DC Comics vs. Marvel – Rivalry and Inspiration

Jeff

Rivalry and Inspiration

by Jeff Bowles

Marvel and DC Comics have been crosspollinating, competing, and succeeding together for decades. What began as an off-brand creation for DC, the birth of superheroes as we know them, eventually spawned a mega-industry convolving print media, film and television, video games, toys, corporate sponsorship, underoos, you name it. Together, the two powerhouse entertainment companies, along with their parent ownership (let’s not forget Warner Bros. and Disney), are responsible for billions of dollars of revenue and international commerce every single year. You see their most popular characters everywhere you go, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Captain America.

So is it a wonder, then, that when asked to tell the difference between the two comic book universes, most people honestly can’t decipher what makes DC and Marvel unique. The truth is, that crosspollination factor is very much at play. Read a batch of comics from each company week-to-week and you’re likely to find tonal and stylistic identicality. It’s a bit of a brand spanking new urban entertainment legend that DC is always dark and Marvel is always light. Not that case at all. In fact, the two competing companies more or less share the same pool of creative talent, so it’s only natural they do the flip-flop thing often.

But there are differences, right? I mean, there must be. Why, for instance, do so many DC characters wear capes? And why does Marvel tend to have a long tradition of Cold-War-era nuclear-radiation-themed heroes and villains? All of it, really, boils down to the eras in which the two pantheons germinated and hit their stride.

Marvel vs. DC

You see, DC Comics more or less invented the superhero with the publication of Action Comics #1. This was the first appearance of Superman, who was just different enough from other square-jawed comic protagonists of the time to birth an industry unto itself. Most of DC’s core character lineup can be traced to the year 1938, and to the decade or two that followed. Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, Doctor Fate, The Spectre, Captain Marvel (now known as Shazam), all created by or incorporated into the DC Universe in what fans refer to as the Golden Age of comic books. And before you ask, yes, there is a silver age, which is when a company first known as Timely rebranded itself with a new outlook and a new creative modus operandi.

In 1961, the freshly minted Marvel Comics introduced The Fantastic Four, the success of which spawned more creations, like Thor, The Hulk, Black Panther, Doctor Strange, Ant-Man and the Wasp, and The Avengers. The impetus of the changes Marvel instituted came as a direct result of actions taken by—surprise, surprise—DC Comics. When DC revamped their aging golden-age superhero line in the late 1950s, Timely and then Marvel felt the need to pump up the bandwidth, as it were.

Here lies the crux of the matter: whereas most of DC’s heroes and villains had roots in mythology, noir, world war, and light science fiction, areas of entertainment particularly appealing to Americans in the 1940s and 1950s, Marvel took a much more grounded approach, one rooted in the realities of the Cold War circa 1961.

DC was a bit gun-shy about placing their heroes in the real world. They’d been punished for doing so before, by the federal government, no less, with the introduction of the Comic Code Authority. In their universe, the Cold War barely existed, or in the very least, it was handled with kid gloves. But for Marvel, it was essential as an ingredient for a new type of superhero pantheon that exploited a changed American mindset. The difference became even more crucial as the 60s progressed and social issues and politics came to the forefront.

Fantastic Four #1

The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Uncanny X-Men, Daredevil, All of these Marvel characters have roots in the post-nuclear age. Most of them were straight-up irradiated in order to receive their powers. The funny thing is, DC was so overwhelmed by Marvel’s real-world approach on both creative and financial fronts that they were forced to fight dirty and head straight into the storm. This is when Green Arrow’s sidekick became a heroin addict, Batman at last became the grim avenger we all know him as today, and even Superman had questions about authority.

As I said, crosspollination. It’s doubtful the two companies would exist in the forms we recognize today if not for the contributions and competition of the other, and I think the creators and staff at both Marvel and DC would be amongst the first to admit it.

As the years went on, of course, rampant similarity became the norm. Each company has its own distinct history, has made differing business decisions, big-tent pole story events like the Infinity Saga at Marvel or Crises on Infinite Earths at DC, but in the end, the real differences come down to when and where each set of core characters were birthed.

Being much older, DC has felt the need to “reboot” their characters and settings multiple times, which often leads to confusion amongst non-fans, particularly when it comes to origin stories, which can vary widely from one character iteration to another. Even big players like Superman and Wonder Woman have been imagined in so many different ways it’d make your head spin. Marvel has toyed around with this as well, though to a much lighter extent. The truth is, when you’re playing with DC, you never really know which version of any given hero or villain you’re going to get. The distinction is even more evident in light of contributions from Hollywood, which I’ll touch on next.

