We have grown to love superheroes through the years. We’ve read the comics, watched the cartoons and movies, we’ve even bought the toys — but have we ever given much thought to the people who created these legendary characters?
I aim to spotlight some of the most influential and important creators in the earliest days of the comic book business (the Golden Age of Comics). They were the great writers and artists that started it all and are key figures in comic history. We’ll take a look at a bit of each person’s back-story, their biggest claim to fame, and other notable works or characters that may not be household names.
They Got the Ball Rolling - Jerry Siegel (1914 – 1996) and Joe Shuster (1914 – 1992)
This entry is a two-fer, because in the grand scheme of things one would not have garnered success without the other. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were two comic creators who’s youth and inexperience in business lost them a potential fortune when they sold the rights to their most famous creation for a measly $120 in 1938. Joseph (Joe) Shuster was born in my hometown of Toronto, Ontario in 1914. His parents were Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine. His family moved to Cleveland, Ohio in 1924 when he was 10 years old. Several years later, while attending Glenville High School, Joe met Jerry Siegel – another Jewish lad whose parents had emigrated from Lithuania prior to the First World War. The duo soon began collaborating on a number of different projects together – from school newspapers to science fiction fanzine’s and eventually the two young Ohioans were hired by National Allied Publications (later National Periodical Publications, and even later still DC Comics) to produce material for a brand new title New Fun Comics.
This book was the first of its kind as it produced only all-original new material. Siegel (the writer) and Shuster (the artist) were commissioned to come up with new characters and stories for the title, starting with issue number six. They came up with Dr. Occult, a Sam Spade knock-off with supernatural abilities who investigated the paranormal. The character was not burning the sales chart and disappeared from publication in 1938. Coincidentally, that was the same year that Siegel and Shuster created a character that has become mythic in stature; a character so institutionalized that he is recognized the world over despite religion, race, creed, color, or conviction; a character that was faster than a speeding bullet – as powerful as a locomotive – able to leap tall buildings in a single bound; a character who’s very origins were metaphoric of the creator’s family emigrating from Europe to America, and he resembled the mythic characters of lore they grew up learning about. In June of 1938, heaving a car above his head and smashing it into rocks on the cover of Action Comics #1, the mighty Superman was born into the world.
Still to this day, litigation persists with the Siegel and Shuster families over rights and royalty issues for Superman and supporting characters and concepts. The young writer and artist team had accepted payment on a work-for-hire basis from National Periodical and thus forfeited their ownership of the character – as well as millions in royalties. In 1946 the duo were paid a one-time payment of $94,000 to stop persisting with the claim for royalties against Superman. In 1976, after a public relations campaign spearheaded by fellow comic artist and fan Neal Adams, the Siegel-Shuster team were awarded a $20,000 a year royalty and creator credits on all material depicting Superman. Jerry Siegel passed away in 1996 – having won numerous industry awards for his contributions to comics. Joe Shuster died in 1992 also garnering many lifetime achievement awards for his contribution to comics. The families of both men, continue to challenge copyright ownership.
Siegel and Shuster really only knocked it out of the ballpark with Superman, but they did create a few other characters before parting ways with DC Comics. Shuster built an entire mythos of characters in the Superman universe – Superboy, Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane, Perry White, Lex Luthor, The Kents, and so forth. Siegel branched out into other realms of DC slightly with his co-creations of The Spectre and the Star-Spangled Kid. None of these other creations would even come close to the level of success that Superman has.
EARLY MARVEL ARCHITECT JOE SIMON (1913 – 2011)
Joe Simon was one half of the Simon and Kirby team that dominated the 1940s and 1950s. Although he dabbled in the comic book medium afterwards, the breadth of Joe Simon’s work was mostly during the '40s and '50s. His biggest claim to fame is as the co-creator of Captain America for Timely Comics (later Marvel) in 1941. When many of the staff writers and artists were drafted to fight in World War 2, Joe Simon was appointed as the first Editor for Timely — a position he held for a few years which also helped leverage the work that he and Jack Kirby were producing during that time. Simon and Kirby were so successful in their creative efforts, that they were probably the first rock stars of comic books. By 1945 they were both making almost 10 times as much as any other writer or artist working in the industry. However, by 1955, during the slump of comics, the Kirby and Simon partnership ended and the two went their separate ways — Jack Kirby went on to work for DC Comics (and later helped usher in the Marvel Age) and Joe Simon went on to other endeavors.
Other less notable creations from Joe Simon during those hey day years include the Fiery Mask for Timely, Wesley Dodds — The Sandman, his scrappy sidekick Sandy, and those rascals the Boy Commandos for DC Comics. Published by their own company Crestwood Publications, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby also devised the creator-owned (but heavily similar to Captain America) Fighting American. The character was distributed through Harvey Comics from 1954 to 1955. The collaborative duo were also the first to exploit romance comics starting in the 1940s with the title Young Romance.
Joe Simon lived to see his 98th year and passed peacefully in 2011. Those who knew him, and those who have met him, have said that he was always eager to tell stories of the illustrious past of the industry. In 1999, Joe was awarded a lifetime achievement award and inducted into the Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame.
Immortalized With One Magic Word...C.C. BECK (1910 – 1989)
After Superman was introduced in June of 1938 and sales of Action Comics #1 soared skyward towards Krypton, other publishers were frantically trying to create superheroes of their own in the hopes of capturing the same kind of sales that National Periodical (DC Comics) was getting. In 1940 Fawcett Comics developed a character that had all of the ‘Marvel’ous abilities that Superman had, but instead of being an alien from another world or bred of science, their hero was forged from the realms of magic. With one magic word…SHAZAM!…Captain Marvel was born. Created by C.C. Beck, Captain Marvel did greatly resemble Superman — he was super strong, he could fly, he had a cape, and those similarities certainly didn't go unnoticed.
