The industry-history story of U.S. comics is about DC. There’s no history of Marvel, Dell, Fawcett, Archie, and Gold Key, or their related media without DC in place for the bigger context. (This presupposes limiting the discussion to the newsstand pamphlet periodicals most commonly called “comics” and the one-step-removed usage of their content. Obviously the entire story of American comics is necessarily expanded to newspapers, a lot of magazines, fiction illustration, music-related art, movies, TV shows, advertising, instruction, and more.)
This post provides a much larger box within which Context! is contained. As with that post, I’m not providing anything which isn’t readily-available information from the sources I’ve listed at this blog’s page. All I’ve added is pedagogy, and some thoughts about implications. I’ve found that the dates are inconsistent across sources, so please read them as “fuzzy” and cut me some slack on this-or-that year, please.
Here’s the big document I made for the timeline, to click on for companion viewing. I’ve clipped out bits for the text to follow, but some of the arrows & stuff are more easily understood by looking at the full image.
This is the part before “comics,” featuring the ingathering of printing, distribution, and IP control that would provide their infrastructure, during which Harry Donenfeld’s crooked little Donny Press became a printing and distribution mogul.
This is what I was talking about in At corporate, they only sell paper, in spades: comics were never the product. The paper mill and its distribution exists first, and the question of what to print on it is not a very big question, merely a matter of moving away from obvious dogs. The paper is gonna come in and it’s gonna roll out, so everything’s gonna move. If some particular thing to print happens to be a positive blip relative to the other things just like it, then print a bunch of those.
The returns policy is a book of its own – newsstands strip off the covers of unsold copies and send them back, receiving refunds. The company calls it a loss for tax write-off, and a whole shadow market of stripped or unstripped “un-returns” arises. Technically that’s cheating, but in the long run it keeps the volume of available product high with no risk to either publisher or retailer, and it permits you basically to make up “copies sold” as a statistic for, you know, accounting purposes.
Donny Press was a 1920s paper mill, printing whatever was up for sale in a particular year, newspapers, smooshies (soft porn), whatever. The bulk paper product gained its distribution as cover for bootlegged booze and semi-legal birth control products (condoms, douche kits). However, by the mid-30s, due to deft manipulations, Donenfeld and his not-on-paper partner Jack Liebowitz acquired Eastern News distribution and renamed it Independent News, now deemed pure as the driven snow.
Independent News’ product of the moment was comics, recently “invented” in the form most familiar to us, through the neat trick of first funding creators externally to capture automatic printing-and-distribution clients, and then acquiring the intellectual properties. You can see in the previous picture that they “owned” Superman and Batman almost entirely by historical accident, by whisking Detective Comics Inc into Donenfeld’s hands just before the characters were featured. Although National Allied Publications and its sister property Detective Comics Inc were founded by Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson in 1934, they were already bankrolled by Donny Press and co-owned by Liebowitz, and therefore were easily plucked out of Wheeler-Nicholson’s hands across very little distance into Donenfeld’s newly-minted Independent News even though the yellow arrows look huge.
The effect was an ingathering of titles eventually to be named National Comics, which “just so happened” to be owned and operated by the owners of Independent. The initials “DC” were retained as an imprint, probably because they were associated with Superman.
I should explain that then, and now as well, a “comics company” can mean dozens of things: e.g., an in-house production reliant on external distribution, or the exact opposite, a distributor with a freelance/creative arm. It could be a store that finances production and tries to work “up the chain” for distribution, or a creator studio with or without a salaried branch, or a management/freelance-hiring service for licensed properties. In this case, and to repeat, it’s about a printer acquiring distribution (phase 1 above), now acquiring ownership of the titles which it already prints and distributes.
The next, obvious step was to merge National Comics with Independent News under the umbrella of National Periodical Publications in 1944. This was Liebowitz’s brainchild, his big break to get out of the paper mill rat race and to consolidate into a kind of local monopoly prior to going public. It’s also when he moved into full partnership with Donenfeld, who by all accounts was not constituted toward “going legit” actually.
