Comics / Spotlight

DC Comics - A History, Part 3

By Philip Schweier
March 30, 2007 - 06:23

New Gods
By the late 1960s, Carmine Infantino was overseeing the entire line of comics, holding court in matters ranging from animated cartoons to toy production. As more artists – such as Joe Kubert, Joe Orlando, and Dick Giordano – were named to editorial positions, National Periodical Publications began to follow a more visual approach to creating comics.

In 1970, following the retirement of Mort Weisinger, Julius Schwartz became editor of arguably the most popular character in comic books. As with other creations before, he wanted to make changes, updating the Man of Steel for a new audience. He took Clark Kent out of the Daily Planet newsroom and put him in front of TV news cameras, hoping a more modern version would appeal to readers in a more modern time.

Green Lantern/Green Arrow, by Denny O'Neil, Neal Adams and Dick Giordano, was one of the most topical comics of the early 1970s.
It was a time when comics struggled to be hipper and more topical. Ethnic characters emerged from the background, and hot topics such as the war in Southeast Asia and drug abuse made their way into stories. Nevertheless, new blood was needed, as men who had been in the business for 30 years began to retire. Super-heroes had come to dominate the market, and other genres, such as romance, humor and Westerns, began to lose ground.

Among the many new names featured in credit boxes were: artist Neal Adams, who in the years since had been regarded as one of the most significant contributors to comics, both as a business and art form in the industry; Denny O’Neil, whose landmark Batman and Green Lantern stories redefined super-heroes for a generation; and Bernie Wrightson, who moody illustrations raised the level of DC’s horror and mystery titles.

This same year, Jack Kirby, a longtime contributor to Marvel, left the House of Ideas to join National. His original intent was to take over Superman, but the powers that be at the time balked at handing over the company’s most popular character to him. Over the next few years, he contributed a number of characters, such as a new Sandman, Kamandi, and most notably, his Fourth World creations.

To price compete with Marvel, DC initiated the 100-Page Super-Spectacular, an occasional issue which would feature a brand new story, as well as a collection of reprints from years past, for 60¢. It also began publishing tabloid editions, first of classic first issues such as Action Comics #1 and Detective Comics #1. Later the collector’s editions would feature significant stories centered around a theme, such as Batman’s Greatest Villains or Christmas With the Super-Heroes.

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows.
In 1971, Carmine Infantino was officially named publisher. Over the next couple of years, licensed titles such as Tarzan and The Shadow were introduced. However, being licensed characters, the company had to rely on sales alone to support the books. With characters owned by the company, sales were supplemented by revenue from cartoons, toys and other merchandise, lending added financial support. The Shadow folded after 12 issues. Tarzan limped along a few more years before Marvel assumed the license.

In the meantime, National enjoyed modest success in licensing its own characters to Hollywood. Saturday morning programming featured The Super Friends cartoon on ABC in 1973, and a live-action Shazam series on CBS in 1974, having acquired the Captain Marvel character. Wonder Woman starred in her own prime time television series beginning in 1975. Meanwhile, a feature film starring Superman was in the works.

But with most revenue coming from licensing and film, monthly sales were dwindling. Money was something the company could ill afford to lose. A more competitive Marvel line, combined with a reported paper shortage, led Infantino to aggressively expand DC’s roster of titles, almost all of which failed.

The Unexpected
In 1976, Jenette Kahn was named publisher, and the company officially took the name DC Comics, Inc., abandoning its long-time moniker, National Periodical Publications, Inc. This led to a significant shake-up in the books produced by DC. New titles in the pipeline were shunted into a holding pattern, seeing print only in an effort to establish copyright. Those performing marginally were immediately canceled. All others, some published semi-monthly, were immediately put in a sink or swim position. Those that failed to maintain sales on a monthly basis were trimmed from the schedule.

DC publisher Jenette Kahn, Superman Star Christopher Reeve and DC President Sol Harrison pour over the thousands of entries for the Superman movie contest. Two young men won roles as members of Smallville's football team.
About this time, with the Superman film in production, Siegel and Shuster renewed their claim to some form of rights to Superman. Both were near destitute, and millions of dollars were expected from the release of the film. The two found allies among the industry’s major figures, such as artists Jerry Robinson and Neal Adams, who took their plight national via network news programs. Public opinion swayed the management of DC to make them an offer that included perpetual credit in print and on film for having created Superman, as well as a pension and lifetime medical benefits. This also led to the recognition of creator’s rights, enabling comic book professionals to receive acknowledgment for their contributions to the industry.

