A few of my readers and friends were very curious to know my take on DC vs Marvel. Because in some cases all they know about comic book characters comes from what they have seen in TV or the movies, I felt I needed to split the content into three parts: history, evolution and pros and cons. Although most of us in the USA grew up with Superman, Spiderman, Batman and Wonder Woman you may not be aware who belongs to which company, or what universes and intellectual property (IP) authors shaped the characters on screen. Considering Marvel characters will be all over Disneyland soon and most parents take their children to amusement parks that favor one over the other, I wanted to use this space to also explain who belongs where and why:
Detective Comics or DC was founded in 1934 and owns the content originally published under Adventure Comics and Action comics. Back when D started the best known comic strip superheroes were The Phantom (first character with a mask that covered the pupils) and The Shadow. These larger than life comics paved the way for comic books and heavily influenced DC’s holy trinity by forcing them to take a different direction. The first character was Captain Marvel which was later replaced by Superman, an alien child raised on Earth and develops superpowers. Then came Batman (1939), born Bruce Wayne, a weatlthy human orphaned by crime who uses his resources and training to keep order and capture the villains that terrorize Gotham. The third position belongs to Wonder Woman an Amazon from Thermiscyra who has strength, godly lineage and a penchant for the truth and justice (see The Secret History of Wonder Woman). These heroes have been around for over 80 years! They have enlisted and fought in WW2, Korea and even in Afghanistan and Iraq. Wow!
Hardcore fans and nerds know that Superman was designed to fight injustice, give Americans hope and defend the American way. His pod landing in the middle of the heartland in Kansas was not arbitrary. Our hero needed to be raised as a good son, with hardworking parents that instilled in him good Christian values. ‘Murica! Clark Joseph Kent had to be wholesome and of great moral fiber, humble and sweet as apple pie, a strong young male role model that would shape the generation that would attempt to bring peace to the world. The flaw? He isn’t human and he spends his entire life fighting his own secret battle: his identity crisis. Darkseid and other antagonists have exploited this weakness. He can only be one or the other, not both at the same time.
On the flip side Batman was modeled to be serious, dark, amoral, with a perverse view of the world. Bruce is suspicious of anyone regardless of their intentions, and keeps tabs on how to defeat Superman with Kryptonite in case he ever gets power hungry. He is the caped crusader, and Bruce is the alter ego he must present to the world. Guarded and secure inside his Batcave, he masterminds any plan to rid the city of evil and lends his excellent project management talent and college grad scientific education to design and manufacture his combat tools and suit. Batman kills, destroys, out maneuvers and performs to the best of his abilities. He doesn’t tolerate failure or has a sunny disposition, he knows who he is and lives up to his full potential. All im all, he is the polar opposite of the Man of Steel.
Kent was handed everything, from his suit to his knowledge from his parents and the Fortress of Solitude archives. In contrast Wayne has had to train and learn to make himself invincible and impermeable to injury, with the support of Alfred, his only family. As a human, he lacks all the advantages of his alien counterpart and of Wonder Woman. This dichotomy is what prompted the need to balance out the Batman-Superman dynamic by adding Diana Prince into the mix. She is the missing link that makes the Justice League effective. The clear head in a room full of testosterone. The feminine touch in a commodity marketed to mainly to men.
The Justice Society of America or JSA was created to join all the Golden Age DC characters together in a recurring monthly issue. By the Silver Age and beyond Green Lantern, Hawkman, Hawk Girl, Aquaman, The Flash, Shazam! and later Green Arrow (1970) and Cyborg (90s), to name a few, shared plot twists and storylines that would change their universes upon resolution. At this moment in history the team was known as the Justice League which spun chapters around the globe including Canada and a Dark version led by John Constantine. The rest of the time each hero had its own title and weekly, biweekly or monthly byline. Some had been rebooted, cancelled and restarted many times before joining the JSA and later the Justice League. (Flash and Superman would gain the ability to set back time or reset it eventually. The ret-con was a concept that would soon take a hold of the industry.) By the time most of these heroes were established, all except Green Arrow and Cyborg, the 1960s were rolling in. The civil rights movement was in full swing. Change was in the atmosphere.
Along came a young man named Stan Lee who decided the vanilla personalities of the DC heroes were out of touch with the times. The reason though wasn’t that the DC authors wanted wholesome stories. No. Censorship had taken a hold of the industry and by decree there were many outlawed topics. Swearing, extreme violence, sexual situations and adult language had to be scrubbed and approved by committee. However, many found loopholes to be able to deliver the content in its raw and unadulterated state. That’s how Marvel entered the playing field.
