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Is DC Comics’ Rebirth Finally Making Up For Its 1970s ‘Implosion’?

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Is DC Comics’ Rebirth Finally Making Up For Its 1970s ‘Implosion’?

"DC Explosion" subscription ad, 1978

In the mid-1970s, DC Comics was in trouble.

Running behind Marvel in terms of sales and market share, and facing an uncertain future, the company aimed to expand its output dramatically. Over a four-year period, culminating in the so-called “DC Explosion” of 1978, DC produced dozens of new titles using a mix of old and new characters and concepts. Starting in June 1978, the company also added 8 story pages to its regular ongoing titles, increased prices from 35 cents to 50 cents an issue, and turned longstanding series into overstuffed “Dollar Comics.” However, by 1979 the Explosion was over, and DC was in worse shape. The aftermath came to be known as the “DC Implosion,” and it has haunted DC’s sales efforts ever since.

Of course, over the past 40 years DC has gone through a number of line-wide shakeups and relaunches, from the 1986 aftermath of “Crisis On Infinite Earths” and the 1994 soft reboot of “Zero Hour” to the whiplash of 2011’s New 52. As the current “Rebirth” initiative prepares to celebrate its first anniversary, by and large it’s seen as a success. Readers seem to have liked the return of more familiar elements and the fact that the New 52-era continuity is reverting gradually — but perhaps not completely? — to a pre-“Flashpoint” state. “Rebirth” has also facilitated a couple of ancillary creator-driven projects, namely Gerard Way’s Young Animal and the upcoming “Dark Matter” set of series.

Those initiatives, along with some other details, remind us especially of the DC Explosion. Back then, the emphasis wasn’t just on superheroes, but on trying to serve the wider range of a newsstand-dependent readership. Although the newsstand days are behind DC, that need to reach the readership remains. With all that in mind, today we’ll examine whether “Rebirth” can do what the Explosion didn’t.

LIGHTING THE FUSE

1978 DC Explosion house ad

1978 “DC Explosion” house ad, with art by Joe Staton

The roots of the DC Explosion go back to the early 1970s. DC was publishing in the neighborhood of 50 ongoing series per year, with no other imprints and no systematic reprint program. Reprints showed up in various forms in the regular series, as well as in the tabloid-sized Limited Collector’s Editions and Famous First Editions.

Those reprints helped DC stick to its schedule, as did the fact that most of DC’s series came out either bimonthly or eight times a year. For example, in 1974 DC’s only monthly books were “Action Comics,” “Superman,” “Kamandi,” “Our Army At War,” “Weird War Tales,” and the horror anthologies “Ghosts,” “House of Secrets” and “Witching Hour.” Mainstays like “Adventure Comics,” “Batman,” “Detective Comics,” “Flash,” “Justice League of America,” “Wonder Woman” and “World’s Finest Comics” were bimonthly. 1974 also represented a low point for DC’s production, since the company added three new ongoing series but cancelled nine.

Starting in 1975, though, DC ramped up its output. Ten series graduated to monthly status, including “Batman,” “Detective,” “JLA” and “World’s Finest.” DC also added a total of 15 new series cover-dated in 1975, although it cancelled 10 — including 4 introduced that year and all 3 of 1974’s rookies. The trend continued in 1976 (19 new series), 1977 (11 new) and 1978 (7 new) — which, coincidentally, comes out to 52 new series total. In a May 1978 “Publishorial” (which appeared in books cover-dated September 1978), publisher Jenette Kahn explained that this was all part of the “DC Explosion” — “new ideas, new concepts, new characters … new formats … and near-limitless opportunities to experiment.”

Jenette Kahn's DC Explosion editorial, 1978

Publisher Jenette Kahn’s 1978 “Onward And Upward” essay on the DC Explosion

Naturally, DC cancelled a number of series during this period as well: 10 in 1975, 11 in 1976, and 12 in 1977. (We’ll get to 1978 later.) However, for the most part the books cancelled hadn’t been around that long, and arguably cleared the way for the “Explosion” titles which DC presumed would be more popular. Most of the cancelled series lasted less than 9 issues, with “Man-Bat” only getting two and “Tales of Ghost Castle” only three. The longest-lived series were “Tarzan,” which ended at issue #258; “Young Romance” (issue #208); and “Young Love” (issue #126). After that were “Korak, Son Of Tarzan,” which lasted until issue #66 (changing to “Tarzan Family” along the way); and “Phantom Stranger,” which made it to issue #41.

