AN EPISODE OF THE "WAR OF THE SHELVES"
|In early 1967 the
almost unthinkable happened: Marvel overtook DC in sales
numbers and became the new number one of the industry -
only five years after DC themselves had snatched that
position from Dell (who had taken a terrible tumble due
to a misfired cover price policy). This was now indeed
the Marvel Age of Comics.
But while Stan Lee, in his April 1968 Stan's Soapbox, declared "the fatuous little feud we've been flaunting before the public" to be officially over and that "from this moment on, we'll no longer refer to our competition as Brand Echh", there was still plenty of room to consolidate and expand the number one position.
Ever since 1957, Marvel had been severely restricted in terms of the number of titles they could put out every month. Due to the bankruptcy of its new distributor, Atlas/Marvel had no choice but to switch to Independent News, who were owned by National Periodical - who also happened to own rival DC Comics. The resulting contract limited Marvel to a monthly publishing output of eight titles only (Cooke, 1998). But that was all to change. By the beginning of 1968, DC Comics and Independent News were purchased by Kinney National Company - and since Marvel's titles were selling better than DC's, any kind of distribution cap was lifted. The result was instantly visible as the title count went up from 14 for January 1968 cover month to 20 by July 1968.
Ownership changes took place at Marvel too. On July 1st 1968, the Wall Street Journal announced the purchase of Martin Goodman's Magazine Management Company (including Marvel Comics) by a business conglomerate called Perfect Film & Chemical Corporation, owned by Martin S. Ackerman (who was also president of Curtis Publishing). But only a year later, in mid-1969, Ackerman was ousted from Perfect Film's board of managers (accused of diverting $6 million in pension funds) and replaced by new CEO Sheldon Feinberg in mid-1969, with the company being renamed Cadence Industries in 1970. Goodman had never had a particular interest in what he published (Hilgart, 2014), but he was proud of being a publisher who sold well and was able to read trends. Feinberg, the former CFO of Revlon, was the first in a long series of top management at Marvel who had never read a comic book in his life, had no previous connection to publishing, and was in it for one reason only: to make more money.
There was just one problem: comic book sales were in a steady decline. As a consequence, the only way to make more money was to make sure you got a bigger slice of the shrinking market - and one way to achieve that was to put out more titles. And since the space at the sales point was not going to increase, you could at the same time push the competition (which from Marvel's perspective of superhero titles was primarily DC) off the shelves.
Marvel was the comic book industry's number one, but until mid-1972 DC still published more titles - that is until Marvel launched the "war of the shelves" through a proliferation of titles.
By the time DC realized what was happening, it was already too late, even though Carmine Infantino, DC's publisher since 1971, did try to stem the tide in 1973 by emulating Marvel and putting out a few new as well as some reprint titles in order to boost DC's output and keep from getting pushed off of those shelves. It was a valiant but ultimately ill conceived move which only had a minimal and, above all, short lived effect. By June 1974 Marvel's titles at the newsagents outnumbered those put out by DC by leaps and bounds.
|The new titles all broke new
ground for DC, but their success was underwhelming to say
the least. Shazam! kicked off in February 1973 and was, of course, DC
bringing Fawcett's Captain Marvel into the fold - but
since DC couldn't call him that any more (again, Marvel
had been swifter and more cunning) they came up with
Shazam. It was a title DC had a hard time letting go, but
poor sales sank it after 35 issues in May 1978. Prez,
featuring a teenage President of the US, was launched in
August 1973 and turned out to be a total failure which
only lasted for a mere four issues. Plop!
(another title with an exclamation mark), "the new
magazine of weird humor", fared somewhat better and
at least racked up a total of 24 issues between September
1973 and November 1976.
If the new titles weren't going to stop Marvel storming away in the title number race, maybe reprint titles would. Infantino had of course noticed that the House of Ideas was not only launching new titles but also busy recycling their 1960s superhero material along with 1950s horror and sci-fi stories from the Atlas period. However, there was a fundamental problem there: Marvel was really good at reprints and had material (at least as far as superheroes were concerned) which was "classic" but less than ten years old - and which was actually in demand. In comparison, DC had put out only a handful of reprint issues since the early 1960s, and most of their Golden and Silver Age material just wasn't hitting home with current readers any more - after all there was a reason why Dennis O'Neil and Neal Adams had to reinvent Batman in 1969 to save him from cancellation.
But Carmine Infantino tried hard to turn things around (as he had indeed done in the late 1960s), and with the blessings of the top brass at DC (Sacks, 2014) he put out a number of reprint titles in 1973 to stem Marvel's tide. Needless to say the waves just kept coming.
