An adventurer, an author, a teller of tall tales, a dreamer, and perhaps a bit of a rogue, Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson was the individual who created the comic book as we know it today, observed writer Les Daniels in his book, DC Comics: Sixty Years of the World's Favorite Comic Book Heroes (1995). Nicholson, a former cavalry officer, drew from his military experiences when penning fiction stories in the late 1920s and early 1930s for a pulp magazine whose name would soon bear great significance for him: Adventure.
In February 1935, the indomitable Nicholson published New Fun, a collection of all-new comic strips in a comic-book format. Reprints of strips had been previously collected by other publishers, but New Fun was the first new comic book. The major's company, National Allied Publications, soon added to its roster New Comics, but before long changed the series' titles to More Fun Comics and New Adventure Comics, respectively.
Comic-book publishers trickled into existence in the mid-1930s. One of them, Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz's Detective Comics, Inc., partnered with Nicholson's National in 1936, ultimately buying out the major's interest the following year. By endorsing his check, Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson was transformed from an influential innovator to a footnote in the annals of comics history; few readers or fans are aware of his valuable contributions and, stated Daniels,
He died, all but forgotten, in 1968.
This new publishing house lived, however, and grew. Now officially called National Comics, but better known as
DC (for Detective Comics, its flagship series), DC produced anthology series that delivered short stories bristling with verve but lacking identifiable characters. When Liebowitz assigned editor Vin Sullivan the start-up title Action Comics, the search began for a headlining character.
A young collaborative team from Cleveland, Ohio, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, had been producing strips for DC's More Fun and New Adventure. Their labor of love, a brightly garbed champion with amazing powers they called Superman, had earlier been rejected by newspaper syndicates but seemed right for DC's new title. Placing Superman—effortlessly heaving a sedan over his head—on the cover of Action Comics #1 (June 1938) was a wise move for DC: This assertive image was unlike anything the comics audience had ever seen. In the History Channel's documentary Comic Book Superheroes: Unmasked (2003), filmmaker Kevin Smith remarked,
I'll never have anything approaching the level of the sense of wonder that those first kids who opened up Action #1 had. The first costumed superhero was born.
And so was an industry. Action sold phenomenally well, and competitors instantly materialized with inventive successors and transparent replications of DC's
Man of Steel. Instead of plagiarizing its own character, DC chose, with its second major superhero, to create the antithesis of Superman. Detective Comics #27 (May 1939) introduced the Batman, a grim vigilante created by artist Bob Kane, abetted by writer Bill Finger. With his foreboding guise (chosen to
strike fear into the hearts of the
cowardly lot of criminals) and violent methods (Batman killed gangsters early on), the Batman was comics' original anti-hero.
The Batman's gruesome methods made publisher DC nervous, and soon the hero's edge was softened by the addition of the first-ever superhero sidekick: the
laughing young daredevil Robin the Boy Wonder, heralded as
the sensational character find of 1940 in his Detective #38 debut (April 1940). The Batman, shadowy avenger, became Batman, costumed crime-fighting mentor and patriarch.
In the late 1930s, DC formed an alliance with M. C. Gaines' All-American Publications (AA), with Gaines' titles bearing DC's imprint. Gaines published several series that initiated the next wave of superheroes who would become DC Comics mainstays:
The Fastest Man Alive, the Flash; and the winged hero Hawkman first appeared in Flash Comics #1 (January 1940), and the power ring–wielding Green Lantern bowed in All-American Comics #16 (July 1940). Gaines was instrumental in two other important DC milestones: the creation of comics' original superteam, the Justice Society of America, in All Star Comics #3 (Winter 1940), and the birth of the most popular and enduring female superhero, Wonder Woman, in All Star #8 (December 1941–January 1942). DC and AA temporarily parted company in 1944, but by the following year DC had purchased Gaines' properties.
