Cancelled Comics Cavalcade: 30 Years Later with Paul Kupperberg

A comics interview article by: Jim Beard
A wee bit more than 30 years ago DC was in the middle of what was perhaps one of their gloomiest times ever (not counting Zero Hour, of course). In an effort to meet their Marvelous Competition across town toe-to-toe on the stands, they went a bit nuts. Their eyes bigger than their stomachs, DC bit off a bit more than they could chew and their much-vaunted “Explosion” of titles became a decidely-uncool “Implosion”. Production on several titles ceased immediately and an inventory of art and writing was without a home. In the aftermath rose one of the quirkiest collectibles ever to grace the comics scene: Cancelled Comics Cavalcade.

DC took all of the unpublished material it had at the time, photocopied it and put it together in a very loose book form. In stunning black and white, and boasting what might be the smallest print run of any series from a major comic book publisher, the CCC has become a legend in its own right. Thirty years later (almost) it’s still a subject of conversation, debate, puzzlement, and out-and-out myth.

I decided to check in with prolific Paul Kupperberg, writer of excellence and present during those dark, dark days at DC, to get the lowdown on the hows, whys, whats, and whos of Cancelled Comics Cavalcade. Follow along for an insider’s view of how this most unique of items came to be.

Jim Beard (JB): It was all your fault, wasn¹t it? :-}

Paul Kupperberg (PK): Not hardly, nuh-uh. I didn’t touch anything, I don’t know how comic books got broken in 1978, I swear! I was just a cog in the wheel. A wheeling accomplish, if you wheel. (That was me channeling Julie Schwartz. It won’t happen again.)

JB: Ah, yes, I could sense the great man himself there for a moment. So then, what caused the Implosion? ‘Bad weather’ was stated as one of the causes…surely it had to be more than just that?

PK: It was a combination of things. It started about 1975, which is the year I got into comics, writing for Charlton and DC. Again, just a coincidence. Not my fault no matter how bad most of those early stories were.

DC and Marvel both went on this competitive expansion jag, each trying to muscle the other off the newsstands … here’s where I do the old fart thing: back in the olden days, comics weren’t sold in comics specialty shops. They were sold in drugstores, candy stores, bus and train stations, newsstands, etc. The company would print, say, 500,000 copies of a comic (yeah, that’s right, and that was for one of the low selling titles), send it out through the distributor, who passed them on to the wholesalers, who sent them out to the retailers, and whatever the retailer didn’t sell, got returned to be pulped and recycled. That’s opposed to the modern system, where the retailer buys his comics outright, no returns.

So, DC expands, sixteen titles in 1975,with the line of Dollar Comics starting around then, twenty-one in 1976, twelve in 1977, and eight in 1978 ... 57 new titles in three years. Plus, in 1978, the page count went from 17 pages of story and art to 25, the price went from 35¢ to 50¢, and this was all heralded with big “DC Explosion” house ads. I don’t know how many titles Marvel threw out there during the same period, but I’m betting it was as many, if not more. Plus, remember, Archie, Charlton, Dell, and Gold Key were all also significant presences on the racks, so there was a lot of competition for space in what was often a single, overstuffed spinner rack in a neighborhood candy store.

So, two months into this major expansion, the bubble just bursts. Part of the problem was too much product: if a newsstand got too many comics to fit on the allotted rack space, he wouldn’t even bother opening the bundles and putting them out. He’d just ship them back, unopened, for credit. He was making a few pennies per comic; the space was better used to sell higher priced magazines that paid more per copy.

Another factor was the weather. The winter of 1977-1978 had a lot of especially bad ice storms and blizzards all across the country. During February, it got so bad a lot of trucks never even made it out of warehouses, so commerce was at a virtual standstill.

Another aspect of the old distribution was that it took six months for final sales reports to be tallied and issued, so the numbers for February books showed up in July or August, at the start of the summer “Explosion”—kids bought more comics during the summer when school was out—and the Warner Bros. execs flipped their lids. Next thing you know, lay-offs—me included—massive cancellations, and a reduction in page count.

JB: What's the timeline with your own layoff and return to DC? When was your first actual scripting for DC? 1975?

PK: We put together CCC before I left staff. I don't recall if it was before or after I was laid off--there may have been some time, maybe a few weeks, between the Implosion and the lay-offs, or we could have done it in the two-weeks-notice period before my last day.

My first script for DC was a 10-page World of Krypton back-up, art by Marshall Rogers and Frank Springer, that ran in Superman Family #194, which I sold in the summer of 1975, about three months after I'd made my very first professional sale to Charlton Comics.

JB: Okay, so what was the feeling/mood around DC when the Implosion came down?

