Modern Day Superhero Industry Born In Chicago

As you know, there are hundreds of millions of us all over the world. The TRILLION DOLLAR SUPER HERO INDUSTRY started in the newspaper Sunday comics in the 1930’s.

The next step was comic books, radio serials, TV series, movie serials, next came block buster one half billion dollar movies, Broadway shows, video games, ( a billion dollar industry itself), and now beautiful graphic novels. Many side industries grew. Toys, clothes, even the Disney empire rode the wave of comic popularity.

Perhaps, you would like to know who was responsible for all of this, and why no one knows anything about it ?


Unfortunately, these two men never have been recognized for what they did. There isn’t a single picture or plaque in the City of Chicago, or, any where else, telling this amazing story. The Art Institute of Chicago, The Chicago History Museum, The Great Chicago Cultural Center, or, any of the fine Chicago and Illinois museums…Not any of these has anything relating to the birth of such a huge, world wide industry. Gates and Jobs and Turin are recognized for starting the computer industry, Henry Ford is recognized for starting the auto industry, the Wright Brothers are recognized for starting the airline industry. Nothing is ever said about who started the TRILLION DOLLAR SUPER HERO INDUSTRY.

There would be no Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Ironman, Hulk, Avengers, Captain America, Terry and the Pirates, Jungle Jim, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Dick Tracy, Steve Canyon, Star Wars, Star Trek, 007 James Bond…and all the rest, without these two Chicago men.

Read my next blog entry about how all this took place at the Tree Studios and the Palenski and Young Art Studio in Downtown Chicago in 1928 and 1929.


The Invention of Sunday Comics

In the beginning, during the 1920’s,  the Sunday comics were all about talking animal, cartoon like characters, like Felix the Cat, and Crazy Kat.  They were mostly for the amusement of the children of the subscriber’s of the paper. THERE WERE NO ADVERTISEMENTS IN THE SUNDAY COMIC SECTIONS.

Joe Neebe was a Vice President of the Campbell Ewald Advertising Agency in Chicago. His job was to sell advertising in newspapers and magazines.  He did a great deal of work with the Palenski and Young Art Studio on Michigan Avenue.  The studio provided him with art work for ads for his many clients like, Popular Mechanics Magazine, the Canadian National Railway, and the Canadian Royal Mounted Police. He worked closely with Hal Foster, the then top commercial artist in Chicago, on these projects.

Joe Neebe had an idea. What if a heroic police-like character were put into the Sunday comics with adventures every week ?  It would be the only adventure strip among the kiddie cartoons.  The hero would fight crime in exotic places and get into trouble in the last panel. The reader would have to buy next week’s paper to see how the hero extricates himself from the impossible situation he was in.

He reasoned that if the hero was both attractive and masculine , both men and women would follow the strip, bringing in a whole new audience and increase circulation. He could then sell ads to the adults in the comics section.

Where could he find an already well known hero, and who could produce the high level of art work that would differentiate the panels from the childlike cartoon characters now in the Sunday papers ?

The Very First Super Hero: Tarzan of the Apes

TARZAN  The Very First Super Hero

Joe Neebe was intrigued with his revolutionary idea of a popular super hero, who appealed to adults within the Sunday comic sections. Remember, the whole idea was to put advertisements into the Sunday comics. They never had them before.  It would create a whole new audience and increase circulation for the newspapers.

He asked Hal Foster, where could he find such a hero, and who could produce the art work that would differentiate the page and make it all believable? Hal Foster was one of the top artists at the Palenski and Young Studios, located on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, across the street from the Art Institute of Chicago.

Foster was a graduate of the Winnipeg School of Art in Canada. He also took classes at the Art Institute, as well as the Academy of Fine arts. He had, what today would be a PH.D in Art Studies. The Tree Studios, at State and Ontario, was a three story enclave of artists, writers, and musicians, where they lived, worked and gave lessons in their apartments and studios. Foster spent some spare time there and knew Edgar Rice Burroughs and Allen St. John, the artist who illustrated thirteen very successful Tarzan novels. Both lived and worked at the Tree Studios.

