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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

“They consist of sleazy stories, drawings and ‘art study’ photographs of undressed females.”

That’s how Time described Harry Donenfeld’s line of “girlie” pulp magazines back in 1933. Just four years before he released Detective Comics No. 1. Donenfeld was a dual-identity publisher. Children’s market by day, softporn by night. This is the publishing world that produced the first comic book superhero.

Donenfield launched his first magazine in 1929. Juicy Tales, retitled Joy Stories, was standard Depression-era softporn. PG-13 by contemporary standards, but titillating enough to keep Donenfeld in easy revenue. Three years later, he was buying out competitors and adding Pep, Spicy Stories, and La Paree to his harem. He favored Spicy and spent the next few years expanding it into its own line: Spicy Mysteries Stories, Spicy-Adventures Stories, Spicy Detective Stories, and Spicy Western Stories.

In addition to ‘art studies’ and (in the case of Margaret Sanger’s Birth Control Review) illegally transported condoms, Donenfeld’s magazines included multi-page comic strips of scantily clad heroines. Adolphe Barreaux’s “Sally the Sleuth” and Max Plaisted’s jungle adventurer “Diana Daw” premiered in 1934, the year future DC partner Maxwell Gaines released Famous Funnies, the first book of comic strip reprints in what would soon define the standard comic book format.

The third Spicy strip, Watt Dell Lovett’s “The Astounding Adventures of Olga Messmer, the Girl with the X-Ray Eyes,” debuted in 1937, just five months after Detective Comics and less than a year before Action Comics. Olga, who like Superman also sports superhuman strength, is the first superhuman heroine in comic strip form. She also had a tendency to shred her clothes like the Incredible Hulk.

Were Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster fans of Olga? Hard to know, but one of Donenfeld’s editors recalled a meeting with the two young men from Cleveland and their attempt to pitch him Superman as a softporn strip. Donenfeld’s Super-Detective (not all of his pulps were porn) would have been a better home for the future Man of Steel, but the boys probably had Spicy Detective in mind. (Olga already had Spicy Mystery for herself.)

The editor said no. So it would be another twenty years before Joe, partly blind and fully broke, would debut in porn through a publisher below even Donenfeld’s standards (the 1954 Nights of Horror was typeset on a basement typewriter). Back in the mid-thirties Donenfeld was busy bankrupting his business partner and buying out Detective Comics, Inc. for himself. Comic books, like pulp porn, were just another way to steal a quick buck.

Donenfeld didn’t hire Siegel and Shuster. They’d already worked their way onto the DC bankroll with one- and two-page strips of a non-Spicy variety. When Action Comics launched Superman, Donenfeld’s pulp fiefdom transformed into a multimedia empire. Suddenly a children’s market titan, Donenfeld dumped his softporns to protect DC’s wholesome image. But it was only a sleight-of-hand. The discontinued Spicy line reappeared with Donenfeld’s wife as one of the newly independent company’s co-owners.

Not long before Donenfeld left publishing in the early 60s, one of his companies started distributing another promising magazine. Playboy. Its artists included Golden Age comic book legend Jack Cole, best remembered for creating the thankfully non-pornographic Plastic Man.

Around the same time, Donenfeld also started distributing a much less promosing comic book line that would become DC’s biggest rival. Marvel Comics. A company boasting an equally pornographic history. Publisher Martin Goodman began more tamely than his future competitor, releasing his first magazine, Western Supernovel Magazine, back in 1933 when Donenfeld was expanding Spicy. Goodman made up the distance in the 50’s with his own line of men’s adventure magazines that evolved into porn by the 60’s and 70’s. One included the comic strip “The Adventures of Pussycat,” a spoof more lascivious than “Sally the Sleuth.” Stan Lee, among other members of the Marvel bullpen, contributed.

A quarter century later and the father of the Silver Age had a disturbing amount of Pussycat still in his aging veins. Lee reinvented the sometimes topless secret agent as Stripperella for Spike TV in 2003.

Did the pornographic underbelly of the comic book industry seep into its tales of unitarded superheroes? Maybe. Some of today’s comics would make Donenfeld blush. They haven’t been targeted at children for decades.

Wonder Woman creator, William Moulton Marston, was a polygamous bondage-enthusiast, and more than one Phantom Lady of the 50’s exploited that Amazonian allure. But if the superheroes of my 70’s childhood were broadcasting sexual messages from their gutters, they stirred not a drop of my pre-pubescent blood.

I remember a teen neighbor flipping pages of a magazine in his driveway (Was it Playboy? Was it Goodman’s Stag?). I thought it was a comic book. I probably asked, and got a laugh. Yeah, this is what Spider-Man looks like without his costume. He pointed at another photograph. This one is Daredevil. And see her? That’s the Incredible Hulk.

The Hulk tipped me off. Bruce Banner doesn’t have a costume, he changes bodies, so that model couldn’t be him. I probably wasn’t as young as it sounds. Despite my years of superhero literacy, I was a newcomer to the genre of the undressed female. I preferred comic books. I didn’t know their publishers and creators had other professional pursuits. I didn’t need to know. Sometimes I kinda wish I still didn’t.

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