In the early ‘70s, Superman was still the heart of DC’s publishing program, but his power was growing weaker every year. His decline was steeper than the general, and that point slow, ebbing of the newsstand comics business in general, and there’s no research from the time to indicate which factors were most critical. A few years earlier, the S-symbol was powerful enough that even LOIS LANE and JIMMY OLSEN were outselling anything in the Marvel line. It’s possible that decreasing syndication of the ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN television series starring George Reeves was the dominant factor, with the Saturday morning SUPERMAN cartoon also ending its brief run. Or maybe it was that the last years of Mort Weisinger’s incredibly successful run as Superman’s editor had run out of steam at last, or simply couldn’t change to capture the readership’s developing tastes that were giving Marvel momentum.
Regardless of the cause, it was the critical problem for DC’s publishing profitability. Carmine Infantino had inherited the mantle of leadership, and began to influence factors that might help. Neal Adams began doing covers for the super-titles, allegedly over Weisinger’s resistance, bringing a more dynamic visual style to them. Art assignments were juggled, with Ross Andru promoted from the very strong selling METAL MEN (and the less well selling WONDER WOMAN) to join the Krypton chroniclers. Nothing was working to reverse the trend, and with Weisinger retiring, Carmine had the responsibility of making a more radical change.
Julie Schwartz was promoted to be the primary Superman editor, although the titles were scattered among several of the DC staff. Julie had played a critical role in the revitalization of super heroes as a genre in the ‘60s, and put together a team that would be very critically acclaimed in fandom: Denny O’Neil, Curt Swan and Murphy Anderson. Shifts in the mythology found Clark working in television as a more modern aspirational occupation than newspaper reporting, and his alter ego relieved of his Kryptonite weakness, which Julie viewed as a story crutch.
Unfortunately, the applause from fandom didn’t translate into sales reversing the decline. Superman was still a star property, but could no longer carry a handful of titles to the top of the charts.
The next bet Carmine made in the replace Superman’s slipping sales sweepstakes was to get a license for Captain Marvel, the only super hero who significantly outsold Superman at points in the Golden Age. His publisher, Fawcett, had given up the comics business in the mid-50s when the whole field was shrinking, and had settled its long litigation with DC by agreeing not to publish the character any more. Fawcett had concentrated on its magazine business, and in the years since been sold to CBS, and was rebranded as the CBS Magazine Group. Since the Big Red Cheese couldn’t be published without DC’s consent (and it’s not clear that there would have been any other bidders, as the super hero category shrunk after the Batman craze faded), it wasn’t a tough deal to negotiate. DC Business Manager Bernie Kashdan did a license with the publishing terms largely on their traditional basis, and off they went. But uniquely, DC would also control all the licensing and media rights, sharing proceeds with CBS.
With the benefit of 20-20 hindsight and unprovable insight, I’d argue the return of Captain Marvel suffered from three challenges: first, the name of the hero himself was unavailable as the trademark had lapsed and Marvel had wisely jumped in with their own Captain Marvel; second, editor Julie Schwartz arranged a really bad marriage for the creative team, putting Denny O’Neil (who favored serious melodrama) together with C.C. Beck, the hero’s original artist (and a determined proponent of the tongue-in-cheek humor that was the series’ trademark); and most seriously, misjudging that the audience had simply moved on from the innocence that appreciated the charm of the original, with its talking tiger and menacing worm mastermind.
Fan speculation fueled sales of the first issue (I recall buying a stack off the newsstand to ship over to Nick Landau, the British fan entrepreneur who would co-found Forbidden Planet and Titan Distributors), but wasn’t enough to sustain the series. Beck was more and more frustrated, and a succession of talented creatives never found a great balance or tone. Notwithstanding that, it would turn out to be an excellent arrangement for DC, with two television series launched and some attendant merchandising.
Flash forward to the next decade. DC still hadn’t found a reliable creative direction for Shazam, but there were still lots of talented folks who wanted to try. One barrier to establishing him successfully in comics seemed to be that original license. It’s provisions hadn’t really imagined nesting him deeply in the DC universe of characters: it provided that the royalty rate would be pro-rated for a team-up like a BRAVE & BOLD appearance or the eventual SUPERMAN VS. SHAZAM tabloid, but had a ‘floor’ on the royalty rate that made it impractical to have him as a member of a group like the Justice League, or appearing in some massive mash-up (my memory isn’t clear on whether we were already thinking of CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS yet).
By now I was managing the business side of DC, so after discussions with Jenette Kahn and Dick Giordano, off I went to solve this. The most practical solution was to simply buy out CBS’ interest in the property: they weren’t going to ever go back into the comics business (in fact, they’d sell off their magazine division not long after), and while it was nice to get a modest royalty check every year, it seemed a do-able deal. I negotiated with an only slightly older accountant for their magazine division, David Pecker. David would go on to an illustrious career in magazine publishing, ending up running American Media, the publishers of NATIONAL INQUIRER, where his exploits would come to a controversial end. He would also be a generous donor to Pace University, especially to its publishing program, where I’d coincidentally serve as the “David Pecker Distinguished Visiting Professor” for a year in the 21st century. We worked out a buyout, and not only of Captain Marvel but of all of the remaining Fawcett comics assets, including stacks of comics that would find their way to the DC library.
The renewed efforts to make Shazam an integral part of the comics’ universe met with mixed results over the following decades, but with one film having scored a box office over $365 million, a second in production, and BLACK ADAM opening next weekend to great anticipation, I guess that deal worked out. I don’t have access to the information (or, frankly, the analytic skill) to figure out the return on investment, but I think it’d beat any reasonable financial test.