A Photo Essay by Michael Barrier
Oskar Lebeck (1903-1966) was one of the greatest comic-book editors, the man who more than anyone else gave the Dell comic books of the 1940s their distinctive qualities. His best cartoonists were Walt Kelly, whose Pogo was born in Animal Comics, a comic book Lebeck edited, and John Stanley, who brought to the Little Lulu comic book penetrating wit and layers of comedy that no one could have expected when Lulu was appearing in gag panels in the Saturday Evening Post. Many other exceptional writers and cartoonists, including Gaylord DuBois, Morris Gollub, Dan Noonan, and George Kerr, produced much of their best work under Lebeck's light hand.
Lebeck was a cosmopolitan figure who worked as a stage designer in his native Germany and then in some similar capacity after he immigrated to the United States in the 1920s. In the 1930s he illustrated children's books before he became a comic-book editor at the end of the decade. By 1943 he was, as he said then, “art director and art editor of all the books and magazines we do of animated cartoon characters, for which my company [Western Printing & Lithographing Company] holds the license from the various studios.” He edited comic books with "straight" characters, too. Western produced its comic books for sale under Dell Publishing Company's label. Thus it was that Lebeck shared a table at a New York hotel with Leon Schlesinger, whose studio produced the Warner Bros. cartoons. By 1943, Dell had been publishing Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies Comics for two years, and Western, under its Whitman label, was publishing a growing number of coloring books and books of other kinds based on Schlesinger characters like Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig.
The Schlesinger comic books were assembled on the West Coast, under Lebeck's benign long-distance supervision, but it was the New York-based comic books—not just Animal Comics and Little Lulu, but titles as varied as New Funnies and Our Gang Comics—that benefited most from his editorship. Many of the New York-based Dell comic books of the 1940s have a quick-witted, spontaneous feeling that has no equivalent in other companies' comic books. There is, for me, almost always the sense that those comic books were being made by intelligent people who assumed that their readers were intelligent, too. Lebeck deserves the lion's share of the credit for what was, especially in the comic-book world of the 1940s, an exceptionally healthy atmosphere.
Not many photos of Oskar Lebeck have survived from those years; I know of none of Lebeck with Walt Kelly. But fortunately, we have a few snapshots of Lebeck with John Stanley and other people connected with Western Printing. I've reproduced them below, along with a few other photos from a family collection.
|A 1943 photo taken in New York at what a handwritten note on the back identifies as the Martinique, presumably the hotel at 32nd and Broadway in Manhattan [A September 7, 2018, update: .The photo was almost certainly taken not at the Martinique hotel, but at the nightclub called La Martinique, which was at 57 West 57th Street.] Around the table: clockwise from the left: Ruth Lebeck, Oskar Lebeck's wife; Leon Schlesinger, the proprietor of the Warner Bros. cartoon studio; Mary DuBois, wife of Western's premier comic-book writer, Gaylord DuBois; Harold Spencer, a Western publishing vice president, general manager of Western's Poughkeepsie, N.Y., plant, and the brother of Roy Spencer, one of Western's founding fathers; Spencer's wife, Todd; Gaylord DuBois; Oskar Lebeck; and a woman who may be either Schlesinger's wife, Bernice, or Helen Meyer, Dell Publishing's vice president.|
|Above and below, three photos from a pool party at the Lebecks' home in Croton-on-Hudson, in the Hudson Valley north of Manhattan and south of Poughkeepsie. The photos were taken minutes apart from three different vantage points; they are undated but were probably taken in the middle 1940s. In the photo above, John Stanley, the Lebecks' Croton neighbor, is playing the guitar; to his right is Anne DeStefano, who was then Oskar Lebeck's secretary. After his departure in 1951 she became a comic-book editor in Western's New York office, editing, among other titles, Little Lulu, the comic book indelibly associated with Stanley, its writer and creative force for many years. The woman behind Stanley is Jane Werner (later Jane Werner Watson), author and editor of many of Western's children's books.|
|Harold Spencer is at the center of this photo, Gaylord DuBois in profile at Spencer's left. The woman at the left is probably Lucille Ogle, who ran Western's Artists and Writers Guild, the subsidiary that produced the Little Golden Books and other children's books for Western and other publishers.|
|In a photo probably taken a few years later than the photos above (to judge from the changes in both men's hair), Oskar Lebeck is at the left, John Stanley at the right, apparently taking a photo in a park-like setting.|
|In a photo of approximately the same vintage as the one above, most likely from the 1950s, Stanley is in the foreground, Lebeck at the rear.|
|Ruth and Oskar Lebeck in 1930, soon after they immigrated to the United States from Germany.|
|Lebeck in a photo most likely taken in the 1950s; the artwork on his drawing table is difficult to identify but may be for Twin Earths, the comic strip he wrote and Al McWilliams illustrated, starting in June 1952.|
[Posted September 6, 2011; corrected, December 1, 2011]