Adventure Comics: A Historical Overview

Written: 14 October, 1997

Until its cancellation in 1983, Adventure Comics was the oldest, longest-running DC series. The series began as a comic titled New Comics way back at the very pre-dawn of comicbook history in Dec. 1935. With the 12th issue (Jan. 1937), the title of the comic had changed to New Adventure Comics. (This was two months before the still-running Detective Comics debuted.) "New" was dropped from the title with the 32nd issue (Nov. 1938). The series ran continuously from then until the 490th issue (Feb. 1982) -- an impressive 45 year run -- until DC put the book on hiatus. It returned briefly six months later as a small digest-comic reprinting older stories (#491-503) until it was cancelled with the Sept. 1983 issue.

I think that the reason it was finally cancelled was because it had seemed to be unable to find an identity that could carry it through the 1970s and, subsequently, the 1980s. But it had done quite well in previous decades and Superboy played a large part in making the book successful.

The first truly successful Adventure Comics character was The Sandman who debuted in Adventure #40 (July 1939). In #69, he became more of a costumed superhero instead of a Shadow-type crimefighter. In #72, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (creators of Captain America) chronicled the Sandman's adventures. Simon & Kirby left Sandman with #91 (although the two would later produce an updated version of the character in the 1970s). The Sandman was eventually dropped from Adventure with #102 in early 1946. The current Sandman Mystery Theatre comic published by DC's Vertigo line is an updated version of the early Adventure Comics' Sandman.

The Hourman, who debuted in #48 was the second successful Adventure character, although his run ended sooner, with #83. Both Sandman and Hourman became founding members of the JSA in All-Star Comics #3.

Starman was the third Adventure character whose name is still remembered by comics fans. He debuted in #61, ending his run in #102 (the same issue Sandman ended his run). I believe that Starman replaced Hourman in the JSA. DC would introduce updated versions of Starman in the 1980s and 1990s, including the Starman currently published by DC.

The Shining Knight held on longer in Adventure than any of the above heroes. He was introduced in #66, and became a member of the Seven Soldiers of Victory in "Leading Comics" (along with soon-to-be Adventure regulars Green Arrow & Speedy). The Shining Knight really shined, however, in the early 1950s when the young Frank Frazetta drew him in Adventure. Frazetta would become a well-loved illustrator of fantasy paperback covers in the 1960s and 1970s. His Shining Knight stories from Adventure Comics were among the first comics that DC reprinted on high quality paper for the direct-sale market in the early 1980s. The Shining Knight ended his run in Adventure with #166.

The issue that changed Adventure, and set the format that would prove successful throughout the 1950s, debuted in #103 (April, 1946). That marked the introduction of Superboy, Aquaman, Green Arrow & Speedy, and Johnny Quick to the Adventure line-up. These four strips had been appearing in another DC comic titled More Fun Comics. But More Fun was changing its format, and these four strips needed a home, and found it in Adventure Comics. (Johnny Quick was the first to be dropped, after a surprisingly long run, when a page decrease in 1954 forced him out with Adventure #207.)

Most of the four strips had been around for awhile, except for one important exception. Aquaman and Green Arrow & Speedy had debuted in More Fun #73 and Johnny Quick debuted three issues later. So they had been around for at least three years before moving over to Adventure Comics. But not Superboy. He had only debuted around seven months before, in More Fun #101, and that debut issue didn't even have him on the cover. DC didn't yet know that it had a hit on its hands. With a fresh new take on Superman (called Superboy) at the helm of the revamped Adventure Comics, the title would have the popularity and momentum needed to survive the dark days ahead. At this point in time, Golden-Age titles that were similar to Adventure were dying fast. More Fun's format change failed and soon bit the dust. Flash and Green Lantern lost their solo titles. Former superhero comics like All-American Comics and Star-Spangled Comics only survived by becoming war comics instead. All-Star Comics became a western. Eventually, in the early 1950s, even Sensation Comics (which was to Wonder Woman what Action Comics was to Superman) and Whiz Comics were killed outright. One might predict that the same fate would befall Adventure Comics. But the format change instituted in 1946 had prepared the title well for the upcoming decade. While Action Comics and Detective Comics had strong leads but erratic back-up features, Adventure Comics held on to the strong three offerings of Superboy, Aquaman, and Green Arrow from 1946 until 1960. A remarkable achievement in itself!

