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Neal Adams covers the 1976 DC calendar

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned The Comics Reporter’s excellent list of “emblematic” ‘70s comics, and how I’d like to put together something similar. Thus, with help from the timeline at comics.org, I started putting together a short list of significant creators, books and characters that I thought defined ‘70s DC.

However, the more I thought about my list, the more it struck me as indicative of a company at odds with itself. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, DC boasted several successful long-term marriages of professional and property, including Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, Marv Wolfman and George Pérez’s New Teen Titans and Pérez’s Wonder Woman, Steve Englehart and Joe Staton’s Green Lantern, John Byrne’s Superman, Grant Morrison’s Animal Man, Doom Patrol and JLA, and Mark Waid’s Flash. In the ‘70s, though, this wasn’t necessarily the case. Writers like Gerry Conway and Cary Bates became synonymous with Justice League and Flash, so much so that by the mid-‘80s (and the Detroit League and “Trial of the Flash”) they had arguably stayed too long.

By contrast, the more fondly remembered runs were far shorter: Jack Kirby’s Fourth World books, Englehart and Marshall Rogers’ handful of Detective Comics issues, Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson’s Manhunter, Steve Gerber and Simonson’s Metal Men, Denny O’Neil and Michael W. Kaluta’s Shadow. Even O’Neil and Neal Adams’ Green Lantern only lasted about fourteen issues (counting the story serialized as a backup in Flash). After teaming up initially in late 1969 with “The Secret of the Waiting Graves” (Detective Comics #395), 1973’s “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge!” (in Batman #251) was O’Neil and Adams’ last Batman story, and Adams’ farewell to regular Batman comics was 1974’s “Moon of the Wolf” (issue #255, written by Len Wein). Nothing against Gerry Conway and Cary Bates, whose work was obviously successful enough to keep their jobs secure, but they are emblematic of ‘70s DC in quite a different way.

So which is it? Is it fair to remember DC in the 1970s as the company of Kirby, O’Neil & Adams, Englehart & Rogers, or of Conway and Dick Dillin, Bates and Irv Novick? On the basis of volume alone, I am inclined to go with the latter. Not that long into the decade, DC was a place of effective, but conservative, artistic styles. It wasn’t too far from Dillin and Novick to Curt Swan, Ross Andru, Ernie Chan or Alex Saviuk. Some artists, like Jim Aparo, Mike Grell, Don Newton and José Luis Garcia-Lopéz, were instantly recognizable; but I couldn’t tell you who drew a given issue of (pre-Pérez) Teen Titans or Wonder Woman. Again, that’s not bad on its face, because I could rely on Swan’s Superman and Dillin’s JLA to be consistently good.

Nevertheless, such consistency may also have nurtured a certain “don’t fix what isn’t broken” attitude on the parts of both professionals and fans. Dick Dillin drew Justice League until he died, and Curt Swan drew Superman until Byrne took over. In both cases, readers were greeted with more dynamic interpretations of these characters. Dillin was no slouch when it came to big casts and cosmic threats, but Pérez’s JLA seemed still more epic; and Byrne’s Superman was arguably more accessible than Swan’s. But those changeovers took place in the ‘80s, so we’re getting somewhat off the track….

There is another way to bridge this gulf between “brief flashes of brillance” and “long runs of reliability,” and that is our old friend the shared universe. As I noted while discussing Secret Society of Super-Villains, the Fourth World characters weren’t quite staples of DC’s superhero line in the mid-‘70s, but neither had they been forgotten.  Gerry Conway was largely responsible for post-Kirby New Gods follow-ups, which weaved their way through the eponymous revival series, SSoSV, Super-Team Family, and Adventure Comics, before bringing Darkseid back for good in those 1980 Dillin/Pérez issues of JLA. Similarly, Denny O’Neil stayed on Green Lantern for several years after Adams’ last story, and eventually collaborated with Grell (whose style I always thought was very Adams-esque) first on the GL backups in Flash and then on the revived Green Lantern. When GL got his book back, Green Arrow returned as well, sharing the spotlight for over thirty more issues. Speaking of Neal Adams, it almost goes without saying that every Bat-artist which followed him stuck to that “Darknight Detective” sensibility. ‘70s DC knew it had some good things going, and wanted to sustain them as long as possible, even after the original creative teams had gone.