With the success of the Superman movie the following year, DC saw a significant jump in sales and interest in comic book properties. By now he was one of the most recognized literary characters in history. Three sequels followed, as well as a Supergirl film and a live-action Superboy television series.

Comics continued to take off, thanks to the increasing business in sales of back issues at second-hand stores. As more and more shops sprang up, it laid the groundwork for what would become known as the direct market. Instead of being sold at newsstands, drug stores and supermarkets, new comics now found their way into the hands of fans via retailers specializing in old comic books.

However, this had a fallout affect on the comic book market as a whole. DC and Marvel had for many years dominated the comic book market, usually taking turns at being number one in sales. Most publishers had faded away, with the exceptions of Charlton and Gold Key, who limped into the 1970s. By the early 1980s, a handful of new publishers entered the market, only to be squeezed out by “the big 2.” Yet each experiment led to greater success, until both companies had to acknowledge the in-roads made by new competition and adjusted their business accordingly.

A new format, digest-sized comics, replaced the old tabloid editions. Still containing reprints, it may have been hoped that exposure to DC’s extensive history would promote greater understanding of its sometimes confusing storylines.

Crisis on the Infinite Earths
As the 1980s continued, DC, with Dick Giordano as editor-in-chief,  initiated some creative housecleaning. By 1984, more than 40 years of comics had led to a number of ideas and concepts that had long outlived any usefulness. The company’s continuity had become bogged down in multi-dimensional Earths, each one featuring variations on any number of characters. Toward that end, DC launched a year-long series, Crisis on the Infinite Earths, to reconcile any conflicts and streamline the overall DC Universe.

The Flash heralded the start of the Silver Age. It seemed only fitting that he represent a new era for the DC Universe.
The series was conceived by writer Marv Wolfman and illustrated by fan favorite George Perez, who had enjoyed great success with their relaunch of the Teen Titans in 1980. That book had quickly risen to best-seller status, going head-to-head against Marvel’s popular X-Men. Now, the two creators were given the mind-boggling task of straightening out DC’s convoluted history.

The project told the story of a growing cataclysm that destroys the various multiple Earths one by one. In some instances, heroes abandon one world after another until reaching safety on the single dimensional plane that was to survive. Often, characters died, their dimension destroyed and any memory wiped from all but longtime readers.

Among the casualties were the Flash, as created in 1955 by Kanigher and Infantino, and Supergirl, Superman’s cousin from Krypton. Most of the casualties were simply a matter of trimming excess fat from the list of DC characters. In all, the project was a good idea, and well-intended, but as the next few years would reveal, it left comic fans wondering.

John Byrne's Man of Steel re-set the Superman mythos for a new generation.
Friends, family, and a few DC staffers bid a fond farewell to the Silver Age Superman.
Following the Crisis, with the DC Universe now re-set, the editors chose to close the books on a number of high-profile characters. With the retirement of Julie Schwartz, the last Superman story of the Silver Age was told. After a suitable rest – or period of mourning, for some – 1986 saw the debut of John Byrne’s Man of Steel. He re-told the Superman mythos from the ground up. All the baggage established during the time of Weisinger and Schwartz was gone, leaving only the Last Son of Krypton. Instead of being disguised as Clark Kent, it is acknowledged that Clark is a lifelong identity, and Superman is the disguise. No more Superboy, or Krypto, or Beppo the Super-Monkey, just a man and his cape.

Nevertheless, that cape was brighter shade of red as new printing technologies on better paper raised the bar on comic book publishing. Prices had steadily increased since the mid-1960s when comic books were all in color for a dime. By 1980 the price had risen to 50¢, then 75¢ in 1985.

Watchmen #1, one of the most critically-acclaimed comics of the 1980s.
As editor-in-chief, Giordano brought in new talent, and  high-profile projects such as Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Critically acclaimed, it portrayed super-heroes in a more realistic light, as costumed adventurers displayed varying shades of gray. Such notoriety paved the way for an increasing number of collected volumes.

Legends of the Dark Knight
Another landmark series was Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, which re-established Batman as a grim-and-gritty nocturnal avenger. Later, the creative forces behind Batman turned back the clock, re-telling his formative years in Batman: Year One, leading to the eventual Year Two. Once again he was the somber urban myth, the kind whispered about in the sewers of the underworld. This set the mood for the Batman film, released in 1989.

