DC Comics Inc.
DC Comics Inc.
Wholly Owned Subsidiary of Time Warner Inc.
Founded: 1935 as National Allied Publications
Sales: $75 million (1997 est.)
SICs: 2721 Periodicals Publishing & Printing, 6794 Patent Owners & Lessors
DC Comics Inc. is the world’s largest comic book company and is perhaps best known for publishing the adventures of Superman and Batman. The history of DC is in many ways the history of American comic book publishing; its dominance during the 1990s is a testament to the enduring appeal of comic book superheroes, whose marketability in a variety of formats—including the big screen, television, video games, and CD-ROM—appeared to be boundless.
In 1934, Eastern Color Printing (ECP) began publishing news-strip comics reproductions in Famous Funnies. Imitators soon included King Comics and Popular Comics. In 1935, Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson published New Fun: The Big Comic Magazine #1, the first all-original comic book. Wheeler-Nicholson founded National Allied Publications (NAP), attracting such talent as Vin Sullivan and Whitney Ellsworth. By 1938, Wheeler-Nicholson sold to Liebowitz/Donenfeld; Ellsworth left; and only Sullivan remained at NAP.
Superman Appears, 1938
Donenfeld traveled, building distribution. Liebowitz released 200,000 copies of Action Comics #1/1938, in which Sullivan published the first appearance of Siegel and Shuster’s Superman and Fred Guardineer’s Zatara. Created by two “kids” from Cleveland, Superman solidified the industry. The comic, selling for a dime then, was worth six figures in the 1990s.
Initially created in 1932 for Science Fiction, a fanzine the two published, Superman coincided with Hitler’s rise to power and vow to create a race of Nietzschean “supermen.” The first Superman was a bald villain! The second was sans cape but a crime-fighter. The “real” Superman came in 1934, with alter-ego Clark Kent named for Clark Gable. Superman reappeared on the cover of 500,000 copies of Action Comics #7, and was selling a million copies by 1939. Siegel and Shuster opened a studio, and Superman got his own title, becoming a McClure-syndicated news-strip in 1939, appearing in 300 daily newspapers worldwide by 1941, and then appearing regularly until 1966.
Batman Debuts, 1939
In May 1939, Bob Kane’s Batman—created from such images as da Vinci’s flying machine, The Bat Whispers (1930), The Mark of Zorro (1921), and Dracula (1931)—debuted in “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” (Detective Comics #27). Sullivan promptly bought the character, though left later that year to start his own company.
Everyone Else, 1939
Liebowitz rehired Ellsworth and also hired Weisinger and Jack Schiff from the pulps. But the comics flood was only beginning. NAP accountant Victor Fox quit, opened offices, and hired Will Eisner for Wonder Man (Wonder Comics, 1939). NAP sued and the title was canceled after one issue. Fox created The Blue Beetle later that year.
Liebowitz, with M(axwell) C(harles) Gaines, created All American. Gaines, who, in 1933 at ECP, helped develop the first comic books, thought to sell them at newsstands, and also worked at The McClure Syndicate repackaging news-strips into comic books with Sheldon Mayer, the two who recommended Superman to NAP in 1938. Mayer would also create Scribbly for All-American Comics and hire Joe Kubert. All American also featured Jon L. Blummer’s Hop Harrigan and Bud Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff.
The Golden Age: 1939–50
By 1940, the distinctive DC circular logo (for Detective Comics ) was appearing on NAP and All American comics. NAP created Superman Inc.—a licensing company—turning out hundreds of merchandise items and promotions. That year, Johnny Thunder and Gardner Fox creations The Flash and Hawkman debuted.
When Fawcett Publications debuted Captain Marvel (Whiz Comics ), NAP promptly sued for similarities to Superman, fighting through 1953 before Fawcett settled, canceling Captain Marvel. In 1973 NAP acquired the rights to Captain Marvel, resurrecting him in Shazam!.
In 1941, The Adventures of Superman radio program began. Batman and Robin visited in 1945, beginning regular appearances, and the show ran until 1951.
A seven-minute animated film—Superman (1941)—appeared from Paramount Pictures. The first of 17, this Academy Award-nominated film was suggested to producer Max Fleischer, whose studio had created Betty Boop and Popeye.
Meanwhile, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon created Captain America for Marvel and Jack Cole’s Plastic Man and Will Eisner’s Blackhawk debuted for Quality Comics Group, both characters which NAP acquired (1956). Weisinger created Johnny Quick, Aquaman, and Green Arrow, the three moving to Adventure Comics.
