Ira Schnapp and the DC-Columbia Movie Serials

Images related to DC Comics characters are © DC Comics. Promotional poster from the 1943 Batman serial.

From 1937 to 1956, Columbia Pictures produced 57 movie serials. Each serial was divided into chapters, and was meant to be shown one chapter per week as an added attraction to the main feature film shown that week. Nearly all of them ran 15 chapters, and each chapter had a running time of about 15 minutes. Subjects were drawn from all kinds of popular culture, fictional and historical properties, with sources including pulp magazines, comic strips and comic books. Despite a long running time, they were low-budget and well below feature films in quality, with actors who were not big stars. They were meant to appeal to kids and readers of the source material, hoping to keep them coming back into theaters even when they’d seen the feature already, or at least that’s my guess. Ten were based on characters now owned by DC Comics, but at the time of their release only six were actually licensed from National (DC) Comics. Here’s the list of those ten:

  • Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941) (licensed from Fawcett)
  • Spy Smasher (1942) (licensed from Fawcett)
  • Batman (1943)
  • Hop Harrigan (1946) (licensed from All-American Comics, sister company of DC)
  • The Vigilante (1947)
  • Superman (1948)
  • Congo Bill (1948)
  • Batman and Robin (1949)
  • Atom Man vs. Superman (1950)
  • The Miraculous Blackhawk: Freedom’s Champion (1952) (licensed from Quality Comics)

For each serial, Columbia prepared a press book for theater owners. This offered them all kinds of material to promote the serial to theater owners, and also to theater patrons. In addition to reviews, actor photos and biographies, there were film posters of various sizes, banners, counter displays, lobby cards with photo stills from each chapter, and more, all of which could be ordered for a fee in lots from one to many. On the ones licensed from DC Comics, there were additional items prepared by them, usually a comics-style poster like the one above and a “Comic Strip Herald,” which was a single sheet 6 inches high by 18 inches wide, folded in half to create a four-page flyer. Often the front cover was the same as the poster, but sometimes they were different. Inside across both pages was a large comic strip something like a daily strip with five or six panels describing the serial and including actor and other film credits. I don’t know what was on the back cover. These items had comics art drawn by DC artists and most were lettered by Ira Schnapp.

Here’s a spread from the press book for the 1943 Batman serial, the first chronologically with National (DC) licensed characters. Unfortunately this is the only image I can find, and the quality is poor, but on the left side are actor biographies and reviews. On the right side top are images from the Comic Strip Herald. The front cover, which is the first image in this article, uses type at the top, and the logo by Jerry Robinson with art from the Bob Kane studio of Batman and Robin in a spotlight. Right of that is the large comic strip that made up the center spread of the four-page flyer.

Thanks to J. Kevin Carrier for providing a much better scan of the strip from this Comic Strip Herald than I had when I first wrote this article. I’m now convinced that Ira Schnapp did not letter this one, though I’m not sure who did. It could be George Roussos or Lora Sprang, but doesn’t have the elements I use to identify their work. There are six panels across the bottom, an odd version of the Batman logo perhaps by the artist, display lettering at top left, and at top right are film credits. This format was followed for all the Comic Strip Herald flyers for later serials that I’ve been able to find. The first image in this article, above, is probably the front cover of this Herald, as it seems to have a second page folded under it.

This ad for the serial appeared in the comics, here from DETECTIVE COMICS #81, Nov 1943. Again, not a great image, but the art and logo are the same and the lettering looks like Schnapp work to me. Several Batman logos were produced for movie posters and for the actual serial that use some elements of this one, but are mostly different, and probably created in California for Columbia.

I haven’t found a press book for the Hop Harrigan serial, but it’s unlikely it has any Schnapp work in it. The next one that does is for the 1947 Vigilante serial, and I have better images this time courtesy of Jerry Beck. I believe this image was the front cover of the Comic Strip Herald and probably a separate poster as well. The lettering looks like what Ira Schnapp was doing in 1947 (or perhaps 1946), when the material was prepared. Hard to read, the copyright line says “Copr. 1947 Natl. Comics Pub. Inc.” The logo is similar to the one appearing in the comics at the time, like this one from ACTION COMICS #104, Jan 1947:

The one in the poster follows the same layout but is taller, has thicker outlines and more pronounced notches and rough edges. It’s possible Schnapp designed the one in the comics, I’m not sure, but he definitely did the one in the poster.

Here’s the Vigilante strip that formed the center-spread of the Herald, divided in half and stacked for better viewing. The display lettering at upper left is typical Schnapp work from the time with small gaps in some of the letters, and the rest all looks like his work right down to his question mark style. The logo is yet another version by Ira. If you compare the layout of this spread to the Batman one above, you can see they’re similar. The original art might have been the same size as a daily comic strip of the time, about 19 inches wide, but if so the reduction for printing on this 18-inch-wide spread would have been almost none, so perhaps it was done larger.

