As the leading publisher during the first three decades of the comic book industry, DC Comics was largely responsible for the look and content of mainstream American comic books. By the end of the twentieth century, DC had become not only the longest established purveyor of comic books in the United States, but arguably the most important and influential in the history of comic book publishing. Home to some of the genre's most popular characters, including Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, DC's initial innovations in the field were quickly and widely imitated by its competitors, but few achieved the consistent quality and class of DC's comic books in their heyday.
In 1935, a 45-year-old former U.S. Army major and pulp magazine writer named Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson started up a small operation called National Allied Publishing. From a tiny office in New York City, Wheeler-Nicholson launched New Fun and New Comics. Although modeled after the new comics magazines like Famous Funnies, Wheeler-Nicholson's titles were the first to feature original material instead of reprinted newspaper funnies. The Major, remembered by his associates as both an eccentric and something of a charlatan, started his publishing venture with insufficient capital and little business acumen. He met with resistance from distributors still reluctant to handle the new comic books, fell hopelessly into debt to his creditors and employers, and sold his struggling company to the owners of his distributor, the Independent News Company. The new owners, Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz, would eventually build the Major's tiny operation into a multi-million dollar company.
In 1937 Donenfeld and Liebowitz put out a third comic book title, Detective Comics. Featuring a collection of original comic strips based on detective-adventure themes, Detective Comics adapted those genres most associated with "B" movies and pulp magazines into a comics format, setting a precedent for all adventure comic books to come. With their own distribution company as a starting point, Donenfeld and Liebowitz developed important contacts with other national distributors to give their comic books the best circulation network in the business. Their publishing arm was officially called National Periodical Publications, but it became better known by the trademark—DC—printed on its comic books and taken from the initials of its flagship title.
What truly put DC on top, however, was the acquisition of Superman. In 1938 Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster reluctantly sold the rights to their costumed superhero to DC for $130. When Superman debuted in the first issue of DC's Action Comics, the impact on the market was immediate. Sales of the title jumped to half-a-million per issue by year's end, and DC had the industry's first original comic book star. In 1939 Bob Kane and Bill Finger created Batman for DC as a follow-up to Superman, and this strange new superhero quickly became nearly as popular as his predecessor. DC's competitors took note of the winning new formula and promptly flooded the market with costumed imitators. DC immediately served notice that it would protect its creative property and its domination of the market by suing the Fox Syndicate for copyright infringement over "Wonderman," a flagrant imitation of Superman. It would later do the same to Fawcett Publications over Captain Marvel, in a lawsuit of dubious merit that dragged on for over a decade.
DC made it a policy to elevate the standards of its material over that of the increasing competition. In 1941 the company publicized the names of its Editorial Advisory Board, which was made up of prominent educators and child-study experts, and it assured parents that all of DC's comic books were screened for appropriate moral content. The strategy worked to deflect from DC much of the public criticism being directed at comic books in general, but it also deprived their publications of the edgy qualities that had made the early Superman and Batman stories so compelling. DC stayed with this conservative editorial policy for the next several decades.
The World War II years were a boom time for DC (as for most other comic book publishers). They added to their stable of stars such popular characters as Wonder Woman, the Green Lantern, the Flash, and the Justice Society of America. More so than any other publisher, DC worked to educate readers on the issues at stake in the war. Rather than simply bombard young people with malicious stereotypes of the enemy as most of the competition did (although there was plenty of that to be found in DC's comics as well), DC's comic books stressed the principles of national unity across ethnic, class, and racial lines, and repeatedly stated a simplified forecast of the postwar vision proclaimed by the Roosevelt administration. The company was also consistent enough to continue its celebration of a liberal postwar order well into the postwar era itself, although it generally did so in dry educational features rather than within the context of its leading adventure stories.
During the 1940s and 1950s DC strengthened and consolidated its leading position in the industry. The publisher remained aloof when its competitors turned increasingly toward violent crime and horror subjects and, although it made tentative nods to these genres with a few mystery and cops-and-robber titles, DC was rarely a target of the criticism directed at the comic book industry during the late 1940s and early 1950s. When the industry adopted the Comics Code in 1954, DC's own comic books were already so innocuous as to be scarcely affected. Indeed, spokesmen for DC took the lead in extolling the virtues of the Code-approved comics. With its less scrupulous competitors fatally tarnished by the controversy over crime and horror, DC was able to dominate the market as never before, even though the market itself shrank in the post-Code era. By 1962, DC's comic books accounted for over 30 percent of all comic books sold.
The company published comics in a variety of genres, including sci-fi, humor, romance, western, war, mystery, and even adaptations of popular television sitcoms and movie star-comics featuring the likes of Jerry Lewis and Bob Hope. But DC's market strength continued to rest upon the popularity of its superheroes, especially Superman and Batman. While the rise of television hurt comic book sales throughout the industry, DC enjoyed the cross-promotional benefits of the popular Adventures of Superman TV series (1953-1957). Beginning in 1956, DC revised and revamped a number of its 1940s superheroes, and the new-look Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, and Justice League of America comprised the vanguard of what comic book historians have termed the "Silver Age" of superhero comics (as opposed to the "Golden Age" of the 1930s-1940s).
DC's comic books were grounded firmly in the culture of consensus and conformity. In accordance with the Comics Code and DC's long-standing editorial policies, the superheroes championed high-minded and progressive American values. There was nothing ambiguous about the character, cause, or inevitable triumph of these heroes, and DC took pains to avoid the implication that they were glorified vigilantes and thus harmful role models for children. All of the superheroes held respected positions in society. When they were not in costume, most of them were members of either the police force or the scientific community: Hawkman was a policeman from another planet; the Green Lantern served in an intergalactic police force; the Atom was a respected scientist; the Flash was a police scientist; and Batman and his sidekick, Robin, were deputized members of the Gotham City police force. Superman, of course, was a citizen of the world. These characters all underscored the importance of the individual's obligation to the community, and did so to an extent that, in fact, minimized the virtues of individualism. All of the DC heroes spoke and behaved the same way. Always in control of their emotions and their environment, they exhibited no failings common to the human condition. Residing in clean green suburbs, modern cities with shining glass skyscrapers, and futuristic unblemished worlds, the superheroes exuded American affluence and confidence.
The pristine comic books promoted by DC were, however, highly vulnerable to the challenge posed by the new "flawed" superheroes of Marvel Comics. Throughout the 1960s, figures such as Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, and the Fantastic Four garnered Marvel an anti-establishment image that was consciously in synch with trends in contemporary youth culture. DC's star performers, on the other hand, epitomized the "Establishment," seeming like costumed Boy Scout Troop leaders by comparison. By the late 1960s, DC recognized their dilemma and clumsily introduced some obvious ambiguity and angst into their superhero stories, but the move came too late to reverse the company's fall from the top. By the mid-1970s Marvel had surpassed DC as the industry's leading publisher.
In spite of falling sales, DC's characters remained the most popular and the most lucrative comic book properties. In 1968 DC was purchased by the powerful Warner Brothers conglomerate, which would later produce a series of blockbuster movies featuring Superman and Batman. Throughout the 1970s DC enjoyed far greater success with licensing its characters for TV series and toy products than it did selling the actual comics. In 1976 Jeanette Kahn became the new DC publisher charged with the task of revitalizing the comic books. In the early 1980s Kahn helped to institute new financial and creative incentives at the company. This attracted some of the top writers and artists in the field to DC and set a precedent for further industry-wide creator's benefits.
From the late 1980s DC found success in the direct-sales market to comic book stores with a number of titles labeled "For Mature Readers Only," and also took the lead in the growing market for sophisticated and pricey "graphic novels." Established superheroes such as Batman and Green Arrow gained new life as violent vigilante characters and were soon joined by a new generation of surreal post-modern superheroes like the Sandman and Animal Man. Such innovative and ambitious titles helped DC to reclaim much of the creative cutting edge from Marvel. Although DC's sales lagged behind Marvel's throughout the 1990s, the company retained a loyal following among discerning fans as well as longtime collectors, remaining highly respected among those who appreciate the company's historical significance as the prime founder of the American comic book industry.
—Bradford W. Wright
Daniels, Les. DC Comics: Sixty Years of the World's Favorite Comic Book Heroes. Boston, Little, Brown, and Co., 1995.
The Greatest 1950s Stories Ever Told. New York, DC Comics, 1991.
The Greatest Golden Age Stories Ever Told. New York, DC Comics, 1990.
Jacobs, Will, and Gerard Jones. The Comic Book Heroes. Rocklin, California, Prima Publishing, 1998.
O'Neil, Dennis, editor. Secret Origins of the Super DC Heroes. New York, Warner Books, 1976.