in the Funny Business
hutch hutchison: begin the beguine
Vin Sullivan at his bachelor party, April 6th, 1940. Also there, Gardner Fox, Fred Guardineer and Creig Flessel. From ALTER-EGO Vol. 3, No. 27 (August 2003); editor: Roy Thomas; p. 20.
the first editor
In the beginning there was Vin.
Before there was DC, before there was Superman, before there was Batman, there was Vincent Sullivan, but it was Sullivan–as editor–that saw the beginning for all.
flying by the seats of their pants
Not long after pulp fiction writer Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson first formed National Allied Publications–what would later be known as DC–he hired two cartoonists to work for him that would, in the small office, soon become the associate editors.
Inside front cover for MORE FUN No. 9 (March-April ’36) on sale March 5th, 1936–publication indicia with cover art for NEW COMICS No.4 (March-April ’36) by Vin Sullivan. The original title of NEW FUN was changed to MORE FUN, avoiding confusion with NEW COMICS. As was common practice in the original days of the American comic book industry where one publisher would have many shell corporations, this issue is published by More Fun Magazines not National Allied.
The two cartoonists were Vincent Sullivan and Whitney Ellsworth. First, Sullivan was an assistant editor on MORE FUN and NEW COMICS, before he and Ellsworth became associate editors on both titles (with Wheeler-Nicholson as publisher and editor) in 1936. In addition to editing, they would contribute covers, comic pages, text features, ad copy and various filler material.
Vin and Whit would look at whatever material freelancers were offering for publication, picking out what they liked and what they thought their readers would want to see.
old friends and new comics
Gardner Fox had been friends with Vin Sullivan since they were kids at grammar school. Fox had gone on to be a lawyer, but Vin knew that Gardner liked to write so he enlisted the lawyer as a writer for National’s comics and Fox soon emerged as one of the most prolific and skilled writers on the scene.
NEW COMICS No. 3 (February ’36), Jibby Jones by Vin Sullivan.
Other reliable talents employed by Sullivan were Creig Flessel and Fred Guardineer. The loyalty seemed mutual. as writers and artists who worked with Sullivan in these early days continued to seek and find employment with Sullivan in later days.
detective in action
When the Major wanted to start up a third anthology–this one with a specific theme–he was short of funds and that’s when Harry Donenfeld (who owned the printing plant) and partner Jack Liebowitz (who owned the distributor, Independent News) came into the picture, financing Detective Comics, Inc. (thus DC).
Prior to Wheeler-Nicholson’s departure, Whitney Ellsworth had gone to California. According to Sullivan, this was mainly to pursue a love interest.
Inside front cover for MORE FUN COMICS No. 19 (March ’37 with a house ad for DETECTIVE COMICS No. 1 (March ’37), featuring the cover art by Vin Sullivan.
So now Vin was the lone editor on all the DC titles–MORE FUN COMICS, ADVENTURE COMICS (formerly NEW COMICS) and DETECTIVE COMICS–working for his new bosses. And then starting a new title–ACTION COMICS.
Cover art by Creig Flessel for ACTION COMICS No. 1 (1937), an ashcan edition to secure copyright and trademark. The cover was intended for DETECTIVE COMICS No. 2 but never used.
action comics no. 1
Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were already providing editor Sullivan with many features–including Doctor Occult, Federal Men, Slam Bradley and Radio Squad–for the other National/DC anthologies, when ACTION COMICS was in the planning stages. So it would be no surprise that they would produce something for ACTION, as well.
August 24th, 1939, pay receipt from Vin Sullivan to Jerry Siegel for that month’s work.
It’s only remarkable that this feature turned out to be their Superman, which they had shopped around as a daily comic strip, with not much luck.
In addition to Superman, other DC features that got their start in ACTION COMICS No. 1 (June ’38):
- Chuck Dawson (by Homer Fleming), as a cowboy feature not much came of him, but this was printed in black and white and a contest on the inside front cover encouraged readers to colour the story’s first page and send it in for a prize, leading to the cutting up of many ACTION No. 1s;
- Zatara Master Magician (by Fred Guardineer), an idea from Sullivan who wanted to copy the success of Mandrake the Magician–in the next ish, Gardner Fox scripts and Zatara grows a moustache (must be Movember);
- South Sea Strategy, a text story by Captain Frank Thomas, aka Vin Sullivan;
- Sticky-Mitt Stimson (by Alger, aka Russell Cole);
- The Adventures of Marco Polo (by Sven Elven);
- Pep Morgan (by Gardner Fox and Fred Guardineer);
- Scoop Scanlon, Five Star Reporter (by Will Ely);
- Tex Thomson (by Ken Fitch and Bernard Baily)–Tex would later become Mr. America and still later the Americommando;
- Stardust (by the Star Gazer, possibly Sheldon Moldoff);
- and Odds N’ Ends (by Sheldon Moldoff).