An Ira Schnapp house ad for the serial appeared in the comics, here at two-thirds page size from ACTION COMICS #110, July 1947, where Vigilante had his regular feature. There was another full-page ad using mostly the same lettering and art. The Vigilante logo is closer to the one in the press book strip than the one on the character’s feature. Logos for the film posters were nothing like this, closer to type, and no doubt produced in California for Columbia.

I haven’t found much from the press book from the first Superman serial of 1948, but I do have this good image of the Herald strip courtesy of Delmo Walters Jr., and I’ve again split it and stacked it for easier reading. This strip has only five panels across the bottom. Everything here is by Schnapp and it again follows the same layout as the previous Herald strips. The most unusual thing is the very rough letters of Spider Lady in the first panel. The logo is, of course, the one Ira created in 1940 based on original versions by Joe Shuster. I don’t know what was on the cover of the Herald for this serial.

Posters for the serial also used Ira’s logo, but with the S revised by the poster artist to fit the space better. One odd thing in the credits in both the poster and the strip is that they begin “with SUPERMAN,” as if he’s an actor separate from Kirk Alyn. I think that’s because the Superman flying sequences are animated as a cost savings. I saw this once, and they’re quite brief and nowhere near as good as the Fleisher studio Superman cartoons.

This ad for the serial appeared in comics, here from ACTION COMICS #124, Sept 1948. Perhaps the Herald flyer used something similar on the cover.

Congo Bill was another feature running for many years in ACTION COMICS. He was a white jungle explorer and adventurer, and his serial also ran in 1948. Above is the section of the press book advertising the Herald with the cover and strip lettered by Schnapp.

Another version of the cover with some different lettering is offered as the subject of a coloring contest theaters could use as a promotional idea.

Here’s a slightly better image of the Herald strip that confirms it’s lettered by Schnapp, even though you can’t read much of it. Ira probably did this logo, it’s different from the one used on his comics feature, and also different from several created for posters by Columbia. It’s interesting to see that Whitney Ellsworth is credited as the creator of Congo Bill, something that never happened in the comics, and no creator credits are given in the other serial ads that are readable. Ellsworth was Editor-in-Chief, so perhaps had the pull to get his credit listed by Ira.

The best documentation available for these serials is for 1949’s Batman and Robin. A scan of the complete 16-page press book is on THIS site, and worth a look to see the wide variety of material in it, of which the Comic Strip Herald produced by DC is only a small part. Above is the cover of that Herald with Schnapp lettering. I think he also did this version of Robin’s logo and the background art and clouds behind it.

Here’s the best image I’ve found of a Herald strip lettered by Ira, again divided in two and stacked for better viewing. Only the Batman logo by Jerry Robinson is not by Schnapp. While perhaps not as impressive as full color movie posters, these promotional items must have appealed to comics fans. I wonder if any of the Heralds survive? I haven’t found evidence of it.

In 1950 a second Superman serial press book included this cover for its Comic Strip Herald. The lettering and logos are by Schnapp.

This is the best image I have of the Herald inside spread strip, and it’s almost readable and clearly by Ira, with two more versions of the Atom Man logo.

Here’s the full page 15 from the press book promoting the Herald, and I think Ira also designed Super-Accessories at the top. Since none of these Heralds mention or show anything on the back cover, perhaps that was left blank so a theater owner could stamp or print his own local ad or information on it.

Posters for the film created for Columbia use Ira’s logos as a starting point, but are redrawn. Again the S in Superman is made smaller and has a somewhat different shape, and the top line is also taller than what Ira did. I bet he still enjoyed seeing this on the posters all the same.

The Blackhawk serial of 1952 doesn’t advertise a Comic Strip Herald in its press book, so that must have been a DC thing, and of course DC did not own the character then. In 1951 there was a sort of tryout for the Superman TV show, a black and white theatrical film, “Superman and the Mole Men,” where George Reeves first played the character. It was not a serial, and the press book doesn’t have any comics art. It later became a two-part episode of the TV show after some trimming.

That’s all I know about these press books, and I’ve just learned of them in the last two weeks. If more information or better images turn up, I will add them. Other articles you might enjoy are on the Comics Creation page of my blog.

2 thoughts on “Ira Schnapp and the DC-Columbia Movie Serials

  1. J. Kevin Carrier

    If you have a copy of the Kitchen Sink Press collection of the 1940s Batman newspaper strip, the comic strip herald from the first serial is reproduced in the first volume (1943-1944). If not, I can get a scan for you.

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