Tuesday, April 21, 2015

George Brenner: The Full Story!

An interview with John Brenner, conducted and transcribed by Mike Kooiman

Ever-dapper: John Brenner remembers his
father as always being a smartly-dressed man.
This image is from 1934-35, before his
 marriage in 1936.
George Edward Brenner was one of the earliest comic book creators. His obscurity belies the notable fact that he created the first original masked hero for a comic book. This radar-blip was called the Clock, a hero who like the Shadow and the Green Hornet, wore a suit and hat and covered his face with a sheet-like mask. The Clock's first appearance was in two magazines the same month, Funny Pages #6 and Funny Picture Stories #1 (Nov. 1936), published by Comics Magazine Company. Comics Magazine was started by two defectors from National (DC), Bill Cook and John Mahon. (After a series of acquisitions, Comics Magazine Co.'s titles were eventually published by Centaur.) Jim Steranko's History of the Comics Volume 2 noted that Busy Arnold—founder of Quality Comics—had advised Cook and Mahon, and this is probably how George Brenner first met Arnold as well. Comics Magazine Co. began to fail just as Arnold was establishing Quality. A year later, Quality took on Brenner and "The Clock," beginning in Feature Funnies #3 (Dec. 1937).

Brenner also created Quality Comics' first masked hero, the Hawk (T. James Harrington II, a former football star and wealthy heir). The Hawk appeared in Feature Funnies #2, but when the Clock moved to Quality with issue #3, the Hawk disappeared after that lone adventure. Even the finale of the Hawk's story heralded the Clock's arrival next month. [For the record, comics' first (externally) super-powered super-hero was Dr. Occult (New Fun Comics #6, Oct. 1935), and the first real super-powered hero was of course, Superman (Action Comics #1, June 1938).]

George Brenner's business card from Quality Comics! Judging by the titles listed on it, this dates to around 1947 (when Candy began). It also lists titles that never saw it to market. "Giddy Goose" and "Rasputin" were funny animal features from All Humor Comics and Blackhawk, respectively, but they were never published as standalone series.
The Clock was Brenner's first signed comic strip, though he started by doing production work. He was an untrained storyteller, so it was his first foray. Brenner was a sports enthusiast who had briefly studied dentistry in college, but the Depression forced him (like so many comics pioneers) to take the job to help his family.

Most would agree that he was a stronger storyteller than an artist, but Brenner's work frequently showed flashes of brilliance. He presented novel characters and often delivered the unexpected. His creative contributions were largely over by 1943, when Brenner graduated to editor-in-chief at Quality, a position which he held through 1949. After this, he wrote freelance westerns for about a year, and in 1951 he was recruited by Helen Meyer to be an editor at Dell.
John Brenner has the only known piece of
original artwork by his father, a pencil
drawing of George Brenner's best friend and
brother-in-law, Gerard Kane. Kane died in an
 auto accident in 1937 and based on photos of
 Kane, John swears that the portrait is a dead ringer. 

While researching the The Quality Companion, I failed to uncover any significant information about George Brenner. My profile was pieced together with anecdotes from Alter Ego interviews by Jim Amash. After publication, I continued to dig and found some Brenner family information on Ancestry.com, including Brenner's obituary:

GEORGE EDWARD BRENNER, age 43, died on September 13, 1952, at his home in Greenwich, Fairfield County, Connecticut. He was born on September 28, 1908, in Brooklyn, Kings County, New York, the son of Walter Brenner, Sr. and Catherine Sheridan. His parents were natives of New York City, NY, and Ireland, respectively. He was a magazine editor and was survived by his wife, Grace Kane Brenner. Burial on September 16, 1952, at Holy Cross Cemetery, Brooklyn, NY. Informant - Mrs. Brenner.

I happily blogged about this on The Quality Companion Companion but abandoned hope of learning anything more. Brenner died early, at age 42 and by that time he was estranged from everyone at Quality Comics (he was fired in 1949). I read no mentions of any children and assumed that if any existed, they might have been very young at the time of his death. Then one day I received an unbelievable call from Brenner's only child, John. To my surprise, John Brenner was fifteen when his father passed away—which meant that he'd known his father very well. Our talks have helped complete the portrait of George Brenner, a Golden Age mystery man in his own right. Thanks to John, we can share the colorful life and tragic fate of a notable comics figure (plus a rare piece of Quality Comics history!). —Mike

Interview with John Brenner

A photo of George Brenner taken during a card game
 with Gerard Kane. 
MIKE KOOIMAN: I was surprised to learn that you were fifteen when your father passed away. I'd read no mention of George Brenner having any children.

