The company was originally three companies, National Allied Publications, Detective Comics and All-American Publications. The first two companies merged in the 1930s to become National Comics (later National Periodical Publications) and the third shared offices until it was bought by the merged company in 1945. At this time "DC," an acronym for Detective Comics was simply an informal logo regularly used on the cover.
This company was the first to publish superheroes beginning with Action Comics in 1938, and was the foremost exploiter of them in the Golden Age of Comic Books. When the genre faded in the late 1940s, the company moved more into other genres like science fiction, westerns, humour and romance. They largely avoided the crime and horror trends of the time, and thus avoided taking the brunt of the backlash against the medium in the 1950s.
With the editorship of Julius Schwartz, the company was responsible for kickstarting the Silver Age of comic books, with the revival of The Flash in a modernized form. Interest picked up, and DC enjoyed being at a preminent position in the industry. In the 1960s, a relatively minor company, Marvel Comics, was beginning to rise quickly in the market due to the character concepts and creative contributions of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. It took years for DC to understand the appeal of the competitor and even then it was mainly with defectors from Marvel like Ditko, or newer talents like Neal Adams that the new sophistication in storytelling took hold at DC.
The major change happened in the late 1960s when many of the veteran talents petitioned DC management for health plans, pensions and similar considerations. DC responded by curtly firing most of the offending staff and replacing them with young turks who had largely grown up with the Marvel influence in comics. This proved to be a mixed blessing: for while the new employees strove for sophisticated storytelling and characters, they had little experience in the industry, and the relative lack of professionalism in their work hampered the product of the company. There were, however, bright lights, like Dennis O'Neill, who worked on Green Lantern and Batman. The period was plagued by short -lived series that started out strong, but quickly petered out when the creators, not having strong financial reasons to stay, abandoned their creations.
This situation continued even as the company was acquired by Warner Communications (now AOL Time Warner) in 1976. Eventually in the early 1980s, new management decided offer more concrete financial rewards to their talents like royalties to encourage long term commitments to the company product. This immediately paid off as with the success of Teen Titans by Marv Wolfman and George Pérez, a supehero comic that earned significant sales with its artistic quality and the stability of the talent who kept with the title for years.
This successful revitalization of a minor title lead the editorship to look at doing the same to their entire main line comics. This resulted in the limited series Crisis on Infinite Earths, which acted as a cleaning house operation. This opened the door to their major characters like Superman and Wonder Woman being revised and DC began to seriously challenge the dominance of Marvel.
In addition, the failing revival of a minor comic, Saga of the Swamp Thing, was instantly energized with the inspired creativity of British writer Alan Moore. His highly acclaimed work sparked a comic book equivalent of rock's British Invasion where numerous British talents, including Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison, came on board the company. The resulting influx of sophisticated horror and dark fantasy material led not only to DC abandoning the Comics Code for particular titles by those talents, but also to the establishment of the Vertigo Line for mature readers.
In addition to the aforementioned lines, DC also had Milestone which focused on minority talents and characters of which the most successful is Static Shock. Another line, Paradox Press, focuses more on factual material like the Big Book On... and Reinventing Comics by Scott McCloud. There is also the America's Best Comics line which is devoted largely to series written by Alan Moore and close associates like Tom Strong and Promethea.
In March 2003 DC comics acquired publishing and merchandising rights to the major fantasy series Elfquest, which had previously been self-published by its creators Wendy and Richard Pini under the Warp Graphics banner.
DC Comics has also enjoyed several successful other media adoptions of their characters in feature films and live action and animated series.