Sunday, May 12, 2013

DP01-00b Countdown to 1963: 1953 to 1958

[Before I continue the Doom Patrol's Fiftieth Anniversary observance ("celebration" just seems a little out of character for them), I just want to mention that this past weekend I edged past the 10K mark in pageviews. How much of that is due to Asian porn sites trying (unsuccessfully lately!) to embed disguised links in the comments sections, I'm not sure. I'd like to think that if I had been more diligent in posting a little something every few days instead of a multi-page essay every few months then readers might check in habitually instead of when they're weeding out infrequently used bookmarks and we'd have said goodbye to 20K some time ago. The good new is that older pages get viewed nearly as often as the current ones, which was my intention from the outset; I'm creating the blog largely as a personal reference repository and sharing it with whoever can get any practical or aesthetic use out of it. As always, critiques, corrections and additions are all welcome in the comments.]

.....In April of 1963, DC Comics published the first Doom Patrol story. The decade leading up to that point had handed DC one advantage after another over their competitors, leaving them unprepared to deal with, or even recognize, changing tides in the years that would follow.

.....In 1953 their specious lawsuit against Fawcett Publications claiming that Captain Marvel violated Superman's copyright was finally settled after over a decade of litigation back and forth. Not only did they succeed in getting Fawcett to halt publication of their most popular character (and his numerous spin-off characters and titles), but the experience had so embittered Fawcett towards the business that it ceased publishing comics generally, except for titles related to Dennis The Menace. The last issues they published were FAWCETT'S FUNNY ANIMALS #83(01/54), ROCKY LANE WESTERN #55(01/54), LASH LARUE WESTERN #46(01/54) and TEX RITTER WESTERN #20(01/54) [all of which, among other titles, were continued by Charlton] and THE MARVEL FAMILY #89(01/54). Those all would have come out in late 1953, at which time Standard Publications was licensing Dennis The Menace for comics. When Standard went under in 1955, Pines picked up the license. In the meantime, paperback reprints of the newspaper comics were handled by Avon Books, then Pocket Books and finally Crest Books, a division of Fawcett. By the end of 1958, with the newspaper reprints and original comic book stories brought under the same 'roof', Fawcett returned to publishing comics, sort of. They only published Dennis titles (and a single blink-and-you'd-miss-it MARK TRAIL comic, another newspaper strip previously adapted by Standard and then Pines) and they only published in conjunction with Hallden, a company created by Post Syndicate president Robert Hall to handle the Dennis property outside of newspapers ["Hall"+"Den-nis"].

.....The significance of DC halting such a major competitor's operations lies in the character, Captain Marvel, who became the crux of the legal dispute. The Fawcett publishing empire was founded by Wilford Fawcett, who left the army after World War I and launched a humor magazine called CAPTAIN BILLY'S WHIZ BANG. Years later (at the end of 1939) when the company prepared to enter the comics publishing market their prototype was to be called FLASH COMICS, but DC had just released a series by that name while Fawcett's was still in the planning stages. They next considered the name THRILL COMICS, but instead went for a play on the name of the central character of the premiere issue. Captain Marvel, who is secretly Billy Batson, could only appear in WHIZ COMICS. Fawcett's second title? SLAM-BANG COMICS. Captain. Billy. Whiz. Bang. Fawcett had invested a bit of their own company's mythos into the colorful original fantasy characters and titles created for their new comics line and an appeals court ruling simply told the company to stop using them. This was not the first time DC had successfully sued another publisher over copyright infringement but it may have been the first time any comics publisher had scuttled another's identity.

.....In 1954 the notorious Senate hearings on the purported influence of comic books on juvenile delinquency were held and despite the fact no federal legislation resulted (and previous state regulations had already been overturned), the news coverage had cemented in the minds of the then less-media-savvy public that comic books-- not the specific comic books cited in the hearings, but comic books generally-- were dangerous, harmful and sinister in ways and for reasons that weren't necessary to explain or understand. Sales shrank, made worse by national inflation in the post war economy (the Korean War ended in 1953 and the Allied occupation of West Germany was only then winding down, ending in 1955). DC suffered from that along with all the other publishers. In the fall of 1954, DC's 40-page comics were reduced to the 32-page standard that dominated the industry for the rest of the century. But it was smaller publishers operating with much slimmer margins who were wiped out entirely. Between the end of the Senate hearings in June and the formation of the Comics Magazine Association Of America in September three notable ones (Fiction House, Star Publications and Comic Media) shipped their final issues. An even smaller one (Youthful) went under between the April and June hearings. By the end of October the CMAA published the final version of their new Comics Code, or at least final until its first revision in 1971. To reassure the public that their comics adhered to some kind of moral standards, members would carry the white "postage stamp" motif seal of approval. An earlier, similar organization (the ACMP, with fewer participants) had used a "star badge" motif seal, but it didn't have a consistent color, often having the same color as the background of the comic cover on which it appeared, making it difficult to notice. The more prominent CMAA stamp seemed to have had the opposite effect from its intention. Perhaps by calling attention to the idea that a comic book's content might be something to be concerned about, it was more effective at raising doubts about quality than assuaging them. Over the next two years the code-compliant publishers Quality, Lev Gleason, Ace, Mainline (a year-old Simon-Kirby venture), Toby, Orbit (which had to have been in financial trouble to begin with; only the final issue of LOVE DIARY carried the stamp), Avon, Trojan, Master, Story, Key, Premier, Sterling and Argo all ceased publishing comics and most ceased to exist at all. EC Comics famously tried to comply until it became obvious that racism was poisoning the judgement of the CMAA's appointed authority overseeing the process. MAD converted from color comic to B&W magazine, but of the rest of the line only PANIC and PIRACY joined EC's New Dierection. All other publishers adopted the Code's stamp on issues cover dated January to May 1955, depending on the publisher and frequency of the title. EC's New Direction books started with the June-July issues. Given the success of MAD it made sense, by the end of the summer, to begin supplanting the color comics with a line of B&W Picto-Fiction magazines. The New Direction lasted six more months under the code and Picto-Fiction was over by the spring of 1956. The last remnant of former DC editor and All-American founder M.C. Gaines' ambitious Educational Comics, financed by repeated printings of PICTURE STORIES FROM THE BIBLE, a title he began while still at DC, was his son Bill's MAD MAGAZINE. Perhaps one other impact the publisher had was that the CMAA did not renew its Authority's director, the former Judge Charles Murphy, after those two years. They opted instead for Mrs. Guy Percy Trulock, who they retained for a decade. She adhered adamantly to the letter of the code-- but to no other unspoken objectives. Perhaps it was a coincidence, but the bleeding staunched somewhat.