JOHN BRENNER: I was born on August 15, 1937 in Brooklyn and shortly after, maybe five years afterwards, we moved up to Greenwich, Connecticut, and that's where we were up until the time my father died. And he died in my arms; he had a heart attack. He went in for a gallstone operation and it put a lot of stress on his heart. One morning, a couple weeks after surgery, he woke up and he was in distress. My mother went to get a neighbor because he was starting to flail and I sat down on the bed next to him and I held him, and that was it. He died in my arms.

MK: When he got ill, was it prolonged?

BRENNER: No, he had a sudden attack of gallstones. While he was in surgery he had an asthma attack and the clamps came off a couple of the vessels and created some additional problems for the surgeon. Afterwards I can remember visiting him in the Greenwich hospital. He looked like death. He was in an oxygen tent and then he pulled out of it, and they sent him home. I remember it was a hot summer night in September and he was sleeping upstairs. We had a screened in porch in the front of the house. And it was so hot he said to my mother "I'm going to go downstairs and sleep on the porch where it's cooler." There's a bit of confusion about whether it was a heart attack or a blood clot that broke loose. He went down to the porch and about five in the morning went back up to bed and that's when all the problems started. He wasn't able to make it to the hospital.

MK: Can you tell me what you remember of his younger days?

George and his wife, Grace (Kane) Brenner,
 circa 1936, probably in Brooklyn.
BRENNER: I remember him going down for his physical because he was going to be inducted into the Army, conscripted. He failed the physical exam because he had asthma.

You alluded to him going to Villanova but that they have no record of it. He actually went to Georgetown for his freshman year. He was dedicating himself to dentistry but he realized he didn't like it so he switched to Villanova. That's where he did play football. My father was a pragmatist, but I don't think he was academically oriented.

The effects of the Depression set in and he had to go home to help his mother and contribute to the economics of the family. He had two younger brothers [Allan, who lived to age 85, and Walter ("Buddy"), who had a heart attack at 50]. He went to work for the New York Daily News as a cub reporter, for which he went back and forth between New York and Chicago for a certain time. He told me several times that while he was at Villanova one of his friends was Matt Capone, Al Capone's brother. Matt Capone wanted my father to help him with bootlegging activities on summer break, but my father wouldn't do it. The joke of that is that he said, if he'd done it, they'd have been millionaires.

MK: So he was unable to finish at Villanova?

BRENNER: Yes, he was unable to finish. He wasn't an alumnus. When he was with the Daily News, he worked with Bill Gallo, who did sports cartoons. We had some of Gallo's original works because my father had gotten them from him. They were lost in my many relocations and moves. I don't believe he got into any cartooning for the Daily News, I just think he did some reporting. His work in comics came after that, then he went to work for Busy Arnold.

MK: Do you have any insight about how it was that he made the jump into being an artist without any training?

John with his mother and father at his
grammar school graduation, 1951.
BRENNER: I don't believe he had any training. Whatever he had was a natural talent.
MK: Do you think it was the connection of Gallo that brought him into the comic book world?

BRENNER: I don't know how he made the connection to comics, but I don't think it was from Gallo either. When he first started in comic books, he was doing the pen and ink and the coloring for the proofs, before they went to publication… which would have been the bottom rung of the ladder. As a sideline, you know my father was a real football fan, and I know he pushed Villanova football with Jimmy Powers, who wrote a daily column in the Daily News. When he got into the comic book business with Busy Arnold, Arnold was a graduate of Brown University and my father ended up as the football scout in Brooklyn for Brown. I used to go to all the games with him on Saturday. One Saturday he said he had to go and see the parents of this one player because he wanted to get him into Brown. The player was a senior and that boy turned out to be Joe Paterno. I think it's a matter of record that Busy Arnold paid for Paterno's entire living expenses and tuition at Brown University.

