After three years of editorial upheaval and production growth that included Jenette Kahn replacing Carmine Infantino as publisher of the company in early 1976, DC Comics appeared to have attained a hard-earned stability at the dawn of 1978. No greater example of this apparent stability was the publication of the long-delayed Superman vs. Muhammad Ali (All-New Collectors’ Edition #C-56) at the beginning of the year. Although the timing was frustrating, as Ali would lose his heavyweight boxing title to Leon Spinks in February, the release of this remarkable book by Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams, its genesis dating back to early 1976, was no small triumph.
DC was not resting on that one particular laurel, however. Freedom Fighters, Karate Kid, and Return of the New Gods had been canceled earlier in the year, but it was in order to make room for new titles, and the New Gods series was to be concluded in the Adventure Comics. Dollar Comic. Beyond the changes in the publishing schedule, a major change in format was in the works as well.
News of the format change had already leaked to the comics press in late 1977. In June of 1978, all regular-sized DC titles would be expanding in page-count (excluding the successful Dollar Comics line as well as the Giant Justice League of America and Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes). The plan was to add eight story pages of all-new material to the lowly 17 to which the regular books had shrunk. The new cost would be 50 cents (up from 35), instead of the hike to 40 cents that would have been made had the comics stayed at 17 pages.
In the case of the Justice League of America and Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes, DC was going to be reducing the page count from 34 to the new regular size of 25 pages while dropping the price from 60 cents to 50. Also, the Dollar Comics went from 84 pages with ads to 68 pages without ads, which was still a good deal.
The company hailed the endeavor as the “DC Explosion,” and teasers for the 44-page format began appearing in all DC comics during the late winter and spring. In June, Kahn devoted one of her monthly “publishorials” to explaining and celebrating the new format.,).
As a loyal DC fan, I was properly enthusiastic about the company’s ambitious plans, though keeping track of all the new back-up features–ranging from rotating features in Action Comics to “Tales of the Amazons” in Wonder Woman, had me a little concerned. Fortunately, Bob Rozakis, then DC’s “Answer Man,” provided a full-page checklist of who and what were appearing in various titles, and for that I was grateful.
However, as exciting as it all was, there were already signs of trouble before June even rolled around. Shade, the Changing Man, Claw the Unconquered, Aquaman, Secret Society of Super-Villains, and Mister Miracle, which had all been confirmed on the publishing schedule with the eight additional pages were abruptly canceled just before the expansion.
Also, a sestet of new books had been announced–Army at War, Dynamic Classics, Demand Classics, Western Classics, The Vixen, and Strange Adventures were slotted in the June subscription house ad but only one issue of Army at War and Dynamic Classics were to be published out of that group. Strange Adventures–which was first listed in the May subscription ad as a 50 cent title, then in the June subscription ad as a Dollar Comic–would eventually morph into the Dollar Comic Time Warp a year later.
While there was also mention of a revived Swamp Thing, a western entitled The Deserter, and Mike Grell’s Starslayer, none came to fruition, at least not until the early 1980s in the cases of Swamp Thing, which DC revived in 1982 and eventually handed over to Alan Moore, and Starslayer, which Grell took to Pacific Comics in that same year.
Despite these setbacks, the DC Explosion launched as planned and rocked the comics world during the summer of ’78. And I rocked with them–listening to such great tunes as Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street,” Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good,” and Sweet’s “Love Is Like Oxygen” during my comics reading. Suddenly, after three months, the expansion crumbled, rocking the comics world even harder. It will forever be known as the “DC Implosion.”
Fourteen bimonthly books were canceled:
- All-Star Comics,
- Black Lightning,
- Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth,
- Doorway to Nightmare,
- Battle Classics,
- Army at War (after just the one issue),
- Dynamic Classics (also after just the one issue),
- Our Fighting Forces,
- Batman Family,
- Firestorm, the Nuclear Man,
- House of Secrets,
- Secrets of Haunted House,
- Star Hunters,
- Steel, the Indestructible Man.
Along with two monthly books: Showcase and The Witching Hour. Overall, it was roughly 40% of DC’s line.
Warner Communications, of which DC was a subdivision under Warner Publishing, had taken a hard look at the overall low sales of DC over the past year–including a three-month marketing survey (mine still resides as an unfilled insert in the center of Batman Family #17, published in January 1978), and taking into account the effect that a crippling blizzard had had on distribution during the previous winter in those days before comic book specialty shops were ubiquitous. Warner decided a drastic cutback was necessary. Thus, the publishing of fewer titles, a new distribution system, and a new marketing strategy were put in place.
In September of 1978 (cover date of December), the 44-page format was gone, with all remaining books reverting to the standard 36-page size and the lowly 17 pages of new material, now for a cover price of 40 cents. Ironically, and historically, Muhammad Ali had a much better month, reclaiming his WBA heavyweight crown from Leon Spinks on September 15.
Gone were the back-up features, some of them absorbed by the Dollar Comics (such as Hawkman moving from Detective Comics to World’s Finest Comics). House of Secrets, The Witching Hour, and Doorway to Nightmare found a home in The Unexpected, which had expanded to a Dollar Comic.