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Avengers: Endgame

As most people on the planet are aware, Marvel is by far the most popular of the two companies in the year 2020. It has nothing, or almost nothing, to do with the comics anymore. Superheroes and supervillains have gone mainstream in a huge way, and Marvel reigns supreme at the box office. However, DC tends to have them beat on television. The CW, for instance, has an entire mini DC Universe with shows like The Flash, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow, Arrow, and new entries Batwoman and Stargirl. The Arrowverse, as it’s known, is not as good as some halfway decent mega-budget Hollywood movies, but hey, it works for most fans.

DC also has Marvel beat on the animation front. Marvel doesn’t really bother with this in a serious way, but DC has a long tradition of cartoon versions of their classic stories. They’re also less of a slouch in things like video games, or last they have been historically. Marvel launched a pretty massive Spider-Man game in 2018, and they’re following it up this year with an impressive looking stab at their flagship series, The Avengers. Coming to a home console near you this Fall, kids. Conglomerate synergy at its finest.

Well, that just about wraps it up for Superhero/Supervillain month here on Writing to Be Read. We hope you’ve enjoyed our comic themed articles all month long. Check back in the archives if you’d like to read more. Maybe we’ll do it again next year. 😊

I’d also like to say that no matter which team you prefer, Marvel and DC always have and always will do their level best to entertain the hell out of you. Both companies come from humble roots, and there have been times throughout the years money seemed more important to them than fans, but they usually come around to the right way of thinking. The gift of entertainment, it’s a high calling in my book. So much of what gives my life meaning as a writer is my ability to wow, shock, and please, and I owe a good portion of that ability to the likes of Marvel and DC. Thanks for reading, guys. See you on the flip.


Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The best of his outrageous and imaginative short stories are collected in Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, Nashville Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars. Jeff’s new novel, God’s Body: Book One – The Fall, is available on Amazon now!

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The History and Evolution of Comic Books

Jeff

Powers in Motion

by Jeff Bowles

As a storytelling medium, comic books have been around longer than anyone living today. Some disagreement exists among historians as to just what the first published example is, but more or less, comics have been with us since the mid-19th century. Certainly, they didn’t explode into absolute pop culture dominance until the advent of superheroes and supervillains, their best-known and most beloved subjects of exploration, but the truth is millions upon millions of comics have sold in all the time since.

It goes without saying that if not for the creation of one very special character, comic books would not exist in the form in which they do today. In 1938, two young men from Cleveland, hard-up for more satisfying and lucrative creative endeavors, concocted a simple yet compelling narrative based on the biblical stories they’d grown up with. An infant savior from another place, sent from on high by his father to protect and guide humankind. Jerry Seigel and Joe Schuster were thinking more Moses than Jesus, but the Judeo-Christian allegory that is Superman tapped into something deep within the psyches of readers everywhere.

When DC Comics published Action Comics #1, the first appearance of the Man of Steel, the company had no earthly concept what they were unleashing on the world. The first appearance of Batman followed a year later, and quick on his heels were characters like The Flash, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman. Sales were massive for this new kind of storytelling, so full of color and simple, easy-to-understand moral allegory. Until Superman showed up, comics were usually about hard-as-nails detectives and avengers of the night who could neither fly nor leap tall buildings in a single bound. But Supes, he was different.

It was and still is widely accepted that comics are for children, but adults like them, too. In fact, as the Allies went to war in Europe and the Pacific, young servicemen and women brought their recreational reading habits to the front lines. Japan in particular adopted comic books with unrestrained delight. In the year 2020, they remain the top producer of the entire global industry, having created a literary genre unto itself in Manga.

Back in the US, the end of World War II brought with it new social standards, including a certain suspicion of the medium. It became widely believed that comics contributed to childhood delinquency, vandalism, and violence. Senate hearings were held on the matter, not unlike those that plagued the video game industry after the Columbine massacre. In both cases, the federal government imposed rating systems, and at least as far as comics were concerned, the high flying antics of superheroes were dragged a bit closer to earth.

In the 1950s, comics gained a squeaky-clean image, which contributed to their overall decline in sales. It seemed that the original generation of kids who had embraced characters like Superman and Batman had grown up, and they were by no means interested in overtly sanitized farces. Network television had a hit on their hands with the George Reeves Superman show, carried over to some extent by earlier radio productions. But the comic book itself faced its first major hurdle: people just didn’t care anymore.

Times change, and so do the kinds of stories we like to tell each other. In 1961, Marvel Comics (formerly, Timely Comics) got into the superhero game in a big way with the introduction of Fantastic Four #1. This single issue began what enthusiasts call the silver age of comic books, and creators Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko didn’t stop there. Many other characters emerged from their Manhattan offices: Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor, The Incredible Hulk, The Uncanny X-Men, Doctor Strange, Ant-Man, Black Panther, all created within the first ten years of the company’s resurgence. They even added an old figure from their distant past to the roster of the newly-minted Marvel Universe. Captain America is almost as old as Superman, but he’d been all but forgotten by fans until Stan Lee decided to pull him from the ice.

