Friday, 22 May 2020

My Top Ten DCs of the Early 1960s: Part 1

BEFORE I DISCOVERED MARVEL COMICS, way back in the early 1960s, I confess that I was a regular user of DC Comics. It's not something I'm proud of, but the first step to recovery is admitting there's a problem, right?

By the mid-sixties, I was a confirmed Marvel fan, but there's still a few DC Comics that I look back on fondly as a sort of guilty pleasure. And to make matters worse, most of the DCs in my Top Ten were hatched under the baleful eye of DC's Dark Overlord, Mort Weisinger. But in my own defence, I was about nine when I was reading this stuff ...

Here they are ... my Top Ten most fondly-remembered DC stories from the years before I became a confirmed Marvel fan. And I'm not necessarily referring to the cover stories. Intrigued? Read on ... Click image to enlarge.
Let me stress that I'm not saying these are the best National had to offer, just a list of DCs that still resonate with me - on an emotional level - more than 50 years later. If you want a list of The Best, then you'll need to look elsewhere. No "Flash of Two Worlds", "Robin Dies at Dawn" or "Superman Red, Superman Blue" here. I never "got" The Doom Patrol. I don't wish Jack Kirby had stayed on Challengers of the Unknown. And the war stories of Joe Kubert and Russ Heath completely passed me by.

I think it's safe to say that these three are about the best DC stories of the early 1960s. Except, they're not my favourites. In fact, I don't think I ever read these stories at the time, with the possible exception of the Superman one. My tastes ran to some slightly more esoteric choices.
Over the course of a year or two - from 1964 to 1966 or so - I read fewer and fewer DCs and more and more Marvels, so by the back end of 1966 I'd pretty much left DC behind, returning only briefly around 1968 when a flurry of interesting comics drawn by Steve Ditko and edited by Dick Giordano caught my attention.

The DC Archives are expensive, but beautifully produced. By contrast, the DC Showcase Presents series is cheap and cheerful and contains hours of reading material for a reasonable cost. Some DC material from the period doesn't hold up well - especially disappointing was Volume 4 of the World's Finest series that had some dreadful stories by Dennis O'Neill and Jim Shooter and unappealing art by Andru and Esposito.
More recently, I've been seeking out inexpensive DC Showcase Presents volumes, and discovering that a great deal of DCs 1960s output was pretty terrible - whatever you do, stay away from DC Showcase Present World's Finest Vol 4, some of the worst dreck ever. But I also came across a few stories that instantly returned me to those hazy days of the early 1960s, where school holidays went on forever and the sun always shone ...

So here, then - after a great deal of consideration and research - a handful of my absolute favourite DC tales of that early Silver Age period.


10. WORLD'S FINEST 133 - "BEASTS OF THE SUPERNATURAL"

I have no recollection of where I bought this comic back in 1963, or whatever happened to it. I was certainly one of my first DCs and probably my first World's Finest.
Back in the early 1960s, comics that featured team-ups of heroes were few and far between. One of the longest-running exceptions was World's Finest, which began running Superman-Batman team-up tales back in issue 71 (Jul 1954). Nearly ten years later, I came across a copy of World's Finest 133 (May 1963), which featured a rare magical foe for Superman and Batman, "Beasts of the Supernatural".

Yes, the monsters seem especially goofy, but as an impressionable eight-year old, I thought they were pretty scary at the time. Though I wouldn't have known it in 1963, the whole set-up has the feel of an HP Lovecraft story, just not as well done.
Written by Editor Jack Schiff and drawn by the always reliable Jim Mooney, the story tells how an new radio telescope designed by Prof Bowles to gather radio waves from the constellation of Scorpio is unveiled to the public. Present are Clark (Superman) Kent, in his role as reporter for the Daily Planet, and Batman and Robin. It's not something that bothered me at the time, but my adult self senses some lazy plotting - there is absolutely no reason for the Dynamic Duo to be present. It's just so Schiff doesn't have to have Superman summon them later in the story. But why carp ... that's just how they wrote comics back then.

The proceedings are interrupted when a Dr Gault rushes forward to warn everyone that they're tampering with Occult powers. The disgraced scientist explains to Clark that a sorcerer Jazub once banished three supernatural monsters to the constellation of Scorpio, and Dr Gault fears that the radio telescope will release the creatures on Earth. And he'd be right.

Superman dispatches the first monster pretty quickly, after all this is only a 13-page story. Meanwhile, Batman and Robin are tackling a weird spikey crystal monster. Force doesn't work, as shattering the crystal creature in to pieces just produces five crystal creatures. Acting on a hunch, Batman has Robin ring the town's church bell and the vibrations reduce the crystal monsters to dust.

Once again, it's Batman who figures out what's going on. The monsters are genuine enough, but their reasons for being on Earth aren't. The bluff played out on the evil Dr Gault seemed pretty smart to me when I first read the story. Not for nothing is Batman called the World's Greatest Detective.
Batman and Superman then try to enlist Dr Gault's aid to get rid of the monsters. Gault thinks his computer may be able to recreate Jazub's original spell. Satisfied, Batman sets off in search of Prof Bowles, and arrives just in time to see him menaced by the magenta tornado creature. Even Superman can't stop the monster. Only when Bowles' fiancee Norah throws herself in front of Bowles is disaster averted. The creature suddenly skedaddles. This gives Batman the clue he needs, and in a cunningly contrived denouement, Batman forces Dr Gault to reveal his nefarious intentions ... to appear to be banishing the beasts he himself called forth, winning the admiration and gratitude of Norah and the world. These were simpler times, after all.

I think what I remember most about this story - and others like it at the time - was just how goofy the designs of the monsters were. And it's not just poor old Jim Mooney. There were other DC artists who were just as incapable of drawing a decent monster. For example, while I was reading some DC Showcase Presents volumes recently, I came across another monster design that was uncannily similar to the Crystal Creatures in "Beasts of the Supernatural". 

Left: World's Finest 133 - Crystal creatures that resemble sea-mines threaten Batman and Robin in a story scripted by editor Jack Schiff and Drawn by Jim Mooney. Right: World's Finest 108 - Spherical spikey critters that also resemble sea-mines menace Batman and Robin in a story written by Jerry Coleman and Drawn by Dick Sprang.
In World's Finest 108 (Mar 1960), which also pitted Superman and Batman against oddball otherworldly monsters, there were spikey globe monsters that also menaced Batman and Robin ... this time drawn by Dick Sprang. Coincidence? Editor Jack Schiff designing the monsters himself and handling sketches to the artists to follow? We'll never know.

The Green Arrow stories by Lee Elias and the Aquaman tales by the brilliant Ramona Fradon were always a welcome bonus in these old World's Finest Comics. Even after all this time, the sight of these b-features gave me a surge of nostalgic deja-vu.
The other point that struck me while flicking through the pages of World's Finest 133 was how familiar the backup stories seemed to me. I have a clear memory of the splash page of the Green Arrow story. The giant burrowing machine that smashes through the walls of the Arrowcave brought back a flood of memories, and I was struck by how similar that machine was to another DC Comics machine I'd seen recently from the same era.

