Book Review: "Comic Book Implosion" Examines a Key Moment in Comic Book History
Copyright 2018 Michael W. Rickard
Things looked bleak for comic books throughout the 1970s because of plummeting sell-through rates. With each passing year, the newsstand became less and less interested in selling comic books. The industry seemed locked in a death spiral, but the Powers That Be at DC Comics had an idea to reverse their fortunes. In 1978, they implemented a bold initiative: Provide readers with more story pages by increasing the price-point of a regular comic book to make it comparable to other magazines sold on newsstands. Billed as “The DC Explosion,” this expansion saw the introduction of numerous creative new titles. But mere weeks after its launch, DC’s parent company pulled the plug, demanding a drastic decrease in the number of comic books they published, and leaving stacks of completed comic book stories unpublished. The series of massive cutbacks and cancellations quickly became known as “The DC Implosion.” TwoMorrows Publishing marks the 40th Anniversary of one of the most notorious events in comics with an exhaustive oral history from the creators and executives involved (Jenette Kahn, Paul Levitz, Len Wein, Mike Gold, and Al Milgrom, among many others), as well as detailed analysis and commentary by other top professionals, who were “just fans” in 1978 (Mark Waid, Michael T. Gilbert, Tom Brevoort, and more)―examining how it changed the landscape of comics forever! By Keith Dallas and John Wells.
The mid to late-1970’s nearly saw the death of comic books, as the industry battled a changing market, inflation, and paper shortages. Industry leaders Marvel and DC’s comic books faced extinction, both due to ever-diminishing sales and because it didn’t make sense for vendors to carry their titles. In Marvel’s case, licensing Star Wars provided them the cash influx to hold on while DC experimented with ways to make their books attractive to news vendors. Keith Dallas and John Wells’ new book, Comic Book Implosion is an excellent oral account of DC’s efforts and how they figuratively blew up on them, nearly sinking the comic book line.
It’s been a good time for comic book fans who like to get a look behind the scenes of the major companies that produce comic books (DC and Marvel for those out of the loop). Last fall’s Slugfest provided a great account of the long war between DC and Marvel while TwoMorrows Publishing’s Comic Book Implosion covers DC Comics’ ill-fated experiment known as “The DC Explosion” and its subsequent failure nicknamed, “The DC Implosion.” Comic Book Implosion provides an oral history of the entire experience including its impact on the comic book industry This book is packed with interviews from the men and women of the comic book industry, as well as critics of that time. This, mixed with contemporary comments provides a great retrospective of a crucial era in comic book history.
The 1970’s were a bad time for selling comic books. As detailed in Comic Book Implosion (and many other sources), comic books had not kept up with other magazines when it came to their prices. Comic books sold for 25 cents while magazines such as Time sold for one dollar. If a newsstand had the choice of selling a magazine or a comic, they went with the magazine because their profit was greater. Reported paper shortages and inflation aggravated an already shaky situation, forcing comic book companies to scramble as they fought to stay afloat. With inflation and paper shortages aggravating the problem, raising the cost of a comic book seemed like a no-win situation as there was a thought that fans would only spend so much for comics and that they would be forced to drop some books to cover the increased costs. There was also concern fans would stop buying comics all together as the costs soared. Nonetheless, the industry had to act or the comic books would cease to exist.
DC's 100-Page Super-Spectaculars were one measure to boost sales and make comics more appealing to vendors.
Comic Book Implosion does a good job establishing the circumstances facing publishers in the 70’s, recalling the industry’s early days of 10-cent books with many pages through comic book companies maintaining a price freeze, but decreasing their page count. Over time, the industry made slight increases to hold the line, but later experimented with price increases coupled with an added page count. However, the added content was reprint material, which received a mixed reaction from fans. Both DC and Marvel shifted gears and began special editions of some of their books known as 100-page Super Spectaculars (DC) and Giant-Size books (Marvel). These books allowed DC and Marvel a way to get higher-priced books into newsstands, hopefully making them more attractive to vendors. Still, the industry faced an uncertain future, leading to DC attempting a bold experiment.
Marvel's answer to their publishing woes was its line-up of Giant-Size books.
Comic Book Implosion traces the evolution of DC’s Super-Spectaculars into their Dollar Comic Books and the subsequent expansion known as the DC Explosion. The DC Explosion saw comics raised to fifty cents with added page content. Unlike some of the previous expanded editions, these books featured all-new material whether it was expanded stories or 8-page back-up features starring characters not ready for their own titles. It was an ambitious move that DC hoped could help it make inroads in sales and step ahead of rival Marvel Comics. Dallas and Wells’ book is an oral history, leaving it to the reader whom to believe. What really worked for me was reading industry professionals and people who wrote about the industry commenting on the events as they happened. Some saw the Explosion as a positive thing while others felt it was doomed to fail as previous page expansions had.
There are some intriguing stories about the behind-the-scenes politics at DC before, during, and after the Implosion. One of the biggest stories is Warner Brothers hiring Jennette Kahn to take over the company. The idea of bringing in a young female executive did not go over well with everyone at DC, and Kahn’s story makes for some great reading. Comic Book Implosion also discusses the interference of DC’s parent company Warner Brothers and how media tie-in’s such as its Wonder Woman TV show and looming Superman: The Movie affected DC’s plans for success at the newsstand.
Subsequently, the fallout from the Implosion helped the comic book companies seek a new way to sell books. This led to today’s market of comic book stores. After reading Comic Book Implosion, you realize it wasn’t the DC Explosion that saved the comic book industry, but the explosion of comic book shops. With dedicated stores providing easy access for fans to read their books, and a dedicated market, the industry was able to tap into fans by bypassing traditional vendors such as newsstands and grocery stores.
There are lots of illustrations from the books of the 70’s and some enlightening information for fans such as a breakdown of one of fans’ most cherished items—DC’s Cancelled Comics Cavalcade, a two-issue series DC printed to keep the copyrights on their cancelled books. The comic was only given to DC employees and remains an artifact for fans. Now, fans can read summaries of which books were featured in each issue and a synopsis of the story.
The Cancelled Comic Cavalcade remains a much-desired artifact for comic book fans.
Comic Book Implosion contains some great facts, confirming some rumors and dispelling others. For example, it confirms the rumor that DC was about to cancel Detective Comics in favor of the more financially successful Batman Family dollar comic. It also dispels the long-standing story that the terrible winter of 1978 led to the end of the DC Explosion. Fans interested in the industry will likely learn a lot reading this well-organized and well-written work. Comic Book Implosion provides an entertaining overview of a crucial point in the comic book industry.