William Woolfolk

Writer for comics

William Winston Woolfolk, writer and cartoonist: born June 1917; thrice married (one daughter, one stepson); died Syracuse, New York 20 July 2003.

It has been said that William Woolfolk was the best-selling writer living in central New York over the past 20 years, but also the least well-known, despite his prolific output in three different fields and two Emmy Award nominations.

Born on Long Island in 1917, he was newly graduated from New York University when he won the Scribner Prize for short-story writing in 1940. His initial stint as an advertising copywriter gave way to freelance scriptwriting for the new and booming comics industry, starting with the MLJ (later renamed Archie Comics) superheroes in 1941. Within months his action-packed yarns were in demand by all the principal publishing houses, and his commissions included writing "Batman" and "Superman" for National Periodical Publications (the future DC Comics), "Captain America" for Timely Comics (an earlier incarnation of Marvel Comics), and "Captain Marvel" for Fawcett Publications, for whom he coined the hero's catchphrase "Holy Moley!"

But his name and fortune were secured in 1942, when Will Eisner, the creator and writer of "The Spirit", was called up for military service and Woolfolk stood in for him. "The Spirit", a satirical daily newspaper strip starring a masked detective, was widely syndicated, and Woolfolk scripted all the daily sequences, along with many of the (longer) Sunday ones. He became the best-paid writer in comics, raking in a weekly salary of $300 (compared to the average of about $30).

Years later, these much reprinted tales from what was officially designated as the Golden Age of comics, along with his superhero work, were to earn him the 2002 Comic-Con International Inkpot Award.

Superheroes were also to have a direct effect on Woolfolk's personal life: he met his second wife, Dorothy, in the 1940s while he was penning the "Superman" adventures and she was writing "Lois Lane" (about Superman's girlfriend). Both went on to become successful fiction writers, establishing a Woolfolk family tradition: Woolfolk's only two non-fiction books were collaborations with, respectively, his third wife, Joanna (The Great American Birth Rite, 1975), and his daughter, Donna Woolfolk Cross (Daddy's Little Girl: the unspoken bargain between fathers and their daughters, 1982), herself a widely published novelist.

But this was in the future: after his own Second World War service, he continued writing for comics and Shock, a short-story magazine, and attempted two short-lived publishing ventures. In the 1950s, with the comics industry imploding, he turned his attention to other forms of writing. Along with countless magazine articles, 1953 saw the publication of Naked Hunter, the first of 18 novels, several of which were best-sellers.

Some were romans à clef: The Beautiful Couple (1968) was based on Elizabeth Taylor's brief marriage to Mike Todd, while The Sex Goddess (1966) was modelled on Ava Gardner. Strangely, despite their massive popularity, none of these colourful works of fiction made it on to film or television.

Not that his talents were unsuited to the small screen, however: during the 1960s he moved to Hollywood and became chief scriptwriter and story editor on CBS's The Defenders. The television show, a controversial courtroom drama starring E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed, ran from 1961 to 1965 and won every award of its day, although Woolfolk himself had to be content with a mere pair of Emmy Award nominations.

Alan Woollcombe

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