In 1950, the offices of National Comics Publications, also sometimes known as Detective Comics, Inc (and incorporating the former All-American Publications) had been inhabiting offices on the ninth floor of the Grand Central Palace building for about twelve years. The company’s comics had sold like crazy from the late 1930s through mid 1940s with their characters Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman leading the way, but after World War Two enthusiasm for super-heroes began to wane, and the company was trying all kinds of new genres and directions like westerns, romance, teen humor, Hollywood stars, crime and horror (the latter two much milder efforts than many other companies). Editors at the company were looking for ways to increase sales, and to do that they wanted more control over the product. The editors were already working closely with their writers, hammering out plots together so there would be no surprises, but the old method of turning over the script to an artist or shop boss and having them bring it back complete, already pencilled, lettered and inked, was not ideal. Editors like Julius Schwartz wanted to be involved in every step of the process: hiring the best writers, working with them on story plots and ideas, hiring a penciller right for each story, getting it lettered correctly, having it inked by the right person of their choice (whether for style or speed), and so on. In other words, the job was being divided up, with editors having more say and control over each part of the process. To help with this, Julie desperately wanted an in-house letterer he could work with directly on his books. He found one in Gaspar Saladino.
Gaspar has long said that he began working at National (DC) Comics in 1951, but in a lengthy article beginning HERE, my research showed his first lettering for editor Julie Schwartz appeared in ROMANCE TRAIL #5 cover-dated March-April, 1950. Since that issue actually appeared on the newsstands around January of 1950, that meant Gaspar must have lettered it in 1949, perhaps in October or November of that year. Gaspar was 22, and a graduate of the School of Industrial Art (later the High School of Art and Design) in Manhattan, class of 1945. He served in the Army for two years, and by 1947 was home pounding the pavements, looking for art jobs. He had done some inking work for Lloyd Jacquet’s shop in high school, but had no other comics experience. Some of his high school classmates like Alex Toth and Carmine Infantino were working for National, though, and he did up some sample art pages and took them to the offices at 480 Lexington for an interview. He saw production manager Sol Harrison (himself a graduate of that same high school, and always friendly to other alumni), who took his samples around to show the editors. Julie Schwartz said he didn’t like Gaspar’s art enough to hire him for that, but he did like his lettering, and offered regular lettering work, which Gaspar was glad to get.
Gaspar claims he had never done any comics lettering until those samples, but his earliest stories in ROMANCE TRAIL #5 show he came to the job with lots of talent, and only improved over the next few months. Above is an example from JIMMY WAKELY #7, cover-dated Sept.-Oct., 1950, already showing his firm hand and excellent style.
Julie wanted Gaspar to work in the office so he could have more control over the lettering, and get corrections done quickly. Julie had been getting some in-house lettering help from two high school students, one named Arthur Secunda (Gaspar doesn’t remember the other name), but otherwise this was a new situation at the company, except for the case of Ira Schnapp, who was doing most of the logos, cover lettering and house ads (and I believe had only been on staff himself for about a year). At first, Gaspar sat at a drawing board in the production room or bullpen between Ira Schnapp and production artist Mort Drucker, but after about a month, he moved to a drawing board right in the office shared by Julie and Robert Kanigher, and worked there for some years. Gaspar was still technically a freelancer, working for $2 a page, but he was required to be in the office from 9 to 5 Monday through Friday, like the rest of the staff. At the end of the week he’d submit a voucher for his work, on average nine pages a day or 45 pages a week, and get paid. The pages were often full of copy, lots of captions and balloons, which is why they took that long to letter, but $90 a week was good pay at the time, and Gaspar was quite happy with the arrangement. His talent pleased everyone he worked for, and Saladino lettering was soon in high demand at National Comics.
Gaspar is still pretty sharp at age 86, and he and I have been talking more in the past year than we did for a dozen years previously, about the article I’ve just described, as well as some new lettering and a new logo design he’s completed recently. I’ve been asking him regularly to draw me a floor plan of the offices at 480 Lexington Avenue as he remembers them from when he started working there, and at last he came through, and mailed it to me. We’ll discuss it next.
The plan is drawn on two standard pieces of typing paper, in this first image I’ve combined them to give an overview of the entire layout. Note that the blank areas where he’s written Page 1 and Page 2 were not part of the comics offices, probably other businesses accessed from the outside hallway. Gaspar says that as you entered the building (probably through the smaller side entrance in the top photo above) you came to the elevators and went up to the ninth floor. As the elevator doors opened you were looking directly at the offices of Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz. There was a receptionist for the entire floor at that location. Donenfeld’s other companies like Independent News were on the floor somewhere, but you walked down a long hallway to the National Comics entrance. Gaspar remembers the windows in the editors’ offices, at the top of this floor plan, faced Lexington Avenue, or the east side and main facade of the building. I’ve circled those windows in red on the top photo above.
