The PopCult Bookshelf
Forty years ago this summer one of the most traumatic events in the lives of young comic book readers occurred. DC Comics, just a couple of months after launching a bold initiative that saw their books expanded to include more story pages at a higher price was ordered by the corporate execs at Warner Communications to slash their publishing output by 40%, cut their regular books back to the standard 32-page size and lay off several members of their editorial staff.
This was a major punch in the gut of every DC Comics fan, who thought that DC had finally found a way to counter the plunging newsstand sales that had plagued the entire comic book industry for the previous ten years. Retailers were put off by the low profit and hassle of selling comics, which still sold for very low prices, as opposed to magazines like Time and Newsweek, which cost a dollar or more, and therefore meant that the retailers made much more money per book.
For years, comic book publishers had held the line at keeping the cover price of their books low, at first by cutting the overall page count from 64 pages to 32, then by raising the cover price in tiny increments–from ten cents to twelve cents to fifteen, and then in the 1970s, the industry as a whole quickly had to raise the price of a basic 32 page comic to twenty, twenty-five, thirty, and by 1977, thirty-five cents, and this was as the pages of actual story dropped to 17, barely half the book was comics, with ads and text pages taking up the rest.
In 1978, DC, under the leadership of their still-new publisher, Jeanette Kahn, came up with the idea of leapfrogging the next inevitable price increase by adding pages. DC’s books would contain 25 pages of new comics in each issue, plus they’d have eight more pages to sell as advertising, and the price would jump from thirty-five to fifty cents, which would make the books more attractive to retailers.
Billed as “The DC Explosion,” this was one of the most exciting things to happen to mainstream comics in years. Every regular DC comic would add eight pages of extra comics, with some getting exciting new back-up strips, and others expanding their lead story to take up the full page count. It was a great time to read comics. DC had hired new editors like Larry Hama and Al Milgrom, and they brought great new talents with them.
Then, before the first books had even hit the stands, the axe fell. Panicked by horrible winter sales (which had been the result of a massive East Coast blizzard), Warners ordered massive cutbacks in DC’s publishing output. Before it had a chance to prove itself, DC had to cancel almost twenty titles. All of their bi-monthly books were either promoted to monthly status or shut down. All of their experimental Dollar Comics line were made bi-monthly and ad-free, with the page-count reduced.
Freelancers lost their assignments as DC had to move their contracted writers and artists to new books as theirs were cancelled. Hama and Milgrom were both let go (and went on to have distinguished careers at Marvel Comics in the 1980s). Overnight the “DC Explosion” had become “The DC Implosion,” and the comics industry was never quite the same again. Many believe that this was the tipping point that made both DC and Marvel commit to expanding the direct market, since newsstand sales had become so unpredictable.
In Comic Book Implosion, Dallas and Wells have assembled an oral history using new interviews, combined with contemporaneous news reports and interviews from the comics fan press (which was quite vital at the time), and sales reports and house ads from the comics involved. They have done a tremendous job creating a definitive record of what was a major turning point in the history of the American comic book.
What makes this book so important is that the “DC Implosion” is not just a major point in comic book history, but the reporting on it was a major event in sloppy online journalism.
About ten years ago one of the many comic book news sites ran a very long article to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of The DC Implosion, and it was a remarkable piece in that it was so filled with errors, misiniformation and even a basic misunderstanding of when the event happened, that it took years to correct all the errors in fact that had arisen from it. Folks who were ignorant of the true history cited this online article and spread a wealth of wrong info around the web in record time. The piece in question turned out to have been written by someone who hadn’t even been born when all this took place…and it showed.
That’s a major reason that this book is so important. Another is that it reveals hard facts about a time when the comics industry was in great peril. In the 1970s we lost several major comic book publishers as Dell and Gilberton shut down completely, Charlton, Harvey and Gold Key went through periods of using all reprints, and eventually all shut down, Atlas Comics came and went in the space of a year and DC and Marvel watched sales plummet to the point where both companies undertook massive reductions in the amount of titles they published in 1978. Marvel actually cancelled more books that DC did, but they didn’t do it all at once, so it wasn’t as noticeable.
Eventually this is what led to the creation of the direct-sales comic book market and the rise (with subsequent falls and rises) of the Comic Book Store. Had DC and Marvel not made the leap to the direct market, it’s entirely possible that both companies would have been reduced to printing nothing but reprints and collections, and the comic book as we know it may well have been a thing of the past.
Comic Book Implosion is highly-recommended for anyone interested in comic book history. It’s a great read, filled with tons of information and detail and even has side-chapters on DC’s infamous “Cancelled Comics Cavalcade,” a couple of limited-run xeroxed collections of stories that DC had commissioned during the 1970s which had never been published (they also have a handy guide to the stories from these collections that did eventually see print). Dallas and Wells do a tremendous job of establishing the context and consequences of this fateful and drastic business move. It’s also lavishly-illustrated with photos of the key players and plenty of examples of the comics in question, including eight pages in full color.