As much as I wanted that first issue of Metal Men, I also really wanted to read the Brave and the Bold issue featuring the boxing "Strange Sports" story. Which was weird, because as a kid, I was never really much interested in sports.
And the house ads in that issue ... how I wanted that Metal Men comic. Just the title - "Rain of the Missile Men" - and the desperate situation depicted on the cover made me long for that comic more than anything. I never did find a copy, though, and it would be another fifty years before I'd read that story in my Metal Men Archives Volume 1. But it's just not the same thing as having the comic, is it? As gorgeous as the Archives are, they don't have the house ads, the letters pages, or the ads for "204 Revolutionary War Soldiers" ...

Did anyone else desperately want to own these impossibly exotic toys? Even at "$1.98" - whatever that was in real money - they seemed like an incredible bargain. I'm sure the reality was a lot different. I've seen reports that the "Polaris Submarine" that "sat two kids" was actually a cardboard box.
Even at this point, World's Finest, and the Batman titles in general, were floundering. Probably because of stories that were filled with daft aliens and ever-more implausible situations. Within a year, the title would be taken from Schiff and handed to DC's Dark Overlord Mort Weisinger. Weisinger would get rid of the revolving door of writers and dispense with the services of Jim Mooney, instead commissioning stories from Ed Hamilton and art from Curt Swann and George Klein. The Green Arrow and Aquaman back-up tales were also gone and instead the space was given over to reprints, a sure sign that costs were being cut.


9. HOUSE OF SECRETS 64 - "THE THREAT OF THE HORRIBLE HEX"

To my young and impressionable mind, there was a ghastly "authenticity" about the magic and the barn runes in this Mark Merlin story. As a child of about nine, this tale positively terrified me ... but in a good way.
That this comic is in my Top Ten is a bit unusual, in that it's not exactly a superhero story. My memory tells me that it was among the earliest DC Comics I ever read, but the cover date doesn't bear that out. By 1964, I would have been fully immersed in the Superman Family titles along with Flash and Green Lantern, so it seems strange to me now that I'd have been interested in a "horror comic". Yet, here it is.

"The Threat of the Horrible Hex" is a 12-page Mark Merlin story with a script by Arnold Drake and art by the great Mort Meskin. The character was created by Meskin and first appeared in House of Secrets 23 (Aug 1959), running for six years until HoS 73 (Jul 1965). The first few years' worth of stories went largely uncredited, but the consensus is that Jack Miller did most of the scripting. These earliest tales appeared to be science fiction-oriented, with lots of plots about alien creatures and other dimensions. Then, around issue 56 (Sep 1962), Editor Jack Schiff was off the book, so new editor Murray Boltinoff brought in Arnold Drake as writer, and the stories took on a more supernatural focus.

Mark Merlin was one of DC's few magician characters that merited their own series. In fact, the character headlined House of Secrets, both in his Mark Merlin and Prince Ra-Man reincarnation, through to issue 80 (Sep 1966), a run of seven years.
The story concerns some arcane symbols, painted on a Pennsylvania barn, that preserve the spirits of a trio of three hundred year-old sorcerers. Their curse threatens each generation of a local family on their 25th birthday. Mark Merlin is called in to help and magically takes on the curse himself. Thus, the scene is set for Mark Merlin to battle the malevolent spirits and deduce the secret of the symbols painted in the barn wall.

I think what creeped me out about this story when I was a kid was that the feel of it was sort of Authentic and Believable. What I couldn't know at the time was that such symbols were to be found painted on the walls of barns throughout the "Pennsylvania Dutch" region of the United States, and that they had a supernatural meaning the the locals.

This picture, from 1941, shows a barn in Oley Township, Pennsylvania, painted with hexes to ward off evil spirits. It's likely that the locals would have renewed the paint, as these hexes look pretty fresh for something that would have first been painted in the 17th Century.
There's also the magic spell that Mark Merlin chants when he's lifting the curse from the young victim. I'm sure it's just gibberish, but to this then-nine-year old it felt a great deal more real than the usual "backwards talking with the force am I" schtick used by Zatanna and other DC magicians.

Mark Merlin uses his magical powers of spell casting and levitation to battle the spirits of the long-dead sorcerers. But it's the sudden appearance of victim Henrietta Von Haltz's ancestor Josef that really brings victory (just a thought, but if they're supposed to be Dutch, shouldn't it be "Van Haltz"?)
Of course, our hero figures the whole thing out and is able to call forth the spirit of the girl-victim's ancestor to help battle the evil, sorcerous spirits and the day is saved, the victim is spared and everything ends in a splendid conflagration. And how about that cool house ad of Brave and the Bold 51 taking up the last third of the final story page?

But as big an impression as this made on me back in 1964, I never did follow-up and seek out other Mark Merlin adventures. Later, I would read and enjoy the works of HP Lovecraft, and recognise that there was more than a little of his ouevre mixed into Arnold Drake's Mark Merlin scripts ... not a bad thing, and it certainly gave this story a genuinely eldritch feel.

While Eclipso has never interested me as a character, the House of Secrets 63-67 stories featured the awesome art stylings of the legendary Alex Toth. From issue 68 on, the also-excellent Jack Sparling would take over, contributing a 13-issue run of deftly crafted tales.
There were other attractions in this issue of House of Secrets. The most obvious was the back-up strip, featuring Eclipso. I do recall that I read a few Eclipso stories back in the early 1960s and didn't especially like them. But these would have been the later episodes drawn by Jack Sparling. In any event, at the age of nine, I wasn't really in a position to understand just how good Alex Toth was. Heck, I couldn't even tell one artist from another at that age. And later on, when I did understand that sort of thing a bit better, I would even come to appreciate what a great craftsman Jack Sparling was.

There's also a couple of great house ads - a full page is given over to two 1964 annuals, Batman Annual 6 and Superman Annual 8 (both Win 1963-64), and there's a half page ad for Tomahawk 90 and Rip Hunter 18. Back then I was never really much interested in adventure comics like Rip Hunter, but the 80-page annuals were a different matter. I would spend many hours tracking down as many of those as I could afford. I'll be talking about Annuals when we get to Number 4 in the chart ...


8. ACTION 301 - "THE SECRET IDENTITY OF SUPER-HORSE"

It's only now, looking back, that I realise what a strange child I was. I never really liked DC's war comics. In fact, I can't recall every reading one during the early 1960s. I much preferred the super-hero comics, especially Superboy, The Legion of Superheroes and Supergirl, possibly because they were closer to my own age. But reading those Supergirl stories now, they were clearly aimed at a female audience, with their focus on emotion rather than on action. In fact, they have a lot in common with the romance stories DC were publishing around the same time. And just in case we were in any doubt, editor Weisinger gave Supergirl a pony.