Compared to Marvel's 1973 superhero reprint titles, which had titles such as Marvel Super-Heroes (reprinting Hulk stories from 1966), Marvel's Greatest Comics (reprinting Fantastic Four material from 1966) or Marvel Triple Action (repackaging Avengers stories from 1965) and all of which featured the new type of superhero which had put Marvel at the top in the first place, DC was trying to reheat twenty to thirty years old material which compared even less favourably to Marvel now than it had before.
The title was discontinued after only nine issues.
|Considering these historical facts, a reprint title such as Legion of Super-Heroes with material from the mid-1960s was really not the best idea. The majority of comic book readers must have felt the same way, given the extraordinary short life-span of this title.|
|Secret Origins #2
featured the origin stories of Supergirl (from Action
Comics #252, May 1959), Green Lantern (from Showcase
#22, September 1959), and the Atom (from Showcase
#34 (September 1961). E. Nelson Bridwell again provided
some background (on the origins of Green Lantern and the
Atom), but this was now down to one third of a page.
Secret Origins #3 was down to two reprinted origin stories, those of Wonder Woman (from Wonder Woman #1, Summer 1942) and Wildcat (from Sensation Comics #1, January 1942). The title was still on a bi-monthly schedule but appeared in the July/August 1973 publication slot. This was because DC discovered another point that put them at a disadvantage with Marvel - cover dates.
Continuing deep into Golden Age territory, Secret Origins #4 featured Western hero The Vigilante (from Action Comics #42, November 1941) and Kid Eternity (Hit Comics #25 , December 1942 and published at the time by Quality Comics).
|Secret Origins #5 only featured one single character, but although this was another dip into Golden Age material (from More Fun Comics #52 and #53, February and March 1940), the Spectre must have been a lot more familiar to the average reader than the previous issue's protagonists.|
|However, regular comic book
readers knew that a lengthy hiatus between two issues
hardly ever pointed to something good, and certainly not
with a bi-monthly title. The plug was obviously pulled
after all the copy for Secret Origins #7 was
already done and ready for the printers, and nobody was
going to put in an extra effort to announce the
cancellation. Interestingly enough, there are - although
admittedly with the benefit of hindsight - a few
indications which underscore the problems DC was facing
with titles such as Secret Origins. Two in-house
ads show that DC had, by now, decided to go with
characters and titles that had a long standing and were
well know (Superman leading the way, but also
including Kirby's Kamandi and, interestingly,
the reprint Black Magic, as well as popular
culture icons such as The Shadow) - and that, as
far as the war of the shelves was concerned, DC decided
to fight back with bigger titles instead of more titles.
|DC simply had a fundamental
problem with its reprints, mirrored by a letter published
in Secret Origins #7, where a reader wrote about
the "crude writing and artwork"
(concerning the Spectre story from 1940). The material
was, quite simply, too old and couldn't even compare
favourably with Marvel's reprints of the Lee/Kirby/Ditko
monster stories from the 1950s.
In DC's defence, it has to be said that - according to the Statement of Ownership, Management, and Circulation (which had to be printed once every twelve months in order to qualify for Second Class shipping for printed matters) - Superman was still the best selling title across the board in 1973, with an average of 309,300 sold copies per issue. The bad news was that Amazing Spider-Man had continuously been closing the gap, selling an average 273,400 copies per issue in 1973 (while Batman stood at 200,500). Only one year later, in 1974, Amazing Spider-Man would edge past Superman (288,200 versus 285,600), and whilst the Man of Steal managed to claw back once more in 1975, Amazing Spider-Man would just keep pulling away as of 1976 - all to the tune of dropping sales figures across the board. These numbers are just another indication that Marvel's "new" kind of superhero was clearly ahead of DC's more "traditional" fare in terms of popularity and therefore sales. Marvel was winning the contest for very specific reasons, and a reprint title such as Secret Origins not only failed to address those, it almost amounted to putting DC's shortcomings on display for all to see (possibly even more so than Legion of Super-Heroes).
But maybe DC was just throwing titles out there - not unlike Marvel - with a "what the heck" attitude. If it sank, it at least got a certain presence on the newsagent shelves for a while. For Secret Origins, that presence ended, after only seven issues, in November 1974.
