It’s occurred to me that not everyone in the world has as extensive an understanding of the twin pillars of the American comic book industry as I. And since super-heroes have a strangle-hold on the box office for the foreseeable future and all the cool kids are binge-watching Daredevil, I thought I’d take some time to explain to any neophytes out there the differences in tone and style between Marvel and DC. I’ve had conversations with perfectly intelligent people who think Superman and Spider-Man are the same thing. They’re not, at all. “They’re both super-heroes, right?” Well, yes. But that’s like saying “Remember that time the Blue Jays played the Boston Bruins?” They’re both sports teams but they’re certainly not the same.
First off, some absolute basics. DC is the older company of the two, started in 1935 as National Comics. Their first magazine was Detective Comics, featuring pulpy tales of gumshoes with colourful names like Slam Bradley in an anthology format. It was a first for the fledgling comic book industry. In 1938, Action Comics did the same for super-heroes with the appearance of Superman. Batman took over the lead spot in Detective Comics as of #27 in 1939 and he’s been there ever since.
Before comic books existed, there were pulps and penny-dreadfuls – lurid tales of spicy crime and weird horror. There was a pulp magazine for every genre – detective, western, sports stories, war adventures, you name it. The publishing industry realized that even little kids had nickels and they wanted those nickels and so the comic book industry started selling pulps to kids, picture-stories with the violence and luridness slightly toned down. And oh, how the nickels rolled in.
Since DC was first, they established a lot of the conventions or tropes of the super-hero genre – the secret identity, the hidden fortress, the pesky but plucky love interest. Most of these were cribbed from pulp magazines like Doc Savage and the Shadow, two direct influences on Superman and Batman, respectively. DC also had Wonder Woman, the first female super-hero to head-line her own magazine.
Marvel used to be called Timely Comics. In 1939, they debuted their first big hit Marvel Comics, featuring the Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch. Timely was always an also-ran. They chased market trends rather than innovating. Timely’s other main hero of the Golden Age of Comics was Captain America and even he was slightly derivative of an earlier patriotic hero called the Shield (who was published by MLJ, which later became Archie Comics.) With me so far?
DC was the unassailed market-leader, since they were first. And they were ruthless in both protecting and expanding that market-share. They delivered a product, a very reliable product, month in and month out. They had a ‘house style’ – clean lines dominated their artwork, simple storylines and basic plots and motivations drove their characters. They were family-friendly before that term existed. More importantly, they had an unshakable status quo. No matter how outlandish the premise of the story, it would all be explained away and back to business as normal by the end of it. Superman got fake-married to Lois Lane all the time and occasionally other women as well and it was explained as a dream or a hoax or an imaginary story. This gave the frustrated writers a chance to make Superman be evil or Lex Luthor turn good or let Batman go back to the Old West or whatever.
After the war, super-heroes fell out of favour and both DC and Atlas, as Timely had renamed themselves, were putting out science fiction books, weird tales of science run amok. The whole industry was in a slump because these stories too were pure formula and readership was declining, due to the influence of television and puberty on their audience. Something had to be done and DC decided to innovate by looking back to the past. They revamped one of their B-List heroes, the Flash, for the modern Atomic Era in 1956, thus sparking the Silver Age of Comics.
Green Lantern got the revamp treatment next, then the Atom and Hawkman. Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman stayed pretty much the same. The success of the Justice League got Marvel Comics, as Atlas/Timely was now known, to up their game and create the Fantastic Four. Marvel, though, was forced to innovate this time and the FF became as different from the JLA as is night to day. The FF bickered and fought, they were ugly, they didn’t have secret identities. Their stories weren’t formulaic, they mattered and weren’t reversed by editorial fiat by the last page. Not a hoax! Not a dream! Not an imaginary story! Their art was more dynamic, with shifting camera-angles and p.o.v.s. Their all-new heroes, like Spider-Man captured the public imagination. Spider-Man was an innovation because he was a teen-ager, not an authority figure. He was always broke because he wasn’t a billionaire philanthropist. He had problems, he had a sick aunt, he had girl trouble, his boss hated him. He also wore a mask that covered his entire face. Visually, he definitely stood out from DC’s clean-cut crew.
This outsider aesthetic informed the rest of Marvel’s expanding line – the X-Men were freaks, Daredevil was blind, Iron Man had shrapnel in his heart that threatened his life. It was a formula, true but it was different enough from DC’s formula and moreover, it resonated in the 1960s. Marvel grabbed a lot of DC’s precious market-share by being brash, bold and different.
Marvel’s audience also skewed slightly older, more towards the college crowd. No longer were comics for little kids, they were for older kids, too. And older kids had more dimes (the price went up in the interim) and they developed a passion for their favourite characters and were willing to try something different (there’s that word again) and once Marvel was bitten by the innovation bug, they couldn’t stop.
DC abandoned their formula and started to copy Marvel’s formula. And as the 1970s dawned and the industry entered another slump, tastes changed once more. Weird supernatural stories became popular and Marvel’s jagged lines and heroes-with-flaws formula was applied to this trend as well. So we got Werewolf By Night, who was, unsurprisingly, a werewolf with problems. We got Man-Thing (DC had Swamp Thing, a shuffling mound of vegetation), who was a shuffling mound of vegetation. We got Son of Satan, a super-hero with problems because his father was Satan. And we got Ghost Rider, a guy on a motor-cycle with a flaming skull for a head. DC had nothing like that. Marvel’s grand innovation, that super-powers were sometimes as much a curse as a blessing, swerved deeply into curse territory.
They jumped on every other trend they could, too. Blaxploitation cinema brought the birth of Luke Cage, Power Man, a bad-ass brutha who talked jive and said “honky” a lot. (He once beat up Doctor Doom because Doom stiffed him on two hundred bucks.) When kung fu became popular, Marvel created Iron Fist and Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu. This was the Bronze Age of Comics.
DC was still trying to master the art of having heroes bicker amongst themselves. The Justice League comics of the 1970s read today as a bunch of people yelling at each other for no reason, like a group encounter session gone terribly wrong. DC had no demonic heroes (well, unless you count the Demon, who was an actual DEMON). DC was also frantically trying to innovate but always reverted to the mean. They tried to graft Spider-Man’s origin onto their own style of hero and gave us Firestorm. Nobody really wanted Firestorm though and together with the rising cost of paper, he was cancelled. He showed up later to yell at people in the Justice League.
The last great super-hero ever created was Wolverine. He represented a definite stylistic shift. He used violence enthusiastically, even killing his opponents, which was a big no-no for almost all super-heroes but especially DC ones. As part of an ensemble, his character – bold, brash, rough around the edges, just like Marvel itself – contrasted with the rest of the characters in the book and indeed, in the rest of the Marvel Universe. His back-story was also mysterious (until they over-explained it and it was revealed to be incredibly stupid).
DC never had a Wolverine and they couldn’t, really. He’d clash too much with their house style and their family-friendliness. But DC still envies Marvel and that’s why now Superman snaps people’s necks and Batman has machine-guns on his car.
So there you have it. I hope that cleared things up for you.
NEXT – INDEPENDENTS DAY