The DC Vault
Review by KC Carlson
In his Forward, DC President and Publisher Paul Levitz states that there really isn’t a “DC Vault”. I, politely, beg to differ. While there may be no DC Vault like Scrooge McDuck’s legendary vault, or the original Fortress of Solitude with its vault-like door and giant key, there is a real DC Vault — and I worked there for about 8 years. It’s the DC office itself, currently in midtown Manhattan, filled with creative, intelligent, and good people and with its history largely on display in every hallway, every office, and even every elevator bank.
The DC Vault is the story of those offices, the people who worked in them, and the wondrous work they produced. As with any corporate history book, the main emphasis, though, is on the company itself.
Several of the artifacts reproduced in The DC Vault — a “museum-in-a-book” similar to the earlier Marvel version — are actually up on the walls in the offices. The evolution of the DC logo seen on the Afterword page was right around the corner from the “Starman Hallway,” a short corridor spotlighting all of the various DC characters that were named Starman over the years (more than you’d think!). And the 6th floor elevator foyer was the home of a giant-size reproduction of the poster that was included in Graphitti Design’s deluxe version of the History of the DC Universe — a mind-blowing group shot of over 50 DC characters as drawn (and signed) by over 50 legendary artists. Or at least it was there when I was.
(Personally, I always managed to find a couple of extra minutes after leaving Production to wander by and stand slack-jawed at the display case of what seemed like hundreds of Mad Magazine tie-in products, just outside the office of Mad editors Nick Meglin and John Ficarra. It was like the mecca of stupidity and made me proud to be in the same building with it. The Mad offices also had a fully decorated Christmas tree in their lobby for 11 months out of the year — every month except December.)
Other artifacts were items I used every day, like DC’s unique letterhead and memo pads and the DC color chart, although to the outside world these were rare treasures, especially the color chart which was no longer needed after the sweeping changes made in production techniques thanks to computers beginning in the 90s. I still have a couple of my personal memo pads.
Other items are just plain cool: a working Junior Justice Society of America Decoder and a reprinted membership certificate from the early 40s, ashcans (“dummy” comics used to retain copyright protection for titles), rare promotional comics and postcards, cover sketches, reproductions of buttons (as stickers here), and one of DC’s legendary holiday cards. Of special note are some of the surviving memos and notes from the original Crisis on Infinite Earths project, one of which is Dick Giordano’s request to Jenette Kahn to kill Supergirl. It looks like one of those “Do you like me? Check Yes or No” notes that you’d send to your crush in junior high school. Another note, in editor Bob Greenberger’s handwriting, lists DC’s various pre-superheroic age characters, DC’s various dimensions, and — confusedly — what appears to be instructions for a Star Trek cover. (BG edited the Star Trek books for DC.)
But my favorite artifact here is the “Frequently Asked Questions” letter which was apparently sent out to everybody who asked a question of the Superman editors in the late 60 and early 70s. Back in those days, it seems that everybody who wrote a letter to DC got a “thank you” postcard, and several different sample postcards from various editors are reprinted in the book. The Superman FAQ is remarkably detailed (I’m guessing it was written by E. Nelson Bridwell, DC’s walking encyclopedia at-the-time), ranging from questions about the various forms of Kryptonite and what they do, what the letters DC mean in DC Comics (Detective Comics), the current roll call of the Legion of Super-Heroes, to “No, sorry, we do not stock back issues.” But at the bottom of page one (it’s a long letter!), this jumped out at me:
“Quite frequently we receive letters from readers who describe themselves as super-heroes desiring to join the Legion of Super-Heroes. There are far too many of these for us to use them all, but we will print the best in The Legion Outpost department in ADVENTURE COMICS…”
Wow! I never got a letter from somebody telling me about their superpower when I was editing the Legion! What were Legion fans smokin’ back in the 60s?
The text, by former staffer, writer, editor, and DC Junior Woodchuck Martin (Marty) Pasko is informative and breezy. He’s got almost 80 years of DC history to cover and not a lot of space — because there are a lot of excellent graphics — so the narrative moves pretty rapidly. Pasko shines in his recounting of DC’s earliest days with new anecdotes about many of the eccentric characters from the era, especially in DC’s dealings with William Marston (“Charles Moulton”), the creator of Wonder Woman, one of the more, ahhh, unique talents employed by DC. In his case, the text is accompanied with an excellent photo of Marston and his assistants subjecting an innocent moviegoer to Marston’s real world invention: the “lie-detector”. Almost certainly, this version of DC’s internal history is much more candid than other previous accounts, such as the Les Daniels history DC Comics: Sixty Years of the World’s Favorite Comic Book Heroes from 1995.