William Moulton Marston, best known for creating the lie detector, due to an article the psychologist wrote attacking comics, was approached by Mayer to write comics. Marston agreed and Wonder Woman debuted in All Star Comics #8/1941, becoming lead character in Sensation Comics # 1/1942 and graduating to Wonder Woman #1/1943.
After Pearl Harbor, Weisinger enlisted; Bert Christman (Sandman ) died with The Flying Tigers; Superman and Batman promoted war bonds; Simon and Kirby created Boy Commandos before ending up in uniform themselves; and before Siegel joined up, he and Hal Sherman created The Star-Spangled Kid, who debuted in Star Spangled Comics #1, a series which also featured Liberty Belle and Siegel’s Robotman.
In 1942, Superman villain The Prankster appeared; Random House published the first Superman novel; Wildcat debuted (Sensation Comics); and Hop Harrigan appeared on a radio show which ran until 1948.
Batman became McClure-syndicated in 1943. Wonder Woman and Hop Harrigan also had newspaper runs. Superman villain The Toyman debuted. Batman finally beat Superman to the punch, becoming the first NAP superhero with a live-action film. Columbia Pictures released a 15-part serial entitled Batman.
In 1944, DC hired Julius Schwartz—literary agent for H. P. Lovecraft—as story editor. Concurrently, Liebowitz bought out Gaines’s share of All American, merging it with NAP. Gaines went with his son Bill to create EC Comics—which would release Tales from the Crypt, Mad (1952), and Mad Magazine (1955; sold to Premier Industries, 1962). The Three Mouske-teers also debuted that year.
Superboy debuted in More Fun Comics #101/1945, graduated to Adventure Comics (1946), and got his own title (1949), the last of the important superhero titles of The Golden Age. Superboy introduced Lana Lang, but created contradictions (Supe was not a superhero until adulthood, did not meet Lois until Metropolis). Siegel and Shuster did not like the character, suing NAP (1947) for royalties, which they received, but left the company, creating a rift until 1975, when they were awarded compensation, pensions, and credit again on their creations.
From 1946 to 1949, NAP published Real Fact Comics to promote education through comics (with Pearl S. Buck among the writers). That year, NAP, All American, and other DC predecessors combined to form National Comics Publications (NCP).
Marston died in 1947; Kirby and Simon created a new Sandman; Mayer quit to return to drawing, and after World War II interest in superheroes began to slump. NCP canceled More Fun Comics, Flash Comics, All-Flash Comics, and dropped costumed characters from All Star Comics, Sensation Comics, and Star Spangled Comics. Action Comics, Detective Comics, and Adventure Comics continued with Superman, Batman, and Superboy.
In 1948, Superman debuted in film, appearing in Columbia’s 15-chapter serial Superman, produced by Sam Katzman, who also produced Batman and Robin (1949) and Atom Man vs. Superman (1950).
Other NCP characters appearing as Columbia serials included Hop Harrigan (1946), The Vigilante (1947), and Congo Bill: King of the Jungle.
The impact of TV and film was felt in comics, as evinced by such titles as The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and The Adventures of Alan Ladd (1949); Feature Films and The Adventures of Bob Hope (1950); The Adventures of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis (1952-57); Jackie Gleason, (1956-58); Sgt. Bilko, (1957-60); The Adventures of Jerry Lewis (1957-71); The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1960-64); and Welcome Back, Kotter (1976).
George Reeves played Superman in the superhero’s first feature film, Superman and the Mole Men (1951), serving as the pilot for the television series Adventures of Superman (1951-57).
What I love about DC is that we ‘re not a one-note business. We can be on-line, we can be CD-ROM, we can be video games and interactive toys, or we can be movies, television, animation. So the opportunities technology brings are all open to us, and each one of those different areas helps all the others—as long as we never lose sight of the fact that the comics made all these other things possible.
—Jenette Kahn, President, DC Comics
In the 1940s and 1950s, westerns and animals gained popularity, with debuts of Western Comics, Tomahawk, and The Dodo and the Frog ; and name changes from All-American Comics to All-American Western, All Star Comics to All Star Western, Funny Folks to Nutsy Squirrel, and Animal Antics to The Raccoon Kids. Dell Publishing bought Walt Disney, Walter Lantz, and Warner Bros, characters. NCP acquired The Fox and The Crow, based on Columbia’s 1941 cartoon The Fox and the Grapes, and Superman’s pal Jimmy Olsen got his own title in 1954.
