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Dell Comics was the comic book publishing arm of Dell Publishing, which got its start in pulp magazines. It published comics from 1929 to 1973. At its peak, it was the most prominent and successful American company in the medium.
Its first title was The Funnies, which was the first comic book to feature original material, but since it was published in the tabloid format as opposed to the standard one, it is normally not recognized as such.
The company formed a partnership in 1938 with Western Publishing, in which Dell would finance and distribute publications that Western would produce. While this diverged from the regular practice in the medium of one company handling finance and production and outsourcing distribution, it was a highly successful enterprise with titles selling in the millions.
Dell Comics was best known for its licensed material, most notably the animated characters from Walt Disney Productions, Warner Bros., Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Walter Lantz Studio along with many movie and television properties such as Tarzan and the Lone Ranger. Writer/artists Walt Kelly and Carl Barks are the most noted talents associated with the company. Other prolific scripters were Gaylord DuBois, Paul S. Newman, Don "Arr" Christensen, John Stanley, Bob Gregory, Robert Schaefer and Eric Freiwald, Lloyd Turner and Carl Fallberg. Artists who worked on comics published by Dell included Fred Harman, Alex Toth, Russ Manning, Jesse Marsh, Paul Murry, Tony Strobl, Harvey Eisenberg, Ken Hultgren, Dick Moores, Jack Bradbury, Fred Fredericks, Roger Armstrong, Jack Manning, Bill Wright, Pete Alvarado, Dan Spiegle, Paul Norris, Frank Bolle, Artie Saaf, Dan Noonan and John Buscema. Famed fantasy writer Charles Beaumont contributed a handful of stories for Dell's funny animal comics early in his career, all done in collaboration with William F. Nolan.
From 1939 to 1962, Dell's most notable and prolific title was the anthology Four Color. Published several times a month, the title (which primarily consisted of standalone issues featuring various licensed properties) saw more than 1,300 issues published in its 23-year history. It often served as a try-out title (much like DC's Showcase) and thus the launching pad for many long-running series.
In 1948, Dell refused an invitation of membership in the nascent Association of Comics Magazine Publishers. The association had been formed to pre-empt government intervention in the face of mounting public criticism of comic books. Dell vice-president Helen Meyer told Congress that Dell had opted out of the association because they didn't want their less controversial offerings to serve as "an umbrella for the crime comic publishers". When the Comics Code was formed in 1954 in reaction to Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent, Dell again refused to join and instead began publishing in its comics a Pledge to Parents that promised their editorial process "eliminates, rather than regulates, objectional material" and concluded with the now classic credo Dell Comics Are Good Comics.
Bart Beaty in his book Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture describes a concerted campaign by Dell against publication of Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent to the extent of recruiting several of the companies that it licensed characters from (including Warner Brother Cartoons, the Lone Ranger Inc. and Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc.) to send letters of protest to publisher Stanley Rinehart.
Dell in this period even burnished its image by taking out full-page ads in the Saturday Evening Post in late 1952 and early 1953 that emphasized the wholesomeness of its comics.
From mid-1950 to Spring 1959 Dell promoted subscriptions to its non-Disney titles with what it called the Dell Comics Club. Membership was automatic with any one year subscription to such titles and came with a certificate of membership plus a group portait of the most prominent non-Disney characters published by Dell. Dell also offered various subscription premiums during the 1940s and 1950s (in some cases these were prints of covers or other character artwork and in one instance a cel from a Warner Brothers cartoon) and offered the option of an illustrated note or card be sent to the recipients of a gift subscription for birthdays or Christmas. Multi-year subscriptions were also available (in the case of Walt Disney's Comics and Stories, at one point in the 1940's subscriptions for up to 5 years were offered).
The end of Four Color in 1962 coincided with the end of the partnership with Western, which took most of its licensed properties and its original material and created its own imprint, Gold Key Comics.
Dell Comics continued for another 11 years with licensed television and motion picture adaptations (including Mission: Impossible, Ben Casey, Burke's Law, Doctor Kildare, Beach Blanket Bingo) and a few generally poorly received original titles. Among the few long lasting series from this time include the teen-comic Thirteen Going on Eighteen (29 issues, written by John Stanley), Ghost Stories (37 issues, #1 only written by John Stanley), Combat (40 issues), Ponytail (20 issues), Kona Monarch of Monster Isle (20 issues), Toka the Jungle King (10 issues), and Naza Stone Age Warrior (9 issues). Dell additionally attempted to do superhero titles, including Nukla, Fab 4, Brain Boy, and a critically-ridiculed trio of titles based on the Universal Pictures monsters Frankenstein, Dracula and Werewolf that recast the characters as superheroes.
Dell Comics finally ceased publication in 1973, with a few of its former titles moving to Gold Key.
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