Tag Archives: Newspaper Row

Super City: New York and the History of Comic Books

PODCAST  A history of the comic book industry in New York City, how the energy and diversity of the city influenced the burgeoning medium in the 1930s and 40s and how New York’s history reflects out from the origins of its most popular characters.

 In the 1890s a newspaper rivalry between William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer helped bring about the birth of the comic strip and, a few decades later, the comic book.  Today, comic book superheroes are bigger than ever — in blockbuster summer movies and television shows — and most of them still have an inseparable bond with New York City.

What’s Spider-Man without a tall building from which to swing? But not only are the comics often set here; the creators were often born here too. Many of the greatest writers and artists actually came from Jewish communities in the Lower East Side, Brooklyn or the Bronx.

For many decades, nearly all of America’s comic books were produced here.  Unfortunately that meant they were in certain danger of being eliminated entirely during a 1950s witch hunt by a crusading psychiatrist from Bellevue Hospital.

WITH a special chat with comics historian Peter Sanderson about the unique New York City connections of Marvel Comics’ most famous characters. Sanderson is the author of The Marvel Comics Guide to New York City and The Marvel Encyclopedia.

FEATURING: The Yellow Kid, Little Orphan Annie, Batman, Doctor Strange and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services or get it straight from our satellite site.

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Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #187: Super City: New York and the History of Comic Books

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COMING THIS FALL:  Superheroes’ ties to New York City history will be further explored this fall in the New-York Historical Society’s Superheroes in Gotham exhibition, which opens October 9, 2015.
(Friday, October 9 is the start of ComicCon weekend).

 

A young New York boy enjoys his comic book on the Bowery. Photo taken in 1940 by Andrew Herman.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

And here’s the comic book he’s reading from March 1940, illustrated by George Papp.

Courtesy Comic Vine
Courtesy Comic Vine

 

In this 1947 photograph taken by Stanley Kubrick, a boy watches his baby sister and enjoys a Superman comic book while his mother shops inside.

Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York

An issue of DC Comics’ Superman from March 1947, with a cover by George Roussos and Jack Burnley

Courtesy DC Comics / Comic Vine
Courtesy DC Comics / Comic Vine

 

A girl takes a peek at some of the comic book offerings at Woolworth’s. Photograph by Stanley Kubrick taken in 1947.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

An issue of More Fun Comics from June 1947, produced by DC Comics:

more fun

 

The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck, published in 1842, is considered by many to be the wellspring from which the comic medium derives. You can read the entire issue over at the Darmouth College Library website.

Courtesy Dartmouth College Library
Courtesy Dartmouth College Library

 

A Yellow Kid adventure which would have sprung out from the newspaper due to its vivid colors.

Image courtesy Comix  Takoma; art by Richard Outcault
Image courtesy Comix Takoma; art by Richard Outcault

 

Both Hearst and Pulitzer ran versions of the Yellow Kid comic strip during the years that they were drumming up propaganda which lead to the Spanish-American War. The unscrupulous nature of their efforts earned them the phrase ‘yellow journalism’, inspired by their war of the popular comic strip by Richard Outcault,

Courtesy the Library of Congress
Courtesy the Library of Congress

 

A section of the colorful comics section of the New York Journal, 1898.

“Familiar Sights of a Great City—No. 1 The Cop is Coming!” by Walt McDougall, New York Journal, Sunday, January 9, 1898  via New York Review of Books
“Familiar Sights of a Great City—No. 1 The Cop is Coming!” by Walt McDougall, New York Journal, Sunday, January 9, 1898 via New York Review of Books

 

Little Orphan Annie became the biggest crossover star of the early comic strip era.  Long before there was a musical, Annie starred in this 1932 melodrama, one of the earliest comic-to-movie crossovers.

annie

 

New Fun Comics #1, the very first comic book to contain all new material, and not merely reprints of newspaper comic strips.

1

 

The Batman debuted in Detective Comics in 1939, created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. The city features in these adventures was Gotham City, startlingly similar to the city outside the creators’ windows.

Courtesy DC Comics
Courtesy DC Comics

 

Gotham City, aka New York City, in 1939

Courtesy U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation
Courtesy U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation

 

Vault of Horror, one of an assortment of shocking comic books produced by EC Comics in the early 1950s. The cover art is by Johnny Craig.

Courtesy EC Comics
Courtesy EC Comics

 

Bill Gaines, publisher of EC Comics, at his offices at 225 Lafayette Street.

Courtesy Tebeosfera
Courtesy Tebeosfera

 

Dr. Fredrick Wertham, the writer of Seduction of the Innocent, who lead a charge against the comic book industry.

fred

 

seduction

 

A young Stan Lee during the war as a member of the US Army’s Signal Corps. He even managed to do a bit of illustration for the cause!

stan lee

 

The Thing from the Fantastic Four with the  Yancy Street Gang, a variation on Delancey Street in the Lower East Side.

Courtesy Marvel Comics via Comic Viine
Courtesy Marvel Comics via Comic Viine

 

Doctor Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum is located on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village

Courtesy Marvel Comics
Courtesy Marvel Comics

 

What would Spider-Man be without New York City? The image of the Brooklyn Bridge (called the George Washington Bridge in the story) is featured in a classic tale involving the death of his girlfriend Gwen Stacey, written by Gerry Conway and drawn by Gil Kane, John Romita and Tony Mortellaro,

Courtesy Marvel Comics
Courtesy Marvel Comics

 

A page from Maus by Art Spiegelman, the graphic novel that brought the medium to a new level of respectability in literary circles.

