Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Failed Comic Strip

 Over the years, I've read and heard stories about who is responsible for the inclusion of Superman in Action Comics #1.
   Was it Sheldon Mayer, who is said to have "rescued" the strip from the McClure Syndicate slush pile and convinced the DC owners to use it? 
   Or DC editor Vin Sullivan, who purchased that first story? 
   Perhaps it was Max "Charlie" Gaines, the man credited with creating the comic book?
   Or Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, the original owner of what became DC Comics, who supposedly saw the great potential of the character and couldn't wait to use it.
   Then there are Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz, who, many believe, stole the company from the Major -- did they do it to get the Man of Steel because they knew what a gold mine he would be?
   Whichever it was, if any of them, it would seem that the only ones who didn't realize just how great Superman would be were Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of the character, because they sold all their rights to the character for the $130 they were paid for that first story.

   All of these men were involved in the beginnings of what would become a cornerstone of the comic book business. Hindsight being 20/20, each of them remembered being the one who was responsible. If all (or any) of them were convinced about what a hit Superman would be, how do you explain the fact that he did not appear on the cover of Action again until #7?

   Superman appeared again on #s 10, 13, 15 and 17, but did not begin his consecutive appearances until #19 in the autumn of 1939. By that time Superman #1 had been published and they all seemed to agree that he -- not explorers, ships and planes, or gorillas -- should be the main selling point of Action Comics.

   As for Siegel and Shuster, public perception has them as a pair of gullible teenagers, rooked out of millions of dollars by evil businessmen. In reality, in 1938 they were both in their twenties and had already been working for DC for a couple of years, turning out the adventures of Slam Bradley, Doctor Occult, Federal Men and Spy for a variety of titles. (They had, by the way, sold the rights to those characters the same way they sold the rights to Superman; it was the standard of the comic book business then and for many years after.)
   When Action #1 was being put together, Superman was a four-year-old failed comic strip. Siegel and Shuster had tried, quite unsuccessfully, to sell it to various syndicates. Whether it was still sitting at McClure, from which Sheldon Mayer supposedly rescued it, or in a closet in Siegel's apartment, or somewhere else does not matter. Its creators were busy turning out work that they got paid for, not vainly trying to sell something no one wanted.
   So put yourself in their shoes. The country's in a depression. You're trying to make a living writing and drawing comic books. Wheeler-Nicholson / Mayer / Sullivan / Gaines / Liebowitz / Donenfeld (your choice) says he wants to use that old story and give the character a regular slot in a monthly title. Here's $130 (equivalent to about $2,100 today) and a promise of steady work. What would you do?

   Despite many claims to the contrary through the years, nobody knew then what would happen with Superman or the comic book business. A decade later, when the success of the Man of Steel was obvious, Siegel and Shuster no doubt regretted what they'd done. Had they gotten better legal and financial advice when they opted to sue for the rights in the '40s, they no doubt could have negotiated a lucrative deal.
   In the spring of 1938, however, they, like everyone else in this new business, just hoped they would have steady work and make some money. But there were no guarantees, so you grabbed whatever came along.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

BobRo Archives: Twinkies

With the bankruptcy of Hostess Bakeries and the fate of Twinkies still to be determined, I was reminded of a time when we had more of those creme-filled golden cakes than anyone could eat in a lifetime. From a column first published back in 2000...

  Back in 1976, DC, with the help of then-New York convention king and distribution guru Phil Seuling, decided to run a convention at NYC’s Commodore Hotel to celebrate Superman’s birthday. The plans were plagued with problems, the most severe being a strike by hotel workers the day before the convention, prompting a last-minute move to the Americana Hotel.
  DC President Sol Harrison convinced Hostess Bakeries, makers of Cupcakes, Fruit Pies and Twinkies and one of our major advertisers at the time, to donate some baked goods as door prizes. However, I don’t think even Sol expected that we would get quite so many Twinkies. Boxes and boxes of the creme-filled cakes, enough to fill two huge canvas mail bins, arrived at the hotel!
   At first, we were giving a Twinkie or two to each person who came through the door -- nothing like a little sugar fix to rev you up for a convention! By the second day, however, it was obvious that we had a lot more Twinkies than we had convention-goers, so we started to give out boxes of ten.
   Even that didn’t seem to make a dent in the supply! By the end of the convention, we were handing departing fans as many boxes of Twinkies as they could carry. Comics dealers were given cartons of them. DC staffers got as many as they wanted.
  The rest -- and there were still plenty -- ended up in the DC office, where anybody who could still stand to look at one could enjoy it as a snack.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Fudge Man Day 2013

