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