Action Comics 293 (Oct 1962) was the third appearance of Comet the Super-Horse. But reader reaction must have been positive for Weisinger to feature the creature on the front cover of the flagship DC title.
Comet the Super-Horse had a bit of a shaky start, as though DC weren't sure what to do with him. He first appeared, sort of unannounced in Adventure Comics 293 (Feb 1962), where he was enlisted by The Legion of Superheroes - along with the other super-pets - to battle some "Brain Globes" from outer space who could mentally control humans, but not animals. An editorial note helpfully tells readers that we are getting a glimpse into Supergirl's future life where she will have her own super-pony. That has to be every girl's dream, doesn't it?

Adventure Comics 293 would be the first time readers would see the Legion of Super-Pets, and also the first appearance of Super-Horse, not named as "Comet" at this stage.
But it would take quite a few months before Editor Weisinger would bring back Super-Horse, probably more due to the lag in production time than due to any sloth on the part of ol' Uncle Mort. I've noted before that initial sales figures on comics wouldn't be available until six months after the on-sale date so, given the timing, it looks like the next appearance was actually rushed into production.

The return of Super-horse was an elaborate, three-part epic in the back half of Action Comics, running from issues 292 to 294, quite an unusual move for DC at the time, as they rarely offered continuing stories. Full of ridiculous coincidences, prophetic dreams and alien invasions, the stories were a weird hybrid of girls' romance and superhero action.
Action Comics 292 (Sep 1962) gave us the Supergirl back-up story, "The Steed of Steel", and brought Kara and Comet together for the first time. The super-stallion merely appears to Supergirl in dreams for most of the story, though she notices the strange marking on his shoulder and names him Comet. But, towards the end of the tale, Linda Danvers visits a dude ranch with her parents and actually meets the real Comet, complete with the same strange markings as the super-horse in her dreams. It's the sort of implausible coincidence that most of the stories from the Weisinger machine were based on. Except that ... since Comet has telepathic powers, it was he who was planting the dreams of himself in Linda (Supergirl) Danver's head, as we would find out, next issue.

The extraordinary origin of Super-Horse is told in Action Comics 293 - a credulity-stretching tale of centaurs, ancient sorceresses and magic gone wrong. Just the sort of thing Mort Weisinger and his scripter Leo Dorfman excelled at. Artist Jim Mooney manages to tell the tall tale with his usual mixture of craftsmanship and dignity.
The story continues in the very next Supergirl adventure, "The Secret Origin of Supergirl's Super-Horse", in Action Comics 293 (Oct 1962). Starting with Linda Danvers and her parent still at the due ranch run by Mr Greede, Supergirl and Comet bond with a bit of shoe-ing and branding, then go for a ride where Comet reveals that he is both telepathic and formerly a centaur named Biron. As half-man half-horse, he admired the beautiful sorceress Circe from afar and one day chanced to save her life from a jealous rival. In gratitude, Circe had intended to transform Biron into a man, but the evil rival sorcerer messed with the potion and hapless Biron was instead changed into a horse. To try to make up for the error, Circe conferred the powers and immortality of the gods upon him. So it turns out that Comet is in fact thousands of years old and not Super in the Kryptonian sense. At the end of this second part, Comet is sold to a Hollywood animal trainer for a thousand dollars by Mr Greede, so we end on a bit of a cliff-hanger.

The epic adventure wraps up in the following issue of Action Comics when Comet, in his new career as a Hollywood super-star, loses his memory of Supergirl, and forgets he ever had super-powers. Nothing Supergirl does seems to restore Comet's memory and readers are left waiting for some future issue to resolve the dangling plot thread.

This odd mix of sorcery and sci-fi has Comet transformed into a man, and saving a non-powered Supergirl on the planet Zerox. The second half of the tale has Supergirl meeting Comet in his human form, as rodeo rider "Bronco Bill".
All of which is a long pre-amble into the actual subject of this chart entry. Action Comics 301 (Jun 1963), featuring the Supergirl supporting story, "The Secret Identity of Super-Horse". Comet had his memory returned in the previous issue, Action Comics 300, but I hadn't read that story back in 1963. And in fact, I hadn't known about Comet's amnesia until I did the research for this blog entry. Issue 301 is where I came in, and for some reason, the romantic nature of the tale appealed to me as a nine-year-old. The plot has Supergirl and Super-Horse despatched to the sorcery planet Zerox (yep!), to pay back an old debt to its ruler, Prince Endor. Under Zerox's red sun, Supergirl will have no powers, but as Comet will, she should be safe enough. The mission is successful and a grateful price offers Comet his own choice of reward. Comet's wish is to be human. The Prince grants this, but only when a Comet is in the heavens will Super-Horse become an ordinary human. Back on Earth, Comet is transformed into a man by a handy passing comet, and decides to keep this part of his life secret from Supergirl. But Supergirl - led to a rodeo by friend Lena Thorul's ESP powers - fails to recognise "Bronco Bill" as Comet, despite a suspiciously similar "birthmark" on the man's shoulder.

Weisinger and his scripter Leo Dorfman managed to pack more plot into eleven and a half pages than most modern writers could squeeze into a year's worth of comics. It's not necessarily the best approach to creating comics, but at least readers got their 12 cents-worth.
Bill's uncanny abilities as a horseman earn him the title of "King of the Rodeo" and Supergirl is named Queen, leading to a ceremonial kiss between the two. Finally, after Supergirl has left, the comet finishes its pass of the Earth and Bill begins to transform back to a horse, momentarily appearing as a centaur. Despite being captured by rustlers, once fully back in his guise as Super-Horse, Comet easily escapes and when next they meet, Supergirl is none the wiser about Comet's extra ability.

Hokey though all this is, it's surprising to me that I remember this story some fifty-odd years after I read it. It stands out in my memory far better than the Superman tale that preceded it in this issue of Action Comics. In fact, reading the entire book again, I had no memory of the Superman story at all (something about Superman being on trial for murdering Clark Kent). 
"The Secret Identity of Super-Horse" wasn't the best tale to come out of the Weisinger stable, but a worthy number eight in my DC favourites chart.


7. SUPERBOY 98 - "THE BOY WITH ULTRA POWERS"

Though I'm including two covers here, the story that I will be covering in this section is the first one, the first appearance of Ultra Boy in Superboy 98 (Jul 1962). The cover on the right is the one I thought I'd be talking about.
It's funny how your memory can play tricks on you. I have a strong memory of the first time I saw Ultra Boy, later to be a key member of the Legion of Superheroes. It involved him travelling back to Smallville - sometime in the late 1940s from the look of the cars and the fashions - to discover the secret identity of Superboy. The story actually happened in Superboy 98 (Jul 1962), but before I did the research for this piece, I would have sworn up and down that the incident actually happened in Superboy 117 (Dec 1964), just because I remember that cover so well.

The plot of the story has Ultra Boy, and an older guy in a similar uniform, showing up in Smallville with the stated intent of discovering Superboy's secret identity. We're led to believe that the pair have some sinister intent. Also in the mix is Pete Ross, a schoolmate of Clark's who secretly knows Superboy's identity. That's pretty much it.