The steps of this phase were far from linear; I’ll try to summarize it verbally to help with the diagram:
- National Allied Publications (begun 1934, absorbed 1944)
- Detective Comics Inc (sister company to NAP) (begun 1934, absorbed 1938)
- Detective Comics 1936 (Batman 1939), Action Comics 1936 (Superman 1938)
- All-American Publications, financed by Donenfeld, owned by Max Gaines and Leibowitz, therefore nominally not owned by Independent News, but in practice pretty much so (begun 1940, absorbed 1944)
- All-Star Comics featuring Wonder Woman; Flash Comics featuring the Flash, Hawkman, and the Atom; All-American Comics featuring Green Lantern
- Superman magazine
- Superman Inc, handling all the licensing (begun 1941, absorbed 1944)
- radio show, cartoon show, newspaper strip
The real power lay in fully absorbing Superman Inc, the source of IP for the newspaper and radio (which had taken off immediately and constituted the real value of the character), later for film and TV. Comics didn’t invent this; it had been primed via The Shadow and The Phantom, which began in radio and newspaper strips, respectively.
You see? It’s still not about making comics. I’m defying all of comics fandom, which nestles in the crack between the paper mill and the big-money media and embraces the lovely illusion that the paper was merely a means to make good comics, and the movies are made merely because the comics were good. I urge some healthy cynicism about the alleged grassroots American love of superhero comics: that the superhero was already embedded in more constantly-available non-comics media, and that comics-as-product trailed after and always did, rather than pumping. A character or title’s performance as a comic relative to other titles on the newsstand is not the same as the popularity of a mainstream brand. And that was never different and it’s never changed; comics with the DC imprint were acquired by National in the context of their worth to other media, and always “knew their place.”
Remember the Comics Code Authority? In 1954, that wicked, wicked Fredric Wertham who “ruined comics?” Horse shit. The Code already existed, in-house at National, since 1940. The very edginess which had drawn attention to Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman was scrubbed off fast toward their real purpose as the newspaper strips and the radio shows boomed; the scrubbing proceeded immediately, leaving us with only one-to-two years’ worth of now-baffling or shocking content, or as fandom would have it, “non-canonical” or “early installment weirdness.”
1940s wartime put the bite on paper availability, but the effect was to widen the gap between the “ins” and the “outs” of production – get a lock on access to paper, and you have a government seal of approval and a lock on the content, thus in retrospect, you appear to “dominate the market.” Nicely seated in that very position, NPP’s absorptions continued with tons of little properties like Plastic Man and more, resulting in the editorial stables model that wholly defined the DC creative culture most recognized and valued by fandom. The outliers at this point were:
- The biggies
- Archie Comics, whose presence reflected its own solid cultural stamp in newspapers and other media
- Fawcett Comics (Captain Marvel) which was no longer publishing as of 1953
- Will Eisner’s studio and its branch-off Wonder Comics (Wonder Man)
- Dell Comics, primarily a licensing outlet for a number of TV cartoons
- Entertainment Comics (EC), formerly Educational Comics, begun by Max Gaines in 1944, renamed and owned by Bill Gaines in 1951, destroyed by the Comics Code in 1954
- within Martin Goodman’s plethora of fake-real company names, Timely Publications (Captain America, Namor the Sub-Mariner, and the Human Torch)
Going by company names, imprints, and titles, the so-called Golden Age looks like a cornucopia of comics publishing, but production and distribution were much more concentrated. Especially after 1957 and the demise of the American News Company, Independent News locked up newwstand distribution, so that anyone’s success in that venue meant a cut for NPP. These dynamics added up to the societal legitimacy enjoyed by DC and Archie characters as the others – generally still grounded in the pulps and vulnerable to censure when Wertham did descend upon comics, especially EC – floundered and scrabbled.
This part is defined by corporate apotheosis: National Periodical Publications absorbed Superman Inc and went public in 1960, and the sale to Kinney National began 1965, culminating in the full identity of Warner Communications in 1968. The black arrow is “not like the others” – it is unique in becoming the owner of the left-hand columns, rather becoming owned by it.
In my earlier post about Marvel, I implied baseline equivalence between the Kinney and Perfect Film & Chemical sales, which turns out definitely not to be the case at all. NPP was in like Flynn already, with characters already in the mass media; it only remained to formalize it, most likely along the lines of pre-existing mob ties between Donenfeld and Steve Ross.
