Spotlight
The Path to Crisis
By Darcey McLaughlin
December 11, 2005 - 17:18




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For more than a decade, DC Comics had been losing ground to arch rival Marvel Comics. Despite many attempts to make its products more accessible and attractive to Marvel readers, by the mid-70s sales had slipped greatly, leaving the company in serious trouble.

DC, the public face of National Publications, had owned the comic market since the 1930s. It had thrived through the rise and fall and rise again of super-heroes and adapted to the Comics Code Authority (CCA). It had loyal readers and a stable of characters known around the world.

All was well until Fantastic Four #1 in 1961. Written by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby, the new super-team would launch the Marvel Universe of superheroes and change the way fans and creators looked at comics.

Marvel took a very different approach to storytelling. Unlike DC, heroes in the Marvel Universe were flawed. They had family troubles, money problems and romantic entanglements. They had realistic personalities behind the mask and complex relationships with friends and relatives. Some of their heroes, like The Thing or The Hulk, looked like monster. Characters like the X-Men were outcast from society, never accepted no matter what they did in the fight against evil. Stories were often greater in scope and more serious in tone. Marvel regularly brushed up against the CCA’s guidelines, getting away with as much as possible.

This new approach to superheroes hit a nerve with readers, many of whom were now teenagers, instead of young kids. Spiderman, for example, was not a millionaire with a high tech lair, but a kid operating out of his bedroom, struggling with all the problems faced by most teenagers, while at the same time fighting crime. Kids could picture themselves in the same scenario and therefore relate to the character.

The strength of Marvel’s product caused a major shift in the industry and the company soon displaced DC as the number one comic publisher.

DC was headed for trouble. So in 1975, the company began a major push to increase readership.

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Called the “DC Explosion”, the company began an aggressive and risky campaign to attract new readers and increase overall sales. The company planned to steadily increase the number of titles it produced, while increasing page count and cover price.

Between 1975 and 1978, DC launched 57 new or re-launched (titles previously cancelled but brought back) books. It was also during this time, in 1976, when DC’s financial troubles led to the company being acquired by Warner Communications.

The DC Explosion failed miserably, leaving the company in worse shape than it had been just a few years earlier. In 1978 alone, the company cancelled an incredible 31 titles, while reducing the page count and price of the remaining books.

This mass cancellation is now referred to as the “DC Implosion”.

While the 31 cancellations figure in 1978 is incredible, the overall figures are worse. Between 1975 and 1978, DC cancelled a total of 65 titles.

Things were so bad for DC, that one of the titles actually scheduled for cancellation in 1978 was Detective Comics. It was only saved by merging it with Batman Family. It was a smart move. Cancelling the company’s longest running title and the book the company is actually named after would have been a huge blow to DC’s image.

The entire incident was a classic example of a company using marketing in an attempt to fix a product problem. Simply put, DC books were not as good as Marvel books. Where as Stan Lee and company where producing cutting edge comics which catered to a more mature audience, DC seemed stuck in the Silver Age, slavishly adhering to the strict confines of the Comics Code Authority and producing comics that simply failed to connect with a modern audience.

DC, of course, did try to make their comics more accessible, with often hilarious results. Creators, without any real knowledge of youth culture, infused comics with dialogue like “man, I know this groovin’ cat and he is like the most.” They also went the socially conscience route having Lois Lane become black or Speedy becoming a drug addict. While the later did garner some praise for DC, the issue itself is a perfect example of DC’s poor attempt to appear modern.

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In addition, many fans complained that DC’s universe was inaccessible to new fans. They pointed to the company’s nearly 50 year history and its multiverse concept as barriers fans had to break through in order to enjoy mainstream DCU books.

This fact seemed to be confirmed by the one of the few successful titles launched during the “DC Explosion”. The Mike Grell created Warlord was a Conan type comic set in a fantasy realm. With no direct tie to the DC Universe and a new cast of characters with easily accessible stories, fans could enjoy Warlord without worrying about Batman, Superman or any of DC’s other characters.

In the wake of the “DC Implosion”, the company was still having financial trouble and their plan to increase readership had clearly failed.

Things were desperate and something needed to be done to put the company back on track. The answer to DC’s problems would soon arrive, however, in the guise of two former Marvel creators and editors, who would turn the DCU on its ear.

Next week: The New Teen Titans save the DCU


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