PK: Grim. I think eight or ten people got canned, which in those days of 40 or 45 people on staff, was significant. It was a very unhappy time and frankly, there were moments a lot of us were wondering if there would even be a DC a year from then.

I remember composing a blues song to the tune of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ called ‘Parking Lot Blues,’ because we figured the way things were going, Warners was going to turn our office space over to a sister company, Kinney Parking Services, and we’d all be parking cars instead of publishing comics. I was entirely wrong. I didn’t get to park cars, I got to collect unemployment.

JB: What was your specific position with DC at the time?

PK: I was the assistant PR guy starting in 1977. Don’t know if I even had a real title. I can guarantee the salary wasn’t real. I wrote promotional copy, did mailings, helped put together promo materials, that kind of stuff.

JB: Since you won’t own up to the Implosion, whose idea exactly at DC was it for CCC?

PK: Mike Gold, the PR guy.

JB: What exactly was the prime reason for publishing CCC?

PK: The stated, official reason was: We have all this material that isn’t going to be published. We should put it out in some limited edition to protect the copyright. Plus, wouldn’t it be nice to give copies of the printed work to the poor creators whose comics were unexpectedly axed.

Of course, the real reason was: wouldn’t it be cool to create a major collectible and instant legendary publication!

JB: Ha! Was their any resistance around the offices to do CCC that you know of?

PK: Not that I recall. The idea was presented to Sol Harrison, then president of DC, for the above-mentioned official reason. Sol said do it cheap—I don’t think he cared whether the poor creators got copies or not—and make sure copies went to DC’s library.

JB: He sounds pretty no-nonsense. What was your exact involvement in CCC? It says in the “editorial” that you did the photocopying?

PK: I did the grunt work on it, assembling all the material from the various editors, arranging it all, and dealing directly with the printing. The printing and binding itself was done in the Warner Bros. print shop, which was in the basement of 75 Rockefeller Center where DC then had its offices, by a gentleman named Neil (credited as “Neil of the Magic Finger” in CCC). Neil, by the way, still works at 75 Rock, or at least he did a year and a half ago—I work in a different neighborhood since leaving DC.

JB: What was its physical construction like? Simply copied pages and then stapled? No card stock covers?

PK: Xerox copies between heavy blue paper covers, glued square spine held together by a strip of black binding tape. We went crazy and commissioned covers from Alex Saviuk and Al Milgrom…everybody gets hit by a truck, but they probably worked for free to be in on the joke or to get a copy! Like I said, we did this cheap. This wasn’t made to last. It was made to be sent to the copyright office.

JB: How was the 35-copy print run decided upon? Who did they go out to?

PK: Well, one for the [DC] library, two for the Library of Congress, Sol got a copy, Jenette Kahn, myself, a few other staffers, then we counted up the freelancers—I don’t remember exactly who it went out to, but people like Gerry Conway and Dick Ayers whose work was run in it surely got copies. You can probably figure out who got one from the table of contents. And, one copy went to Bob Overstreet, of the Overstreet Price Guide, just to prove to the world that it actually existed. We counted 35 copies.

However, we printed 40. Yep, don’t know how many bootlegs there are out there of CCC, but there are actually 40 legitimate copies. The other five made their way through channels that I’ve since forgotten to names that I no longer recall…but the real number is 40, folks.

JB: You said actual covers were commissioned – any difficulty in getting them done?

PK: Nope. Al was on staff on DC at the time, I believe, and Alex was around a lot as a freelancer. They were happy to play, become part of history. Besides, by 1978, there were a whole lot of us youngsters running around the hall, both on staff and as freelancers, and kids just wanted to have fun, baby.

Julie, Murray, Kanigher, Kubert, the previous generation of editors were still there, but it was way more jeans and t-shirts than shirts and ties in the corridors than it had been. We would get shushed in the halls like second graders by the older guys when we made too much noise. Levitz, Jack Harris, Milgrom, Hama, Isabella, Guy H. Lillian, Rozakis, me … some of us actually had fun in the office. I remember a rubberband fight that lasted about three days, all through the halls and offices. So finding a couple of guys to be a part of the goof was easy.

JB: “Those miserable kids…making a mockery of everything!” Now, there were two editions of CCC. Why two and how much time was between their "publication"?

PK: They were done simultaneously and we did two because one volume would have been too thick for our cheesy method of binding to hold.

JB: Each edition had several stories and some unused covers. Did everything that should have been included get included?

PK: As far as I recall. I think everything that had been produced, covers and stories, for the Explosion made it into CCC.

JB: What was your personal favorite of the contents? Least favorite?

PK: I think my favorites would have to be the two issues of Showcase, one with Deadman by Wein & Conway and Aparo and Creeper by Steve Ditko…of course, I’ve always been a Showcase fan, and what’s not to love from Aparo and Ditko.

