Read Alex Grand’s Understanding Superhero Comic Books published by McFarland Books in 2023 with Foreword by Jim Steranko with editorial reviews by comic book professionals, Jim Shooter, Tom Palmer, Tom DeFalco, Danny Fingeroth, Alex Segura, Carl Potts, Guy Dorian Sr. and more.
At the onset of the 20th century, two pivotal developments forever altered the landscape of global entertainment: the birth of the American film and comic book industries. As these fledgling sectors began to spread their wings, they grappled with legal issues, daunting production and distribution obstacles, and impassioned societal debates concerning morality and censorship.
Trailblazers such as Harry Donenfeld, Jack Liebowitz, Thomas Edison, and the Warner siblings, were not merely witnesses to this unfolding drama but also its influential authors, sculpting an enduring narrative that continues to influence these industries’ trajectories.
In the theatre of the film industry, no figure cast a longer shadow than Thomas Edison. Utilizing his impressive array of filmmaking patents, he co-founded the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC) in 1908, a body that wielded such power it forced many independent filmmakers to seek refuge in Hollywood, California. Hollywood has favorable weather, diverse countryside locales and a large physical distance from Edison who was based in the East Coast. This mass exodus marked the inception of an industry titan that would cast a long shadow over global entertainment.
In this new Promised Land, ambitious players like Metro Pictures, Goldwyn Pictures, and Louis B. Mayer Productions joined forces, giving birth to the cinematic powerhouse, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), in 1924.
Meanwhile, Warner Brothers, conceived in 1923 by the visionary Warner siblings, upended industry conventions by introducing synchronized sound in “The Jazz Singer” in 1927, forever altering the way stories were told on the silver screen.
Yet, the industry’s progress was far from untroubled. A cascade of public scandals, and rising concerns over the content of films, necessitated the institution of the Hays Code in the early 1930s. The Hays Code, initiated by Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America’s Will H. Hays in 1930, was a self-regulated moral guide for Hollywood films, established in response to public outcry over perceived obscenity. It was adopted by the industry to prevent government regulation and effectively dictated movie content through financial leverage, as non-compliant films risked losing distribution, reigning until supplanted by the MPAA rating system in 1968.
Two examples were at the forefront of this discussion. The Fatty Arbuckle Scandal (1921): Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, a popular comedic actor and one of the highest-paid stars in Hollywood, was accused of the rape and murder of actress Virginia Rappe. After a series of trials, Arbuckle was acquitted, but the scandal irreparably damaged his career and led to the public questioning the morality of Hollywood.
“The Docks of New York” (1928): Directed by Josef von Sternberg, this silent film told the story of a rough-and-tumble stoker who falls in love with a suicidal dance hall girl. Its grim depiction of the waterfront underworld and themes of promiscuity, crime, and suicide drew moral outrage from certain quarters. This censorship code attempted to rein in perceived excesses and moral improprieties, setting a new benchmark for cinematic content.
During this era of questionable morality, Hollywood was utilizing exploitative contracts for its talent leading to the formation of labor unions such as the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), the Writers Guild of America (WGA), and the Directors Guild of America (DGA). These unions heralded a significant evolution within the industry. Advocating for workers’ rights, fair remuneration, reasonable working conditions, and creative control, they challenged the dominant authority of film studios, ushering in a more balanced power dynamic.
As the film industry began to solidify its foundations, a parallel narrative was unfolding within the American comic book industry in the 1930s and 1940s. Visionaries like Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, founder of DC Comics, and Martin Goodman, the future originator of Marvel Comics, were instrumental in laying the groundwork of genre specific pulps and comic books.
However, the entrance of Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz marked a seismic shift within the industry. By subverting Wheeler-Nicholson’s ownership by dubiously pushing him out while investing in DC Comics in the mid-1930s, they catapulted the superhero genre to center stage with the introduction of timeless characters such as Superman and Batman. This genre choice helped establish the industry’s viability and economic prosperity.
Yet, the talented creators enabling this were deprived of basic healthcare and pensions and eventually relegated to freelancer status. The comic book industry, unlike its film counterpart, experienced considerable setbacks in its attempts to unionize. The endeavors by Arnold Drake and John Broome to create a comic book labor union were met with staunch resistance by Liebowitz, resulting in their departure from DC Comics. A new generation of writers and artists entered the field who were former fans, happy to work on superhero comic books without benefits. This failed unionization effort left an indelible mark on the comic book industry’s power dynamics, which is still felt now.
Much like the film industry, the comic book world also found itself wrestling with a moral quandary. Their covers were adorned with acts of sex and violence to promote sales to the point that comics were accused of fuelling juvenile delinquency, leading to the formation of the Comics Code Authority in 1954. This body established a set of guidelines, reminiscent of Hollywood’s Hays Code, which sought to instill a moral compass within comic book narratives.
In a fascinating confluence of histories, Warner Brothers and DC Comics, despite their starkly contrasting backgrounds concerning worker rights, were brought together in 1969. This occurred when the Kinney National Company, parent entity of Warner Brothers, acquired DC Comics. This merger marked a pivotal moment as it facilitated the cross-pollination of ideas, with comic book narratives being successfully adapted into films and vice versa, forever blurring the lines between these two mediums.
The tumultuous, yet triumphant journey of the film and comic book industries have left an indelible imprint on our contemporary cultural fabric. Their narratives are not merely tales of industries, but of resilience, innovation, and the power of collective action. The early struggles, from patent wars to the birth of Hollywood and the institution of censorship codes, have shaped how we produce, consume, and perceive popular culture today.
The success of labor unions within the film industry and the failed unionization attempts within the comic book industry highlight the complex interplay between power dynamics, creative rights, and collective action. Yet, the merging of Warner Brothers and DC Comics emphasizes the potential for seemingly disparate industries to converge, cross-fertilize ideas, and ultimately, coevolve.
The personal narratives of industry giants like Thomas Edison, the Warner siblings, Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, Martin Goodman, Harry Donenfeld, and Jack Liebowitz provide a human face to these historical transformations. Their trials, triumphs, and tenacity helped shape industry norms and continue to inspire new generations of creatives.
Today, we can trace the enduring legacies of these trailblazers in the continued popularity of films and comic books, the dominance of the superhero genre, and the rise of transmedia franchises. By understanding these intertwined histories, we can better comprehend the ongoing evolution of these industries, and anticipate how they will continue to redefine the landscape of mass entertainment in the future.
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