Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Francis DiMenno. Thank you Francis!
The origin of the Pulps (so called for the cheap paper they were printed on) date back to the 19th century. In 1860 dime novels arose as spin-offs to adventure stories published in the weekly papers, and were read in great numbers by soldiers of the Union Army during the Civil War. Frank Munsey’s “cheap fiction weekly for boys and girls,” The Golden Argosy, debuted in December of 1882, and this development marked the beginnings of pulp literature as we know it. By the 1920s and 1930s, the pulps were phenomenally popular; they began their decline in the late 1930s, supplanted in part by the rise of the comic book. The pulps, as a genre, were to last until 1955.
Newspaper comic strips effectively originated in 1896. By 1915, daily strips were a recognizable phenomenon; they were firmly established by the 1920s. The first American collection of “comic strips and cartoons,” A.B. Frost’s Stuff and Nonsense, appeared in 1884; newspaper strips in comic book form first appeared as early as 1897. But the pioneer effort in mass-marketing the comic book was George Delacourt’s abortive 1929, 36-issue run of Dell Publishing Company’s The Funnies, “the first regular comics magazine to be published and sold on newsstands.”
The newspaper comic strip and the pulps had a great many similarities which made them the ideal hatching ground for the modern comic book: the pulps contributed the genre conventions, significantly, the template of the action-adventure hero; the serially published news stand magazine format; and the combination of print and illustration. The comic strip contributed the basic format, and the convention of the continuity strip, which was a serially told story with words and pictures.
“When there were no premier [comic] strips left to recycle,” Major Wheeler-Nicholson’s tabloid-sized New Fun became the first four-color comic book to feature previously unpublished comic strips. It was cover-dated February 1935, and was later to be called More Fun.
Early in 1937 Donenfeld and Wheeler-Nicholson formed Detective Comics, Inc. The initial issue of Detective Comics, cover-dated March 1937, was among the first to gather all-new single-themed material and present it in four colors. Wheeler-Nicholson lost control of his titles around February 1938; by June his assets were “purchased…at a bankruptcy auction” by his former printer and business partner Harry Donenfeld, who, with his partner, Russian-born Jacob Liebowitz, founded Detective Comics, also known as DC Comics.
What is not widely known is that many of the principal comic book publishers got their start in the pulps. The list reads like a who’s who of industry heavyweights: Martin Goodman (Timely); John L. Goldwater (Archie); George T. Delacorte (Dell); Lev Gleason (Crime Does Not Pay), and Harry Donenfeld (Superman-DC).
But who was Harry Donenfeld? Was he a legitimate businessman–or something else?
The comic book industry, according Harry Donenfeld’s son Irwin (as cited by interviewer Robert Beerbohm), was established in part by “bootlegger mob money.” According to comics historian Gerard Jones, there is also speculation that in the 1920s Harry was working via Frank Costello, a notorious gangster, to move illegal alcohol from the Canadian border along with shipments of pulp paper. Donenfeld’s fortune was made when, in 1923, though Hearst newspaper salesman Moe Annenberg, another mobbed-up businessman, he gained a lucrative contract to print supplements for popular magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Good Housekeeping.
Harry was a very level-headed businessman, always eager to seize the main chance, and apparently, in other respects he was a very hard man. Also in 1923, he forced his two older brothers out of their partnership in Martin Press and renamed it Donny Press. With the help of partners, Harry Donenfeld launched Independent News Company in 1932, making him both a publisher and distributor.
In May 1932, Frank Armer was compelled to surrender two of his “Girlie Pulp” titles to Harry Donenfeld for printing debts owed; “in like manner, Donenfeld accrued many girlie pulp titles during the 1930s.”
Incidentally, Harry hated Superman; didn’t want to see such a ridiculous character on the cover of Action Comics, and relented only when sales figures showed that the character was a hit. (Nor did his dislike of the character prevent him from making a deal with Superman’s creators which made him a wealthy man and left them in litigation limbo for decades.)
According to William Gaines, whose father Max and his AA Publications was partnered with Donenfeld and Liebowitz, by the 1940s, “Donenfeld was the man who you might say was in charge of wholesaler relations. And the wholesalers liked Donenfeld very much and he got along with them. He was really in charge of keeping them happy and on good terms with the company.”
With a foothold already firmly entrenched in the pulps, Harry Donenfeld was one of those ruthless businessmen who had a knack for migrating the business methodologies of pulp publishers over to the nascent comic book field. According to Dale Jacobs, for both the pulps and the comic books, distribution was key to sales. If, in the 1940s, Donenfeld became something of a glad-hander, this status does not efface his earlier role as a mover and shaker–not to mention a ruthless conniver. However, this close connection of the pulps and comic books helped pave the way for a major setback for the industry.
When the newspaper comic strip first migrated to the comic book, particularly during the period 1929-1937, there had been a certain degree of quality control in terms of content, since newspaper publishers were reluctant to print syndicated material that would cause large numbers of readers to complain and possibly cancel their newspaper subscriptions. However, by 1938 nearly all comic books were almost entirely composed of original material and many publishers, some of them veterans of the pulp fiction industry, felt under no obligation to prevent objectionable material from appearing in their periodicals.
The rapid expansion of the industry in the late 1930s created chaotic conditions in which market contingencies were paramount. The more popular and lucrative that comic books became, the more their publishers sought to out-do one another. The tone of their content became even more vulgar, and as a result they began to attract more and more unfavorable notice. This culminated in the 1954 Senate Subcommittee Hearings into Juvenile Delinquency, with the special focus on Comic Books.
It is ironic, perhaps, that, by 1955,”the pulps had virtually all vanished from the stands…victim to all manner of afflictions—comics, paperbacks, television and eventually the withdrawal of their major distributor.” It is equally ironic that the success of Superman, the character so despised by Donenfeld, made it possible for Liebowitz and Donenfeld to jettison their Spicy pulp magazine line, which, according to Will Murray, “had come under intense scrutiny from public censors, and to concentrate [instead] on their safer and more profitable comic books.”