Otherwise, though, DC’s fusillade of series hoped to satisfy a variety of tastes. For the nostalgic it revived “All-Star Comics,” “Aquaman,” “Blackhawk,” “Challengers of the Unknown,” “Green Lantern,” “Plastic Man,” “Metal Men,” “Mister Miracle,” “New Gods,” “Showcase,” and “Teen Titans.” To attract readers of Marvel’s “Conan,” it put out “Stalker,” “Beowulf,” “Kong the Untamed” and “Claw the Unconquered”; and to martial-arts fans it offered “Richard Dragon, Kung-Fu Fighter.” DC hoped horror aficionados would enjoy “Secrets of Haunted House” and “Doorway to Nightmare,” and for sci-fi and fantasy readers it had “Hercules Unbound,” “Warlord,” “Star Hunters” and “Starfire.” The Batman line expanded with “Joker” and “Batman Family,” while the Legion got a “Karate Kid” spinoff; Jonah Hex earned his own book; and the Freedom Fighters went from a JLA/JSA crossover to their own title. New superheroes included “Black Lightning,” “Firestorm,” “Steel the Indestructible Man,” Steve Ditko’s “Shade the Changing Man” and Joe Kubert’s “Ragman.” Besides the Joker, baddie-centric books included “Kobra” and “Secret Society of Super-Villains.” There were anthologies like “1st Issue Special,” “Super-Team Family,” “Four-Star Spectacular” and “DC Super Stars”; and even TV tie-ins “Isis,” “Super Friends” and “Welcome Back Kotter.” (Gabe Kaplan was huge in 1976.)

These features combined a reasonable blend of genres, a handful of big-name creators (including Gerry Conway and Mike Grell) and a balanced mix of old and new. Today the amount of non-superhero fare might raise some eyebrows, but back then it wasn’t that unusual. In addition to DC wanting to duplicate Marvel’s successes in those genres, the comics market generally hadn’t solidified around superheroes.

Again, the differences in the marketplace become clearer when you consider some of the big names DC was trying to revive: the Justice Society in “All-Star Comics,” plus Aquaman, Green Lantern (and Green Arrow), two Fourth World titles, and the Teen Titans. This was a DC roster where, for most of the past three years, “Green Lantern” had been reduced to a backup series in “Flash”; and where the original Teen Titans were more a Silver Age artifact than one of the publisher’s signature super-teams. Superheroes were still DC’s dominant genre, but in terms of the Explosion they were just one aspect of a larger strategy.

BOOM AND BUST

Dollar Comics in the DC Explosion

1978 DC Explosion house ad featuring Dollar Comics

Nevertheless, for various reasons the Explosion was a dud. As mentioned above, to pay for the new books and expanded page counts DC had raised prices on its regular-sized comics. It had also upgraded some long-running anthologies into 80-page “Dollar Comics,” including “Superman Family,” “House of Mystery,” “G.I. Combat,” “World’s Finest Comics,” “Batman Family” and the occasional “DC Special Series.” When the Explosion kicked off, however, the Dollar Comics dropped all their ads.

Needless to say, these moves weren’t cheap. As part of everyday logistics DC had to contend with fluctuating paper prices, printing costs and distribution concerns; and the faltering 1970s economy wasn’t helping. Still, DC’s biggest foe might have been Mother Nature. The winters of 1977 and 1978 were brutal, with blizzards disrupting supply chains and keeping people indoors — away from newsstands and the then-rare comics specialty shops. DC’s sales suffered dramatically, resulting in the infamous “DC Implosion,” a cost-cutting measure mandated by parent company Warner Brothers. DC cancelled some thirty series in 1978 alone — some after just one issue (the reprint series “Battle Classics” and “Dynamic Classics”) and some before they had even been published (like Gerry Conway and Bob Oksner’s “Vixen”).

When it was all over DC was down to 20 regular monthly titles (now at 40 cents apiece for 32 total pages) and 6 Dollar Comics (once again with ads). Some features, including Aquaman and the Justice Society, found homes in Dollar Comics like “Adventure.” Others, like Firestorm, shifted into 8-page backups in the 40-cent comics; while the 3-issue “World of Krypton” arc planned for the cancelled “Showcase” ended up becoming DC’s first miniseries.

Not every “Explosion” series was cancelled. “Green Lantern,” “Warlord” and “DC Comics Presents” were among a handful of series which survived the axe, and “Firestorm’s” backup feature in “Flash” led to a 1982 ongoing series which ran 100 issues. In fact, 1980’s wildly successful “New Teen Titans” might never have happened if the revived “Teen Titans” hadn’t been cut short in 1978.

