All-American Part 1: The Organized Crime Origins of DC Comics

DC Comics as we know it today is an interesting amalgamation of characters and titles they've absorbed from throughout comics history. Characters like Plastic Man and Phantom Lady from Quality Comics, The Question and Captain Atom from Charlton, and most importantly Flash, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman among others from M.C. Gaines's All-American line.  During the Golden Age, the look and feel of All-American titles like Flash Comics, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman was distinctly different from their DC Comics-branded counterparts. While all of this is well-known, I've often been puzzled by the tangled timeline of the accepted version of the history of M.C. Gaines' involvement with DC Comics and All-American Comics.

Here's what I mean: quoting the book Men of Tomorrow, Wikipedia notes:

Gaines saw the end of the superhero fad coming and wanted to get into something more durable, like children's books and magazines. … In 1944, he decided he'd had enough. He let Jack Liebowitz buy him out with a loan from Harry Liebowitz promptly orchestra the merger of All American Comics and Detective Comics into National Comics, of which he was the junior partner, vice president, and publisher. Next he took charge of organizing National Comics, Independent News, and their affiliated firms into a single corporate entity, National Periodical Publications".

They go on to say, "Before the merger, Gaines first re-branded All-American with its own logo, beginning with books cover-dated February 1945."  Meanwhile, the book The Mad World of William M. Gaines contains a slightly different version of events.

Max found himself partnered with Liebowitz, and they didn't get along. Bill remembers that every afternoon his father would take a taxi to the uptown offices, where he, Liebowitz, and Donenfeld would scream at each other for two hours. Something had to give and that something was Max's patience. In early 1945, he hurled out his ultimatum: "You buy me out or I'll buy you out." They bought him out. Max demanded $500,000, free and clear after taxes. He got it, after which he announced his retirement.

Harry Donenfeld associate Benny Fein, courtesy the NYPD.
Harry Donenfeld associate Benny Fein, courtesy the NYPD.

All-American, All in the Family

Neither of these versions quite track with the reality of the historic timeline.  Announced in the December, 1944 issue of Independent News, the distribution trade journal from the distributor of the same name, the All-American re-branding was outlined with a note detailing that:

Effective with the February issues, the magazines listed and pictured below–which hitherto comprised part of the SUPERMAN-DC group of comics–will be published and identified as the ALL-AMERICAN group of comics and carry the All-American trademark.

Considerable promotion and publicity will be given the ALL-AMERICAN trademark by the publishers (M.C. Gaines and Jack Liebowitz) of this group of comics… it will convey the same assurance of quality–carry the same prestige–as the SUPERMAN DC symbol does today. Both groups will have the same Editorial Advisory Board.

Considering that Independent News was run by Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz as well, and that All-American had in reality been an imprint of a corporate partnership between Gaines and Liebowitz since 1941 (that company, J.R. Publishing Co., was named after and technically owned by their wives, Jessie Gaines and Rose Liebowitz), that doesn't sound like much of a split at all.  We do know that in a statement of ownership dated September 25, 1945, Jessie Gaines was removed from the ownership list of J.R. Publishing, and Harry Donenfeld's son Irwin Donenfeld, and Paul Sampliner's wife Sophie were added.  Paul Sampliner was another financial partner in Independent News, DC Comics, and other associated businesses over the years.

Was it simply a matter of sparks flying between Harry Donenfeld and Max Gaines, as the book The Mad World of William M. Gaines implies?  That's not impossible, but the situation after the All-American re-branding announced in December 1944, and before the September 1945 (at latest) ownership change still left Gaines closely tied to Harry Donenfeld-controlled business in two crucial ways.

It simply removed Harry Donenfeld's name from the picture in a public manner. Which may have been the point.