‘70s DC was also experimental in a number of small ways, such as the Mad-like humor book Plop!, Joe Kubert’s adventure books Tarzan and Tor, Grell’s Warlord, Steve Ditko’s Shade, the Changing Man, and the eclectic superheroes of “Conway’s Corner.” However, the “DC Implosion” cut many of those experiments short. With the exception of survivors like Warlord and Firestorm (both of which, despite recent cancellations, seem perennially ready for revival), these properties may be remembered better as curiosities than as examples of truncated creativity.

It must be said as well that ‘70s DC saw its publishing diversity slowly erode over the years, mostly in the areas of horror, romance, and humor. Today, thanks to Alan Moore, we think of DC-style horror as the province of Vertigo, but we wouldn’t have Swamp Thing without the brief (of course) collaboration of Len Wein and Berni Wrightson. As they are today, Westerns and war comics were represented then mostly by Jonah Hex and Sgt. Rock; but back then, Jonah’s old book Weird Western Tales was still around, as were G.I. Combat, Weird War Tales, Our Fighting Forces, Our Army At War, and Star Spangled War Stories. Many of these books were casualties of the Implosion, and that in turn helped clear the decks for more superheroes.

Therefore, it’s tempting to see what we might learn from the 1970s as we evaluate the current state of DC Comics. David Brothers calls today’s DC a company in transition, “clearly trying to turn a corner and move away from their past in one way or another,” and to a certain extent I think that was true of DC in the early ‘70s. (Kirby and O’Neil/Adams are prime examples of that.) Before too long, though, DC found itself fairly comfortable with professionals whose work wasn’t particularly flashy, but who could be consistently effective every month. There it stayed until the ‘80s, when Wolfman, Pérez, and Moore arrived, breathing new life into languishing books.

Indeed, we always want to think of DC in just such an anticipatory state, don’t we? David predicts that, for reasons not entirely related to print publishing, “the DC Comics of 2011 will not be like the DC Comics of 2010,” and to a great extent I agree. However, I think DC has a good bit in common with its 1970s posture. It has two big-name writers, Geoff Johns and Grant Morrison, in the middle of multi-year, multi-title examinations of very familiar characters. It has given Superman and Wonder Woman to big-name writer J. Michael Straczynski, who has imposed (varying degrees of) “radical” makeovers on them. It has a stable of reliably-good writers, including but not limited to James Robinson, Gail Simone, Tony Bedard, Paul Dini, Fabian Nicieza, and Judd Winick, handling the more rank-and-file titles. Finally, it has established something of a house style among artists like Pete Woods, Jesus Merino, Jamal Igle, Joe Bennett, and Aaron Lopresti. In short, DC seems to be working diligently towards a productive mix of innovation and comfort,* which is sort of where it wound up thirty years ago.

I’m not sure where there’s the opportunity for the Wolfman/Pérez/Moore of 2011 to break out of the pack, though. With Johns, Morrison, and Straczynski on many of its highest-profile books, today’s DC seems a lot more top-heavy than it was then. Moreover, DC is where it is today in large part because of Johns’ breakout work on Green Lantern, so maybe the watershed moment has passed. Still, there’s plenty of opportunity for DC to explore and innovate, especially outside the realm of print periodicals. Maybe the New Teen Titans of 2011 belongs to a format we haven’t even seen….

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28 Comments

“but I couldn’t tell you who drew a given issue of (pre-Pérez) Teen Titans or Wonder Woman”

What, no love for Nick Cardy?

What, no love for Nick Cardy

I love his work on Bat Lash

I think he was referring to the revived 70s Teen Titans, that was written by (I think) Bob Rozakis and drawn by people like Don Heck.

I’m fairly certain that it was Marty Pasko, not Steve Gerber, that wrote those Metal Men comics with Simonson.

Ah, Nick Cardy. Who could forget his outstanding Bat Lash series? What about Creeper from Steve Ditko? The Brave & The Bold and Showcase were fans’ favorites.

I’m in a curious position re: DC in the 70s because at first, I only read the Spanish editions of the comics; I only discovered the English originals near the end of the decade. One of the effects of this was that I had no idea who wrote or drew etc. any of them, as the Spanish versions had no credits; even when I found the English ones I tended to ignore the credits as I had no habit of reading them (besides, I was a kid, what did I care who made the comics back then? Just give my next one already! :P ) It was only by reading columns like Stan Lee’s (over at Marvel) that I even started associating names with particular titles and styles.

