Cautionary Tale: What The ‘Big Two’ Can Learn From The DC Implosion
In the mid-70s, DC Comics radically changed the face of its publishing line by launching fifty-seven new titles while increasing the page count from seventeen to twenty-five. Spearheaded by editor Jenette Kahn, this was referred to as the DC Explosion and introduced the world to classic DC characters like Firestorm, Black Lightning and Shade, The Changing Man.
However, an unlucky string of events in the winter of 1977/78 led to the cancellation of a vast swathe of the Explosion books, with some of them never even making it to print. DC's line shrunk drastically as comics were axed in one fell swoop, in what came to be known as the DC Implosion.
A combination of inflation and recession set DC back, as did the rising cost of paper and printing, which took away a lot of the profit DC made from increasing the price of comics from 35 to 50 cents to go along with the increased page count. Perhaps the biggest hit to DC, and the industry, were the severe blizzards that winter, which not only disrupted distribution, but kept people indoors and away from comic shops.
In June 1978, alongside staff layoffs, DC cancelled forty percent of its publishing line, and reportedly even came close to cancelling Detective Comics until it was decided to fold it in with the better selling Batman Family. Several other comics were also merged with better selling titles, but some comics were axed only a few issues into their run, such as Firestorm and Steel which each only lasted five issues.
The decision was made to reduce DC’s line to twenty-six comics, eight less than it was publishing before the start of the Explosion. A good number of the comics had been completed and now had no home, so in order to maintain the copyright DC, published thirty-five copies of a title called Cancelled Comics Cavalcade and distributed them internally.
For a more detailed timeline, Dial B For Blog put together an extensive history of the Implosion and a look inside Cancelled Comic Cavalcade. It's a fascinating piece of comics history that has some bearing on the industry today. What can the industry learn from this collapse of DC’s entire publishing line?
Marvel is currently publishing just under eighty ongoings and mini-series. It sometimes looks as if the publisher is just throwing concepts against the wall to see what sticks.
Dublin’s Big Bang Comics has been very upfront on Twitter about how Marvel’s glut of comics can negatively affect sales, pointing out that even after two issues, Starbrand & Nightmask is the store's lowest selling Marvel comic. With Disney money behind it, and emboldened by the success of new ideas like Ms. Marvel, it may be that Marvel feels it can take risks, which is admirable, but when the average fan’s disposable income can only stretch so far, readers are also given the impression that certain books are being set up to fail from the outset.
DC has taken a different tack, and after the perceived failure of DCYou (emphasis on perceived), it plans to cut its line back to thirty-two titles as part of the Rebirth event. However, over half of the line will be shipping twice a month which puts a strain on readers to keep up with their favourite titles, and just like at Marvel, choices have to be made and lower-selling books may not get the chances they deserve.
Another setback from double-shipping is that there are very few artists who can keep up that sort of schedule, so readers are less likely to see classic writer/artist runs like Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo on Batman, or Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino on Green Arrow. Double-shipping is a risk for DC, as history suggests fans will flock to books like Batman and Justice League, leaving lower-profile double-shipping titles like Cyborg to struggle.
There’s no solution in sight to problems caused by double-shipping and an over-saturated market. Backed by parent corporations Warner Bros and Disney respectively, DC and Marvel seem prepared to take the hit and lose small books in their chase for market share. The fear that must haunt both publishers is that they will overextend themselves just as DC did in the 70s, leaving them vulnerable to an unexpected change in fortunes and a possible implosion. Marvel and DC are comics' "Big Two," but as big as they are, nothing is ever too big to fail.