Monday, June 22, 2009

Carmine Infantino - Architect of the DC Universe

This was only a start for him.

(New name, new post!)

Comics great Carmine Infantino seems mostly known today for his role in creating the Silver Age Flash and his long association with Barry Allen. This is, on its own, a remarkable achievement – after all, he designed the iconic Silver Age Flash costume that has been continuously used (with very little modification) since 1956. Yet I would argue that Infantino’s greatest achievement in comics was his role as Editorial Director, and later Publisher, of DC Comics (1967-1975), a wildly creative period that completely revitalized the company and established cornerstone concepts and new characters that helped launch DC to great commercial – but also critical – success.

Infantino directly had a hand in nearly every creative success during his tenure as Editorial Director because he hired many of the creators – greats like Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Denny O’Neil, Neal Adams, Dick Giordano, Jim Aparo, and Mike Grell – who produced such successes. And while many of the concepts did not have wildfire success right away, almost all of them – particularly Kirby’s Fourth World and Swamp Thing – went on to massive success in subsequent decades. Furthermore, many concepts that did not light the sales charts on fire, like Adam’s Deadman and the Goodwin/Simonson Manhunter, are even today praised from a critical standpoint as masterpieces of the art form. Infantino injected DC Comics with a new maturity in both storytelling and artwork that did away with much of the “silly” concepts of the post-Golden Age that caused so many to dismiss comics as an art form. Had Infantino not seized on the new opportunities available to the industry, DC Comics might have remained the comics for your “little brother” compared to those offered by cross-town rival Marvel (of course, not that there's anything wrong with comics for your little brother).

Infantino also hired the two men most associated with Marvel Comics who were not named “Stan Lee” – Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, the artists who had the most influence on designing the “house style” of Marvel Comics. With Infantino as Editorial Director, Kirby and Ditko created some of the most offbeat characters that DC Comics had. Kirby’s New Gods, Demon, Kamandi, and OMAC and Ditko’s Creeper and Hawk and Dove are all still widely used in DC books today, and the DC Universe would be a poorer place without these contributions. Other notable new characters introduced include Deadman (Strange Adventures #205), Bat Lash (Showcase #76), Swamp Thing (House of Mystery #92), Jonah Hex (All-Star Western #10), and Warlord (First Issue Special #8).

Along with the new characters created by Kirby, Ditko, and others, nearly all of DC’s flagship characters received revamps. Though some of these had a questionable success rate – notably the “I Ching” Wonder Woman era that was reversed in just under four years, the even shorter-lived “non costume” Teen Titans era, and the “Kryptonite No More!” Superman – others, like the Batman revamp that lead to the O’Neil/Adams Batman stories and the “New Look” Green Arrow were massive improvements for both the characters and the stories. In addition, Green Lantern was able to latch onto the critical success of Green Arrow with the “social relevance” issues (though sales were not there), DC began publishing Shazam! featuring the original Captain Marvel, and Len Wein began a well-regarded run on Justice League of America (issues #100-114). Even Golden Age characters, like the Spectre, Manhunter, and the Sandman, received new versions by top creators (Fleischer/Aparo, Goodwin/Simonson, and Simon/Kirby, respectfully). Heck, even the Phantom Stranger, who was previously a character from a long-forgotten canceled 1950s book was revamped in the pages of Showcase! Yet curiously enough, the character most associated with Infantino – the Flash – received no such revamp. I’d imagine even a prolific editor like Infantino couldn’t get to every character, and since he had a big hand in Barry Allen's creation perhaps Infantino liked the Scarlet Speedster the way he was.

In January 1976, Jeanne Kahn was made Publisher, and after a few years away from DC Infantino returned to drawing The Flash in the early 1980s. As for Kahn, you might say she did quite well also, but creators under her tenure certainly were able to capitalize on what Infantino oversaw before.

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