Sunday, November 8, 2009

Episode #94: Happy Birthday, Jack Liebowitz!

Jacob S. Liebowitz was born on October 10, 1900 and died on December 11, 2000, so his life literally spanned the 20th Century. His first name was Yacov when he was born in Proskurov, Ukraine to mother Mindl and an unnamed husband who abandoned his family when his son was still an infant. Mindl would later mary Yulyus Lebovitz around 1903. He was a fur cutter and a socialist involved in labor union activity, which concerned her family. After she married Yulyus, she gave birth to five more children by the time the family moved to New York's Lower East Side around 1910. Yulyus and Mindl's names were Anglicized to Julius and Minnie Liebowitz, and youg Yacov became Jacob, then Jack. Julius became a garment worker and full time organizer for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, ILGWU.

In school Jack was always good at numbers, and considered pursuing either law or accounting until a high school accounting class tipped the balance. He earned an accounting degree from New York University in 1924. After graduation he married his wife Rose and rented an apartment in the Bronx. They would eventuallly have two daughters, Linda and Joan. Jack established an accounting office in Manhattan's Union Square and his only client was the ILGWU.

Within a year he was put in charge of the union's strike fund, and kept it solvent through a six month, 50,000 worker strike. He began taking other clients and studied the stock market, investing the strike funds in stocks. After the stock crash of 1929, when the value of union stock holdings plumeted, Jack and the union parted ways. Jack's father Julius asked Harry Donenfeld, who had done some printing jobs for the union, if he had a job for Jack. Harry needed a new business manager for his publishing company, and so the two men who would eventually head DC Comics came together.

When Jack joined Harry's company it was limited to publisheing sexy pulp magazines, called smooshes, and art magazines, or nudies. The company would add more pulps to their magazine stable, as they took over ownership of titles when their previous owners could not pay their printing or distribution bills. In 1931, when Harry's old distributor Eastern News faced bankruptcy, Harry did not want to be at the mercy of another distributor. He proposed a deal to Eastern co-owner Paul Sampliner to create Independent News Company. Harry would be head salesman, brother Irving would be head of printing and publishing and Jack would head accounting. To fund Independent News, Sampliner borrowed the money from his mother. Independent was ready to move in when Eastern folded. Sampliner would become a silent partner as Harry and Jack became the public faces of the company.

Jack kept the bills paid on time and earned client's trust. He kept costs down and kept the pressure on debtors to keep their bills paid. He also began to look for other properties and opportunities as well. Jack and Harry would enter the comic book business in 1935. Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson needed a new distributor for his comic book company, National Allied Publications. At this point the company had only two titles, New Fun (which would eventually become More Fun), and New Comics (which would become New Adventure Comics and then Adventure Comics). New Fun was the first modern comic book with all new material, instead of newspaper comic strip reprints as was the custom to that point. It was an anthology, as were all comic book titles in this era. The Major premiered a third title, Detective Comics #1, cover dated March 1937, on February 25, 1937. This new title was the first comic book to feature a single genre, detective stories as the title suggested.

After the Major ran out of money and defaulted on his debts to Donenfeld Press, Harry told him to go into receivership, and Jack Liebowitz went to bankruptcy court and bought the Major's assets. The company became Detective Comics, Inc., with Donenfeld and Sampliner as officers. That ended Wheeler-Nicholson's involvement in the comic book industry.

Jack pusked former National Allied editor Vin Sullivan to publish the previously planned fourth title that the Major failed to deliver, originally named Thrilling Comics but later changed to Action Comics. Sullivan asked friend Sheldon Mayer at the McClure Syndicate if he or fellow McClure editor Charlie Gaines (later founder of E. C. Comics, or Educational Comics, changed to Entertaining Comics by son Bill) if they had anything the syndicate wasn't using that could fill this new comic book. They had several weeks worth of a comic strip called Superman. The strips were sent back to Siegel and Shuster to be cut apart and rearranged and expanded to a thirteen page story. Jerry and Joe got #130.00 check, signed a release giving the character rights to the publisher, and began both their fortune and their pain. Jerry and Joe would never win against an accountant like Jack Liebowitz.

When Charlie Gaines asked Harry to distribute and finance his own comic book publishing company, Harry agreed on the condition that Jack become minority partner in the new venture. All-American got it's start, and would publish the golden age characters, the original Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman and others. Jack let Gaines and Mayer run All-American while he held tight reign on DC, Inc.

Jack would show himself ahead of his time on several occasions. The first time was when he and new editor Whitney Ellsworth created the first comic book code of conduct for super heroes, about fifteen years before the Comics Code Authority, to avoid censorship drives that plagued the pulp magazines. There would be no more stories of Superman ripping the wings off of a plane and allowing the pilot to fall to his doom, or Batman machine gunning a monster from his Bat-autogyro.

Liebowitz also protected the company by filing lawsuits against comic book publishers he felt were printing copycat super heroes. The most famous lawsuit was against Fawcett, who published Captain Marvel (no similarity to the Marvel character of the same name). While the legitimacy of that lawsuit might seem debatable, there were other characters that were clearly clones of Superman, or other DC heroes.

Harry's son Irwin would become very close to Liebowitz, who he referred to as Uncle Jack, and had a closer relationship with him than his own father, even though he spoke fondly of him. Irwin would learn the comic book business from Uncle Jack.

When Gaines left All-American to form E. C. Comics he sold his part of the company to Jack, who merged the two companies together.

After the Congressional hearings about comic book violence and the establishment of the Comics Code Authority, DC struggled along with the other publishers, many of which went out of business. DC was less affected by the Code because their content was governed by their own editorial code, which was a basis of the Comics Code itself. DC grew by buying the characters of defunt companies as they went out of business. Through Independent News, DC would make money by distributing the comic books published by their competitors, including Martin Goodman's Timely (later Marvel) Comics.

Liebowitz was ahead of his time again when he used the new media of television to promote DC's characters with The Adventures Of Superman TV show. When the final four of the six seasons were filmed in color, it made the show more popular for syndication when color broadcasting became the norm in the 1960's.

Jack's wife Rose died of cancer in 1956. He would remarry in 1967 to a woman many years younger than him.

In 1961, DC went public and became National Periodical Publishing, with Jack Liebowitz as president. According to Gerard Jones' book Men Of Tomorrow Jack wanted Harry's money moved to a family trust and Harry himself off the board of directors. As DC became more respectable Jack wanted Harry's old Prohibition and mob ties buried as deeply as possible. Harry fought the move until his wife passed away.

In 1967 National was bought by Kinney National Services, which bought Warner Brother's the next year to form Warner Communications. Again Jack would earn a place on the board of directors then and once more, when Warner merged with Time-Life to form Time Warner. Jack would visit the office and be active on the board into his 90's.

When he died Jack was survived by his second wife Phyllis, daughters Linda L. Stillman and Joan L. Levy, and stepson Robert Schwartz, six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. He was one of the founding trustees of Long Island Jewish Hospital (later renamed North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System). He was also a trustee of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies and other charitable endeavors.

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Thanks for listening to the Superman Fan Podcast and, as always, thanks to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

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