BACK TO THE FUTURE IN 32 YEARS:
FROM BATMAN #315 TO BATMAN #1

 

There is nothing quite like popular culture to make you realise just how much the paradigms and tastes of any given period change as time flies by. Comic books, of course, are no exception.
But apart from illustrating how much the medium and its content have changed, looking back over the years, above all, also provides substantial insight into how much the industry and its market have changed.

 

 
Welcome back to a little bit of digging and excavating amidst the artefacts of the world of comic books. This time around we turn to Gotham City in what might seem like a time paradox as we take a closer look at Batman #1 from 2011 and Batman #315 from 1979. The simple explanation for this peculiar number count of Batman lies with DC's (re)launch of their "New 52" in September 2011 and the subsequent re-numbering of all of the monthly comic book titles.



In-house ad for DC's "New 52" relaunch

 
Hence the premier issue of Batman, which strictly speaking is thus #1 of volume 2, and which provided readers under the age of around 80 (i.e. all those who weren't around in 1940 to pick up the first Batman #1) with an opportunity to buy and read a first issue of Batman - the first renumbering DC afforded the title after a run which had lasted 715 issues.
 



DC Website announcement for Batman #1

  Apart from that - and in spite of some high-profile hype from DC - changes to the form and content of the immediately preceding last issues of volume 1 were few and far between (e.g. no origin story whatsoever), other than the fact that Bruce Wayne was back as Batman after a Grant Morrison odyssey (i.e. "story arc") featuring Dick Grayson as ersatz Batman whilst Bruce Wayne was somehow "cast back in time" by Darkseid.

Whatever - readers trying to spot any differences would thus be required to look further back in (real) time - for example by taking a look at Batman #315, the cover date of which (September 1979) separated it exactly 33 years from Batman #1 which was launched on 21 September 2011 (featuring the usual gap with regards to the cover date, which in this case was for November 2011).

 
Naturally, this discrepancy between the actual date of publication and the date given on the cover (which in modern comic book times is around 2 months) also held true for Batman #315. However, for those comic books from DC and Marvel which were sold in the United Kingdom during the 1970s, that difference (which generally speaking used to be 3 months during that decade) virtually collapsed due to shipping times.
 
Seeking out the US comic books imported for the British market at WH Smith in Sutton in late September 1979, I found that the overall selection of titles from Marvel had shrunk considerably in comparison to only two years earlier. At the same time, however, I also spotted a few DC titles imported for UK retail for the first time at Smith's. The selection was small and seemed somewhat odd, but I was more than happy to come away with Batman #315 (cover date September 1979) alongside Unknown Soldier #232 (October 1979) and House of Mystery #272 (September 1979).

Unlike Marvel, which had been shipping its comics to the UK with specially printed covers almost continuously since the early 1960s, DC had not taken up this dedicated distribution channel prior to the early 1970s as US print run copies simply received a UK currency price stamp on their cover.

 



WH Smith, Sutton High Street (September 2007)

 
The first known examples of printed UK prices on the covers of DC titles seem to come from 1971, but in any case supplies were intermittent and unreliable throughout the decade. In early 1979, however, DC seems to have made a conscious effort for a while to supply the British market with dedicated cover printings - although "dedicated" might be too big a word.
 



Batman #315
(September 1979)
UK 15p price variant

  Unlike UK covers from Marvel (where the masthead band MARVEL COMICS GROUP was changed to MARVEL ALL-COLOUR COMICS), UK covers for DC titles only differed with regard to the price. As a result, the difference in appearance between the copy of Batman #315 I picked up at WH Smith's and its US counterpart was minimal and limited to the price indication.

UK cover price indication 15p and
US cover price indication 40c

The difference between US and UK priced DC covers was thus also markedly smaller than between the regular issue and the "Whitman variant" of Batman #315, which features the prominent upper left corner logo design used by Gold Key (Western Publishing) for their newsstand distribution.

 



Batman #315
(September 1979)
US market 40c cover

 



Batman #1
(November 2011)
US $2.99 price only

  Batman #1, in contrast, only carries a US market price (which had risen from 40c to $ 2.99 in 32 years). Perhaps most strikingly, the bat silhouette (which goes back virtually to the first Batman #1 from 1940) underlying the branding BATMAN remains virtually unchanged - a clear indication of the iconicity of the character.

Turning back to 1979, the facts of comic book distribution were such that there was no guarantee for consecutive issues of a given title to actually show up and be on sale where you had bought your previous copy.

The ensuing gaps in continuity were, however, softened to quite some extent by the fact that this was the Bronze Age, and you thus stood a fair chance of not missing anything in the way of storyline because these were still very much running on the "one and done" formula, i.e. where a story would begin and end in the same comic book.

 



Batman #315
(September 1979) Whitman variant

 
This is also the case for Batman #315 - "Danger on the Wing" was written by Len Wein, pencilled by Irv Novick, inked by Frank McLaughlin, coloured by Glynis Wein, lettered by Ben Oda and edited by Paul Levitz, and it kicked off and ended all in this one issue.

