And then, one day, everything went... ka-blooie! An excerpt from my comic book career memoir, Panel by Panel: My Comic Book Life, a work in progress, coming soon to Kickstarter.
The winter of 1977 was cold. Miserably, record-breaking, flesh-numbingly coast-to-coat cold!
How cold was it?
It was so cold the comic book business almost froze to death.
By 1975, DC saw Marvel was eating into their market share and began pushing back with more titles, both new and reprint. The move was touted in house ads as the DC Explosion, a three month long marketing strategy that fell victim to the weather and the economy.
The winter of 1977/78 was horrendous, with blizzards blasting across the country, closing roads nationwide, badly disrupting interstate transportation and commerce, including the big trucks that carried the printed comic books from the printer in Sparta, Illinois to the rest of the country.
According to one blog’s look back at the period, “In late 1977, America was frozen stiff as horrendous winter weather swept much of the nation, with one blizzard raging on for as long as 25 hours, and wind chills reaching 60 below zero. Seven western New York counties were declared national disaster areas, and in Buffalo, 29 people died of exposure. Then, in February 1978, the ‘Blizzard of 1978’ battered the entire East Coast, claiming 54 lives and causing an estimated billion dollars in damage.
“Chilling as these storms were for normal everyday life, they were devastating for the comic book industry in general, and for DC in particular. Jenette Kahn had earlier promised that ‘most hard-to-find comics will get better distribution,’ but now whole shipments were going undelivered. Comic specialty shops were few in number and were not the huge market force they are now. Most comic books were sold from newsstands.
“As the winter raged outside, parents were too busy coping with the deadly storms and their aftermath to venture out and buy young Johnny some silly comic books. If they did manage to make it outside in the storms, they were far more concerned with obtaining food and water—and most supermarkets didn't sell comic books!”*
Adding to the industry’s woes was the rapidly rising cost of printing and of paper due to a supply shortage, not to mention the American economy was in the grip of a recession and high inflation. It all came together in a prefect storm for disaster, but the full extent of the disaster wouldn’t be known until the sales figures for the winter were finalized in the summer of ’78, after the Explosion had been launched.
You could practically hear the heads of the Warner executives upstairs imploding when the numbers came in. Their response to the massive loses they were looking at was to order an immediate rollback of titles and a thinning of the staff.
This was the DC Implosion, the snarky and ironic name given the event by the fan press. DC had commissioned full-page ads drawn by Jim Aparo and Joe Staton to herald the Explosion: “More pages! More stories! And the most exciting super-heroes in comics!”
Dozens of comics were hacked from the schedule after only four new titles had been published; of those, three were reprints and cancelled after only a few issues while the fourth, the Superman team-up title DC Comics Presents hung on. The rest of the new planned titles (including Mike Grell’s Starslayer and Gerry Conway’s The Vixen) went into limbo. Seventeen others were cancelled immediately, most before they were even published, another dozen or more over the next few months.
On June 22, 1978, DC announced that cancellation of 40% of its line and the layoffs of five staff members. In editorial, Al Milgrom and Larry Hama were let go, and both would land at Marvel. I was the sole casualty in the two man public relations relations department.
It was Sol Harrison’s job to tell me I was being laid off and despite the fact that there was no love lost between us, he seemed genuinely sorry to have to do it, going out of his way to assure me I was still welcome at DC as a freelancer. The circumstances must have been painful for Sol, both as company president and a lifelong company man, an employee of more than 40 years. To him, DC had always been “the Cadillac of comics” and Marvel was the industry’s Volkswagon, making comic books for the masses. Now not only had these second rate imitators passed them in sales but DC had stumbled badly in its response.
I knew how he felt. I may have put in less than one-tenth the time Sol had working for the company, but I had a lifetime invested in it as a reader and fan and getting laid off felt a little like being kicked out of the family home. I knew there wasn’t anything personal in it; I was a lowly assistant, and it was a case of last hired, first fired. Still, I loved going into work every day and being an active part of a place that meant so much to me. There were any number of employees who had been on staff for 10, 20, even 30 years or more and at the time I would have been happy to become one of them.
At least I got to be part of one piece of DC Comics history before I left.
Cancelled Comic Cavalcade was an ad hoc assemblage in the aftermath of the Implosion. It a two volume black and white Xeroxed collection of all the stories and covers that had been shelved because of the cancellations. The nominal excuse given Sol to get the project approved was that it would protect the copyright on the otherwise unpublished material and would allow us to provide the talent with printed copies of their work.
But that was only half the truth. The rest was that it was a thinly veiled attempt to create a collectible on DC’s dime. I gathered up and photocopied the unprinted material and assembled the almost 950 pages it into two volumes. Al Milgrom and Alex Saviuk, both of whom had work included, were recruited to provide covers, satiric statements on the state of DC, and production artist and award winning letterer Todd Klein designed the logo. I brought it all down to the Warner Communications print shop in the basement of 75 Rock where 40 printed and bound copies (38,000 pages) of Cancelled Comic Cavalcade #1 and #2 were run off.
Two copies went to the DC Library, one went to the legal department, and others to several DC execs and editors, me, and to the creators whose work was included, as well as one copy to Robert Overstreet. The latter was for the creating a collectible part of the plan by getting it listed, as a rarity, in the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide.
The loss of so many titles cost a lot of freelancers their regular gigs. Some made their way to Marvel, some gradually weaned themselves off their comic book careers and went into other fields, and some, like me, managed to hang on at the House Superman Built. It helped that as a laid off worker, I was eligible for New York State Unemployment Insurance. Another financial advantage was that I was still living at home with my parents in Brooklyn.
I’m not sure how I managed to hang on at DC post-Implosion. Maybe it was because I had spent so much time in those halls that I had become something of an office fixture, maybe not the first choice of some editors, but a known and reliable quantity.
* Published as “Secret Origins of the DC Implosion: Explosion and Implosion, Part One of Three” on the website DialBForBog.com.