Ira Schnapp’s DC Ads: 1940s

Images © DC Comics

In this new series of articles I plan to catalog the lettering work of Ira Schnapp for DC Comics other than on logos, covers and stories. to begin, let’s consider the contents of a typical DC comic from the 1940s, DETECTIVE COMICS #127 dated Sept. 1947, cover above. It has 48 interior pages, and with the outside and inside covers, is 52 pages in all. The front covers always have comics art. The back covers almost always have a paid advertisement, as this one does. The inside covers can have various contents from paid ads to house ads to single page stories to lists of the issue’s contents. In this issue the inside front cover is a house ad with additional information like the indicia, and the inside back cover is a paid ad. Inside the book, in this case, there are four comics stories: Batman and Robin 12pp, Slam Bradley 7pp, Air Wave 6pp and Boy Commandos 12pp, a total of 37 story pages. Paid ads total 6.5 pages. House Ads add 1 page. Fillers, in this case gag cartoons by creators like Henry Boltinoff, make up 1.5 pages. There is a two-page text story, fulfilling the requirement for the comic to be mailed at the 2nd-class postage rate for periodicals, a cheaper method first introduced for newspapers in the 1800s. (Some comics get away with a single page text story somehow.) That was only important for subscription copies I think. As you can see, the proportion of house ads is very small, but that proportion continued to grow over time.

Paid ads were always present in comics, but varied in number depending on how many the company could sell. Many paid ads ran across the entire line of the publisher’s comics, and were most common on back covers. House ads, or ads for the company’s own publications, were also present from early on, but the number varied a lot, probably depending on how many paid ads and story pages there were in any given issue. In this series I’ll mainly be talking about house ads, which were important to the company because they were often the only kind of publicity available for comic books, particularly individual issues and new titles, in the days before fan and comics news publications and of course the internet.

From DETECTIVE COMICS #36, Feb. 1940

One of the earliest kinds of house ads is what I call a line ad because it usually features multiple titles from the publisher’s line of comics. This one from 1940 is interesting because it includes comics and characters from National Comics (Superman, The Sandman, The Batman and The Spectre) and All-American Comics (Ultra-Man and The Flash). These were sister companies that generally worked separately but shared common owners, and as here, advertising. (And whatever happened to Ultra-Man, I wonder?) They would merge in 1946 to become the company now known as DC Comics. Line Ads were often somewhat generic so that they could be reused with newer covers. Early ones like this, and a few through the 1940s, use all or mainly set type rather than hand lettering. That was an extra expense and took more time. Set type from the 1940s to 1970s had to be ordered from a type house with very specific instructions as to size and style. When a proof or print was made and delivered to the company’s production department, the type was cut and pasted onto the page layout. Hand-lettering was a better and faster solution, even if the letterer was a freelancer and had to be paid a fee for his work. It was still often cheaper than getting set type, and I think many house ads were lettered by salaried production staffers at no extra cost to the company. Later, perhaps as early as the late 1940s, a headline machine—which could photographically set a single line of large type on a roll of photo paper using a small selection of fonts—brought some of the simpler and shorter type work in-house. Ads that have a few lines of large type were probably done that way.

From ACTION COMICS #57, Feb. 1942

This line ad from 1942 uses hand-lettering, and again features titles from both National and All-American. As with most early house ads from the 1940s, I don’t know who lettered it. The style doesn’t seem similar to any of the story lettering. The result isn’t great, but not too bad, and pretty typical for the time. It might have been done by a freelancer, but more likely a production staffer. It’s another good example of a generic ad that could be reused later with newer covers.

From ACTION COMICS #60, May 1943

On the other hand, this house ad from 1943 has poorly done lettering and features cartoon characters probably by the same person. This definitely looks like the work of a production staffer who was an aspiring cartoonist. It’s actually two half-page ads that each feature a particular title and issue, so not likely to be reused, though the lower one could have been.

From ACTION COMICS #64, Sept 1943

Surprisingly, DC occasionally prepared and ran paid ads for comics from other publishers in the 1940s like this one, probably by the same letterer and artist. I suspect they were all comics with some connection to DC management, or were at least distributed by DC’s division for that, Independent News, like these titles from Crestwood.

House ads with this kind of amateurish work continued to be found in DC comics through the 1940s, but they were gradually replaced by ones with more polished and professional design and lettering.

From DETECTIVE COMICS #93, Nov 1944

By 1944, better display lettering was sometimes appearing in ads like this one. The lettering in the bottom caption also uses more professional styles that appeared frequently through the rest of the 1940s. Can we assume this is a new letterer with more training and skills? It seems likely, but I have more questions than answers about DC lettering in the 1940s.

