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I’m A Marvel… or Am I A DC? I Can Never Tell…

I’m about half-a-year behind on this, I must confess. Back in January, the wonderful Katie over at Stories That Really Mattered asked a bunch of bloggers to come out in favour of one of the two major comic book companies, with an open invitation for other members of the community to participate. I’d like to pretend that I took so long to consider my own response because I’m cool (and cool people arrive late to the hottest parties), but the truth is I’ve just been a bit run off my feet these past few months. I was never cool, but I’ve learned to accept that.

However, in this season of blockbuster comic book movies, I thought it might be interesting to reflect on whether I am a bigger fan of Marvel, or DC. Given how close both are to my heart, expect a fair bit of waffle. Okay, a bit morewaffle than usual.

Let's not cloud the issue...

The form of the meme requires me to state my choice and give five reasons for it. Truth be told, I am not even sure what my choice is at this stage in the post, so let’s reverse this a bit – shake things up a notch. Let’s give the five biggest differences, for me, between the two companies, and then we’ll try and reach some sort of conclusion at the bottom of this article. Or you can just skip on down there and see what I ended up deciding. Man, I’m so indecisive it’s amazing I can dress myself some mornings.

Also, I’m going to spare you the usual “we don’t have to choose!” argument which makes the case that choosing between the distributors is pointless and ultimately empty – we should enjoy what we enjoy, regardless of the source, and movie and comic book partisanship helps nobody. While it’s a valid argument, and nothing I say here is intended in absolute seriousness, I think it’s also possible to express something of a casual preference, as if I were asked in polite conversation.

With all that in mind, let’s jump in…

Just the Justice League?

Point of Contention #1: The Iconic Few Versus The Marketable Many

DC have Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman. Those are three cultural icons, instantly recognisable no matter where you go in the world. Each of those three actually garner multi-media attention from news sources outside of comic books if the company makes a serious enough change. Remember when Batman died? When Superman renounced his citizenship? When Wonder Woman put on some pants? All were international news stories, so iconic are DC’s core three characters. Anywhere in the world, you can draw a bat symbol, that wonderful S-shape, or sing “Wonder Woman!” and people will know exactly who you are talking about.

Marvel only really have one character that can claim anywhere near that level of attention, in Spider-Man. There’s no denying the character is instantly recognisable around the world, but I’d still put him a tier below DC’s iconic triumvirate. The Hulk might also be easy to recognise, but I still think there’s a huge level of difference in his popularity as measured against the “big three”at DC. Hell, the character hasn’t even been the star of his own comic book for quite some time now, and nobody from the mainstream media seems to have noticed.

Spider-Man, Spider-Man, sells whatever a Spider-Man can...

On the other hand, Marvel has a broader awareness of a wider array of characters. Even if we can’t name them individually, we can pick the X-Men out of a line-up. The company has done a great job promoting a wealth of popular characters to the mainstream. Robert Downey Jr. made Iron Man a cultural icon. Daredevil spawned two major motion pictures. The Punisher has had three big screen releases, despite never having a box office hit. Even The Fantastic Four got two films out.

That’s a whole load of more media attention than any other major DC comic book hero has received. Green Lantern will be the first real attempt to push a second-tier DC character on cinema-goers since the comic book movie boom kicked off. The Flash was a one-season live-action television show during the nineties. The rest of DC’s stable of characters have to make do with minor appearances on Smallville. So, while anybody in the world can point to Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, they’ll have difficulty stretching beyond that.

Stop me if you've heard this before...

The same logic applies, to an extent, to DC’s comic books. The great stories – Red Son, The Long Halloween, All-Star Superman, Year One – all seem to focus around that nucleus of characters. Try to pick a great, iconic Aquaman story, for example. Or that one classic Plastic Man tale. DC do publish well-received titles that sneak under the radar – Gail Simone’s Secret Six or Paul Cornell’s Action Comics – but it seems there isn’t a middle-ground. Once you drop a tier below Green Lantern and the Flash, it’s hard to point to the big and classic stories for characters.

