Ira Schnapp’s DC Ads: 1943-44

All images © DC Comics. From ACTION COMICS #70, March 1944

This series of articles will look at the work of Ira Schnapp for DC Comics other than his logos, cover lettering, and story lettering, which will be mostly his house ads. The earliest work I know of by Schnapp at DC was his revamp of the Superman logo by Joe Shuster that first appeared on the cover of SUPERMAN #6 dated Sept-Oct 1940. We know that was his first logo because he told a young Michael Uslan so. Ira designed a few variations of the logo for trademark registration, and by 1943 he was starting to get other work at National (DC) Comics. At the time I think Ira was mostly working as a self-employed showcard sign letterer for movie theaters in Manhattan, and probably also doing logos and cover lettering for the pulp magazines published by Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz, as described on my blog beginning HERE. In the late 1930s, Schnapp had written and produced a series of illustrated articles about fine art called “The Art of the Ages” that he had hoped to sell to a newspaper syndicate for distribution to many newspapers, but had not succeeded. It ran only in one newspaper as far as I know. You can read about that HERE. Around September of 1943, Schnapp began lettering the Superman daily newspaper strip. He was also put on the Sunday strips soon after that, and added the Batman strips by early summer of 1944. That represented quite a lot of lettering work, but Ira must have been fast and reliable, and he was soon also lettering comic book covers and stories for DC too.

Ira’s background in showcard sign work made him an excellent choice to work on DC house ads, which were pages advertising the company’s comics running in those comics. Comic books had very few options for publicity, so house ads were important. Right from the start, Ira was also asked to letter pages promoting public service and charity work like the one above raising money for the March of Dimes, founded by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938. It seems likely Ira was in favor of such work, and perhaps he even donated his lettering for such early charity work. There’s plenty of it in this ad in the style he was using at the time on the Superman strips in addition to fine upper and lower case lettering. Before we look at more of Ira’s work, let’s examine what was in a comic book in 1943.

ACTION COMICS #57, cover-dated Feb 1943, has Superman art on the front cover under the “trade dress,” which is the logo and all the other repeating elements around it at the top. Joe Shuster’s original Superman logo still appears above the character in the circle at upper left. The “DC Bullet” symbol is at upper right. The Action Comics logo (designer unknown) fills most of the top third of the image, and other information is set in type. This cover has a caption and story title on the side of the jack-in-the-box not by Schnapp, I don’t know who lettered it. Below are images from all the other items in the issue.

The inside front cover has lots of typeset information including an advisory board, a list of the company’s titles, a list of recommended books, a code message for members of the Superman fan club who had the decoder, and the indicia running across the bottom with legal information. On some issues the area in the right column contained a house ad.

Superman’s lead story begins on the first inside page and continues to page 13.

Next, that Superman fan club could be joined using this coupon, and the text describes a heroic soldier…

…who is also featured on this comics page that follows.

Next is a half-page gag cartoon by Henry Boltinoff and a half-page house ad for SUPERMAN #21. The lettering on this ad is not terrible, but not very well done either, and perhaps by the same person who did the cartoon figures. That might have been a DC production person.

A Vigilante story is next running 12 pages.

Then we have a page with several paid ads plus another gag cartoon by Boltinoff and small public service ad promoting war bonds and stamps. The bottom paid ad has lettering similar to what Ira Schnapp would do later, but is likely not by him, though it shows the kind of display lettering he used was not unique to him. It was out there being produced by many letterers for all kinds of advertisers, stores, magazines and businesses.

This wartime comics feature next ran six pages.

Followed by another Boltinoff half-pager and two quarter-page house ads. The one on the left promotes WORLD’S FINEST COMICS, the one on the right touts HEADLINE COMICS from another publisher, Prize. Odd as it may seem now, DC did run ads from other comics publishers through most of the 1940s. The lettering on these ads is again okay but not great, and hard to read in places.

Next is another patriotic comics adventure starring Americommando that runs eight pages.

Stamp collecting was a popular hobby at the time, and this page has a column about that as well as many small paid ads on the subject.

To get second class mailing permits, most comics had to include a text story that was usually two pages, as this one is. That permit allowed subscription copies to be mailed at a lower rate.

Then there’s a Congo Bill story running 6 pages.