Batman #315 also displays a perfect example of what used to be the classic comic book splashpage. Used extensively up until the end of the 1960s, DC (unlike Marvel) still kept this "introductory page" (which often performed a similar function as a movie poster and thus almsot served as "second cover") in some of its titles throughout the 1970s.

 


Splashpage Batman #315 (September 1979)

  This type of splashpage helps to set the mood and links the story about to be told to the origin of the Batman - the darkness of Gotham triggered the existence of Batman, and now he stalks the city by moonlight so that Gotham may never forget what its violence has spawned...

Clearly, this is still the "1970s dark knight" period of Batman, although the villain in this issue (Kite-Man) will hardly send any shivers down the reader's back - which is in stark contrast to the gang of villains out to give Batman a rough time in Batman #1.

Not so much an indication of a "dark" Batman but rather of the fact that this is now generally a "T" rated comic book.

 



Splash page double-spread Batman #1 (November 2011)

 
The splashpage from Batman #1 performs an entirely different function, made clear also by the simple fact that this double spread covers pages 2 and 3 and not the first page. And finally, this will be anything but over by the end of this issue, as this monthly will simply be the first 32 pages of a trade paperback collecting the first story arc - and it is this form of publication which ultimately dictates the length and pacing of the storyline.

In 1979, writing letters to the editor of a comic book was pretty much the only way available to readers who wished to make their opinions heard, and Batman has a long tradition of aptly named letters pages.

 
 
In September 1979, you wrote in to Bat Signals, but whilst the letters page had been revived by DC throughout most of the monthly titles in late 2010, Batman along with all other titles of the "New 52" lost this feature again for good upon relaunch.
 



Editorial page from Batman #315
(September 1979)

  No readers voices therefore in Batman #1, unlike in Batman #315, but at least editorial had a voice in both 1979 and 2011.

In 1979, the "Daily Planet" editorial page offered extended teasers for Super Friends #24 and House Of Mystery #272, the "Answer Man" column (which this time around looked into questions such as what kind of gimmicks were stowed away in Batman's utility belt or if Wonder Woman and Green Lantern had ever fought against each other), a Hembeck cartoon (spoofing the Spectre and the original Flash), and the "Direct Currents" overview and checklist of DC titles on sale the week of June 18th 1979.

This density of information (and entertainment) is only just met in Batman #1, even though editorial content is spread out over three pages - it would almost seem that the general tendency towards decompression on the levels of plot and storytelling have also affected editorial.

 



Editorial page "All Access" from Batman #1 (2011)

 
All three editorial pages in Batman #1 are concerned with DC's "New 52" titles and could thus also be seen as being little more than text-heavy in-house advertisements.

In "DC Comics All Access" readers are basically offered five sketches of Wonder Woman for the "New 52" plus a few lines by Art & Design Director Mark Chiarello which basically plug a few artists working for some of the "New 52" titles.

The level of information rises slightly on two pages of creator interviews, each concerned with the author and artist of one specific title (in this case Red Hood and the Outlaws and Blue Beetle). The teams answer to the same set of questions, but again - what could potentially be an interesting comparison leans rather heavily towards an all-out plug for the "New 52". Overall, readers got more information on one page in 1979 than they did on three in 2011.

Readers also got more advertisments in their comic books back in 1979, although this would of course hardly rate as a positive with many. In 2011, ads are all full or even double page, which was already becoming a predominannt format in 1979, although half-page ads could also be found whilst the classic "flea market" ads page from the 1970s was down to one single page in Batman #315.

 



Editorial page "The New 52" (one of two pictured here) from Batman #1 (2011)

 



Ad page from Batman #315 (September 1979)

  That specific page still featured ads for means of building up muscle and acquiring some sort of high school diploma, but already ads from comic book stores selling current and back issues were appearing. In 2011, one such company grabbed an entire page to advertise their services.

Possibly one of the most striking differences between these two comic books lies - not surprisingly - in the artwork. However, these differences illustrate the changes in technique more than any changes in artistic style. Whilst these have also occured, the computer based production methods really make themselves felt when looking, for instance, at the colouring.

This is, of course, further enhanced and accentuated by the use of higher grade paper by comic book publishers since the mid-1990s, which has greatly improved the artwork and colour rendition.

 



Ad page from Batman #1 (November 2011)

 


Pencils by Irv Novick, Inks by Frank McLaughlin, Colours by Glynis Wein - Batman #315 (September 1979)

 
Whilst the printing in Batman #315 cannot be said to be bad, there is still a certain amount of blurred inking rendition and colour bleeding.
 


Pencils by Greg Capullo, Inks by Jonathan Glapion, Colours by FCO Plascencia- Batman #1 (November 2011)

  The current use of high quality glossy paper, on the other hand, which has been chemically de-pulped and coated with an alkaline buffer, produces superb quality renditions of artwork and colours, and thus does the efforts of the creative teams justice and provides a faithful rendition of their work, whilst the printing from 1979 does have its limits in that respect.

