IRA SCHNAPP – LETTERER

Superman House Ad, 1960, this and all comics images © DC Comics

Millions of comics fans knew and loved his work. For almost three decades he toiled anonymously for his employer, DC Comics, designing dozens of cover logos, lettering hundreds of covers and house ads as well as thousands of story pages, yet readers didn’t know his name or anything about him. Ira Schnapp received only two lettering credits for story pages in his lifetime, and none for any of his other work.

I’ve written many articles about Ira Schnapp on my blog, he’s one of my favorite letterers from the past. From 1940 to 1968 he essentially set the style for National/DC Comics. I loved his work as a child, but didn’t learn his name until I started working for DC myself in 1977. Beginning in 2014, fellow comics historian Alex Jay and myself have researched Ira’s life and work, and the results are in dozens of my blog articles, but what I didn’t have was a one-article summary of his life and career. That’s what I’m presenting here, with links to other articles if you want more details.

Ira Schnapp, High School yearbook, 1913

Israel (Ira) Schnapp was born in the small town of Sassow, Austria, now known as Sasiv in the Ukraine, on October 10, 1894. A Jewish community began to grow in Sassow during the 1700s, but during the 1800s new laws restricting the kinds of jobs Jews could hold made Jewish life there more difficult and pushed many into poverty. Jews from the area began emigrating to the United States, and in 1895, Ira’s father Max was one of them. Max’s wife was Sadie, and they had five sons by then: Jacob, Samuel, Joseph, Ira and Moses. Three daughters: Lena, Sara and Minnie were born in New York. They first lived at 86 Ludlow Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, at the time home to a large Jewish immigrant community. Max Schnapp and his oldest son, Jacob, worked as grocers, and Max became a U.S. citizen in 1911, automatically granting citizenship to his wife and minor children, including Ira. The children went to New York’s Public School #188 near home, and Ira attended Stuyvesant High School on 15th Street west of First Avenue, Manhattan, about a 25-minute walk from home. 

Senior Class title by Ira from The Indicator Volume Nine, 1913

Nothing certain is known about Ira’s art training, but there’s evidence of it in The Indicator Volume Nine of 1913, his graduation yearbook, where he did a number of pen and ink titles that include lettering and art. Ira’s senior class entry calls him “He with the artistic temperament,” and shows he was in the Sketch Club from 1909 to 1912 as well as the Architectural Society in 1913.

Partial inscription on the Farley Post Office building, New York City, 2015, image © Todd Klein

In his later years, Ira liked to talk about his involvement with the giant carved inscriptions on the Farley Post Office building on Manhattan’s 8th Avenue from 31st to 33rd Streets. Comics artist Neal Adams, who knew him then, told me Ira showed him some much-folded tissue or vellum paper that he unfolded and unfolded to reveal drawings of huge letters. They were some of the letters from the famous inscription that runs across the front of the building, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” The Farley Post Office was built from 1908 to 1912 and opened for business in 1914. The inscriptions were designed by the architects, McKim, Mead and White, and appear in their drawings. I believe that Ira was probably part of a team given the job of enlarging those drawings, using a grid pattern, onto the paper Ira showed Neal, and they were then transferred to the stones to be carved by stone masons. Ira was not a carver, but he had a hand in the process. It’s not known how he became involved in such an important project, but my best guess is through a teacher at his high school. The inscriptions on the building are in the style of Trajan’s Column in Rome, completed in 113 A.D., and the letters on it have long been used as a model for Roman capitals. You can see their influence in Ira’s high school title. I think working on that project set young Ira on a career path toward lettering and design.

On Ira’s World War One draft card in 1917, Ira gives his employer as the W.T. Slide Company at 115 East 23rd Street, Manhattan. That building at the time was home to several companies involved with making and distributing silent films, and I believe Ira was lettering title cards and intertitle cards for those films. In the 1920 census, Ira’s occupation is given as “Artist — Moving Pictures.” By the 1930 census, his job description is “Artist — Commercial Art.” Alex Jay has written about Ira’s work in movie-related businesses in the 1930s HERE. That research suggests Ira worked at a staff job creating movie title cards while also working as a freelance graphic artist and letterer, and as silent movies faded, I think he was doing show-card lettering, signs, and posters for a variety of businesses. Ira told Neal Adams he created lots of lettering for movie theaters in Manhattan, including huge lobby displays for films like King Kong, which premiered at New York’s Radio City Music Hall in March, 1933. Murphy Anderson, another comics artist who befriended Ira in his later years, said, “There were periods in the thirties when practically every movie house in Times Square had Ira Schnapp lettering on display somewhere!”