DC, like other American comics publishers, enlisted its superheroes in the war effort during World War II—even before the United States officially entered the conflict. Siegel and Shuster were commissioned by Look magazine to prepare a two-page comics story called
How Superman Would End the War, which was published on February 7, 1940. The tale depicted the Man of Steel corralling the
power-mad scoundrels Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin and dropping them off in Geneva to be tried. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, pro-Allied propaganda became common in DC's titles, particularly on its covers: Batman and Robin sold bonds, Hawkman dropped a bomb on Japan while signing
V for Victory to the reader, and the Justice Society delivered food to the
starving patriots in occupied Europe.
The Man of Steel became a media sensation in the 1940s. The Fleischer animation studios produced a celebrated series of seventeen Superman cartoon shorts beginning in 1941, and the hero spun off into a radio drama, a long-running newspaper strip, and two live-action movie serials. The hero was heavily merchandized throughout the decade, in figurines, board games, puzzles, and other novelties. Superman also moonlighted in product endorsement, pitching everything from Kellogg's Pep cereal to Conoco
N-tane gas. Other DC stars shone in the media—Batman and Robin starred in two serials and a short-lived comic strip, while Congo Bill, the Vigilante, and Hop Harrigan appeared in movie serials of their own. Yet no DC character of the era could hold a candle to Superman: The Man of Steel was the man of ubiquity.
Once World War II ended, America's love affair with superheroes similarly died, and caped crusaders crashed and burned as quickly as they had premiered a few years prior. By the end of the 1940s and into the 1950s, only Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman remained in print in their own titles, with a few
B players (Superboy, Aquaman, Green Arrow and Speedy, and a few others) visible in backup stories. DC pursued new genres in the 1950s: Westerns, funny animals, science fiction, horror, combat, romance, teen- and kid-oriented humor, and even celebrity tie-ins (comedians Jerry Lewis and Bob Hope had their own DC comics for years). With the burgeoning medium of television competing for the attention of comics' young audience, sales slipped.
It was a real tough time, penned editor Mike Gold in his introduction to the DC Comics collected edition, The Greatest 1950s Stories Ever Told (1990).
Psychologist Frederic Wertham made it even tougher. In his contemptuous book Seduction of the Innocent (1954), Dr. Wertham condemned comic books as a gateway to juvenile delinquency and sexual immorality, charging that Batman and Robin were gay and that Wonder Woman was a
frightening image for boys. His book leveraged U.S. Senate hearings against the entire comic-book industry, resulting in the implementation of a censorship board called the Comics Code Authority. Most of DC's content had been innocuous enough to emerge unscathed, but Batwoman and Bat-Girl were introduced to skirt any inkling of homosexuality between Batman and Robin, and Wonder Woman was recast in a less-threatening manner compliant with patriarchal views of feminine roles.
Throughout this tumultuous decade, Superman held strong. He rocketed to television stardom, portrayed by George Reeves on the syndicated live-action series The Adventures of Superman (1951–1957). Superman merchandising marched forward, and his comics franchise expanded. Superman aside, DC's sales suffered.
In 1956, editor Julius
Julie Schwartz revived the Flash—albeit an updated version in a stylized new costume—in the
try-out series Showcase (#4, September–October 1956). The Flash was a hit, returning for more Showcase outings before running off into his own series. The Flash's (re)introduction marked the beginning of what would soon be known as the Silver Age of Comics.
Schwartz similarly reworked Green Lantern beginning with Showcase #22 (September–October 1959), then made a courageous next step by reimagining the Justice Society in the form of an all-new Justice League of America in The Brave and the Bold #28 (February–March 1960). Hawkman and the Atom were also revived, and new heroes like Metamorpho, the Metal Men, and the Teen Titans were introduced. Superheroes became a hot commodity, and once again, DC Comics had defined at trend.
In 1964, Batman received a makeover under Schwartz's direction: Silly menaces like space aliens and monsters, which had populated the Batman books with alarming frequency, were discarded and the stories became more science- and detective-oriented. Batman's Batmobile was retooled into a stylized hot rod, and the hero's all-purpose utility belt now housed an arsenal inspired by the gadgets of the James Bond movies.
