Marvel Comics is one of the two giants of the comic book publishing industry. They're Coke. They're Democrats. They are one side of what is basically a two sided coin. The other side of this duality, obviously, is DC Comics, but what if they weren't only one side of that coin? What if, instead of Coke, still having Pepsi to contend with, they were actually Highlander? What if there were only one? This is a scenario that came really very close to happening back in 1984. Having been born in 1980, and not really getting into comics until 1992, I would have grown up in a world where there was always ever just the one major comic book publishing company. So, if this little bit of lesser known history is new to you, here are the facts as they were related by former Marvel Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter, who told the tale on his blog back in 2011.
It's no secret that during the late seventies and the early eighties that DC Comics wasn't doing so well. The post-Vietnam world was a different place and, while DC had tried to change with the times, the ways they tried to do that weren't always that popular. We got a feminist man-hating Lois Lane, who is someone Superman would never be in love with, or probably even really like being around, and we got a Wonder Woman who looked a lot more like Mary Tyler Moore than Lynda Carter. Not to mention that characters like Superman had become so muddled with over-continuity that they had become hard to understand and had drifted so far from their inception that to their creators they would have been nearly unrecognizable. DC Comics had lost control of the wheel and was headed for a cliff. Enter Bill Sarnoff, Executive Vice President of Publishing at Warner Communications in 1984.
Sarnoff called up Jim Shooter and made him what, to Shooter, was the offer of a lifetime. Warner Bros was looking to sell DC Comics and they wanted to know if Marvel was at all interested. To be clear, this was a deal just for publishing rights, so it was more of a licensing deal than an outright merger. Presumably, Marvel would have gotten the publishing rights to all of the DC characters in perpetuity, but WB would retain ownership of the characters and film and television rights as well as merchandising, which were still doing very well. Shooter didn't really go into too much detail on what the deal would have been, but he did go into detail about why it ultimately didn't end up happening.
Being very optimistic about the idea, Shooter told Sarnoff that he would speak to Marvel President Jim Galton and that Marvel would be back in touch with him. Shooter immediately ran to Galton's office and told him about the conversation he'd just had and told him he needed to call Sarnoff to hammer out the details. To Shooter, this was a no-brainer and was going to be a done deal. By morning, Marvel Comics would soon be publishing every major superhero comic book on the market. The possibilities were endless, until Shooter came to work the next morning. Racing up to Galton's office as soon as he walked in the door to see how everything went, Galton gave Shooter the news that caused his heart to sink into his stomach. "I told them we weren't interested," Galton said.
"What do you mean we aren't interested?" Shooter asked, flabbergasted.
"The characters aren't selling," Galton shot back, rather matter-of-factly. "Obviously, they aren't any good."
Shooter couldn't believe what he was hearing. Shooter sat down and explained to Galton that DC did have good characters. They had great characters. The reason their books weren't doing so well had nothing to do with the characters, but that it was the editorial staff who was failing. They weren't doing anything good with their characters, but that didn't mean the characters were lost causes. I mean, after all, they were talking about Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. Characters so iconic that even Marvel, in a lot of ways, didn't have anything to compare with them. These were characters who had existed almost twice as long as anything Marvel had going for them. These characters dated back to the Golden Age! Superman is the superhero archetype! Shooter was successful in convincing Galton to call Sarnoff back and tell him that Marvel would like to think it over, while Shooter himself rushed off to prepare a proposal for the Marvel buyout of DC.
Three days later, Shooter had his proposal written up. He decided to start with an initial line of seven titles: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Justice League, Teen Titans and The Legion of Super-Heroes. Shooter projected that they would sell 39 million copies the first two years, generating a revenue of $3.5M, before taxes. That would have been a huge windfall for Marvel. And if their initial DC line had done that well, obviously there would have been more titles to come, increasing Marvel's profit on the buyout even more. Joe Calamari, Marvel's V.P, of Business Affairs, who had also been called in for the meeting, rabidly endorsed Shooter's plan. Still reluctant, Galton sent Shooter's plan to Marvel's circulation department and asked for their analysis.
While waiting to hear back from circulation on the viability of Shooter's plan, something a little remarkable had happened. John Byrne had shown up at Shooter's office with a piece of artwork. It wasn't a sketch, or a design, it was a fully finished cover for what could be Marvel's Superman #1. Apparently, John Byrne really wanted to do Superman, and he decided he was going to go for it. According to Shooter, he even had the story worked out. The only thing he needed was for this deal to go through and for Shooter to give him the assignment, which probably would have happened.
Circulation had finished their analysis and Galton called another meeting to discuss their results. Ed Shukin, Marvel's V.P. of Circulation, told Galton that he felt Shooter's numbers were ridiculous. Galton gave Shooter a look as if to say, "I told you so," but then Shukin elaborated on his analysis. "We can easily do twice those numbers," Shukin said. That was it. This had become a no-brainer for Marvel. They were going to buy DC Comics. Superman and Batman were going to exist alongside Spider-Man and the X-Men. Marvel Comics was going to be the last man standing, so to speak. There really can be only one. Then the bottom fell out.
According to federal law, once a company reaches a 70% market share in any particular industry, they can be in danger of being sued as a monopoly. Marvel was very close to a 70% share of the comic book publishing market. According to Shooter, they had "69 point something" and DC, the next biggest kid on the playground, had 18%. Along came First Comics. You ever heard of First Comics? Yeah, me either. Apparently, they had only been in existence for a year before they decided to bring this suit against Marvel, alleging violations of anti-trust laws as well as unfair business practices, among other things. First Comics had claimed that Marvel had flooded the market and that they had used their considerable influence to cause World Color Press, the largest printer of comic books in the world since WW2, to artificially inflate their prices for First Comics to try and drive them out of business. This accusation was proved baseless in discovery, as it was shown that Marvel's prices were much higher than First's, which didn't make Marvel very happy.
Unfortunately, the damage had been done. Marvel had considered pressing on, but in the end they decided that while you are being sued as a monopoly is not the most opportune time to devour your largest competitor. So they quietly backed away and Warner Publishing was forced to fix DC Comics rather than just cut ties with it. Enter the Crisis on Infinite Earths! DC streamlined and became profitable again, while Marvel ended up declaring bankruptcy in the 90s. In the end, both companies have flourished and the rivalry continues. Perhaps, there never really can be only one.