The first superhero that came out of Marvel was Captain Marvel. Modeled after DC’s original Captain Marvel, whose rights had lapsed and taken over by the new company, it was similar to Shazam! and followed Superman’s formula. It quickly became aparent that the Marvel writers wanted to poke fun at the traditional format of the comic book and take it to new heights. In the end they dropped Captain Marvel and moved on to the next concept, Captain America. to take jabs at Superman. The trend continued and the copies or spoofs multiplied: Iron Man for Batman, Wonder Woman’s godly lineage countered by an actual norse god, Thor. The Fantastic Four, Hulk and Spiderman had superpowers granted through scientific accidents the same way as The Flash. If you read through the catalogue of offerings you will quickly begin to find correlations between each family of characters.
Marvel relied on superb artwork and civil rights issues, and an attitude towards justice and freedom unlike anything seen before in the genre. Using superheroes to enact or demand social change shot up their street cred to the stratosphere. They had strong multi cultural teams and leaders, wrongs to right and stereotypes to shatter and a entirely new generation of children and teens to captivate. Magneto had survived the holocaust, which at the time was vehemently denied by many social groups. Professor X was confined to a wheelchair. The mutant children were teased and shunned even by the public, the government and in some cases their families. Wolverine, Storm, Beast, Cyclops, Jean Gray, Kitty Pride and eventually Rogue, Gambit and Cable all worked with Professor X to fight against anti-mutant laws while saving the planet from decimation threats like Apocalypse. They even had to team up with Magneto and his gang to protect their world.
I always thought the X-Men was Marvel’s version of the Justice League, on steroids. They represented a new dawn with characters fit for the space age. Although I know that The Fantastic Four and The Avengers were the original response to the JSA and DC, the X-Mem and Spiderman were the reason Marvel became a household name. Anyone in their 40s, 30s and 20s knows who The X-Men are and either fell in love with the tragic origin stories of the characters, the love traingles and/or the perpetual rivalries. They are not the stiff, play nice and deadly serious DC’s flagships; they had both humor and grace under pressure.
During the 1990s, Marvel embraced the Punk Rock age, pursuing darker and more growm up stories with the Blade, Deadpool and The Punisher series, pushing the boundaries of an artform into the real of the crass and the gory. At the time indie firms had catapulted their titles into the limelight by using more badass graphics and adult situations which separated them from the big two. Comic books became darker and explored all kinds of social subjects and issues. Gay rights, depression, addiction, mental health, cancer and reincarnation. No stone was left unturned when it came to storylines.
As a reaction to the changes in the subculture and fandom, DC created Vertigo in 1993 to round out their portfolio offerings and offer more adult content. Todd MacFarlane and a group of artists left Marvel and established Image Comics, launching Spawn and the now famous The Walking Dead. Although DC and Marvel hold steady at #1 and #2 in sales and influence thanks to their parent companies Warner Bros and Disney respectively, Image, Dark Horse and IDW are catching up. Sadly, many of us don’t realize our favorite shows or movies were derived out of a graphic novel which makes it harder to grasp why we hate those who read the story for complaining about how they butchered their story to appeal to the masses. These stories we love to watch come to life as storyboards first. We should all read more and watch less. But that’s just me.
This is why it is so hard to claim that DC is better than Marvel and vice versa because it all comes down to the storylines and personalities. If you want action, suspense and crazy mutant powers then Marvel is for you. If you like more serious superhero characters, are interested in learning about every origin story, are more traditional/wholesome and don’t mind spending cash on cross over and one of episodes with your favorite leading men and ladies, classic DC is right up your alley. For those full of adventure, wonder, social commentary and a deeper understanding of art, literature and adult themes there is Vertigo, Image and Dark Horse. My friends used to say DC is for the rich people and Marvel for the rest. There is some truth to that statement but to me it is not about social class. It all comes down to how you see life: a struggle (Marvel) or a challenge (DC).
In cinematic universe terms it shouldn’t have surprised anyone that the Marvel movies are more aloof and goofy (Deadpool, Iron Man, Avengers) than the DC movies which tend to be more dramatic and dark (Nolan’s Batman, Man of Steel, Batman v Superman). DC’s dive into darkness, not darker themes, began when Tim Burton took over the helm of the Batman franchise in the 1980s, striping away the campyness of the 1960s and 1970s. The Comics Code Authority had stalled the development of the characters keeping them from reaching their potential.