ACTION COMICS No. 1 (June ’38)–Zatara Master Magician by Fred Guardineer; Stardust possibly by Sheldon Moldoff, featuring some notes about Hollywood royalty.
For whatever reasons, lost to the mists of time, DC was slow to appreciate that the reason their new ACTION COMICS magazine had proved so popular was due in large part to the cover featured star of that first issue.
Letter writing contest announced in ACTION COMICS No. 4 (September ’38), as well as the winners from the Chuck Dixon colouring contest in ACTION COMICS No. 1. These letters would have told Vin and the publishers what they needed to know.
Superman did not appear on the cover again until issue No. 7 and then not again until No. 10 after that. In fact, it’s only with issue No. 19 that Superman takes up permanent residence on the cover.
Still, there must have been other ways that the publishers could have monitored what was the source of their success. An early letter writing contest, announced in issue 4, would surely have let Sullivan know just what features the ACTION readers loved.
Early promotional pins for Superman.
Batman makes his first appearance in the final panel of the Superman story in ACTION COMICS No. 12 (May ’39) on sale April 4th, 1939.
And the publisher of Superman–National/DC/All-American–had its share of candidates for the next sensation, as well.
Vin Sullivan encouraged cartoonist Bob Kane to copy the Superman-type and after a weekend Bob brought in the Bat-Man for publication in DETECTIVE COMICS No. 27 (May ’39), on sale April 18th, 1939.
There was already a mystery man appearing in DETECTIVE–this was the Crimson Avenger (by Jim Chambers), a kind of combination of the Green Hornet and the Shadow. The name for the Crimson Avenger had been Sullivan’s own idea. Still, this Batman had something that the Crimson (as he was often called for short) had been lacking–an eye-catching costume.
Cover for DETECTIVE COMICS No. 29 (July ’39); cover art: Bob Kane; on sale June 13th, 1939. Batman Meets Doctor Death–the first script from Gardner Fox on Batman, replacing Bill Finger.
Unbeknownst to Vin, the idea for that costume along with many other concepts and the script itself had come from Bill Finger.
After a couple of issues of stories by (uncredited) Bill Finger with Bob Kane art, Sullivan’s friend and trusted story teller, Gardner Fox, was brought in to script the next several stories, before Bob Kane got Finger reinstated as the Batman writer.
Despite his successes at DC, Vin Sullivan became uncomfortable working for Donenfeld and Liebowitz–their way of doing business rubbed Sullivan the wrong way and so Vin is out of there by the beginning of 1940.
Not to take anything away from the actual creators of Superman and Batman, but Vin must have had some influence, as the two features begin to change as soon as he departs. New editor, old Whitney Ellsworth–now returned from the west coast–takes over as the managing editor and oversees several changes.
Meanwhile, Vin Sullivan moves on to other publishing ventures.
The McNaught Newspaper Syndicate was starting up a new comic book publishing company, Columbia Comics, and they hired Vin to edit their line. There are some notable titles from Columbia, but Sullivan becomes weary with that publisher, as well, so, in 1943, he founds his own funny book business, the venerable Magazine Enterprises, which would have much success for the next decade.
Many of Sullivan’s trusted talents–Gardner Fox, Fred Guardineer, Creig Flessel, as well as others Vin had encouraged along the way, like Bob Powell–came to work for him at ME. Proving the strong loyalty he fostered in others.
BEST OF THE WEST No. 6 (December ’52); art: Dick Ayers, Frank Bolle, Fred Meagher–featuring Straight Arrow, Durango Kid, Tim Holt, Ghost Rider. Tiger by the Tail, CAVEGIRL No. 11 (1953); story: Gardner Fox; art: Bob Powell.
Even Siegel and Shuster found a publisher in Sullivan, after they had left DC under difficult circumstances. ME published the comic book of their FUNNY MAN, which was also a syndicated newspaper strip. However, the concept never caught on and Sullivan probably lost money on the deal.
FUNNY MAN No. 1 (January ’48); story: Jerry Siegel; art: Joe Shuster and John Sikela. Funny Man seems to be modelled after Danny Kaye.
Yet it was thanks in part to Funny Man that Sullivan hired one of his most productive talents, Dick Ayers. While visting Burne Hogarth’s Cartoonists and Illustrators School, where Ayers was a student, Joe Shuster saw some of Dick’s work and had him draw some pages of Funny Man and then sent Ayers to Magazine Enterprises, where Sullivan gave him work on his books.
What goes around, comes around.
More information on Vin Sullivan can be found in ALTER EGO No. 10 (September 2001) and No. 27 (August 2003).
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