Tributes - 2000

Jacob "Jack" Liebowitz


Comic book publisher. Born Proskurov, Ukraine, October 10, 1900. Died Great Neck, New York, October 11, 2000, aged 100.

Not since the Dutch colonists bought Manhattan island for $US24 had anyone been given such a bargain as Jack Liebowitz received in 1938. For a mere $US130, Liebowitz and his business partner, Harry Donenfield, bought a comic strip hero called Superman, created by teenagers Jerry Siegel and Jerome Shuster. Published in comic-book form, Superman was an immediate hit, making Liebowitz one of the world's most successful comic book publishers, and forever changing the infant comic-book industry.

Though the success of Superman had caught him (and everyone else) by surprise, Liebowitz possessed a shrewd business sense, maintaining the lucrative status of Superman and his fellow super-heroes for the next 30 years.

An unusual case of rags-to-riches, Liebowitz had emigrated to New York in 1910. He worked as a magazine distributor before teaming up with Donenfield, the publisher of pulp magazines like "Spicy Detective", to enter the new market of comic-books. Comic books had been published in the U.S. since 1934 (mainly reprinting newspaper comics), but Liebowitz and Donenfield took them further, publishing "Detective Comics" in 1937. "Detective Comics" was the first comic book to feature regular characters, including Siegel and Shuster's tough guy "Slam Bradley". (They had already tried unsuccessfully to sell Superman to numerous syndicates.) The comic's initials would even inspire the future name of the company: DC Comics.

"I had a great feel for comics," Liebowitz said in an interview during the 1990s. "I was very optimistic about the future." In 1938, he and Donenfield began "Action Comics", a publication in a similar format. The first issue introduced Superman, with Shuster's now-famous cover drawing (selected by Liebowitz) of the hero hoisting a car overhead. Though DC was on to a winner, Liebowitz was still cautious about using Superman, and later admitted that the decision to buy the character was "a pure accident" based on deadline pressure. He would not even appear on every cover, alternating with the other "Action Comics" heroes until surveys revealed that he was the real drawcard. Before long, the print run had increased from a mere 20,000 to over a million each month.

Siegel and Shuster, who received nothing of the "Superman" bonanza, regarded Liebowitz as a shyster, making them sign away their rights in 1938. "He sort of sold us on the fact that they would take good care of us," said Siegel in a 1975 interview, "and so that's why we went ahead with the deal." In 1940, Liebowitz wrote to Siegel: "Get behind your work with zest and ambition to improve and forget about book rights, movie rights and all other dreams. We'll take care of things in the proper manner." The case was settled out of court in 1947, with DC reportedly paying the creators a sum of $US400,000.

Superman's popularity increased during the war years, spinning off into a comic strip, a movie serial and a popular radio series. (On Australian radio, Superman was played by Leonard Teale, who professed confusion that an alien from the planet Krypton would fight for "truth, justice and the American way".) Not surprisingly, he also inspired a deluge of super-heroes (or "mystery men", as they were then known), including such clones as Wonder Man and the highly popular Captain Marvel, published by rival companies. National Publications (DC) took the publishers of both of these heroes to court, and each time a federal judge ruled in National's favour, banning the copycat heroes from further adventures.

Meanwhile, several other heroes kept Liebowitz busy. In 1939, Batman was introduced in "Detective Comics". The so-called "dark night detective" would rival Superman in popularity, also spinning off into radio, cinema and newspaper strips. In 1940, with Donenfield reluctant to add extra comics to National's schedule, Liebowitz and publisher Max C. Gaines started a sister company, All American Comics, whose roster of characters included the Flash ("the fastest man alive"), the Green Lantern and later, Wonder Woman, the first major female super-hero. Along with Superman and Batman, Wonder Woman is one of the "big three" of comic-books: the only super-heroes to have been published continuously since the 1940s. This is not because her sales are healthy (they have rarely been so in the last 40 years), but because of her iconic value, as she is still regarded as a strong role model.

All American merged with National in 1945, becoming DC Comics.

Liebowitz remained focused to Superman, working closely with editor Mort Weisinger. It was Liebowitz's vision to move the character to television, resulting in "The Adventures of Superman", the fondly remembered series from the fifties in which actor George Reeves battled gangsters with an earnest deadpan.

By the 1960s, Weisinger frequently tried to resign due to poor health, but Liebowitz always convinced him to stay, offering regular salary increases. "This went on until 1970, when Mort again went in for the annual ritual and said, 'Jack, I really have to leave,'" recalled Julius Schwartz, "Batman" editor of the time. "Liebowitz said, 'Okay, now you can leave, because I'm leaving too.'"

By that time, DC had become part of the Warner Bros conglomerate. Liebowitz chose to leave at that time, but remained a board member of Warner Communications and then Time Warner until 1991, visiting the office regularly even at the age of 90.

He is survived by his second wife, Shirley; two daughters, a stepson, six grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren.

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