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I'm the co-host of THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO with Dana & Carl (Sunday nights, 9 to Midnight Eastern, www.westcottradio.org).  As a freelance writer, I contributed to Goldmine magazine from 1986-2006, wrote liner notes for Rhino Records' compilation CD Poptopia!  Power Pop Classics Of The '90s, and for releases by The Flashcubes, The Finkers, Screen Test, 1.4.5., and Jack "Penetrator" Lipton.  I contributed to the books Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth, Shake Some Action, Lost In The Grooves, and MusicHound Rock, and to DISCoveries, Amazing Heroes, The Comics Buyer's Guide, Yeah Yeah Yeah, Comics Collector, The Buffalo News, and The Syracuse New Times.  I also wrote the liner notes for the four THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO compilation CDs, because, well, who could stop me?  My standing offer to write liner notes for a Bay City Rollers compilation has remained criminally ignored.  Still intend to write and sell a Batman story someday.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

COMIC BOOK RETROVIEW: DC 100-Page Super Spectaculars, Part Four

Continuing a look back at DC Comics' 100-Page Super Spectaculars in the 1970sBegin with Part 1, move on to Part 2, then Part 3, then return to the spinner rack here:

There was no direct market for comics in the early '70s. Comic books were a marginal, potentially moribund medium, inefficiently distributed to indifferent retail outlets--newsstands, drug stores, grocery stores, the occasional soda fountain (the latter itself a dying breed)--and displayed haphazardly (if at all) by proprietors who could make more money on virtually any other printed product. Shelf space was limited. Should one display a twenty-cent issue of Mr. Miracle for its limited market, a fifty-cent issue of Life for its larger market, or a one-dollar issue of Playboy or Penthouse, with naked girls? It's not even a rhetorical question. Comics were the lowest of priorities. They weren't dead quite yet, but their situation was serious, and perilous. It would deteriorate to critical condition by decade's end.

Carmine Infantino was running National Periodical Publications, a company which most us usually just referred to as DC Comics. In a shrinking industry, Infantino saw DC's arch rival Marvel Comics surpass his company in sales, and he was trying everything he could think of to regain DC's lost status as comics kingpin. He tried higher page counts at a higher price (52 pages for twenty-five cents), giving consumers more product for their money and shopkeepers more money for their efforts, but was undercut when Marvel returned to a standard format of fewer pages for less money (something like 32 pages for only twenty cents). He looked into more licensed product, including a deal to publish Tarzan and other Edgar Rice Burroughs creations. He expanded DC's horror and mystery line, and enjoyed some success in that realm. He lured superstar writer/artist Jack Kirby away from Marvel. He sought media awareness and publicity for DC's forays into somewhat more serious, relevant subject matters--youth rebellion, racial unrest, political corruption, antiwar protest, civil disobedience, women's rights, Native American rights, pollution, drug abuse--particularly in the pages of Green Lantern (co-starring Green Arrow, written by Denny O'Neil and exquisitely rendered by Neal Adams and Dick Giordano). And he exploited DC's vast archive of previously-published material, often flooding the market with reprints in a desperate attempt to claim market share and that damned elusive spot on the retail racks and shelves.

DC's 100-Page Super Spectaculars were born from these efforts. The contents of these books were all reprint, so DC saved money on those pesky writers and artists whose work the company had already bought and paid for years before. E. Nelson Bridwell was on staff, and he assembled the reprints. DC just needed to pay either Neal Adams or Nick Cardy (or Joe Kubert, if it was a war book, or Curt Swan and Murphy Anderson on the first Superman Super Spec) for a stunning new wraparound cover--money well-spent!--and voila! A 100-Page Super Spectacular! Priced at fifty cents for 100 pages, with no outside advertising, the package was indeed a value for fans and shopkeepers alike. 

Its success, ultimately, was mixed.

