DC’s new 52 is one of the most ambitious endeavors in comic book history. While I wish them all of the success in the world, the launch has also got me thinking about the other side of the coin. Namely, failure. So here, for your reading pleasure, is a short overview of some of the famous failures in comic books.
Superman was already a multi-media star by the early ‘50s, wowing audiences through comic books, radio shows and movie serials. He added a fourth feather to his cap with “The Adventures of Superman” television show. The show’s success convinced comic book publishers that the time was right for a superhero comeback. Marvel brought back the Human Torch in December of 1953. Sub-Mariner followed in April and Captain America in May. Other publishers followed Marvel into the breach. Simon and Kirby returned to superheroes with the Fighting American. DC debuted Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen, their first new superhero title in several years. Older characters made encore performances, like Blue Beetle and Black Cat. New publishers Charlton and Sterling attempted to find superhero success with Nature Boy and Captain Flash (with John Buscema and Mike Sekowsky respectively on art). At the beginning of 1955, there were nearly a dozen new superhero titles. By the end of 1955, there were none. The Black Cat came back for only three issues. Blue Beetle for four. The superhero wave receded, leaving only a minimal impression behind. Some of the characters have cult followings (Tony Isabella wrote about Captain Flash in a recent Comics Buyer’s Guide) but most are little more than historical curiosities.
For decades, fans have been arguing about who was more instrumental to Marvel’s success- artist Jack Kirby or writer Stan Lee. Publisher Martin Goodman had his own answer. He thought he was the mastermind behind Marvel and he set out to prove it by launching a new company in 1975. Goodman’s new Atlas Comics courted big-name creators like Neal Adams and Steve Ditko by offering some of the best rates in the business. They also gave opportunities to rising stars like Rich Buckler and Howard Chaykin. They had quite the impressive line-up of talent. Atlas also dabbled in almost every imaginable genre. You could find superheroes, anti-heroes and barbarians. You could read science fiction, horror or science fiction/horror hybrids. There were police stories and kung fu comics inspired by Dirty Harry and Bruce Lee. There were even war stories and westerns trying to recapture interest in fading genres. However, the ambitious line-up and the exorbitant pay rates proved to be too much. Atlas collapsed in less than a year and no title lasted for more than four issues.
The house ads said it all: The DC Explosion is on its way! Responding to a loss of market share to Marvel and soft sales during 1977, DC planned a major expansion of their line in 1978. They announced numerous new titles and they ran ads promoting new characters like The Vixen. But their enthusiasm couldn’t overcome the economic realities of the late ‘70s. The ongoing recession scuttled their plans. Instead of expanding, DC abruptly canceled approximately 20 titles. New series like Black Lightning, Firestorm, Shade the Changing Man and Steel took the fall. Even older series like Aquaman, House of Secrets, Kamandi and Showcase were caught up in the devastation. A few titles failed to even make their debuts, like the Deserter and the aforementioned Vixen. Some of the series were merged with others (such as Batman Family and Detective Comics). Others managed to be repackaged as back-up strips (such as Firestorm in the pages of Flash). A few completed individual issues saw the light of day in other titles (such as a Black Lightning feature in World’s Finest). And most were collected for an in-house special called the Canceled Comics Cavalcade.
Jim Shooter had a big plan for celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Marvel Universe. He would create a new universe. The new universe would be a little more grounded than the current Marvel. Superpowers would be new and rare. It was supposed to feel a bit more like the real world. However, a little more grounded also meant a little less fantastic. Compared to the Marvel Universe, the real world is kind of boring. Internal struggles at Marvel also prevented Shooter from putting together the creative line-up he wanted. A few big names were lent to the project such as the Star Brand art team of John Romita Jr. and Art Williamson. However, most of the comics were handed over to lesser lights and journeymen. The New Universe crashed spectacularly. Returns were so high that the Marvel offices were crowded with unsold comics. Marvel tried to keep things going for a couple of years, allowing Peter David to completely revamp Justice and giving John Byrne a shot at Star Brand. But they eventually folded up the new universe after only 3 years.
Comics’ Greatest World wasn’t. In 1994, Dark Horse published a 16-issue weekly event called Comics’ Greatest World. The event introduced a fictional world, featuring three major cities (Arcadia, Golden City and Steel Harbor) and a fourth anomalous area (an inter-dimensional rift called the Vortex). Each issue also starred a different hero or team. The series was derided as an attempt to follow Valiant, Image and the Ultraverse onto the superhero bandwagon although Dark Horse claimed that the line had been in development for four years. However, the problem wasn’t so much that Dark Horse was late into the game as it was that the CGW titles just weren’t very good. Only a few characters were capable of headlining their own comic. X lasted for 25 issues. Barbwire surprisingly inspired a movie even though her own title was canceled after 9 issues. And those were some of the biggest successes. Only Ghost managed to make it to the 21st century.
CrossGen wasn’t the only company to go into bankruptcy. At the height of their success, CrossGen rescued Lady Death from Chaos Comics when that company went bankrupt. A few years later, Dreamwave would run into similar problems paying creators. But CrossGen stands out because, for a brief moment in time, they also stood tallest. CrossGen debuted in June of 2000. They started with industry cast-offs and unknowns but they eventually added major players to the company. Chuck Dixon, Butch Guice, Greg Land, George Perez and Mark Waid all worked for CrossGen. Steve McNiven got his start and Jimmy Cheung made his name there. CrossGen concentrated on genres outside of the superhero standard. They specialized in sci-fi and fantasy but also produced mystery, martial arts, horror and pirate comics. They quickly became the fifth biggest publisher in the US and even challenged Image and Dark Horse for third. But their ambition outstripped their ability to keep up. In 2003, they were besieged by rumors of non-payment to artists like inker Robin Riggs. They missed a payment to printer Quebecor which caused them to lose their perfect record of on-time shipping. They tried to re-invigorate their flagging line with new titles like El Cazador and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. But it all came to an end by the summer of 2004, making the short-lived CrossGen a genuine comic book tragedy.