Whether or not you’re a fan of Chris Hardwick, you have to admit that he’s built an empire on nerd culture. There are some out there that condemn him, take shots at his nerd cred, and claim that he’s not a real geek. Firstly, I would challenge those people to list the definitive qualities of a nerd.
Secondly, most nerds (including Hardwick) spent a decent chunk of our childhood being bullied and ridiculed for their passions, so let’s stop the nerd-on-nerd hate. Pop culture is big enough for everyone and trying to create an environment of exclusion only damages the culture as a whole. To those dissenters I say this: it’s okay to admit you’re jealous. I’m jealous. I write for a geeky website and I certainly don’t have Nerdist money or acclaim. If Hardwick doesn’t know about the latest comic event, it’s probably because he has eight jobs and is too busy being successful to read every issue of Rebirth. He also has a fiancée who probably appreciates at least a small sliver of his brimming schedule. Her name is Lydia Hearst, and Nerdist skeptics might not realize her ties to geek culture. She has an important link to comic history that adds an appropriate dimension of nerdery to their relationship.
If you know anything about the history of the printed word in America, you’ve heard the name Hearst before. William Randolph Hearst was one of the most successful publishing magnates in history. He was the son of George Hearst, who, if you’ve watched the HBO series Deadwood, you’ve probably seen cutting off Al Swearengen’s finger with a gem hammer. Although this was a very fictional portrayal of the elder Hearst, George did make a fortune from mining in the 19th century, buying up massive claims throughout the western United States, including the Homestake Mine near Deadwood, South Dakota. He was known to be a ruthless businessman and, in 1880, he obtained the San Francisco Examiner in exchange for a gambling debt. In 1887, he handed over the Examiner to his son. William Randolph Hearst was immediately successful, attracting writers such as Jack London and Mark Twain. Eventually, in an attempt to create a country-spanning empire, he bought the New York Journal newspaper. This was the rival paper to Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, and the two became locked into a bitter competition of one-up-manship that led to the origin of what we refer to today as “Yellow Journalism,” which is perhaps the only kind that still exists. This term comes from the comic strip Hogan’s Alley, featuring the “Yellow Kid,” a bald child in an over-sized yellow shirt. Hearst poached the author of this strip, Richard F. Outcault, from Pulitzer’s employ. Pulitzer then continued the strip with a different cartoonist, causing there to be a Yellow Kid comic in both papers. Each paper was vying for greater circulation, using color comics, sensationalized headlines, gossip, and embellishment. Ironically, the Pulitzer Prize is awarded for journalistic integrity and named after a man who perpetuated its downfall.
Fast forward to the 1920’s. Entrepreneur Harry Donenfeld’s clothing store was closing and he needed a job. Luckily, his brothers owned a printing company and allowed him to work for them at Martin Press. Donenfeld, being somewhat of an earlier prototype of Frank Sinatra, loved rubbing elbows with gangsters, and soon developed a relationship with Frank Costello, the crime boss on which Vito Corleone of The Godfather is based. Donenfeld allegedly used his brothers’ company to smuggle alcohol with their pulp paper from Canada for Costello during prohibition. Using these criminal connections, he acquired a printing job for six million leaflets to be distributed in magazines owned by one William Randolph Hearst, including Good Housekeeping and Cosmopolitan. The money from Hearst’s contract, coupled with Donenfeld’s unsavory partnerships, allowed for the hostile takeover of Martin Press from his brothers. Harry owned the company and made quite a living peddling pulp magazines and porn, until he partnered with Jack Liebowitz, an alleged mob accountant. Harry and Jack, along with some investors, began a distribution venture. Now their company printed, published, and distributed their own material, controlling every aspect of the business and claiming all of the profits. Under Jack’s financial guidance, they took on smaller publishers, agreeing to distribute their material for a substantial stake in the titles. One such publisher was the struggling National Allied Publications, who printed several comic books under the title of Detective Comics Incorporated. According to Liebowitz’s accounting, the books sold very poorly and, as such, the owner of National Allied Publications, Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, was not able to pay his debt to Donenfeld, who sued him into bankruptcy and bought National Allied Publications for peanuts. That same year, National Allied released Action Comics #1. The next year, Detective Comics #27 hit the news stands.
This became a common theme for Donenfeld and Liebowitz over the next couple of decades. They used their money and influence to take over many smaller companies by burying them in debt and picking the bones, laying the foundation for the longest running comics publisher in history. Of course, this is not an uncommon practice in the corporate world, but they were especially vicious businessmen. Donenfeld bought the rights to Superman from Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster for $130 and paid them very poorly to continue creating comics starring the Man of Steel. Bill Finger, the creator of Batman, was never credited or paid for the rights to countless iconic characters. Luckily, these characters survived through the blood, sweat, tears, and creativity of the people willing to toil over those stories week after week. So, even though the company was not officially named “DC Comics” until 1977—12 years after the death of Donenfeld—it is undeniable that we would not have the rich mythology of the DC Universe without these men. William Randolph Hearst unknowingly financed the origin of superheroes, beginning a uniquely American tradition that has never been stronger than it is today. Hearst also created Randolph Apperson Hearst, who created famous Stockholm Syndrome enthusiast Patty Hearst, who created Lydia Hearst, who will become Mrs. Nerdist later this year.
See, that’s less than 6 degrees of separation from Chris Hardwick to the genesis of the modern comic book. I don’t know about you, but I think that earns him massive nerd credit. At the very least, it should earn him a reprieve from the trolls who point their fingers and claim to be the authority on all things geek. Shame on you! Just enjoy your burrito, stop judging people, and go read some comics, because if I cross your path, your nerdoriety may just come under scrutiny. Are you prepared?