KC Column: Never-Ending Story, Part 2

by KC Carlson

KC Carlson

KC Carlson

PREVIOUSLY ON NEVER-ENDING STORY: Comics entered the 1970s with Jack Kirby jumping from Marvel Comics to DC, where he created the “Fourth World” titles New Gods, Forever People, and Mister Miracle as well as taking over Jimmy Olsen. Marvel compensated for Kirby’s loss by unleashing a wave of new writers like Roy Thomas, Steve Englehart, Marv Wolfman, Steve Gerber, Don McGregor, Doug Moench, Jim Starlin, and Chris Claremont, most of whom created new characters and concepts as well as taking existing Marvel characters in new — and often startling — directions.

Swamp Thing #1

Swamp Thing #1

DC also had a number of young writers who broke into the field in the late 60s and early 70s. Len Wein started out writing single issues for Teen Titans and dozens of stories for horror anthologies for both DC and Marvel, as well as much work for Gold Key/Western. Later, he added Superman, Flash, Zatanna, and Supergirl stories to his resume, as well as a well-regarded run involving the Dark Circle on the Phantom Stranger (with artist Jim Aparo). But his most important work of the era was co-creating (with Bernie Wrightson) and writing the early issues of Swamp Thing, where he set up the mythology of the series and established its unique tone with its distinctive narrative captions. During this time, he also wrote a wonderful series of Justice League of America stories, emphasizing the human sides of the characters, as well as co-creating The Human Target with Carmine Infantino.

Giant-Size X-Men #1

Giant-Size X-Men #1

Moving over to Marvel in the early 70s, and after a short stint as their editor-in-chief, Wein also wrote long runs of Amazing Spider-Man, Incredible Hulk, Mighty Thor, Marvel Team-Up, and Fantastic Four, as well as a brief (but fun) stint on The Defenders. However, his most famous Marvel work is a single issue, but that single issue is probably the most famous of a generation — Giant-Size X-Men #1. It reintroduced the famous team of mutants to the Marvel Universe — and introduced Nightcrawler, Storm, Colossus, and Thunderbird as well as bringing back Wolverine (co-created by Wein while writing the Incredible Hulk) — and changed Marvel history in the process. (Wein also plotted X-Men #94 and 95, which were scripted by Chris Claremont.)

Wein is also acclaimed for his role as an editor. In addition to his stint at Marvel, Wein also edited New Teen Titans, Watchmen, Crisis on Infinite Earths, Camelot 3000, and Batman and the Outsiders, among other series for DC. He also had long stints on Batman (creating Lucius Fox), Green Lantern, Wonder Woman (with George Perez), and Blue Beetle.

The Old Guard Gets Shook Up

Kryptonite Nevermore

Kryptonite Nevermore

In 1971, Superman editor Mort Weisinger retired, and the Superman books were assigned to other editors. Superman went to Julie Schwartz, who paired hot writer Denny O’Neil with classic artists Curt Swan and Murphy Anderson. Their first storyline, the memorable nine-issue “Kryptonite Nevermore!”, completely updated the mythos, eliminated Kryptonite, and pitted Superman against a mysterious sand doppelganger. (This slightly more sophisticated storyline was recently reprinted as the inaugural volume of the new DC Comics Classic Library reprint series). At the conclusion of the storyline, O’Neil left the title, and Superman largely reverted to more kid-friendly tales.

About the same time, Dick Grayson left Gotham City for college, splitting up the Dynamic Duo and shaking up the status quo of both Batman and Detective Comics. The League of Assassins started popping up all over the DC landscape, with connections to Deadman, Richard Dragon, and eventually, Green Arrow and Black Canary. Ultimately, the head of the organization, the mysterious Ra’s al Ghul, and his daughter Talia made a significant impact on the Batman series in a landmark five-part story written by O’Neil and largely drawn by Neal Adams. Ra’s and Talia would return in a big way later in the following decade, helping to inaugurate a new comic format.

In the Days of the Mob

In the Days of the Mob

Jack Kirby also experimented with stories for older readers in black & white magazine format in Spirit World and In The Days of the Mob in 1971. DC was not fully behind the project (the magazines appeared without the DC bullet) and only one issue each was released before they were canceled. A third magazine — a romance title — was never published. However, DC did begin experimenting with the romance genre when it introduced Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love in 1971, telling longer stories (37 pages) of gothic horror. The Sinister House of Secret Love followed, but the experiment was quickly abandoned, and both books were renamed and rebranded as mystery anthologies after just a few issues each.

In general, DC’s period of experimentation that began in the late 1960s came to a close around 1972 with the cancellation of Kirby’s Fourth World books. Kirby started working on new concepts like The Demon and Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth, but he eventually returned to Marvel within a couple of years. DC retrenched with lots of basic (and mostly kid-friendly) superhero books, as their genre (romance, teenage, war, and eventually horror) titles start dying. This is not a DC-specific problem, as other publishers’ books (and entire companies) began fading away, leaving only superheroes to survive.