Super-Detective Stories, July 1935, Super Magazines, © estate of artist Hugh J. Ward
Spicy Adventure Stories, Dec 1938, Culture Publications, © estate of artist Hugh J. Ward

I believe Ira was also designing logos and doing cover lettering for pulp magazines, a popular form of mass entertainment at the time. One of the pulp magazine empires was owned by Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz before they started publishing comic books, under imprints like Spicy, Speed and Super, examples above. Ira knew Liebowitz, they were related by marriage, so it seems likely he might have asked Ira to work for him. I have no hard evidence, but some of the logos and lettering on the Donenfeld-Liebowitz pulp magazines, beginning around 1934, look like the work of Ira Schnapp to me. Much of this work combines elements of classic fonts like Trajan, Caslon and Old English with then-current Art Deco styles that Ira continued to reference throughout his career.

The Art of the Ages, The Blue Boy by Ira Schnapp, © The Toledo Blade, February 27, 1940

Ira married his childhood sweetheart, Beatrice Schwadron in 1918, and they lived in several apartments in The Bronx. Their daughter Theresa was born in 1922, and their son Martin in 1930. In the 1930s, Ira and his family moved to West 110th Street in upper Manhattan, near many of his other relatives. Some time in the mid 1930s, Ira undertook a personal project he probably hoped would help support him and his family, a series of newspaper articles called The Art of the Ages, where he made line and texture versions of famous paintings and their artists, with hand-lettered titles, and included informative typeset text. His signature is small at the bottom of the example. The feature was syndicated by Curtis Newspaper Features, Inc. starting in 1936, but has only been found in Ohio’s Toledo Blade, where it ran for 24 weeks from January to July, 1940. There the feature has no syndication information, and it’s not known how it got to the paper. The project was not a success. It’s the only time Schnapp received a byline.

Superman logos from issues 1, 2, and 4, 1939-40

In 1940, Harry Donenfeld’s comic book publishing company National Comics (now known as DC Comics) had a logo problem. Their wildly successful property, Superman, had spread to a new self-titled comic featuring all Superman stories, and the covers were being drawn by the co-creator, Joe Shuster. Joe had designed the Superman logo, but instead of doing it once and making copies to put on each cover, he was redrawing the logo on each cover with wildly differing results. This was not something the company wanted for their trademarked character, and they brought in Ira Schnapp to do a new version of the logo based on Shuster’s ideas.

From SUPERMAN #6, Sept-Oct 1940

Ira took elements from all the prior Shuster covers, standardized the width and shape of the letters, and made the telescoping (the extension into three dimensions) consistent, using accurate three-point perspective that Shuster had only guessed at. His redesign first appeared on the cover of SUPERMAN #6 in 1940, and it was exactly what the book, the character, and the company needed. It remained the standard logo for Superman until another revision in 1983, an amazing run of 43 years. It’s one of the most recognizable and well-known logos of the twentieth century. This was the beginning of Ira Schnapp’s long association with DC Comics. Some think that Ira also designed other earlier logos for the company like Action Comics and Detective Comics, but in the late 1960s Ira met a young fan, Michael Uslan, now the producer of Batman films, who recalled:

Ira loved that I was interested in the history of the industry and DC. He showed me many of his logos and was proudest of his classic trademarked Superman logo. I then assumed he designed every DC logo, but Ira said he did not do the ones before Superman.

As the 1940s rolled on, Ira did more and more work for DC, and by the late 1940s, Ira was the company’s main logo designer. If he had done nothing more than Superman, his reputation would have been assured, but Ira’s creativity continued to be called on for all kinds of logos.