In Superboy 98, writer Jerry Siegel (probably with the blessing of Mort Weisinger) misleads readers into thinking that Ultra Boy has sinister intent when he declares his mission is to discover Superboy's secret identity. However, this also seems to be an error, as I believe Superboy/man's identity is a matter of historical record in the 30th Century. A cheat or a mistake ... you decide.
The main reason I remember the story so well is because I instantly liked Ultra Boy as a character, though he wasn't fully thought-out in this tale. Later, the writers would limit his powers by allowing him to only use them one at a time. That way, he wouldn't upstage Superboy. By the end of the 13 pages, it's revealed that Ultra Boy is undergoing his initiation test to join the Legion of Superheroes. Interestingly, Ultra Boy also figures out that Pete Ross is guarding Superboy's secret, and as a reward for being such a good friend, he's invited to join the Legion as an honorary member. In later issues of Adventure Comics, we'd see Pete attending meetings. Yet Superboy never questions his presence. I don't know whether that plot-hole was ever resolved.

"Now remember ... whatever you do, DON'T mention that I'm secretly Superboy. Got that?" A slightly odd example of discontinuity in Superboy 117, where Ultra Boy and all his Legion chums seem to already know Superboy's big secret.
The other possible error is that in the later Ultra Boy story, in Superboy 117 - also written by Jerry Siegel - we see Superboy cheerily wave to his Legion friends, admonishing them to be careful not to give away his secret identity. It's possible that a Legion story established this over in Adventure Comics, between the two Superboy tales, but I'm just now re-reading those Legion stories and I didn't notice any mention of Superboy revealing his Clark Kent persona to the Legionaires, so I'm assuming it's taught in school history lessons in the 30th Century.

Nonetheless, an entertaining example of Silver Age silliness from the House of Weisinger, despite the cavalier approach to continuity.


6. ADVENTURE 306 - "THE LEGION OF SUBSTITUTE HEROES"

For some reason, this story really resonated with me. Because I was a bit nerdy and read "horror comics", a certain contingent of my classmates went out of their way to make me feel like some sort of outcast ... not quite good enough to mix with regular folks. This would have been at primary school around this 1963 - 1964 period.

One of my favourite Legion of Super-Heroes tales ever was hidden in the back of Adventure Comics 306 as a back-up feature. Though it rated a mention on the cover, in my view it should have been the cover story.
So when I read this tale of a group of super-heroes who "weren't quite good enough" to be accepted into the mighty Legion, I immediately identified with them. The thing is, though ... I didn't think they were "not quite good enough" at all. In fact, I thought they had some pretty cool powers. So, there's:
  • Polar Boy (billed as "Polar Lad" in error on the front cover) - has the power to lower the temperature and freeze stuff. He does pre-date The X-Men's Iceman by half a year, though Marvel takes quite a different approach to the idea.
  • Night Girl - Ah, Night Girl. Readers of my earlier blog entries will know how I felt (and still feel) about girls with raven hair. But I digress. Night Girl has super-strength when not in contact with daylight.
  • Fire Lad - Is able to breathe fire, so probably should have been called Dragon Lad. Doesn't rate a mention on the cover.
  • Chlorophyll Kid - Has the ability to make plants grow super-fast.
  • Stone Boy - Can turn his body to stone. Unfortunately, can't move when in that state.
The story - script by Ed Hamilton, art by John Forte - has a few hopefuls trying out for Legion membership, and all are rejected. A small group of the unsuccessful candidates meet outside the Legion clubhouse and decide to form their own Legion of Substitute Heroes, so they can help out when the Legion proper is not available.

There's a vibe going on with the Legion of Substitute Heroes that reminds me of the X-Men. They all outcasts, shunned by those they most want acceptance from. They both have a frosty guy and both the female members are the most powerful.
The Substitute Heroes monitor for disasters where they can step in, but Legion members always seem to get to the danger zone first. It's a disheartening experience. But when the main Legion is wrong-footed by alien invaders, the Substitutes manage to thwart a backdoor invasion of Earth without the Legion of Super-Heroes knowing they've been helped. The tale ends with the Substitutes watching and waving at the Legion's victory parade. It's a kind of strange ending. By working quietly in the background, and not taking any credit for fear of detracting from the fame and prestige of the original Legion, it makes the Substitutes appear to be better human beings than the Legion themselves.

In a later appearance, the Substitutes were offered another shot at Legion membership. Yet, by this time, their family bond was so strong, none would leave their comrades behind. That resonated with me, even as a nine-year-old, as being properly heroic. It made the actual Legion look bad, I thought.
The Legion of Substitute Heroes would return, first in Adventure Comics 311 (Aug 1963) and 313 (Oct 1963), then in Adventure 315 (Dec 1963), where they were once again allowed to try-out for The Legion. Only one made it, and they rejected The Legion's offer so they could remain with their Substitute chums. See what I mean about the Substitutes having more integrity than the actual Legion?

One of my favourite heroines of the early 1960s ... the incomparable Night Girl, far and away the best aspect of the Legion of Substitute Heroes.
A big plus for me during these early years of the Legion was the art of John Forte. Something of a figure of fun for some fans, because of his "stiff" figure drawing, I always thought it was Forte's art that made these early Legion stories. 

John Robert Forte Jr (pronounced "Fort") was born 6 Oct 1918 in Rockway Beach, Queens NY, and got in to comics in 1941, after a couple of years as a pulp illustrator, beginning with a few jobs for Timely, pencilling Destroyer stories in All-Winners 5 (Summer 1942) and Mystic 10 (Aug 1942). Later in 1942, Forte drew a few stories for Dell, before joining the US Army and serving in Europe for the duration. Honorably discharged in late 1945, with the Conspicuous Service Medal, he soon joined the Iger Studio, and started a long run on Fiction House titles, such as Jungle and Fight. Towards the end of the 1940s, Forte added Quality Comics to his client roster, also through the Iger Studio, contributing artwork to Modern Comics and Blackhawk. As the 1950s rolled round, Forte began to widen his horizons, selling artwork to Avon and Wanted Comics. In 1951 John Forte drew the newspaper comic strip, South Sea Girl, for Phoenix Features Syndicate.

Criticised by some fans for his curious "frozen" style of art, Forte was an accomplished and versatile artist, drawing romance, westerns and horror - as well as his better-known super-hero tales. Forte gave the early Legion of Super-Heroes a distinctive polished, and rather attractive, look. He drew especially gorgeous girls, probably due to his years of experience on romance titles for DC.
By 1953, Forte was working for Atlas/Marvel, drawing stories for a wide variety of Stan Lee's books - like Strange Tales, Uncanny Tales and Journey into Mystery. Quality went out of business in 1956, and Forte focused on drawing for Martin Goodman's Atlas Comics. But in 1957, the great Atlas Implosion meant that Forte had lost his most important customer. Barely missing a beat, Forte switched to DC, and began drawing romance tales, beginning with Girls' Love Stories, then progressing on to Heart Throbs and Secret Hearts. At the same time, Forte also began drawing for ACG on titles like Forbidden Worlds and Adventures into the Unknown. Forte toiled away on DC romances for over three years, augmenting his income selling a lot of material to second-tier publisher ACG. Then, in 1961, he got a break and was assigned a story by DC's Dark Overlord, Mort Weisinger, in Superman 143 (Feb 1961). Within a couple of months, Forte had his first regular DC gig ... Tales of Bizarro World, starting in Adventure Comics 285 (Jun 1961) and running to issue 299 (Aug 1962). But the cancellation of the series didn't bother Forte. The very next issue, he started as the regular artist on Legion of Superheroes, and continued to draw The Legion until his death from cancer on 2 May 1966. He was 47. His last Legion story was in Adventure Comics 339 (Dec 1965).