Innovation in Odd Places

Adventure Comics #431

Adventure Comics #431

For much of the mid-70s, DC’s high points were mostly artistic (Joe Kubert on Tarzan and Tor, Michael Kaluta on The Shadow, C.C. Beck on Shazam!) or format-driven (oversized treasuries and tiny digests, both mostly reprints). Notable exceptions included Michael Fleisher‘s creepily violent Spectre series, developed with editor Joe Orlando and illustrated by Jim Aparo in Adventure Comics. (Yes, the one where the Spectre would turn criminals into wood and run them through a buzz-saw. Tame by today’s standards, but controversial then.) Fleisher’s Jonah Hex stories are also worth seeking out, especially the twisted story of Hex’s death. And Archie Goodwin and Walter Simonson’s groundbreaking Manhunter saga — presented as a backup feature in Detective Comics — packed more story into eight pages a month than most modern comic books do in eight issues today. (I think DC is deliberately keeping it out of print as it would embarrass many modern comic book writers.)

Superboy & the Legion of Super-Heroes #235

Superboy & the Legion of Super-Heroes #235

The Legion of Super-Heroes was also a special case in the 1970s as “the little comic book that could”, after mostly being abandoned by editors who didn’t understand the concept and relegated to a less than infrequent backup status in Superboy. Legion fans bombarded DC with letters, and creative folks like Cary Bates, Nelson Bridwell, and young Dave Cockrum rallied to save the series. With the addition of a returning Jim Shooter, artist Mike Grell (who also scored in a huge way with his barbarian series Warlord) and neophyte writer Paul Levitz would eventually have the Legion kicking Superboy out of his own book. Levitz’s increasingly complex storylines were also something to watch, especially when he returned to the series later in the decade. He also worked magic on some Earth-2 concepts, like a Justice Society of America revival which introduced daughters for the older Batman and Superman.

Illusion of Change

Superman vs. The Amazing Spider-Man

Superman vs. The Amazing Spider-Man

In the mid-70s, DC and Marvel teamed up their characters for the first time with Superman vs. The Amazing Spider-Man, the first intercompany crossover. It was a very popular fan-favorite idea that led to future Marvel/DC productions but really offered very little evolution in comic storytelling. (But the behind-the-scenes negotiations — that’s an interesting story!)

In the late 70s, Marvel kept things rolling along in most of their titles, having pretty much nailed down the “illusion of change” approach to storytelling popular in that era. Although major events got fans talking, very little of the core premise of any title actually changed. Sure, Gwen Stacy was killed in Amazing Spider-Man in 1973, effectively capping an era, but many of the major Marvel titles were still suffering from the loss of Kirby and then Stan Lee as he left most of his regular writing assignments early in the decade.

Much of the Marvel innovation at this time revolved around the newer characters being developed, although books such as The Avengers were increasingly popular for long-form storytelling involving epic events (notably the year-long Korvac Saga). Uncanny X-Men was a fascinating slow build towards a number of interesting talking points (not least of which was Wolverine’s tendancy to kill, spurring discussion of whether he was still a hero). And fans were watching with interest the growing sophistication of the ongoing Iron Man storyline, largely by David Michelinie, Bob Layton, and John Romita Jr, playing off elements began by Denny O’Neil. In Daredevil #158, a new artist named Frank Miller arrived who would play a major role in the future development of that series — as well as comics itself!

In 1977, Steve Englehart left Marvel to write memorable and intricate runs on Justice League of America, Batman in Detective Comics (with Marshall Rogers), and Mister Miracle (also with Rogers). Each run only lasted about a year, before Englehart retired from comics to write a novel, but it was a big breath of fresh air for DC fans before he left. Englehart would return to comics in the 80s with some interesting independent projects.

DC Blows Up Real Good!

In 1978, DC was hit with the so-called DC Implosion — so-called because it happened just two months after their much-ballyhooed DC Explosion. In that promotion, they announced many new concepts and titles, most of which were canceled immediately (or never saw the light of day). Virtually overnight, the DC lineup was cut in half, and only its most popular titles and concepts survived. The reasons for the Implosion included arcane and complex business decisions with long-reaching effects on the future of the comics industry. The event served as a wake-up call to many that the old ways of doing business were no longer working. They needed to be re-evaluated and overhauled, and new business models — especially those in the distribution end of the business — needed to be discovered — and quickly. It took DC a couple of years to recover from the aftermath of the Implosion, but the lessons learned made the company (and the industry) stronger in the future.

