|The DC logos until today|
Even non-comic book fans know DC comics. Alongside Marvel it is the largest comic book company in at least the English speaking world giving us characters such as Superman, Wonder Woman, and my personal favorite of Batman. For decades this company has dominated the world of comic books and pulp fiction. How then did DC comics start? To answer this question we must go back to 1935...
The World of 1935
What would become DC comics came about in 1935 in a time when the world was in crisis. In 1929 the Wall Street Crash had plunged the world economy into crisis leading to the Great Depression. In the United States over 20% of the workforce became unemployed and in Germany it stood at 25%. The only country to be largely unaffected was the Soviet Union who had become a social pariah in a capitalist world. In 1933 Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president and he began a program named the 'New Deal' which redefined the American left and began lifting the USA out of Depression, (although it would take until American entry into the Second World War for the economy to recover). Meanwhile, in Europe and Asia the far-right was taking over. Imperial Japan started to become ultra-nationalist and in 1937 would reinvade China, the Kuomintang in China drifted towards fascism under Chiang Kai-shek, Italy under Mussolini hoping to rebuild the Roman Empire invaded Ethiopia in 1935 committing horrible atrocities, and in 1933 Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany. In 1935 he would start German rearmament in violation of the Treaty of Versailles and would pass the Nuremberg Laws which stripped German Jews of their rights. 1935 also saw the friendship ruining game Monopoly being released by the Parker Brothers and in I Haven't Got a Hat Porky Pig made his debut. It was in this setting that comic book history was made.
|The man who made comic book history|
Who would have thought that a former army major would shape comic book history so much? The man pictured, (while in his army uniform sometime in the 1890s), is Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson. He had written an open letter criticizing army command causing him to face a lawsuit and even being shot, something which his family described as being down to the army attempting to assassinate him. After resigning in 1923 he began writing pulp stories in Adventure and Argosy writing about historical and military adventure stories. He even acted as a ghost writer for six novels for Street and Smith Publications. In 1925 he first stepped into the comic book industry by founding Wheeler-Nicholson Inc. which published a daily comic-strip adaptation of Treasure Island. Then came the Depression. With the economy in tatters Wheeler-Nicholson had to find a way to keep things a float and Famous Funnies seemed to be the answer. In 1933 Famous Funnies published what can be seen as the very first comic book. Instead of just comic-strips this new comic book offered many comics in one for just 10 cents. The next year Famous Funnies became regularly sold with the first issue offering 100 comics and games for just 10 cents. Cash strapped people bought this book by the thousands. The equivalent today would be a company selling the seven main Harry Potter books for $10. Although Wheeler-Nicholson didn't realize that the comic's success also made the company go over four grand in the red he saw dollar signs. In 1934 National Allied Publishing was founded and the next year New Fun #1 was published.
New Fun #1
|The First Comic|
New Fun would act like Famous Funnies where Wheeler-Nicholson would reprint famous or at least somewhat popular comic-strips in a book format. It was subtitled 'The Big Comic Magazine' as it was literally larger than the competition at 25.4 x 38.1 cm (10 x 15 inches). In this one issue there were several stories including the cowboy Jack Woods fighting cattle rustlers (depicted on the cover), Super-Police fighting crime in 2023, Native Americans attacking a band moving West, and some kids being sent to Ancient Egypt by a crystal ball just to name a few stories. All these would be brief, one page, and would continue in the next issue. However, Wheeler-Nicholson was at a disadvantage. Although he wanted to reprint famous comic-strips he couldn't: licensing was expensive and many of the famous strips were already being licensed by Famous Funnies. Although later they did manage to publish a story involving Oswald the Lucky Rabbit; the character Walt Disney made before Mickey. Not only that but New Fun could only afford color on the front while Famous Funnies could afford color throughout. It would take until issue three for it to have color on the inside. New Fun did pioneer something though which would revolutionize comic book history. Wheeler-Nicholson, to save money, got people to write original stories so he didn't have to pay the expensive licensing costs. Although they were comic-strips they served as a landmark in comics as they were original stories. Issue one came out in February and in October, with issue six, something important happened: DC's first super hero was introduced.
DC's First Character
On first glance New Fun #6 appeared to be like the five preceding comics. Several of the stories featured happened to be 'part 6' of the ones from the first issue. For this issue a pair named Jerry Siegel (the writer) and Joe Shuster (the artist) were hired to write two stories. The first was 'Henri Duval, Famed Soldier of Fortune' went on to appear in in only four installments. Their second story, written under pseudonym, was 'Dr. Occult, the Ghost Detective'. In this story the titular hero and his assistant, Rose Psychic, attempt to save a man and his wife from a vampire. Those who know their DC comics will understand the significance of this. For those who don't Dr. Occult and Rose Psychic regularly feature in stories to this day, and are DC's 'superheroes'. Siegel and Shuster went on though to write an even more important character.
Siegel's and Shuster's Second Character
By 1937 with the Depression still ravaging the world economy Wheeler-Nicholson was going under despite owning two titles, More Fun Comics, (formerly New Fun), and New Adventure Comics, and he couldn't afford to create his desired third. He wanted a title devoted to detective stories and mysteries after seeing the success of the Green Hornet and the Phantom but neither of his titles could accommodate them. He turned to his distributor Harry Donenfeld who helped get Detective Comics #1 released as well as forming Detective Comics Inc. Still Wheeler-Nicholson was not seeing profits so by the end of the year he was forced out. Donenfeld's business adviser Jack Liebowitz was eager to buy Wheeler-Nicholson's shares saying that 'I had a feel for it [comic books], that it was a good field'. While this was happening Siegel and Shuster were continuing to write comics. They had a love for science-fiction and started implementing it into their comics. In More Fun Comics #15 they had Dr. Occult don a blue costume and red cape to resemble a character which they had pitched years earlier. This character was a bald-headed, cape-wearing powerful alien trying to dominate the world but their plan had been rejected. In 1938 Detective Comics Inc. bought More Fun Comics and New Adventure Comics with many of the writers/artists coming with them. Siegel and Shuster were hired to write a story for the new title, Action Comics, and they decided to bring back their old character. However, they changed him. Instead of a villain he would be hero. As Siegel and Shuster were Jews in a time of intense hatred to not only Jews but other minorities including African-Americans and Asian-Americans they decided to make this character an alien. That way minorities could see themselves as this character, another minority. In fact, the subtitle for this story was 'Champion of the Oppressed'. Although other stories were featured alongside it Siegel's and Shuster's story was granted the cover page. Thus the world was introduced to the Superman.
|The Arrival of Superman|
From there DC produced more and more memorable characters. A year after Superman's debut the world was introduced to the Batman. However the last words of Superman's debut story would reverberate in the history of pop culture: And so begins the adventures of the most sensational strip character of all time.