Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
DC Comics

One of the two major US Comic-book publishing companies, the other being Marvel Comics.

Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson (1890-1968) set up his National Comics publishing company in 1935 with the publication of New Fun, which ran for five bimonthly issues and was then relaunched the following year as More Fun (1936-1947). New Comics (12 issues 1935-1936), another early venture, ran for nearly 50 years under the later titles New Adventure Comics (20 issues 1937-1938) and Adventure Comics (1938-1983); Detective Comics (1937-current) has been even longer-lived. These two titles were the first US comic books to feature regular characters in a series of adventures, but Wheeler-Nicholson himself could not make a success of them; in 1938 he paid off his printers, Harry Donenfield and Jack Leibowitz, by giving them the company.

Their first new venture was Action Comics (1938-current), #1 of which (June 1938) featured the first appearance of Superman, created by Jerry Siegel (1914-1996) and Joe Shuster (1914-1992). Then came Batman (Detective Comics #27 May 1939). The successful format of Detective Comics – the first regularly scheduled comic book to present all-original material – motivated the company's use of "DC" as a trademark and eventually, in the early 1980s, to change its name to DC Comics Inc.

In 1945 DC absorbed Max Gaines's company All American Comics and thereafter built up an exceptional team of creative talents: Alfred Bester (1913-1987; > SFE), Otto Binder (1911-1975; > SFE), Gardner F Fox, Edmund Hamilton (1904-1977; > SFE), Mort Weisinger (1915-1978) and others. This team created a long list of memorable Superhero characters including Adam Strange, Aquaman, The Flash, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman.

The 1950s saw an increase in popularity of Ghost Stories and Horror, and DC added to its list The Phantom Stranger, an enigmatic figure who acted as a supernatural troubleshooter, and who would occasionally re-emerge in various of the company's titles over the next four decades. In 1952 the company, now called National Periodical Publications, launched a regular monthly anthology title, House of Mystery, which became a vehicle for Supernatural Fiction, somewhat in the EC Comics vein although considerably less gory. The format was successful enough for DC to create other, similar titles: Tales of the Unexpected (1955-1967; vt The Unexpected 1968-1982) and House of Secrets (1956-1978); further comics of the same ilk were introduced over the next 20 years, including The Witching Hour (1967-1978), Secrets of the Haunted House (1975-1982), Weird Worlds (1972-1974) and brief experiments with books featuring Gothic Fantasy (Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love [1971-1972]) and war stories with an sf edge (Weird War [1971-1983]). DC's brief flirtations with Sword and Sorcery – e.g., Nightmaster (DC Preview Showcase #83-#84 1969), Sword of Sorcery (#1-#5 1973) which featured Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Sword of the Atom (#1-#4 1983) and Ironwolf (1986) – failed to take off.

In the early 1980s DC responded to the increase in new US retail outlets offered by specialist comics stores by increasing its output of tenuously interlinked superhero titles, until, in 1985, on the company's 50th anniversary, DC felt it necessary to rationalize the "DC Universe" with the publication of Crisis on Infinite Earths (#1-#12 1985-1986). This attempted to fuse the various Alternate Worlds which DC had been using up until then to explain away clashes of history and continuity; the series also featured the deaths of several characters DC had decided to discard.

A very substantial factor in DC's phenomenal success in the later 1980s has been its willingness to experiment with some of its more popular characters: Superman, Batman and to a lesser extent Swamp Thing – plus offshoot characters and associated series – proved, anew, major moneyspinners. Open-minded editorial attitudes helped nurture substantial new talents (most notably Neil Gaiman and Frank Miller) in order to increase DC's range of characters and the number of ways they could be exploited.

But this revealed the need to rationalize another aspect of DC's product: the age-range of its readers. In 1991 DC inaugurated the Impact line to cater for younger readers; this revived a number of golden-age heroes, including The Fly, Jaguar, The Shield and Black Hood. In 1993 DC's increasing range of fantasy and horror mystery titles was unified under the Vertigo imprint and tagged "for mature readers", affording creators an opportunity to present complex and subtle adult storylines.

The long-held shared monopoly of DC and Marvel ended in the 1980s with the founding of a number of new, more creator-influenced companies. The dissipation of Marvel's properties in the mid-1990s placed DC in an unassailable position as the USA's leading comics publisher. [RT]

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This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.