Monday, August 6, 2018

Review: 'Comic Book Implosion: An Oral History of DC Comics Circa 1978'


DC comics was suffering in the late seventies. Some blamed it on the harsh winter of ’78, a period of incessant blizzards that prevented a lot of kids from visiting the newsstand. Some blamed it on DC’s publisher, Jenette Kahn, whose failed scheme to reinvigorate her company involved swelling page counts, cover prices, and titles. Keith Dallas and John Wells accuse unsympathetic distributors in the epilogue of their new book Comic Book Implosion: An Oral History of DC Comics Circa 1978. However, they mostly stay out of the way, allowing quotations from reams of old articles and interviews to tell the story of a topsy-turvy period in comic history.

What we learn is that DC was not the only company in over its head. Golden-boy Marvel was too, only to be rescued from the abyss when it agreed to publish spin offs of a weird new sci-fi movie by the kid who’d made American Graffitti. However, the main focus is on DC, particularly Kahn’s planned “Explosion” that was to see 22 new titles hit the stands in a new longer format only to be cancelled at the last minute. The titles that were to be included in this infamous Cancelled Comic Cavalcade, where those titles ended up, and the reasons for that cancellation are major points of discussion.

There is also a lot of discussion of pricing and the business-side of comics publishing in this book, but all of those facts and figures are the least interesting thing about Comic Book Implosion. What’s more intriguing are the soap-opera drama, the bizarre and desperate ideas (an African-American superhero named Black Bomber whose secret identity is a white racist? Yow.), and the stray triumphs that emerged amidst the turbulence. We see the successful revival of the Teen Titans, the births of Black Lightning and Firestorm, the mania surrounding Superman: The Movie and its handsome star, and the ballyhooed bout between the Man of Steel and Muhammad Ali. And despite the initial failure of Kahn’s planned Explosion, she did a lot of good for DC, such as her cultivation of younger talent and new titles, her abolishment of lazy reprints, and her implementation of profit sharing.

Although Dallas and Wells did not conduct any new interviews for Comic Book Implosion, they culled their quotes from such a wide swath of sources, and from such an interesting line up of industry folk (including Kahn, Larry Hama, Neil Adams, Carmine Infantino, Archie Goodwin, James Warren, Muhammad Ali himself, etc.), that it doesn’t matter much. Yes, it makes for messy storytelling, but that’s basically the case with all oral histories. And Dallas and Wells’s refusal to editorialize allows us readers to decide who are the heroes and who are the villains, who is lying and who is telling the truth, which makes for more involving reading. The cavalcade of photos and illustrations— which includes an 8-page, full-color spread—makes it fun.

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