Entrepreneur Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson founded National Allied Publications in autumn 1934. The company debuted with the tabloid-sized New Fun: The Big Comic Magazine #1 with a cover date of February 1935. The company’s second title, New Comics #1 (Dec. 1935), appeared in a size close to what would become comic books’ standard during the period fans and historians call the Golden Age of Comic Books, with slightly larger dimensions than today’s. That title evolved into Adventure Comics, which continued through issue #503 in 1983, becoming one of the longest-running comic-book series. In 2009 DC revived Adventure Comics with its original numbering. In 1935, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the future creators of Superman, created Doctor Occult, who is the earliest DC Comics character to still be in the DC Universe.
Wheeler-Nicholson’s third and final title, Detective Comics, advertised with a cover illustration dated December 1936, eventually premiered three months late with a March 1937 cover date. The themed anthology series would become a sensation with the introduction of Batman in issue #27 (May 1939). By then, however, Wheeler-Nicholson had gone. In 1937, in debt to printing-plant owner and magazine distributor Harry Donenfeld—who also published pulp magazines and operated as a principal in the magazine distributorship Independent News—Wheeler-Nicholson had to take Donenfeld on as a partner in order to publish Detective Comics #1. Detective Comics, Inc. was formed, with Wheeler-Nicholson and Jack S. Liebowitz, Donenfeld’s accountant, listed as owners. Major Wheeler-Nicholson remained for a year, but cash-flow problems continued, and he was forced out. Shortly afterward, Detective Comics, Inc. purchased the remains of National Allied, also known as Nicholson Publishing, at a bankruptcy auction.
Detective Comics, Inc. soon launched a fourth title, Action Comics, the premiere of which introduced Superman. Action Comics #1 (June 1938), the first comic book to feature the new character archetype—soon known as “superheroes“—proved a sales hit. The company quickly introduced such other popular characters as the Sandman and Batman.
On February 22, 2010, a copy of Action Comics #1 (June 1938) sold at an auction from an anonymous seller to an anonymous buyer for $1 million, besting the $317,000 record for a comic book set by a different copy, in lesser condition, the previous year.
The Golden Age
National Allied Publications soon merged with Detective Comics, Inc. to form National Comics Publications on September 30, 1946, which absorbed an affiliated concern, Max Gaines‘ and Liebowitz’ All-American Publications. That year, Gaines let Liebowitz buy him out, and kept only Picture Stories from the Bible as the foundation of his own new company, EC Comics. At that point, “Liebowitz promptly orchestrated the merger of All-American and Detective Comics into National Comics… Next he took charge of organizing National Comics, [the self-distributorship] Independent News, and their affiliated firms into a single corporate entity, National Periodical Publications“. National Periodical Publications became publicly traded on the stock market in 1961.
Despite the official names “National Comics” and “National Periodical Publications”, the company began branding itself as “Superman-DC” as early as 1940, and the company became known colloquially as DC Comics for years before the official adoption of that name in 1977.
The company began to move aggressively against what it saw as copyright-violating imitations from other companies, such as Fox Comics‘ Wonder Man, which (according to court testimony) Fox started as a copy of Superman. This extended to DC suing Fawcett Comics over Captain Marvel, at the time comics’ top-selling character (see National Comics Publications, Inc. v. Fawcett Publications, Inc.). Despite the fact that parallels between Captain Marvel and Superman seemed more tenuous (Captain Marvel’s powers came from magic, unlike Superman’s), the courts ruled that substantial and deliberate copying of copyrighted material had occurred. Faced with declining sales and the prospect of bankruptcy if it lost, Fawcett capitulated in 1955 and ceased comics publication. Years later, Fawcett sold the rights for Captain Marvel to DC—which in 1974 revived Captain Marvel in the new title Shazam! featuring artwork by his creator, C. C. Beck. In the meantime, the abandoned trademark had been seized by Marvel Comics in 1967, with the creation of their Captain Marvel, disallowing the DC comic itself to be called that. While Captain Marvel did not recapture his old popularity, he later appeared in a Saturday morning live action TV adaptation and gained a prominent place in the mainstream continuity DC calls the DC Universe.
When the popularity of superheroes faded in the late 1940s, the company focused on such genres as science fiction, Westerns, humor, and romance. DC also published crime and horror titles, but relatively tame ones, and thus avoided the mid-1950s backlash against such comics. A handful of the most popular superhero-titles, including Action Comics and Detective Comics, the medium’s two longest-running titles, continued publication.
The Silver Age
In the mid-1950s, editorial director Irwin Donenfeld and publisher Liebowitz directed editor Julius Schwartz (whose roots lay in the science-fiction book market) to produce a one-shot Flash story in the try-out title Showcase. Instead of reviving the old character, Schwartz had writers Robert Kanigher and John Broome, penciler Carmine Infantino, and inker Joe Kubert create an entirely new super-speedster, updating and modernizing the Flash’s civilian identity, costume, and origin with a science-fiction bent. The Flash’s reimagining in Showcase #4 (October 1956) proved sufficiently popular that it soon led to a similar revamping of the Green Lantern character, the introduction of the modern all-star team Justice League of America (JLA), and many more superheroes, heralding what historians and fans call the Silver Age of comic books.characters having fantastic adventures in a mythological context.
DC’s introduction of the reimagined superheroes did not go unnoticed by other comics companies. In 1961, with DC’s JLA as the specific spur,[n 1]Marvel Comics writer-editor Stan Lee and legendary creator Jack Kirby ushered in the sub-Silver Age “Marvel Age” of comics with the debut issue of The Fantastic Four.
Since the 1940s, when Superman, Batman, and many of the company’s other heroes began appearing in stories together, DC’s characters inhabited a shared continuity that, decades later, was dubbed the “DC Universe” by fans. With the story “Flash of Two Worlds“, in Flash #123 (September 1961), editor Schwartz (with writer Gardner Fox and artists Infantino and Joe Giella) introduced a concept that allowed slotting the 1930s and 1940s Golden Age heroes into this continuity via the explanation that they lived on an other-dimensional “Earth 2”, as opposed to the modern heroes’ “Earth 1″—in the process creating the foundation for what would later be called the DC Multiverse.
A 1966 Batman TV show on the ABC network sparked a temporary spike in comic book sales, and a brief fad for superheroes in Saturday morning animation (Filmation created most of DC’s initial cartoons) and other media. DC significantly lightened the tone of many DC comics—particularly Batman and Detective Comics—to better complement the “camp” tone of the TV series. This tone coincided with the famous “Go-Go Checks” checkerboard cover-dress which featured a black-and-white checkerboard strip (all DC books cover dated February 1966 until August 1967) at the top of each comic, a misguided attempt by then-managing editor Irwin Donenfeld to make DC’s output “stand out on the newsracks”.
In 1967, Batman artist Infantino (who had designed popular Silver Age characters Batgirl and the Phantom Stranger) rose from art director to become DC’s editorial director. With the growing popularity of upstart rival Marvel Comics threatening to topple DC from its longtime number-one position in the comics industry, he attempted to infuse the company with more focus towards marketing new and existing titles and characters with more adult sensibilities towards an emerging older age group of superhero comic book fans that grew out of Marvel’s efforts to market their superhero line to college-aged adults. This push for more mature content reached its peak with the 1986 DC Universe relaunch. He also recruited major talents such as ex-Marvel artist and Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko and promising newcomers Neal Adams and Denny O’Neil and replaced some existing DC editors with artist-editors, including Joe Kubert and Dick Giordano, to give DC’s output a more artistic critical eye.