Thursday, March 26, 2009

45 Years Ago Today

The New Look Batman was launched in Detective Comics #327. I don't think it's any secret that during the Jack Schiff era, Batman had become a little too reliant on gimmick stories. Aliens, weird transformations, and monsters had become all too common.

The problem can be seen in the declining average circulation numbers for Batman as reported in the following issues:

Batman #137 (1960 sales) 502,000
Batman #145 (1961 sales) 485,000
Batman #153 (1962 sales) 410,000

This was a sharp decline relative to the market; Batman went from #6 in sales in 1960 (and 3rd at DC) to #7 (5th at DC) to #10 (8th at DC). Unfortunately, we don't have the 1963-64 figures because they were not reported by DC for most of their magazines, but we must assume that there was not a strong uptrend, or else Schiff would have been retained on the feature (he did continue editing for DC at titles like Blackhawk and Mystery In Space).

So Julius Schwartz was placed in the editor's desk. I am sure that fandom responded with glee, as Schwartz had an excellent track record during the Silver Age, having brought back such famed Golden Age characters (in new incarnations) as the Flash, Green Lantern, Atom and Hawkman), as well as the Justice League of America, a modern version of the Justice Society of America. Schwartz brought with him artist Carmine Infantino, whom he put in charge of producing covers for both Tec and Batman. Infantino also began providing interior artwork for every other issue of Detective.

The way the story gets told now, Julie and Carmine saved Batman; there are claims that Batman issues were being returned in large numbers and the New Look was the only thing that kept Batman around long enough for the TV series.

I'm just a little skeptical. First, although the trendline was not good for Batman sales from 1960-62, there were lots of comics DC published that didn't even sell half of what Batman did. Fox and Crow, for example, sold 1/3rd the copies.

DC published their sales figures again in 1965, and Batman was back up to 465,000 copies per issue, from the 410,000 level of 1962, about an 11% increase. Detective was up 15%. But those increases were not all that unusual; comics were surging in popularity during those years (probably due to demographics). G.I. Combat was up 34%, Action Comics up 21%, Adventure Comics up 25%. Jimmy Olsen was up 18% to over 550,000 copies sold per issue.

So how much Schwartz's manning of the editor's desk is responsible for the sales increase in Batman and Detective is unclear. While Schwartz did get rid of the cheesier science fiction elements that had been so common under Schiff, he did not address the other major problem the series faced: the artwork.

Bob Kane apparently had a deal with DC to provide the bulk of the artwork for Batman. As is well-known, Sheldon Moldoff actually did the drawing. Moldoff's work, while serviceable seemed very stale by 1960s standards. Moldoff did all the interior artwork for Batman issues during the New Look and alternated with Infantino on the interior stories for Detective.

And while some of the stories Infantino did were fine, there were also the very oddball ones like these:

And if anything the series got worse when the Batman craze hit, although it's hard to blame that on Schwartz; obviously he had to deal with the fact that loads of kids were buying the magazine looking for the "pow" and "sock" that they saw on TV.

The New Look was an improvement and perhaps with the situation DC faced with Kane's contract about as much as could be expected. Don't get me wrong here; I do think that Julie rescued Batman, but it was later, after the collapse in sales following the cancellation of the TV show. By that point DC had bought out Kane and Schwartz was free to hire the new Batman artists; Irv Novick and Neal Adams, notably.