In January of 1935, the first issue of NEW FUN: THE BIG COMIC MAGAZINE, published by Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, blazed a trail by becoming one of the first comic books to contain new material. Most previous efforts had simply reprinted newspaper comic strips. Nicholson was a former military man and world adventurer turned pulp writer, and he had good ideas, but was not a savvy businessman. After launching two titles with mixed success, he wanted to add a third, but needed funding. He turned to pulp publisher Harry Donenfeld who agreed to lend him the money for the launch of DETECTIVE COMICS, but only under a new imprint co-owned by Donenfeld’s partner Jack Liebowitz.
By the time a fourth title, ACTION COMICS, was launched, Nicholson had been pushed out of the business, and National Comics (also known as Detective Comics Inc.) was the property of Donenfeld and Liebowitz, who were happy to enjoy the huge success and profits of their featured characters Superman and Batman. A more detailed exploration of the early years of DC comics can be found in my article HERE, and other places.
In 1940, Harry and Jack had a logo problem they turned to Ira Schnapp to solve. I believe Ira was already working on their pulp magazines, as described in Part 3 of this article, and it makes sense they would bring in Ira. Joe Shuster, the artist co-creator of Superman, along with writer Jerry Siegel, was doing covers for the new SUPERMAN comic featuring all stories about the hit character who initially appeared in the first issue of the company’s ACTION COMICS in 1938. The covers and art were produced by Shuster in his studio in Cleveland, and he’d designed a logo for the book and character, but instead of designing it once and then making photographic copies for later issues, as was the usual practice, Joe was redrawing the logo on almost every cover. The basic idea was sound, but the versions were inconsistent, see above.
Donenfeld and Liebowitz must have brought in Ira Schnapp to give them his best professional version, and Ira did a tremendous job. It first appeared on SUPERMAN #6 cover-dated Sept.-Oct. 1940, and probably went on sale in July, 1940, as comics and magazines were post-dated in hopes of getting a longer shelf-life. That means Ira probably did his version of the logo in the spring of 1940. It was exactly what the book and character needed, and remained the standard Superman logo until a redesign in 1983, a very long time for any logo! Many people, including myself, feel it’s one of the best comic book logos of all time. Ira took elements from all the Shuster versions, standardized the width and shapes of the letters, made the telescoping consistent, and used true three-point perspective, which Shuster’s work only guessed at.
This was the beginning of Ira Schnapp’s long association with the company now known as DC Comics. He went on to do lots more work for National Comics, including variations on the Superman logo, above. He did other logos for them in the 1940s, more and more as the decade went on. My guesses about which logos from that decade Ira did are in articles beginning HERE. He also began lettering comic book stories and newspaper strips for the company. Ira told a young fan—now comics historian—Michael Uslan, that the SUPERMAN logo was the first one he worked on for the company, and that he didn’t do their earlier logos like ACTION COMICS and DETECTIVE COMICS. My guesses about who might have designed the early DC logos are in THIS article.
I’m still searching for the earliest Ira Schnapp story lettering that I can identify. I think the 1944 Superman Sunday newspaper strip, above, is lettered by Ira, but it’s hard to be sure. No credits for lettering were given or recorded at the time, so that makes it difficult, and there were others working in a similar style. Marty Schnapp remembers his father often working on the lettering at home, and he thinks Ira was lettering comics beginning in the early 1940s.
I’m gradually going through scans of early DC Comics looking for Ira’s story lettering, and have already found hundreds of examples, some in super-hero stories featuring Superman, Batman, Superboy and others, but many more in the humor titles. A typical example is above. I hope to cover this topic in a later article. Ira’s story lettering in the comics seems to begin in late 1945, is more common in 1946, and increases in volume from 1947 on, at least in the issues I’ve checked so far. More research is needed.
One more document found by Alex Jay has some interesting information about Ira, his World War Two draft card from 1942, above. Ira was likely too old to be called into service, though he gives his birth date as Oct. 10, 1895 rather than a year earlier, as we believe it to be, but that still put him at 46 years old. His place of birth is Sassow, with an interesting way of writing the double S. All the writing on this card except his signature is printing rather than script, perhaps reflecting the work he did every day. After “Name and Address of Person Who Will Always Know Your Address,” Ira has given his brother-in-law George Iger.
