Generally speaking, you know that a company has become an institution when it can weather whatever upheavals happen in its industry. DC Comics certainly qualifies as an institution by this point (especially when it became part of Warner Bros. in the early 1970s, thus giving it the financial stability that smaller companies did not have). As an institution, though, it’s fascinating how much of its strength is predicated upon deals that it made with three creators in their twenties almost 80 years ago. They purchased Superman for less than $200 in 1938 from Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and then cut an under-the-table agreement for Batman with Bob Kane at some point in the 1940s. Those two characters alone have served to keep DC Comics going for nearly a century now.
Of course, there were plenty of other crazy events that happened between the start of the company in 1934 and today, so sit back and learn some of the most MESSED UP situations that occurred behind the scenes in DC Comics’ long history.
A problem that has affected many a small businessperson over the years is the concept of scaling up an operation. That was a major problem for Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, a comic book pioneer who debuted the first comic book series made up of original material (mostly because he could not license any good comic strips). He put out New Fun from his company, National Allied Publications. However, it was difficult for a small businessman like him to afford to build up a publishing company.
He was forced to take on Harry Donenfeld (his printer and distributor) as a partner to launch a new title, Detective Comics (they formed a new company, Detective Comics, Ltd. for the new comic). Donenfeld then pushed Wheeler-Nicholson out and bought out National Allied Publications just before a certain Action Comics #1 was released and changed comic book history forever.
It’s hard to precisely capture the feeling that most people had when the first atomic bombs were dropped at the end of World War II. It was like the world was entering a new age. Atomic energy, which had been written about for years at this point, now took on a fascinating (and frightening) new angle. This angle was addressed in a few different Superman comics about the bomb.
Amusingly enough, the United States War Department contacted Jerry Siegel (who was in the Army at the time) to tell him to stop the comics. He had to inform them that he no longer was writing them. The War Department was afraid that too much information was being given out (hence, “Was Superman a Spy?”) and that showing atomic bombs in the comics would make people not take atomic energy seriously. DC stopped the stories.
Mort Weisinger, the longtime editor of DC’s Superman titles (DC’s best-selling series throughout the 1940s, ’50s and right up until Bat-mania changed everything in 1966), had a seemingly foolproof method for coming up with cool ideas for Superman stories. He would let the readers themselves pitch ideas. He specifically had them pitch cover ideas that he would then assign his stable of writers to turn into cool stories. One of the young suggestion-givers was a teenager named Cary Bates. Weisinger liked his ideas enough that he ended up giving Bates writing assignments when Bates turned 17 in 1966.
However, by this point, Jim Shooter had already begun writing for DC and he was just 14! Shooter pitched DC Comics on a fresh, Marvel-esque approach on Legion of Superheroes, and they went for it big time, not knowing that they were dealing with someone who was barely a teenager!
Back in the old days, editors had tight control over the characters that appeared in “their” titles. Weisinger, for instance, tightly guarded the Superman cast of characters from the other DC comic book titles. Since the books were all guarded like little fiefdoms, there were occasional miscommunications when characters were used.
After initially teaming up Robin, Aqualad and Kid Flash, Bob Haney decided to expand the group and call them the Teen Titans. He wanted to add a female character, so he took Wonder Girl from the pages of Wonder Woman. The problem was that Wonder Girl was actually a younger version of Wonder Woman who would occasionally have “impossible” adventures with her older self. So she wasn’t a sidekick. When she became a Titan, it led to years of writers trying to explain just who she was (it still causes confusion to this day).
In 1971, Amazing Spider-Man made history when Stan Lee wrote an anti-drug comic book story after the United States government asked him to, even though the Comics Code would not allow stories about drugs to appear in Code-approved books. So Marvel just printed the issues without the Comics Code and no one cared, so the Code relaxed and allowed anti-drug stories to appear. Neal Adams got to do one in Green Lantern with Green Arrow’s sidekick, Speedy, that he had planned before the Spider-Man story, but DC wouldn’t let him do because of the Code.
However, amazingly enough, four years earlier, in Strange Adventures #205, the debut of Deadman (by Arnold Drake and Carmine Infantino, a title Neal Adams got his big break drawing soon after Infantino left the feature), the villains are drug runners! It just completely got past the Comics Code!
After Timely Comics reneged on promises to them regarding their hit character, Captain America, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby left Timely for a nice big paycheck from DC Comics, where they launched the hit series, Boy Commandoes. Sadly, World War II interrupted everything and by the time they each returned, their time at DC was up.
Years later, Kirby made another prominent return to DC Comics after leaving Timely (now Marvel) again. DC hyped up the addition of Marvel’s most popular artist, but bizarrely enough, despite Kirby being the biggest artist in the business, DC would not let Kirby draw Superman’s face! They had other longtime DC artists like Al Plastino and Murphy Anderson re-draw Kirby’s Superman! Not exactly the sort of behavior that was fit for a King like Kirby!
One of the top Superman writers of the 1970s was Elliot S. Maggin. Maggin broke into comics in bizarre fashion, as he wrote an essay in college that he felt deserved a higher grade. He re-worked the essay into a comic script and sent it to DC Comics, where editor Julius Schwartz loved it. The grade wasn’t revised, but Maggin now had an “in” at DC Comics.
However, he feared that his first work was a fluke. He had befriended the vice president of the university he was attending and dined with him and his family. The VP’s pre-teen step-son was a big comic book fan. The kid had a Superman story idea where the Guardians argued that Superman was impeding development on Earth by helping humans too much. Maggin used the idea and it became his second comic book work ever. That kid? Future comic book superstar, Jeph Loeb!