Here’s a closer look at the left side of the layout. The long hallway would have been at the bottom of this page. I’m going to assume this is the layout in 1950. Gaspar has the entrance marked “National Periodicals, Inc.,” but Paul Levitz tells me that name was not used until the 1960s. The company was known as National Comics, Inc. at this time, I believe. You entered the reception area, which Gaspar remembers had a couch and a large mural of Superman on one wall. Not shown next to the entrance to the hallway was a glass window. A receptionist sat there (perhaps where the left end of the hallway is) and would take names and appointment information from visitors, or buzz in employees. She was also the switchboard operator for the offices, taking calls and directing them to the office phones, a typical setup for a receptionist at the time.
Once into the hall, the editors’ offices ran along the left side, much as described by Julie Schwartz in Part 3 of this article. First was the office of editor-in-chief Whitney Ellsworth. Gaspar doesn’t remember seeing or talking to him much. By that time, Ellsworth was focused on Superman movies and the upcoming TV show, and would leave his New York staff position in 1953 and relocate to California as the company’s Hollywood liaison.
The second office held Managing Editor Jack Schiff and his three assistants, George Kashdan (replacing the recently deceased Bernie Breslauer), Murray Boltinoff, and Mort Weisinger, who also edited the Superman books on his own. While Gaspar’s drawing is not meant to be to scale, this looks like one crowded office! In addition to the Superman and Batman titles, these folks were editing some humor books, and new genre titles like MR. DISTRICT ATTORNEY and GANGBUSTERS.
The next office held Larry Nadle, one of the former All-American editors whose specialty was humor comics.
In addition to continuing to edit former All-American humor titles like FUNNY STUFF, Larry was soon adding Hollywood humor books like THE ADVENTURES OF BOB HOPE. Larry’s go-to artist on many of the latter was Bob Oksner, a partnership that continued on their side venture, the comic strip version of the “I Love Lucy” TV show which ran from 1952-1955, from King Features. The picture of Nadle and Oksner above has nothing to do with the National Comics offices, but it’s such a great one I couldn’t resist running it.
Romance comics were another popular genre, created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in the late 1940s with YOUNG ROMANCE and YOUNG LOVE for Prize Comics. National later bought those titles, but first launched some of their own. Robert Kanigher was the editor initially, but he soon had help.
In a 2001 interview, Irwin Donenfeld says: “I hired a young lady named Zena Brody, and she put out four (romance) magazines, and they did very well.” At the time, all the books had only Whitney Ellsworth’s name on the indicia as editor, so it’s hard to know when Zena Brody actually began editing the romance titles, but as Gaspar remembers, she was on staff when he started. Since writing this article I’ve learned much more about Zena, and have written about her in a separate post HERE. In an article in Robin Snyder’s “The Comics” published in 2001, Robert Kanigher wrote, “When the books were well and truly launched, Whit(ney Ellsworth) told me to teach a smart college girl he had just hired to be the editor of the romance line. Zena Brody was an excellent editor.” I should also add, the picture above is the only one I’ve found that has to be from the production room at 480 Lexington. You can see two typical drawing boards, chairs against the wall, and in the front of the picture is an artist’s taboret or side table with art supplies on it. Zena was probably proofreading a story at the time. Her name did occasionally appear in the romance comics as editor beginning around 1955. The photo by Jack Adler “brings back a lot of memories,” Gaspar told me. I would guess any woman on the staff at the time would have received a lot of attention.
Jay Emmett was the most surprising name to find on Gaspar’s floor plan. Jay later developed Licensing Corporation of America into a huge business for DC and its parent company Warner Communications, licensing their own characters and many others, and became an important executive at the larger company. In 1950 he was 21, and apparently had been given a staff job by his uncle, Jack Liebowitz. Jay probably helped with the romance books and Larry Niles’ humor books. The Grand Comics Database lists him as the writer of a series of text pages titled “A Bit of Disc and Data,” which sounds like it was about popular music on records, that appeared in THE ADVENTURES OF BOB HOPE and a few other titles. Gaspar remembers him being on the phone a lot, and having a busy social life around town.