Mysteries and horror boomed, with Gleason’s Crime Does Not Pay (1942), followed by DC’s Gangbusters (1947), Mr. District Attorney (1948), Big Town (1950), House of Mystery (1951), and House of Secrets (1956); and EC’s Tales from the Crypt. Science fiction also grew, with debuts of Strange Adventures (1950) and Mystery in Space (1951); war stories abounded, with Our Army at War, Star Spangled War Stories, and All-American Men of War (all 1952); and romance and teen comics popped up, with Prize Comics/Simon and Kirby’s Young Romance (1947; acquired by DC, 1963), and DC’s A Date with Judy (1947), Leave It to Binky, Here’s Howie, Romance Trail (1949), Girls’ Love Stories (1949), Secret Hearts, Girls’ Romances, Falling in Love, and Heart Throbs (bought from Quality, 1955).
Attack on Comics, 1954
In 1954, with a booming comics industry, Dr. Fredric Wertham of Bellevue launched a Congressional inquiry when he blamed comic books and their gruesome, lurid covers for growing juvenile delinquency, and asserted that Batman, Robin, and Wonder Woman were homosexual. Though the industry created the self-governing Comics Code Authority, EC Comics was essentially destroyed, as were other comics publishers.
The Silver Age Begins, 1956
Schwartz inaugurated The Silver Age of Comics when he revived Flash in 1956. In 1958, Lois Lane got her own title—Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane —as did The Challengers of the Unknown (April-May). Two years later The Justice League of America debuted. In 1961, Kirby and Stan Lee released The Fantastic Four, Donenfeld died; his son Irwin replaced him; and NCP changed its name to National Periodical Publications (NPP).
Getting their own titles were Hawkman (1964), Metamor-pho The Element Man (1965), and Teen Titans (1966). In 1966, Superman hit Broadway with It’s A Bird… It’s A Plane… It’s Superman! and returned to a cartoon series (1966–70), going on to Hanna-Barbera’s Super Friends (1973–86). The superhero icon was also immortalized in paintings by both Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. Concurrently, Batman debuted on television, appeared in a film and two animated TV series (1966, 1977), plus novels, collections of kids’ letters to Batman, and every merchandise item imaginable.
NPP and Warner Bros, were purchased in 1968 by Kinney National Services. In 1972, NPP debuted Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson’s innovative horror title Swamp Thing —which would become a cult hit movie (1982) and sequel (1989), as well as a spinoff TV series (1990), and animated miniseries (1991). That same year Tarzan came to DC.
In 1973, Prez, Plop!, and The Shadow appeared in print, and Aquaman launched a cartoon television series (1973–86), which included solo appearances by The Atom, The Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, The Teen Titans, and The Justice League. Marvel’s Dr. Strange appeared, and Captain America and The Punisher were shot, but never released. Wonder Woman debuted in a TV movie (1974), followed by a series (1975–79), and Jonah Hex got his own title (1976).
The Path of Kahn, 1976
Jenette Kahn became publisher in 1976 and president five years later, and was credited with revamping the entire company. She changed the name NPP to DC Comics Inc. in 1977, fashioned a new logo, and led DC to become the first comics company to pay royalties in 1981.
Christopher Reeve took over in Superman: The Movie (1978), Superman II (1980), III (1983), and IV: The Quest for Peace (1988)—spinning off a Supergirl film (1984)—before moving to videocassette.
In 1982, DC’s Camelot 3000, became the first original offset series sold through direct-sales market, followed by Frank Miller’s Ronin (1983) and Sun Devils (1984). Spinoffs from games began with Atari Force (1984) and Dick Grayson transformed from Robin to Nightwing. Graphic novels began appearing, with DC’s Star Raiders (1983), Metalzoic (1986), and Tell Me, Dark (1992), as well as Ray Bradbury’s Frost and Fire, Harlan Ellison’s Demon with a Glass Hand, and Jack Kirby’s Hunger Dogs.
In 1985, DC cleaned house, consolidating all of its universes (including those acquired from Fawcett, Charleton, and Quality), but some heroes—Supergirl, Silver Age Flash, and Night-hawk—paid the ultimate price. A second housecleaning came in 1994, with Hal Jordan’s Green Lantern becoming the victim.
