ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies

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DC: Overview of "The Establishment"

DC Comics was the leading publisher of comics during the first three decades of the comic book industry and is credited with being largely responsible for the look and content of mainstream American comic books. By the end of the twentieth century, the company had become the longest established purveyor of comic books and one of the most important and in? uential in the history of the business. Many of the genre’s most popular characters, including Superman and Batman, were found at DC. The company experienced peaks and valleys, but overall DC comics have been noted for their consistent quality and class.

DC Comics began in 1935 as National Allied Publishing and was started by Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, a former U.S. Army major and pulp magazine writer. Based in New York, Wheeler-Nicholson launched New Fun and New Comics, titles that featured original material instead of reprinted newspaper funnies. The Major had good intentions but insuf? cient capital and business acumen and soon fell into debt. He sold the company to his distributor, the Independent News Company, and its new owners (Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz) eventually built the small operation into a multi-million dollar company.

Donenfeld and Liebowitz began a third comic book title, Detective Comics, in 1937. Detective featured a collection of original comic strips based on detective-adventure themes. Utilizing their own distribution company, the new owners developed important contacts with other national distributors to provide their titles the best circulation network in the business. Their publishing arm was officially called National Periodical Publications, but it soon became known by the trademark—DC—printed on its comic books and taken from the initials of its flagship title.

By 1938 the stage was set for DC to move to the top. During that year, DC acquired the rights to Superman from his creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Superman’s debut in Action Comics immediately affected the comic book industry—by the end of 1938 sales of the title reached half-a-million per issue. DC had achieved the industry’s first original comic book star. In 1939 Bob Kane and Bill Finger created Batman as a follow-up to Superman and the “caped crusader” soon became as popular as the “man of steel.” Of course, DC’s competitors noted the winning formula and costumed imitators soon flooded the market. DC immediately moved to protect its creative property and place in the market by suing the Fox Syndicate (Wonderman) over an imitation of Superman. The company also went to court with Fawcett Publications over Captain Marvel, in a lawsuit that went on for over ten years.

During the 1940s DC developed its foundation as the comic book industry’s Establishment when it established a policy designed to elevate the standards of its material over that of the competition. In 1941 DC assured parents that all of its comics were screened for appropriate moral content by setting up an Editorial Advisory Board consisting of prominent educators and child-study experts. The strategy served to deflect from DC the growing public criticism being directed at comic books in general. It also deprived their publications of the edgy qualities that had made the early Superman and Batman stories so compelling. DC maintained this conservative editorial policy over the next several decades.

As with most other comic book publishers, the years of the Second World War were a boom time for DC. New and popular characters were launched, including Wonder Woman, the Green Lantern, the Flash, and the Justice Society of America. During the war, DC tried to educate readers on the issues of the conflict (although it, like other publishers, also featured malicious stereotypes of the enemy). The principles of national unity across ethnic, class, and racial lines were featured along with a simplified and positive vision of the postwar era proclaimed by the Roosevelt administration. After the war, DC consistently celebrated a liberal postwar order although through added educational features separated from adventure stories.

During the 1940s and 1950s DC strengthened and consolidated its leading position in the comic book industry. DC avoided the growing criticism of the industry during this time by avoiding the excessively violent crime and horror subjects put out by competitors. Thus, when the Comics Code was adopted in 1954 (to self-police and self-censor comics publishers), the content of DC was scarcely affected. DC spokesmen led the way in extolling the virtues of the Code-approved comics and dominated the market as never before. By 1962, DC comics accounted for over 30 percent of all comic books sold.

DC Comics was diversified and published in a variety of genres, including science fiction, humor, romance, westerns, war, mystery, and adaptations of popular television programs and movie star comics (such as Jerry Lewis and Bob Hope). Its main strength continued to rest upon the popularity of its superheroes, especially Batman and Superman. The popular television series, The Adventures of Superman (1953-1957), served to promote DC Comics although the overall impact of television was to hurt comic book sales throughout the industry. Beginning in 1956, DC revised and revamped a number of its 1940s superheroes, and the newlook Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, and Justice League of America launched what comic book historians have termed the “Silver Age” of superhero comics (with the “Golden Age” occurring during the 1930s-1940s).

According to Bradford Wright (Comic Book Nation, 2001), DC comics were grounded in the culture of consensus and conformity, thus making them the comics best representing the values of the Establishment. The superheroes championed high-minded and progressive American values and were always victorious in their struggles. They all could be held up as decent role models for children; they all 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. The characters put forth by DC stressed the importance of the individual’s obligation to the community, even at the expense of their own individualism. Therefore, most if not all of the DC heroes spoke and behaved in a similar fashion, were in control of their emotions, and rose above the usual failings of the human condition. Their world was also under control: they resided in clean green suburbs, modern cities with shining glass skyscrapers and futuristic unblemished worlds. The DC heroes of the Silver Age exuded American affluence and confidence.

However, the “squeaky-clean” DC superheroes proved to be vulnerable to the challenge posed by the “flawed” heroes and antiheroes of Marvel Comics. During the 1960s, anti-establishment figures such as Spider Man, the Incredible Hulk, and the Fantastic Four meshed well with emerging trends in contemporary youth culture and were popular with readers, young and older. Although DC tried to introduce similar themes and story lines as Marvel, DC was surpassed as the industry’s leading publisher by the mid-1970s. In 1968 Warner Brothers purchased the company and 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. Ultimately, Warner Brothers would produce a series of blockbuster films featuring Superman and Batman. In 1976 Jeanette Kahn became the new DC publisher and through the early 1980s several top writers and artists were attracted to the company.

From the late 1980s DC was successful in the direct-sales market to comic book stores with a number of titles labeled “For Mature Readers Only” and also led the way in the growing market for “graphic novels.” Established superheroes such as Batman and Green Arrow gained new life as violent vigilante characters and a new generation of surreal post-modern superheroes like the Sandman and Animal Man were created. Such innovative and ambitious titles helped DC to reclaim much of the creative cutting edge from Marvel although its sales lagged behind throughout the 1990s. Due to its historical significance as the prime founder of the American comic book industry, DC continued to be supported by loyal fans as well as longtime collectors.

Exhibit 1: Main

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