From DETECTIVE COMICS #101, July 1945

Lettering using some of those same styles appears in this 1945 full-page line ad that has much better design than the DC house ads that came before it, in my opinion. The page is unified by the central cloud or explosion and the radiating lines from it, while the arrangement of the covers, the use of the black band and reversed type at the bottom, and the general symmetry of the page show that whoever did this probably had showcard lettering experience at least. Showcard lettering was then being used for all kinds of advertising, from coming attractions signs in movie theaters, to signs in stores, to magazine and newspaper ads. The design elements are much like what Ira Schnapp would soon be doing on DC ads. Is this one of his early efforts? The lettering styles make me less sure, but I think it is. Note that the books in this ad are now all from National Comics.

From DETECTIVE COMICS #104, Oct 1945

A long series of alphabetical inside page ads beginning with this one combine animal cartoons with promotion of the company bullet symbol and titles. They often use similar lettering styles to the ones above, but not always. Was the cartoonist and the letterer the same person? I doubt it, but I’m not sure. I can only say that DC house ads in the 1940s are a confusing mixture of elements, and were likely from many hands. I’d say the lettering here is not by Ira.

From ACTION COMICS #105, Feb. 1947

Ira Schnapp’s first work for DC Comics, as he told a young Michael Uslan, was revamping Joe Shuster’s Superman logo in 1940, which first appeared on the cover of SUPERMAN #6 that year. Ira did variations on that logo such as the SUPERBOY one in the ad above from 1947, and other logos for the company. I’ve written a three-part article on who I think might have designed the company’s 1940s logos that begins HERE. I believe Ira was doing other kinds of freelance work then, including logos and cover lettering for DC owners Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz’s pulp magazines, and showcard lettering for movie theaters in Manhattan. He gradually also began lettering comics covers and stories, but pinpointing his early work is difficult. I have a theory that someone else with similar skills to Ira began working at DC by the mid 1940s, and I’ve nicknamed him Proto-Schnapp. Initially I thought Proto-Schnapp’s work WAS early work by Ira, and that’s still a possibility, but I came to doubt it because the story and cover work in (to me) two styles was appearing at the same time in the late 1940s, and often in the same issues. While it’s sometimes hard to tell them apart, I felt there was more than one letterer’s work involved. There was no reason then for a letterer to have two different styles, even close ones, as the only task was to get the work done. I think Ira picked up some of Proto’s styles and added them to his own repertoire of Art Deco and classic alphabets. In general, though, Proto’s style was bouncier and more cartoony, something on display in this ad. Some comparisons of what I think are Proto and Ira’s story lettering are in THIS post, but I want to emphasize the idea that I am making guesses here that might or might not be right.

From ACTION COMICS $107, April 1947

Another 1947 house ad with a logo I think was designed by Ira Schnapp surrounded by what I call typical Proto-Schnapp lettering. It has a generally lively and cartoony bounce that is often missing from Ira’s work.

From ACTION COMICS #108, May 1947

Here’s another 1947 house ad that at first glance says “Ira Schnapp,” but is it? The open lettering style at the top is certainly one Ira used often. In the text below that, FAVORITE ACTION TEAM has letters where the strokes cross through each other, something Ira rarely did later, but perhaps he was doing it then. The layout of the ad and the regularity of the lettering suggests Ira to me, so I am calling this his work, but you can see why I have trouble! I think Proto-Schnapp lettered many DC house ads from 1945 to 1949, but some are by Ira, and there were always some by other letterers or staffers as well as a few using type, and in rare cases series artists like Sheldon Mayer did their own ad lettering.

From ACTION COMICS #110, July 1947

Is this ad by Ira Schnapp or Proto-Schnapp? I’m not sure, but I’m leaning toward Ira.

From ACTION COMICS #113, Oct 1947

This one definitely looks like Proto-Schnapp, very bouncy and full of letters with small gaps, something I don’t think Ira did often if at all.

From ACTION COMICS #137, Oct 1947

Proto or Ira? The background art and wood sign seem like Ira’s work. I’m less sure about the lettering but I’m leaning toward Schnapp on this one.

From ACTION COMICS #114, Nov 1947

I also think this one is by Ira, as the lettering is even and regular in most places. These last few ads all share similar styles, though, making it difficult to decide.

From DETECTIVE COMICS #131, Jan. 1948

Another typical ad used on inside front covers in the 1940s, with company information and title list on the left, the book’s indicia below, and the ad in the remaining space. I don’t know who did the cartoon characters and title, but the lettering looks like the work of Ira Schnapp, matching his work on story pages of the time. It could also be Proto-Schnapp, they were similar, but the tiny and distinctive question marks say Ira to me, as do the very square and even letters.

