Ghosts of Comics Past: 1963

By | July 17th, 2023
Posted in Columns | % Comments

Multiversity’s history column returns with another installment of its year-by-year review of the comic industry. Today’s article zeroes in on 1963. If you would like some extra context, you can get caught up quickly by reviewing our coverage of 1960, 1961, and 1962.

1963 was a rather quiet year for the comic industry as a whole. There were no senate hearings. No new breakout publishers or genres. No innovative developments in production or distribution. It was really just… business as usual.

Artist Roy Lichtenstein brought some degree of public attention to comics through his pop art paintings. His 1963 work Drowning Girl was an enlarged and slightly modified panel from issue 83 of DC’s “Secret Hearts,” which had been published a few months earlier (cover date Nov 1962). Neither DC nor the original artist, Tony Abruzzo, received credit or compensation for the use of the work. Critics have remained divided ever since on whether this series of paintings were plagerism or art.

Although comics had finally bowed to inflationary pressure and raised prices from a dime to 12 cents the prior year, the result was an insufficient increase in profit for many newsstand retailers. Simply discontinuing the product line was impractical for other considerations, however. For example, the Mafia used magazine distribution to transport contraband and launder money. Thus, in some localities a common practice was for an outlet to put a 15 cent sticker over the official MSRP. There was one positive side effect of the criminal element: they sometimes ordered large quantities of the higher-quality fanzines to boost their offerings, supporting the nascent fandom market.

DC started the year with a gamble on sports comics. Editor Julie Schwartz was charged with making it pay off, but he didn’t have faith in straight competition capturing the reader’s attention. He gave every story a twist, making them “Strange Sports Stories.” Artist Carmine Infantino wanted to enhance the action in the stories and tried a new technique: moving the caption boxes from the top of the panel and putting them closer to the action they described. He also put silhouettes in the captions to carry the image further in the reader’s mind. DC went all in on the bet, committing five consecutive issues of “The Brave and the Bold” to the new title, and lost. The idea was a dud.

Superman’s co-creator, Jerry Siegel, had been waiting for 1963 to launch his challenge to DC’s ownership of the character. Copyrights had to be renewed every 28 years, and Superman’s was coming due in 1966. Siegel would lose the case in court two years later, then appealed and lost again. He eventually took the dispute public in 1975 and gave DC’s image a black eye.

DC’s high points in 1963 were unexpected. Their “Metal Men” launch in April turned out to be their best-selling title of the year by sell-through percentage. Fans were delighted when “Flash Annual” #1 included an index of Flash’s appearances that listed the story titles and provided creator credits. Over the summer, the Justice League met the Justice Society for their first annual ‘Crisis’ crossover. The company’s total circulation continued to grow, but growth was slowing – and stopping at an unhealthy 40% sell-through. Sales would decline for the remainder of the decade.

Meanwhile, Marvel continued to ascend. The “Wall Street Journal” ran an article on their increasing sales. Covers began carrying the label “Marvel Comics Group” across the top. Their best selling book, “Amazing Spider-Man,” was moving 70-80% of its print run every month. Artist Steve Ditko introduced the corner box featuring images of the star characters to help readers easily identify the book when newsstands stacked them to display only the left third of the covers. Their fan club, the Merry Marvel Marching Society, had chapters on several college campuses, including Princeton, Oxford, and Cambridge.

//TAGS | Ghosts of Comics' Past

Drew Bradley

Drew Bradley is a long time comic reader whose past contributions to Multiversity include annotations for "MIND MGMT", the Small Press Spotlight, Lettering Week, and Variant Coverage. He currently writes about the history of comic comic industry. Feel free to email him about these things, or any other comic related topic.


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