Paul Lauretta’s Comics Career 1937-40

From “The Federal Illustrator,” Summer 1939

Paolino “Paul” Joseph Lauretta was born Dec 28, 1917 in Lawrence, MA to a family of Italian immigrants. He attended Lawrence High School, where he was the staff artist for “The Lawrencian.” After graduation in 1934, he became the staff artist for a local paper, “The Lawrence Telegram.”

Paul Lauretta from The Lawrence Telegram, 1936, courtesy of Richard Phillips

Paul was an aspiring comics artist, and he created an exclusive comic strip for the paper, “Rocky Baird,” first strip seen above. I don’t have access to the newspaper, but a clipping from it I found says the strip began on Monday, June 29, 1935, and that it was to run daily. I don’t know how long it ran. The only reason we have this first strip is that it appeared in the Summer 1939 issue of a correspondence art school magazine, “The Federal Illustrator,” along with some brief information about Paul and his work. My friend and fellow comics historian Alex Jay uncovered the article, and has kindly allowed me to write about it.

From “The Federal Illustrator,” Summer 1939

Here’s the cover of the magazine, and you can see it’s copyrighted by Federal Schools, Inc. In a 2018 “Print” online article by Steven Heller, he writes:

Don’t be confused by the title. The Federal government did not actually own the Federal Schools, but there was a connection. The school was founded as the Federal School of Applied Cartooning in Minneapolis in 1914 as a branch of the Bureau of Engraving Inc. to train illustrators for both the growing printing industry and the Bureau itself. It was responsible for the ubiquitous Draw Me! ads found on matchbooks and in the columns of magazines and comics. The school actually continued until 2016.

I don’t think the school was connected to the government agency, The Bureau of Printing and Engraving, which produces postage stamps, paper currency, and other government work, The Bureau of Engraving Inc. seems to be a separate company. The fact that Lauretta was featured in their magazine suggests he took their correspondence courses, and I’m sure they were happy to promote his success with “Rocky Baird.” Lauretta also sold the strip to the Comics Magazine Company, run by William H. Cook and John F. Mahon, former employees of Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson’s fledgling comic book company (that became DC Comics) who went off on their own, taking some of the Major’s writers and artists and their work with them, and it’s possible Lauretta was one of those. “Rocky Baird” strips appeared in issues 4 and 7 of FUNNY PICTURE STORIES dated Feb and June 1937, the latter being one of the final comics from the publisher. Lauretta’s work must have been liked, because he was soon getting more work in comics, including on Superman. Before I get to that, let’s look more closely at the “Federal Illustrator” article.

Detail from “The Federal Illustrator,” Summer 1939

Here’s a closer look at two panels from the full page strip above. Lauretta was writing, doing all the art, and also the lettering. I think he was good for the time in all three areas. The balloon and caption lettering has a distinctive A with a rounded top, but is otherwise typical of comic strips of the period. The larger display lettering for SOLD! is well done.

From “The Federal Illustrator,” Summer 1939

This second page about Paul Lauretta’s work has a toned panel from his strip, and more interesting information. We learn that Lauretta has “just reported the sale to Detective Comics, Inc., New York City of a six page feature to be run each month.” That company was started by Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, but by 1939 had been taken over by Harry Donenfeld and his business partner Jack Liebowitz, and was soon known as National Comics, though the name Detective Comics endured in their DC corner symbol. The article above touts the possibility of making good money through syndicated comic strips, though I don’t think “Rocky Baird” was ever syndicated. It would be interesting to see what else there is about Lauretta in the Fall 1939 issue of the magazine, but we don’t have that one.

From ACTION COMICS #8, Jan 1939, image © DC Comics

Somehow Paul Lauretta met Superman artist and co-creator Joe Shuster and worked on the character’s ACTION COMICS strips in issues 6 to 10, cover dated Nov 1938 to March 1939. The Grand Comics Database credits him with lettering and some inking on those stories. In the sample above, the lettering certainly looks similar to the “Rocky Baird” lettering, including the round-topped A. I also think Lauretta’s art style is similar to Shuster’s, but I’m no expert on that. Did Paul travel to the Shuster studio in Cleveland, OH to do this work? If so, he didn’t stay long. His lettering is on all the Superman pages in ACTION #6-7 and 9, part of issue 8, and just the first six pages of 10. The Superman stories were all being done in Cleveland at the time as far as I know.

From MARVEL MYSTERY COMICS #2, Dec 1939, image © Marvel

Lauretta’s comics work next showed up at Timely (Marvel) with a new feature he seems to have created, American Ace. The first chapter appeared in MOTION PICTURE COMICS WEEKLY #1, a book that was produced but never distributed, alongside the first appearance of Bill Everett’s The Sub-Mariner. American Ace was not as successful, the first chapter appeared again in this issue of MARVEL MYSTERY COMICS, and another chapter was in issue #3.

From MARVEL MYSTERY COMICS #2, Dec 1939, image © Marvel

A closer look at part of the page shows the same style of Lauretta lettering with round-topped A’s as was used on “Rocky Baird” and his Superman work.

From MORE FUN COMICS #49, Nov 1939, image © DC Comics

Around the same time, another new feature created by Lauretta appeared in this title from National (DC) Comics. (I’m assuming his solo credit on these features means he wrote and drew them.) Paul was clearly working hard to come up with a successful property and shopping his work around the Manhattan publishers.

From MORE FUN COMICS #49, Nov 1939, image © DC Comics

The reproduction from microfilm is really poor on this page, but you can just make out more of the same Lauretta lettering style with the round-topped A’s, and the title work by him on all these strips is excellent.

From AMAZING MYSTERY FUNNIES #24, Sept 1940

Another new feature by Lauretta had a solo appearance in the final issue of this title from Centaur Publications, in some ways a successor to the Comics Magazine Company. More fine title work.

From AMAZING MYSTERY FUNNIES #24, Sept 1940

A closer look shows that Paul’s lettering has become more regular, and I think looks better than in earlier efforts. His A is now almost square at the top in some places. Of all these features, King Carter was the most successful, appearing in six-page installments in MORE FUN COMICS issues 49-54, the last of those dated April 1940. This is surely the feature described in the “Federal Illustrator” article as sold to Detective Comics, Inc.

That’s where Lauretta’s published comics work stopped as far as I know. I have a note from a source that I can’t locate at the moment that Paul was working on a King Carter title for National, but paper shortages caused by World War Two postponed that, and then he was drafted. Lauretta did cartoons and strips for government publications while in the army, Jerry Bails’ The Who’s Who of American Comic Books suggests that was 1942-46, and afterward did commercial art and some teaching, and was a staff artist for Western Electric, but apparently did no more comics work. He died October 20, 2000 in Methuen, Massachusetts.

Despite a promising start, Paul Lauretta’s comics career was short, and he is little remembered except for his contributions to Superman stories. Thanks to Alex Jay’s new information from “The Federal Illustrator,” we now know a bit more about it.

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