The Substitute Heroes would continue to appear, evolving with new members as it went, but for me, the original lineup was the best.

So ... once again, I've run out of time and space, so I'll need to leave the Top Five of my Ten Favourite DC Comics of the 1960s till next time.

Next: They just get better and better




Sunday, 12 April 2020

Exposed: Myths of Marvel's Silver Age - Part 3

THERE'S ONE LAST MYTH of the Marvel Silver Age I want to look at before I put the subject to rest. It has been reported many times, by many historians, that Marvel's sales figures didn't match DC's until the beginning of the 1970s. And that may well be true. But in my researches for this blog, I have come across some data that throws some doubt on the commonly reported story.

Legend has it that Marvel publisher Martin Goodman brilliantly out-manoeuvred DC Publisher Carmine Infantino, by first raising, then dropping, the cover price of the standard Marvel comicbook. The truth is a less dramatic tale of corporate interference and incompetence.
Then, when I looked a little deeper into the circumstances of Marvel's ascendency - that of a brilliant and effective subterfuge on the part of Marvel publisher Martin Goodman - I began to have some misgivings about the accuracy of the legend as it's been reported over the decades ...


THE DC vs MARVEL SALES WAR

The story I've read in many different histories of American comics is that Marvel finally overtook DC in sales after a Machiavellian trick by Marvel publisher Martin Goodman. This story has been reported on WIKIpedia (mis-quoting Les Daniels' Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics) and in Sean Howe's Marvel: The Untold Story (HarperCollins, 2012), among others.

"As 1971 drew to a close, publisher Martin Goodman initiated an ingenious sales strategy," wrote Daniels, "a complicated series of changes in the size and price of the standard color comic book, that gave Marvel a commanding lead in overall circulation ... in November1971 the standard comic book price jumped to twenty-five cents. Rival DC made the same change simultaneously ... after only one month of the new prices, in December 1971 Marvel dropped back to thirty-six pages at the price of twenty cents ... Goodman [was able] to offer a larger percentage of the retail price to his wholesale distributors. As a result .... circulation increased."

"Martin Goodman hatched a devious plan to conquer DC once and for all," wrote Howe. "When Marvel and DC agreed to hike the price of comics ... their handshake deal called for the books to expand from 36 to 52 pages - but at a whopping 25 cents apiece. But after a month, Goodman immediately cut back to fewer pages at 20 cents, and offered newsstand proprietors a bigger cut of the profits, ensuring that Marvel would get better rack space. The slow-footed DC tried to make a go of their higher-price, thicker comics, but they took a bath on the manoeuvre, and by the time they crawled back to the 20 cent price point, they'd lost the battle and the war. For the first time in its history, Marvel Comics was the number-one comic book company in the world."

The Great American Novel website even adds a reason why DC stuck at 25 cents for a year: "In October 1971 Marvel used a sneaky trick: they raised their page count and price. DC heard in advance and did the same. But DC had to buy their paper a year in advance so were locked into the higher page count. The next month Marvel dropped their pages and prices again, while DC had to keep theirs high. For the whole year Marvel grabbed market share, kept a lot of it even after DC went back to normal."

The problem is that almost none of the above is true. Here's some reasons why I have issues with that story:
  • Martin Goodman didn't hatch the plan, Independent News did.
  • DC raised its page count and price first, with the August cover-dated issues (on sale June). Marvel raised their price on the November cover-dated issues (on sale July)
  • DC and Marvel having a handshake deal to raise prices across the board is anti-competitive and highly illegal. It's conceivable that Goodman might've agreed to something like that but I don't think corporate DC would have
  • Even if DC did buy their paper for the year ahead, it seems unlikely that the corporate leaders of Kinney would allow DC to continue on such a suicidal path, just to save a few bucks by bulk buying.
Here's some of the more obscure Marvels that went to 25 cents for just one 52-page issue (a couple lasted two issues) around November 1971. There's a full list further down the page.
If any of the "historians", who have parroted the above tale way too many times over the years, had done even the most cursory research, they would have found plenty of evidence to discredit the claims.

According to Carmine Infantino, who was DC's publisher at the time, the idea to raise the price for more pages "... was Independent News' idea. They made that decision ... When we went to 25 cents, we gave the distributor a 40% discount. Marvel goes in and cuts the price 20% and gives the distributor 50% off. They were throwing our books back in our face! The price structure was set up by [Paul] Wendell [National's President], [Mark] Inglesias [Kinney's accountant], and [Harold] Chamberlin [who ran Independent News]."

DC Comics, on the other hand, went to 5p-pages for 25 cents with the August 1971 cover-dated issues. Here's a selection of some of the lesser-known DC titles that came out at the new price that August.
So, not Martin Goodman's idea at all. One bit of the above story that is true is that Goodman offered a bigger cut of the cover price to his distributors (in his account Daniels calls them "wholesale distributors" - said no one who worked in the publishing business ever). Fifty percent instead of forty percent.

Let me just break that down for you. Back in the day, when I worked at Marvel UK, the deal we had with Comag was that we got 50% of the cover price for each comic sold. Unsolds we didn't get anything for. Out of our half, we had to pay for editorial, production (neg films of the pages, etc) and printing. Out of the distributors' half, they paid for marketing (ha, right!), logistics (usually by truck) and gave the wholesalers 25% discount on copies sold. The wholesalers handled transport to the retailers and typically gave the newsagents 15% discount on copies sold. Those percentages might vary slightly depending on how good a negotiator you are.

That's for a Sale-or-Return model, common in the US and adopted pretty much across the board in the UK by the 1980s. So Martin Goodman's idea of giving the distributor 50% discount reverberated down the decades and was still affecting magazine distribution right into the 1990s, maybe even until now.

Space was always at a premium on most newsstands ... so much so that proprietors would prioritise the magazines they knew they could sell for the most profit. Sadly comics didn't count in that group and would often not even make it to the display racks.
From the other end of the chain, the numbers of comics that ended up on the newsstand's spinner rack was usually determined by the local wholesaler. Depending on the size of the business, newsstand would be allocated a bundle of comics of a certain number of titles. The following month's allocation would be based on the returns from the previous month. The wholesaler would mix and match titles to achieve the best outcome for each newsstand. However, all that said, comics were a low-profit, high-volume venture, and often retailers (and sometimes wholesalers) wouldn't even bother to put the comics on sale, preferring to give rack-space to magazines that made them a higher profit.