Followed by another half page of gags by Boltinoff and a half-page house ad for Comic Cavalcade, published by DC’s sister company All-American Comics. More lettering on that which I think is readable but poorly done.

The last comics story in the book features Zatara and runs nine pages.

Then we have a full page house ad of the type I call a “line ad” because it promotes many titles from the company’s line of comics. In this case it includes issues from both National/DC (BATMAN, LEADING COMICS) and All-American (the rest). The lettering does the job, but is not well crafted.

The inside back cover is a paid ad that utilizes comics storytelling, as many did.

And the back cover is another paid ad in color (and with the better printing of cover paper) featuring a candy bar.

To sum up, this 68-page comic (including covers) has lots of reading material for your dime! Stories with comics art comprise 56 pages over six features plus the front cover and war hero page. Humor fillers make up about two pages. Text fills about four and a half pages, and paid ads are on about three pages. House ads make up about two and a half pages. House ads at the time were probably put together and lettered in the DC production department by staffers who were not as skilled at lettering as the freelancers and/or artists lettering the story pages, and it shows.

From DETECTIVE COMICS #36, Feb. 1940

House ads were present from the beginning of comics and early ones were often done with set type, like the example above. It gave them a professional look, but type and comics art are often not a good match. Also, set type could not be produced at the comics company through most of the 1940s, it had to be ordered from a type house using careful specifications and limited to the fonts available. Hand lettering was quicker and easier.

From ACTION COMICS #60, May 1943

The problem was that the people doing the lettering in DC house ads in the early 1940s just weren’t good letterers, in my opinion. The obvious skills of someone like Ira Schnapp made a huge improvement that must have been clear to the editors, and gradually over the next few years Ira was given more and more house ad work.

From DETECTIVE COMICS #81, Nov 1943

The first house ad I can find that I think is lettered by Schnapp is this one, though I have only a very poor scan of it. This Batman movie promotion, though small in size at about a third of a comics page, is right up Ira’s alley, and probably similar to movie showcards he was already doing elsewhere. The public service ad at the top of this article is the second one I found by him. I will be using cover dates to define my articles, but you should remember that comics were released about two months ahead of the cover date, and work in them was produced at least a month before that, often more, so this early ad by Ira was probably done in July or August of 1943. The ad might have run a month earlier in some comics. The Batman serial had 15 chapters that began appearing weekly in July of 1943, but probably started a month or more later in some places. Even so, this ad appearance in a comic out in September 1943 seems a bit late.

From ACTION COMICS #72, May 1944

This public service ad promoting wartime paper drives is the third one I found lettered by Schnapp. I have scans of most DC comics from the 1940s, but not all of them, and some of the scans don’t include ad pages, so it’s possible I’ve missed a few, but since house ads were run in multiple titles, I feel pretty sure I caught most of them. Ads using only type continued to be common in the 1940s and were still being used in the early 1950s. Ads lettered by people other than Ira were also common through the 1940s, but gradually diminished as Ira’s work met favor.

From BATMAN #25, Oct-Nov 1944

Here’s an unusual public service ad suggesting readers collect milkweed floss (attached to the seeds to make them float in the air) to fill life vests for sailors and soldiers. Schnapp’s style is most evident in the larger lettering on the left.

From SUPERMAN #31, Nov-Dec 1944

This Superman speech balloon added to the Supermen of America ad is a kind of public service message. In it, Schnapp uses the style he was also using on Superman newspaper strips and stories with very wide letters and an upcurved right leg on the letter R, something he picked up from the previous Superman letterer Frank Shuster.

From DETECTIVE COMICS #93, Nov 1944

Finally in this last Schnapp house ad appearing in 1944 issues we see Ira beginning to use his skills to promote DC titles. This ad is simple but effective, and compare the design skills to those by others that came before. As would be the case in many more ads to come, Ira used well-balanced geometric shapes (circles, rectangles, and an arrow) as well as excellent use of black in the areas where the lettering is reversed white. That would have been done in the DC production department by making a negative photostat of Ira’s normally drawn black lettering, but surely his idea. The styles of lettering are not much like what Schnapp would do later, but they do match what he was doing on story titles and covers at the time.

To sum up, I found one house ad by Ira in 1943 and five in 1944 for a total of six for those years. More to come in individual posts for each year. Other articles in this series and more about Ira Schnapp and other letterers can be found on the COMICS CREATION page of my blog.

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