How DC Ignited the Golden Age of Comic Books

How DC Ignited the Golden Age of Comic Books

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Sotheby's presents DC Complete: The Ian Levine Collection, a private sale featuring every comic book published by DC from 1934–2014 – including complete runs of Action Comics, Detective Comics, Superman and Batman. Below, author Paul Sassienie lays out a brief history of DC Comics, from inception to the present day.

The Inception (1934–1938)

T he complex origin story of DC Comics, Inc., one of the oldest and most prominent comic book publishers in the U.S., begins in 1934. That year, Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson founded the company as National Allied Publications; in February of 1935 its first comic, entitled New Fun: The Big Comic Magazine #1, hit the stands. The company’s second title, New Comics #1, was published in December of that year, appearing in a size close to what would become industry standard during the period now called the Golden Age of Comic Books.

Soon, circumstances led Wheeler-Nicholson to partner with printer Harry Donenfeld and, eventually, accountant Jack Liebowitz. Together, the trio published a third title, Detective Comics—the first direct corporate predecessor of today’s DC—in 1937.

But by 1938, mounting financial pressure forced Wheeler-Nicholson to sell his share of Detective Comics and declare bankruptcy, losing control of his own Nicholson Publishing Co., the final direct successor to National Allied. Donenfeld, Liebowitz and Paul Sampliner, Donenfeld’s silent partner, promptly bought Nicholson Publishing’s two titles at a bankruptcy auction and transferred them over to Detective Comics.

The Golden Age (1938–1955)

D etective Comics soon launched a fourth title, Action Comics, the first issue of which introduced a figure who would come to define the genre: Superman. Editor Vin Sullivan chose to run the feature after the publication's lead artist and writer, Sheldon Mayer, rescued it from the slush pile. Action Comics #1 (June 1938), the first comic book to feature the new character archetype, soon known as “superheroes,” proved a major sales hit. About 100 copies of Action Comics #1 are believed to exist, and only a handful of those are in good condition. The company quickly introduced other superheroes and, in May 1939, Batman made his first appearance in Detective Comics #27.

Superman's premiere in Action Comics #1 was so overwhelming popular with readers that National Allied Publications soon launched an new magazine devoted to the character. Superman #1 was groundbreaking: never before had an entire comic book been devoted to the adventures of a single character, and Superman's alter-ego, Clark Kent, also had the distinction of being the first hero-character to feature in more than one comic magazine. By issue #7, Superman was being hailed as the “World’s Greatest Adventure Strip Character.”

Following his success in Detective Comics, Batman received his own title in Spring 1940, a publication which also introduced the likes of Joker and Catwoman.

In 1939, Max Charles Gaines (a pioneer comic book publisher) partnered with Liebowitz to start All-American Comics, a sibling publication which shared distribution and staff with Detective Comics; except for issues cover-dated 1945, All American books shared the same logos and branding as Detective Comics and its corporate siblings. Their first publication was All American Comics #1 (April 1939), and All-American’s first superheroes began their run in Flash Comics #1 (January 1940). In July 1940, The Green Lantern made his first appearance in All-American Comics #16. Green Lantern has proved to be one of DC’s most enduring characters.

During All-American’s existence, much cross-promotion took place between the two editorially independent companies; so much so that the first iteration of the Justice Society of America, in All Star Comics #3 (Winter 1940/41), included in its roster the National characters Doctor Fate, Hour-Man, the Spectre and the Sandman, creating the first intercompany crossover in the comics industry. (National’s Sandman, Spectre, and Hour-Man had previously appeared in solo adventures in All Star Comics #1, published Summer 1940.)

In a bid to expand readership of superhero comics beyond the core demographic of young and adolescent boys, Detective Comics introduced Wonder Woman in All Star Comics #8, published December 1941. A month later, she featured on the cover of Sensation Comics #1, and in the summer of 1942, Wonder Woman #1 was published.

In 1945, Gaines published his first title using Educational Comics as the publishing company with an “EC” logo. By the end of the year Gaines sold his share of All-American back to Liebowitz and Donenfeld and went on to build EC (whose most notable publication was Mad) into a separate company. Eventually, Donenfeld and Liebowitz consolidated all of their publishing companies, now numbering more than a dozen, including those from All-American, into National Comics Publications.

When the popularity of superheroes faded in the late 1940s, the company focused on such genres as science fiction, westerns, humour and romance. DC also published crime and horror titles (albeit relatively tame ones). A handful of the most popular superhero titles (most notably Action Comics and Detective Comics, the medium’s two longest-running titles) continued publication.