Foster decided to bring Neebe and Burroughs together at the Tree Studios. Tarzan was to become the first super hero in the Sunday papers. After some negotiating, it was agree that Hal Foster  would produce six full weeks of the new adventure strip introducing Tarzan to the readers. Neebe took the pages and went around the country showing them to various newspapers. He was only partly successful with only a few papers taking on the new and unusual package. The first six pages were actually printed in a smaller comic book size in 1929. This was really the first comic book, even though the official first, was said to be printed in 1932. Somewhat later, a publisher folded a newspaper page twice  from the then, Sunday comics, and called it the first comic book. Only a small number of the smaller Tarzan books were printed and are very rare, and valuable today.

So far Tarzan was only in a few papers and was not much of a success. This was because Foster did not want to do a weekly page .He was busy and successful in 1929. Neebe had another artist named Rex Maxon do the Tarzan page.

Strangely, it was after the 1929 crash and the beginning of the Great Depression that Tarzan suddenly became a Harry Potter like sensation. In Blog N0 4, you will see how all this happened. There are also three five minute videos on youtube showing the exhibit that was shown in twenty two art centers and galleries around Chicago over the last six years.

Tarzan Helps Launch New Superhero Industry


In 1930, Tarzan went into a few newspapers and was being drawn by Max Naxon.  The Great Depression was now taking hold. Banks and companies were going bankrupt, Twenty million people were out of work. The government was trying to start massive works projects to give people jobs and income. Thousands were waiting in soup lines to stave off starvation. Hundreds of people were committing suicide after losing their jobs and fortunes. Many, right in front of Palenski & Young’s windows on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. The art agency had virtually no business, and Hal Foster was forced to fish off Lake Michigan to feed his wife and two sons.

Edgar Rice Burroughs was not making the money he had hoped for by putting Tarzan into the Sunday papers. He was unhappy with Naxon’s depiction of Tarzan. So, he insisted that Hal Foster should take over.  Foster was in no position to refuse. The  $75.00 dollars per week he was paid, was divided between the three other artists at the Studio. Foster made major changes in the Tarzan page.

1. He took out the balloons with the dialogue. He felt it distracted the reader and blocked the art work. He put the sentences under the picture in the panel.

2. His drawings used a single light source, which created shadows and gave a three dimensional effect unheard of in the comics of that day. All other comics were flat, one dimensional, with no backgrounds.

3. Previously, black and white  ink pages were submitted to the printers who used their own judgement for the coloring. Foster, a highly trained artist, submitted a second copy that he colored himself. He asked the printers to come as close to his version as they could.

All these changes made the Tarzan page so different from any other Sunday comic page, that people started following his adventures every Sunday. Many were in the dinosaur fantasy area.

The drawings were superb, better than anything in the comics of that day. Tarzan became a Harry Potter like sensation. Circulation grew.  A new audience was being created.  Neebe was now able to sell advertisements in the comics sections. Editors in many papers saw income rising. Many newspapers were saved from bankruptcy. Editors demanded more and more super hero adventure stories. Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy, Jungle Jim, Terry and the Pirates, the Phantom, Mandrake the Magician, the Lone Ranger, Steve Canyon, all followed. Later came Superman, Batman, Ironman, Captain American, the Avengers, 007 James Bond, the Hulk, and all the rest.

The next installment will tell you where to get more information about this era in art and commercial history. Books about Hal Foster at, and Fantagraphics Books, and short videos on youtube.

I came across a copy of two years of Tarzan pages by Hal Foster this year. While reading the pages, I actually could feel the impact it must have had on the readers in the 1930’s. I could see how it caused such a sensation. Perhaps you will too. If you can find a copy, you may be able to relive a great moment in art and commercial history.

Good Luck

From Tarzan to Prince Valiant: Hal Foster and William Randolph Hearst


I promised to tell you about how you can get more information about Hal Foster and Edgar Rice Burroughs. the inventors of the TRILLION DOLLAR SUPERHERO INDUSTRY.

You can actually see and handle (with white gloves) Hal Foster’s ORIGINAL  black and white inked Prince Valiant pages at two locations, the library on the 6th floor of Syracuse University, and at the Wexner Art Museum’s Cartoon Research Library, street level, at Ohio State University. There is an exhibit honoring Oak Park Illinois’ native son, Edgar Rice Burroughs, at the Oak Park Historical Society.