Within NPP, the sale was no shift in ownership: there are the Donenfelds father and son, and there’s Jack Liebowitz. The sale cemented the internal power structure rather than replacing it, including Liebowitz’s primary authority which until then had existed in practice but not name. (For those who don’t know, Harry Donenfeld was incapacitated by a stroke and died shortly after the sale.)
All of my posting about Superman suddenly blazes with illumination in this history. That’s why he’s “not there.” He was never there.
The Batman TV show in 1966 also turns out to be very important in redefining comics at the mainstream level in the very context of this super-version of “going legit.” It put the Jew-communist/juvenile delinquency issues firmly into the silenced past, locking down the “for kids” image both in terms of that past (thus creating a fictional Golden Age of wholesomeness) and for the future. From there and into the next decade, the new kids’ cartoons (Batman, Superman, Super Friends), live-action TV (Wonder Woman, Shazam!), and movies (Superman) were firmly on-message.
A weird thing going on underneath
Except that at that very moment, in the newsstand venue that anyone could see was of no account whatsoever, a couple of by-blow leftovers of the 1940s and 1950s were actually mattering after all. Something called “Marvel Comics” was doing some redefining of its own among – of all things! – the comics-buying user-base. Note that since American News had died in 1957, everyone selling U.S. comics was under the thumb of Independent News’ distribution network and Goodman Publications’ comics were limited to eight measly newsstand titles, thus safely squelched …
Except that from this point and going through the late 1970s, it’s very, very useful to think of the Marvel imprint within Goodman Publications, Warren Magazines, the Curtis Magazine branch within Goodman Publications, MAD Magazine (the remnant of EC), National Lampoon, the comics in Playboy, Cavalier, and Swank, and the more widely-distributed undergrounds like Witzend, as an almost continuous cultural phenomenon.
I can’t help but point to the unseemly stereotypes of late 1960s and 1970s DC vs. Marvel fandoms because they are perfect given the company-and-industry histories: DC is favored by starched and uptight idealists who won’t stop talking about “pristine inks” and idolize heroes-and-sidekicks; Marvel is favored by alarming hairy-eyed upstarts blasted on acid, who champion existentialists, mystics, and bikers-by-any-other-name. (Very different from the 1980s-and-1990s versions: scholars and champions of the artist’s rights vs. a bunch of cultish, greasy, blood-hungry yobs.)
After 1968, the Independent lockdown on newsstand distribution vanished – I speculate that it didn’t withstand legal scrutiny, now that DC comics production had come into the light, as it were, and was sensibly scrapped. Now that distribution wasn’t the gatekeeper any more, and now that the social capital Marvel had acquired was here to stay, and now that the utterly new-and-novel comics stores had appeared … well, there’s your new industry, muddled to be sure, but back in action for the first time since the mid-1940s. As further speculation … did the Marvel readership establish the idea that the comics were important strictly as comics, in pop culture? Until people like me inadvertently accumulated stacks of long-running stories, comics collecting was pure memorabilia – after that, they were (we insisted) a form of literature at least as significant as cinema.
There’s also the important blip of Carmine Infantino’s editorship from 1968 through 1975, which I wrote a little bit about in And the horse you rode in on. It’s very clearly a bottom-up Marvel-reader invasion of DC in the form of hiring new, very young creators, as well as some saber-toothed Warren and war-mag veterans like Archie Goodwin. Batman gets redefined as a tormented nutbar in direct revolt against the legacy of the TV show (Goodwin, Neal Adams, Denny O’Neil, Frank Robbins, Steve Englehart, Marshall Rogers); Green Lantern/Green Arrow gets its “social conscious road trip” and Speedy’s interesting descent into heroin addiction (O’Neil and Adams), perhaps the single most iconic defiance of the Weisinger-Schwartz “good clean science fiction” idiom for superheroes. DC fandom still struggles to reconcile the undeniable greatness of the work with its inadmissible utter Marvel-ness; e.g., Batman’s “ambiguity” ever since is nothing but this struggle. The Steranko History of Comics stands tall in this period as well, as it brought the pulp origins and the distinctive original DC characters to readers’ attention (me, for instance, age ~10).