Courtesy Art Spiegelman
Courtesy Art Spiegelman

 

The comic book/graphic novel continues to evolve and reach new heights of success and respectability.  Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant, published last year, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for best autobiography.

 

Courtesy Roz Chast/Bloomsbury
Courtesy Roz Chast/Bloomsbury

The Avengers defended New York during an alien attack in their blockbuster film in 2012

Courtesy Film Frame/Marvel
Courtesy Film Frame/Marvel

 

All images on this website are owned by the original comic book companies which produced them.  Please see individual companies for more information.

 

RECOMMENDED READING:

If you’re into digging more into this subject, here are a few sources that I used for this podcast:

Jews and American Comics: An Illustrated History of An American Art Form, with written contributions by Paul Buhle

The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America by David Hadju

Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangster and the Birth of the Comic Book by Gerard Jones

Comic Book Century:  The History of American Comic Books by Stephen Krensky

 

Tales to Astonish: Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and the American Comic Book Revolution by Ronin Ro

 

The Marvel Comics Guide to New York City by Peter Sanderson

 

The top image is from Godzilla #24, released by Marvel Comics in July 1979. Herb Trimpe penciler, Dan Green inker, im Novak letterer, from a story by Doug Moench, edited by Allen Milgrom and Mary Jo Duffy

 

The Dual Contracts: The New York City subway system gets a serious upgrade 100 years ago today

A subway map from 1924, illustrating the system created as a result of the Dual Contracts agreement.

After years of negotiations, false starts and lengthy arguments played out in the press, a group of greatly relieved businessmen entered the large hearing room of the New York Tribune Building (at Nassau and Spruce, where Pace University is today) and put their names to a series of documents that have come to be known as the Dual Contracts.

The beleaguered ceremony ran a half hour late, as a great many gentlemen crammed into the third floor meeting room to sign the official documents, stamped with gold lettering and expensively bound in morocco leather and colored ribbons.

With those signatures, the chaotic New York transportation system — with its fledgling subway and its miles of elevated lines — officially came of age that day — March 19, 1913.

“This makes March 19 a red-letter date on the municipal calendar,” declared the New York Tribune, in whose building the agreement was signed.  The Dual Contracts authorized millions of dollars of new tracks, more than doubling the system in size, from 296 miles of track to 618 miles!

Below: The buildings of Newspaper Row. The towered Tribune Building, in the middle, was the site of the Dual Contracts signing in 1913. 

This seminal agreement in American transportation history is ‘dual’ because the city negotiated two separate contracts — one with August Belmont Jr.’s Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT) who operated the New York subway, and the Municipal Railway Company on behalf of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit (BRT), who ran most of Brooklyn’s transit system.

Under the agreement, the city would shoulder some of the cost of building new subway services — many into places where New York expected populations to rise in the coming years — and the two private companies would then lease the new routes from the city and profit from their operation.

At right: the headline from the New York Evening World

Essentially this gave IRT permission to operate into Brooklyn (once the domain of the BRT) and vice versa.  Previously, people arriving from Brooklyn to Manhattan had to immediately change trains once arriving into the new borough.

According to a report by the Public Service Commission later that year: “The Dual System will remove this abnormal condition and give the Brooklyn company a system of subways in Manhattan, by means of which it shall distribute its passengers through the territory south of 59th Street. Thus the present congestion at the Manhattan terminals of the bridges will be ended and the passengers from Brooklyn will be enabled to reach their destinations in lower Manhattan without change of cars or the payment of an additional fare.” [source]

As part of the deal, the two companies agreed to operate two new lines into Queens.  The importance of this particular part of the deal cannot be overstated.  The borough of Queens was just over a dozen years old by this time and still sparsely populated given its size. (Less than 300,000 people in 1910.)  With the arrival of the Queensboro Bridge in 1909, paired with new subway and elevated services provided by the Dual Contracts, the population of Queens would explode in the 1920s to well over a million.

And this didn’t just stimulate development there.  The deal brought a subway to the Manhattan’s Upper East Side and to the West Village, to most Bronx neighborhoods and down the Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn.  New home and apartment developments into those regions soon followed.

Below: City luminaries gather around to watch representatives from government and the two private companies sign the pretentiously bound contracts. (Picture courtesy NYCSubway, an indispensable destination for transit history.)

The Dual Contracts also created express and local trains, facilitating another great development in the history of New York — the arrival of midtown Manhattan as the heart of business and entertainment.

In all, the contract signed one hundred years ago today made the New York City transit system the largest in the world.  In fact, it was larger than all the rapid transit systems of the world at the time — combined (according to Peter Derrick’s excellent book on the subject Tunneling To The Future).

But this also set in motion one of the great flaws of the subway system. Tracks operated by the IRT were a different size from those operated by the BRT.  The track gauge was wider on BRT tracks.  As a result, today the New York subway system still operates two different sizes of cars. (Ed: See notes below for a slight clarification/better explanation.)

On a humorous note, the original contracts, bound as they were in thick leather volumes, were apparently quite heavy to lift.  The president of the IRT remarked, “I am glad that I have enough strength to receive these contracts.”

For more details on the Dual Contracts, please check out the second podcast on the birth of the New York subway system — Subway by the Numbers (and Letters)