From DETECTIVE COMICS #131, Jan 1948

On the other hand, while the design and layout might suggest Ira Schnapp on this ad from the same release month, the bounce in the lettering says Proto-Schnapp to me. I can’t be sure on this one.

From DETECTIVE COMICS #132, Feb 1948

Here’s another puzzler with design and layout that suggest Ira Schnapp but lettering that doesn’t seem right for him. Or maybe we’re seeing Ira’s DC ad work developing gradually here, I don’t know.

From DETECTIVE COMICS #138, Aug 1948

Is this attractive ad the work of Ira Schnapp or Proto-Schnapp? The design and background elements are similar to many ads Ira did in the 1950s, and the lettering is generally regular and even, so I think it’s by Ira.

From DETECTIVE COMICS #141, Nov 1948

This ad seems like classic Ira Schnapp work to me in every way.

From ACTION COMICS #129, Feb. 1949

This new SUPERBOY logo is another one designed by Ira Schnapp. Could he have been assigned to do a house ad for the new series? I think so, the layout and design as well as the regularity and evenness of the lettering say Ira to me.

This variation for the second issue has the same lettering except for a few words at the bottom, and is a good example of ad variants that I am not counting as separate ads in this survey, and sometimes will not even show or mention.

From SECRET HEARTS #2, Feb/March 1950, Simcoe Publishing of Canada

Finally, there’s this startling ad that was not published in any American comics, but instead in Canadian versions of DC issues from 1948 to 1950 by publishers National Comics of Canada and Simcoe Publishing. These were almost replica editions of U.S. versions with the addition of “Published in Canada” on the front cover and a different indicia on the inside front cover. This ad often ran on the back cover. The relationship between National of Canada/Simcoe and America’s National Comics (DC) is not known, but the ad certainly seems to be the work of Ira Schnapp. The huge three-dimensional tagline is in the style of his Superman logo but with more Art Deco letterforms, and the caption is typical of his work. The abstract background is unusual, but well crafted in a showcard style I think Schnapp might have used. The story here may never be known, but I’m going to count this ad for Ira. Note that the DC bullet symbol is the earlier version before Ira revamped it in 1949, so confirming the date of the ad’s creation as before that. There may be other Schnapp house ads from this period that I’ve missed, but of the ones I’ve seen, all I can attribute to Ira are here.

From ACTION COMICS #135, Aug. 1949

Beginning in August, 1949, a new type of house ad began appearing regularly in DC Comics that wasn’t selling any kind of product. DC had run similar public service ads in the early 1940s to support U.S. World War Two home front efforts like collecting scrap paper and buying War Bonds, but with this series, the brain child of editor Jack Schiff who probably wrote many of them, DC began promoting a wide range of topics to readers that were meant to be helpful and beneficial. No one paid them to do this as far as I know. The text at the bottom reads, “Published as a public service in cooperation with the Advertising Council. This page appears in more than 10,000,000 magazines of the National Comics Group (Superman Publications).” Artists and characters from across the DC line were used, and many, like this first one, were lettered by Ira Schnapp in the same style as his story pages. Ira found a place with these ads in nearly every DC comic from this point until he left the company in 1968. From the style of the title to the balloon shapes and lettering, this is Ira’s work, and it meant that his style was becoming familiar to every DC comics reader, even in comics where he lettered nothing else.

From DETECTIVE COMICS #151, Sept. 1949

The second PSA, also lettered by Schnapp, features Smokey Bear, created in 1945 by the Ad Council, the U.S. Forest Service and others to help prevent forest fires, along with DC’s funny animal character Peter Porkchops.

From ALL-AMERICAN WESTERN #110, Oct. 1949

The PSA campaign must have been well planned in advance, as once it was rolling, nearly every month featured a new one for many years. Schnapp lettered this one featuring Buzzy, a DC teen humor character, and it has a fine title.

From ACTION COMICS #139, Dec. 1949

The fourth and final PSA to appear in comics with a 1949 cover date features The Green Arrow, and is again lettered by Ira Schnapp. While Proto-Schnapp and others were lettering many of the DC house ads in the 1940s, Ira had begun doing his part. In the rest of this series of articles I will be looking at DC ads by Ira from each year he was at the company, and also a few by others. For the 1940s, I can only claim 14 ads I believe are lettered by Schnapp, but as we move forward into the 1950s, that number will grow fast.

Here’s a list of DC PSAs on Mikes Amazing World of Comics website, which is helpful for reference, though I think I’ve found a few he missed.

More articles like this are on the COMICS CREATION page of my blog.

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