Personally, I feel the difference between 70’s DC and the current one is the degree of influence creators have. Sure, people like O’Neal may have been groundbreaking, but it wasn’t like he was dictating the style of EVERY comic DC published at the time; these days they might as well rename the company JOHNS COMICS (his being recently made co-president with Didio and Lee doesn’t help the matter.) (Morrison may be popular but he doesn’t seem to be an “inside man” as the near-fiasco with Final Crisis proved.) I don’t see the balance between “creative freedom + consistency” that the 70s period had.

By the End of the 70’s (78) we had the first run of Levitz on LoSH .. with (Mostly) J. Sherman and M. Nasser (Netzer) doing the art

The JSA revival was good too (All star comics 59+ in ’76) By Conway, then Levitz, and a young K. Giffen on art (inked by W. Wood) and then J. Staton.

Both series brought some fresh air at the time

Another great column, Tom.

Conway’s writing on Spider-man forced me to quit reading that title (I’d been addicted for years) and Conway’s writing drove me away from Justice League, too. As my favorite titles got watered down by writers like Conway, Bates, Pasko, etc., it made it easy for me to quit buying comics and live a normal life. So I owe them my thanks!

But later I got hooked again on the comics drug by Alan Moore and other greats…

By way of clarification, the Metal Men I drew were written by three different writers. Steve wrote the first issue I did. It was a complete script from inventory and by the time I drew it, Steve was back working at Marvel. Gerry Conway wrote my next two Metal Men issues, and Marty Pasko wrote the last two. I drew 5 issues (bi-monthly at the time) that were almost a year’s worth of work for me. And I drew several covers for subsequent issues after I was no longer doing the interior art.

The gentleman who drew Wonder Woman for a long period in the 70’s was Jose Delbo with Vinnie Colletta on inks. Gene Colan picked up the book when WW got her new costume and Don Heck drew the book mostly until the final issue before Perez relaunched with a new #1.

PS. Andru and Giordano did most of the covers! ; )

The only long-term writer/artist combination on a DC title in the 70s that comes to mind is Bob Haney / Jim Aparo on BRAVE AND THE BOLD. Consistent art, and wacky stories that avoided a formula.

And I love that 1976 calendar.

I am glad someone also liked the Brave and the Bold Batman team up’s with art by Jim Aparo for the 70s.
To me he should be up there with Adams and all the rest. People do not thing about him.

I really miss some of those artists. Irv Novick, Curt Swan, Jim Aparo–those guys could really draw. They could handle real people wearing real clothes and they could draw them from any angle. And they could all tell a story while doing it, too.

I also really miss done-in-one stories, which were the norm at DC when I started collecting in 1974. And Batman stories that involved actual detection on the part of The World’s Greatest Detective, as opposed to the bulk of today’s stories where all or part of the villain’s motivation is to attract Batman’s attention.

Even when multi-part stories became more common toward the end of the decade, they at least kept them within a single title. You didn’t have to buy DETECTIVE to get all of “Where Were You On the Night Batman Was Killed?” in BATMAN 291-294. You didn’t have to buy ACTION to get all of the “Identity Crisis” story in SUPERMAN 296-299. And you may not have had any idea who these Darkseid and Kalibak guys were in SECRET SOCIETY OF SUPER-VILLAINS (and I sure didn’t), but at least you ONLY had to buy SSoSV to figure it out.

It is – sadly – the sign of the times.

Between ever shrinking readership; rising costs of product; graphic novel buyers; super-star creator’s salaries (justified when considered how many of their predecessors were treated by the industry) trying to make huge amounts of money – not only on work for hire – but with their own creations and potential Hollywood dreams shining in their eyes; fierce competition by other genres (video games especially – that offer story and interaction); lax work ethic standards by some in the biz (creators and publishers NOT finishing stories was virtually VERBOTEN back in the day) – I sometimes marvel how they are still being published in the ‘old’ monthly way, frankly.

True, as many have posted, innovators like Moore, Miller, Wolfman and Perez, Simonson back then – breathed life into what was once comfortable and typical – but at least they had something to leap up from.

Today – with all the repetitive ret-cons, story decompression and multi-title arcs etc., etc., – you couldn’t indentify a comic and what it’s really about if you tried. They are all too muddled and way too complicated for their own good.

Like Don Hewitt, the late creator of Sixty Minutes, would say, “Tell me a story.”