But aside from all that, I keep coming back to the question, Why did DC Comics, market leader for over twenty years, decide to raise their cover price to 25 cents in the first place? For an answer to that, we need to go back to the beginning of the 1960s.

The top four sellers during 1960, according to the Statements of Ownership published in the magazines. The high number for Dell Uncle Scrooge is probably helped by the fact that as a quarterly, it stayed on the stands for three months. Superman and Superboy published eight issues a year, so had half the newsstand time of the Disney title.
At that time, the big players in the comic book market were Dell, Archie and DC Comics. DC's top seller was Superman, at number three in sales charts, probably because of the Adventures of Superman that was still running on syndicate tv channels across America. (It was outsold by Dell's Uncle Scrooge and Walt Disney's Comics and Stories, both at around one million each.) Batman was in sixth place after Superboy and Mickey Mouse. Marvel - then not even identified by the "MC" box on the covers - barely cracked the top 50, with Tales to Astonish at number 43.

However, it's important to bear in mind that these were Statements, made by the publishers, to satisfy a demand of the US Post Office that the postal service was being used to distribute genuine publications that the customers had bought, and not junk mail that they hadn't, and so wouldn't qualify for second class post. No one checked whether the numbers were true or not. And some publishers didn't include the circulation figures in their Statements. Heck, DC didn't even print the Statements in their comics from 1963 - 1965. So those sales are a bit of a mystery.

Here's the Publisher's Statement from Archie Comics 127 (Apr 1962), showing the "average number of copies of this publication sold or distributed, through the mails or otherwise, to paid subscribers during the 12 months preceding the dat shown above was: 458,039." Click image to enlarge.
And in an interview with The Comic Book Artist 1 (Spr 1998), Charlton and DC editor Dick Giordano said, "I wouldn't take the Publisher's Statement numbers to church. I'm not sure where they came from but I'll tell you one thing I know for sure - because I can't get in trouble. At Charlton, they just made them up."

However, even with those caveats in place, things were about to change.

For reasons unknown, Dell decided to raise the price of their comics by 50% in March 1961. They probably felt that their market share, and their 30 pages of comics with no-ads, was so strong that this wouldn't affect their sales, but as we will see, they had made a mistake.
The first change was that Dell raised their cover price in March 1961 - ironically, the same month that the Statement for 1960 was printed in - from 10 cents to 15 cents. A whopping 50% price-hike couldn't have gone down well with the little tykes who bought Disney and tv-tie in titles. The only rationale I can think of is that perhaps Dell believed their comics were a parental buy, and adults wouldn't see much of a problem in a five-cent bump. But they were wrong.

DC's Superman family titles continued to rule the sales charts in 1962, holding the top four slots. Marvel's highest titles were Life (Modelling) with Millie and Tales to Astonish.
By 1962, things get a little hazy. Dell didn't report figures at all, so we don't know how much the high cover price affected them at this point. Superman had lost 70,000 sales and Superboy 50,000, though they were still the top sellers. Batman had haemorrhaged 75,000 sales. The other two Superman family titles Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen held the three and four slots, with Archie at number five. Comichron reports that 1962's highest selling Marvel was Modelling with Millie, but as the title wasn't published until 1963, this should probably be Life with Millie. Tales to Astonish had inexplicably lost around 25,000 sales, but would just as inexplicably regain them the following year ... I suspect subterfuge.

The highest sellers in 1963 were Dennis the Menace and Archie. A long way behind, Marvel's two top sellers were Rawhide Kid and Kid Colt Outlaw. Tales to Astonish had bounced back to around 185,000, about 10,000 copies behind the two western titles.
The following year would reveal just what a blunder Dell had made. Though the 15c price only lasted seven months, it was long enough to cause sales to plummet to about half their previous level. Further complicating things was the split between Dell and Western, leading Western to set up their own competing Gold Key line of comics. The net result was that - with no figures reported for DC from 1963-65 - Dell/Gold Key was knocked out of the top two spots by Fawcett's Dennis the Menace and Archie's Archie. In just two years Walt Disney's Comics and Stories had gone from over a million copies to less than half a million. Uncle Scrooge fared even worse, from outselling WDC&S to just 299,000 copies. Though we don't know the reported DC sales numbers for this period, we do know that Batman was seeing dropping sales, and that the DC brass would take the title away from editor Jack Schiff and have Julius Schwartz and Carmine Infantino revamp the character in 1964.

So it's not like publishers didn't know that raising the cover price of a magazine was a sure way to shed a huge chunk of their readership.

Classics Illustrated comics were an odd beast. Reprinted over and over again, with no ad revenue to fall back on, the comics underwent several price rises, finally ending up at 25 cents for 52 pages by 1968. The following year, the series was cancelled.
And if any more proof were needed, look at the case of Classics Illustrated. The series had started out in 1941, adapting literary classics to comic book format. They would then reprint regularly, some editions staying in print for over 25 years. Despite the fact that they had no new script and artwork costs, they continued to raise the prices of their comics. In 1941, they were charging 10 cents for a 52-page package. Some time around 1958, they raised the price for the same book to 15 cents - three years before Dell's price-hike. Finally, in 1968, the price of a Classics Illustrated comic went to 25 cents. It was a step too far, and within months Classics Illustrated was out of business.


AND ... BACK TO DC

By 1965, DC was beginning to report on sales again. Superman was still top of the heap with reported sales of over 800k, but the other DC titles that disclosed sales were starting to look shaky. Yes, they held eight of the top ten slots, but Gold Key were in severe decline and Marvel's split-title comics were gaining ground, up about 50,000 copies per month to around 230k each. Fantastic Four and Spider-Man had no Publisher's Statements that year, but they were almost certainly doing better.

The main Superman family titles occupied the top slots. The next two best-selling DC titles were World's Finest and Batman, enjoying a sales bump after Julie Schwartz's revamp. Marvel were still a long way behind, but they were gaining - fast - with Journey into Mystery and Strange Tales leading the charge.
But more important than this was the sell-through rate.

As described above, comics were on sale-or-return. This meant that any comics that weren't sold by the retailers could be returned - sometimes just the torn-off logo - for credit. Typically, a comic needed about a 50% sell-through to stay in profit. Below that, and the title was in trouble.

"Marvel was doing very well," Carmine Infantino told Comic Book Marketplace in 2000. "We knew it because DC - Independent News - was handling Marvel at the time and their numbers were coming in. Marvel had books like Spider-Man coming in at 70, 80, even 85 percent sales. And we had books coming in at 40, 41, 42 percent. Something was wrong and they [the management] didn't know how to fix it."

Even though it wasn't terribly difficult to identify what was different about Stan Lee's approach to comics, the DC editors either couldn't see it or didn't care. "[They] were so institutionalised, coming off all these wonderful accomplishments, taking credit for the invention of the superhero and maintaining it, and acting like no one else could do a superhero as well as they did," explained DC editor Joe Orlando in Comic Book Artist 1 (1998). "They were getting their asses kicked in by Marvel at the newsstand, and they were not reading the Marvel books, never analysing or trying to figure out what the competition was doing. They treated their competitor with total contempt." Orlando had tried - and failed - to do comics with Stan Lee a few years earlier, so he should have been able to explain it to the DC brass. There's no record of him trying.

