Comic Book Implosion by Keith Dallas and John Wells (book review).

As Keith Dallas and John Wells explain in their introduction to their book, ‘Comic Book Implosion’, there hasn’t been a book documenting the events in 1978 when DC Comics’ comicbook explosion imploded instead. There’s also been a lot of speculation but no one has really put together all the facts as they draw together interviews from the various people who saw over the events at the time.

As their prologue explores, the retail price of comicbooks in the USA was always difficult. Early comicbooks were 64 pages up to the 1940s and at 10cents a time. Over the decades, the page count went down and even when Dell raised their price to 15cents in 1960, none of the other companies followed, fearing kids wouldn’t be able to afford them. Inevitably over the years, all this changed although the comicbooks were not profitable to their newsagents, getting only 3cents for each issue sold.

When you consider magazines and newspapers did not have endless space, a comicbook company needed space on the racks. With no comicbook shops, getting your share of the marketplace was tough. In the 1970s, DC Comics was suffering as Marvel Comics sold more and they opted try dollar comics with more pages with a higher price when there was a paper shortage. Then the sales figures of the previous year hit their parent company, Warner Communication,s and DC Comics were ordered to cut back at short notice, resulting in laying off freelancers and some editors.

The examination of the bottom dollar at Warner’s had started back earlier with the dropping sales of DC Comics generally resulted in editor-in-chief Carmen Infantino being fired in 1976 after returning from a successful tour of promoting the Superman/Spider-Man team-up. When Jenette Khan came on board as the new boss, she shook things up with her own preferences and dealing with the people below her, especially Sol Harrison who expected to be promoted into her position and ending up with a better title.

There is an interesting comparison that as DC Comics cut back on their titles and brought in new ones as Marvel Comics also cut just as many. That’s always been the nature of the comicbook industry if the sales weren’t there. However, I don’t think DC helped themselves very much by their promoted Explosion.

Kahn is also shown to understand DC Comics place in the teenage reading audience before they moved to the more adult Marvel Comics and the desire to change that. With Marvel’s own problematic finances helped by a certain ‘Star Wars’ mini-series, DC had the promotion of Wonder Woman and Isis into TV and Superman in the 1978 film to help their sales. It’s no wonder people in the industry saw comicbooks being on their last legs. Kahn also took on her own bosses who thought they could wing it with reprints but pointing out that this would damage the more lucrative merchandise sales.

Kahn also didn’t forget that having content creative people stopped them straying back or over to Marvel. However, as Tony Isabella’s control of his creation ‘Black Lightning’ showed, his contractual choices were just disregarded with no input by the people above him. I did wonder why he didn’t just walk but exclusive contracts wouldn’t allow that. Seeing how the other people were dumped on here as well, it’s hardly surprising that they went to Marvel.

What really hit all comicbook companies was the three weeks blizzard that hit the USA in 1978, where even the printers couldn’t print and most readers couldn’t get out to buy comics. As the various comments reveal here, DC Comics was only a small part of Warner Communications and not making much money and with the new ‘Superman’ film going to be late, the executives from on high welded the axe ordering major cutbacks while Jeanette Khan was away.

The authors are very fair here showing that Marvel Comics cut back on poor selling titles as well in nearly equal number but the reason the DC Implosion stuck in people’s heads was because they saw their big ideas dashed after a few months so it’s hardly surprising that the name stuck. Its interesting reading later comments from some DC Comics employees, including Paul Levitz, that many of their titles were seen as yawn-inducing. Back then, this was my second return to reading American comicbooks and although I was no longer a one company reader and read from both of the Big Two, many of the DC Comics was just to keep some interest.

For those interested in what was in the 40, not 35, copies of the ‘Cancelled Comic Cavalcade’ contained and printed for copyright reasons, there is an index here although I wish the actual paper count was shown because it looks like the size of a book.

There’s also a list of what DC did with all the stories that lost their titles and much of it was actually printed in the end, although some did lose the odd page or three.

Without getting the deal some needed, some people like Neal Adams, Steve Englehart and Mike Grell took their new creations elsewhere to other companies to produce.

Of course, if you lived through this at the time, you’ll be aware that Marv Wolfman and George Perez’ update on the ‘New Teen Titans’, not expected to last more than 6 issues became a runaway success. From my perspective, I thought the Titans was the most Marvel-like book since the Legion Of Super-Heroes and probably instigated the most changes to get DC Comics out of its slump on the fan market.

I wish the authors had more to say on the comments made. Nevertheless, if you hadn’t been reading the comicbooks of the time, let alone being alive back then, you’re going to find a lot of this fresh and insightful. Even without the blizzard, the lack of newsstand sales and not recognising the direct sales to the upcoming comicshops with a better product was already hitting them. If the ‘Superman’ film hadn’t been so successful, you do have to wonder if there would have been a DC Comics as we know it today.

GF Willmetts

August 2018

(pub: TwoMorrows Publishing. 135 page illustrated softcover. Price: $21.95 (US). ISBN: 978-1-60549-085-4. Direct from them, you can get it for $18.66 (US))

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