By the start of the 1940s, DC had established itself as the clear market leader with many of the most recognized and marketable comic book characters. Keeping hold of that lead, however, would require some effort.
Part of it took the form of an aggressively litigious campaign against competitors for copyright violation. Already in 1939 DC had filed suit against Fox Feature Syndicate to cease publication of Wonder Man on the basis that he was a copy of Superman. In 1941 DC filed similar suit on Fawcett Comics regarding Captain Marvel. The case dragged on until 1955 when Fawcett finally gave in and sold their rights to DC.
The immediate post-war years after 1945, the public demand for superhero comics slumped. With sales in decline, DC expanded into more popular genres such as Westerns, science fiction, and humor comics. However, their Action Comics and Detective Comics line remained in publication – and with them Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.
By the mid 1950s, however, the public taste for superheroes began to revive. Sensing the change in tastes, DC decided to bring back The Flash under an experimental publication entitled Showcase. But this wasn’t a simple relaunch; instead the Crimson Speedster was completely reimagined, and in October 1956 Showcase #4 introduced the world to Barry Allen replacing the original Jay Garrick as a whole new and modernized Flash. The immediate popularity led to a similar overhaul and relaunch of the Green Lantern, with Hal Jordan replacing Alan Scott; the Atom, with Ray Palmer replacing Al Pratt; Hawkman with Kator Hol replacing Carter Hall; and the Justice Society America, now renamed the Justice League America. The older, original, incarnations were not abandoned – they were shifted to an parallel DC comic dimension called Earth 2.
In the early 1960s, DC found itself facing a new and potent competitor: Marvel Comics. Though Marvel had first appeared in October 1939 when it unveiled its first character, the Human Torch, by late 1961 it was being led by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Their introduction of the Fantastic Four (featuring a reimagined Human Torch), the Hulk, Spiderman, Thor, Iron Man, the Avengers, and the X-Men presented DC with a serious challenge. Compared to DC’s lineup of characters, many of Marvel’s heroes were younger, more human, and more troubled and flawed. Also, they gripped the imaginations of a younger audience. And DC was being outsold.
As a direct response, DC launched the Teen Titans in 1964. DC also hired younger artists and writers in an attempt to recapture market share. Despite this, however, the latter half of the 1960’s was characterized by a series of short-lived DC titles and comic series.
In 1970, Jack Kirby moved from Marvel to join DC. DC’s line was suddenly reinvigorated by new Kirby titles including New Gods, the Forever People, and Mister Miracle. Most importantly, perhaps, Kirby’s creation built on the foundations already laid by DC’s creation of Earth 2 as a parallel home for its semi-retired early incarnation characters to create their “multiverse” concept.
Sales, however, continued to lag behind Marvel, and for much of the late ’70s DC attempted to expand its output. New characters such as Shade, Firestorm, and Black Lightning were introduced. After a string of false starts and unsuccessful titles, Warner Communications (who by then owned DC) pulled the plug and initiated a massive scale-back now often referred to as the “DC implosion.”
DC, though, was not done reinventing itself and evolving. In 1982, it brought in the British writer Alan Moore to relaunch its Swamp Thing title that had first appeared in 1971 as a stand alone horror comic. This was a bold move, mainly because it was to be DC’s first break from the Comic Code Authority – a prim, Moral Majority-style code of self-sensorship adopted by the comics industry in 1954. The subsequent Saga of the Swamp Thing series was widely acclaimed for its literacy, complexity, and artistry, and helped DC to reach a different and more mature audience.
In 1985, DC took the decision that its multiple Earth policy had become overcomplicated and needed to be completely revamped. As a result, it took the enormous decision to create the Crisis of Infinite Earths that would culminate in all the alternate Earths being eradicated and subsumed into one unified Earth.
One year later, Alan Moore delivered the mature audience goods again for DC by creating The Watchmen. And in the same year Frank Miller provided DC with The Dark Knight Returns. Suddenly, DC was producing comic books aimed at an older demographic, and in a position to challenge Marvel.
