunity to beg my parents for some of the many dazzling comics displayed on every corner newsstand, unlike at our rural New Jersey home, where I had no nearby place to find them. Sometimes I and my brothers, or just me alone, were allowed to stay with the aunts on our own for a few days, as they loved kids. Would it have been easy to get them to take me to visit the comics company? You bet.
Recently I saw a post on Facebook by writer Pat McGreal where he mentioned he’d been one of the lucky kids to make such a visit, and I knew several other people in comics who had also been visitors there regularly, so I thought I’d get as much info on this subject as I could and blog about it. Here’s Part 1.
Photo © Alan Kupperberg.
The stepped skyscraper with glass facade in the center of this photo is 575 Lex as it looks today. (And while a lot of folks have provided information for these articles, I have to give a special shout-out of thanks for Alan Kupperberg, who has given me the most help!) It was built in 1958, and originally called the Grolier Building. Alan says “it was clad in gold-colored sheathing.” I haven’t been able to find a picture of that. The current look comes from a major renovation in 1990, and it’s now called the SkyGrid Building.
Photo © Alan Kupperberg.
Here’s the entrance today, probably not too different from the earlier look except for the color. I’m not sure when National Periodical Publications (as DC Comics was then known) moved to this site, but I’m guessing not too long after it opened. They were certainly there by 1960. As the decade opened, NPP (as I’ll call it here) had been a relatively stable family-owned business for about 25 years. Heading the company were Irwin Donenfeld (son of previous publisher Harry Donenfeld) and his partner Jack Liebowitz. While times had been tough for a while during the 1950s, super-heroes were making a comeback thanks largely to the Silver Age revival spearheaded by editor Julius Schwartz in books like THE FLASH, GREEN LANTERN and THE JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA, though the books of Superman editor Mort Weisinger and Batman editor Jack Schiff were also quite successful.
Here’s a layout of the tenth floor where the NPP offices were, from a sketch by Alan Kupperberg (we’ll see his complete sketch later). In addition to the editors mentioned above, Phyllis Reed was editing the romance comics, Robert Kanigher was editing the war comics as well as WONDER WOMAN. Larry Nadle was editing the humor line, including licensed books like THE ADVENTURES OF BOB HOPE, and Murray Boltinoff and George Kashdan were assistant editors under Schiff and Weisinger, and perhaps others. The Production Room was run by Sol Harrison with his assistant Jack Adler, both having started in the printing end of comics in the late 1930s Both were colorists. Production artists Joe Letterese and Morris Waldinger were here, as was Ira Schnapp, the company’s staff logo designer and cover lettering man. All three of those men were letterers. Running the darkroom was Walter Herlitschek. Also on staff, I believe, was Gerda Gattel, proofreader and in charge of the library, where back issues were kept in bound volumes, and Milt Snappin, in charge of the film negative library. Milt was also a letterer. Then, as when I worked there, staffers often supplemented their income with some sort of freelance work on the side. The bosses, Liebowitz and Donenfeld, may well have been on a different floor.
Beginning in 1961, four friends and comics fans from Boston visited the NPP offices several times. I’m not sure if the regular Friday tours had begun at that time, but if so, they weren’t part of it. Rick Norwood was nineteen that year, a freshman at MIT, so he and his friends Al Kuhfeld (now Ellen Kuhfeld), Durk Pearson and Bill Osten were older than the kids the company considered their main audience, but Norwood had had a number of letters published in GREEN LANTERN and other DC comics and struck up a friendship with editor Julius Schwartz. Norwood asked if the four could visit him, and Julie agreed. They rode a train down to New York for their visits. From their reports it sounds like they spent most of their visiting time with the editors.
Photo of Julius Schwartz probably by Jack Adler, from “Man of Two Worlds” by Schwartz
Of Schwartz, Norwood remembers: “He was infinitely gracious, and made me feel welcome. He even pulled out a number of unpublished Golden Age pages and allowed me to take Polaroid snapshots of them. And he gave me permission to publish my own Doctor Midnight story in my fanzine, since he had no idea of ever reviving that old character. Schwartz gave me several scripts, by John Broome and Gardner Fox, and I saw that Schwartz had done extensive rewrites on them.”
Ellen Kuhfeld says: “Julie Schwartz — what a sweetheart! I don’t remember much specific about the visit (except for some Murphy Anderson artwork) but it was both comfortable and enjoyable. Since we both traveled in fannish circles, Julie and I would meet now and then across the years. And we always remembered one another.”