The Silver Age (1955–1970)

I n the mid-1950s, editorial director Irwin Donenfeld and publisher Liebowitz tasked editor Julius Schwartz (whose roots lay in the science-fiction book market) with producing a one-shot Flash story in the try-out title Showcase. Instead of reviving the old character, Schwartz had writers create an entirely new super-speedster, updating and modernizing the Flash’s civilian identity, costume and origin with a science-fiction bent. The Flash’s reimagining in Showcase #4 (October 1956) proved popular, soon leading to a similar revamping of the Green Lantern character, the introduction of the modern all-star team Justice League of America and a number of other superheroes, heralding what historians and fans call the Silver Age of comic books.

The Bronze Age (1970–1985/6)

T here is no one single event that can be said to spark the beginning of the DC's Bronze Age; instead, a number of events at the beginning of the 1970s, taken together, marked a change in the tone of comics from the previous decade. One such event was the publication of Green Lantern/Green Arrow #85 (October 1971), which was one of the first comic stories to tackle the issue of drug use. In essence, DC began to grow up, publishing stories that dealt with real-world issues such as racism, poverty and drug addiction.

DC began the Bronze Age by scaling back superhero publications, cancelling many of the weaker-selling titles and experimenting with other genres, including horror and sword-and-sorcery. These trends peaked in the early 1970s, and by the mid-1970s, the medium reverted to selling predominantly superhero titles

The era also encompassed major changes in the distribution of and the audience for comic books. Over time, the medium shifted from cheap mass-market products sold at newsstands and aimed at young children, to a more expensive product sold at specialty comic book shops and aimed at a smaller, core audience of fans. The shift in distribution allowed many small-print publishers to enter the market, changing the medium from one dominated by a few large publishers, led by DC and Marvel, to a more diverse and eclectic range of books.

DC's Bronze Age ended in 1986 when it completed its special twelve issue event series, Crisis on Infinite Earths, which marked the revitalization of the company’s product line and DC’s return as a serious challenger to Marvel, which at the time claimed 50 percent of the market.

The Modern Age (1985/6–2011)

I n 1986, with the publication of the four-issue miniseries The Dark Knight Returns and the revolutionary twelve-issue Watchmen series, DC redefined the superhero genre and inspired years of “grim and gritty” comic books. This heralded the start of the Modern Age. DC’s line was becoming more “adult” with the publication of groundbreaking titles such as Hellblazer, which promised “40 Pages of Sheer Terror” (1988), and Neal Gaiman’s multi-award winning Sandman (1989). When, in 1993, DC launched its Vertigo imprint, which was aimed at a late-teen and adult audience, both titles moved there. The Vertigo line often contained graphic violence, substance abuse, frank (but not explicit) depictions of sexuality, profanity and other controversial subjects.

By the mid-1990s, writers began to imagine what superheroes might be like in the “real world.” A good example of this is Kingdom Come, the four-issue miniseries published in 1996. Written by Alex Ross and Mark Waid and painted in gouache by Ross, the miniseries is set some twenty years into the future of the then-current DC Universe. The story deals with the increasing conflict between “traditional” superheroes, such as Superman, Wonder Woman and the Justice League, and a growing population of largely amoral and dangerously irresponsible new vigilantes. In order not to violate continuity, this was billed as an “Elseworld” story, similar to the “imaginary” stories from the Silver Age.

The New 52 (2011–Present)

O n 31 August 2011, DC Comics launched a historic renumbering of the entire DC Universe line of comic books, with 52 first issues. The first of these was Justice League #1. This reboot was severely criticized by longtime DC fans, with many readers objecting to the discontinuing of consecutive numbering of core titles such as Action Comics and Detective Comics. Despite such objections, the bold relaunch was hugely successful for DC, which registered record-breaking sales, with many of the new titles selling out and going to second and third printings within days of publication. In addition to continuing some of their existing titles such as Superman and Batman, DC also revived a selection of their discontinued titles, including Swamp Thing and Nightwing, and resurrected some titles from their defunct imprint Wildstorm, such as Stormwatch and Grifter. This brief history of DC can be witnessed, and enjoyed, in full in the Ian Levine Collection.

Sale Contacts

For further information on how to purchase, please contact William Lucy, Richard Austin or Selby Kiffer.

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