Much of the unpublished material was collected, photo-copied, put into loose book form, and spread over two ashcan volumes to become the legendary Cancelled Comics Cavalcade that was distributed around the DC offices to protect the company’s copyrights of stories that had been purchased featuring new characters–such as Steve Ditko’s “The Odd Man” feature that had been planned as the back-up for Shade, the Changing Man. I’ve always felt the cancellation of Showcase was a real shame, because the proposed line-up of Deadman, The Creeper, and The Huntress looked awesome.
Even Detective Comics, DC’s second oldest title at that point, and the series whose very initials symbolically represented the company for decades–initials that had officially become part of the publisher’s title in 1976–was threatened with cancellation. In fact, in a startling subscription ad in the August-released books, Detective Comics wasn’t even listed!
Fortunately, someone noticed the blasphemy, and Detective was saved by merging it with the suddenly revived Batman Family Dollar Comic, the sales of which were stronger than those for Detective.
By the time the DC Implosion occurred, the writing was on the wall for me–and I later learned it was on the same wall for DC. The traditional outlets for comics circulation were drying up or already gone. In the early to mid-1970s, there were over a half dozen places for me to buy comics in Pasadena, California–Thrifty’s, Pantry Market, Stop n’ Go, Don’s Paperback, Circle K, 7-Eleven, and Bungalow News. By 1978, there were only two locations in Pasadena selling comics, Bungalow News and Book Village, a used paperbacks shop.
When the DC Explosion started, Book Village began acquiring their comics in a fashion I’d never seen before; all of them, as scheduled, on a weekly basis, no missed titles. It was weird, but satisfying. It was as if they were arriving from some mysterious direct source in their own box, not sandwiched between a bunch of other magazines at the convenience stores and newsstands. Little did I know, but I was getting a taste of receiving comics via direct sales. The effect of that winter blizzard the previous year had shown the companies that newsstand distribution was too fickle.
Meanwhile, it was a devastating time for DC, which also had to deal with several staff firings, but the company was not decimated. While there were no longer Kahn’s optimistic Publishorials to keep DC fans abreast of what was coming from the company–and there wouldn’t be for some time–the company adapted to its new marketing strategy and, cautiously, held strong, with twenty standard-sized monthly titles and six bimonthly Dollar Comics.
The shipping schedule was altered so that a month’s worth of books was split up and released bi-weekly. In the early going, some standard books contained longer stories of 23 pages as they were originally geared toward the expanded line (with two pages being cut from the original story). However, by the end of the year, all of the comics were locked into the lowly 17-page output. No new titles were introduced until the summer of 1979.
Believe me, it’s always been the business of 1978’s DC Explosion/Implosion that has taken center stage when it comes to chronicling comics history during the 1970s, and I can confirm that through my research. I have made a point of spending some time re-reading a lot of the fine material that DC published over the course of that fateful year.
It’s not all darkness on the edge of town.
Story highlights for that year include:
- A terrific Batman prose and picture story by Denny O’Neil and Marshall Rogers in DC Special Series #15,
- Writer Michael Fleisher’s controversial final fate of Jonah Hex in DC Special Series #16,
- More of writer Martin Pasko’s underrated, and at times frustrating, run on Superman,
- Mike Grell’s The Warlord,
- Steve Gerber and Michael Golden’s brief take on Mister Miracle,
- Frank Miller’s first published work for DC in Weird War Tales #64,
- The debut of DC Comics Presents, featuring Superman teaming up with various DC super-stars,
- A bizarre two-part Batman tale by Jim Starlin in Detective Comics #481-482,
- The four-part “Earthwar” epic in Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes,
- A really cool Steve Skeates/Arthur Suydam suspense thriller in House of Mystery #261,
- And the metamorphosis of Green Lantern’s alien sidekick Itty in Green Lantern #104.
Okay, that last one isn’t exactly a highlight, but being a GL fan I wanted to work him into this article somewhere.
Also of note is that by the end of 1978 legendary editor Julius Schwartz had relinquished his duties on The Flash, Green Lantern, Batman, Detective Comics, and Justice League of America to become exclusive editor of all the Superman titles. DC actually finished the year on a positive note, with the popularity and financial success of the Superman movie.
On a low note, alas, although I consider it a heck of a story, was the killing of The Batman in Adventure Comics #462 (March-April, 1979), published in December. The Batman of Earth-2, that is. This story was in direct contrast to the much more celebratory wedding of Earth-2’s Superman and Lois Lane in Action Comics #484, published earlier in the year. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the death of Batman was an omen of grimmer, grittier, and slightly madder things to come from DC in 1979.
Special thanks to The Comics Journal, whose exceptional coverage of the DC Explosion (CJ #38, February, 1978) and Implosion (CJ #41, August, 1978) was an invaluable resource for this article.
A more expanded version of this article, including interviews and more details on the comics themselves, will be published in the upcoming Comic Effect #48.