At Marvel, the great stories seem to be much more evenly distributed. God Loves, Man Kills for the X-Men. Peter Milligan’s entire run on X-Force and X-Statix. Born Again (and the Bendis and Brubaker runs) for Daredevil. Brian Michael Bendis’ run on Alias. The Galactus Trilogy for the Fantastic Four. Mark Millar’s tenure on The Ultimates. Demon in a Bottlefor Iron Man. The list goes on. There’s just a greater amount of depth in Marvel’s pool, despite the fact it’s a younger company.

DC have some Super characters...

Point of Contention #2: “The Pantheon” vs. “The Promethean”

DC’s characters are, as a rule, much older than their counterparts at Marvel. There’s the odd Marvel character (like Captain America or Namor) who dates back to the forties, but the company’s real period of invention came in the sixties, when Stan Lee was tossing out high concepts like candy. This led to characters like The Incredible Hulk or The Invincible Iron Man or The X-Men or The Fantastic Four. All churned out in a relatively short space of time.

DC did have a similar revolution at about the same time, but it was main revitalising old concepts. Barry Allen become The Flash, a title previously held by Jay Garrick. Hal Jordan was The Green Lantern, succeeding Alan Scott. Both concepts were heavily revised, but there was a genuine sense of legacy. And DC’s Silver Age was a very strange place, where there were super-intelligent monkeys to beat the band, surreal transformations were the rule of the day, and high concept science-fiction occasionally found a home.

Green Lantern's light...

In contrast, Marvel was (and is) a bit more “grounded” (though you could substitute “cynical” there). Tony Stark was a supervillain trying to be a hero, who succumbed to alcoholism. Bruce Banner lived in constant fear of the damage he could inadvertently cause. Spider-Man had to worry about his homework, as well as the fact that New York hated him. The X-Men were bound to serve and protect a world that hated and feared them. In other words, the heroes at Marvel seem a lot more human and mortal. They are a lot easier to relate to and understand, and to engage with. We can all empathise with Peter Parker, while Clark Kent is entirely alien. These were mere mortals, trying their best to do some good. Often with tragic results.

Only human...

On the other hand, DC’s characters feel much more anchored in mythology. They feel like a pantheon of classical gods. The Golden Age Flash even wore the helmet of Mercury, and his successors retained the wings (at least in some form). I like to think of comic books as something akin to a modern mythology, built on American pop consciousness. Superman is the key to that, the ultimate immigrant. The man who came to America with nothing, but just wants the opportunity to make the world a better place. Green Lantern is a symbol of the boundless power of human will – a hand reaching into space to accept the challenges, the danger and sense of adventure. Even Batman is the very embodiment of vengeance and fear, the ultimate human predator.

I think that the fact that the DC characters are so firmly anchored in these essential concepts means that they are ultimately a lot easier to transition or update. Batman can work amid the camp of Adam West’s Batman!, the gothic overtones of Tim Burton’s Batman or the noir cityscape of Nolan’s Batman Begins. The Green Lantern can be Hal Jordan, Kyle Rayner or John Stewart. I think that this nature of DC’s characters gives them a bit of strength and allows them to be overhauled and updated much easier.

"Some days you just can't get rid of a bomb!"

It’s far more noticeable, for example, when Spider-Man makes a deal with the devil to erase a marriage that was plotted and developed over thirty years, than it was when Batman became an urban legend for a few years in the mid-nineties. I think this is why Marvel struggles to update certain characters, and why some seem trapped in a particular moment – because they perfectly capture the essence of that period of time. Iron Man is a perfect fit for the modern age of privatised warfare. The Punisher had a lot of credibility in the hyper-violent eighties. The Fantastic Four have never been as popular as when they were first launched.

So it’s a question of balancing one or the other. DC’s characters seem to last forever, while Marvel’s have stronger core characterisation and cycle through popularity.

How did these losers get a movie?