SAFETY FIRST

DC backup feature house ad, 1980

1980 post-Implosion DC house ad for backup features

On the whole, though, the DC Implosion remains a powerful cautionary tale, informing initiatives as recent as the New 52. Six of the original New 52 titles were cancelled after just eight issues; and only 12 of those 52 made it to the May 2016 finish line. During the New 52 era (calendar months September 2011 to May 2016), DC launched a total of 111 ongoing series, but ended up publishing around 38 monthly ongoings. Even considering cancellations which led to relaunches (like “Teen Titans,” “Deathstroke” and “Suicide Squad”), that’s a net loss of about 70 titles, far more than the original 52-book lineup. In fact, DC launched its 73rd New 52 title in June 2013, one year and 10 months into the relaunch. By that time, it had already cancelled 23 series.

Even for a more complex publishing operation, the New 52 clearly had some very Explosion-like goals. It sought to revitalize DC’s core characters for both new and existing readers; streamline continuity; expand the superhero line into complementary genres like fantasy, war and action; and re-integrate characters from Wildstorm and Vertigo. DC also pledged to have all its books available digitally the same day, to keep a strict shipping schedule and to stick with a $2.99 price per issue. While we’re not going to autopsy the New 52 completely, it’s enough to say that the company didn’t meet those goals. Even without counting relaunched or Rebirthed titles, 36 series were cancelled at or before their 12th issues; 50 were cancelled at or before their 18th issues; and 59 were cancelled at or before their 24th issues. That describes a company willing to experiment (to put it charitably) but not finding much purchase in the marketplace.

Still, the New 52 didn’t end in an “Implosion,” but the relatively soft landing of “DC You.” Although two DC You titles never saw print (“Dark Universe” and “Mystic U”), most of its 12 new ongoing series got to 12 issues, with only”Doomed” and “Prez” cancelled after six issues. (We count the six-issue “Green Lantern: Lost Army” and “GL: Edge of Oblivion” books either as miniseries or as two parts of the same “GL Corps” continuation.) DC You also laid the groundwork for “Rebirth,” with the “Lois & Clark” and “Titans Hunt” miniseries reintroducing significant characters and concepts from the previous continuity.

Thereafter, “Rebirth” literally doubled down on a structurally-conservative lineup, with biweekly schedules for “Action Comics,” “Aquaman,” “Batman,” “Deathstroke,” “Detective Comics,” “Flash,” “Green Arrow,” two Green Lantern titles, “Harley Quinn,” two Justice League books, “Nightwing,” “Suicide Squad,” “Superman” and “Wonder Woman.” Except maybe for the Rebirthed “Justice League of America,” all carried over from the New 52 period in one form or another; along with the monthly “Batgirl,” “Birds of Prey,” “Batman Beyond,” “Cyborg,” “Hellblazer,” “Red Hood,” “Supergirl” and “Teen Titans”; and the bimonthly-ish “Harley’s Little Black Book.”

Neither were the rest of “Rebirth’s” moves all that radical. DC consolidated “Batman/Superman” and “Superman/Wonder Woman” into “Trinity”; teamed up Robin and Superboy in “Super-Sons”; and brought back the original generation of sidekicks in “Titans.” Scott Snyder continued his Bat-work with “All Star Batman,” Batwoman got another solo series, “Grayson” reverted to “Nightwing” and “Blue Beetle” brought back Ted Kord. In this respect “Rebirth’s” most original new series may well have been “Superwoman” and “New Super-Man.”

As of March 2017, “Rebirth” included 34 ongoing series, with 16 biweekly and one bimonthly. From a certain point of view, that’s the equivalent of 50 monthly series, plus whatever the irregular “Little Black Book” turns out to be. However you see it, that number doesn’t include various miniseries; the ostensibly-ongoing Hanna-Barbera titles (which will soon get their own relaunch); the New 52 holdovers “Earth 2: Society” (which just published its final issue) and “Gotham Academy” (which will end in a few months itself); and the four Young Animal series.

Speaking of Young Animal, while it’s hard to gauge how many of the imprint’s readers also buy the main-line superhero books, it’s important to note that these are still superhero titles with clear connections to that main line. Superman just guest-starred in “Cave Carson,” “Mother Panic” is set in Gotham City and “Doom Patrol’s” Danny the Street — a Grant Morrison/Richard Case creation from back in the day — reappeared in the New 52’s “Teen Titans.” The new Dark Matter line will be part of the DCU, and will update venerable features like the Challengers of the Unknown and Immortal Man. This sort of experimentation was part and parcel of DC’s 1970s moves, and to a certain extent the New 52 tried to do it as well.

Perhaps the most important statistic is this: Although some individual issues have been delayed, after 11 months none of the Rebirthed titles have been cancelled. Again, this is an improvement on the New 52, which had already swapped out 6 series (cancelling 6, adding 6 new ones) by this point in its tenure. For most of its 4.75 years, the New 52 struggled to find a consistent lineup, with “DC You” representing its final attempt to do so. Even though “Rebirth” hasn’t reached its first anniversary, its measured approach indicates that DC is content simply to publish bread-and-butter titles. Both the DC Explosion and the New 52 tried right away to experiment with a wider range of books, whereas “Rebirth” started by teasing the Justice Society and Legion of Super-Heroes and then taking the better part of a year (at least) to reintroduce them properly. Nothing against “Blackhawk,” which both the DC Explosion and the New 52 tried to revive; but “Rebirth” benefited from not having to convince the public that they needed a new “Blackhawk.”

