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Mania's Comic Book Legends of the 1930s & 1940s
Founding Fathers of Comics
By Tim Janson
April 27, 2014
When the first issue of Action Comics #1 came out in June 1938, then DC Publisher (known as National Allied Publications) Harry Donenfeld thought that Superman was such a silly character that he ordered his editors not to put him on a cover ever again. Sure enough, Superman did not appear on the cover of Action Comics for the next five issues. Then Donenfeld got a look at the sales figures…Superman was not only back on the cover for issue #7 but became the book’s lead character and the rest as they say is history. Action Comics #1 kicked off the Golden Age of comics and introduced characters such as Superman, Batman, Captain America, Captain Marvel, Archie, and hundreds more.
As mentioned in our introductory a couple of weeks ago we are opening Mania's Comic Book Legends by inducting 10 creators for each decade from the 30s/40s to the 1980s. Thereafter we will induct new members that the fans and readers at Mania can vote on, regardless of the era. In the opening piece of our five-part series, we introduce and induct the founding fathers of the comic book industry into Mania's Comic Book Legends. These ten creators may not have been the most talented but their creations and achievements laid the groundwork for the comics that we know and love today. Picking out the first ten was not easy and frankly we cheated with our first inductees by combining them as a team. So without further ado let’s meet the first ten honorees into Mania's Comic Book Legends.
Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster – They created Superman. Period. There’s little more that needs to be said when you are responsible for creating the greatest superhero ever. The two high school buddies from Cleveland had been trying to sell their creation for several years before DC editor took a chance on the character and put it on the cover of the first issue of their latest title Action Comics. The writer/artist team then created the Superman newspaper strip in 1939.
The creation of Superman was bittersweet for the pair, however. When DC claimed ownership of Superman, Siegel and Shuster sued the company. They eventually settled for a rather meager $94,000 but saw their byline dropped from the Superman titles. In the 1970s, superstar artist Neal Adams led the campaign to have their byline restored and also get the pair a lifetime pension from DC. In addition to co-creating Superman, Jerry Siegel also co-created The Spectre along with Bernard Baily and even worked for Marvel Comics for a short time in the 1960s as well as for Archie Comics. Joe Shuster passed away in 1992 and Jerry Siegel followed in 1996.
Will Eisner – How can you not include Will Eisner when the man has his VERY own Hall of Fame named after him? Eisner created the masked vigilante The Spirit in 1940 and the character is still being published today, now by DC Comics. Eisner brought a more sophisticated and stylistic approach to comics which would later influence artists such as Jim Steranko and Frank Miller.
In 1936 Eisner teamed with Jerry Eiger to open the Eisner & Eiger Studios. The studio employed a stable of creators that created and packaged comic book content for other studios. The studio had the ability to quickly produce content for new companies that were popping up in the fast-growing industry. They created content for Timely Comics including Marvel Comics #1 as well as numerous other publishers. Many artists and writers broke into the business working for Eisner & Eiger including Lou Fine, Bob Kane, Wally Wood, and Jack Kirby. Eisner created or co-created Golden Age heroes Doll Man, The Black Condor, The Flame, and Uncle Sam.
Joe Simon – Along with Jack Kirby, Joe Simon created a hero you may have heard of recently…Captain America! Simon was already working in the business having created the character of Blue Bolt for Novelty Press. Simon joined Kirby to do the first ten issues of Captain America but the pair left when they felt they were not being paid enough and jumped to rival DC. At DC, Simon revamped The Sandman and created (along with Kirby) Manhunter, the Boy Commandos, and the Newsboy Legion. In 1954 Simon and Kirby created the very Captain America-esque Fighting American for Prize Comics.
In the 1960s Simon created and edited the satirical magazine Sick which was a competitor of Mad Magazine. Back at DC, Simon created Brother Power the Geek. Simon continued to both write and draw right up until his death in 2011 at age 98.
Carl Barks – People may not realize that there was a time when Disney comics were nearly as popular as superhero comics and the greatest of all Disney comic book artists was Carl Barks. In a career that lasted over 60 years Barks drew and/or wrote hundreds of stories primarily featuring Donald Duck. Barks essentially constructed the entire Donald Duck universe, creating characters such as Scrooge McDuck, Gyro Gearloose, Gladstone Gander, and the town of Duckburg. Barks also served as Director for dozens of Donald Duck animated shorts, many based upon his stories. Barks became a hit on the convention circuit in the 1970s since much of his comic work had gone uncredited. His original Donald Duck oil paintings commanded several thousand dollars. Barks died in 2000 at age 99.
Alex Schomburg – Alex Schomburg was the Alex Ross of the Golden Age…an artist known primarily for his bold and dynamic covers that appeared on hundreds of comics in the 1940s and 1950s. Stan Lee once referred to him as the Norman Rockwell of comics. Schomburg got his start in the 1930s illustrating for numerous pulp magazines. In the 1940s he began to work for Timely/Marvel, producing covers for Marvel Comics, Captain America, The Human Torch, and The Sub-Mariner.