A Time of Major Change

Right about here, it might be time to take a breather. As the 70s were winding down and the 80s about to begin, it was obvious that comics were in the midst of a huge transition. Much of this was on the business side of things. But the new breed of comic book creators were increasingly looking to comics as an outlet for more creative expression than just simply entertaining the kids. This first manifested itself in the undergrounds of the late 1960s and early 1970s, where creators aimed to reach a decidedly more mature audience, specifically the sex & drugs & rock & roll audience that defined that particular era. Previously, comics were considered a childish thing, to eventually be put aside for more adult pastimes. Stan Lee and company’s slightly more sophisticated — and ever-evolving — storytelling methods meant that modern American readers who fell in love with graphic storytelling never had to set it aside — the evolving artform was growing up with them. And naturally, publishers began to exploit this.

As the occasionally dismal 70s slid into the 80s, a number of additional factors, many which had been brewing for years, began to come to a head which would cause the face of comic books to rapidly change. The first major difference would be the way in which comics were distributed. The old method of independent (newsstand) distribution was faltering. Existing distributors became less and less interested in distributing comics, as their relatively low cover price and the complications of ever-increasing returns meant the profit margins were decreasing (especially in comparison to other magazines). Further, traditional comic book outlets (mom & pop markets, grocery stories, drug stores, newsstands) either began to disappear themselves or didn’t want to bother with the decreasing profit margins. As we will see later, much of this had to do with the format of traditional comic books. Produced as cheaply as possible, and mostly in a flimsy 32-page-plus-covers format, comic books offered no competition to more glossy — and substantial — magazines.

This is why, beginning in the 70s, companies began experimenting with new and different formats — larger page counts, magazine formats, treasuries, and digests — none of which really caught on. They required more outside-the-box thinking than most comic publishers wanted — or were capable of doing. Plus, at this point, Marvel and DC standard comic books were down to 17 story pages — just over half the book — with the rest of each issue filled with ads and required text features. Marvel ludicrously forced their artists to draw two pages of each story sideways on one art board, only paying them for one page of art, as a cost-cutting measure. The comics themselves looked terrible, as they began to be printed on cost-saving plastic printing plates (rather than metal) which caused fine lines in artwork to drop out and frequently blotched up the coloring.

Direct Ways of Doing Business

In lieu of substantial product changes, publishers began investigating new distribution outlets. Actually, the impetus for this came from comic book retailers themselves. In the late 60s and into the 70s, independent comic book stores began popping up in larger metropolitan areas around the country, many of whom were unhappy with the traditional distribution systems for comics. In 1972, one of these retailers, Phil Seuling, began to approach comics publishers about buying wholesale directly from them. One of the key factors of the negotiations was that Seuling was offering to buy in bulk on a non-returnable basis — as he was aware that comic books had a shelf life as back issues and collectables beyond their periodical origins. For this he wanted a larger discount. Comic retailers would assume a larger risk, while at the same time (he argued) the publishers would no longer risk having to give credit for unsold comics, as the traditional distributors operated. Retailers who used this system could also set their own orders for individual titles — ordering more of better-sellers — as well as having the option of reordering popular series. Neither of these options were offered by traditional distributors, who provided bulk lots of comics. Eventually, some comics publishers agreed to the system and Seuling’s Seagate Distribution — and the comics Direct Market — was born.

Through most of the 70s, Seagate (and eventually other companies) operated as a series of regional distributors, with shipping costs being the prohibitive factor in, say, California retailers getting comics from the East Coast-based Seagate. By the early 80s, several companies emerged as nationally-operating Direct Market distributors, all featuring smaller branch operations stretching across the country. They also offered lower-priced shipping options and even walk-in services. Ironically, many of the early Direct Market distributors were based on (or an actual part of) the semi-underground alternative distributors, who were largely responsible for the distribution of underground comics.

The Evolution Revolution

Nexus #1

Nexus #1

By the early 80s, Marvel and DC Comics were producing comics specifically for the Direct Market, many of which spotlighted less-mainsteam characters and concepts — as well as featuring better printing quality (and the increased cover prices often reflected this). Just the existence of this new method of distributing comic books led to the big wave of so-called Independent or Alternative comics and publishers, which became a major movement in the 1980s. Many of these early “indy” comics were actually produced by the companies that were distributing them, including Pacific Comics (Jack Kirby’s Captain Victory and Silver Star, Mike Grell’s Starslayer (originally prepared for DC and “lost” in the Implosion), and Dave Stevens’ The Rocketeer) as well as Capital Comics (Mike Baron and Steve Rude’s Nexus).