The medium exploded in popularity once more, and the 1970s saw advancements that began eschewing the now decades-old Comics Code Authority. DC, for instance, who initially struggled to keep up with Marvel’s perceived hipness, got into all the major social battles of the time, including equal rights, racism, drug addiction, and violence against women. The decade introduced some of the most compelling and sophisticated comic stories told to date, and Marvel and DC became twin powerhouses of an artform many had thought dead and buried.

In 1978, Warner Bros. produced what many consider to be the first serious superhero film, Superman: The Movie. Demand for the character and other DC properties climbed to dizzying heights. In the decade that followed, comics continued to mature, became darker and much more adult, featuring storylines and characters that took advantage of the public’s newfound love of antiheroes. Marvel made huge waves with the likes of The Punisher, Venom, and new takes on classic characters like Spider-Man, The X-men, and The Avengers. Over at DC, things got even more experimental, with major new series like Watchmen and Batman: The Killing Joke, not to mention the introduction of their Vertigo imprint, which exclusively publishes adult-only material

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A new collector’s market formed around special releases and big-stakes stories that reset the board, such as The Death of Superman and the first issue of Marvel’s five-variant-cover X-Men #1. Like so many other markets built on false commodity, however, the bubble eventually ruptured, and comics have seen a slow but steady decline in sales ever since. DC has faired pretty well historically, partially because they were acquired by Warner Bros. in 1969. Marvel, on the other hand, slipped into bankruptcy, and only barely pulled themselves out by the skin of their teeth.

By the late 1990s, the future of comic books was in question. It had become clear that the business of printing colorful heroes and edgy villains was on shaky ground, but the new millennium heralded in a trend few in the industry saw coming.

DC had always had hit-and-miss successes with their film division. Though 1978’s Superman and 1989’s Batman were big for their time and place, superhero movies were still widely considered risky business. In 1998, Marvel Entertainment co-produced a film based on their daywalking, vampire-slaying Blade character. Though the film did average box office, Marvel viewed it as a sign of bigger and better things to come. Two years later, they released an X-Men movie which fared much better, and two years after that, it was Spider-Man’s turn.

Marvel earned one success after another at the box office, creating new film-based iterations of classic characters like The Hulk, The Fantastic Four, and Daredevil. But it wasn’t until 2008 and the release of a little movie called Iron Man that everything changed. At the time, Marvel Entertainment and producer Kevin Feige hatched an idea to do for their movies what Stan Lee had done for their comics back in the early ’60s, namely, they decided to turn them into a working shared universe. Marvel released a few key introduction movies and then bet the farm on 2012’s The Avengers.

The absolute financial and critical dominance of that movie was eclipsed only by its potential for more stories and even bigger box office hauls. Disney bought Marvel in 2009, adding significant distribution and funding prowess to the small company that had almost folded not ten years prior. Though DC and the WB have tried to match the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the decade ending 2019 was completely dominated—in one form or another, it seems—by characters created by Stan Lee and his successors.

But what about comic books themselves? Do people still read them? Do they still sell? More or less, they do, though even fans get the sense the comic divisions of the big publishers only exist to fuel their filmmaking endeavors. Marvel, DC, and others still know how to tell great stories, and they do it every single week, every month, every year. More major contributors to the industry include Darkhorse, Image, IDW, and Valiant. Comics are not now and have never been solely about superheroes, and the indie space in particular proves that this kind of storytelling is open and ready for all.

Regardless of how you feel about the dominance of comic-bookisms in our culture, the slow decline of the publishing industry beneath it, and the ultimate moral ambiguity of “good guys” who beat the crap out of “bad guys”, the fact remains that comics have been a force of societal transformation for over eighty years, longer in fact, when you factor in the storytelling traditions at play, some of which are as ancient as humankind itself. The first comic book, published in the 19th century, whatever it may have been, set a ball rolling that continues to, well, crush the life out of everything in its path.

Only one question needs to be asked at this point: who do you like better, Marvel, DC, or the bold and bombastic characters of some other powerhouse company? Sound off in the comments section below, guys. And continue to stay tuned all May for more superhero/supervillain themed articles and posts right here on Writing to be Read. Excelsior!


Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The best of his outrageous and imaginative short stories are collected in Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, Nashville Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars. Jeff’s new novel, God’s Body: Book One – The Fall, is available on Amazon now!

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Check out Jeff Bowles Central on YouTube – Music – Video Games – Music – So Much More!


You can keep up with all of Jeff’s posts right here on Writing to be Read. Subscribe to email or follow on WordPress today.