.....Now it would be easy to assume that DC would be thrilled about the loss of all that competition, but in business on that scale nothing is that simple. Losing one large competitor like Fawcett is one thing, but when that much of the industry disappears so quickly it begins to threaten the infrastructure on which everyone operates. DC was owned by a partnership who had common members in the ownership of the distributor Independent News. The greater volume of magazines and comics a distributor moves, the more thinly it can spread its operating costs. Lighter trucks still have to drive the same routes and burn the same gas as full trucks. The biggest distributor of comics, the American News Company, was also the nation's biggest newsstand distributor, period. They could adjust. After Independent News, the third most significant player was probably Martin Goodman's Atlas, which was both a comics publisher and a distribution company. Aside from his own books, most of the comics publishers Goodman distributed were smaller outfits who couldn't afford being given low priority by the big two and, frankly, were nervous about their mob connections. When they began to disappear, Atlas' distribution operations began to cost more to conduct than their profit was worth. In 1957 he sold off his paperback company, Lion, to Penguin's New American Library and decided to take his comics to American News to distribute. Unbeknownst to Goodman, American News had fallen under federal scrutiny (for reasons unrelated to comics) and would liquidate its assets around June. Its real estate had been converted to other purposes, so there was no possibility of venture capital setting up a new business in its place. The only game in town became Independent News. Goodman considered getting out of the comics business and ordered his editor-in-chief, Stan Lee, to stop cutting checks by the end of the week. Lee doesn't like discussing that period, but he has described himself and receptionist Flo Steinberg feverishly scrambling to call every artist with an outstanding assignment to turn in whatever they had, finished or not. Ultimately, Goodman accepted a contract from Independent limiting them to shipping only eight comics from Atlas a month. They fulfilled that by publishing sixteen titles bi-monthly. (At the time they had about 66, mostly bi-monthly.) Unofficially, Goodman removed the name "Atlas" from the covers. In fact, apart from the tiny "IND." in capital, block letters and the 10¢ price, those early 1957-1960 pre-Marvel comics don't have any trade dress identifying their publisher. Also unofficially, this new, nameless continuation of Atlas was not to contain any super-heroes. Since the inception of the new Comics Code, DC had launched about a dozen new titles, plus four more acquired from the defunct Quality. While some had already come and gone (FRONTIER FIGHTERS, IT'S GAME TIME, and THE LEGENDS OF DANIEL BOONE) there was one that managed to circumvent the troublesome lag time between shipping a book and getting sales/returns figures back. Often by the time you find out that a book is selling badly, you've already shipped the next two or three issues. But SHOWCASE began by running a different feature in each issue for the first five issues. If an issue sold well, that feature would return or get its own title. If it did poorly, it didn't matter; it was already gone. Of the first five, only one did well: the fourth issue (09-10/56), with a revamped version of the Flash. At the time of the agreement with Goodman, the management at DC were still waiting for the sales results on the sixth and seventh issues, the debut of the Challengers of the Unknown. While Goodman would expect legal retaliation for copying specific characters, he didn't know why anyone would use extralegal methods to discourage one particular genre and at that point he didn't care. Atlas had tried to revive its 1940's super-heroes in 1954 and failed. Only SUB-MARINER COMICS lasted more than a year. With only eight slots per month he was in no hurry to try again so soon when there was so much other ground he could cover.

.....With American News gone Independent picked up one of their biggest clients, PLAYBOY, which didn't hurt revenues. Over the next year Magazine Enterprises, St. John and Ajax-Farrell stopped publishing comics, although Fawcett returned via Hallden, as mentioned above. All these publishers were carrying the Comics Code stamp. Curiously, the only publisher remaining who still consistently outsold DC was Dell, who was one of a tiny minority who didn't carry it. Apparently their reliance on familiar characters licensed from other media outweighed the recognition factor of the comics-specific stamp. The same was true of Gilberton, publisher of CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED, and other minor players such as Parents Magazine Press and various religious publishers. By the end of 1958 those in compliance were DC, Atlas/Marvel, Hallden, Charlton, Archie, Harvey, Prize, American Comics Group and the soon to collapse Al Fago company. [If readers know of any other publishers in 1959 using the code stamp, please mention them in the comments.] Ten years after Fago went under the rest were still publishing except Prize and ACG, both of which were absorbed by DC.

.....In the next post, the other, considerably less eventful half of the decade that led to the Doom Patrol. DC did relatively well under the Comics Code. Their first new title to carry the stamp was a period adventure anthology called THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD, which did okay for itself. And what was the last new title before the code? What was that last shred of the bad old days that publishers had to pretend they were ashamed of to ward off federal, McCarthy-era censorship which the Constitution should have protected them from? What title printed exactly one single issue without the stamp before adding it on the second issue? It was called MY GREATEST ADVENTURE.