Comics in the Seventies: A Game of Pages


We still remember, we who were there

If you were to ask me the page content of the average, 2016, 32 page comic book (or ‘floppy’ as they are commonly called now), I would have no idea. Off the top of my head, I would guess twenty. That is, twenty pages of art and story, i.e., content, out of a thirty-two page package.

That’s not a good percentage but, believe me, it’s not the worst it’s ever been.

When it was first invented, in the Thirties, the American comic book consisted of 64 pages for a dime. Due to War-time paper restrictions, that package was successively reduced to (briefly) 56 pages, then 48 pages, before being reduced even further, in the Fifties, to its present format of 32 pages. All still for that original 10c.

When I first discovered American comics, in the early Sixties, comic books were taking that first, tentative steps into increasing their prices, gouging their customers for an extra 2 cents. At that point, the average DC comic consisted of approximately 24 pages of story and art, a full 75% of the package.

It took nearly the whole decade before the next increase was put through, this time to 15c, but the Oil-Inflation Seventies saw increase after increase, at intervals of eighteen months to two years. In the meantime, the companies desperately attempted to head off, or at least delay such increases, but cutting costs. Artists no longer drew originals on boards two-up, but were restricted to 1.5 up (i.e., twice, or one and a half times the size of the actual printed art).

Paper quality was cut, to cheaper, more porous stock on which lines and colours soaked in and ran. Steel printing plates gave way to cheaper and easier to engrave plastic printing plates, which blurred and distorted lines long before the print run was completed. And page counts were cut. Fewer pages, lower payments to writers and artists paid by the number of pages completed and bought.

DC had tried to get out in front of the curve in 1971, jumping their comics directly from 15c to 25c whilst increasing the size of the package, to 40 pages, the extra pages entirely devoted to content, in the form of reprints: those in Jack Kirby’s ‘Fourth World’ books were prime Golden Age Kirby and Simon material.

This plan was undercut by one of Martin Goodman’s last, shark-like tricks at Marvel. The plan was for everybody to increase the package at the same time, which Goodman did, but only for one month, cutting back immediately to 32 pages at 20c, far faster than DC, with its more sclerotic management structure, to react. DC struggled back to 32 pages at 20c, no reprints, but the content went down to 20 pages, then eighteen and finally, by mid-decade, seventeen.

There was another attempt on DC’s part to change the deteriorating status quo. In 1974, they went off on another bigger package run.

This was the year of the 50c comic, which was just coming in as I rediscovered American comics and started buying them again. Basically, it was a rerun of the 25c experiment writ large: for 50c, the reader got a squarebound, 100 page package, containing the standard 20 pages of new art, plus a massive wodge of reprints, varying as to the title in question. The enhanced Justice League of America was the first place in which I was able to read Golden Age Justice Society reprints.

It lasted a year, during which the price increased to 60c, before the experiment was carried off, and it was all back to the bog-standard floppy at eighteen pages. As an experiment, I enjoyed it, though it was very dependant on the choice of reprints.

The best of that era was, undoubtedly, Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson’s Manhunter, the new back-up in Detective. It lasted seven issues, six of them as a back-up strip to the Caped Crusader, and if it hadn’t been for the Fifty Cent Comic, I’d have never noticed it.

Detective Comics was in another sales trough in 1973. Julius Schwarz, the ‘Now Look’ Batman and the TV series had saved Bruce Wayne from cancellation in 1964, but the bubble had burst and, in an effort to drum up sales with a new approach, Archie Goodwin was brought in as editor (and writer) of Detective, which was down to a bi-monthly schedule.

Upfront, Goodwin went for unusual offbeat stories, by artists not normally associated with Batman, but for a back-up, he wanted a complete contrast: a brightly costumed, globe-trotting hero with a strong martial flavour. With the then-newcomer Simonson, Goodwin devised Manhunter as a seven page, very taut back-up, tacking the character onto the back of the Forties hero of the same name.

It was a massive creative success, as witness the number of times it has been reprinted since. In addition to buying the original run, I have had no less than three different collections. It won industry plaudits by the ton, and it stands up beautifully four decades on, in a way that the vast majority of Seventies comics just don’t.

It didn’t do anything for Detective‘s sales, however. A year on, and unhappy with management at DC, Goodwin relinquished the editorship and writing, and moved on to Marvel. Julius Schwartz, resuming as editor, had no interest in continuing Manhunter, and Goodwin was able to get agreement for his final issue to be a 20 page crossover with Batman, providing a definitive end to Paul ‘Manhunter’ Kirk’s story. It was that ending, so rare and precious, that made Manhunter the creative success it was.

Had I not seen, and been intrigued by the first Detective fifty center, I would probably never have seen the series. Goodwin’s first issue, with the debut Manhunter back-up, was the final 32 page floppy, and I was lucky to scrabble round and fnd a still-available copy, which was nearly as difficult to ensure as it had been in the Sixties.

No doubt I would have heard about it later, maybe bought one of the reprints at some point, but I have always found a deeper attachment to those series I have had to accumulate, in monthly instalments, the story-front creeping along, offering endless speculation about what might follow. Reading the whole thing at once, cover to cover, no delay at any of the cliffhangers, is never quite as enthralling.

So the year was up, the Fifty/Sixty Centers vanished and DC went back to floppies.

Seventeen pages was the nadir though. once upon a time, it might have almost been a luxury: throughout the Fifties, and well into the Sixties, most DC comics offered two stories per issue, both of around twelve pages in length. Its writers were veterans, long used to the professional demands of telling a clear, concise story, with a beginning, middle and end, in twelve pages or thereabouts, so seventeen pages ought to have been easily manageable.

