Superheroes are now such huge multimedia brands that it's almost surprising when the occasional story emerges that reminds us how for a long time, comics were an incredibly marginal and sketchy industry (as opposed to the only somewhat sketchy present). That dates all the way back to the founding of DC Comics, home of your favorite heroes like Superman, Batman, and Space Cabbie. Like all good corporate origins, it involves an alleged assassination attempt, illegally shipped condoms, and a man with a vision. And also another man with the vision to steal that vision and use it to escape the declining softcore porn industry.
The original pioneer of the modern comic book was Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, a career Army man who left the service after he publicly criticized his superiors and was immediately shot in the head by a guard at Fort Dix. It was officially ruled an accident, but the exact details remain fairly murky, and his descendants continue to describe it as an assassination attempt. Whatever happened, the shooting would change pop culture history, since the major would go on to lay the groundwork for the modern superhero boom -- although sadly not by putting on a spandex leotard and beating the shit out of some corrupt officers.
There were plenty of comic strips at the time, some featuring proto-superheroes like the Phantom, but they were published in newspapers and cheap pulp magazines. Wheeler-Nicholson's idea was to publish a magazine containing only original comics, targeted at children. This stroke of genius was possibly not unrelated to the massive head wound he had received, but it paid off when children turned out to like comics better when not accompanied by news columns about trade tariffs or short stories about having sex with a bullfighter.
Unfortunately, the major lacked the financial resources or business skills to take advantage of his idea, and his first two comics hemorrhaged money. Before long, he was forced to turn to the shadier side of the industry to keep his company afloat. Fortunately, the shadier side was already right there in the form of his printer, a gangster turned pornographer named Harry Donenfeld. Wheeler-Nicholson struck a deal to save his company, and presumably also his kneecaps, by offering Donenfeld co-ownership of a new comic book. The printer was inexplicably seduced by the offer to own a piece of this money-losing machine, and they formed Detective Comics Inc. in 1937, with Donenfeld's accountant Jack Liebowitz onboard as a third co-owner.
Wheeler-Nicholson's new business partner was a former street gangster who had made a fortune publishing softcore pulp magazines like Spicy Detective and Hot Tales. These were basically illegal to distribute at the time, and were consequently smuggled through the country on trucks with bootlegged liquor and Margaret Sanger's Birth Control Review, which contained condoms. It was the perfect distribution model, ensuring America's horny drunks were always reminded to pop a rubber, although Donenfeld may have regretted reducing the size of his audience after he moved into children's publishing.
During Prohibition, Donenfeld is widely rumored to have been even more involved in bootlegging, using his publishing ventures as cover to ship Canadian whiskey across the Great Lakes with his paper pulp. That was without question an excellent strategy, since law enforcement were way less likely to peek inside a crate marked "paper pulp" than they were one marked "big ol' pornos." Donenfeld would boast of his friendship with gangsters like Frank Costello and Meyer Lansky for the rest of his life. He also continued to skirt the law with his magazines, since it was illegal to distribute obscene publications, although he managed to provide a veneer of legality by labeling all the nude photos as models for "art studies." Doubtlessly, they were studied diligently.
Prior to meeting Wheeler-Nicholson, Donenfeld's experience with comics was limited to titillating strips like "Olga Mesmer, the Girl With X-Ray Eyes," which ran as filler in his pulps. But Prohibition was over, and there were rumors of a crackdown on nudie mags, so Donenfeld eagerly embraced Wheeler-Nicholson's idea for an all-comics publication aimed at children.
Now, you can take the gangster out of the porno warehouse, but you can't turn him into Mr. Rogers. Donenfeld basically ran DC like a mob boss, screwing everyone he crossed out of cash. One of his early victims was Wheeler-Nicholson, who was pushed out after Donenfeld deliberately forced the company into bankruptcy, then bought up the assets cheaply at auction, giving himself and Liebowitz complete control. Then when a pair of struggling hopeful creators named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster pitched a character called Superman, Donenfeld sent them a check for $130 and a contract saying they were signing away all rights to the character if they cashed it.
Superman became a huge sensation, and the character was soon appearing in movies and radio serials. Branded merchandise flew off the shelf at bird-plane speeds, while kids tore through comics faster than a reading bullet. Donenfeld raked in millions, but told Siegel and Shuster "not to worry about it" whenever they asked about royalties, assuring them that they "would always be taken care of." They weren't.
Batman creator Bob Kane was similarly screwed, but eventually got the better of Donenfeld. There were no official records of Kane's birth, so he just lied and said he was a minor when he signed his shitty contract, making it unenforceable. But Siegel and Shuster continued to toil as contract employees at the mercy of the company. When an editor decided that Lois Lane looked too fat and ordered them to give her "an abortion ... so that her figure can return to the tasty dish she is supposed to be," they basically responded, "Ew, no." At which point the company bluntly informed them that "we own the feature Superman and can at any time replace you." Another time, Siegel pitched a teenage Superman, which the company rejected. Then they introduced Superboy behind his back.
Both ended up penniless after leaving DC, with Siegel working as a deliveryman and Shuster scraping by illustrating fetish porn comics under a fake name. Meanwhile, Donenfeld was kicking it up as a millionaire. He even announced that he was getting rid of all of his pulp titles, so nobody could have any concerns about the respectable owner of Superman. In reality, he merely transferred ownership of the erotic empire to his wife, in what was presumably a truly spectacular anniversary gift. Exploiting writers and artists quickly spread throughout the fledgling industry, along with other sketchy practices. All of which suggest that it might have been better for the world if Donenfeld had stuck to booze and porn.
For more, check out Wonder Woman Has Changed The DC Universe (Spoilers):
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