SKYROCKETS IN FLIGHT

dc-comics-rebirth-header

Perhaps most importantly, “Rebirth” is different from both the New 52 and the DC Explosion — and, for that matter, the relaunches which followed “Crisis On Infinite Earths,” “Zero Hour” and “Infinite Crisis” — because it’s not quite finished. With previous event-driven relaunches, the books got back to business once the facilitating event was over. However, “Rebirth” includes a mystery which promises to last about another year. Until that mystery is solved, it’s both vague enough and compelling enough to either hold reader interest, or fade into the background as necessary. Many “Rebirth” series fall into the latter camp, and are more concerned with using familiar backdrops effectively as springboards. “Aquaman” has grown past metatextual defensiveness and into an engaging geopolitical serial, “Green Lanterns” finally stars someone who’s not white and/or male, and “Green Arrow” has managed somehow to blend the character’s New 52 background with elements of both the classic and TV versions.

That take-it-or-leave-it attitude is a welcome change from the way DC has built up to previous Big Events, and it’s more in line with the stealth marketing DC did leading into “Crisis On Infinite Earths.” Back then, the Monitor’s satellite and his assistant Lyla would pop up occasionally throughout the DC books, never dominating a story but somehow involved on the margins. Once DC got into the event business on a more regular basis, that all changed. A handful of miniseries and specials connected “Identity Crisis” to “Infinite Crisis,” and “Blackest Night” got its own array of character-specific tie-ins — and then there was the year-long cottage industry which sprung up around “Countdown to Final Crisis.”

Accordingly, “Rebirth” looks almost demure by comparison. Although its slow burn includes Mr. Oz lurking around the Kent family, Abra Kadabra’s oblique mentions of omnipotent figures, and Batman and the Flash investigating “The Button,” you don’t need to follow those subplots to enjoy books like “Aquaman” or “Wonder Woman.” The initial “Rebirth” special even addressed the muddle around the New 52’s creation by killing off its signature character Pandora. Apparently the Rebirthed superhero line just wants readers to get used to these characters again, and trusts that the sales will take care of themselves.

To be sure, the fact that “Rebirth’s” big mystery will play out over two years (and may well reach back to 2011’s “Flashpoint”) could come back to haunt DC when all is eventually revealed. No doubt DC hopes that its readership will feel loyal enough to stick around regardless of what happens.

For now, though, it does look like “Rebirth” is on track to do what the DC Explosion and New 52 couldn’t. Those events sought to reinvigorate DC’s books and reassure its customers that the company was in good hands. The DC Explosion backfired, but within a few years DC had recovered; and the 1980s heralded some of the company’s biggest hits. While the New 52 didn’t fail because of economics or the weather, it suffered from a lack of coherence, both collectively and with regard to individual titles. “Rebirth” addressed this incoherence by contracting around a core of familiar series, and not doing much outside of that core.

While we’ve described “Rebirth” in rather conservative terms, that’s relative to the New 52’s tonal shifts. Even though it’s very safe to have Dan Jurgens writing Superman, he and his collaborators reached back (to the pre-New 52 days) in order to take the feature forward (by focusing on the Kents as parents). That’s something no main-line Superman version had tackled, whether it was on Earth-Two or during the “Chris Kent” period of 2006-07. Likewise, the mystery around Wonder Woman’s origins is about to be explained; and the Classic Wally West material may have a built-in expiration date once “Rebirth’s” larger cosmic questions are answered. These mini-mysteries mean something now, but they’ll be part of continuity minutiae once “Rebirth” is done with them.

Thus, DC has done a good job giving readers the option to go as deep as they want into the “Rebirth” woods. Instead of the hyperbole which accompanied the DC Explosion or the New 52, “Rebirth” comes across as a less-intrusive relaunch, free of the drumbeat of change which usually characterizes big reorganizations. There is change, of course, and it’s part of books like “Titans” and the Superman titles; but since it plays out in those stories and (for the most part) doesn’t demand any extra effort, it’s easier to take.

Certainly one day DC will ramp up the hype, maybe even orchestrating the familiar line-wide crossover which reaches across titles and connects into a Big Event miniseries. When that day comes, DC will want to have managed reader expectations so that they’re invested in that big event. If “Rebirth” continues at the same leisurely pace, chances are DC will have done so successfully.

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