So we went to all the high school games and he worked for Arnold. He started as a cartoonist and ended up as Editor-in-Chief. As you know he created the Clock. You know, I had tons of comics. When I was five or six, my father would bring comic books home every night. They were all different; they weren't all Quality. He brought the comic books home by the ton. I had them stacked up in the corner of my bedroom and if I said they were three feet high it would not be an exaggeration. We moved to Greenwich when I was five and then we moved back to Bay Ridge Brooklyn for a year, then back to Greenwich again. And that's where we stayed until he died.
MK: What factors influenced the moves? Do you remember him commuting to different offices, in Connecticut and in New York?

This story from Feature Funnies #9 (June 1938) recycled the artwork from the Clock's first appearance in Funny Picture Stories #1 (Nov. 1936, Comics Magazine Co.). Additional art and text were added.
BRENNER: They really liked Greenwich and really wanted to live there. I don't remember the Connecticut office very clearly, but I do remember him commuting into New York City. I can almost remember that office building that he worked in right off Lexington Avenue. I do have one of his business cards. "George E. Brenner, Quality," and it lists the comics. "Quality Comics Group, America's leading comic magazines. Average circulation over three million monthly. 25 West 45th Street"—that's where the office was. I do remember going into that office a couple of times.

MK: What do you remember seeing at the office?

BRENNER: Of course, Busy Arnold was there. Occasionally, we would go to Busy and Claire Arnold's house for dinner. They had two kids, Dick… and I can't remember his daughter's name. They lived in Old Greenwich, right on the sound, a beautiful house.  I can remember Paul Gustavson, and going to his house for dinner on a Saturday or Sunday. They lived in New Jersey at the time.

MK: Any other impressions of the Quality office?

BRENNER: I didn't think it was too big, I'd say on the small side, an awful lot of people in a small space.  A lot of drawing boards, the smell of ink. Every once in a while, considering my age, they would take a pen and ink proof and they'd give it to me and say, "sit down and color." It was just for fun.

MK: Did your dad talk specifically about the comic strips that he was working on?

BRENNER: No, I can't remember any conversation about the comic strips. When he left Quality—and my recollection is that he was fired, but I'm not positive on that—he became a freelance writer. That was the time between Quality and Dell. He did short stories, mostly westerns. He sold a couple of them. I don't know if he did that under a pen name or not. I remember him going over to Helen Meyer's house for his interview with Dell Comics. She had a place in Old Greenwich, on the water also. They hired him as the Editor-in-Chief at Dell, and he would also have to go out to Racine, Wisconsin because that's where the printing plant was.

One month after the Clock gained a girl sidekick named Butch, the hero switched from wearing his curtain-like mask  to a more Spirit-like domino. His interactions with Butch were … fast and loose. The art here might have been by Fran Matera. From Crack Comics #22, March 1942.
MK: Some have stated that he was fired from Quality because of drinking. How do you respond to that?

BRENNER: I don't think it was because of drinking. It's just that he was a very independent person, and very fixed in his ways. It could be, but if so, it's beyond my knowledge. He wasn't at Dell too long before he got sick, and following the sickness with the gallstones, he died. He liked it there a lot. It's funny thinking about it now. When I was consulting about ten years ago, one of my clients was Bertelsmann, and one of their divisions was Doubleday, and I asked their people in Doubleday if they would do a search on my father to see if they could identify some of his works, but they couldn't find anything. [Note: George T. Delacorte sold Dell to Doubleday & Company in 1976.]

Over the years, I've been collecting things from the Internet, and I have a book that's probably an inch thick with various articles written by different people in the comics industry. I decided one day to get a little more aggressive and I contacted Will Eisner by email. I have a copy of the email. I asked him what he remembered about my father. He said he couldn't remember too much. He sort of sloughed it off. But you know, maybe my bias was that Eisner took the masked character of the Clock and put it to good use with the Spirit.