DC was still the gorilla – ha! little joke there, but I mean it in the ordinary metaphorical sense too. Counterculture, broadly defined, was a serious phenomenon at the time, and comics were its potatoes to go with music’s meat, but DC had entered a level of identity which transcended such things as “the market” or more straightforwardly stated, what creative people and the purchasing populace wanted. The TV shows and planned films proceeded anyway, and before long, the comics were restored to their role therein. They had to get adjusted in their new stores-style venue too, with care, and that meant doing Marvel’s tricks one better.
If you consider the Infantino stage a sideways lapse or artifact, then the DC comics settled into their proper role within Warner Communications in 1975 when Jenette Kahn took decisive hold of their operations and “DC Comics” actually got a real name, albeit as a division within a division. The modern DC begins here, with the DC Explosion, and with the Superman movie. As it went from there, fans/pros became in-house creatives, from there becoming editors and ultimately becoming executives, on the basis of pure company loyalty, with many examples but most importantly Dick Giordano and Paul Levitz.
At this level a “failed” movie isn’t the make-or-break that comics readers think; it’s just the way it bounces this time before the next movie push. There’ll be another Superman movie. There’ll be another Superman, or any character you want to name, on TV or webchannel or movie or whatever seems like the venue of the moment, starring [actor name] and doing well, badly, or however. It’s not going to “save comics” or even be about the comics; it never has been. The comics will bump along to support the real product at whatever quantity is deemed strategic. Comics fandom’s opinions are not merely irrelevant, they are (to twist a phrase) nicht einmal unwesentlich, not even irrelevant.
The DC industry story from the Explosion to the present is a matter of playing at the big boys’ table, with additions and mergers at the mega-level, e.g. with Time-Life in 1989 to become Time-Warner, then with AOL in 2000 to become Time-Warner-AOL. Now DC is one nugget within one of very few conglomerates which arguably set the cultural vocabulary for a significant sector of modern global society. [see the end of the diagram in the companion file]
Odd little Marvel
DC played the lion to all the other companies regarding licensing and acquisition throughout comics history. Fawcett was lawfared out of comics by 1953, its properties licensed in 1971, and in 1990 they’re bought outright and Captain Marvel is brought directly into continuity; see also acquiring the Charlton characters and licensing the Archie characters. Dell and its successor Gold Key posed no competition, as they were never more than promotional arms for TV and other media.
Once this larger context is known, then there’s no question of how or why Marvel’s history is so different: instead of a distributor building on acquiring little comics-making thing after thing, it’s a little comics-making thing of its own which has careened from owner to owner like a steamy potato. But why? Even at its most visible, the early Marvel owners were nowhere near National Periodical Publications’ league, and completely lacked the significant non-comics footprints of Fawcett or Archie. Shoot, Goodman Publications could have been whisked into the Kinney National buy-up bonanza, couldn’t it? How and why did a piece-of-shit little Jersey mob company like Perfect Film & Chemical do that instead?
Even more so, why did Marvel continue to stay un-DC after 1978 or so, when its finances were so broken and fucked-up that anyone should have been able to buy it? Especially since its TV properties had actually done pretty well. By the late 1970s, Cadence Industries could obviously have been snapped up like a wee morsel by Warner Communications. The same question holds for the total financial meltdowns of New World Entertainment in 1987 or the Perelman shell-corporations in 1999.
Other questions arise too. Put aside your Marvel vs. DC stereotype and look at all those crossovers and collaborations. Why at some points was DC so open to them (e.g. the two Superman/Spider-Man one-shots, the Amalgam imprint), especially in the context of never simply buying the lot?
I don’t know the answers – as far as I know these questions have never been asked – but some of the effects of the history are clear to me. Marvel was forced, the whole time, to seek a hit in strictly comics terms, hoping to leverage it into visual and other media, always doing Hail-Mary passes, and for the most part it only managed to succeed at beta level at best. In practice, that made it a risk-free R&D department for DC for forty years. It’s hardly a popular thing to say, and jumped-up fandom like The Comics Journal sought hard to keep it un-said, but through the 60s, 70s, and 80s, Marvel consistently contributed content-innovations which soon appeared in refined and – eventually – better-promoted forms at DC, sometimes by the same creators and sometimes not.