Great memories….but the onw historical high of DC in the 70s was missing: “With one magic word…SHAZAM!” Captain Marvel coming back at DC? That was ther big news for me.

I’m another fan of the Haney/Aparo Brave and the Bold.

I really liked both Jim Aparo and Irv Novick on art back in those days.

I read a lot of DC Comics in the 1970s. (It was, in fact, Martin Pasko with Walt Simonson and Joe Staton on those issues of Metal Men.)

I thought there was quite a bit going on outside of the Cary Bates and Gerry Conway stuff, but their stuff was quite a lot of fun for me. Before Conway settled in for a long haul on JLA, there were interesting stories from Cary Bates, Martin Pasko, Elliot S! Maggin, Len Wein, and E. Nelson Bridwell; and Conway launched Firestorm with Al Milgrom and revived All-Star Comics, which, of course, really came into its own under Paul Levitz.

Conway, Bates, Levitz, and Jim Shooter were doing good things with Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes.

I also remembering enjoying Hercules Unbound, Showcase (those New Doom Patrol issues and the terrific 100th issue, especially), The Brave and the Bold (never a dull moment there), Super-Team Family (the Challengers of the Unknown issues and the big team-up issues that closed out the series), and the World’s Finest Comics and Batman Family/Detective Comics “dollar-size” anthologies. DC Special Series was always a nice surprise, too, and near the end of their runs DC Special and DC Super-Stars featured some fun new stories.

No love for Don Heck? Savages.

Early 70s DC is where I got into comics. Noticeably absent is Dave Cockrum’s (with Cary Bates) work on the Legion of Super-Heroes. DC was still riding high on some of the innovation introduced in the late 60s. The Batman and Superman titles enjoyed some of the best stortelling in the characters’ existence. Even Cary Bates’ work looked more dynamic with Murphy Anderson inking his pencils.

Around 1974 or 1975, though, it all went to Hell. The fan favorites left (or fled) DC to be replaced by mostly a cadre of average-to-forgetable creators. There were a few exceptions — such as the Englehart run in Detective Comics, but overall, it was a good time to become a Marvel zombie — which is eactly what I did. It’s interesting that the article mentions a house style from the likes of Pete Woods, Jesus Merino, Jamal Igle, Joe Bennett, and Aaron Lopresti. All of these guys are solid artists, but they aren’t going to get anyone to pick up a book. In that way, today’s DC is very comparable to late 70s DC.

Fortunately, Wolfman and Perez came along in 1980 — starting a wave of creativity that invigorated books like Legion (Levitz and Giffen) and Swamp Thing (Moore/Bisette /Totleben). Maybe there are some up and coming creators out there somewhere who will jumpstart DC’s current stable. Lord know that JLA is just waiting for a new creatives. On the other hand, the constant input/interference of editorial is probaby the company’s biggest problem at the moment.

>>The gentleman who drew Wonder Woman for a long period in the 70′s was Jose Delbo with Vinnie Colletta on inks. Gene Colan picked up the book when WW got her new costume and Don Heck drew the book mostly until the final issue before Perez relaunched with a new #1.<<

The Roy Thomas/Gene Colan issues on Wonder Woman were some of the best of the pre-Crisis series.

I hate Heck's work on Wonder Woman and JLA. He just seemed to get those titles because no one else was available or had the desire. But I didn't mind his work in the early 70s. I recall some good work on the Rose and the Thorn feature in Lois Lane. I do think his strongest work, though, was on Avengers in the Silver Age.

I remember Ditko’s “Shade the Changing Man” with great fondness; wasn’t like anything else that I was reading at the time. Tragically another victim of the DC Implosion, along with the first run of “Firestorm” and “Steel: The Indestructible Man.”

Lance Roger Axt
The AudioComics Company

I was 10 in 1970 –so the 70’s was formative for me. As far as DC goes you hit all the big moments that stand out in my memory–Kirby’s Jimmy Olsen”, Adams’ “Batman”, Kubert’s “Tarzan”, Kaluta on the Shadow”, later on Goodwin & Simonson’s “Manhunter” and anything Walt Simonson worked on afterwards–an Alex Toth Batman story, Howie Chaykin on “Iron Wolf”, “Brave and the Bold” was always great & Aparo greater, & -Frank Robbins’ “Batman” looks even more impressive today. I loved the 52 page .25 cent period. and the 100-pagers later on. The reprinting of golden-age material in those books was like opening the doors to Fort Knox. What a revelation! “The Boy Commandos” and so many others. I’m sure I’ll think of some other high points I’ve missed later tonight.