So, Adventure Comics survived the 1950s. But a new decade was coming: the 1960s. Again the series was forced to reinvent itself to meet the challenges of that new decade. It did just that, becoming one of the prime examples of the Silver-Age era.

The Superboy story in Adventure #247 (April 1958) had introduced a superhero club from the 30th Century called The Legion of Super-Heroes. Superboy joined the group, and the Legion made occasional appearances in Superman-family titles, testing reader reaction.

From #300 (Sept. 1962) to #380 (May, 1969), Adventure Comics became the home of the Legion of Super-Heroes. Superboy's inclusion in the group ensured that the transition would be a smooth one, alienating few readers. These two examples of format changes -- the one in #103 that set the direction for the Fifties and the one in #300 that set the direction for the Sixties -- are examples of a title meeting the challenges of a new era with intelligence, imagination, and a sense of direction, not short-term gimmicks.

The concept of the Legion was among the best DC had offered during the period of 1955-1969 (roughly, the Silver-Age). But times were changing, a new decade was upon us. The Legion may have perhaps been viewed as a somewhat outdated idea by 1969. DC had already radically changed Batman from his 1960s incarnation to a more realistic, darker character. Even the sci-fi antics of the Green Lantern would be brought down to earth courtesy of his anti-hero partner, Green Arrow. Could it have been that the Legion were being viewed as having run their course?

Whatever the reason, it was decided that Supergirl and the Legion would switch places. Supergirl had occupied the back-up slot in Action Comics through the 1960s; now it would be the Legion's turn to play back-up, and Supergirl would get to take over Adventure.

Before getting to Supergirl's Adventure Comics, it may be useful to chart the Legion's health following their expulsion from Adventure, to show how the Legion might have succeeded where Supergirl eventually failed. The Legion sat in the back-up slot of Action Comics from mid-1969 through 1970. What artist handled the Legion back-up strip? None other than Win Mortimer! Mortimer and inker Jack Abel (one of my least favorite inkers) had taken over the Legion art chores from Curt Swan during the Legion's last days in Adventure, and continued chronicling their tales in the Action back-up. No wonder the Legion had been pushed into obscurity! As an example of how a good artist can save a strip, we have only to look at the Legion once it is finally pushed out of Action and into the back-up slot of Superboy's own solo comic. Dave Cockrum begins penciling the Legion back-up in 1972, modernizing some of the members' costumes. Within a year and a half, on Cockrum's clock, the Legion have taken over the lead spot in Superboy's own comic. In mid-1974, Cockrum leaves the Legion to go over to Marvel to revitalize one of their failed strips: the X-Men! Fan interest in the book actually increases when Cockrum leaves because his successor is none other than Mike Grell. Jim Shooter, who had written many memorable Legion scripts in the 1960s, soon returns to the strip. The momentum created by all this keeps the Legion going successfully from then until now (helped along by Giffen's new direction for the 1980s and the Zero Hour reboot directed at 1990s readers).

Okay, we know now that if the Legion had only stuck it out for a year or two longer in Adventure that Adventure Comics might still be published today. Instead, DC screwed Adventure over. Supergirl started off well, and was in fact a good choice to headline Adventure, but she was finally dropped from the book after 44 issues, an uneven run heavily supported by back-ups, both new and reprinted. She gets her own solo comic instead, but it is cancelled after ten issues. For some reason, Supergirl was not the feature that would lead Adventure through the 1970s.

