My Back Pages, by Thomas Aylesworth
Welcome to My Back Pages. In this column, I’m going to take a look back at DC comics of the 1960s through early 1980s. My goal is to provide some nostalgia for us
geezers long-time comic readers; expose newer readers to classic stories; and give collectors both young and old some ideas for comics they may want to look for in the back issue bins on eBay.
I started collecting comics in 1978. I broke my leg after pitting my ten year old body and a Schwinn bicycle against a solid steel car. It turns out that, unlike Superman, I was not so good at flying and certainly not unbreakable. Unable to ride my bike or skateboard with a cast on my leg, my parents started buying me comic books and I was quickly hooked.
Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, the comic book industry was going through a turbulent period in the late 1970s. Readership was in decline and inflation was squeezing comic publisher’s profit margins. Publishers were also looking for new ways to distribute comic books as the first comic book specialty shops started to appear. (Nowadays, when virtually all comics are sold at comic shops, it’s hard to believe that when I first started buying comics, I and most other comic readers purchased them at the local 7-11 every week!)
DC tried to confront these challenges with a bold experiment they called the DC Explosion. In 1978, they significantly raised the price of their comics from 35 cents to 50 cents and justified it by increasing the number of pages in each book. They also put out a slew of new titles to try to appeal to new comic book readers and win back former readers.
A few months later, the DC Explosion was being sardonically referred to as the DC Implosion. After a mere two months at the 50 cent level, prices were rolled back to 40 cents and the page count dropped due to poor sales. By the end of the year the number of titles they published fell from a high of more than 50 titles in 1977 down to just 26 comics — fewer than any time since 1975.
But as a ten year old new comic reader, I didn’t know, or care, about any of this. (Although I did notice the price jump and the soon-to-follow price decrease — an important early lesson in economics.) What I did care about is that there were some pretty good stories being written featuring my favorite characters — Batman, Superman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman and, of course, the Justice League of America.
Comic books of the late 1970s don’t get a lot of respect these days. Baby boomers bemoan the early moves towards more “realism” in comic books that started to occur in the 70s, preferring the trite (but fun) camp of the superhero Golden Age. And modern readers, who have been raised on the far grittier “realism” brought about during the 80s, too easily brush these same books aside for not being realistic enough.
But setting aside contentious debates about which comic book era is “best”, there is a lot to enjoy about DC superhero comics of the 1970s. In particular, there was a focus on the personal lives of the heroes along with some exploration of social issues of the time that had never been seen in comics before. So I’ll start this column with a series of articles on the state of DC’s superheroes during the Implosion, starting with Superman.
In 1978, DC published four titles featuring Superman. Action Comics, the title where he first appeared in 1938, and Superman both starred Superman in his solo adventures. DC Comics Presents featured stories of Superman teaming up with a different DC superhero each month. It was Superman’s answer to the popular Brave and the Bold series, which for years had featured Batman team-up stories. The first issue of DC Comics Presents appeared in the spring of 1978, making it one of the few new comic titles introduced as part of the DC Explosion that would survive the cuts later that same year. Finally, Superman Family, one of DC’s 68-page Dollar Comics, provided stories featuring Superman as well as stories starring his various side-kicks. Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane, Supergirl, Superboy, and even Krypto the Superdog, each had their own adventures chronicled in every issue.
Superman had been overhauled in 1971 when long-time DC editor Julius Schwartz took over his books. Mr. Schwartz’s revival and reinventing of many of DC’s older superheroes, including the Flash and Green Lantern, marked the beginning of what is now called the Silver Age of comics in the late 1950s. He was also responsible for Batman’s “New Look” in 1964. Now he wanted to do the same for Superman.
He turned to writer Denny O’Neil to help him reinvision Superman for a new era. They felt that Superman had become too strong and his stories relied too much on gimmicks and an overuse of ever-increasing different types of kryptonite. So a series of stories starting with Superman #233 (January 1971) told how an attempt to use kryptonite as a power source for cities went horribly wrong. The resulting explosion at the power plant turned all of the kryptonite on Earth into harmless lead while also creating an alternate Superman who would siphon off the real Superman’s powers.
By time the saga wraps up in Superman #242 (September 1971), Superman’s powers were signigicantly reduced and more in line with the powers he had when he was originally introduced. No longer able to fly, he could now simply “leap tall buildings in a single bound”. He was no longer completely invulnerable, but there was also no more kryptonite to cause him trouble. And last but not least, Clark Kent’s personal life went through a shake-up as he was forced to leave his job as a reporter for the Daily Planet to become the nightly news anchor on WGBS television.
As with other attempts to limit Superman’s abilities, the reduced powers would not last for long. By the end of the year Superman was already back to flying across the galaxy, and radioactive remnants of Krypton would continue to fall to Earth providing plenty of kryptonite for his enemies to use against him. But the change in tone of the character and his stories stuck, and Julius Schwartz continued to enforce tightly plotted continuity between all of the Superman titles. Several years later, writer Marty Pasko would further complicate Superman’s life by bringing back Lana Lang. Clark Kent’s teenage crush would waltz back into his life as his coanchor on WGBS news.
In the next issue, we’ll look at the best of Action Comics from 1988 and 1989.
Please let Thomas know what you thought of his debut column, either by leaving a comment here, or by reaching him directly via the link at the beginning of the article! Thank you!