In 1986, Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns sophisticatedly redefined Batman; John Byrne’s Superman—updated in Man of Steel —became the first million-copy seller since The Golden Age, and had three top-100 titles; and Watchmen, which would become the most-honored comic series in history, debuted.
Mickey Mouse, Betty Boop, and Peanuts made comebacks in the 1980s, joined by Wonder Woman, The Justice League of America, and The Flash (1987). That summer, DC outsold Marvel for the first time in years.
During the 1970s–80s, industry birthday parties abounded, with Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs all hitting the golden mark (1978, 1984, and 1987, respectively). February 29, 1988 marked Superman’s 50th birthday and DC Comics started a year-long celebration beginning on Memorial Day 1987, when an exhibition opened at The Smithsonian Institute; Superman IV debuted; Superman joined The White House and U.S. Department of Education in The Drug-Free America Balloon Launch; CBS had a one-hour prime-time special on Supe; a weekend birthday party occurred in New York City; and The Grand Finale occurred in Cleveland that June, with a ticker-tape parade and a statue of Supe.
In 1988, Superboy appeared in a live-action TV series (1988–91); Jason Todd as Robin died, being replaced by Tim Drake. In 1989, Warner Communications merged with Time Inc. to form Time Warner Inc., making DC part of the largest media company in the world, and Neil Gaiman created a third version of Sandman. Simultaneously, Marvel was sold by struggling New World Pictures to MacAndrew & Forbes, a holding company of financier Ronald Perelman.
That year also marked Batman’s 50th birthday. Batman: Arkham Asylum became the bestselling hardcover comic ever; and Batman became the largest-grossing Warner film ever, with domestic box-office sales of $251 million (sixth in film history), total sales at over $400 million, and the videocassette was the bestselling ever.
Analysts estimated the comics industry went from $130 million in 1986 to $400 million in 1990 as Clark Kent and Lois Lane got engaged. Superman died in Superman #75 (1993), the most widely read comic book ever, selling over six million copies. However, he was resurrected in 1993 and married Lois in 1996.
The Flash starred in a TV series (1991), but DC was hard-pressed to catch industry leaders Marvel and Malibu. In 1992 DC’s The Human Target ran six episodes; Batman: The Animated Series debuted, winning an Emmy award; Superman and Batman appeared in The New Batman/Superman Adventures, Batman Returns (1992) became the only film to date beating Batman’s opening weekend box office record; and Bill Gaines died.
In 1989, seemingly only Kool-Aid advertised in comics. But in 1993, an upsurge occurred. DC and others suddenly had attracted such advertisers as Sega, Nordic Trak, Warner Bros., Crunch ‘N Munch, and Stridex; Marvel characters promoted Pizza Hut (X-Men) and Burger King; and Malibu introduced its Ultraverse on MTV and Nickelodeon—the first time a comic publisher used national advertising—and a merger with Acme Interactive triggered Malibu’s tie-in package, with a live-action video portion of the story, and the rest in the comics. Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, an hour-long prime-time series, also appeared.
DC debuted a new line—“Vertigo”—offering innovative graphic stories to adult readers of nontraditional comics. The psychologically compelling, cutting-edge titles ranged from science fiction to horror to dark fantasy.
July 1994 saw year-old Milestone Media—publishers of Icon, Static, Kobalt, Rocket, Shadow Cabinet, and Xombi —team characters from Hardware and Blood Syndicate with Superman, Superboy, and Steel in the “Worlds Collide” crossover series, following Superman/Spiderman (1970s), Batman/ Hulk (1980s), and Teen Titans/X-Men (1990s). Also appearing in 1994 were Looney Toons and Paradox Press—with such titles as Brooklyn Dreams, La Pacifica, Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children, Urban Legends, The Big Book of Weirdos, and Stuck Rubber Baby.
Batman Forever was the top-grossing film of 1995, and DC comics appeared in Waldenbooks. In 1996, Superman joined Snuggle Bear, WB, Kids WB Network, and Six Flags’ Magic Mountain in Best Western promotions. Batman and Robin debuted in 1997.
By mid-1998, Action Comics and Detective Comics were still appearing, along with numerous other titles. Rumors abounded of a Superman V film; and, with Marvel/Malibu bankrupt, DC became sole survivor of The Golden Age of comics and the largest comics publisher in the world.
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—Daryl F. Mallett