Photo of Robert Kanigher probably by Jack Adler
Norwood recalls: “Robert Kanigher liked to argue. When I ventured to criticize, mildly I thought, a Wonder Woman script he had written, he lit into me. What did I know about writing! How dare I criticize a professional like himself!”
Kuhfeld adds: “One shock came in Robert Kanigher’s office when he showed us pencils for an early METAL MEN. They were staggeringly beautiful. After years of Andru and Esposito artwork, I didn’t have a very high opinion of the two. Seeing Ross Andru’s pencils convinced me that he was an artist, and Esposito was positively ruining his art. As for Kanigher, he and I never hit it off that well.”
Photo of Jack Schiff by Jack Adler.
Norwood says: “Jack Schiff was too nice. He knew more mathematics than I did as a Freshman math major at MIT. But when one of his artists brought in pages, dropped them on his desk, and walked out, Schiff read over the pages and said they weren’t drawn the way the script said they should be drawn. Instead of calling the artist back to redo the work, Schiff started working on an extensive rewrite to make the story match the art. None of the other editors would have stood for that kind of sloppy artwork for a minute.”
Photo of Mort Weisinger and Gerta Gattel probably by Jack Adler.
Kuhfeld says: “And then there was Mort Weisinger. Definitely a larger-than-life character, but not one I’d loan money to, nor bring home to meet the folks. Even so, he had the highest percentage of readable comics at DC, to my youthful mind. Even today I’d rather read an issue of SUPERMAN’S GIRLFRIEND LOIS LANE than an issue of BATMAN back during those days when Zebra Batman and Rainbow Batman walked the Earth, and Buzzsaw Batman careened dangerously above it.
“Now, this was maybe a year after the Great DC Contest (where readers were challenged to find as many errors as possible in a story full of them). I took fifth place. I mentioned that to Mort, and said I’d not seen my prize. ‘Oh, that!’ Mort said. He got up and rummaged about, and found some original art. ‘Here!’ And he handed over the first prize original art. Which leads me to suspect winners 1-4 didn’t get their prizes either. I mean, okay, it was only comic-book stuff — but it was comic stuff promised to comic fans by a comics editor. I felt uneasy taking it, but had some claim to it; and none of the winners would likely have gotten any of the prizes if I hadn’t. I think that takes care of the ‘loaning him money’ part.
“Then, on the way down in the elevator, Mort told us he had an interesting story in a forthcoming LOIS LANE. ‘Lois is trying all kinds of crazy schemes to feel Superman’s balls. She wants to see if they match Clark Kent’s.’ That’s a quasi-quote — the only part I swear to is the ‘feel Superman’s balls’ in regard to Lois’ schemes. That takes care of having him meet the family.”
Norwood says: “Mort Weisinger was nice — to me — and introduced me to Jerry Siegel. But on a later visit I saw him being almost unimaginably verbally cruel to E. Nelson Bridwell, who was working at DC at the time.”
Todd here adding that, while I never met Weisinger, I’ve heard stories about him, and every one indicated he was often a horrible person. These seem to confirm that.
Most of the artists working for the company have always been freelancers, aside from those who worked in the Production Department doing art corrections and putting together things like letter columns and covers. Regular company artists would often come to the offices and do some of their work there, either to finish up, make changes, or just for the opportunity to spend time with the staff. They would sit at an empty desk or drawing board wherever there was one available, often in the Production Department, but sometimes in the offices along the hall.
Gil Kane photo by Jack Adler.
Rick Norwood remembers: “I saw Bob Kane at a drawing board drawing a Batman page, refuting the story that he ‘never’ drew Batman after the early issues. Carmine Infantino was also very nice to this callow young fan. And I watched Gil Kane drawing a Green Lantern page.”
Kuhfeld says: “Somebody was sitting at a desk talking on the phone while casually using a large, extra-long-hair, calligraphy brush to ink one of the the magenta separations for an issue of ACTION COMICS. Back then I did occasional editorial cartoons, but I’ve never been able to use a brush that long, or that casually. I was more the crow quill type.”
This sounds to me like a staffer, and when I asked, Ellen remembered his name was rather short and began with an A. I think it was Jack Adler, above, who did a lot of the cover coloring, and sometimes the actual color separations. Ellen said he was filling in the left side of the A in ACTION COMICS with black ink. That sounds like color separations work all right, so they must have been doing some or all of the covers in-house, though the interior seps were done elsewhere, I believe.
Thanks to Anthony Tollin for putting me in touch with Ellen Kuhfeld, and Ellen for putting me in touch with Rick Norwood. Thanks to both for these great memories and stories. I’ll continue next time with a visit to the offices in 1964. You can find more posts you might enjoy on the new COMICS CREATION page of my blog.