Tim Burton directs Michael Keaton as Batman.
After years of struggle, producer Michael Uslan and director Tim Burton brought us a Batman fans could be proud of. Star power in the form of Jack Nicholson helped make the film a hit, spawning a successful film franchise before being laughed off the screen in the fourth installment, directed by Joel Schumacher in 1997. The caped crusader would eventually return, first in an animated TV series inspired by the Max Fleischer Superman cartoons of the 1940s; then in a fresh start to the franchise with Batman Begins in 2005.

The initial Batman film in 1989 renewed interest in comics not just as an art form, but also as an investment. Newspaper stories of fortunes on old comic books being sold to collectors helped stoke the market. DC was among the publishers who set about creating event-oriented comics, such as the Death of Superman, Knightfall (in which Batman is seemingly permanently crippled), and A Death in the Family, which Robin is murdered by the Joker – or not, depending on which 1-900 number is called.

Such marketing stunts quickly became tiresome. Multiple variations of the same comic featuring different covers failed to rescue the weak storytelling within. In time, the speculative bubble burst, and thousands of comic books went unsold, both at the retail and wholesaler levels.

In the meantime, comics had grown up, and the average reader was now more mature. New lines, such as Paradox Press and Vertigo arrived on the scene, telling illustrated stories that went far beyond super-heroes. Fantasy, mystery and art collided in a sometimes psychedelic mixture of wonder.

By the early 1990s, a number of DC properties found their way to the screen. Swamp Thing, after starring in two feature films, took root in a live-action syndicated series as well as an animated cartoon. The Flash, seemingly back from the dead, starred in his own prime-time series that ran for a season. Superman also returned, first in the form of Lois & Clark, a weekly series which explored the more human (i.e. romantic) aspects of the character, then as an animated series from the same team that produced the Batman cartoon.

But by this time, an entire generation had come of age since the boom in science fiction and fantasy in the late 1970s. Most comic book readers were in their late teens and early 20s. Fandoms centered around Star Trek, Star Wars and video games often cross-pollinated into comic books. What had once been a kids medium had evolved into a lifelong hobby, and the stigma of being a comic fan began to evaporate.

Nevertheless, with the speculators gone, and comic book fans weary of non-event marketing ploys, industry sales were low. Many of the so-called “independents” of the 1980s closed up shop, as did comic shops all across America. DC struggled, but soon developed marketing strategies designed to appeal to one-time fans and casual readers.

One effort was aimed at national book retailers such as Borders and Barnes & Nobles. By repackaging material previously released in serial format, collected volumes and stand-alone graphic novels enjoyed longer shelf lives, made available to casual fans who might not normally venture into a comic book store.

But opening new doors was not enough. DC also had to improve the overall quality of its product. In an effort to compete with best-selling authors for shelf space, some of those writers were brought in to craft stories that made us care for the outcome and believe that yeah, maybe a man could fly. DC began to return to its roots, shaving away layers of dead wood while giving old stodgy concepts much needed facelifts. In the 1960s, it was said that Marvel made comics cool, with its hip characters who behaved like real people. At the dawn of the 21st century, DC made comics fun again.

DC president and publisher Paul Levitz (left) and editor-in-chief Dan DiDio (right).
In 2002, Jenette Kahn stepped down from her position as publisher and president of DC Comics. Paul Levitz, who had who had joined the company as a writer while in college in the late 1970s, was named her successor. Today, under editor-in-chief Dan Didio, DC Comics is telling some of the best stories imaginable. Years of continuity has been streamlined, distilled to some of the essential elements of their collective mythos. Characters have become three-dimensional, with motivations grounded in real-world psychology, yet at the same time retaining the magical sense of wonder that make comics so appealing in the first place. This has enabled the company to aggressively market their properties to new audiences through film and television, ensuring future generations of the World’s Greatest Super-Heroes.

• DC Comics: Sixty Years of the World’s Favorite Comic Book Heroes, by Les Daniels
• Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book by Gerard Jones
• Man of Two Worlds: My Life in Science Fiction and Comics, by Julius Schwartz, with Brian M. Thomsen
• The Amazing World of Carmine Infantino by Carmine Infantino, with J. David Spurlock
• Superman: From Serial to Cereal, by Gary Grossman
• The Great Comic Book Heroes, by Jules Feiffer
• History of  Comics, Vol. 1 and 2, by Jim Steranko

Last Updated: August 31, 2023 - 08:12

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