Review: ‘DC Comics Year by Year’
DC Comics Year by Year: A Visual Chronicle
By Alan Cowsill, Alex Irvine, Matthew K. Manning, Michael McAvennie, Daniel Wallace
352 pages, DK Publishing, $50
This is a tough book to review given growing up reading the majority of titles covered here in addition to working on staff for twenty years plus continuing to contribute to the company today. It’s also a book I wish I had written. That said, this is a mighty undertaking that is strong and eminently readable. This is a worthwhile 75th anniversary collector’s item and a great way to encapsulate DC Comics’ rich history. By all means, this belongs on your bookshelf.
It is almost impossible to properly encapsulate the 75 years of DC Comics alone but this book also attempts to weave in the histories of the companies or properties now owned by DC, including Fawcett’s super-heroes, Charlton’s Action Heroes, and the Quality Comics library. Unfortunately, these all get lip-service rather than a proper meshing of titles therefore significant publications are absent.
DC Comics began as one title, New Comics, released in 1935 by Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson. It added titles slowly and when there was a disagreement over the size of the company, Jack Liebowitz, who bought out Wheeler-Nicholson with Harry Donenfeld, decided to expand in partnership with Max Gaines, forming All-American Comics. It would be years before Gaines sold out and the two companies became National Comics.
When Quality went out of business in the 1950s, DC took over their titles, continuing several of them, notably [[[G.I. Combat]]] and [[[Blackhawk]]], without missing a beat. In the 1970s, DC acquired rights to their heroes, from Captain Marvel to Spy Smasher, fully coming to own them within a decade. And as a gift to their executive editor, Dick Giordano, DC also acquired the Charlton heroes that Giordano once edited, headed by Captain Atom. When Bill Gaines died, DC became the parent to Mad, but the EC line of titles from [[[Picture Stories from the Bible to Weird Science]]] are missing. The purchase by DC of WildStorm changed the company. You’ll see some of this throughout the year-by-year presentation.
We get anywhere from one to two spreads per year when many years were bursting and deserved twice the space. Unfortunately, as happens with these DK projects, entire spreads are devoted to cover or panel blow-ups that unnecessarily take up space. As a result, you may scratch your head at the emphasis given to some titles and the absence of others.
With multiple writers, you have multiple tones and as a result, reading
the book straight through results in noticing some decades are better
written than others. Early on, we get a title’s history along with its
debut while in other cases we get merely a plot synopsis. Placing each
title into context, giving us the reason why its being included is a hit
or miss proposition.
The editorial edict apparently made inkers superfluous and rarely are
they mentioned and there’s an incredible unevenness in crediting
editors. Early on, you’d think Bernie Breslauer was a superstar editor
since he’s mentioned far more often than more significant contributors
such as Mort Weisinger and Jack Schiff. Later, Julie Schwartz is
memorialized but his earlier contributions aren’t spelled out. By the
1980s, the role of the editor seems an afterthought and barely
For a book celebrating the heroes, villains, and titles, there are also
nods towards printing evolutions and the changing marketplace. A nice
sidebar on the role of the Direct Sales market is welcome although the
book neglects to include Superboy Spectacular, the first direct sales
comic released by DC. Other innovations such as the introduction of the
letter column, digest comics, dollar comics, New Format (a hybrid
between newsprint and the brighter, heavier Baxter paper) or the
looseleaf edition of Who’s Who are absent. While Paradox Press is
mentioned, its predecessor, Piranha Press is missing entirely and
significant releases such as Gregory or the Big Book line of
titles should have been included. One could also argue that DC’s line of
comics to be packed with the Atari games should be mentioned since they
led to the first graphic novel from the company (also not mentioned).
And while the Milestone titles at least get a mention, the Impact line
is missing in action. Unlike its competitors, DC has often been an
innovator and taking pride in those experiments – good or bad – should
be celebrated here.
No, every significant storyline or character introduction could possibly
be included but the appearance of some such as Black Adam make you
wonder why Captain Marvel, Jr. and Mary Marvel’s arrivals were omitted.
Blue Beetle and Plastic Man are also overlooked. We will all have our
quibbles but to me, a book like this should have the historically
significant corporate events put into place so the absence of the
Institutional Ads (which ran for over a decade), the arrival of Johnny
DC, the reductions in page count (which prompted the [[[Superman]]]/[[[Batman]]]team-ups in the first place), the merger with Time and shift of DC from Warner Books to Warner Bros. are keenly felt.
From a content standpoint, there are some key oversights such as the
introduction of the Imaginary Story or noting how Weisinger
reinvigorated the Superman family of titles by introducing a steady
stream of new innovations for years on end. Paul Levitz’s introduction
blames a lot of the DC Universe’s history on Krona, introduced in [[[Green Lantern]]]#40, yet the issue doesn’t get listed anywhere but in the footnote at
the end of the year. The emphasis also seems oddly placed in some cases,
showing a marked preferences for some titles and creators regardless of
the long-lasting impact. So “Titans Hunt” gets a bigger play while the
introduction of Spoiler, a more memorable character, is a mere footnote.
And from the scant WildStorm titles presented, one comes away from this
book thinking the line was dependent on Sam Keith and few others.
As we go deeper into the book, references are made to earlier titles,
characters, or events, but when you flip back to the read about them,
they are missing. Ideally, someone would have gone through this book
from beginning to end, smoothing out the voice and tidying up the
inconsistencies. (I have only two personal gripes, that being the lack
of mention of Star Trek coming to DC in 1983 resulting in the award-winning graphic novel, [[[Debt of Honor]]], which I edited. Also missing entirely is [[[Action Comics Weekly]]], a deeply flawed experiment but a project worthy of mention here.)
Visually, the book is nicely designed so you have memorable quotes from
stories that year, a brief overview of the year, a timeline of world
events, and a sidebar at the end mentioning other significant releases.
Ideally, wraparound covers would have been seen in their entirety but
are not. Unfortunately, some material is repeated, wasting space that
could have been given to more stories. The entire package is wrapped
underneath a beautiful Ryan Sook cover, which is reproduced on a
lithograph tucked inside the front cover. Everything is kept together in
a sturdy slipcase, although no doubt you will be thumbing through this
solid, if flawed, book time and again.