Platinum Age: Before the Supermen

Something I seem to do with some frequency, either for cartoon reviews or comic book annotations, is to relate various bits of DC publishing history. Recounting the origins of the Golden Age for the n’th time begins to get stale so I’ve decided to try to combine the histories into a new series of posts about DC Comics’ publishing history. A lot of this is material that was on a previous (now offline) version of the site remixed with some new images and commentary. There may be a lot of time between instalments, but one has to start somewhere…

The Platinum Age

  • Period: Often described as the Platinum Age (1935-1938 or just pre-1938); specifically pre-Action Comics #1.
  • Character Types: Pulp style adventurers, brawlers, detectives, aviators, and comedy characters.
  • The Power Players: M.C. Gaines, Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, Harry Donenfeld, Jack Liebowitz and Paul Sampliser
  • The Editors: Vin Sullivan with Whitney Ellsworth, and Sheldon Mayer at Eastern
  • You’ll know the names from: MC Gaines was the father of Bill Gaines who ran E.C. Comics (the horror guys), Whitney Ellsworth served as a producer on The Adventures of Superman and gave his name to Lana Lang’s boyfriend in the first season of Smallville. Likewise the Smallville character of Chloe Sullivan is named after Vin. Liebowitz died in 2000 at the age of 100 there is an obit in the NY Times.

In the Realworld

The Depression had ended and the United States was looking for happier times. Big Band and Jazz music were popular, it was the Golden Age of Hollywood, Science Fiction was in its infancy, and radio was the most popular form of home entertainment. Yet storm clouds were on the horizon: Nazi German and Imperial Japan were arming and were about to plunge the world into war.

The Secret Origin of DC Comics

Sequential images used for storytelling have been around since the time of prehistoric cave paintings, but their explosion as a popular medium did not occur until the latter half of the nineteenth century. Short illustrated stories told using a sequence of cartoons started in Europe, but the form did not reach its early zenith until the arrival of the American newspaper barons. The circulation wars between Joseph Pulitzer (for whom the Pulitzer Prize is named) and William Randolph Hearst (founder of King Features Syndicate) gave platforms to the brightest and best of the cartoon strip artists.

Buck Rogers awakens (1929)

The earliest newspaper strips included R. F. Outcault’s “Yellow Kid” (1895) and Winsor McCay’s “Little Nemo in Slumberland” (1905) these were later joined by adaptations of Pulp Characters including Richard Calkins’s adaptation of Philip Francis Nowlan’s Buck Rodgers (1929) and Hal Foster’s adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan“(1929).

The newspaper strips provided the medium, but the genre of the comic book adventurer and superhero is descended in spirit from the pulp magazines of the early 1930s. The popularity of serialised prose fiction has waned since those days, but back then it filled the same niche as later radio and TV adventure series (Roy Rogers, Star Trek, etc.). The Pulps, named for the cheap paper they were printed on, supplied the reader with daring stories of romance and adventure that brightened the dark days of the Depression.

Doc Savage from DC's own First Wave line

The Pulps were the medium for the golden age of American science fiction and featured writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs and E.E. “Doc” Smith. The signature characters of the Pulps were adventurers like Doc Savage (1933) and vigilantes like the Shadow (1931). These characters were the prototypes of the superhero and the superhero-like vigilante. They clouded men’s minds, had skin like bronze, and some were even masked. It is not hard to see a straight-line between the comic strip and Pulp characters and their later comic book imitators (Superman is an alien Doc Savage who has been exiled, Buck Rogers style, on our alien Earth).

The invention of the actual comic book is normally attributed to a gentleman called Maxwell Charles (M.C.) Gaines. He and a group of colleagues at Eastern Color Printing Company conceived of an anthology magazine made up of reprinted newspaper comics. Their first attempt was a promotional stunt for Proctor & Gamble called Funnies on Parade. This was soon followed by their first ongoing comic book, Famous Funnies #1 (July 1934). It was a success and prompted a flurry of competitors and imitators. However, there was only a finite supply of archive material and the newspaper syndicates knew the commercial value of their libraries. It was not long before somebody came up with the idea of commissioning original material for the new comic books.

Former US Cavalry officer Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson was a pulp author, publisher and entrepreneur who saw the success of the comic book market and wanted a slice of the action. He created a new company National Allied Publications and solicited work from, as the 100 Greatest Comics of the 20th Century Website puts it, “a ragtag collection of Depression-era artists looking for work and young up-and-comers looking for their break into newspaper strips”. Their first comic book was New Fun #1 (Feb 1935). Editorial assistants Whitney Ellsworth and Vince Sullivan even provided filler pages. Unfortunately the Major seems to have had little expertise in the financial matters of publishing. Artists were often unpaid and he soon ran up a debt at his printer.

The Donenfeld’s were a one family publishing machine – one son ran the printers, another the distributors and a third sold ink to the first. Harry Donenfeld was a sales executive for the family printers and had worked closely with Wheeler-Nicholson. National’s original distributor, SM News, cancelled their contract in a dispute with Nicholson and the Donenfeld printers were left with a large quantity of printed comics that were waiting for a distributor. Harry Donenfeld stepped in with Independent News Company (INC) and took over the National distribution contract. National continued to rack up the debts and Donenfeld stepped in with loans to help launch their third title: Detective Comics #1 (March 1937).

Begin Interlude: International News Company (INC) was founded by Donenfeld and Paul Sampliser. Its initial success was built on the distribution of a line of salacious pulps with names like Spicy Adventures. It would eventually become one of the largest magazine distributors in the United States and was the principal distributor of National/DC Comics for most of the Golden and Silver Ages. National’s alliance with INC gave them access to their large network of local sales agents. This impressive intelligence network assured that DC had good retailer and wholesaler feedback. When the Donenfeld companies merged with Mckinnely in 1977 INC became Warner Publisher Services (WPS). End Interlude.

What happened next isn’t exactly clear, but Nicholson vanishes from the scene, presumably bankrupt, and this company’s assets are bought by Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz (Donenfeld’s business partner) at the bankruptcy auction. Their new company, National Periodicals Publications, included INC, the new Donenfeld Comics (what did you think DC really stood for?) and the Licensing Company of America.

Detective Comics was a success and M.C. Gaines convinced Donenfeld that his company could print Harry’s books more cost effectively than National’s current printer. So Donenfeld and editor Vince Sullivan made preparations to add a fourth title to their line called Action Funnies, but as the deadline loomed they still lacked a lead feature.

Enter two young science-fiction fans from Cleveland called Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. They had worked for Nicholson and Donenfeld before, but they were holding back their most radical character as they still hoped to land a newspaper strip. A lot of early comics creators saw the down market comic books as a stepping stone towards a landing a respectable newspaper comics strip.

Siegel and Shuster didn’t had much at the Syndicates, but had gotten themselves noticed by Sheldon Mayer, one of Gaines’ editors at Eastern. He liked the new character, but didn’t have a place for it so he suggested it to Donenfeld as a potential lead for Action Funnies. Neither Donenfeld nor Gaines liked the concept, but Sullivan and Mayer went to bat. There was no time for any alternative – Sullivan got his lead, Siegel and Shuster got to see their character in print and the world got their first look at Superman in the retitled Action Comics #1.

Legacy

It would be too easy to dismiss the Platinum Age, but you can think of it an incubator for everything that came later. Superman is a direct result of that incubation – adventure characters started off as just men who were strong, then they became strong men, and then men of legendary strength, maybe even with a bit of science or magic thrown in. This evolution had to happen, the dial constantly clicking up with each iteration, until Siegel and Shuster were finally able to turn the dial to eleven with Superman.