January 1966 marked a milestone in DC Comics history. The colorfully campy live-action television series Batman (1966–1968), starring Adam West and Burt Ward, premiered as a twice-weekly program on ABC and became a runaway hit. With its surfin' score, imaginative sets, frenetic pacing, and celebrity-cast villains, Batman commandeered the nation's attention. Hundreds of merchandized items, most authorized but some cheaply pirated, flooded toys stores, magazine racks, record bins, clothing outlets, and grocery marts.
Batman's popularity inspired a fad of serious and satirical superheroes during the mid- to late 1960s. DC's sales improved, especially on its Batman titles. Superman also basked in the glow of Batman's acclaim: Reruns of Superman's 1950s TV show were widely syndicated, a new Superman animated program premiered, and a stage musical about the Man of Steel hit Broadway. As with all trends, however, Batmania ran its course: The TV series was canceled in 1968 and DC's sales dropped precipitously. The company was being outdistanced in the marketplace by competitor Marvel Comics.
Not that the DC editors noticed.
We were top dog for so long, reflected longtime DC editor Murray Boltinoff,
we became impervious to any criticism or new ideas. We thought everything we did was right. Readers thought otherwise, preferring the quirky, problem-ridden Marvel superheroes like the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, and the Amazing Spider-Man.
New management certainly took note, though. Kinney National Services bought DC in 1967, beginning a transformation that would eventually evolve into the Time Warner media conglomerate. Corporate higher-ups initiated DC staff changes.
DC needed a kick in the rump. And they brought me on board to do it, revealed Carmine Infantino, former artist of The Flash, in the fanzine Back Issue #1 (2003). Infantino was hired first as art director, then promoted to editorial director and later publisher of the DC line. Stodgy literary editors were replaced by editors with artistic backgrounds, like Joe Orlando, Dick Giordano, and Joe Kubert:
I felt the company needed visual people, because comics is a visual medium, Infantino said. In the late 1960s through the mid-1970s, DC, under Infantino's direction, was reborn.
New superheroes that defied DC's traditional mold began to appear, among them, the maniacal Creeper and the argumentative Hawk and Dove, two concepts created by Steve Ditko (former artist of Marvel's The Amazing Spider-Man). Batman returned to his dark roots, largely thanks to writer Denny O'Neil and artist Neal Adams, and Superman became hipper, with his alter ego Clark Kent shifting careers from newspaper journalist to TV reporter.
Relevance—explorations of contemporary themes—became vogue in DC's series: Superheroes Green Lantern and Green Arrow hopped in a pickup truck to tackle racism and corporate fatcats as they
discovered America; Green Arrow's sidekick Speedy got hooked on heroin; and Wonder Woman lost her superpowers and became a fighting feminist (although in a few years she got her supergroove back and starred in a successful live-action TV series with actress Lynda Carter).
DC reinvented horror comics during Infantino's watch, from anthologies like The House of Mystery to the sympathetic monster Swamp Thing, and acquired classic pulp and fiction properties like Tarzan and the Shadow for brilliantly illustrated, critically acclaimed runs. DC also went on a superhero shopping spree, acquiring characters from defunct publishers, most notably the original Captain Marvel, who was reintroduced in Shazam! #1 (February 1973); ironically, DC had sued the character, who at one time outsold Superman, out of business in the early 1950s for being derivative of the Man of Steel. Exciting new artists like Bernie Wrightson and Michael Kaluta added fresh visual dimensions to the publisher's titles, and in 1975 the previously unthinkable happened: DC and Marvel joined forces to co-produce a tabloid-sized crossover, the best-selling Superman vs. the Amazing Spider-Man.
Infantino also helped recruit Jack Kirby—the artist fundamental to so many of Marvel Comics' successes—to DC beginning in 1970.
