The Man Who Would Be King of the Comics
by Steven Utley
Today’s lesson is about entrepreneurship. Today’s object lesson is Victor S. Fox, a legendary figure in the comic-book industry. The most cursory account of Fox’s career makes more fascinating reading than anything he ever published (but see the Appendix), because he was one of the free-enterprise system’s enduring, if unendearing, archetypes — the hustler who, in the words of one of the many whom he hustled, “had his office in his hat.”
The comic book as we now know it was launched in 1933 but made little impression and not much more money during its first half-decade. Then came Action Comics, starring Superman, a runaway success, and what had been, basically, a ploy by which to generate pocket change from repackaged newspaper comics was very quickly transformed into a major growth industry. Suddenly, everybody was trying to grab a piece of the market, from long-established pulp-magazine outfits to (it has been darkly hinted) ex-bootleggers in need of legitimate investment opportunities. After all, if one could get together a little capital, one had merely to hire, at chicken-feed rates, some eager art-school graduates (drop-outs would do) to produce the actual raw matter of a comic book, then reserve press time and patch together a deal with a distributor. Writers and artists worked under assembly-line conditions and got paid by the piece. Publishers got rich. It was quintessential capitalism.
Enter Victor S. Fox, whose antecedents, as befits legendary characters, are semi-obscure. Born, apparently in Britain, in 1893, he came to the United States and by late 1929 had established himself on Park Avenue, New York City, as a stockbroker for a brace of companies listed as “American Capital Corp., Fox Motor and Bank Stocks, American Common Stocks”; we know this because he was indicted for mail fraud on November 27, 1929. Whether or not a conviction followed, in 1938, he just happened to be working as a bookkeeper for what is now DC Comics. In one version of what happened, Fox arrived at the office at ten o’clock in the morning, saw the skyrocketing sales figures for Action Comics, quit his job at eleven, spent the noon hour negotiating for office space in the same building (but on a higher floor) where Superman hung his cape, and by mid-afternoon had ordered a 64-page book from a comic-art production outfit called Eisner & Iger.
Perhaps he thought that he had been allowed a glimpse of the future, that he knew his own destiny. He would steal a march on everyone else, go into business for himself, become a purveyor of four-color fast-action funnies. He would dominate this new, burgeoning field. He would be the King of the Comics.
In the event, Fox’s Wonder Comics made its debut in the spring of 1939 and had scarcely hit the stands when its raison d’être, Wonder Man, got hauled into court by the Action Comics people. The night before he was to give sworn testimony, Will Eisner, who had created Wonder Man according to Fox’s specifications, was summoned to Fox’s office; Fox wanted Eisner to claim that Wonder Man had been all his, Eisner’s, idea. “I refused to lie on the witness stand for Fox,” Eisner says. “So I told the truth: that he — Fox — set out to imitate Superman. His defense disappeared. As a result, Fox refused to pay Eisner & Iger about $3000 he owed us, an absolute fortune at the time.”
Afterward, it is said, Fox habitually stopped the elevator on the way to his office and opened the door at Superman’s floor to spit. Bloodied but unbowed, he promptly started other titles, starring other costumed heroes, all of whom he claimed to have thought up: Fantastic Comics (“Watch Samson use his legendary strength to conquer evil”), Weird Comics (“Thrill to the Dart’s daring exploits”), Wonderworld Comics (“Join the Flame as he uses his mysterious powers to smash rackets”), and many more. He still had a backlog of Eisner & Iger material, which he supplemented, cheaply, with work by “depression kids” glad to have any job they could get and afraid to lose any job they had. In 1940, Fox claimed a circulation in excess of one million for his line of comics and was encouraged to diversify.
In mid-1941, he launched Swank, an imitation of Esquire. He also gained “the ear of Editor & Publisher,” as Ron Goulart tells it,
where his pronouncements on the future of newspaper strips appeared under headlines like ‘Fox Sees Adventure Comics in Ascendancy’ and ‘Format Change Won’t Help Comics Says Fox.’ It was Fox’s theory that what everybody wanted now was the type of ‘thriller’ material which only comic books, particularly those of the Fox line, could deliver. All this was prelude to his offering comic strips of his own. Fox had available daily-strip versions of his comic-book heroes, as well as a four-page readyprint Sunday section ... made of recycled comic-book art squeezed into Sunday-page shape.
Among the comic-book men who worked for Fox in those early days were Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, the indefatigable team that later created Captain America and the first love comics. “I thought he was a great character,” Kirby says “He was Edward G. Robinson. I remember him walking back and forth watching the artists all the time like a hawk and just saying, ‘I’m the King of Comics!’ And we would look back at him, and actually he was a joy to us because he made working fun.”
