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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Marvel / DC Comic Rivalry

Warning: This post deals with superhero comics. If you are not interested in superhero comics, read on at your own peril!

American superhero comics are almost all published by just two companies. Both Marvel and DC have big "universes" where all their characters and books can cross over with each other. They both dress their characters up in bright spandex and have them punch each other often. They both have noble heroes doing the right thing and insane villains with dastardly schemes. They both have long-term soap-operatic plotlines which twist around in all manners of convoluted ways. (I love all this.) On the surface, they're really quite similar.

But much has been made about the two universe's differences. The DC characters are perfect, the Marvel characters have flaws. The DC Universe is more likely to have zany things happen for no particular reason, the Marvel Universe is more grounded. The DC stories are set in fictional places like Metropolis and Gotham City, while Marvel stories are set in real places like New York City and San Francisco.

Some people might say that these are the reasons I read a ton of Marvel comics but very few DC ones. I've got a simpler explanation: Marvel comics are usually good, and DC comics are usually not.

There isn't really any fundamental difference between the two companies. Statistically speaking, you'll find slightly more reality in Marvel. But to every generality about either universe, there are many exceptions. Marvel has perfect characters like Captain America and Thor, while DC's most famous character (Batman) still whines about his parents. Marvel often has wacky nonsense happen, and DC often has grounded character bits. I don't think there's anything that would fit in one universe but not the other.

So what is it about Marvel comics that has me hooked, when almost every DC comic I've read has left me cold? It's the people involved in making them.

It's not like you can't tell a good Batman story. Look at The Dark Knight- what a fantastic movie! And yet, the current Batman comic is all about Batman hallucinating. And take Superman- he's such an iconic, provocative character, and no one can find anything interesting to do with him!

I'm not going to place all the blame on DC's writers. (Well, I am going to blame Grant Morrison. He can't tell a story.) I can't say for certain how much is bad writing, and much is editorial meddling.

Take the case of Kurt Busiek. He's a wonderful writer, whose enthusiasm for superheroes comes across with everything he does. They put him on Aquaman, a character who's rarely interesting, they gave him an ambiguous set-up he had to use (where Aquaman isn't really Aquaman), and he was still knocking it out of the park. He was doing a whole big fantasy epic underwater, and I was riveted. And then after just a few issues it all fell apart, lost all focus, and Busiek left for Superman. See, I can't say that that was all Busiek's fault, because I know from his Astro City comics that he usually knows where he's going and follows up on it. Anyway, he then took over Superman, and for a little while it was terrific. First he lost his powers, which was fun. And then it got into the whole question of whether Superman makes society too reliant on him, and seemed to be promising big pay-offs. And then it lost its way, started telling random stories that didn't add anything and didn't quite work on their own merits. And he quickly resolved everything and left for another comic. Which I read a few issues of and got bored.

No, really, he is a great writer. Astro City is terrific, where he creates a whole superhero universe with lots of good stories and no bad ones in sight. His series Marvels, presenting the history of Marvel comics from the perspective of the average person in the Marvel Universe, was also terrific. So he's capable of better. I blame the editors.

Or take Sean McKeever. Perfect example. He was writing for Marvel, and the quality of his comics went between "decent" and "spectacular". He wrote an Inhumans miniseries, making a bunch of alien teenagers relatable without making them less alien, and then he wrote the Mary Jane (later renamed "Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane") series, whose characterizations were complex and realistic but always relatable and engaging. Then he signed an exclusive deal with DC, and since then "decent" has seemed out of his reach. It goes from "disposable" to "horrifyingly bad". He was given Teen Titans, which seems perfect for him. But ever since he started, there's been barely a hint of the quality he used to be pulling off often. From what I understand, much of the stories he's writing are dictated to him by his editors, and he doesn't even get final choice of who's on the team. (Granted, I'm only getting a reader's perspective. So I could be totally off.) And they're just unbearably grim and silly- there was a very minor internet controversy about the last issue, which had two characters eaten alive by a dog.

Now, Marvel's editors are hardly perfect. The stunt they pulled last year with Spider-Man -having him literally make a deal with the devil in order to shift his status quo back to where it was in the 70's- did not impress me one bit. That came entirely from the editor-in-chief of Marvel. The only difference is, there are actually excellent stories after that. Not stories which couldn't have been done without the quasi-reboot, but still. Excellence. And if there are excellent stories being written, then the editors must be doing something right.

See, DC (like Marvel) has lots of big things happen. Usually things which don't last six months, which I'm sure will be the case with Batman losing his mind. But still, big things. And once they happen, there still aren't any really good stories being told. And if you're not going to have that, then what's the point?



I'm not a fan of superhero comics, but I get the impression you're allowing yourself some too broad generalisations (as well as some oversights; I'd argue that Superman, not Batman, is the most famous DC character).

I have difficulty understanding how Marvel comics are more realistic. Perhaps some of the stunts may be a little more grounded, but the premises are invariably beyond ludicrous. How do you get laser-eyes through evolution?? (In fact the whole of X-men is so outlandish I can barely read them). Not that DC is a monument to plausibility, but the premise behind Batman is still much more credible than that behind any Marvel character.

Overall I agree that writers should be let free to work on their material. But as someone who doesn't read much of these comics, I've got a question: what about Alan Moore and Frank Miller? They've worked for Marvel and their names tend to get thrown around pretty often. It's quite surprising to see they've got no space at all on this post.

All the best mate.

Marvel comics are not, as you say, significantly more realistic than DC. There are tiny elements here and there which are more like the real world, which Marvel's editors like to bring up. (Their slogan is "Your universe".) For instance, you have George W. Bush showing up every now and then, while DC has a fictional president. Stories often take place in "real places", at least in name. And the fantasy explanations for superpowers are more likely to pretend they have something to do with real science like genetics or radiation.

But yeah, none of that is particularly significant. Whatever you call it, comic-book science is fantasy. And as for the real places, Marvel stories often take place in fictional countries like Wakanda, Attilan, Madripoor, Latveria, etc. etc. As I said, I don't think there's any real difference between the two universes except who's writing and editing them. Superman could be a Marvel character and Spider-Man could be a DC character.

On reflection, I don't know who's really more famous, Superman or Batman. I guess the word I should have used was "popular".

As for Frank Miller and Alan Moore, um, what about them? They're hardly major presences in comics these days. They do their own thing, which is usually too vulgar for my liking. Frank Miller is writing an out-of-continuity Batman book where Batman is a raving psychopath kidnapping Robin and killing people left and right and cursing at everyone: "I'm the goddamned Batman!" It's sorta amusing, but mostly pointless. And Alan Moore's last major work (a few years back) was porn. (I don't plan to read that.) Neither of them have anything to do with the two big superhero universes, except in the sense that they wrote influential stories a long time ago.

It's not that Grant Morrison can't write a story.

You just can't read and understand one.

You have to be a complete MORON to think that Marvel is better than DC. Almost all of their characters are ripoffs from DC. Avengers: Justice League. Hulk: Solomon Grundy, who actually predates the "Hulk" by more than 20 years. Next time you write such a STUPID story, make sure you have your facts straight.


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