The Not-So-Secret Life of DC Comics Owner Harry Donenfeld

We should take care to note here that the true founder of the line which quickly became known as DC Comics, Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, had been maneuvered out of the picture by Donenfeld and Liebowitz long before this matter played out. Nor is he or Max Gaines mentioned in the investigatory documents referenced below.  I'd also like to note that the current-generation Harry Donenfeld, whom I've traded a few words with on Facebook over recent months, seems to have both an interest in and a balanced perspective on this family history.

The organized crime associations of the prior-generation Harry Donenfeld and other important figures behind the early days of DC Comics have often been alluded to, but far less often quantified.  The most common connection discussed is Harry Donenfeld's substantial financial and printing connection to organized crime figure Moe L. Annenberg.  Annenberg was heavily invested in  printing, publishing, and distribution infrastructure, including as president of S-M Distribution, which distributed some of DC Comics very earliest releases, beginning exactly when Harry Donenfeld entered the picture there, with Detective Comics #1.

S-M Distribution on the cover of Detective Comics #1.
S-M Distribution on the cover of Detective Comics #1.

Annenberg's own association with some of that era's most ruthless figures included William Randolph Hearst on one hand, and Al Capone on the other.  Annenberg was convicted of tax evasion in 1940 and sentenced by the same judge who sentenced Capone, but that didn't end the family's rise to power.  His son Walter founded the TV Guide empire, owned magazines ranging from Playboy to The Saturday Evening Post, and later become the United States Ambassador to the UK.

But the Annenberg connection is far from Harry Donenfeld's only brush with America's criminal underworld, according to his rather lengthy FBI file. In late Oct / early Nov 1935, Special Agent C.F. Laman of the FBI's NYC office was on the hunt for William Cook, important early comics writer and editor best known for his association with important packaging studio Funnies, Inc. and publisher Centaur Publications, and also an early-days DC Comics editor.

Special Agent Laman had been told that Cook hated Harry Donenfeld, and wanted to hear what he might have to say. Cook was ultimately found at 373 Fourth Avenue, Room 903, and he talked plenty. He said that he was there working as the editor of New Fun Magazine. This is of course of historical interest, as New Fun #6 came out several weeks prior to this conversation, and MORE FUN #7 should have been close to hitting the printers. It seems he hadn't gotten the name-change memo yet.

Harry Donenfeld's FBI File.
Harry Donenfeld's FBI File.

William Cook did hate Harry Donenfeld, as Laman quickly discovered. Cook said that he'd heard that Donenfeld employed a gang of men in NYC to intimidate newsdealers into carrying his magazines. Merle Hersey became a subject of conversation. The FBI was looking for her because they'd been told that she had dirt on Donenfeld, and that he was paying her off to keep her quiet. Hersey had briefly been in business with Donenfeld publishing the Police Gazette, and had also contributed to Donenfeld pulps. She was also the ex-wife of publisher Harold Hersey. Cook told them that if they could find Hersey, she would likely have plenty to say. He speculated that Donenfeld had "kept" Hersey, but that they'd fallen out.

Laman also eventually learned from a source redacted from the file that Donenfeld had been reared on the East Side with Benny Fein, a known gangster and racketeer in New York City, and that according to this source, it was through Fein that Donenfeld forced newsstands to accept his publications. Fein was a murderer, scam artist, racketeer, and a well-documented New York City gangster.

In 1941, Fein was arrested for his role in fencing $250,000 worth of stolen property. Sentenced to ten to twenty years in prison, this was the effective end of Fein's active days as a gangster. And along with Moe Annenberg's conviction in 1940, it may have played a minor contributory part in the twists and turns that were to come during the WWII era for both All-American and DC Comics.

Benny Fein NYPD Mug Shot.
Benny Fein NYPD Mug Shot.

Next, in All-American Part 2: The DC Comics created by a "quasi-government agency".

The All-American comics shown here and many more are available from this post's sponsor Comic Connect, during this week's Event Auction #42.

About Mark Seifert

Co-founder and Creative director of Bleeding Cool parent company Avatar Press. Bleeding Cool Managing Editor, tech and data wrangler. Machine Learning hobbyist. Vintage paper addict.

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