But by 1976-77,post-Infantino, you could feel that DC had lost some direction—the new books didn’t seem to be as in sync with the times as Marvel’s did, and of the standard-bearers: Adams/O’Neil had left Batman in the hands of David Reed and Ernie Chua(Chan), Swan’s classic pencil work on Superman was debilitated by Tex Blaisdell (rather than strengthened by Murphy Anderson) in stories that seemed stuck in neutral, “Green Lantern” by Mike Grell rather than Adams in stories that ignored the early 70’s heyday. Marshall Rogers “Batman” was one of very few high points in that period(for me anyway).
Something was lost, and it wasn’t found again till the 80’s. By then, as a reader I’d moved on. And sorry to say, except for a rare occasion (Miller, Mazzuchelli), I never went back.

Everyone always skips Englehart’s stellar 1977 run on JLA (140-150, minus the crazy JLA/JSA/LSH team-up in 147-148). The books that hooked me back in 1st grade! Maybe we need to get DC to collect them in a trade for those issues to get their proper respect. Actually all the DC 60¢ giants were great then, 40 pages were perfect for huge casts like JLA & The Legion, plus you got letter pages bonus, special features, tons of stuff the grade school me ate up. And Dollar Comics! It took a lot of cajoling to get a buck out of my dad for a comic book but those giant World’s Finest’s, Superman Family’s & Adventure Comics were always worth it.

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Most of what you wrote about is the 1980s.

What about the reliance on Giordano and Aparo to ape Adams?

Who can REALLY tell a Giordano cover from an Adams at a glance. That’s what they PAID him to do, since Adams COULDN’T or WOULDN’T do any more assignments.

1970-1979 DC is dominated by JL of A and the Superman/Batman books. Perez WW is 1984. WW in the 1970s was barely more recognizable than Supergirl. Kirby had been abandonned as too weird. Brave ans BOld was the status quo, lik eit or not. And HEY…B&B was a cinsistantly GOOD book. Entertaining without annoying.

That’s saying alot compared to nowadays.

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Where is my SpellCheck?

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Brian from Canada

September 13, 2010 at 4:09 pm

I wouldn’t say DC today is like DC of the 70s. While the 70s found Warner’s thinking of ways to market DC properties in three part synergy (1/3 comics, 1/3 film, 1/3 other), the 10s are finding Warner’s desperate to match Marvel’s production slate and not knowing how to do it.

There was definitely more of an “all ages” feel, and the star characters were often presented as a bunch of characters in large product pushes — the Superfriends were key, giving us Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Batman & Robin, Green Lantern, Flash and Supergirl (even though the last was not part of the team on tv), as a large brand rather than today’s Superman/Batman/Batman/Superman/Green Lantern feel.

And, lastly, there seemed to be a bright optimism for the characters even though the market was definitely in upheaval during the switch from consignment to direct marketing. And consistency for the most part. Today’s comics are too busy killing, darkening or just plain redefining for a new age.

Hi all, just a few disconnected/conected thoughts on this subject.

All companies are always in a state of flux, as is society as a whole.

The market was a very different place, as you mention/allude to.

Marvel produced some real dross in the 70’s, as did other companies (though I have a soft spot for a lot of that stuff by all).

It’s too easy to cherry pick in hindsight and we’re all prone to eulogise about our favourites.

Stories fulfil different functions/have different objectives, certain editors being aware of the target audience of the comic deciding and directing story content. I would think that Julie Schwartz (or whoever the ed. was at the time) would allow a ‘drug’ story written in the same tone to appear in Action or Superman as it did in those classic Green Lanterns. What, for that matter, were the reading/sales figures for each of those titlesat the time the stories were published? Is this just as valid a way of judging success (certainly for the money they made for the companies)? Wasn’t Spider-man as a story/charecter a gamble in a comic which was going to be cancelled? Could it be that the really interesting stuff is being done in the corners – Swamp Thing at the time when Moore began writing was not that ‘big’ a title when he got on to the comic (and that is not to demean the work of those who proceded him).

Comics, in one part, have always been a business – you publish what you think will sell.

I always thought that Karate Kid, Richard Dragon and Kobra represented DC in the 70’s desperate, copycatting and flailing. Things that caused the 70’s implosion.

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