Superboy and World’s Finest original logos by Schnapp from the DC files, 1949 and 1958

These original logos lettered in pen and ink on Bristol art paper reveal elements of Ira’s working process. Some areas are revised with white correction paint and reinked. They’re larger than the printed comics, but not a lot larger, about 11 and 8 inches wide respectively. Superboy is an all-new design, World’s Finest is a revision of an existing logo. If you look closely you can see some of Ira’s blue-pencil layout lines on the Superboy logo that he changed while inking, particularly in the letter Y. Below are some of my favorite Schnapp cover logos from 1949 to 1965.

While they show versatility and mastery of a wide range of styles for the different genres of comics published at the time, all these logos also share similarities of approach that connect them, the style and preferences of their designer, Ira Schnapp. I could easily do another group or two like this. All the cover lettering shown is by Ira too. As with others of my generation who were children in the 1950s and 1960s, Ira’s designs enticed us and we begged our parents to buy us those comics!

Ira Schnapp at DC Comics, 1955, photo by Martin Schnapp

Ira continued to live on West 110th Street in upper Manhattan. He had a studio address on West 42nd Street in the early 1940s, but much of the growing amount of work he was doing for National/DC Comics was done in his home, or in the DC offices at 480 Lexington Avenue between 46th and 47th Streets.

Some time in the late 1940s, with his children grown and off to college, Ira took a staff position at DC Comics, going in every day to work there. It’s not known if he was paid a salary, or paid by the job as a freelancer, but the amount of work he did for DC increased around that time. The rare photo above shows him working at his desk with lettering pens in ink bottles behind him. Ira was 61 in 1955, when the picture was taken by his son Marty, who I was able to locate and contact in 2015. Marty said this about his father: 

He was a very caring, gentle, nice person. Nobody had a bad word to say about him. Growing up, my mother was the dominant person. My father would go along with it, and he took care of my mother very well. He was extremely modest. I remember him sitting at a desk, working at home. I remember him bringing me back comic books. Ira was very quiet at home. Very soft-spoken. He did painting and things like that. He didn’t talk about his work or school. I liked sports, my father really didn’t. I have no artistic ability. I never felt unhappy growing up. I never worried that we wouldn’t have money. Ira took care of the family. He was always there if I needed to ask him something, but that was it. I loved him as a son. 

From MORE FUN COMICS #125, Aug 1947
From DETECTIVE COMICS #161, July 1950

Ira’s lettering on story pages for DC began appearing in 1943, as best I can identify it, it’s possible he started earlier. Often it was a hard slog with far too much lettering on the page, as shown in the Batman and Robin story, but sometimes on humor, funny animal or the occasional fantasy tale like Jimminy, Ira was able to better use his creative talents. Ira lettered many thousands of pages and worked on practically every DC title and character at some point. A year by year overview is HERE. Ira was also assigned to letter the Superman newspaper strip in 1943, taking over from co-creator Joe Shuster’s brother Frank. He worked on the Batman newspaper strip starting in 1944.

From STAR SPANGLED WAR STORIES #131, Aug 1952
From ADVENTURE COMICS #192, Sept 1953
From ACTION COMICS #252, May 1959
From THE FLASH #123, Sept 1961

Ira’s cover lettering also began to appear in 1943 and increased year by year until, by 1949, he was lettering nearly all the DC covers, many of which also featured his logos. That would be the case until Gaspar Saladino started getting some of that work in 1963, and there was a gradual passing of the baton by the time Ira left the company in 1968. Ira’s lettering for covers was done larger and more carefully, and used a variety of fonts mostly pulled from Ira’s classic and Art Deco favorites. Murphy Anderson told me that Ira would work out each balloon and caption on a separate piece of tracing paper first before lettering it on art paper to be pasted onto the cover art. Ira’s distinctive balloons and captions, though rather sedate, were loved by readers like myself, and it created a DC house style that was instantly recognizable on newsstands, which I think increased sales of new titles.