Joe Simon evidently found Fox less entertaining. “The man was insane,” he said decades later, “absolutely insane. He would go off on a speech like, ‘I’m the King of the Comics and I’m not playing school here with chalk on the blackboard. I’ve got millions tied up in this business.’“
Yet another early Fox artist, Howard Nostrand, is even more vehement in expressing his opinion of the man, calling him “just one of the world’s worst people.”
He would pay these lousy rates [Nostrand goes on] and he attracted the worst artists in the whole world. He’d get somebody fresh out of art school and offer them all kinds of money: ‘Do this book.’ The kid would sit down, and he’d crank out some sort of comic book for a lousy $12 a page, just to get it into print. This is the way Victor Fox got them. And Fox would just renege on it. He wouldn’t pay! The guy has done the artwork, and that’s it. Of course, somebody fresh out of art school, generally speaking, can’t afford a lawyer.
Some people can afford lawyers, however, and evidently did. Charles Cuidera, another veteran comic-book artist who worked for Fox, recalls being told by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, “You’d better look for another job, because this guy’s going to wind up in jail!” Whether Fox ever did, by Will Eisner’s count he went bankrupt four times:
He once said to me, “Kid, if you go bankrupt, go big!” And he did! He went bankrupt once for $400,000, most of it owed to the paper house! It was so much money that the paper house financed him to get back in the business so they could recover the $400,000 he owed!
The Fox Feature Syndicate’s one star, if sheer endurance may be equated with stardom, was The Blue Beetle, star of Mystery Men Comics and the masked identity of a rookie cop who, out of respect for the uniform he wore, switched to one of scaly blue armor whenever he wanted to take the law into his own hands. He gained superpowers by ingesting Vitamin 2-X, liked to project the image of a giant scarab into racketeers’ line of vision, and packed a gun just in case they were impressed with neither his physique nor his symbol. He also starred in a short-lived newspaper strip, drawn by Jack Kirby, and was portrayed by Frank Lovejoy in a twice-weekly radio program sponsored by Kooba, the five-cent Cola with Vitamin B1, “A Masterpiece in Delightful Flavor, and Healthful, Tingling, Invigorating Refreshment” — yet another Fox enterprise.
Fox did not miss a trick: Kooba bottle caps could be traded for “free gifts”; any youngster could own the Blue Beetle “Bangomatic” Gun who explained in twenty-five or fewer words what he, or even she, liked about the radio show. This offer must have found many kids at a loss for something to say, since the show swiftly flopped.
Still, from 1939 to 1950, Blue Beetle appeared in at least eight different Fox titles, including sixty issues of his own eponymous comic book. Given the poor artwork and stories, it is difficult to account for this longevity. If the books published under the Fox Feature aegis ever made money, they never showed it: even for comic books, always printed on the least expensive, most perishable stock, Fox’s product seemed shoddily made, and the contents were always sleazy or at best cheesy — a particularly rich field for research by Dr. Wertham, the post-WW2 era’s pre-eminent anti-comics crusader.
But the Blue Beetle’s record stands. Somebody must have liked him. To add to the mystery, the Charlton outfit (itself sort of a latter-day Fox Feature Syndicate) paid real money for the right to resurrect the character in 1954. That didn’t take. Charlton tried again in the 1960s, with two different versions. Those didn’t take, either. Charlton sold out in the 1970s, and now Blue Beetle belongs to DC Comics, the Superman conglomerate: a part of Victor Fox has come full circle.
World War II brought down several empires, Fox’s among them. Facing bankruptcy in 1942, he leased his properties to other publishers; when he staged a comeback two years later, very few of those properties still existed. A lesser individual might have been discouraged. Not Fox. Not the King of the Comics. He retrieved his Blue Beetle from the Holyoke company, revived and revamped his Green Mask, introduced a line of new characters, among them, Rocket Kelly, Cosmo Cat, and Jo-Jo, a bargain-basement Tarzan. The post-war years found him pushing such wares as Crimes by Women, Zoot Comics, and Dorothy Lamour, Jungle Princess. Somehow acquiring rights to a minor player called the Phantom Lady from another, much richer publisher, he tried to make her a star by having her drawn stripped down to the bare essentials of costuming, equipped with paraboloid breasts, and tied up, gagged, and/or in the grip of other such kinkiness on the covers of a comic bearing her name. He published a slew of love titles, the industry’s new craze. If a book did not sell well, he quickly turned it into something else, Women Outlaws into My Love Memoirs into Hunted, Western Outlaws into My Secret Life into Romeo Tubbs. To the end, apparently unfazed by any setback, he pushed unremittingly.
And, to the end, he never lost his instinct for instant exploitation. Recalls Harry Harrison, now a science-fiction writer but then an artist working alongside the gifted Wally Wood in a comic-book sweatshop:
One guy got a package deal from Fox, some Bible story, Samson and Delilah I think it was. Fox commissioned this comic and wanted the whole thing into a book in a day and a half or two days. This book was to take advantage of one of those Bible movies that came out in the late forties or early fifties. I think it was from MGM, and while Dell had the official movie version in their comic, Fox wanted to issue his own version. And got away with it because he was stealing from the Bible, not MGM.