The 1970s Superman also is a prime example of how DC mixes the entertainment of super powers and saving the day with a powerful underlying message in regards to truth, justice and the pursuit of happiness. Never do the holy trinity attempt to dispel any misconception or stereotype by becoming part of the minority or struggling group. They are always supporters and not victims; they are here to save the day. On the other hand, Mavel characters suffer the injustice of segregation and discrimination. They must fight as victims and rise to meet the challenge, becoming both examples of the struggle and its benefactors when conflict is resolved. Occasionally they will save the planet or the day, always on their terms and with no other motivation other than to survive.
Similarly, the comic companies’ business startegies relate to the material they publish. Steady and traditional DC became a part of WB’s empire to avoid having cash flow and production issues. They trusted WB to help them grow the franchises. Their characters are used in Six Flags parks and the most sold item are the superhero capes with emblems of their most popular titles. Bold and brazen Marvel made a deal with Universal Studios to license their IP for amusement parks, and gave up the screenplay rights to Wolverine, Fantastic Four, Spiderman and Deadpool (to name a few) to many studios and production agencies in order to keep printing material, not capitalizing on merchandising and branding. They were making it on their own terms and failing. Having to settle IP disputes with Image founders didn’t help either and morale was low. The saving grace was Iron Man who gave them the umph to create their own Marvel Studios which was later absorbed by Disney, who graciously bailed them out. They finally realized that producing their own movies made them more cash to fund the prints than the licensing. The unparalleled success of Phase 1 which ended with The Avengers cemented the high entertainment value and potential of the company in the mainstream. I may hate Spidermam with a passion but I would hate even more living in a world without him. Frenemies for life, yay!
As a fan, I admit it is scary to watch all these superhero movies because they are not always true to the years of character development and origin histories. It doesn’t matter what comics you read, the watering down for the masses is evident, and nerds grumble an sigh every time someone calls themselves a fan because of the movies. You are only getting half of the story if not less. Grr. Batman v Superman did true fans justice but again I haven’t heard many Marvel fans complain as much about the Avengers or Thor, or even Iron Man not living to their expectations. I think that as a reader, I have higher expectations of any content. Then again I am not a Marvel reader so my disappointment with The Avengers movies is that you can clearly see the selfishness and inefficiency of the relationships in the Marvel universe. Plus I can’t stand bad teamwork. The saving grace was Captain America whose films and presence which have a “grown up” touch. He almost feels like a DC character though, polished and smooth around the edges. I should start reading his comics but I prefer to see Steve Rogers on screen rather than on cellulose. (Googly eyes.)
Take a look at a comic or graphic novel rack and give your favorite story a try. Nothing beats having a serial story told through beautiful images that let to your imagination roam. It is the best gift anyone can give themselves, 15 to 20 minutes of joy that can only be rivaled by a massage. Hehe. Reading their fascinating stories and taking in the lessons told was how I formed part of my personality. I let Wonder Woman, Batman and Superman teach me how to be human, how to persevere and how to love. The feminist views of Wonder Woman, the strength and resilience of Catwoman, Batgirl, Thalia and Poison Ivy taught me that I didn’t need a man to take care of me, that I could accomplish great feats when defending or protecting those I loved. I became an engineer to be able to help any real life Batman. I enjoy to write and report like Clark. Thanks ro them I learned to value my talents and use them for the benefit of my team, and to set differences aside to ensure success. They were a very important part of my village and I thank all the great writers and illustrators that made them come to life. I hope they are still relevant whenever life grants me children. I know Zach, my dog, will have to put up with beig dressed as Superman a few more times to take our Justice League family portrait. My husband likes to dress up as Hal Jordan (Green Lantern) and doesn’t feel worthy of doning The Cape. Oh well!
With all the new changes being tested out in the current production runs you would be more than amazed to find a story that resonates with yours. From a black Captain America, a persian Green Lantern, a woman holding Thor’s power and a Wonder Woman without a Steve Trevor, the possibilities are endless. DC is launching Rebirth to scrap the New 52 and Marvel will reboot soon as well, if not already. This means you are entering the hobby at a perfect time to make the journey memorable and relevant for the next round of movies. Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end… (cue Semisonic)
Check out Batman v Superman for more info on those characters and their relationship. Lots of reading material is available if you need to catch up to enjoy the Justice League of America movie. 😉
Note: Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman were written in a way that even when they killed in the comics, their victims came back to life. However, under certain formats, they kill eveb though the intent of the comics is to not portray them as murderers. Since the truth is not absolute but perceived, some people may take offense when told Batman does kill. Although for many yeara he didn’t, and Bale’s/Nolan’s version makes thr argument of not killing, Affleck’s version kills. Therefore Batman has killed before and may do so again as part of the rebranding.