QUALITY COMICSPrimary Product: Comic Books
Producing From: 1939-56
Noted For: Plastic Man, Blackhawk and more
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In the late 1930s, the thoughts of America's entrepreneurs of printing and publishing turned oft to comic books, where Famous Funnies and its imitators were providing respectable returns; and DC Comics had just fielded the medium's first mega-hit, Superman. Pulp publishers were branching out into comics, launching
ventures like Marvel (Captain America), Nedor (The Black Terror) and MLJ (Archie); and promotors like Kay Kamen (Walt Disney's Comics & Stories) were forging alliances with publishers like Dell to fill the stands with licensed comics.
And in 1939, printer Everett M."Busy" Arnold took his first tentative steps toward creating a publishing empire, by purchasing the already-existing comic book title Feature Funnies, which was serving up a monthly mix of original material like Archie O'Toole and Reynolds of the Royal Mounted, and newspaper comics reprints like Jane Arden and Joe Palooka. One of the first things he did was change the name of the magazine to Feature Comics, the name it's remembered by today.
Within a few months, he'd joined industry trends by introducing his first superhero (unless you count The Clock, who was already in place when he came along), Doll Man. A couple of years later, he'd filled it up with the likes of Rusty Ryan and Samar of the Jungle, and had gone far toward phasing out the newspaper material.
By that time, Arnold's Quality Comics was publishing not just one title, but a whole line of comics. Smash Comics, featuring Bozo the Robot, Wings Wendall, Abdul the Arab and no newspaper reprints, debuted with a May, 1939 cover date; Crack Comics, starring The Black Condor, Molly the Model and The Spider, came along in May, 1940; and National Comics, with Uncle Sam, Pen Miller and Wonder Boy, joined them in July, 1940. August, 1941 saw the introduction of two new titles, Police Comics (with Firebrand on the cover and 711, The Human Bomb and Phantom Lady on the inside) and Military Comics (Blackhawk on the cover and The Death Patrol, The Blue Tracer and Miss America inside).
Filling these comics for Arnold was The Eisner-Iger Studio, which was in the business of producing fully print-ready comics features for such publishers as Fox (where they did The Flame) and Fiction House (where they did Sheena, Queen of the Jungle).
For the next dozen-and-a-half years or so, Quality Comics was subject to the usual market vararies. Superheroes fell out of fashion as World War II progressed, and were replaced with trendier genres. Military Comics changed its name to Modern Comics in 1945 and began emphasizing non-military features like Torchy and Will Bragg. Crack Comics converted to Crack Western in 1949 and started featuring the likes of Frontier Marshal and Two-Gun Lil. Police Comics switched to non-superheroic crime drama, such as Ken Shannon and Treasury Agent Trask, in 1950.
Through it all, the trend was down, as the entire comic book industry fell into a near-fatal slump in the 1950s. In 1956, Arnold sold out to former rival DC Comics, which continued a few titles like Blackhawk and G.I. Combat, but let the majority languish. During the superhero rival of subsequent decades, many of Quality's heroes like Plastic Man and Quicksilver have been brought back, including a whole group of them, The Freedom Fighters, who flourished for a couple of years during the 1970s.
Despite the fact that DC's ownership of the old Quality characters hasn't been legally challenged, there is a persistent urban legend that DC doesn't really own them all, because many had fallen into the public domain before the sale took place. As anyone having even a cursory familiarity with contemporary copyright law knows, this is nonsense, because at the time, copyrights lasted 28 years before having to be renewed; thus, even the earliest Quality Comics copyrights were a decade away from needing renewal at the time of the sale.
A variation on the legend has it that DC doesn't really own the characters because the copyrights weren't registered in the first place. But if they weren't, they fell under "common-law" copyright, by which ownership rights can be asserted over any publication that contains a printed copyright notice, provided the claimant can prove the material was published at the time stated.
But DC's ownership of at least some of the characters may be clouded, because some, it's said, may not have been included in the sale. But inasmuch as the documents of the sale aren't publicly available, only DC's lawyers know for sure.
And DC's lawyers are exactly who must be dealt with if anyone wants to challenge the company for any of Quality's old characters. If they can't quite make an absolutely airtight case for their ownership of one or two, they can certainly make it more expensive than it's worth to establish the fact in court.
Quality Comics articles in Don Markstein's Toonopedia: