So I know we haven’t talked current funnybooks in a couple of weeks, but I just finished reading this book of funnybook history, and I’m dying to talk about it, so…
Comic Book Implosion
by Keith Dallas and John Wells
In 1978, DC Comics launched an advertising campaign for the “DC Explosion,” an initiative to expand their line of titles and offer more pages per book. It sounded great, and started off strong. Then, only three or four months later, came the announcement of huge cancellations across the line. By the end of the year, DC was publishing fewer comics than it had before the Explosion. This was dubbed the “DC IMplosion” in the fan press, and the name stuck.
Well, the answer to that question is complicated. Complicated enough to fill a book, as it turns out. The ins and outs of the Implosion involve sales, distribution, prices, internal conflict, corporate politics, and acts of God. And authors Keith Dallas & John Wells cover it all, in the words of the people who lived it. They call the book an Oral History, and the bulk of its pages are filled with quotes taken from articles published at the time, and interviews conducted years later, after it was just a part of history.
That means some of what’s said here is pure spin. DC’s PR people doing damage control, or Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter verbally kicking the competition while they’re down. So you have to take some of this stuff with a grain of salt. Dallas and Wells do a good job weighing the before and after quotes, though, and giving you differing opinions so you get a more complete picture of the comics industry in the back half of the 1970s. Their editorial insertions help keep the story straight, too, guiding the narrative and clarifying details not covered in the quotes. It’s well-put-together, and fascinating reading for huge funnybook dorks. I highly recommend it.
So what DID cause the Implosion? Well, like I said, that’s complicated. One fallacy that Dallas and Wells go out of their way to correct early and often is the idea that it was sales on the Explosion titles. The cancellations came so soon after the initiative was launched that they didn’t even have time to get sales figures on those books. Hell, some titles never even saw print. Granted, the numbers weren’t inspiring when they did come in. But they weren’t bad, either. Some of them were actually pretty good. Regardless, the Explosion itself wasn’t to blame. Really, it was two other factors that killed it.
First, there was a blizzard.
Early in 1978, months before the Explosion launched, the east coast of the United States was socked in under the coldest temperatures and deepest snows they’d seen in decades. Schools and businesses closed, and people only ventured out for essentials. Essentials that didn’t include funnybooks. This was especially true in the major population centers of the northeast, and sales tanked. Not just for DC, but for everybody. Unless you were selling milk, bread, or heating oil, you didn’t make a lot of money that winter. That sales dip still sent up a red flag at the Warner Brothers corporate offices, though, and that brought DC to the attention of the money men who controlled their fate.
Now, by itself, the dip wasn’t enough to warrant action. But that’s where we get to the second thing that did them in: historical overall declining sales for comics. The industry had seen sales eroding since the 1950s, in a slow but steady decline. Why? Some have argued that the Comics Code Authority whitewashed the content so much that it cut out all but the youngest children and the hardcore funnybook nerds. And I’m sure there’s some truth to that. But the biggest contributing factor was that it was getting harder and harder for comics publishers to find people willing to sell their wares. And why was that the case? Because comics were too cheap.
This bears some discussion, because it’s a point we’ll come back to later. As the prices of the rest of the magazine industry rose with inflation over the years, comics held back, reasoning (correctly or not) that people wouldn’t be willing to spend more than a dime on a damn funnybook. So over the years, the price remained the same while the page count dropped and the quality of the paper got worse and worse. Eventually, they couldn’t make the comics any shorter, or the paper any crappier. The printers had already created an extra-cheap grade of paper just for comics, newsprint of such low quality that actual newspapers wouldn’t print on it. So they had to start raising prices. By 1978, comics were at an outrageous 35 cents, and in danger of going to 40 at any moment.
But that was still a lot less than the dollar or two you’d pay for, say, the new issue of Time, Sports Illustrated, or Playboy. So if you were in the business of selling magazines, you’d have to sell three or four comics to make as much as you would off a single copy of anything else. And comics never sold THAT well, so they were getting pushed off the racks. Fewer and fewer places carried comics as time went on, and the places that did devoted less and less space to them. Worse, it got to a point that distributors would just use comics to fill out whatever space they had left in the truck, even when they were delivering to places still willing to carry the things. And if that meant some books never left the warehouse… Ah, well. The comics industry had priced itself out of its own marketplace, and you can’t sell things that don’t make it to the shelf.
And so sales declined.
The people at Warner Brothers didn’t really care about all that, though. The winter sales dip got them looking more closely at comics sales going back a ways, and they didn’t like what they saw. You don’t expand a failing product line. Especially not when Warner’s own distribution company was complaining that the DC line was too big, producing more titles than they could handle. So the order came down: cut costs and cancel books. Lots of books. At the height of the Explosion in the summer of 1978, DC was publishing 43 separate titles, with another nine that went unpublished after the cancellation order. Six months later, they were down to 26. That’s half the line, gone without warning.