Someone who did try was Doom Patrol scripter Arnold Drake. The writer had crafted a memo to DC publisher Irwin Donenfeld in February 1966, warning the DC brass of the danger posed by Marvel Comics.

Drake's memo made a brave attempt to get his publisher to understand why Marvel was making inroads, but still missed the mark. He described how Marvel was aiming at an older demographic, and suggested that DC introduce three tiers of comics - Weisinger's Superman family titles would be for the little kids; Julius Schwartrz's Green Lantern and Flash books would be for the pre-teens, and Doom Patrol and other titles like it would be for the high school and college crowd. But this still failed to analyse how Stan Lee was appealing to a wider audience than National ... and how DC could replicate it.

Even so, the DC management were dismissive. "You're full of shit as a Christmas turkey," was Donenfeld's reply, according to Drake. "We outsell them 3 - 1!" Yet Roy Thomas and John Romita both have said that DC management was having meetings about Marvel, trying to figure out why they were gaining sales so fast, as early as the summer of 1965.

DC/National "had decided that Marvel’s secret was the 'bad drawing' of guys like Kirby and Ditko," said Roy Thomas in Alter Ego 17. "The fact that Drake’s memo was given short shrift even half a year later shows much about the mindset at the time."

DC must have been worried about the new, trendier upstart Marvel Comics, because they made, some might say, an embarrassing attempt to make their comics look more cool, with a checkerboard border across the top of their covers, starting with the comics on sale in December 1965. By the end of 1966, Superman was no longer the top-selling comic, Batman was.
In the end, DC Editorial Director Irwin Donenfeld must have conceded that something was wrong, because he ordered that, as of the February 1966 issues (on sale December 1965), DC would sport an identifying banner across the covers - the Go-Go Checks.

"What a ridiculous thing," Carmine Infantino told A Complete History of American Comic Books. "It was the stupidest thing we ever heard because the books were bad in those days and that showed people right off what not to buy."

And there, Infantino hit on exactly what the problem was. DC books "were bad in those days". And with all the evidence readily available, this seems like it was on DC's radar by the second half of 1965 at the latest. So though Donenfeld stated that DC were "outselling Marvel 3 - 1", in February 1966 ... that should have been based on the numbers for 1964, as he wouldn't have had 1965's sales figures at that point. 

Carmine Infantino told The Comics Book Artist (1998) how publishers got their sales figures. "The first numbers would come in after three months. Then at six months you'd get final sales figures, and one year later, you'd get final, final sales." So Infantino - publisher of DC Comics - is saying he wouldn't know the full results for a year until the end of the following year, because wholesalers would still be finding comics to return down the back of the sofa, or wherever.

So, all of these sales numbers quoted above - taken from the Publishers' Statements - aren't hugely reliable. Because they're not the sales figures. They're publishers' estimates. How can you report the sales figures for 1965 in the April 1966 comics? It can't be done, because at that point, you wouldn't know.

It certainly wouldn't be what advertisers would use when booking ad space. If you're an ad agency, looking to reach a certain number of people for your client's advertising dollars, you want to know for sure how many readers will see your magazine ad. Because your client is going to ask you.

And that's where ABC figures come in.


SO, HOW MANY COPIES DO YOUR COMICS REALLY SELL?

In the magazine business - where I spent half my working life - advertising is a significant source of income for publishers. And how much you can charge for your advertising space hinges largely on how many copies you sell. There are other factors, too ... like demographics (who buys your magazine, broken down by age, income and so forth). But mostly it's copies sold.

Now, an advertiser isn't just going to take your word for it. They need some third party to verify your sales, so they can be sure they're reaching the numbers of their target audience they need to to sell their product. You know, like some sort of Bureau that Audits Circulations. Then, when you've got all that information, you could publish it in some sort of British Rate And Data directory, so that advertisers could refer to it.

And that's exactly what we had. The Audit Bureau of Circulations gathered all the sales information and then published it in a guide called BRAD. They also included the magazine's advertising rates and page sizes, so that the agencies would know what dimensions their print ads should be made up to and how much they would be paying for them. Both ABC and BRAD are online now and you can find them easily via Google.

Audited circulation numbers would be published bi-annually in trade directories like Ayer's in the United States and BRAD in the UK. These directories would be used by ad agencies and other publishers to determine how well - or not - magazines were selling.
Likewise, the United States, they too had an Audit Bureau of Circulations, though their directory was known as N.W. Ayer and Sons Directory of Newspapers and Periodicals, which also contained circulation information.

The key difference was that the numbers circulated by the ABC, through trade publications like BRAD and Ayer, were were audited. That means an independent accounting firm looked through all the numbers and determined what a magazine's actual sales were, then affirmed it in a legal document. Because, to claim your sales were higher than they were would be fraud and, in both the US and the UK, you go to jail for that kind of thing. Mostly.

So, while casting around for ABC numbers for Marvel and DC, I came across a bit of research by Jon Hoyle. He had applied to the ABC in the US and got ABC figures for Marvel and DC from 1950 to 1987. I'm only concerned here with the years 1965 - 1968, as this is when I think the tables turned for DC and Marvel. Now granted, he could have made them up - and it would cost me $50 per half year to order the same data from ABC to prove it one way or the other - but why would he? Besides, I was able to find some page scans from the Ayer guide for 1963, and they confirm Jon Hoyle's figures.

Here's the two relevant pages from the N.W. Ayer & Sons Directory, 1963 edition. On the left, National Comics Group, and on the right, Marvel Comics Group. Click on the image to enlarge.
So, the two numbers to watch are 6,049,602 for National and 2,992,017 for Marvel. These would have been the average combined monthly sales figures for each company's catalogue of titles for the first half of 1962.

And here's a snapshot of Mr Hoyle's numbers, as posted in rec.arts.comics.dc.universe. The "Full Year Average" and "Difference" columns I added myself, the Difference being how many more comics per month Marvel was selling in percentage terms (obviously a negative percentage signifies fewer copies sold).


1st HALF 2nd HALF FULL YEAR AVERAGE DIFFERENCE
YEAR DC MARVEL DC MARVEL DC MARVEL
1960 6,695,210 2,322,162 8,056,093 3,058,312 7,375,652 2,690,237 -63.53%
1961 6,908,803 2,833,849 7,747,787 3,401,069 7,328,295 3,117,459 -57.46%
1962 6,049,602 2,992,017 7,250,513 3,587,987 6,650,058 3,290,002 -50.53%
1963 6,262,836 3,364,779 7,283,109 4,145,588 6,772,973 3,755,184 -44.56%
1964 6,671,121 3,903,821 7,461,786 5,322,151 7,066,454 4,612,986 -34.72%
1965 6,274,065 4,873,463 7,010,828 5,935,322 6,642,447 5,404,393 -18.64%
1966 6,987,445 5,980,401 7,687,633 7,300,363 7,337,539 6,640,382 -9.50%
1967 5,848,098 6,390,403 6,800,572 7,695,583 6,324,335 7,042,993 11.36%
1968 5,970,013 7,088,687 6,614,980 9,147,001 6,292,497 8,117,844 29.01%

The circulation figures for both companies match the scans from the N.W. Ayer Guide for the first half of 1962. Consequently, I think we can safely assume that the remaining numbers are also accurate. So when DC publisher Irwin Donenfeld hair-dryered Arnold Drake back in the February of 1966, his information was out of date. DC might have been out-selling Marvel 3 - 1 ... in 1960! But it doesn't look like they were doing anything like so well by 1965.