My job is to involve the reader, Kirby once asserted, and he did just that with his series of separate but interlocking titles The New Gods, The Forever People, and Mister Miracle, plus the DC mainstay Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen. Kirby's arrival was trumpeted by house ads announcing,
Kirby Is Coming! His DC efforts failed to generate substantial sales, however, and disappeared after a few years, with Kirby returning to Marvel.
A disagreement with upper management forced Infantino out of his job in 1976, and he was replaced as publisher by Jenette Kahn. Kahn had previously spearheaded three successful children's magazines and was hand-picked by Warner Publishing (then DC's parent company) to steer DC Comics into new territory. While Kahn dropped the company's longtime official name, National Periodical Publications, for its more common name, DC Comics, she got off to a rocky start: A rapid expansion of titles and material (the
DC Explosion) led to a 1977 crash (the
DC Implosion) that put numerous creative folk out of work.
DC got a shot in the arm in December 1978 when Superman: The Movie was released. Starring newcomer Christopher Reeve, Superman was a box-office smash, and its sophisticated (for the time) special effects helped shape the look of fantasy films that followed. But DC's sales, which had stagnated post-Implosion, experienced little improvement from Superman's star status, and the movie's 1980 sequel didn't help either.
So Kahn, not unlike Infantino before her, targeted quality and innovation as the means to distinguish DC in the marketplace. Giordano returned to DC in 1980, first as editor, and then became editorial director, and helped groom new talent and massage existing superstars. Abetted by executives Paul Levitz and Joe Orlando, Kahn and Giordano recruited cutting-edge British visionaries (like author Alan Moore and artists Brian Bolland and Dave Gibbons), implemented new formats (glossier paper and square-bound
Prestige Format editions), paid royalties to top-selling creators, and elevated the medium's standards with literate, well-illustrated titles like Camelot 3000 and The Saga of the Swamp Thing.
By the mid-1980s, this
new DC had revitalized what comics could be: Its landmark Crisis on Infinite Earths (1985–1986) streamlined its continuity while garnering strong sales, Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986) revolutionized the Batman legend, John Byrne's The Man of Steel (1986) reworked Superman for a contemporary audience, and Moore and Gibbons' Watchmen (1986–1987) depicted ethically ambiguous costumed characters and illustrated that superheroes weren't just for kids. Marvel Comics still, by and large, commanded a larger market share than DC, but DC established new standards for excellence. Innovative series like Neil Gaiman's The Sandman (1989–1996) helped DC explore more adult themes, and such series ultimately splintered from the company's mainstream fare into its own
mature readers imprint, Vertigo (which has forged ahead into the 2000s with critically lauded series like Preacher and Fables). DC seemed content with its reputation: Being number two isn't so bad when you are number one in excellence.
In 1989, DC's parent company shifted from Warner Publishing to Warner Bros., the film and television studio, and DC found itself directed to feed a media machine. Its superheroes have since been regularly translated to film and video. Examples include (but are not restricted to) the live-action movie Batman (1989) and its three sequels, TV's The Flash (1990–1991), the long-running Batman: The Animated Series (1992) and its continuations, the romantic action/comedy Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993–1997), the teen drama Smallville (2001–present), and the Cartoon Network's animated Justice League (2001–present) and Teen Titans (2003–present) programs. In 2004 a legion of DC superheroes is under development or consideration for TV shows and movies, including a relaunch of the Batman film franchise, with actor Christian Bale (American Psycho) tapped for the lead.
Perpetuating its long-standing publishing history, the DC Comics of the 1990s and 2000s has struggled to find its niche in the industry, and to profitably sell its wares in the marketplace. Numerous big
events, designed to make noise and attract consumers, have been introduced: the death of Superman (1992), the (back) breaking of Batman in the far-reaching
Knightfall storyline (1993), more character overhauls in Zero Hour (1994), and even more character overhauls in the
Our Worlds at War serial interwoven through numerous DC series in 2001. Yet while its heroes have been slaughtered, maligned, and mutated in recent years, DC has, as it has always done, taken chances along the way. It is the company that defined the comic book, the superhero, and the medium's potential, and will continue to be a trendsetter into the twenty-first century.