The history of DC Comics begins in the early thirties with the merging of several different organisations including National Allied Publications (NAP).
NAP was formed in 1934 by entrepreneur Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson. Today, he’s known as the creator of the world’s first comic books.
Wheeler-Nicholson’s first publication, ‘New Fun: The Big Comic Magazine #1’, was released in 1935.
While it wasn’t the first time Americans had seen a classic comic strip, it was the first to print a full book of original stories.
Just a few months later, in Issue 6 the comic book welcomed new talents Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, the artists who would later go on to create Superman. They entranced readers with the adventures of daredevil Henri Duval and, in later comics, supernatural superhero Doctor Occult.
In late 1935, Wheeler-Nicholson created a second comic book called ‘New Comics’. It is perhaps the best example of what contemporary comic books would evolve into.
Though it is slightly bigger than today’s releases, it was the first to set standards for page dimensions and other visual ratios.
This second release was just as popular as ‘New Fun’ and would run for decades (as ‘Adventure Comics’ in later years). The entrepreneur’s third and last comic book, Detective Comics, would be his most successful. It was the beginning of the incredible brand we now know as DC Comics.
The first DC comic hit the stands in 1937. Two years later, it unveiled a moody new superhero called Batman (#27).
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DC Comics Golden Age
The introduction of flagship superheroes Batman and Superman earned the comics an enthusiastic readership right from the start.
Superman was popular with younger readers so Wheeler-Nicholson took every opportunity to add new crime fighters including Wonder Woman to the lineup.
In doing so, Wheeler-Nicholson kick-started the Golden Age of comic books which saw Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman form the first superhero justice league.
As interest in superheroes waned in the 1940s, Wheeler-Nicholson broadened his brand’s appeal by adding spaghetti western, comedy, romance and science fiction elements. Though some of the less popular superheroes were dropped, Superman and his justice league continued to enthral readers.
DC Comics Silver Age
In the 1950s, iconic superhero The Flash underwent a reboot. His civilian cover story, origin story and superhero costume were all updated to reflect the changing needs of a modern audience.
Though there were anxieties about fans rejecting the new look, it proved to be a major hit and The Flash began to appear in more stories. It wasn’t long before Green Lantern received a similar makeover.
Superman’s justice league was renamed The Justice League of America, and the first wave of superhero TV franchises began with the first airing of The Batman in 1966.
The foray into television was an enormous success and sales of Batman comic books skyrocketed for a brief period. Unfortunately, sales slumped in 1967 and visual artist Carmine Infantino was brought on as DC Comics’ new director.
He was given the challenge of steering the organisation through hard times and, to do so, he introduced an array of new worlds and characters.
Under Infantino’s leadership, DC Comics became an artist-centric publisher. He was responsible for recruiting some of the industry’s most respected talents including Mike Sekowsky, Dick Giordano and Dennis O’Neil.
Despite the company’s ambition, the early seventies were a time of short-lived experiments and failed franchises.
DC comics in the 1970s and 1980s
In 1967, National Allied Publications was bought by the Kinney National Company which released its non-entertainment assets and later renamed the company Warner Communications.
Kinney’s acquisition of Warner Brothers film studio would later breathe new life into Wheeler-Nicholson’s comic book franchises. However, in the late seventies, the primary goal was restructuring. DC’s editorial director Carmine Infantino was replaced with children’s magazine publisher Jenette Kahn. In 1977, NAP was officially renamed DC Comics, Inc.
During the seventies, DC battled for supremacy with archrival Marvel, a comic book company with a very similar history. Since Marvel’s inception in 1939, it had competed ferociously for DC’s readership.
Though DC Comics tempted audiences with a dizzying selection of new characters – this era was nicknamed the DC Explosion – Firestorm, Shade and the Changing Man failed to make a big impact.
Disappointing sales led to what staffers called the DC IM-plosion. Hot on the heels of an expensive rebrand, Warner let many of its employees go and terminated most of the new releases.
The organisation didn’t experience a major success for some time but did score a runaway hit with minor comic New Teen Titans.
The franchise, drawn by artist George Perez, was an unexpected highlight for the company and inspired its director to revisit some lesser-known stories.
A limited run called Crisis on Infinite Earths was rebranded for an audience just starting to rediscover its love for superheroes.
While some critics feared the company was losing its original identity, others welcomed the refreshing of classic characters. Even flagship superheroes Wonder Woman and Superman benefited from a cleaner, crisper brand image.
Throughout the 80s, dark and moody comics began to gain notoriety. This was the era of legendary writer Alan Moore, a British writer responsible for rebooting Swamp Thing and introducing American readers to his own unique brand of horror and dark fantasy.
DC began to challenge the dominance of Marvel with darker and more mature stories such as Batman: The Dark Knight and Watchmen by Alan Moore. Reinvigorated by the changes, readers started to return to DC in huge numbers as these changes began to draw attention.
Moore’s popularity paved the way for a generation of British comic book writers such as Grant Morrison, Steve Dillon and Neil Gaiman. Keen to get a piece of the action, DC began to compete for the work of up and coming horror writers, dispensing with its decades-old Comic Book Code.
In 1993, DC Comics broke away from its early insistence on family-friendly content and launched the Vertigo spin-off for older audiences.
DC comics in the 1990s
The late nineties brought some prosperity to DC as collectors fought to get their hands on the company’s oldest and rarest publications. Business boomed due to high-profile auction sales.
The success of several daring new storylines such as the death of Superman and Batman becoming paralysed gained media attention.
Critics praised DC for being brave enough to take these narrative risks. At the close of the decade, however, the huge sales increases turned out to be short-lived.
DC comics in the 2000s
DC began the nineties with the acquisition of publishing rights for the previously self-published Elfquest fantasy series.
They also began publishing graphic novels of translated Manga and UK based 2000 AD and the French Humanoids publications for a North American audience.
The mascot Jonni DC was introduced as a way to rebrand titles aimed at a younger audience.
A sequel to Crisis on Infinite Earths began to surface from 2004 onwards. The event was orchestrated to bring significant change to the DC Universe.
The limited series Infinite Crisis concluded a number of earlier titles leading up to the event.
The Justice League of America, Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman were among the vast heroes featured in the major crossover series.
In 2009, Warner Brothers repackaged DC Comics as a subsidiary brand of DC Entertainment, Inc.
Industry veteran Diane Nelson was hired as the company’s new president and Paul Levitz became its editor and consultant.
If you enjoyed our history of DC Comics, there is a ton more information and articles about the heroes and villians of DC in our dedicated pages.
Find out more about the DC comics history and the popular superheroes and characters from the DC Universe. Read our information page: DC Comics explained.
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