Moving on down the hall, the next office on the left was where Gaspar’s drawing board was, and he has it facing the windows overlooking Lexington Avenue. The many circles above the “Writer’s Desk” represent the fact that it was an open desk for any writer to sit and work, and Gaspar told me that most of them had stories to tell while they were there, which he enjoyed listening to.
Julius Schwartz had come over from All-American about 1945 with Ted Udall. Kanigher was hired as an editor to replace Udall when he left in 1946. I suspect the two men did not necessarily enjoy sharing the office, but that’s only my guess. In later years, Kanigher bristled at the idea they had “co-edited” anything, for instance. Kanigher was a prolific writer for the company, and was editing the Wonder Woman books, while helping out with other things like the romance titles.
Kanigher started and edited the company’s war comics beginning in 1952.
Julie’s super-hero books from All-American were failing, and being cancelled one by one, so he was trying new genres. His ROMANCE TRAIL combining the romance and western genres was actually the company’s first romance title. He also edited westerns like JIMMY WAKELY, but westerns were not something he knew much about. When assigned the latter title, he famously said, “Who the **** is Jimmy Wakely?” (He was a singing cowboy in the Gene Autry – Roy Rogers mode, but not as successful.)
Julie’s passion was science fiction, and his two anthologies in that genre were filled with stories by writers from the field that Julie had worked with as an agent, as well as his regular comics scripters like Gardner Fox. Early issues were among the first, or perhaps THE first National comics to feature writers’ names on the cover, as a potential draw to SF fans. They did pretty well, but it was the return of golden-age heroes like The Flash and Green Lantern in new, revamped versions beginning in tryouts in SHOWCASE in 1956 that really put the company back in the super-hero business in a big way, and soon made Julie a rising star at the company.
Last of the editorial offices was that of Irwin Donenfeld, looking out on the production room in Gaspar’s floor plan, and with glass window panels, as Gaspar remembers. This was probably Sheldon Mayer’s office until he left in 1948, and perhaps had been used as a dumping spot for artwork and other files, hence Irwin’s early task of clearing that out. Irwin claimed to have been the first kid to read Superman in ACTION COMICS #1 when his father Harry brought the artwork home to see what he thought of it. Irwin liked it, thought it was good. In a 2001 interview, Irwin said he decided he wanted to go into family publishing business when he was seven. When he arrived in 1948, Irwin reported: “Whitney Ellsworth had the company all set up. All my editors were there, and the writers were there…and I was just there to help out until Whit Ellsworth went to California (in 1953). And then I became the head of the whole thing.” Irwin also said that he spent a lot of time at Independent News as well. “I would go around to all the people that worked there and arrange for them to send me all their reports…One day I saw somebody had put out a war book. I got hold of it, and it was selling quite well, and I said, ‘We have to have war books, too.’ I decided on Bob Kanigher (as editor)…and we did very, very well with the war books.” You can read more about Irwin’s approach to running the company in ALTER EGO #26, but it’s clear that at the time, covers were a major selling point, and what went on them of deep interest and serious research. The insides of the books were the editors’ affair, and Irwin didn’t get involved in that much.
Beyond Irwin’s office was the area where the production managers sat, in a corner of the production room. We’ve already met Sol Harrison, the Production Manager. Mack Liebowitz might have sat in the other desk there previously, but when Gaspar started it was occupied by Eddie Eisenberg, an old friend of Sol’s from his engraving days. I haven’t found a picture or much about Eisenberg, but he would have learned the comics business from the engraving side, and was probably the one dealing with schedules and printers at this time, and perhaps helping Sol with the coloring. Alex Jay found he was born in 1916, so would have been 34 in 1950. He served in the army from 1942-1945, and died in Florida in 1998. In the 1940 census, assuming we have the right man, he listed his occupation as “artist.”
Sol worked at several of the engravers handling comics in the 1930s and 1940s, after being taught much about the business in high school by a man named Jack Fabrikant.
Sol kept in touch with many of his Fabrikant classmates, and brought them in to Strauss Engraving (also known as Photochrome) in the early 1940s when he was hired to set up a second shift at their 487 Broadway location, including Jack Adler (center seat, front row), Eisenberg, Tom Nicholosi and Jerry Serpe, all of whom came to work at National in the 1950s. Note that the covers seen at the left date this photo to no earlier than 1943.
While Sol and his engraver friends worked in several locations, including one on Canal Street, this is the only building I have a firm address for. It was completed in 1896, designed by architect John T. Williams, and is known as the Renaissance Loft Building. Sol remembers it being a great place for the engravers. As it was only three windows wide, there was lots of light, and they had plenty of space. I haven’t learned what floor Photochrome occupied.