Of course, once such a project had been turned in, there remained the little problem of getting paid. A certain daring resourcefulness was in order. Fox himself, Harrison continues,
was hardly ever around — I once saw him go by, ZOOM, like that. The vice-president was someone by the name of Ganz, I think, a real milquetoast of a guy, so one time when they were behind in paying we ... set up an act. Wally was a very quiet guy, smoked a lot, and he had this ugly black fedora we’d use as a prop. I said I’d give him a nudge in Ganz’s office and then he was to take the cigarette out of his mouth and crush it out in the ash tray at the right moment and we’d act like we were going to beat him up unless he came across... Ganz was about six-foot-five, but he really was a coward. We threatened to beat the hell out of him. I gave Wally the nudge, he leaned over and put his cigarette out right in the middle of Ganz’s desk blotter, missing the ash tray. Great effect.
Harrison and Wood got their check, but the round still went to Fox: the check “bounced off the face of the moon.”
Good stories about hustlers demand that they ultimately pay penalties for rapacity. Of the nature of Victor Fox’s comeuppance, the record tells us that he declared personal bankruptcy in 1950, just as the industry began to enjoy another of its cyclical booms. The new comic-book boom was fueled by horror. The Victor Fox of old would have been right on top of the trend, or right at rock-bottom, anyway. Before the war, many had become comic-book magnates, but only Victor S. Fox had been King of the Comics, and what ruler, rudely tumbled from on high, has never tried to regain his throne?
Still, Fox had been flirting with catastrophe, and occasionally calling it down on himself, ever since Wonder Man. Jack Kirby states that “he kept getting into trouble — lawsuits all the time. Big deals and so forth”; it would appear that Fox at last called down one catastrophe too many, karma caught up with him, justice was served. Perhaps he felt old and tired, perhaps he felt his luck had finally and irrevocably run out — or perhaps he simply went looking for some other investors’ El Dorado.
We can only speculate about his reflections, if any, on his publishing career.
Did he ever realize that the consensus among those who fell afoul of him was that he possessed the business ethics of a remora? If so, did he ever care, or did he, instead, rationalize, tell himself that he was hardly the only reprehensible character in the brief but already all-too-checkered history of comic books? In fairness, he may not even have been the most reprehensible. Others had moved in on the infant industry, made their piles or lost their shirts as the case may have been, and got out; Fox differed in having the tenacity as well as the ethics of a remora.
And the record tells us finally that Victor Fox died in his sleep in 1957 — in a sense, departing, as one historian has it, “through the side door”: in character to the last.
* * *
Some account of the content of Fox comics is in order, though much of that content, produced by inexperienced, insecure, often downright untalented, and sometimes, possibly, unbalanced people, almost defies description. Stardust, the Super Wizard, by Fletcher Hanks (who sometimes craftily adopted the pseudonym Hank Fletcher), was so hilariously lunatic as to achieve a kind of greatness; typical 1940 episodes, reprinted in full color, may be seen — and must be seen to be disbelieved — in such venues as Raw, “The Graphix Magazine of Abstract Depressionism,” and Paul Karasik has assembled a lovely collection titled I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets! (published by Seattle-based Fantagraphic Books), wherein Hanks’ contribution finally receives the comprehensive treatment accorded, say, the film oeuvre of Edward Wood.
A typical issue of a typical Fox Feature Syndicate publication is Science Comics No. 8, dated September 1940. Page one, panel one: “Down from the skies like an avenging shadow, swoops the Eagle, relentless scourge of underworld rackets. In reality the Eagle is Bill Powers, wealthy young scientist who has discovered an anti-gravitation fluid, giving him superhuman powers.” A mad scientist named Bulvo threatens to “terrorize a great city by cutting off its water supply.” Bulvo is not the most ambitious mad scientist in comic-book history. Nor does the Eagle, super fellow that he is, raise any sweat tracking him down: on page two, Bulvo having just then announced his nefarious intentions, our hero steps to the laboratory window, makes a mighty leap, and simply alights on the roof of Bulvo’s “secret penthouse hideout.”
The Science Comics repertory also included Navy Jones, who lived beneath the waves with a mermaid princess, Cosmic Carson and Perisphere Payne (two cute-rate Buck Rogerses), Doctor Doom (a mad scientist ambitious enough to have his own feature), Marga the Panther Woman (who, a caption helpfully informed the reader, had been “inoculated with the traits of a black panther”), and Dynamo — “Like a lightning flash charged with deadly super voltage Dynamo strikes at crime and rackets! In reality Dynamo is Jim Andrews, an electrical expert who became dynamic through an electrical shock!”
For reasons which are obscured by the mists of time, Science Comics never published a ninth issue.
Copyright © 2007 by Steven Utley