Gerry Conway on the Superhero Comics Crisis Part 1

by Gerry Conway

So I’ve been reading rumors (and had a recent conversation with a top exec at one of the Big Two) about the potential end of Marvel and DC as publishers of original comics, and I Have Thoughts.

These thoughts are the product of fifty years experience working in and around the superhero comic book business, writing and editing for both Marvel and DC. I’m no business expert. I’m not a student of publishing. I can’t analyze a spreadsheet or write a business plan. I’m not an MBA. The closest I’ve come to owning and running a company was helping my second wife develop her small business (though I believe some of the lessons we learned about the perils of expanding a business are relevant here).

No, what I’m about to discuss isn’t the result of a deep understanding of big business, market share growth, the realities of corporate politics, or any of the realpolitik aspects of modern day publishing as understood by the people who’ve brought both companies to this moment of near collapse.

I’m just a long-time observer who’s worked in the superhero field almost since its modern inception in the 1960s.

Perspective: when I started writing comics professionally, Marvel was publishing about 12 titles a month, and DC (then National Periodical Publications) was publishing about 30. Comics cost 15 cents and offered between 20 and 25 pages of story. (I’m not going to work with exact numbers because for my purposes here exact numbers aren’t relevant; like I said, I’m no MBA, and this is based on personal observation, memory, and experience. If I get a precise number wrong, sue me, it doesn’t matter.)

Background: How the 1960s and 1970s got the business to where it is today, and how that era reveals possible ways out of the current crisis.

It was during the 1960s, a period of modest output (compared to today), that almost ALL of the roots of modern superhero comics mythology were created. Modern incarnations of The Flash, Green Lantern, Batman, Robin, Batgirl, Aquaman and Mera, Wonder Woman, the Teen Titans, the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Black Panther, X-Men, Daredevil, Captain Marvel, Black Widow, Thor, Captain America, Iron Man–

The list of characters and storylines and mythology created in the 1960s (with overlap from the 50s and into the early 70s) is just flabbergasting– especially when you consider the size of the companies and the number of creators who accomplished it.

When I started writing for DC Comics in 1968, their offices consisted of half a floor in a modest office building on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. Eight editors (or maybe seven, I’m not sure) and one editorial assistant worked under one editorial director and one publisher, with a production department headed by one production manager, one assistant manager who doubled as a colorist, one proof reader, and two or three production assistants, and a receptionist. Each editor was responsible for five or six books and only one editor had enough pull to have an assistant. (Mort Weisinger, who edited the highest selling range of books, had Nelson Birdwell “helping” him with the Superman line– in fact, Nelson did all the hard editorial work while Mort snarled at people.) Four of the editors shared a single office; two others shared an office; and the two most “important” editors had an office each. That’s how I remember it– I may be off on the specifics but the general picture is accurate. This was how the company that controlled the largest market share of the comic book publishing world, possibly more than seventy percent of sales, looked in 1967-68.

Marvel Comics was an even more bare bones operation. With most of its business operations handled by Magazine Management, Martin Goodman’s main publishing operation, Marvel Comics itself in 1968 operated out of a small office on Madison Avenue barely the size of a large modern conference room. The company had one editor and one assistant editor, one production manager, one assistant production manager, a part-time art director, a couple of production assistants, and a receptionist. The receptionist had a cubicle; the production staff shared a “bullpen”; the assistant editor and production manager split an office that wasn’t really an office, more of an alcove; and the editor (Stan) had a private office not much larger than an average editor’s today. This was the company that was revolutionizing storytelling in modern comics– and while its individual titles were selling extremely well, its market share, due to an onerous distribution deal with its chief competitor, National Periodical Publications, was much less than it might have been.

That’s how the superhero comic book publishing business looked in 1967-68. Prosperous but culturally insignificant (at least, not obviously significant). A pair of modest small enterprises, family owned and operated (NPP was bought by Kinney in 1967; Goodman retained ownership of Marvel until 1968), with rigidly controlled costs and a decent, relatively predictable profit margin.

Five years later, in the early 1970s, EVERYTHING had changed. Both companies were now controlled by larger businesses, and both were under pressure to expand market share and increase profits. Simultaneously comic book readership was dropping as the baby boomer audience aged out. The superhero comic book business was in a crisis– and each company responded in hysterical counter-productive ways. Marvel, no longer hampered by its distribution deal with its competitor, worked to expand its market share with an explosion of new titles in multiple genres– without proportionately expanding its editorial support structure and production staff. DC Comics experimented with new titles and new formats, without an overall publishing strategy or company-wide creative approach, continuing its tradition of independent editorial fiefdoms….

Join us tomorrow for Part 2!

Gerry Conway is one of the Kings of TV and film and comic book writing and also one of our Beloved Leader Larry Brody’s longest-lasting and closest friends. Everybody who comes to TVWriter™ should be reading his insightful blog, where this article first appeared. Learn more about Gerry HERE.