In the big production room, the seat closest to the bosses held Raymond Perry. He’d been a comics artist in the early years, having illustrated “Ivanhoe” in the first DC comic, NEW FUN, later MORE FUN, and continued to create art for National.
He was also a well-respected fine artist whose work still sells at art auctions today. His obituary listed his job title at National Comics as Art Editor. I suspect this was a largely ceremonial title, if correct, indicating his seniority in the bullpen, though he may have had some authority over the other production artists. Perry was a long-time friend of Ira Schnapp, at the next drawing board. Perry was 74 years old in 1950. He had studied art in Chicago and New York, and listed his job title as “painter, illustrator and designer” in the 1930 census. I’m not sure when he left staff, but he died in a nursing home in 1960.
The job of production artist consisted of doing art and lettering corrections on finished pages, and assembling and pasting together the trade dress on the covers (logo, price box, cover lettering, company symbol, and so on), as well as putting together text pages and letter columns, advertising material and house ads, everything that went into the comics. The large table Gaspar has labelled “Production Table for All Copy” was the common workspace for everyone, and where finished materials would be assembled to be sent to the printer. When Gaspar started, he said coloring was not being done there, though I believe Sol Harrison was doing color guides for the covers. Most of the coloring was done at an engraving house, probably Chemical Color in Connecticut, though I don’t know when National started working with them. In the early days, color choices were often left up to the engravers, other than to establish colors for the costumes of the super-heroes. Gradually the company moved to creating color guides themselves for the stories, beginning with Sol on the covers, and adding a team of in-house colorists as the 1950s went on, which I’ll discuss later.
I’ve written plenty about Ira Schnapp already, and you can find those articles on my LOGO LINKS and COMICS CREATION pages. Sadly, I haven’t found a photo of him, the art above is the only image I have. Ira was 56 in 1950. He began designing some logos for the company in 1940, starting with the revamp of Joe Shuster’s Superman logo, and was also, I think, doing logos and cover lettering for Harry Donenfeld’s pulp magazines well before that.
As the pulp market dried up, Schnapp found a staff position at National Comics, and single-handedly created a house style for the company through his logos, cover lettering and house ads until the late 1960s.
The seat Gaspar has marked “Any Artist” is where he sat when he first began working on staff, before moving into Julie’s office. On the other side was Mort Drucker, now celebrated as a MAD MAGAZINE artist, then a production artist. Gaspar remembers him always working hard on his art at the time, staying in at lunch to do so instead of going out like most of the crew. Obviously all that effort paid off when he began getting work from Bill Gaines at MAD around 1957, and was able to draw full-time and leave his staff position. Drucker was 21 in 1950.
I haven’t found out much about the remaining two names on Gaspar’s floor plan. Ray (Dupree) Burnley was the brother of long-time National Comics artist Jack Burnley, and assisted him by doing backgrounds and inking. He began getting his own inking work some time in the 1940s. Ray was born before 1911, making him probably in his mid 40s. Henry Fluscher I know nothing about. Gaspar remembers him as a Frenchman with an interest in fine art who did not think too highly of comics. There may well have been a few more drawing boards in the “bullpen” for any artist to sit and finish or make corrections on his work before turning it in.
Milton Snapinn’s office was not included in Gaspar’s floorplan, but he thinks it was off the production room, maybe at the back end. Milt’s long career with the company involved preparing material for foreign publishers. This may have been done in production originally by cutting up black and white proofs made from the film negatives and assembling them into packages for reprinting. In his 2001 interview, Irwin Donenfeld reported, “(The artwork) went to the engraver and he took a photograph of it. From that, he made a black and white silver print which came back to us, and our colorists colored it in. And from the colored version, they made the engraving and were able to print the book. So one day I said to Sol Harrison, ‘What are they doing with the negatives?’ He said, ‘They put it in a bath and they get all the silver out of it.’ ‘Call them. Malarkey. I want them.’ And from then on, every magazine we published, I got all the negatives.”
Once Milt had negatives to work with, he could paint out all the lettering with red opaque paint (removable later if needed), then make a new print from the negatives for foreign reprints with all the english lettering removed. Foreign publishers could have their own letterers add translated text in their language. Starting with blank spaces made their job easier. This sounds simple, but in fact was a lot of work that kept Milt busy for decades.
I’m going to do one final part of this article to cover the addition of staff colorists and a few other staff changes in the later 1950s, as well as acknowledgments and sources. Coming up next!