10 January 2009

The Legend of Batman’s “New Look”

In the late 1940s, American comic-book readers moved away from superhero stories to other genres: comics about romance, crime, horror, the western frontier, aliens, monsters, wacky teenagers, and funny ducks, among other types of tales. Batman and Robin were among the few costumed crime-fighters who appeared continuously through the 1940s and 1950s.

In the late 1950s, DC Comics found success with new versions of their old trademarks, starting with the Flash in 1956. By 1960, the company also had new versions of the Green Lantern, the Atom, and Hawkman. It teamed those revamped characters with Wonder Woman and with the Green Arrow, Aquaman, and the Martian Manhunter, superheroes who'd survived as backup features. But Superman was still the most popular of all.

In 1960 Batman and Robin appeared regularly in three magazines, with the following reported average sales, as legally reported back then by DC Comics and gathered by the Comics Chronicles:

  • Batman, three new stories every other month; 502,000 copies.
  • World's Finest, one team-up story with Superman as the lead feature eight issues a year; 476,000.
  • Detective, lead feature every month; 314,000 copies.
By 1962, however, those sales were slipping. Batman at 410,000 copies had fallen behind World's Finest at 420,000, and Detective was selling only 265,000--all having dropped more than 10%.

DC apparently didn't report figures for the next two years, but insiders' recollections of the time say the situation became dire. The comprehensive but often breathless Dial B for Blog offers this account:
It was late 1963. Sales of the Batman titles were low, and getting lower. “It's this simple: Batman is dying. We're giving you two guys six months to fix it. If not, it's over.” That’s what DC publisher Irwin Donenfeld told editor Julie Schwartz and artist Carmine Infantino. Batman, an American institution, faced cancellation.

"The book was at 32 percent sales,” Infantino recalls. “Which is a heavy loss. [Batman creator] Bob Kane hadn't even been doing the work--he was farming it out to others. He hadn't touched the drawing for years. What he was turning in was too old-fashioned.”
Kane recalled the same crisis in his autobiography, Batman and Me. He's not a reliable source, and in this instance didn't accurately recall the date of the problem, but the emotional shock he felt comes through clearly:
After a quarter century of continuous publication, Batman started to decline in popularity in 1965. My publisher informed me that unless sales picked up the next year, it would mean the demise of the Caped Crusader.

This was one of my darkest periods--I had built my whole life on drawing Batman, and it was only vocation I knew. I felt unqualified to do anything else. I didn't reveal my feelings to my family and friends, but privately I felt very apprehensive about the future.
Facing a choice between lower income from Batman or the prospect of none at all, Kane agreed to a new contract with DC. He gave up his exclusive credit on all Batman stories. Under the new deal, editor Julius Schwartz could make stylistic changes to the character. The result was Batman's "New Look," launched with great fanfare in May 1963.

Here's an artistic analysis of the "New Look." Last November Heritage Auction Galleries sold the splash page from Infantino's first Batman story as an especially significant piece of comics history. The stories starting in May 1964 are seen as so important that DC has issued them in a separate archive series, skipping ahead in time from the 1940s.

According to the standard history of Batman, the "New Look" saved the character. A less cartoony style of illustration, a turn away from science fiction and back toward eccentric criminals, a leaner supporting cast, and a yellow oval behind the bat symbol on his chest were all that Batman needed to become popular again.

I don't believe it.

COMING UP: The real threat to Batman in 1963, and it wasn't sales.

(Comic-book covers courtesy of Cover Browser.)

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