Most interesting of all, under employer, he’s written Self, and for employer address he gives 442 West 42nd Street, which is between 9th and 10th Avenues. This could have been a studio or workshop, perhaps a shared space with other artists. Marty does not remember his father having a studio, but Ira must have spent some time there, and it was convenient to mid-town Manhattan where many of his employers were. Alex Jay has found period advertisements for that address for businesses making electric signs, picture frames and metal doors. There was a sign company, Baum & Arnold, at that address, and it’s possible Ira could have shared space with them or worked with them. It sounds like a noisy neighborhood, but Alex suggests this might have been where Ira did his show card lettering, some of which was described as very large, and not work he’d have room for at home. Today it’s part of the revitalized theater district, and the building Ira worked in is long gone. I see what looks like a parking garage there today.
At home, Ira and Beatrice’s daughter Teddy went to college at New York University, and left home soon after, probably around 1944. Marty reports that she moved to Greenwich Village, which she loved. She never married. Teddy tried acting, and according to Marty had small successes, like appearances on “The Howdy Doody Show,” produced at Rockefeller Center in New York, but was not able to make a career of it, and mostly did amateur acting. She made a living teaching English to Spanish students. When Marty finished High School in June of 1947, he went to the City College of New York. After graduation in June of 1951, his uncle Sam Schnapp got him his first job at the New York City division of the May Company department stores, in the buying office, and Marty was in retail clothing for the rest of his life. More on that later.
Some time in 1949, I believe Ira took a staff position with National Comics in their offices on the 9th floor at 480 Lexington Avenue, above, and began working there every day doing logos, cover lettering, and house ads, as well as story pages when he had time. His work in all those areas takes a jump in quantity around then and I know from conversations with fellow letterer Gaspar Saladino that Ira was on staff at the end of 1949 when Gaspar began work at National.
In a floor plan of the offices drawn by Gaspar, Ira’s desk can be seen at right in the Production Room. The boss, Irwin (son of Harry) Donenfeld’s office, was nearby, and and Ira’s relative Jay Emmett sat in the office to the left of the one at upper left here, with Jay’s uncle Jack Liebowitz and Harry Donenfeld’s offices in another wing of the 9th floor. You can read more about those offices and personnel in THIS article.
Here’s the Holy Grail of my research, not only the first photo of Ira Schnapp I’d ever seen, but an excellent example of the man at work! I believe it was taken in 1955 in the 480 Lexington Avenue offices Production Room, though with Ira’s desk in a different spot than the floor plan above. He’s wearing a tie and short sleeves, suggesting a warmer time of year, and I think he’s holding a pencil, while two of his ink pens sit in inkwells behind him. On his drawing board is what looks like a story page he’s working on, with lettered pages behind him. In the background is another production artist who I believe to be a young Morris Waldinger. Morris started at the company around 1954, and his youth here, plus the appearance of Ira’s age are what bring me to the dates given. Ira would have been 59 in the summer of 1954, and early 60s looks about right for his age here. I’ve settled on a date of 1955 for the photo. I’m thrilled to have finally found this image after years of searching! The original photo is quite small, about 3 by 2 inches, and this is the most detail I could get from it. Incidentally, Marty Schnapp told me that Ira’s hair stayed dark until nearly the end of his life. It would be wonderful if we could identify the pages he’s working on. Chris B. writes, “In the photo of Ira at his desk, it seems pretty obvious that the images on the back wall are from his Art of the Ages series – specifically, Mona Lisa and The Laughing Cavalier.” I think this is right, and thanks for that, Chris! Here are those articles for comparison:
Through the 1950s and much of the 1960s, and a move to another building at 575 Lexington Avenue, Ira created a house style for the company that was instantly recognizable to me a child. His house ads, advertisements for the company’s current and new titles that ran in all of them, were particularly fascinating to me, and made me want to buy all those great-looking comics. Ira drew on his knowledge of show card lettering and favorite styles from the Art Deco movement to fashion a look for all the comics that was very appealing to kids.