From STRANGE ADVENTURES #159, Dec 1963

Here’s a close look at Ira’s lettering from a STRANGE ADVENTURES cover that I used to own. Even at this large size it’s remarkably clean and regular, and the open title has an Art Deco flavor. Note Ira’s distinctive lower case “E” in that title, a style he used often. Perhaps Ira’s most creative work for DC was his many house ads, below are some of my favorites.

Once you opened 1950s and 1960s comics from DC and paged through them, it was impossible to miss the exciting house ads designed by Ira. I’ve found hundreds of these full-page ads designed to encourage readers to buy other titles from the company, as well as many half-page and third-page ones. Especially on the full-page ads, Ira was able to utilize his show-card lettering skills to make nearly any title and topic exciting. The copy or text of the ads was probably written by the editors, then it was up to Ira to sell it to readers, and he did a superb job. His house ads were so appealing they created frustration for comics fans who couldn’t find those comics! Note how masterful the layouts are, and the use of black. Ira’s talent was never so visible as here. It was his chance to shine.

DC House Ad from 1962 by Schnapp

In 1949, Ira revised the circular company logo known as the DC Bullet, as seen in the house ad above, with the previous version inset. 

Comics Code Seal courtesy of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund

And in 1954, Ira designed the Comics Code Authority seal of approval that began appearing on the comics of many publishers that year and the next. It was the result of criticism being aimed at comics for content unsuitable for children, and was meant to assure parents the books overseen by the CCA would be child-appropriate. Ira’s DC Bullet appeared on every cover until 1970, and the code seal remained in use at many publishers until the CCA was disbanded in 2011. The latter may be Ira’s best-known work after the Superman logo.

From THE INFERIOR FIVE #2, May-June 1967, with credits enlarged in insert, image courtesy of Mark Evanier

By 1965 Ira Schnapp had turned 71, an age when many have retired if they live so long, but Ira loved going to the DC offices, it provided him a social life, and as Neal Adams remembered, Ira loved telling stories about his career there. He was also infused with a strong work ethic and he enjoyed what he did, but his artistic abilities were in decline and his style was considered old-fashioned by some staffers. In 1967, DC’s Executive Vice President Irwin Donenfeld, son of Harry Donenfeld, company owner, appointed THE FLASH artist Carmine Infantino as Art Director, giving him say over all DC’s covers. Carmine soon became Editorial Director and then Publisher. One of the changes Carmine enacted was to gradually shift logo design, cover lettering and house ad work from Ira to a younger letterer, Gaspar Saladino, to give the company’s image a fresh look. Carmine kept Ira on for a while doing less important tasks and lettering story pages. In 1967, probably at the request of writer/editor E. Nelson Bridwell, Ira received his first lettering credit on issue #2 of THE INFERIOR FIVE, as seen above. Lettering his own name must have seemed very strange to Ira. He received one more such credit on a later issue.

In 1968 Ira was let go. As Neal Adams put it, that meant Ira was being sent home to die. Gaspar Saladino, who has described Ira as “Mr. DC,” said it was sad when he left. “It was as though he’d never been there at all.” Ira’s son Marty remembers his father dying suddenly of a heart attack on July 24, 1969 at Saint Luke’s Hospital in Manhattan, not far from the family home. He was 74. A brief obituary appeared in the New York Times on July 27, but did not mention Ira’s work. His death went unmarked by DC Comics. 

Ira remained mostly unknown to comics fans and readers until articles on the website Dial B for Blog by “Robby Reed” appeared in the early 2000s, and more from Alex Jay and myself in the 2010s brought his story to wider attention. In 2015, designer Arlen Schumer put on an exhibit of Ira’s work at the Type Director’s Club in New York City that brought publicity and legitimacy to Ira’s life work. Ira’s son Marty Schnapp, Alex Jay and myself were able to join Arlen there to celebrate the life of a man who had worked and died in obscurity, but one that comics fans will long remember for his talent.

