the slugfest between DC and marvel comics -- 1/04/19
Today's selection -- from Slugfest by Reed Tucker. In 1961, DC Comics, with its Superman franchise, was the comic book industry powerhouse, while Marvel Comics was a weak also-ran. But then Marvel employee Stan Lee brought forth the Fantastic Four and Spiderman, and within 11 years, Marvel had surpassed DC:
"Sometime in the early seventies the bosses at DC's parent company contacted Lee about becoming their new editor-in-chief. ... This news would have been like a supernova.
"Lee had been growing increasingly restless at Marvel as founder Martin Goodman ceded more power to his son, Chip.
"'Stan was intimidated a little by Martin because [he] was his uncle by marriage and Martin was the publisher, but Chip was just this young kid who got a job because he was the son,' Roy Thomas says. 'Stan didn't want to work for Chip, so he was thinking about leaving and leveraging himself a good deal at DC.'
"Lee had at least one meeting with DC about switching teams. It may simply have been a negotiating tactic with Marvel. Some months later in 1972 he was elevated to publisher, and his right-hand man, Roy Thomas, became editor-in-chief and largely responsible for the day-to-day operation of Marvel.
"Who knows how different the industry might have been had Lee decided to leave. DC could have used the help. Marvel was on the verge of doing what seemed unthinkable a few years earlier. The little upstart company that had grown from a basically one-man company was closing in on DC in sales, and the impetus that finally put them ahead would involve a double cross so wicked that it was nearly Shakespearean in its grandeur.
"Both Marvel and DC used the same Illinois-based printer back then, and the printer informed the companies that prices for paper and printing were going up. To keep up, both companies would have to jack up the price of a standard comic book from 15 cents.
"Instead of a small, incremental increase of a few cents, as it had done previously, DC -- driven by the boss at its distributor Independent News decided to go for a more radical change. Beginning with the August 1971 cover date, the publisher increased its page count from thirty-two pages to forty-eight pages and jacked the price to 25 cents -- a whopping 67 percent increase. The new package contained an original story as well as reprints of old stories from DC's archive.
"Three months later Marvel did the exact same thing, converting its line to the larger 25-cent package. How did Marvel know what changes DC was going to make? That's the $64,000 question.
"It's possible the printer told them. Infantino has said that the printer's rep would keep DC abreast of the changes its competitors were planning.
"There is another more interesting possibility, however: the two companies got together and mutually agreed to raise the price and page count. In short, collusion, which would most likely have been illegal though perhaps not out of the question in such a small and insular industry.
" 'I don't know what kind of collusion there was, but I can't imagine there was this amazing coincidence when they both changed the price at the same time,' Roy Thomas says.
"Legend has it that Marvel's publisher, Martin Goodman, agreed to the price change with DC, but then after just a single month at the higher price, he suddenly dropped his line back down to a thirty-two-page comic for 20 cents. The new cover price was 5 cents higher than it had been two months previously, but compared to DC's 25 cents, it looked like a bargain.
"A price war was what Goodman wanted, and a price war is what he got. The Marvel boss confided to Thomas that DC was about to 'take a bath' if it didn't immediately follow Marvel's lead and lower its price to 20 cents.
|Fantastic Four #118|
" 'Carmine thought he had a deal with Goodman, and Goodman just couldn't wait to stick it to him,' says historian Robert Beerbohm. "That's when Marvel really started stomping on DC, because you could get five Marvels for a buck to four DCs.'
"Marvel applied the killing blow by increasing its discount to distributors from 40 to 50 percent. The change made Marvel's wares a far better value and put DC at a severe disadvantage, rendering their comics suddenly as attractive as syphilis to the people whose job it was to get them to market.
"'[The distributors] were throwing our books back in our face!' Infantino recalled in 1998. 'They were pushing Marvel's books, so it really became a slaughter.'
"'There are indications that DC is in serious trouble,' the fanzine New-fangles wrote at the time. 'Dealers are not too keen on the 25 cent comic book, sales are skyrocketing for Marvel. ... DC's titles are also reported to be dying in droves on the stands, if they get that far -- wholesalers prefer to handle the 20 cents books, apparently.'
"It's possible that the sudden price change wasn't an intentional double cross by Goodman. The impetus for switching back to the smaller, lower-priced comics after just one month might have been driven by Marvel's lack of material that could be reprinted on the extra pages that were suddenly available in the new 25-cent format. DC had a massive library of back matter, going back decades, all meticulously preserved on film. Marvel did not.
"'Marvel was always gearing up to fill those extra pages, and they somehow discovered in the midst of that first issue that they couldn't do it,' says writer [Steve] Englehart. 'Or they got an immediate negative backlash. I think Martin Goodman probably backed out of an agreement that was there, but I don't know that it was premeditated.'
"As Marvel sales soared, Lee began taunting DC with cover bursts touting Marvel's lack of musty reprint material. 'All new, all great!' advertised a colorful box on Fantastic Four #118 (January 1972).
"In late spring 1972 DC was finally able to follow suit to decrease its page count and lower its price to 20 cents. But the damage had already been done.
"That year it finally happened. Up became down, east became west, the poles in the comics world reversed, and suddenly the former underdog became the top dog.
"Marvel passed DC in sales.
"It had taken just eleven years from the launch Fantastic Four #1."