I wrote him an email and said, "I've recently been looking for reference material about George Brenner, who worked for Busy Arnold at Quality and eventually went to Dell. The primary purpose of this is to develop a history about my father for my children. Any information you can direct me to would be greatly appreciated." On July 14, 2003, Eisner wrote back:

"JOHN: Nice to hear from you. I'm afraid I can't give you very much except for a foggy memory about our business relationship. I didn't have a social relationship with George because he was in Stamford and I was in New York. We talked often on the phone ...he was Busy's editor when I hooked up and our conversations centered around alterations of the comics. I found him easy to work with and I cannot remember any incidents that could be called "outstanding". George seemed professional enough to me and while we did not share the same philosophy about comics his judgement about practical matters appeared sound as I remember. You might try Gil Fox he was local there and I believe might have spent some time with him socially. GOOD LUCK, WILL EISNER"

In "Clip Chance," Brenner created a character that allowed him the vicarious pleasure of playing an all-American sports star. From Smash Comics #7 (Feb. 1940). His pen name, "Sheridan," is a tribute to his mother's maiden name.  
MK: What else have you found?

BRENNER: I guess I'd call it public information because everything I found was on the Internet. So I just kept making copies of things I found that were different and put it into a binder. As I said, I wanted my kids to have a better appreciation of their grandfather.
MK: How would you describe your father's personality or disposition?

BRENNER: Certainly he was a "hail fellow well met." He was a very social guy. He really enjoyed a party, let's put it that way. Never at a loss for words. He truly enjoyed being the center of the party. When there were Christmas parties at Quality, as there were every year, he was always the emcee. I can't remember my father being pessimistic or down in the mouth. Maybe a couple occasions like when he left Quality, when there was bad blood between he and Busy Arnold. After he left Quality, I have no recollection of a relationship between them at all. Otherwise he was very upbeat. I thought he was intelligent and had a phenomenal work ethic. He was committed to his profession and worked it for sometimes long, arduous hours. Football really did occupy an awful lot of his time. He was also a boxing fan and we used to go to the Golden Gloves in Madison Square Garden every year and had ringside seats. Physically, he was a good five-ten, five-eleven.

I have one photo of my father in this book… he's playing cards. He was with his brothers-in-law at the time. It's one of the few pictures I have. When I sold my house after my wife died, I gave all of my photos to one of my daughters.


A half-century before killing heroes became fashionable, #711 bit the dust in the pages of Police Comics #15 (Jan. 1943), What's more, Brenner replaced the hero in the next issue with the super-powered Destiny, who eventually brought 711's killer to justice (in Police #17). 
MK: How many of his comics have you read?

BRENNER: I have one comic that I bought in Los Angeles probably thirty years ago, when I saw it in a comic book store and I think I paid $19 for it. The reason I bought it is because it has him listed in the credits as the editor of Quality Comics. I've got the business card and that comic book and that's really about what it boils down to. I used to have some original comic book covers, the artwork that was done, particularly from Dell. They were doing it in oil on board. He would bring them home—Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse—god only knows what happened to that stuff. It's all gone.

MK: Do you remember him bringing any art home from Quality?

BRENNER: He did one thing from Quality that I kept—and once again I don't know where the heck I lost this—he did a Christmas card and it must have been, maybe a foot, foot-and-a-half wide. Maybe six or eight inches tall. And he drew it. It had all the characters: Lady Luck, Plastic Man, Blackhawk, all of them strung across it. At the top it said "Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year" and I believe it said "from Busy Arnold," and Busy Arnold gave that out.

MK: Vernon Henkel said "This guy could draw like that?" (Read it in Alter Ego #48)… meaning it seemed like he was nervous or had a shake. Does that ring with you in any way?

BRENNER: No, not at all. My father had a drawing board at home and he would work at night. I can remember him sitting there and never saw anything like that.

MK: What did your mother do after your father's death?

BRENNER: My mother sold the house in Greenwich and we moved back with her family in Brooklyn. My father met my mother through a mutual friend. I think she went to Erasmus high school in Brooklyn. I knew she went to St. John's University. She was an art teacher at St. Anthony's grammar school in Brooklyn. She taught art and when she got married and had me, she stopped teaching. She went back to work after my father died. She had to. I know she worked for Westclox for a while. My mother lived very comfortably. She moved in with her sister and they moved back to Long Island. She must be dead ten or twelve years now.

When I was going to high school I had part-time jobs: I worked for a dog groomer, and at Bonds, a men's clothing store in Manhattan. I got a job at Al Paul Lefton advertising and I thought maybe I'd go into the art world. I had a scholarship to Pratt, but when I was with Al Paul Lefton there was a guy by the name of Carson, a great guy, the art director, and he dropped dead at his  desk in the middle of the day. That left such an impression that I thought, 'I never want to go into this business.'