But this was not the Sixties any more, and that generation of writers were no longer writing comics. Their replacements had been brought up, drawn in to the industry, by Marvel Comics, who concentrated on book-length stories to a greater extent, and on ongoing stories, in which the three unities were rarely within the same covers. The writers of the Seventies wanted to write comics like that. They had never had the training to produce short stories. They neither wanted to nor were capable of writing satisfying stories in only seventeen pages.

One writer was comfortable with the form, however, Denny O’Neil, who wrote perhaps my favourite page of comics from the Seventies.

It was a bog-standard Batman adventure of the era, drawn by Ernie Chan, and the villain was the Riddler. Batman frustrated him a couple of times, so the Riddler headed back to his new secret HQ, at Gotham Zoo. The page in question covered a single scene.

The Riddler approaches the Zoo entrance concealed by trenchcoat and hat pulled down. He’s frustrated, planning on fleeing, his body language is hunched, withdrawn, downbeat. In short, he is not a happy bunny. However, he is waylaid, by a boy aged about eight, trying to catch his attention. The Riddler is in no mood for such things and tells the kid to beat it, cram, but he blurts out that all he wants to do is tell him a Riddle.

Mr Nigma transforms in an instant. he’s down on his kness, level with the kid’s face, holding his shoulders and insisting, “Yes, please do! Please do!” “Do you want me to tell you the story of the bed?” The kid asks. “go on, go on,” the Riddler says, barely able to contain himself. “I can’t,” the kid says, with the kind of perfect cheesy grin of a little boy who’s come up with something funny all by himself and just has to share it, “It hasn’t been made up yet!”

The final panel shows the kid approaching his parents. “Dad, look what the nice man gave me,” he says. “A $100 bill?” the dad gasps. In the background, The Riddler is walking through the Zoo gates, but his body language is transformed. He’s striding out, head up and back, almost strutting.

It’s a magical page. In structural terms, it’s completely redundant and irrelevant. The story could be told with the other sixteen pages without the smallest of changes, and this scene would not be missed, nor any gap felt. As such, with only seventeen pages available, it could be described as poor writing.

And yet it’s brilliant, because it’s the only page of the script on which anybody does something human, that is not purely and simply a function of the plot. And this was from a very early point, at which I had not even begun to get bored with superhero dynamics and fights. Which is why I can remember each panel of that page, whilst I have no recollection of anything from any of the other sixteen pages.

It wasn’t tenable, however. Seventeen crappy pages with crappy stories and crappy art and the price going up five or ten cents a year, year-on-year. So DC shifted out Carmine Infantino as Publisher and brought in an outsider, Jeanette Kahn, a novice in comics but a children’s magazine publishing success.

Who, once she had settled herself into the Publisher’s chair, came up with a brilliant idea to move forward and secure comics’ future.

Bigger comics. With more pages.

It was known as the DC Explosion. It was planned as a massive uplift to the DC line, introducing new characters and new titles, but the heart of it was that, in order to avoid the awkward jump from 35c to 40c, DC’s comics would hurdle all the way to 50c, but for a 40 page package, of which the additional eight pages would all be of content: story and art, and all of it new: no reprints.

It wasn’t exactly original, except for the fact that the extra pages would be all new. Some titles would add them to the previous page count: the Justice League of America would escape the straitjacket of seventeen pages for the relative freedom of twenty-five, but other titles would add back-ups. Old characters unable to sustain series would be revived, new concepts and ideas would be tried with the support of the lead feature.

It was bold, it was exciting, it was one of the biggest fucking disasters mainstream comics has ever suffered.

Because the week the first titles of the Explosion were launched, the sales figures came in at Warner Brothers, and they were bad. Far worse than had been expected. The word came down from on high with the speed and force of a Jovian thunderbolt, and the word was No. No more forty page 50c comics, get back to 32 page floppies, and cut the number of titles. Including scheduled comics which never actually were published, almost half the entire DC line was cancelled in an afternoon, reducing the line to its ‘core’ titles. Everything remotely experimental vanished in a day. The bottom half of the line ceased to be tenable and went into the hole. DC, who had been big with publicity about it’s great leap forward, which had been building its stable of creators, suffered a massive blow to its credibility that the majority at the time thought it would never recover from.

Down the street, at Marvel, its recently installed Editor-in-Chief, Jim Shooter, had been sniffy about the whole thing anyway, dismissive of the idea that the fans would even notice an increase of eight pages, nearly half as much story again. Former editor-in-chief, Marv Wolfman, set about discouraging eager new talent from getting into comics: in five years time, there wouldn’t be any.

We know now that he was wrong, and ironically Wolfman would play a major role in leading DC and, in its wake, comics out of the slough of despond of what inevitably became known as the DC Implosion. Page counts went up, despite Shooter’s arrogance. So did paper quality, and costs, the latter being inevitable given that the only way of further reducing the cost of producing a 1977 floppy would have been to hire a hall and have people pay to sit there whilst the writer read the script and the artist did chalk-talk sketches on a blackboard borrowed from the local high school.

Yet in that era of desperation, when the death of comics was being predicted almost every other week, there were still comics of quality that prevailed over the conditions in which they were created. That was the era of Manhunter, and that was when good writers could come up with pages like the Riddler being made happy by a kid’s riddle he’d never heard before.

They didn’t even need seventeen pages to produce delight that’s lasted with me for forty years, proving yet again that there is something more to life than ‘never mind the quality, feel the width’.

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