Schomburg was noted for doing cliff-hanger type covers wherein a hero or a beautiful woman is about to be killed by some devilish means just as the hero arrives on the scene to save the day. Schomburg was also known for drawing beautiful, heroic women and was an early pioneer in air-brushing. Schomburg left comics in the early 1950s to pursue other types of illustration but returned to Marvel in 1977 to collaborate on Invaders Annual #1. Schomburd passed away in 1998 at the age of 94.
Gardner Fox – Gardner Fox doesn’t seem to be as well known today as other Golden Age creators and that’s a shame because he is arguably one of the top ten most important creators in history. Fox is one of the most prolific writers ever, having produced over 4,000 stories in a career which spanned some 50 years. Fox was already working for DC before the creation of Superman and Batman. Fox created or co-created some of the most popular characters of the Golden Age including The Flash, Hawkman, The Sandman, Doctor Fate, and the first Super team The Justice Society of America.
His Silver Age achievements were equally as important as he created/co-created the Silver Age versions of Hawkman, Atom, Zatanna, Batgirl, and The Justice League of America. Fox wrote the monumental story "Flash of Two Worlds!" from The Flash #123 (Sept. 1961), which crossed over the Silver Age and Golden Age Flashes together for the first time and created the DC Multiverse. Fox left DC in 1968 after more than 30 years. He worked briefly for Marvel in the 1970s but concentrated on writing novels in a variety of different genres.
Bob Kane –Golden Age comic creators were usually humble about their work. After all, the comic book industry was generally looked down upon as low brow entertainment for kids and many artists longed to do more serious illustration or work in advertising. Not Bob Kane. The creator of Batman (along with writer Bill Finger) reveled in his status as Batman creator. Kane was a shrewd businessman. His contract at DC stipulated that he and he alone would be shown in the credits for Batman stories whether he worked on them or not…This essentially robbed many other writers and artists like Finger, Dick Sprang, and Jerry Robinson, of their due credit as they were strictly working as “ghosts”.
Kane also created or co-created Robin, The Joker, Two-Face, Catwoman, The Scarecrow, Penguin, and Clayface. Kane would leave the Batman comic book in 1943 to work on the Batman newspaper strip (again using various ghost artists). Kane would later work in animation and serve as consultant on Tim Burton’s two Batman films. Kane passed away in 1998.
Bob Montana – Besides Marvel and DC Comics, there is only one other company that has continually published comics books since the 1930s and that is Archie Comics. Artist Bob Montana drew upon his own high school experiences when he created teenager Archie Andrews in Pep Comics #22 in 1941. Montana created the many supporting characters that make up the Archie universe including Betty Cooper, Veronica Lodge, Jughead Jones, and Reggie Mantle. Archie got his own title in 1942 and it is still in publication today. The Archie series proved so popular that MLJ Publications changed its name to Archie Comic Publications.
The Archie Gang became so popular that they had their own radio show from 1945 until 1953. The comics would also spawn two animated series, one in the 1960s which produced the hit pop song “Sugar Sugar” and another in 1999 called “Archie’s Weird Mysteries”. Archie Comics have enjoyed a renaissance in recent years thanks to alternate tales in which Archie gets Married and where Archie battles zombies (Afterlife with Archie) and it all started with Bob Montan’s creation 73 years ago.
Lou Fine – With the possible exception of Alex Schomburg, Lou Fine may be the finest artist of the early Golden Age. Fine’s work had an exciting dynamic and depth that few artists of the period could match and he would influence future greats such as Jim Steranko, Jack Kirby, and Gil Kane. Fine’s earliest comic work was for Fiction House in 1938 and he was part of the Eisner & Iger Studio. He provided the cover for Blue Beetle Comics #1 (1939) for Fox Features and co-created The Flame.
Fine would go on to do the bulk of his comic book work for Quality Comics where he helped to create numerous heroes who are still around today including The Black Condor and The Ray. Fine was the ghost artist on Will Eisner’s The Spirit newspaper strip while Eisner was serving in World War II. Only Schomburg was on a par with Fine when it came to producing outstanding covers that literally jumped off the rack. Both Joe Simon and Jack Kirby considered Fine their favorite comic book artist. Fine died in 1971 at the age of 56.
Hal Foster – Along with Alex Raymond and Milton Caniff, Hal Foster makes up the Holy Trinity of comic strip creators and perhaps none were more influential than the creator of Prince Valiant. Foster worked on the Tarzan comic strip from 1928 to 1937, eventually handing the reins over to another legend, Burne Hogarth. Foster started the Prince Valiant strip in 1937 and it continues on today in more than 300 newspapers. Foster wrote and drew the strip until his retirement in 1971. Unlike other comic strips and comic books, Foster’s Prince Valiant did not use word balloons. Instead, the story is narrated in captions positioned at the bottom or sides of panels.
Foster’s lush detail and action-packed serialized story-telling influenced an entire generation of artists including Jack Kirby, Frank Frazetta, Wally Wood, Joe Kubert, and Al Williamson. Jack Kirby created the rhyming demon Etrigan based on Foster’s work. Fantagraphics continues to reprint beautiful hardcopy collections of the strip. Foster passed away in 1982 at age 89.
For the record, we are not done with the 1940s. There are certainly many more talented creators who made their mark during the Golden Age that will be included as time goes on. Be sure to join us for part two of our Mania's Comic Book Legends inductions as we take a look at the creators who made their mark during the 1950s.
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