It was a bloodbath. People lost jobs. Freelancers were suddenly out of gigs they were counting on to pay the bills. And because DC had just spent months touting their line expansion in big splashy house ads…
…they also looked like a bunch of idiots. Never mind that Marvel cancelled 21 books of their own in the fall and winter of 1978. They did it quietly, without fanfare, and with a more controlled descent that didn’t leave anyone unexpectedly out of work. DC’s fall was very sudden and very public, resulting in a PR blow that lost them credibility in the eyes of fans and professionals alike, and it was not easy to recover from. It wasn’t until Marv Wolfman and George Perez left Marvel to do Teen Titans in 1982 that anyone really took them seriously again. And by then, the industry was well on its way to transitioning to the Direct Market we know today, which is a whole different kettle of fish.
Now, in case you think I’ve spoiled Comic Book Implosion for you here… That’s just the overview. The book digs deep into the personalities involved, and gives you a good feel for what the funnybook business was like in that late 70s slide into oblivion. It’s got tons of juicy stuff on who did what, various format changes and price points that were attempted, and details on which books were doing well, which books weren’t, and why some titles survived when others did not.
The most shocking thing, to me, is that they very nearly cancelled Detective Comics when the Implosion came. It wasn’t doing very well, and Batman Family was selling a lot better, so they were going to pull the plug. Then somebody pointed out that the company was named after Detective Comics. So they made it Detective Comics, Starring the Batman Family, and their problem was solved.
But that Batman Family thing brings us back to the issue of cost. Because Batman Family was one of the “Dollar Comics”…
…a line of 80-page bi-monthly titles that sold for, as the name implies, a whole dollar. If you’ll remember, that’s more or less the same price point as the magazines that had pushed comics off the newsstands in the first place. And the places that had dropped comics entirely responded just as you might think they would: presented with the opportunity to make equal money, they started carrying the Dollar Comics. And, since they were available in more places, their sales were higher. The one-dollar price point, it seems, didn’t really affect people’s buying decisions all that much.
The profit on them was better, too. Why? Because cover stock costs a lot of money. DC PR Director Mike Gold estimated at the time that the cover was about 40% of the total production cost on a standard 32-page comic. And since the 80-pagers had only one piece of cover stock, but as many story pages as four 32-page comics (which each had 17-page stories), the Dollar Comics netted DC a lot more money per page.
They still didn’t think they could take the whole line to that format, though, and I’m not sure why. Maybe they didn’t believe the entire fanbase would spend that much on a monthly basis. Or maybe they were afraid of losing shelf space in the places that were still carrying regular comics. A full line of 80-pagers would probably mean fewer individual titles, as lower-selling titles would get folded into higher-selling ones. That would mean that Marvel’s bigger line would dwarf their physical presence on the shelf, or maybe even push DC books out entirely, as the stores cycled old product out for new, without much caring who published what.
There’s not much discussion of this possibility in Comic Book Implosion, but it does come up. An attempt to compete with Marvel flooding the shelves was what lost Carmine Infantino his job as DC head honcho a few years earlier, so I have to think it was part of the DC decision-making process. It also seems significant to me that Marvel didn’t reduce their own line until after DC did. With fewer titles to compete against, they could afford to trim the fat. I’d love to see a book covering Marvel in this same period. There’s the editorial musical chairs that went on before Jim Shooter came in, and the incredible ire he inspired in so many creators afterwards, but I’d also be curious to find out how much they were losing on that big line of titles. I do know that the Star Wars license, much to the surprise of everyone, pretty much saved the company. So, yeah. I’d really dig an intensive look inside Marvel as the comics industry as they knew it crumbled around them. Maybe that could be Diamond and Wells’ next project.
But anyway. Back to the Dollar Comics, and why DC didn’t just go that way with the entire line. If they were afraid of losing shelf space, they’d have had to take the entire line to the 80-page format, and it’s entirely possible that they didn’t think they could fill that many pages with material worth reading. Considering the general quality of the Explosion titles I’ve personally read, in fact, that might have been a very real possibility. Exciting as it sounds, lots of the actual comics were sub-par. And the books that never saw print were, in the words of Mark Waid, “a whole lotta junk.”
And he’s had the opportunity to read both issues of Cancelled Comic Cavalcade…
…so he would know.
But now we’re off in the realm of pure speculation, so we should probably call it quits on this review. If the discussion here has piqued your interest at all, Comic Book Implosion will probably be good reading for you. It came out a couple of months back now (I was a little slow on the draw getting around to reading it), but your Local Funnybook Store should still be able to get it for you, and it’s also readily available on-line. Check it out!