In the Summer of 1977, New York City was in a state of perpetual fear due to the actions of a serial killer calling himself the “Son of Sam.” He had begun shooting people a year earlier in 1976, but as 1977 wore on, he started getting a lot more publicity, both because the killings were continuing to pile up and also because he began to write letters talking about his crimes. It was a scary, fascinating time in New York City history.
In any event, the NYPD had a “Son of Sam” task force that tried all sorts of approaches, even contacting DC Comics because they believed that his handwriting appeared to be the sort of handwriting that you would see from a comic book letterer. They cleared all DC letterers, and the killer was eventually apprehended in Yonkers, New York. He was a young man named David Berkowitz.
Readers are now quite familiar with Wonder Woman’s famous double-W logo, but that logo did not appear until 40 years into Wonder Woman’s history, and the origins of the logo are quite interesting. Jenette Kahn joined DC Comics in 1976 as the Publisher of the company. In 1981, she was promoted to President, as well, when DC President Sol Harrison retired. One of Kahn’s first acts as President was to form the Wonder Woman Foundation, an organization that would give out grants to women over the age of 40.
Kahn described the qualities of Wonder Woman at the time, “She’s peace loving, independent, honest, courageous, compassionate, wise and humane, and she would rather convert her enemies to her point of view than subdue them.” The logo of this new organization was a double-W and thus, that logo was then given to Wonder Woman in the comics, as well.
While DC was technically founded at the end of 1934, the cover date of New Fun #1 was February 1935, so 1985 was treated as DC’s 50th Anniversary. Marv Wolfman and George Perez collaborated on Crisis on Infinite Earths, which was both a celebration of DC’s long history and a set-up for a new era of DC Comics, where the characters would all be rebooted following the DC Multiverse being combined into a single Earth.
Wolfman’s initial plan was to have every DC title relaunch from #1, all at once, to celebrate this new universe. That idea was not followed, and they instead did a staggered reboot (which got pretty confusing, as some books rebooted long after the others had already done so). Wolfman’s approach was used years later for the New 52, where every book relaunched at #1 in September 2011.
Batman was one of the characters who was rebooted following Crisis on Infinite Earths, and the character was very much following in the footsteps of Frank Miller’s work, both Batman: Year One and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Incoming Batman writer, Jim Starlin, was a big follower of Miller’s work and he modeled his Batman after Miller. Starlin really hated Batman having a sidekick and Starlin kept coming up with ideas to get rid of Robin.
One of the ideas was to actually have Robin get AIDS, as DC was considering possibly having a major character contract the disease. Instead, DC came up with a 1-900 number gimmick where fans got to decide whether Robin lived or died after being attacked by the Joker. They voted to kill him off and Starlin got his wish.
The 1991 DC Annuals told a crossover event called “Armageddon 2001.” The storyline was about a time traveler from 2001 coming to 1991 to find out which superhero would eventually become a despotic villain known as Monarch and take over the world in 2001. So each annual would have the time traveler make contact with a different hero and show their future. The annual would then be about that future, as each hero got eliminated as a Monarch possibility, one by one.
Monarch was going to be revealed to be Captain Atom. However, in the early days of the internet, someone spoiled the ending and it spread all over the ‘net. DC then abruptly changed the ending and had the hero who went bad become Hawk, of Hawk and Dove, instead.
In the late 1980s, the Post-Crisis versions of Clark Kent and Lois Lane had begun dating (as Clark was less of a mild-mannered guy Post-Crisis) and in 1990’s Superman #50, the two became engaged. The Superman writing team were planning out their future and tentatively scheduled the wedding between Clark and Lois to occur in Superman #75. There was only one problem.
You see, Warner Bros. had tentative plans for a new TV series starring Superman, based on this new hip and sexy dynamic between Lois and Clark. The issue, of course, was that they felt that the show would benefit from the characters not being married yet in the comics. So the wedding was off. What big event could they do instead? Yep, they decided to kill Superman! Thus launched one of the biggest comic book events of all-time: the “Death of Superman.”
After the success of the “Death of Superman” and the similar Batman event, “Knightfall,” DC was looking to try dramatic events for their other titles, and Green Lantern was one of the books that they felt could use a revamp. The line of books were popular, supporting a main book and three spinoff titles (Guy Gardner, Green Lantern: Mosaic and Green Lantern Corps Quarterly) but DC thought it could be even bigger.
Writer Gerard Jones wrote a story where Hal Jordan went rogue and quit the Green Lantern Corps and a new Green Lantern would be introduced. Jones plotted out the next few issues and DC even solicited them. Then they felt that it wasn’t edgy enough, so they scrapped the whole thing and now Hal Jordan didn’t just go rogue, he turned evil, killing a bunch of people before a new Green Lantern was introduced to replace him.
The writing staff of the “Death of Superman” storyline stayed fairly consistent throughout the rest of the 1990s, with a few writers coming and going but the core writers remaining the same. DC, though, felt that the books needed a big revamp and planned on replacing pretty much everyone. They accepted pitches and Grant Morrison, Mark Waid, Mark Millar and Tom Peyer pitched together as being the new creative team on the Superman titles. They pitched a broad revamp, with the Clark/Lois marriage being erased.
DC turned it down and went with a more traditional team headlined by Jeph Loeb and Joe Kelly. Morrison ended up using some of his ideas in his classic All-Star Superman series, but imagine if those four great writers had taken over the series together!!
What’s the craziest behind the scenes story that YOU’VE heard about DC Comics? Let us know in the comments section!