Ironically, this major change of business practices opened up many creative opportunities alternative to what was being offered by Marvel and DC. Besides seemingly unlimited subject matter (i.e., not just superheroes), the independent publishers also led the way in fulfilling creator desires for ownership rights and control over their work. Creators’ rights issues first became big-buzz discussions in the 70s, with DC’s highly publicized battles with Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and Marvel’s ongoing poor treatment of Jack Kirby. These topics exploded in the 80s with conversation about ownership of original artwork, reprint rights and royalties, creative ownership, censorship and labeling, higher page rates, benefits like insurance coverage, and even more creative discussions about presentation, format, and production values. All of these factors were capitalized on by new independent publishers like First Comics, Eclipse Comics, Dark Horse Comics, Comico, and others, who were able to lure major talent away from the Big Two.

Press to Play

The Comics Journal

The Comics Journal

Another major affect on comics storytelling was the growing organization and professionalism of the fan press. About 1977, Fantagraphics’ The Comics Journal switched to a magazine format and took advantage of the growing Direct Market to increase their circulation and visibility. Known for its opinionated reviews (itself a rarity), TCJ actually became much better known for its lengthy and revealing interviews with comics creators and industry leaders and for its investigative news pieces. Always featuring controversial opinions, TCJ walked a fine line with their news coverage, with many industry folks getting irritated or offended with the Journal for sticking noses into places where some people didn’t want them to go. This was in sharp contrast to the lightweight, press release version of news practiced by other fanzines of the time. In fact, the Journal was just practicing established investigative newsgathering techniques, and despite people getting irritated, TCJ elevated the public discourse and language of comics news and criticism. In retrospect, they are one of the primary sources for actual historical information of this critical era of comics development.

In 1981, Fantagraphics began a second magzine, Amazing Heroes, focusing primarily on superheroes and heroic fiction. AH had a much lighter tone than The Comics Journal while offering much the same types of content — news, reviews, and interviews. One innovation was its “Hero Histories” — long-form examinations of a single hero’s career, covering both fictional events and publication history. The Amazing Heroes Preview Specials were fascinating compilations of title-by-title rundowns of news and information for upcoming comic books. These were highly anticipated by fans and largely dreaded by publishers, as they were forced into proving that they actually had a game plan for their upcoming comic series. Looking back at the old Preview Specials, it’s interesting to see what was planned, but didn’t happen during that time frame. Amazing Heroes ran for over 200 issues, frequently published twice a month, until the Fantagraphics version folded in 1992. Other publishers attempted to keep it going, but the results were lackluster, and the title faded away for good in 1993.

In 1983, former comics writer and rock journalist David Anthony Kraft launched Comics Interview, which covered many of the top features and creators of the time, either talking about their current projects or their entire history working in comics. There wasn’t much in the way of news or reviews, but occasionally CI would provide an in-depth discussion on current hot-button topics or controversial comics or creators. Often, CI covered the creators TCJ didn’t, making them together an outstanding record of the period. Comics Interview ran for 150 issues, until 1995.

Also in 1983, the long-running Buyer’s Guide to Comics Fandom, mostly a trading post for buying, selling, or swapping old comics, was purchased by Krause Publications, where it was revamped into a more general-interest comic book newspaper. Former long-time columnists Don and Maggie Thompson were hired as editors for the weekly newspaper, which was then renamed Comics Buyer’s Guide, better known as simply CBG. The Thompsons added more columns, comics, and news features to the mix while retaining much of the trading post aspects of the previous incarnation. Although their goal wasn’t to be deliberately controversial like the Comics Journal, CBG did occasionally stir up far-ranging opinions in their lively letter column “Oh, So?”, an ongoing fascinating discussion among fans, creators, industry leaders, and historians. Some columnists, including Peter David and catherine yronwode, also tackled controversial topics. Other long-time contributors to the publication included Mark Evanier, Tony Isabella, and Bob Ingersoll, as well as the Thompsons themselves. Contributing cartoonists included Fred Hembeck (whose cartoons were virtually columns themselves), Chuck Fiala, Jim Engel, Richard Brunning, Brian Douglas Ahern, and many others.

In the pre-internet, pre-Wizard days, these — among many other more specialized fanzines, and even one full-color newsstand magazine, Comic Scene — were the primary way in which fans, as well as creators, got much of their comics news. Further, the growing level of discussion about comics in the columns, reviews, and even letter columns of these publications — as well as the lettercolums in the comics themselves — elevated the general discourse in small but meaningful ways and acted in some small ways as inspiration to the newer generations of comics creators to take bigger risks, set higher standards, maintain higher expectations for themselves and the companies they did business with, and find new ways of telling their stories in the graphic medium which was rapidly becoming an art form.

NEXT WEEK ON NEVER-ENDING STORY: Comics explode into the 80s with new ideas, formats, production quality, venues, and audiences, as new artists and writers break the rules and an old master shows a new way to tell stories. Plus, indy comics gain a foothold in the late 70s and forever change the face of comics.

KC Carlson is typing as fast as he can before his keyboard completely melts. Jeez, it’s hot.

Many thanks to Bob Greenberger for his assistance.

The classic comic covers used in this article are from the Grand Comics Database.

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