A new, experimental format is tried with #425. The name of the comic is "Adventure Comics," so why not let it be an anthology of short adventure stories, recalling the Golden-Age, not necessarily superheroes? Realistic characters (all the rage, rememeber) like The Vigilante and Captain Fear are presented, but without a sure-fire hit in the lead spot, the format is abruptly scrapped.

Okay, it wasn't only realistic characters who were the new trend, but darker characters. So, in 1974, The Spectre is brought in as the lead feature with #431. From what I've read, the strip was a bit too dark. The Spectre is dumped after ten issues.

Perhaps with an eye on the title's past, the next two that are tried had enjoyed success in Adventure in the past. Aquaman was given the back-up slot in #435. He inherits the lead spot by default in #441 (Nov-Dec. 1975). The comics business was a mess at the time. Many professionals during this period felt that the end of comics was near, that they too will fall as the old pulps did. Long-term direction goes out the window. Lead features are offered to see if they sink or swim. If they swim -- instead of sticking with Adventure -- they get their own solo title, and Adventure's format changes yet again. Aquaman, naturally, swims, and swims away after #452 to his own solo title. (As with Supergirl, Aquaman's subsequent solo title fails, dying after seven issues.)

Who takes over Adventure with #453? None other than Superboy. He'd had so much success in the title before, and the Legion took over his own book, so it seems like a natural. And the editor uses the back-up slot to "keep Aqua-fans hooked on Adventure" by making Aqualad the back-up. But, again, instability strikes. Superboy is booted over into Superman Family after #459 to make way for the new revamped Dollar Comics version of Adventure.

The Dollar Comics version of World's Finest had been a success, so why not Adventure? The difference is that WF had a winning format to begin with: a Superman-Batman team-up every month, and the new WF format gave readers a strong back-up by having Green Arrow solo stories every month. Adventure's Dollar Comics had no such core concept, sometimes having material originally intended for cancelled publications as its longest stories. Aquaman was back for the third time. One might think they might stick with Aquaman as the lead feature when the comic is returned to normal page-length after seven issues. Eventually, yes, but they try another experiment first.

The heavily-promoted #467 (Jan. 1980) appeared to be the new direction for the new decade. Half of the book was an updated version of Plastic Man (whose Saturday morning cartoon debuted on ABC in Sept. 1979, around when this comic was released) and the other half featured a Steve Ditko-drawn star-faring version of Starman (possibly an attempt to cash in on the popularity of sci-fi in the wake of Star Wars). But what should have been an attempt to assess the mood of the times and appeal to it appeared to be an attempt to capitalize on the craze of the moment for a quick fix to Adventure's problems. The book was strengthened in Sept. 1980 (#475) by Aquaman's takeover of the lead feature. Once again, as in the 1950s, Adventure had three strips. As it had always been, Adventure was a great book to read. But somehow it was still lacking a certain something in the consistency department -- probably a really strong lead feature to give it an identity as it had had in previous decades.

The version of Adventure introduced in 1980 was abandoned entirely by the end of that year (#478). In 1981, the book was taken over by an updated version of a 1960s concept, Dial "H" For Hero. Art was by Carmine Infantino, so it often looked like an old DC Silver-Age comic. That ran until #490 (Feb. 1982) when Dial "H" for Hero moved over into the back-up slot of The New Adventures of Superboy. #490 was the last full-sized issue of Adventure Comics. The end of an era.

The series returned briefly as a digest anthology later that year, beginning a series that would reprint every Legion appearance in consecutive order, as well as reprints of noteworthy comics of the past (including the occasional Golden-Age story). But the small size was hardly appealing to collectors, who were increasingly becoming the target audience for comics, rather than the casual reader. Adventure died in the end, unable to anticipate the tastes of the new decade as it had done so in the past. And so, 1983 was the year that a series which had run for over 500 issues, which had been published every year since 1935, which had introduced the concepts of the Legion, Krypto, and the Phantom Zone, which had given talents from Walt Kelly to Jim Shooter their professional debuts, came to a quiet and little-noticed end.