The early 1990s specialty comic book stores proliferated and the market witnessed what, at first sight, appeared to be a sudden, dramatic, and quite unexpected boom in demand for comic books. This was coupled with an equally sudden public interest in collecting comics as an investment. By way of illustration, in June 1938 the first Superman comic (Action Comics #1) sold at newsstands for 10 cents. In 1974, a good quality original would sell for around $400. In 1984, it was worth $5,000. But, in 1992, a copy sold at auction for $82,500! Even recent publications could sell on the second-hand market for 100 or even 1,000 times their initial sales price within just a few months.
DC, like every other publishing house, responded to this surge in demand by upping their output – more than tripling their production. Additionally, for such is the economic nature of increased demand, they also increased the sticker prices of their comics.
Sadly, for DC and everyone else, all this was an illusion; a bubble that peaked in late 1992 and burst in 1993. Part of the reason for the bubble was the belief, the“irrational exuberance,” that the collector market meant comic books were a ever-profitable investment. People who had never previously bought comics were paying attention – and money. But a bigger, and more dangerous, reason was the publishing world’s delusion that the massive increase in orders they were seeing was retail driven. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. What the publishing houses, DC included, were seeing was an increase in wholesale demand from retailers – not retail demand from consumers.
Prior to the late 1980s, comic book distribution companies would only sell to retailers who could demonstrate that they were (a) financially sound, and (b) guaranty to place minimum order quantities each month. The two leading distribution companies, Diamond and Capital City, dropped that policy and opened the market to anyone in return for an initial order of just $300. And that was why unregulated and under-capitalized specialty comic stores started sprouting up on every street corner. These stores placed wholesale orders with the distributors. The problem, though, was that the stores were ordering more than the public actually wanted. But the publishing houses couldn’t see that – to them it all looked like real public demand.
Ironically enough, it may have been DC itself – and, specifically, Superman – that caused the bubble to burst. In November 1992 DC launched the Death of Superman. The storyline was dramatic. DC ran a huge PR campaign before launch. Comic stores were flooded with customers. People queued up to buy their copy. It was the no. 1 seller of the year. But people weren’t just buying it to read the story: they were buying it as an investment. DC knew that, and that was why they polybagged each copy. It was, however, a tease. In April 1993 DC revealed that Superman was “Back From the Dead.” Many people, especially the “investors”, were disappointed. They were even more disappointed when they discovered their “investment”, instead of being worth a fortune, wasn’t worth much more than the original purchase price – providing it was a first printing and still in its polybag.
Comic book sales collapsed by 70-80%. 90% of specialty comic book stores either closed or went bust. DC, like other publishers, announced huge lay-offs. The collapse was so severe that, in 1996, Marvel filed for bankruptcy protection.
Surviving this maelstrom wasn’t easy, but DC clung to its vision of catering to a more mature audience. Throughout the rest of the 1990s DC launched a number of new imprints including Vertigo, Piranha Press, and Paradox Press designed specifically at this demographic. With Marvel reeling financially, for the rest of decade DC was once again top dog – even if in a world a much lower sales.
Entering the 2000s, DC created a new brand, Johnny DC, which would now front its younger audience titles. At the same time, it set off in new directions. It acquired the rights to the fantasy series Elfquest; it established CMX, a new imprint to host translated manga comics; and published a number of limited series that focused on conflicts between established DC superheroes that built up to the series, Infinite Crisis – essentially a dark sequel to the 1985 Crisis on Infinite Earths.
In 2005, and in response to a resurgant Marvel’s Ultimate Marvel imprint that retconned and modernized established characters, DC launched their own retcon imprint, All Star. In 2011, DC announced that it was shelving many old titles. In their place it was de-aging and relaunching classic DC characters through an entire new story arc called the New 52.
Coming up to date, DC and Marvel remain the two giants of the comic book industry. Which one has the edge is hard to say…perhaps, right now, DC. But the real battlefield isn’t in print: it’s on the screen and other media. And it’s here, with its Dark Knight and Man of Steel franchises, that DC has begun to edge out Marvel. And, with its Arkham video game series, DC is once again in front.