Point of Contention #3: Loads of Superheroes vs. Loads of Not-Superheroes

Green Lantern is the first time since the truly terrible Catwoman that DC will push a major motion picture based on one of its mainstream superheroes who are not Batman or Superman. It seems like a bit of a slow start, given how Marvel have saturated the market with their properties. Hell, some of their movie franchises even have smaller spin-off franchises. Hugh Jackman, as of next year, will have played Wolverine in five different movies.

We just see more of Marvel, because they’re more effective at getting the product out there, even producing their own range of films. Warner Brothers, worried that the Harry Potter films are ending, have begun to contemplate their own slate of superhero films, but it really feels like they missed the boat to a certain extent. Still, The Dark Knighthas to count for something, right?

DC has tried green-lighting various other genres...

However, what DC have done, and don’t get credit for doing, is providing a diverse range of film adaptations. Everyone can trace the Batman and Superman films back to the studio, but they actually produce a stunningly wide range of movies. Action films like The Losers and R.E.D. are the work of DC comics, as was Watchmen. Even the acclaimed drama The Road to Perdition came from DC comics. And, from the sounds of things, that isn’t quite the end of it. Look out for film adaptations of Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina.

Marvel haven’t even produced a kung-fu movie like The Immortal Iron Fist, nor something as deconstructive as Squadron Supreme. Instead, they gave us Ghost Rider.

Darkest Night, eh?

Point of Contention #4: The DCAU vs. … X-Men? Spider-Man?

Look, I like the Marvel cartoons I grew up with. Things like Spider-Man: The Animated Series, where everybody used lasers rather than actual guns, and it seemed like “killed”, “death” or “die” were words banned from the script. Or X-Men: The Animated Series, which I found to be surprisingly faithful to Chris Claremont’s work, and introduced me to comic book classics like The Days of Future Past. Both series contributed to my awareness of the fictional universe and its diverse cast of characters. Hell, I even have a soft-spot for that old “does whatever a spider can!” animated show from the seventies.

But don’t you dare even presume to think they can hold a candle to the DC Animated Universe.

You'd have to be a Dick to suggest that Marvel's cartoons are better...

Batman: The Animated Series is perhaps my favourite cartoon of all time. Really and truly. Heart of Ice is one of the best half-hours of television ever produced, and the show even proved capable of beating The Simpsons to the animated Emmy one year (for the deserving Robin’s Reckoning). The show single-handedly demonstrated that you could treat silly concepts with consideration and respect, and turn them into serious drama. Robin has honestly never worked better than he does here.

And then the universe expanded out. A variety of television shows, each linked by continuity, characters and crossovers. Kevin Conroy was the voice of Batman, and remained present throughout everything. By the way, he is perhaps the best actor ever to play the role. Which is certainly saying something. While the series that followed didn’t quite match the original, Superman: The Animated Series is perhaps my second-favourite take on the Superman mythos (behind All-Star Superman) and Justice League Unlimited was the perfect example of how to manage a large ensemble cast.

There’s simply no contest from anything Marvel’s put out.

Whosoever holds this Omnibus, if he be worthy, shall possess some really great comics...

Point of Contention #5: The Collected Editions

I like my comic books. I like to read them. I like to read them all together, so they flow more naturally. I don’t wait for months on end, buying single issues. I like to invest in a nice hardcover, sit down, and enjoy my damn story. And you’d be amazed how difficult that is. Books go out of print very fast. They are quite expensive. It’s hard to find reviews of runs rather than single issues.

There are story arcs that I have literally been waiting years to get my hands on, but have not been released in a format I might be interested in. With the two companies essentially owned by two major Hollywood studios, and seemingly being used as R & D for Hollywood, you might expect there’d be even more reason to keep those back-libraries in print. After all, imagine if you could sell a copy of The Ultimates Omnibus to everyone who enjoyed The Avengers or Absolute Green Lantern: Rebirth to those who paid to see Green Lantern.

Absolute perfection?