So, what does all this prove? Well, nothing, really. I'm sure that there is some fundamental difference between the way the Audit Bureau of Circulation arrives at its figures for how many copies of all its magazines a publisher sells in a given month and how the publishers themselves estimate it. But I don't have enough insight into their processes to offer an informed explanation. But what I do know is that there enough evidence here to throw some reasonable doubt on the story of how Martin Goodman reversed his price rise decision and threw DC Comics into disarray. That, I don't think is true.

Daniel's 1991 book carries a notice in the imprint that all material in it is copyright Marvel Entertainment Group. So ... not the unbiased impartial account you might think it to be.
So where did that story come from? The earliest telling of it I've been able to find is in the hefty history Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the Worl'd's Greatest Comics by Les Daniels. Quoted at the top of this page, Daniels wrote, "Martin Goodman initiated an ingenious sales strategy ... Rival DC made the same change simultaneously." And we've seen that simply isn't true. So why would Daniels write that? Because he's not a historian. He was writing the officially sanctioned Marvel version of the story. And subsequent authors have just copied the anecdote without bothering to look at the dates of the comics they're talking about.

Even though we now know that it was DC that initiated the price hike to 25 cents for 52 pages, both companies had been experimenting with the 25 cent cover price for anything up to a year before, but Marvel tried it first.

Why did Kid Colt Outlaw go to giant-size for three months in 1966? Perhaps Martin Goodman was testing the waters. But in 1970, he tried again with a couple of 25 cent titles, both also reprint.
For three consecutive issues in 1966, Marvel upped the price of Kid Colt Outlaw to 25 cents for 68 pages. Then the title reverted to 12 cents. A few years later, Marvel started reprinting the X-Men as a regular 25 cent book, and added a new monster title Fear, reprinting 68 pages of pre-hero Marvel stories for 25 cents. Was this an experiment? Who knows ... but regular 25 cent books weren't exactly new to Marvel. They'd been reprinting their back catalogue in Marvel Tales, Marvel Collectors' Items (later Marvel's Greatest Comics) and Marvel Super-Heroes since 1966.

Like Martin Goodman, Carmine Infantino was trying out bigger, more expensive comics with some of his b-list and c-list titles. These must have sold okay, because within a few months DC had upped its entire line to 52 pages for a quarter.
Meanwhile, over at DC, Carmine Infantino was also testing the waters by converting some of his titles to 68 pages for 25 cents, the first appearing in late 1970. These too were mostly reprint, but there seems to have been some appetite to charge higher prices for comics on the part of both companies.

The first three DC 100-Pagers were part of a stand-alone run. All reprint, but a hundred pages for 50 cents seemed like a pretty good deal.
Then there's the 100-Page issues that DC was trialling at 50 cents. The first of these was the three issue run of DC 100-Page Super Spectacular, which began with issue 4, cover-dated simply 1971. On sale in June this would have been the equivalent of an August cover-dated comic. The next seven issues of the series were also part of their regular title's runs ... so DC 100-Page Super Spectacular DC7 was also Superman 245 (Dec 1971), but still all reprint. The title switched back to stand-along for issues DC14 (Feb 1973) to DC22 (Nov 1973). 
Giant-Size Super-Stars was the first of Marvel's Giant-Size series. Its second issue was titled Giant-Size Fantastic Four. By Issue 5, GS FF became all reprint and issue 6 was the last. The Marvel monsters were well-represented ... Giant-Size Creatures was Marvel's second Giant-Size issue - that became Giant-Size Werewolf with issue 2.
It would take Marvel until 1974 to respond with their own line of Giant-Size comics - 68 pages of mostly new material for 50 cents. Giant-Size Man-Thing remains a favourite to this day. The experiment wasn't a success and the final Giant-Size issues became reprint. None lasted beyond six issues.

Here's the two Bullpen Bulletin Pages, if you want to read the full text yourself ...
just click on the image to enlarge to reading size.
So, as we now know, DC then raised the page count and price on its entire line of comics with the August 1971 cover-dated issues. Martin Goodman followed a month or two later with the November 1971 cover-dated comics. Just why Martin even bothered to do that for a single month will forever remain a mystery. He could have just as easily gone to straight 20 cents for 36 pages, still offered the big discount to the distributors, and saved himself a lot of hassle. It seems that Goodman didn't share his full plan - if he actually had one - with his editorial team. The Bullpen Bulletins for November 1971 talks about all the superhero titles going to 52 pages and 25 cents, but actually, all the titles did, including the war, romance and monster mags. 

I wonder whether this was some sort of try-out for the combined Iron Man / Daredevil title that Stan mentioned in the Bullpen Bulletins.The timing seems to make sense as the lineup change kicked off in Oct 1970 and ended in Nov 1971.
It also mentions that Iron Man and Daredevil would be combined into a single magazine, but actually, they weren't. And there's also talk of Astonishing Tales featuring a 20-page Inhumans story, but it didn't. It featured Ka-Zar and Dr Doom in two ten-page stories.

Then, two months later, Stan was forced to print a retraction. He brushed it off as having to do with financial matters that we Marvelites wouldn't understand or care about, then went on to say that the new try-out titles, Marvel Feature, Marvel Spotlight and Marvel Premiere would all be giant-size 25 cent titles. Except Marvel Premiere wasn't. And it was announced that Astonishing Tales and Amazing Adventures would feature full-length stories of Ka-Zar and The Inhumans respectively. They didn't.

What was supposed to be two feature-length books showcasing Ka-Zar and the Inhumans, turned out to be two split-title books harking back to Tales of Suspense and Tales to Astonish. It was possibly also the final straw for Jack Kirby, who'd been offered a stand-alone Inhumans book for years, only to have it snatched away at the eleventh hour ...
Confusion was rife in the Bullpen, and it seemed that nobody knew what the plan was supposed to be. If this truly was the first time Marvel began to outsell DC, then it was more dumb luck than design. Because it certainly didn't look like Martin Goodman knew what he was doing.

However, there does appear to be strong evidence that Marvel's sales may have overtaken DC's even earlier than this. Especially give Carmine Infantino's assertion that no publisher knew the final sales figures of a comic until at least a year after its on-sale date.

After all this number-crunching, I'm going to tackle something lighter with my blog entry for May ...

Next: My Top Ten favourite DC Silver Age comics