Superman creator Jerry Siegel’s name pops up frequently in the early history, as it should, since he was a frequent and prolific writer in those days. What I find unfortunate is that, just as frequently, the text mentions the lawsuits and other legal problems surrounding Siegel, which are now, sadly, a major part of his history with the company. Because of the ongoing situation, it’s hard to determine if the brief passage on the origins of Superboy is indeed actual fact or rather DC’s attempt at putting their version of the truth forward in a public setting. We may never know for sure, although the condescending way Siegel is frequently referred to as misremembering events suggests a certain slant.
Unlike that long-running dispute, other aspects of the company history will be new to readers. One of the more “vaulty” treats is the brief glance into both former Editorial Director/Executive Vice President Irwin Donenfeld’s sales charts and editor Julie Schwartz’s creator logbooks — both legendary documents in DC’s internal history. In Julie’s case, these records are invaluable in determining “who did what” on much of DC’s early stories, virtually all of which ran without credits until the late 60s. These logbooks have been one of the major sources of creator credits used for the DC Archives and other DC collections, as well as being frequently cited at the Grand Comics Database.
I was also happy that there was some mention of DC’s public service strips, largely conceived by editor Jack Schiff. I know that today many of these strips are considered “corny” and looked upon with scorn by a lot of fans — and, yes, I agree that a lot of the 60s ones toward the end of their run are really off-the-wall — but as an only child whose parents were too wrapped up in their own problems for proper parenting, I found these strips very inspiring and valuable in helping me to find my way growing up. Somehow, I don’t think good citizenship is very high on the curriculum in schools these days. Back in the day, I was grateful that my comic books would occasionally nudge me in the right direction — as well as teaching me some cool fake-science!
The transition of publishers from Carmine Infantino to Jenette Kahn in the mid-70s is another subject covered with good detail in the narrative, but after that, the written history takes a slight back seat to increased graphics in the last third of the book. There’s a certain commercial sense that comes into play here as today’s readers are probably more likely to respond to seldom-seen pencil work by Frank Miller, Brian Bolland, and Bruce Timm, unreleased Watchman action figure prototypes, lots of rare Sandman-related art, and early and rare Alex Ross art. At this point, just when DC history gets complicated, the narrative has very little space to discuss all of DC’s various imprints (Vertigo, Wildstorm, Milestone, CMX, Zuda, and others) much less the more frequent movie and animation projects, various DC Direct projects, as well as the ups and downs and ever-changing tastes of life in the Direct Market. The last major core DCU events mentioned are the Death of Superman and Knightfall storylines, both of which are now 15 years old.
Or maybe they’re just saving all that for The DC Vault – The Annex! There’s certainly plenty more DC detail to discuss. And they’ve just scratched the surface of the depth of great DC ephemera that could be used in future volumes.
This book was a tough one for me to look at objectively, especially as I’ve been living and breathing and collecting DC stuff for most of my life. It was certainly difficult to judge how special some of the artifacts would be for the average person, considering how many of them I’ve already had access to. And I can’t help think of some opportunities missed. No mention of the wonderful Amazing World of DC Comics zine from the 70s and its own vault of little-seen material? And what of the interesting, and often unique, promotional material that has appeared since the advent of the Direct Market? Unfortunately, DC hasn’t had much luck with fan clubs since the silver age, but some interesting artifacts exist from their occasional attempts. And perhaps these don’t survive, but wouldn’t it be awesome to hear the voice of Julie Schwartz or Joe Orlando from the old DC Hotline coming from a sound chip or even a CD?
Personally, for me, the biggest vault bombshell was dropped by Paul Levitz in his introduction. I didn’t get to spend a lot of time in Paul’s office during my years at DC, and when I did, I was usually was being
yelled at informed about an unfortunate problem (usually my fault). Paul’s office, at any given time, is a museum in itself. But to find out that the ashcan of Action Comics #1 was literally several feet away from where I was sitting — albeit unbeknownst to me and safely hidden away in a nearby closet — made me want to run up to DC, do something really stupid, and get summoned up to the principal’s office one last time, just to wonder exactly where it was.
And Paul says the DC Vault doesn’t exist. Hogwash! He’s the Head Curator!
(The publisher provided a review copy.)