Somebody once told me to never bite off more than I could chew. At the time, I didn’t quite understand the phrase. Don’t bite off more than I could chew? I assumed that they were talking about food. Nope. They weren’t. Not biting off more than I could chew was an intelligent metaphor for all things in life. It means that a person or company should never take on more than they can handle. Some people and companies adhere to it while others don’t. The ones that do typically have steady and controllable growth and the ones that don’t…well, they can go either way.
Comic books are no exception to this.
The 1990s saw the near collapse of Marvel Comics. For a time, the company had to sell off the cinematic rights to their most beloved franchises because they couldn’t keep themselves afloat. The company got greedy and began creating more titles and variants than the market knew what to do with. In thinking about it, it was something very similar to what they are doing now. At the time of this writing, I believe there are more than 80 title offerings. The difference between now and then is that now they have the backing of Disney.
Marvel wasn’t the first to falter and probably won’t be the last. All companies can do is make mistakes, learn from them, and see to it that they don’t happen again.
Which is why watching Marvel nearly close its doors in the 1990s was so perplexing.
The 1970s saw more comic book freedom than any decade before it. For the first time in a long time writers and creators were able to tell the stories that they wanted to tell without severe repercussions. Sex, drugs, discrimination, and death became focal points for the industry and readers ate it up. Sales skyrocketed and books evolved. Some books became bigger. Some books became longer. And some books became more adult friendly.
The comic industry was at a high that it hadn’t seen in a long time.
Although still not doing as well as Marvel, the 1970s brought about good times for DC. The company was riding high on the backs of many of its characters and could do no wrong. This should’ve been good enough for any company but DC wanted, as I talked about earlier, to bite off more than it could chew. It started with then editor, Jenette Kahn. She saw what Marvel was doing and accomplishing and asked the question, “Why not us?”
Yes, why not DC?
This very question lead to what has come to be known as the DC Explosion and Implosion.
Just the beginning
In an attempt to gain market share, the company double downed on everything it was doing and began to employ the same strategies that its rival was using. Dubbed the DC Explosion (although many titles actually appeared just before the explosion), the company revived several of its characters from decades past, increased the cost of each book, and began to make their books longer. This meant that the comic books grew from 17-18 pages to 25 or more. The idea was to launch 57 new titles over the course of 4 years. If it seems ambitious, it’s because it was.
- Black Lightning
- Men of War
- Shade, the Changing Man
- Star Hunters
But it wasn’t just the introduction of new titles that the company brought into the fold. Old titles simple reissued began to surface.
- Mister Miracle
- New Gods
Things were going well for DC. The company had successfully gained market share, although I have no idea how they planned to keep it. With 57 new titles comes a higher demand on their employees…one that they couldn’t have necessarily have handled.
As history has shown, they didn’t handle it.
Of the DC Explosion, many of the titles only lasted an issue or two. Don’t for a second think that they weren’t any less important in history. They gained the company widespread attention. Sadly, the attention didn’t do exactly what they had hoped. Instead of drumming up sales, their inclusion helped cause the DC Implosion just a few years later.
By 1978, DC had successfully launched many of their new titles. Short-lived optimism reigned down on the company. Hard times, however, were ahead.
As winter, rolled in, so too did the problems for the publisher. The winter brought snow…and lots of it. This particular winter’s weather brought about abnormal conditions. In some instances, it snowed for over 24 hours and in others, temperatures plummeted to 60 below zero. Many parts of New York earned the distinction of a natural disaster while blizzards decimated the East Coast. Many businesses suffered from the weather, comic books included.
Troubled times ahead
DC, of the big publishers, hit roadblocks that they could not possibly have predicted. With their Comic Book Explosion came promises and expectations. Jenette Kahn promised that with the new titles came better distribution and ease of access. With most comic books being sold on newsstands and the storms causing delays, her promises were quickly falling to the wayside.
No matter what DC had thought would happen with their explosion, adults preparing for the worst overruled it. Children wanted comics but adults wanted food, supplies, and anything that would help them survive the catastrophe. Because adults paid the bills, children didn’t get their comics.
But the problems didn’t end there.
Like I said, DC, in an effort to catch up to Marvel began publishing new titles. The problem was that with so many titles each month, came the reality that they couldn’t keep the quality up. Children who could get comics became wise to the fact that the books they cherished were substandard.
As the winter months sales rolled in, so too did the realization that DC’s plan was failing. The characters that they placed so much pressure and hope on just couldn’t hack it. By this time, DC’s parent company Warner
But it didn’t end there.
As a result of the cancellation, DC was left with many books and characters that never saw the light of day. To avoid losing the Copyrights they had placed on the two, DC printed two volumes of some of the rarest books in history. A mere 35 copies of Cancelled Comic Cavalcade was made and distributed to Warner Bros. employees. The books containing the rare comics weren’t anything special. They were nothing more than black and white photocopies bound together with a blue cover. Some of these are still in existence and have made their way to collectors all over the world.
DC Explosion and Implosion
The DC Explosion and Implosion signified a change in the comic industry. It showed that a publisher putting out books for the sake of putting out books is not the way to build a company. The scary part is that the two companies (Marvel and DC) are doing it again. Titles, some good and some not, flood the shelves each month in hopes that readers will buy them. This, as history has shown, does not work and eventually the buyers become wise to it. Financial backing or not, this is troublesome.
A winning formula is simple. Content is King. The only way to sell books is to put books in the market that people want to read. Hopefully, companies will learn from the DC Explosion and Implosion sooner than later. That is, like the DC Explosion and Implosion has shown, don’t bite off more than you can chew.