My twelve-year-old self was oblivious to most of this in 1972. I had been a fan of both DC and Marvel, but DC was clearly my favorite line, and my sense of allegiance was increasing. DC was doing so much great stuff in the early '70s: Batman, Green Lantern, Tarzan, Kirby's New Gods and related titles, Justice League of America, The Brave And The Bold, and Superman, among others, were all solid books at the time. And I loved the reprints even more, so 100-Page Super Spectacular was indisputably my favorite comic book.

I bought my comics wherever and whenever I could: coverless, gray-market contraband from Van Patten's Grocery Store, McMahon's Grocery Store, Mickey's Bait Shop, and World Of Books, all in North Syracuse; new comics from Sweethearts Corner, Henry and Hines Pharmacy, Carl's DrugsFay's Drugs, CVS Drugs, Hosler Drugs, and others I've forgotten, plus on the road at bus stations from Buffalo to Springfield, Missouri, and at Ramey's Grocery Store in Aurora, MO. I was intrepid, and insatiable. And one day in early '72, I was at Henry And Hines and I spied what simply had to be the greatest comic book ever published:


At the time, whatever money I'd accumulated from mowing lawns and/or weekly allowance was gone, pffft, a mere memory of cash long since spent. I was broke, busted, bereft of funds, beat 'n' torn, Bowery-bound, a bum. I begged my parents for the pair of quarters required to purchase this peerless, pristine gem. They may have grumbled--another comic book, Carl?!--but they must have sensed the urgency of my plea. I think I had to wait for a subsequent visit back to Henry and Hines, praying the book would still be there. It was. And it was mine. 

This thirteenth 100-Page Super Spectacular, officially listed as Superman # 252, was filled almost exclusively with material from the Golden Age of Comics, the 1940s, with the 1961 story "Superman's Greatest Feats!" the only exception. And it was a blockbuster tour de force, opening with a two-part Superman story from 1942, pitting the Man of Tomorrow against a super-powered Lex Luthor. After that, I was treated to a 1940 story starring one of my Justice Society fave raves, Doctor Fate, and the gorgeous artwork of Sheldon Moldoff (copying Alex Raymond) in the Golden Age Hawkman story that introduced Hawkgirl.


Continuing and expanding upon the trend of previous Super Specs, this issue reintroduced not one, but two characters DC had purchased from the defunct Quality Comics line, The Black Condor and The Ray, both lusciously drawn by artist Lou Fine. The two Quality heroes bookended another pair of JSA members, The Spectre and Starman, with the above-mentioned Silver Age Superman tale bringing this fantastic treat to an anticlimactic end. But no matter! The next issue blurb at the end of that story promised another Batman Super Spec coming soon, with more Quality heroes (Blackhawk and Doll Man), plus Wonder Woman, Wildcat, and The Atom. Yep, this issue's theme of "The World's Greatest Flying Heroes!" would be followed by a collection of non-flying heroes, and their methods of transportation. That description might not seem all that enticing here in print, but I knew it was gonna be another blockbuster. I couldn't wait for the next Super Spec.

The Batman Super Spec would have presumably been cover-dated August 1972, with an on-sale date of May 5th. But it didn't appear on that date; I don't remember where or how I found out, but DC unexpectedly cancelled the 100-Page Super Spectaculars with this Superman issue. Infantino was still scrambling for ideas, trying to find something that would work. Marvel was killing DC in sales. We need lower-priced books to compete! The rest of the DC line shrunk back down to Marvel's twenty-cent size, and the 100-pagers vanished entirely.

Infantino still pushed reprints. A new regular-sized titled called Wanted: The World's Most Dangerous Villains! became my new de facto favorite, reprinting old stories of superheroes versus dastardly nogoodniks. It wasn't quite the same as the Super Specs, but it was at least something.

But even as I got my Golden Age fix in the pages of Wanted, and right around the same time that DC introduced another reprint book called Secret Origins, either God or Carmine Infantino heard my silent prayer in North Syracuse. In the final month of 1972, the 100-Page Super Spectaculars returned! And that's where we'll pick up our story when Comic Book Retroview continues.

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