I was in Greenwich high school when my father passed and was on the football team. One day when my father was in the hospital I said to the coach "I'm not going to practice today, I'm going to go up and see my father." I was carrying my cleats and went up to the hospital to his oxygen tent and he looked at me and said, "Why aren't you playing football?"

When we got back to Brooklyn, I finished High School at Saint Francis Prep and the family moved from Brooklyn to Babylon, Long Island. We lived out on the Island for many years. I went to Providence College and graduated in 1959. I got married in 1961 and was married 49 years until five years ago when my wife died. We had five children; the oldest is now 52 and lives in Boston. My youngest son has his own business and works in pharmaceutical doing clinical studies and audits. I have one daughter who's in medical sales, another daughter in Austin, Texas, and a daughter in North Jersey who works in insurance. I started my career in pharmaceuticals and went from there to automotive, then out on my own for fifteen years as a consultant, which I loved. I moved around a little bit, New York, New Jersey, lived in Florida for about a year-and-a-half/two years. I didn't like it, so we came back to New Jersey. The whole time I was a professional student and eventually I got my PhD, which helped me a lot when I started my own business. That was the primary reason for getting the PhD.

So how much of the art found its way into my DNA? I did it a lot. In grammar school I was very active in drawing. Less so by college. I laid out some yearbooks and did artwork. Now it's on-and-off. I do watercolors, I'm very traditional in my approach. I moved into a new house and I built a room specifically to help conjure the motivation for me to sit down and get serious about drawing. I just cant do it, I have to be in the mood, so I'm waiting for that mood to come along.

George Brenner Checklist

In addition to creating comic books’ first original masked hero, George Brenner also created Quality’s first three masked heroes (the Hawk, the Clock, and Bozo the Iron Man; Doll Man came after these). In this episode, Bozo battled the bizarre Clown. From Smash Comics #25, Aug. 1941.

George Edward Brenner (September 28, 1908–September 13, 1952) (writer, artist) It's generally assumed that Brenner wrote and drew all of his earliest work. Artist Fran Matera revealed in Alter Ego #59 that Brenner had once hired him to ghost "The Clock." The change was apparent in the strip, beginning about the time of the introduction the Clock's kid sidekick, Butch (Crack Comics #21, Feb. 1942). This probably also coincided with an increase in Brenner's editorial duties at Quality Comics. The art in the feature shifts perceptibly from Brenner's static, mimeographed style to one where characters' features have more volume and plasticity. Also, the humor and style of Will Eisner's "Spirit" crept in, including clever splash  pages, and a domino mask for the Clock.

Brenner's pen name, "Wayne Reid," was inspired by his paternal grandmother, Jane Reid (from his father's obituary). Also, his pen name "Scott Sheridan" was inspired by his own mother's maiden name.


Comics Magazine Company:

  •  The Clock: Funny Pages vol. 1 #6–11 (Nov. 1936–June 1937); Funny Picture Stories #1–2 (Nov. 1936–Dec. 1936)

Quality Comics:

  • The Clock: Feature Funnies #3–20 (Dec. 1937–May 1939); Feature Comics #21-31 (June 1939–April 1940); Crack Comics #1-35 (May 1940–Autumn 1944)
  • The Hawk: Feature Funnies #2 (Nov. 1937)
  • Clip Chance: Feature Funnies #7–16, Smash Comics #1–15 (April 1938–Oct. 1940)
  • Hugh Hazzard and Bozo the Iron Man: Smash Comics #1-41 (Aug. 1939–March 1943)
  • Abdul the Arab: Smash Comics #4-10 (Nov. 1939–May 1940)
  • Lone Star Rider: Smash Comics #2 (Sept. 1939)
  • 711: Police Comics #1–15 (Aug. 1941–Jan. 1943)
  • Ghost of Flanders: Hit Comics #18–25 (Dec. 1941–Dec. 1942)
  • Just 'n' Right: Doll Man Quarterly #1 (Winter 1941)
  • Destiny: Police Comics #15–36 (Jan. 1943–Nov. 1944)
Unknown westerns publisher: Writer (1949–50)
Dell Comics: Editor (1951-52)

1 comment:

  1. Wondering if you had contact for John. I'm a big comic fan and have read the clock though comic book plus