The house ad above convinced me to get a subscription to the JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA comic, the first and only one I ever bought. I was disappointed when I started receiving the comics by mail and found they were folded in half, but I still loved reading them.
Millions of comics fans in the 1950s and 1960s knew and loved the work of Ira Schnapp, but never knew his name. At the time, very few comics had any creator credits. Editors got a credit on the indicia page of each comic, though sometimes the person doing the actual editing did not, only his boss. Sometimes an artist got away with signing his name on the first page of a story, and once in a while a writer with credits in other fields was given a by-line, but letterers and colorists never got credit, at least at DC Comics, until credits for all the creators began to appear sporadically in the late 1960s. I’ve found Ira Schnapp’s name as letterer only in two comics, INFERIOR FIVE #2, above, and issue 5 of that title. The fabulous work done by Ira on the company’s covers, logos and house ads was never credited.
Among the extended family, Ira’s mother Sadie died in December of 1944. Ira’s oldest brother Jack died in New York on November 20th, 1942 at age 56. He was survived by wife Theresa, daughter Selma (Schnapp) Kagle and son Irving. I recently made contact with a niece of Selma Kagle, who provided the pictures above of Theresa and Selma.
Sam Schnapp continued to work as a buyer for the May Company, making frequent trips to New York City. Alex Jay found a social notice in the Nassau Daily Review-Star of July 23, 1945, that Sam’s daughter Dorothy was spending the summer with her aunt and uncle George and Lee Iger. In May, 1947, Sam narrowly escaped a plane crash at La Guardia airport, as reported in the article above.
Sam stayed with the May Company until his retirement in the 1960s. Dorothy married Francis Fellenbaum, and they had three children, Susan, Francis Jr,, and Amy. I’ve recently been in touch with Francis Jr. who remembers his grandfather Sam as being a lot like comedian George Burns. Francis also said of Sam, “He had fantastic penmanship. His calligraphy was exceptional.”
Ira’s brother Joe continued to work at the Tip Toe Inn for the rest of his life.
George and Lee’s son (and Ira’s nephew) Fred Iger attended New York University, and enlisted in the army in 1943, at age 19, where he served with the Army Engineering Corps. In June, 1946 he was engaged to Sonia Donenfeld, known as Peachie, daughter of Harry Donenfeld. They were probably married later that year. In 1947 Fred went to work for the American Comics Group co-owned by Ben Sangor and his new father-in-law Harry Donenfeld. Fred would later own the company after Sangor’s death, and also reportedly had been given, with Peachie, a share of the ownership of National Comics, though he never worked there as far as we know.
The American Comics Group began in 1943, and published the first ongoing horror title, ADVENTURES INTO THE UNKNOWN. Their most famous character was Herbie Popnecker, above, a satirical take on super-heroes, who appeared in FORBIDDEN WORLDS in the 1960s. ACG stopped publishing comics in 1967, though their Custom Comics imprint published comics for businesses like Montgomery Ward until the 1980s. By the way, many of the ACG logos were by Ed Hamilton, I see no evidence of Ira Schanpp’s work there.
Fred’s marriage to Sonia ended in divorce after a few years, and he later had a relationship with Arlene Levy after her divorce from Irwin Donenfeld, the son of Harry. Even more complicated, Fred’s sister Toby married Arlene’s brother Irwin Levy. Fred and Sonia had a son Steven and a daughter Judy. Sonia later remarried Stanley Mondschein. Irwin and Toby had three children: Seth, Susan and Harriet.
Sharlye and Saul Herzfeld were separated probably some time in the 1960s. They had been living in a New York Apartment on 5th Avenue and 68th Street, which Saul gave to Sharlye when they parted. Sharlye lived alone there for many years. Marty Schnapp remembers going over to help her with her accounts and paying bills. Saul divorced Sharlye in 1974.
As for Nina, there were jazz concert reviews by a Nina Naguid in the 1940s in the magazine “Chicago Music Leader,” I don’t know if they were by our Nina. Marty Schnapp mentioned she lived in Spain for a while, he’s not sure when.
Next time we’ll begin with a visit to the DC Comics offices and Ira Schnapp in the 1960s. Previous parts of this article and more you might enjoy can be found on the COMICS CREATION page of my blog.