The two companies have remarkably different policies. DC produces “Absolute” editions, which are giant slip-cased volumes, painstakingly restored, featuring a wealth of extras. They are ridiculously expensive, but they are the very best of the very best. The flip side is that the releases are relatively rare and fairly inconsistent. DC released the start of Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern in that format, but there’s no chance they’ll publish the rest of it.

On the other hand, Marvel have their “Omnibus” editions. These are oversized (but smaller) volumes, typically collecting entire runs of a particular author on a particular character. These are much more consistently collected, even if it takes several volumes – Ed Brubaker’s Captain America is being collected in this way, three volumes and counting. There are a lot more of these, and a lot more variety. There’s something about owning all of Grant Morrison’s New X-Men or Walt Simonson’s Thor which is just… incredible.

Closing the book on this...

Marvel supplement these with oversized hardcovers collecting large volumes of on-going series (like Ultimate Spider-Man or The Invincible Iron Man). It’s nice to have such a large chunk of the series to read in one sitting, and they look nice on the shelf. The flip side is that the company will typically try to force fans to double-dip, releasing in regular size before releasing in oversized or omnibus. This forces the reader to take a chance and wait until the standard edition goes out of print, or buy both.

DC, in contrast, have smaller but cheaper collections. And they use oversized hardcovers a lot less frequently. Truth be told, I much prefer Marvel’s more consistent method of collecting, even if “Absolute” editions do represent the most loving treatment a comic book story could ever receive.

So, after all that… I am not entirely sure. I can see clear points for both, and then other areas where the line blurs a bit. Can I vote for Ralph Nader?

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11 Responses

  1. If by Ralph Nader, you mean Dark Horse, or, uh, the one that does Tank Girl, than go for it, guy. DC vs. Marvel is a contest I won’t even try to play.

    But because DC hosts Vertigo, and all things Batman, I’m inclined to go with them.

    • It was more of an in-jokey Futurama reference, where – in reference to Bush/Gore – a person with a yes/no option still manages to vote Ralph Nader. But I do need to be less in-jokey.

      And I think Batman is the deciding factor for a lot of people. I honestly think he’s the most popular superhero on the planet, even if Superman is (increasingly slightly) more iconic.

  2. DC has Batman/Superman that alone will win most contests.

    • Yep, but I think while DC has the big guns, Marvel has a deeper pool of second-tier characters. Outside the trinity, it’s harder to name a DC sueprhero, while many non-comic fans can rhyme off characters from X-Men or Avengers. So it’s really the personal preference between a strong core and a wider supporting structure.

  3. Wow for the amount of thought that went into that it was worth the wait, even if you did stay on teh fence. I think what kicks it for me in the Marvel direction is the point you were making about Marvel characters being more mortal. I like some humanity in my heores, and I like a dark side. The reason I could never get on board with Superman, depsite numerous attempts, was that he was just so dammned good! I couldn’t believe in someone being that black and white about right and wrong, and for me it made him boring. Tony Stark on the other hand…I love the way you describe him as a supervillain trying to be a hero, that’s spot on. And that’s why Marvel is better than DC. The characters just have a whole other dimension that is missing from the more traditional heroes.

    Thanks for playing the game. I’ll always accept new submissions, no matter how late 🙂

    • Thanks Katie!

      • I wont lie I think both are cool and entertaining but as far as DC goes their story lines are some times just plain boaring! I mean I can’t stand how perfect their live are and how easily they defeat enemies!! In marvel it takes a litte more work since people aren’t super fast with deadly lasers shooting from their eyes!!!

      • Ah yes, but I like superfast people with deadly lasers coming out of their eyes! I see what you’re saying, but I would argue that a great writer can make almost anything interesting.

      • LOL that is very true!!

  4. Hi Darren,

    Just wanted to tell you how much I’ve enjoyed all of your comicbook-related ponderings and reviews. I go through a few pages every day, and I’ve been using your reviews as a guide of sorts for my collection for a while now.

    Thought it’s high time I thanked you for it. You, sir, an excellent critic / purveyor of all things pop culture, and keep it up my man!

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