Universe Lost, Part 4: Family-Friendly Vigilantes

Part 4 of a series. Catch up on Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Tracing the histories of comic book companies in the 1930s and ’40s can be difficult for a number of reasons. Virtually all the first comic book publishers emerged from the business of pulp fiction – cheaply produced, illustrated periodicals that contained serialized stories in a variety of genres, most often science fiction, fantasy, horror, westerns, and detective thrillers. The genres represented in pulp fiction hardly counted as respectable literature, and the people who ran the pulp publishing companies were rarely respectable people.

During Prohibition, bootleggers used periodical distribution as a front to move liquor, so the fringe publishers churning out pulp magazines often had underworld ties. Creative accounting and networks of shell companies gave pulp (and comic) publishers an appearance of legitimacy, but they remained shady institutions even as memories of the Roaring Twenties faded away. When the US government began rationing commodities, including paper, during World War II, those same shell companies and suspect accounting practices allowed low-end publishers to stay in business by keeping them supplied with paper in excess of wartime restrictions.


Detective Comics #1 (March 1937)

To say that a particular comic book series was published by “DC” in the 1930s and ’40s actually means that it was published by one of a number of companies owned or co-owned by magazine distributor Harry Donenfeld and his business manager, Jack Liebowitz. The “DC” brand derived from Donenfeld’s most successful early title, Detective Comics. In late 1939, DC recruited Whitney Ellsworth, a former Hollywood publicist and veteran pulp writer, as editorial director for most of their line.


Action Comics #1 (June 1938)

Ellsworth’s predecessor, Vin Sullivan, had given the go-ahead to publish a submission called “Superman” in the first issue of Action Comics, but it was Ellsworth who turned Superman into a multimedia franchise. Ellsworth’s Hollywood connections were crucial to that end, while his background in public relations made him conscious of how comic book characters appeared in the eyes of the general public. In an effort to make DC’s costumed vigilantes more family-friendly, Ellsworth issued directives that Superman would no longer kill and Batman would no longer use guns.


From Detective Comics #35 (Jan. 1940)

By imposing a strict moral code on DC’s characters, Whitney Ellsworth effectively invented the super-hero as role model. At the same time, Harry Donenfeld was restructuring his business interests so that his pulp magazines – the content of which had gotten him indicted on obscenity charges a few years earlier – would no longer be under the same corporate roof as DC Comics.

Donenfeld, who got into publishing when it was still a racket for running rum, smut, and numbers, was going legit for the sake of super-heroes. As Ellsworth knew, it was easier to market super-heroes to wary parents if the characters were moral exemplars. Role models were more likely to generate revenue than anti-heroes.

Once Ellsworth had definitively rehabilitated DC’s two main characters, he turned to getting those characters into other media. During the 1940s Ellsworth wrote for the Superman radio show and was a creative consultant for the Superman animated shorts, the Batman movie serials, and the Superman movie serials.

In 1951, Ellsworth relocated permanently to Hollywood, where he co-wrote a B-movie, Superman and the Mole Men, starring George Reeves as the Man of Steel. This led to the Adventures of Superman TV series, which ran until 1958 with Reeves as star and Ellsworth as producer.


Ellsworth was officially DC’s editorial director until 1970, but in reality he had little involvement with the company’s comic book line. When he did intervene directly with DC’s writers and artists, it was often to make sure that the content of the comic books conformed with the stories appearing in other media. In 1940, after the Superman radio show had begun, the character’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, submitted a comic book story to Ellsworth in which Lois Lane discovered that Superman and Clark Kent were one and the same. Ellsworth rejected it, probably because it went against his plans for the radio show.

Siegel and Shuster were storytellers first and foremost. They wanted their characters’ relationships to evolve dynamically and organically. For Ellsworth, Superman was a brand, and brands have to be recognizable. That meant a consistent depiction of the character across all media. The tension between Clark Kent and Lois Lane was part of the Superman brand. Ellsworth would not alter a successful formula, even if it meant storytelling stasis in place of character growth and development.

Ellsworth’s micromanaging a consistent depiction of Superman across all media platforms had unintended consequences for DC’s super-hero comic books. The more involved Ellsworth became with radio, film, and ultimately television, the more he delegated his day-to-day editorial duties to DC’s four group editors: Mort Weisinger oversaw the Superman titles, Jack Schiff led the Batman group, Robert Kanigher handled the war comics, and Julius Schwartz ran the science fiction line.

Comics archivist Mike Voiles describes these group lines as “editorial kingdoms,” whose rulers rarely knew or cared what their neighbors were up to. There was virtually no coordination between group editors, so DC’s titles never developed an identifiable “house style.” No one kept track of which characters had and hadn’t met. Between 1941 and 1958, Superman and Batman met each other “for the first time!” on three separate occasions. Super-hero comics featuring neither Batman nor Superman fell through the cracks, with Wonder Woman in particular languishing at the bottom of DC’s barrel.

Although Whitney Ellsworth cultivated a consistent multimedia depiction of Superman, consistency within DC’s super-hero comics themselves was not a priority for Ellsworth, his superiors, or his immediate subordinates. The company that later became DC’s chief publishing rival, Marvel Comics, took the exact opposite approach – ensuring consistency within the comic books first, getting the characters into non-comics media second.

DC’s approach turned Superman into a household name within two years of his debut, but Marvel’s approach may very well have been the better long-term strategy. I will examine Marvel Comics’ multimedia history next time.

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5 thoughts on “Universe Lost, Part 4: Family-Friendly Vigilantes

  1. Pingback: Universe Lost, Part 5: A Bad Time to Be Successful | superadaptoid

  2. Pingback: Universe Lost, Part 6: Gods of New York | superadaptoid

  3. Pingback: Universe Lost, Part 7: “When the Old Gods Died!” | superadaptoid

  4. Pingback: Universe Lost, Part 8: Revenge of the Super Friends | superadaptoid

  5. Pingback: Universe Lost: Conclusion | superadaptoid

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