Can’t really say any of them leap out as least favorite…hell, even the wacky Joe Simon Green Team stuff, while just off the charts as far as concept goes, is goofy fun. And it had art by the brilliant and unsung Jerry Grandenetti!

JB: What were some of the reactions from the giftees?

PK: Everything from “cool” to “what do I need this for?” Some people recognized it for what it was and held on to their copies. I heard some of the older, ‘I just do this for a living”-type creators tossed it to their kids or the neighbors to read, tear apart, or color in.

JB: Whaa? Oh my Lord, the pain, the pain! Wasn’t there any thought at the time that “this will be valuable someday?”

PK: Oh, yeah. From the start. That’s why Overstreet got a copy. To establish its provenance and value.

JB: How did word get out to the readership/fans that CCC existed? Do you remember any initial fan reaction?

PK: There was a lot of “Where can I get a copy?” from both the fan and professional community, which in those days was a much finer line than it is today, since half the people in comics were only a couple of years out of fanzines anyway.

JB: DC’s going to be reprinting one of the Secret Society of Super-Villiams stories from CCC in a Showcase Presents (the other issue of SSoSV in CCC was only rough pencils – unfinished). Your thoughts?

PK: I think it’s cool. I know several stories from CCC have seen print over the years, but I like that this one’s going to finally finish up the run of SSoSV, thirty years later.

JB: In all, in your opinion, is CCC deserving of the legend that has sprung up around it?

PK: I think it actually is. It’s a unique relic of a major moment in comics history. Scarcity’s always good for increasing desire for an object like that and you don’t get much more scarce than CCC. Well, five copies less scarce than everybody’s always thought, but still scarce.

JB: Can you relate the story of your own personal copy, how you got one, sold it, etc.?

PK: Hey, my name’s in it, I get a comp copy. But as one of the people behind putting it together, I was among the thirty-five chosen ones. I kept that copy for a few years, until about 1981 when, during one of my starving artist years, I sold it for $600 to a collector in Chicago—not a lot now, I know, but in those days my rent was $145 a month, so that money went a long way. I don’t even know what a copy would go for today.

I was sorry to have to let go of it. I said bye-bye to a lot of great old books during that period, including my mint copy of Showcase #4, which I bought off of inker Jack Abel when I was a teenager for $10, for about 1/40th its current value, but I’d grown addicted to eating, curse my weak soul. Other copies of CCC have since drifted through my life, but none have stayed permanently and I don’t think I’ve seen a copy for almost 20 years.

You couldn’t get away with something like CCC today. Someone would have to write a proposal, which would go through the review process, be assigned an editor, planned, re-planned, reviewed by the hierarchy, corrected, colored, printed, bound ... and sold for $24.95 a volume, where it would sit on the backlist for all the rest of time. We, on the other hand, were just having a good time, making lemons out of lemonade by putting together our own little fanboy bragging rights collectible.

JB: That story hurts almost as much as the one about the kids coloring in it! One last little addendum here: The head of Mego (the 70s-80s toy company) claims that at some point in the mid-70s or so he was offered the chance to buy DC and its characters. Bupkis? Or...? I bring this up because at one point you say you and other staffers wondered "if there would even be a DC".

PK: That's not entirely out of the realm of possibility, certainly not in 1978. Look, as early as 1970 or so, you had the young guys like Chaykin and Weiss and Wrightson coming into comics, and you read interviews with them today where they all say they thought they were getting into the comics business during the industry's "last days." None of these guys thought comics would be around in 10 years, maybe not even five. Then you get to something catastrophic like the Implosion...hard not to be pessimistic.

Because, certainly in those days, when the fans were only a small percentage of the buying public as opposed to 100% of today's market, it would have made sense for the company, struggling with publishing, to just stop creating and buying new material and go all reprint, using the 40 years of backlogged material to keep titles going and characters in the public eye. You think Mego or Kellogg's or whoever the licensors were back then gave a crap if there was a new Superman story published this month? It made no difference; as long as DC published a comic book called Superman, the license had value. So why not save a small fortune on new material and go all-reprint, bag the creative staff except for Nelson and a couple of junior editors to package the reprints, and there would still have been the exact same Superman: The Movie, etc.

So, it's very possible that DC was, behind closed doors, 'for sale,' and Mego was as likely a buyer as any. I don't doubt there were talks—could have been completely informal, who knows?--but, thankfully, Superman: The Movie started to look like it was going to be as strong as it turned out to be, plus after the sales disaster of the winter of '78, sales picked up again and the panic subsided.

JB: Thanks for your time and all the great information, Paul…and let’s hope there never has to be a Cancelled Comics Cavalcade #3 someday.

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