More articles about Ira Schnapp on my blog:

IRA SCHNAPP, His Life, Work and Family Part 1  Part 2  Part 3  Part 4  Part 5  Part 6

Ira Schnapp and Pep Cereal

Ira Schnapp and the DC-Columbia Movie Serials

Ira Schnapp work in specific titles at DC:  ACTION COMICS Part 1  Part 2   A DATE WITH JUDY  ADVENTURE COMICS Part 1  Part 2   ALAN LADD   ALL-AMERICAN MEN OF WAR   ALL-AMERICAN COMICS ALL-AMERICAN WESTERN  ALL FUNNY COMICS     ALL-STAR COMICS   ALL-STAR WESTERN   ANIMAL ANTICS    AQUAMAN  THE ATOM  BATMAN Part 1   Part 2    Part 3   BIG TOWN  BLACKHAWK   BOB HOPE   BOMBA   BOY COMMANDOS  BRAVE AND BOLD   BUZZY   CAPT. STORM CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN  CHARLIE CHAN  COMIC CAVALCADE  CONGO BILL   DALE EVANS COMICS   DANGER TRAIL  DANIEL BOONE  DC ANNUALS   DEAN MARTIN & JERRY LEWIS   DETECTIVE COMICS Part 1  Part 2  DOBIE GILLIS  DODO & THE FROG   DOOM PATROL FALLING IN LOVE  FEATURE FILMS  THE FLASH  FLIPPITY & FLOP  FOX AND CROW  FRONTIER FIGHTERS  FUNNY FOLKS   FUNNY STUFF    GANG BUSTERS   G.I. COMBAT   GIRLS’ LOVE STORIES  GIRLS’ ROMANCES  GREEN LANTERN   HARVEY  HAWKMAN  HEART THROBS   HOPALONG CASSIDY  HOUSE OF MYSTERY   HOUSE OF SECRETS   HOWIE   INFERIOR FIVE  JACKIE GLEASON  JIMMY OLSEN  JIMMY WAKELY   JUSTICE LEAGUE  LEADING COMICS    LEAVE IT TO BINKY   LOIS LANE   METAL MEN   METAMORPHO  MISS BEVERLY HILLS   MISS MELODY LANE   MR. DISTRICT ATTORNEY   MORE FUN COMICS   MUTT & JEFF  MY GREATEST ADVENTURE  MYSTERY IN SPACE  NUTSY SQUIRREL   OUR ARMY AT WAR  OUR FIGHTING FORCES OZZIE & HARRIET  PAT BOONE  PETER PANDA  PETER PORKCHOPS  PHANTOM STRANGER PLASTIC MAN  PVT. DOBERMAN  RACCOON KIDS  REAL FACT COMICS   REAL SCREEN COMICS  REX THE WONDER DOG  RIP HUNTER TIME MASTER  ROBIN HOOD   ROMANCE TRAIL  RUDOLPH   SCRIBBLY   SEA DEVILS  SECRET HEARTS   SENSATION COMICS   SGT BILKO SHOWCASE  THE SPECTRE  STAR-SPANGLED COMICS   STAR-SPANGLED WAR STORIES STRANGE ADVENTURES   SUGAR AND SPIKE  SUPERBOY  SUPERMAN Part 1   Part 2   SWING WITH SCOOTER   TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED TEEN TITANS  THREE MOUSEKETEERS  TOMAHAWK   WESTERN COMICS   WONDER WOMAN  WORLD’S FINEST COMICS Part 1  Part 2 YOUNG LOVE  YOUNG ROMANCE

Ira Schnapp’s DC Ads: 1943-44  1945  1946  1947  1948  1949  1950  1951  1952  1953  1954  19551956  1957  1958  1959 Part 1  Part 2  1960 Part 1  Part 2  1961 Part 1  Part 2  1962 Part 1 Part 2 1963 Part 1 Part 2  1964 Part 1  Part 2  1965 Part 1  Part 2  1966 Part 1 Part 2 Part 3  1967 Part 1  Part 2  1968

Ira Schnapp’s Comics Logos: 1940-1945   1946-1947   1948   1949   1950-1951   1952-1953   1954-1955   1956-1957   1958-1959   1960-1961   1962-1963   1964   1965   1966   1967-1968

Ira Schnapp’s Newspaper Strips Part 1  Part 2  Part 3

Ira Schnapp’s Comics Career by the Numbers

Paintings by Ira Schnapp

Continue to next article. Back to The Art and History of Lettering Comics.

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