After Hal Foster spent seven years drawing Tarzan, he was asked by William Randolph Hearst, owner of hundreds of newspapers, to create one of his own strips for the Hearst chain and its King Features syndicate. Ironically, Hearst was one of first to reject Tarzan in 1930, when he thought that the idea of an adventure strip was “too radical” an idea for the comics. Foster then started Prince Valiant in 1937. He wrote and illustrated it for forty years. He passed on the hugely successful strip to Chicago artist, John Cullen Murphy, who did Prince Valiant for another 38 years, Gary Gianni, another fine Chicago artist, did Prince Valiant for another five years, until Tom Yeates took it over two years ago. It still runs in over 300 newspapers worldwide.

Unfortunately, it has been reduced in size to one third of a page, from the original full page, thus, losing the power of the fine art work. You can also view the weekly strip on your computer screen with zoom privileges on a $ 20.00 per year subscription internet site… It contains all the King Features comics and cartoons. The web site of Milwaukee also runs Prince Valiant weekly.

For more historical information about Tarzan and Prince Valiant contained in the exhibit that was was on tour in the Chicago area for six years and seen in twenty two art centers and libraries and museums, please contact the Skokie Public Library.

The Legacy of Hal Foster and Edgar Rice Burroughs


From 1937 to 1967. the Prince Valiant page was printed on a full comic page of the Chicago Herald American and thousands of Hearst papers. When the Herald American went out of business  in 1967, the Chicago Tribune printed Prince Valiant for 5 weeks in a full page format.  It stopped suddenly, and has not been seen in a Chicago newspaper since. Everyone wondered what had happened.

I found out during a talk I gave about the exhibit. An elderly women in a wheel chair volunteered she knew what had happened. She said she worked at the Chicago Tribune during that time. She said the Tribune wanted to cut down the Prince Valiant full page, to a half page. Hal Foster would not allow it. That is the reason no Chicago paper has printed Prince Valiant ever since.

The result has been two, or, more, generations of Chicago comic fans never heard of Hal Foster while the rest of the world has enjoyed following the stories of the Knights of the Round Table and Camelot. Foster won many awards and recognition for Prince Valiant, but, few people knew of the Tarzan years and how it started the whole super hero industry.  Even the King of England, Edward the Duke of Windsor, called Prince Valiant “the greatest contribution to English literature in the last one hundred years.”  Hal Foster was even on one of the most popular TV shows of that era,  Ralph Edward’s, “This is Your Life Hal Foster”

Since Hal Foster was completely unknown in the Chicago area,  I decided to enlarge some pictures from my collection of Tarzan and Prince Valiant books, by and about Hal Foster, published by Fantagraphic books and others, and put them into an exhibit.  The exhibit was seen in twenty two art centers , libraries, and museums around Chicago over the last six years. The Skokie Library enlarged thirty of the pictures to museum size and made a formidable exhibit showing off Hal Foster’s great art work. The exhibit is now in storage at the Skokie Library for reference for historians and fans. There has been talk lately, of putting the exhibit on tour nationally. You can see parts of the exhibit by going to the internet at http://www.youtubecom/dragonsrobotsghosts.

When you get into the main site, type Hal Foster in the top search box. Three five minute videos appear.  The Art of Hal Foster Parts One and Two and Sarah Asks Sid About Comics Collecting ( The Skokie Library Exhibit.)

The purpose of the exhibit was to make the Chicago area aware of the fact that they had a giant contributor to the arts and commerce living and working here for twenty years. Even today, Chicago’s greatest museums and cultural centers have never recognized Hal Foster, and how he and Burroughs actually invented and gave birth to a giant worldwide industry right here in Downtown Chicago.

The information in these blogs are my own interpretation of the information contained in the many books and articles written about Hal Foster. I obtained other information while on tour with the exhibit and the talks I gave at twenty two art centers, libraries and museums.   I was/am an avid follower of Prince Valiant and it inspired me to keep up my hobbies of oil and acrylic painting, and writing and illustrating children’s books with my children and grand children.