This book resonated with its young audience because the main character was a teenaged boy named Billy Batson that would transform into an adult hero when he said the magic word ‘Shazam‘ aloud. It wasn't long before National Publications filed a lawsuit against Fawcett for copyright violation as they claimed that the character was a direct rip off of Superman. This legal battle lasted ten years, and in 1953 when the comics industry was ailing, Fawcett could not afford to maintain the lawsuit and ended up surrendering the rights to Captain Marvel and SHAZAM to DC Comics (by 1953 National Periodical had officially changed their name to ‘DC’ Comics).
Creator C.C. Beck is mostly famous for creating a character that was Superman’s real nemesis in a legal battle that lasted ten years. Beck also created the airplane flying super spy — SPY SMASHER – for Fawcett. Although nowhere near as famous or popular as Captain Marvel, Smasher had a strong following of fans.
He Won So Many Awards They Eventually Named Them After Him...WILL EISNER (1917 – 2005)
Will Eisner was perhaps one of the most successful, respected, and talented artists to come out of the Golden Age of Comics. He worked on The Spirit for decades in both comic book and newspaper strip formats, maintaining the rights and royalties to his nourish detective all along the way. Eisner was admired by up and comers, as well as other industry veterans, and was involved in helping establish many young publishing houses in the 1930s and 1940s. Will Eisner’s work speaks for itself, a very stylistic flare in an infantile stage of the medium. Industry Professionals gathered together in the 1980s and formed an awards system for the Comic Book industry. The Top Prize was given the title of Eisner Award, honoring the man who had contributed a great deal to the art-form and the business of comics for over 50 years.
In a career that spanned nearly seventy years and eight decades — from the dawn of the comic book to the advent of digital comics — he truly was the ‘Orson Welles of comics’ and the ‘father of the Graphic Novel’. He broke new ground in the development of visual narrative and the language of comics and was the creator of The Spirit, John Law, Lady Luck, Mr. Mystic, Uncle Sam, Blackhawk, Sheena and countless others.
One of the comic industry’s most prestigious awards, The Eisner Award, is named after him. Recognized as the ‘Oscars’ of the American comic book business, the Eisners are presented annually before a packed ballroom at Comi-Con International in San Diego, America’s largest comics convention.
Wizard magazine named Eisner “the most influential comic artist of all time.” Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel Kavalier and Clay is based in good part on Eisner. Also in 2002, Eisner received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Federation for Jewish Culture, only the second such honor in the organization’s history, presented by Pulitzer-prize winning cartoonist Art Spiegelman.
The Comic Industry's First Pop Genius...and Tragedy...JACK COLE (1914 – 1958)
Jack Cole is known for his artistic work both inside and outside the comic book medium. He started out in the comic book industry as a fill in artist, junior editor, and ghost artist for several years spanning 1939 to 1941. During that time, Jack worked under the original Titans of the Industry – Lev Gleason and Everett ‘Busy’ Arnold and came up with luke warm creations at best; such as the Spirit rip-off Midnight and also modifying the golden age Jack Binder Daredevil. In 1941, Cole created a character while working for Quality Comics which was featured in the first issue of a new anthology book called ‘Police Comics.‘ This character, Plastic Man, would become Jack Cole’s most famous work, and by issue number 5 of the title became the featured star of Police Comics. Plastic Man was so popular for Quality Comics Publishing that he was awarded his own title in 1943 which continued until its cancellation in 1950.
In 1947, Cole illustrated a story entitled “Murder, Morphine and Me” for True Crime Comics #2. This tale would eventually be used a few years later as part of Dr. Fredric Wertham‘s ridiculous fight against what he believed to be violent comic books (they are far worse today). Wertham, in his turd producing book ‘Seduction of the Innocent,‘ described a scene in detail from the Cole story about a drug dealer about to be stabbed in the eye with a hypodermic needle as excessively violent. This affected the comic industry in a big way! Many books were cancelled when sales decreased, publishers closed up altogether, and many creators left the industry to pursue other lines of work.
By 1954, Jack Cole was working as a cartoonist drawing risqué illustrations for Playboy Magazine. A few years later, he had a weekly newspaper strip, 'Betsy and Me,' for the Chicago Sun-Times. Tragically and mysteriously, Jack Cole took his own life in the summer of 1958 by self inflicted gunshot to the head. He had written two suicide notes — one to his wife and one to Playboy Editor and Founder Hugh Hefner — but the details of which have never been made public and remains shrouded in mystery.
Jack Cole was a gifted illustrator and cartoonist. His work on Plastic Man couldn’t be contained in a tiny frame, and it allowed him to experiment with new styles and develop new design techniques which not only made his title quite popular during the 1940s, it also paved the way for future artists to elaborate on these styles further.
There you have it folks. Six Golden Age Comic Book Creators that started it all. Arguably, there are many others that should be recognized for laying the ground work for building the comic book industry -- but these 6 men I've showcased in this post have work that has lasted the test of time, transcended their pens, and created a legacy.
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Gerry Albert is a Graduate of Popular Culture Studies from Trent University in Canada. He works for CBC/Radio-Canada in Toronto in both Television and Radio programming. But that just pays the bills. His passion is writing regularly on his Blog Imstillakid - contending with topics ranging from Horror Films to Comic Books to Nostalgic Toys to Vintage Television and everything in-between.