Regular readers of this blog are aware of the story of the "Fudge Man," one of the Saturday morning regulars donating platelets at the Melville Blood Center. (Check out the story here and here.) This morning we once again honored his memory with our third annual Fudge Man Day.

John's sister Marie joined us, bringing fudge (pralines & chocolate and peanut butter this time) as well as commemorative fridge magnets and key chains. After our donations, we sat in the canteen and told donors who didn't know about John how we all started to coordinate our appointments to be there when he was so we could enjoy the fudge.  We shared the origins of Fudge Man Day as well as the tale of the blood center employee who learned the hard way about the perils of eating excessive amounts of sugar-free fudge. (I'll just say that it acts as a laxative and leave the rest to your imagination.)

The Donors List  that honors folks who have made 75 or more lifetime platelet donations and hangs on the wall is updated each fall. The list is quite impressive and it was one of John's goals to get on it, which he did.
However, the policy is that if a person is inactive for more than two years (because people move away, become medically ineligible or, alas, pass away), their names are removed from the list. When this year's update was unveiled at the annual Donors Dinner, I noticed that John's name was not there. I pointed this out to Deb, our appointments coordinator, as well as to fellow donors Steve and Tom. Deb suggested we speak to Harvey, the director of the program, and promptly brought us over to meet him.
It took a bit of persuading -- okay, Steve told Harvey that all three of us would stop donating and take our platelets elsewhere -- but Harvey agreed to get John's name back on the board. And so it is... and will be for years to come.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

BobRo Archives: "Son of Sam" and the Comics Industry

I was asked recently about an old column I'd written about the "Son of Sam" killings. Here, from the archives, is a lightly-edited version of what I wrote in 2000...

   Back in 1977, New York City neighborhoods were being terrorized by a serial killer known as the “Son of Sam.” The 44-Caliber Killer, as he was also known, had targeted brunette women and their boyfriends, most of them parked in “Lovers’ Lanes.”
   The killer had eluded the police for almost a year and frustrated his pursuers with correspondence to local newspapers. In his handwritten letters, he claimed that a large black dog named Sam who embodied a century-old spirit had ordered him to kill repeatedly.
   Looking for any possible clue to the Son of Sam’s identity, the NYPD detectives acted upon someone’s suggestion that the block lettering used in the correspondence could have been the handiwork of someone who did it for a living. Coupled with the idea of 1,000-year-old spirits and talking dogs (not unlikely situations in some of the books) that brought them to the offices of DC Comics (and, one presumes, Marvel, Archie, and the newspaper syndicates as well) to see if anyone recognized the writing.

   At the time, I was Assistant Production Manager at DC. One of my jobs was assigning the lettering work, so it was not surprising when I was called into President Sol Harrison’s office and asked if I could suggest anyone. Though the lettering might have had a look of professionalism to an untrained eye, I quickly pointed out that it was far too inconsistent to be anything we would have used.
   When Sol and Production Manager Jack Adler agreed with my evaluation, the detectives thanked us and went on their way. But the story doesn’t end there…
   Upon hearing why I’d been called into Sol’s office, a few of my cohorts had their own ideas about who might be the Son of Sam, including a couple of fellow staffers. The most convincing argument, however, was made for a somewhat reclusive artist whose ultra-conservative leanings might have made him a suspect as the killer of “loose” women. We did not, however, share any of this with the NYPD.
   Not long afterwards, David Berkowitz, a 24-year-old postal worker, was tracked down and apprehended on August 10th, thanks to a parking ticket he’d received while on one of his murderous outings. That's an ending you might have expected in a comic book story...