Examples are, no pun intended, legion. A few include …
- The New Teen Titans as the refurbished and more wholesome New X-Men
- The re-tooled 1980s Swamp Thing recapitulating the details of the 1970s Man-Thing
- The Dark Knight Returns as fan-fave distillation of the late-70s and early-80s Punisher, Moon Knight, and Daredevil
- The Crisis on Infinite Earths and specific titles like the Justice League rather brazenly capturing the concept of the Marvel Universe, to fold together such disparate things as the Doom Patrol, the New Gods and other Kirby work at DC, Captain Marvel, and the Legion of Superheroes
- “Not just for kids any more!” as a major marketing push to the non-comics media in the mid-80s, as Marvel or rather, Lee, had done in the mid-60s
- Simultaneously, toward the fandom, cultivating and congratulating them as the critical readers as opposed to the mindless loyalists (80s DC using 1960s Marvel promo tactics)
- The annual cross-over binges which nicely co-opted the relatively brief-in-comparison Secret Wars I and II
- Introducing horror, occult, and monster content with strong EC roots (this would eventually become the Vertigo imprint), semi-continuous with the superheroes but separate enough to target a different audience, just as Marvel had done with Curtis Magazines fifteen years earlier
It’s almost easier to list the things which don’t follow the pattern.
The professional/personal history is similar to this pattern, although not exactly 1:1 with it. Artists and writers pinballed back and forth between Marvel and DC all the time, sort of secretly at first, then openly. The net effect was ultimately, however, one-way: Marvel clearly provided a constant pump of high-profile personnel over there, serving as a proving ground for many, and even a holding pattern while you renegotiated your relationship with DC. (I saw this again with First Comics, whose biggest legacy was its recruiting pump into DC.)
However, all this is past, even “past is past” material. Marvel may or may not have lost its R&D and personnel recruiting roles for DC in the 1990s, but for damn sure it’s “graduated” from them for good with its acquisition by Disney in 2010. And the mouse knows cable TV’s new functions have brought back the 1930s film-serial venue, cast in the mold of Disney’s long-time mastery over episodic or mini-movie TV. Good, bad, whatever, it’s history. The only thing I’d predict now, or rather, acknowledge that it’s already well in progress, is the bleaching and blanking of the comics’ content, for Marvel’s last hints and echoes of the underground to disappear entirely.
[edited a bit 2/20/17 for sentence structure]
Links: The history of the DC Comics logo, Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, Comic Book Distribution (Jim Shooter’s useful account of the history), and with my apologies to Wolfgang Pauli
Next: Oh sweet legitimacy (February 26)
Posted on February 19, 2017, in Commerce and tagged All-Star Comics, Bill Gaines, C. M. Gaines, Carmine Infantino, DC Comics, Detective Comics, Dick Giordano, Entertainment Comics (EC), Fredric Wertham, Gerard Jones, Harry Donenfeld, Independent News, Jack Liebowitz, Jenette Kahn, Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, Men of Tomorrow, National Periodical Publications, Paul Levitz, Superman, Warner Communications. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.
In reading it over, and saying to myself, “but it’s not a hit piece!” several times, it strikes me I ought to acknowledge …
– the outlet for great science fiction and whimsical humor that DC afforded during the 1950s and early 1960s, especially with Gardner F. Fox but with lots of others
– Drake & Premiani’s Doom Patrol during the 1960s, which was apparently a real case of simultaneity with the X-Men and was much better
– the ideas and general fantastical-ness of the Legion of Superheroes, at many times, not Marvel-like at all and very much its own thing
– early 70s horror titles like House of Secrets with special reference to Marv Wolfman and his role at Curtis Magazines too
– the origins of the Swamp Thing and the Man-Thing, obviously a “you do it and we’ll do it” between friends – although now that I think of it, it’s smack in the middle of the Infantino period which was full of friendly un-monitored cross-overs as creators enjoyed messing with each other
– obviously the Kirby and Ditko material (although that may count as an extreme example of the R&D)
– the career of Jim Shooter, who more than any other creator I can think of, was shaped by, and in turned exerted shaping force on these infrastructural interactions between DC and Marvel
– perhaps most significantly, that Paul Levitz’s focus on continuity and multi-title stories paralleled Mark Gruenwald’s, and although Marvel implemented this editorial logic first, it would be wrong to suggest that Levitz merely followed along
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