|Throwing out two reprint titles at the same time was clearly a grab for shelf space, but it was also a legitimately valid business idea. Unlike with superheroes, material from the 1950s and 1960s was still valid fare for fans of war comics. However, even so, G.I. War Tales got decommissioned after only four issues.|
|Western comics became popular in
the years immediately following World War II when
superheroes went out of style, and all of the big comic
book publishers started putting out Western titles around
the time DC launched Johnny Thunder. Their popularity
peak around 1960 (not the least because Westerns were all
over American TV) before the genre in general started to
lose its appeal. As far as comic books were concerned,
the interest swung back to superheroes, although a
handful of titles remained, answering to a (fairly solid)
DC had tried to latch onto the darker reflection of the Wild West shown by Western movies of the 1960s by setting up a "weird western" sub-genre in 1968, ultimately leading to Weird Western Tales in 1972 and its newly created Western anti-hero Jonah Hex. The formula worked, and editor Joe Orlando even derided Marvel's more traditional Western fare ("Kid titled Western heroes") on the letters page of Weird Western Tales #15 (December 1972):
|From a more general perspective, Johnny Thunder #3 shines an odd light on DC Comics. While one might applaud the editors for not trying to simply copy Marvel's flamboyant style and Stan Lee's hyperbole, the tone displayed here is right at the opposite end of the scale, as editor Bridwell comments on the cancellation of Johnny Thunder with "at least Shazam! is doing well" and an in-house ad for the new and upcoming Prez title simply states "coming". It all felt very underwhelming, rather resigned, and even self-deprecating - almost as though DC knew it was losing ground to Marvel but still, and for the life of them, just couldn't figure out and understand why.|
|The indicia was even more optimistic than Bridwell entertaining the possibility of the title selling "very well", indicating a bi-monthly publication schedule. But the reality was that Trigger Twins didn't survive the first standoff.|
|But the rather unfortunate
Bridwell - who again put together some background notes
for Boy Commandos #1 - was faced with the
familiar problem these reprint titles all shared (yes, it
was Kirby, but it was mid-1940s material and it felt old,
even by reprint standards). Plus he had a new problem,
too - the label "Kirby" wasn't really selling
all that well at DC. Most of his Fourth World titles had
been cancelled the year before, and in August 1973 Kirby
would be notified that Mister Miracle would be
dropped as well.
Kid gangs were no longer popular in 1973, and Boy Commandos folded after only two bi-monthly issues, only just making it past Trigger Twins.
|However, some of the artwork had been reworked for the reprints, and since the original Prize issues were pre-code, a few actual alterations had to be made in 1973 in order to conform to the Comics Code (Mendryk, 2009).|
|To say that DC Comics lost the "war of the shelves" would be an understatement; by the end of 1974, Marvel titles on the newsstands outnumbered DC's two to one.|
|It seemed like this was the only
way DC could sell any reprints at all: if readers wanted
to keep following their favourite hero's current
adventures they would have to put up with getting any and
all kinds of reprint material stuck into that same comic
book. And naturally, they would have to pay extra for
that. Not surprisingly, the move wasn't really the silver
bullet DC may have hoped for.
DC was trying different publishing concepts for their reprint material, but unlike Marvel, they didn't really have an idea of how to sell it - something which the House of Ideas had been doing systematically (and very successfully) since the early 1960s. But then, as pointed out again and again here, the fundamental problem was that DC's archival material simply wasn't in demand - it was the old stuff that had been pushed aside by Marvel's new approach to comic books since 1961. Even Carmine Infantino himself knew that all too well, reflecting on his promotions to Editorial Director in 1967 and then DC's Publisher in 1971:
Of course that was exactly the type of material (or even older) that DC was trying to sell as reprints in 1973. But unlike today, there was no sizeable customer base made up of adults who either felt nostalgic or were interested in comic book history. Kids and teenagers wanted new, exciting stuff.
|Infantino definitely tried, but it
simply wasn't the best of times for DC - and most
certainly not for any reprints of it's "line of
COOKE Jon B. (1998) "Stan the Man & Roy the Boy: A Conversation Between Stan Lee and Roy Thomas", in Comic Book Artist #2
COOKE Jon B. (2001) "Son of Stan: Roy's Years of Horror", in Comic Book Artist #13
DANIELS Les (1991) Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics, Harry N. Abrams
FOX Magalit (2013) "Carmine Infantino, Reviver of Batman and Flash, Dies at 87", New York Times Obituary, 5 April 2013
HILGART John (2014) "Review of: The Secret History of Marvel Comics", The Comics Journal
HOWE Sean (2012) Marvel Comics - The Untold Story, Harper Collins
INFANTINO Carmine, with J. David Spurlock (2001) The Amazing World of Carmine Infantino. An Autobiography, Vanguard
LEVITZ Paul (2010) 75 Years of DC Comics - The Art of Modern Mythmaking, Taschen
MENDRYK Harry (2009) "Black Magic at DC", published online at kirbymuseum.org, 18 January 2009
SACKS Jason (2014) American Comic Book Chronicles - The 1970s (1970-1979), TwoMorrows Publishing
|FURTHER READING ON THE THOUGHT BALLOON|