Obviously, such improvements will be reflected in the price of a product, and the rise from 40c (or 15p) needed to purchase Batman #315 in 1979 to the $2.99 it cost anyone wishing to read Batman #1 in 2011 is a sharp one. This is accentuated further when taking into consideration that the purchasing power of 40c for commodities in 1979 equals $1.20 in 2010 when using the consumer price index; in terms of "affordability", spending 40c on a comic in 1979 equals spending an amount of $1.65 in 2010 (measureworth.com).

What these figures indicate is that today's improved paper and printing quality comic books are roughly twice as expensive as they used to be in 1979. But regardless of the differences in their respective production qualities and selling price, Batman #315 and Batman #1 share the similarity of both having been published during a period of relative gloom for the comic book industry.

 
In 1979, the market for comic books shrunk to an all-time low (Daniels, 1991), and DC still felt the shock of the abrupt cancellation of around 30 titles (the so-called "DC Implosion") in September 1978. 2011, on the other hand, had started out as an especially lean year in terms of sales, following a string of years which themselves had seen a constant decrease sales figures. In February 2011 (according to figures released by Diamond Distribution) Green Lantern #62 was the best selling monthly comic book in North America with a mere 71,517 copies, making it the lowest selling number one in years. It took an exceptional corporate mega-event such as DC's "New 52", in which Batman #1 plays an important part; only by including this established title along with the likes of Detective Comics, Action Comics and Superman in the general number reset to 1 could DC claim an all-across-the-board event which would attract the widespread attention it finally did. Accordingly, sales figures virtually exploded in comparison to the year's previous statistics, and Batman #1 became the best-selling comic book of September 2011 with an impressive total of 188,420 copies - also giving DC its first market share victory over Marvel in years.

Even though the "New 52" have helped boost the sales of comic books in general, this is of course nowhere close to where sale figures once were. According to the circulation figures reported to the US Post Office, Batman comic books sold an average 502,000 copies per month in 1960, and sales figures even rose to 898,470 copies per month in 1966 as a result of the popular tv show. The big slump came in the 1970s, when sales dropped to 293,897 in 1970 and decreased further throughout the decade. Whilst the sales figures of 1979 (166,640 copies on average per month) are not too far away from the 188,420 copies sold of Batman #1, their background could not differ more - the sales figures of 1979 were at the end of a constant decline, whilst the sales figures of Batman #1 and other "New 52" titles were a rocket blast out of a market misery.

The constant decline in sales and profits throughout the 1970s finally led to the creation of the "direct market", which is generally credited with having saved the comic book industry from almost certain death (Groth, 2006). It created the specialist comic book shop as the main point of sale ("direct distribution"), thus streamlining the distribution system and doing away with the returns system whereby newsagents could return any unsold copies and get refunded, i.e. a business model which did nothing to encourage actual sales (Groth, 2006). The direct market changed the entire system of comic books, and whilst it helped to prevent worse, it also meant by definition that comic books would be mostly "hidden" from the general buying public.

 
Therefore, whilst I was able to buy Batman #315 at a WH Smith store in 1979, they did not carry Batman #1 in 2011, in spite of the fairly wide public coverage DC's "New 52" received.

However, this did not mean that anyone eager to pick up a comic book featuring Batman would need to leave WH Smith empty handed. Rather surprisingly, there even was a wider and far more varied choice in comparison to 1979 (when you could get issue #315 only), with the UK reprint Batman Legends #49 on sale as well as a wide choice of trade paperbacks (TPB) featuring the Darknight Detective, such as Batman: The Black Casebook (2008) or Batman: The Strange Deaths of Batman (2008), along with the omnipresent Killing Joke (various editions since 1988).

Oddly enough, in terms of Batman, the direct market has had no influence on the availability of material at WH Smith's other than the actual US monthly comic book. No doubt this says a lot about the iconic status and household name of Batman. And whilst there could have been no certainty for the teenage reader who picked up Batman #315 in September 1979 that there would also be a new issue of Batman on offer in September 2011, somehow it always seemed clear beyond a doubt that Batman would be around for, well, for ever.

 



UK Batman Legends #49 (September 2011)

 
The last question to be raised here therefore is - what will Batman look like after another 32 years? Assuming that DC will pick up the original numbering again (which stopped at #715 in August 2011) somewhere down the road, that would be around issue #1100.

And oh, one last thing - if you thought the "bat glider" used by Batman in issue #315 to bring down Kite-Man was typical 1970s comic book old-tech... well, think again. And take a look at this scene from Batman #3 (cover date January 2012, out in November 2011). There you go - now that you've read this write-up, you can really put that scene into perspective.

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

DANIELS Les (1991) Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics, Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

GROTH Gary (ed.,) (2006) The Comics Journal #277 (July 2006), Fantagraphics

 

 

first published on panelology.info 29 November 2011
moved to wymann.info/comics 23 February 2014

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