The merger that rocked the comic industry (seven decades ago)
Last week’s announcement that BOOM! Studios had acquired Archaia Entertainment was big news, and with good reason. But long before that merger — decades before those two companies were even around — there was another publishing acquisition that changed the face of the comics industry, and it’s been echoing for the past 70 years. What I’m talking about is the conglomerate of companies that would become DC Comics.
You may not realize it, but DC Comics didn’t officially come into existence until 1977. Although the company had been known conversationally as DC and had used a “DC” logo in its comics, from 1946 until 1977 DC Comics was in fact National Comics. But that isn’t the end to this story; it’s only the beginning.
The origin of what would become DC Comics began in 1935 with the founding of National Allied Publications by Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson. It published two mid-selling titles but found itself on the brink of financial collapse just as it was putting together a title called Detective Comics. In debt to its printer, National Allied in 1937 took on that company’s owner, Harry Donenfeld, as a partner to fund the release of Detective Comics. Published under a new company named Detective Comics Inc. (after the title the partnership had convened for), Detective Comics had a fair amount of success but was, unbeknown to its owners, on the precipice of a major success with the debut of Batman in 1939’s Issue 27.
Meanwhile, National Allied — like Detective Comics, it was co-owned by Wheeler-Nicholson and Donenfeld — kickstarted the superhero genre with the debut of Superman in Action Comics #1 in 1938. But despite that, National Allied continued to experience cash-flow problems and, according to Gerard Jones’ revelatory book Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book, in 1939 Donenfeld forced National Allied into bankruptcy court where a high-ranking judge, who happened to be a friend of Donenfeld, sold the assets of National Allied to Donenfeld completely — taking the company’s founder out of the equation completely.
Taking stock then, in 1939 Donenfeld owned two comics companies: Detective Comics, which was just about to debut Batman, and National Allied, which was publishing Superman in Action Comics. But the mergers weren’t over yet.
A third company named All-American Publications was at the same time gathering steam. Headed up by future EC Comics founder Max Gaines, All-American launched in 1938 with seed money from Donenfeld. Although he didn’t ask for a stake in Gaines’ company, Donenfeld did place his frequent business partner Jack Liebowitz as a minority shareholder at All-American. The ties between Donenfeld and All-American were close, however; the company even used an informal “DC” logo, standing for Detective Comics, despite the two being separate companies. National Allied also did this at time, to capitalize on the success of Batman in 1939. But after eight years in business, Gaines decided to get out of the superhero genre — and All-American — when he sold his majority stake of All-American to Liebowitz. Almost immediately, Liebowitz and Donenfeld consolidated their three companies — National Allied, Detective Comics and All-American — under one roof: National Comics (later National Periodical Publications).
As stated in the beginning, it wasn’t until 1977 when National, by then part of Warner Communications (a company formed after another string of mergers), finally committed to the DC Comics name that had been emblazoned on its titles since its founding in 1946.
Sound like the rough outline for a DC version of Sean Howe’s excellent Marvel Comics: The Untold Story? Brother, you ain’t kidding.