To those outside the community of comic book enthusiasts, the distinction between Marvel and DC doubtless takes on the absurd cast of extreme geekiness. After all, they’re both just brands of comic books, right? Peddling fungible iterations of the super-hero genre, featuring variations of negligible substance to anyone not polarized by irrational brand loyalty?
Wrong. You might as well say Protestants and Catholics adhere to functionally equivalent brands of Christianity, or that Democrats and Republicans are interchangeable units of American politics. The camps we choose to define our alignment, however, are not so arbitrary or trivial. They harvest our allegiance and foster tribal impulses, not for want of content to fill the vacuum of our identities, but because their fundamental characteristics innately appeal to distinct constituents.
And so it is with Marvel and DC, among the initiates versed in the circumstances. The basic differences have been ingrained throughout their histories, and run deep in the blood of their fans. Marvel is the superior product, more sophisticated, more engaging, more innovative. If someone says they’re into Marvel, chances are it’s a cool person. When someone prefers DC, I tend to feel embarrassed on their behalf.
Undeniably, DC got there first. The super-hero comic was invented in 1938 with the introduction of Superman in Action Comics #1, and Batman followed a year after that, the twin pillars of the DC empire. It was not until several months later that Marvel Comics #1 hit the scene with the early Marvel stars, the Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch. From the beginning, they adopted different approaches.
The DC protagonists were flawlessly heroic, icons of moral rectitude, and rather bland in personality. Superman was an alien with boundless power, masquerading as a mild-mannered reporter wearing glasses, and Batman was the crime-fighting alter ego of a fabulously wealthy socialite living in a mansion with his butler. They resided in fictional cities, Metropolis and Gotham, characters removed from ordinary experience in a setting removed from reality.
The Marvel characters were a different breed. The Human Torch was an android unable to control his destructive powers, feared and hunted as a menace. The Sub-Mariner was a vengeful prince of an undersea race, with a hatred of humanity and a tendency to launch invasions. When they met in an epic battle in 1940, they damaged actual landmarks in New York City like the Empire State Building. The first issue of Captain America was released a year before Pearl Harbor, at a time when popular opinion was sharply divided on whether America should stay out of the war; it featured Cap smashing Adolf Hitler in the jaw. Marvel heroes were intriguing, confounding, controversial. They lived in the real world and tackled real world issues.
As anyone familiar with comic book lore well knows, the genre was revolutionized by Marvel in the 1960s. The new wave of Marvel heroes were nuanced characters with real problems. The Fantastic Four bickered and disagreed like an actual family. Iron Man had a serious heart condition. Thor’s alter ego walked with a cane, Professor X was in a wheelchair and Daredevil was blind. The Hulk and the Thing were horrified by the monsters they’d become. In one issue, Spider-Man was threatened with legal action by three hoods he stopped from breaking into a jewelry store, insulted by one of them, soundly defeated by a super-villain, wounded while trying to sew up his costume, bawled out by his boss, snubbed when he had to break a date with a girl, punished for daydreaming in class, humiliated by his classmates, and hated and feared by the general public.
Marvel also wrestled with social issues and matters of consequence. In 1963, Gabe Jones was a black member of Nick Fury’s Howling Commandos, fully integrated as a team member but a focus of racial tension externally. The Black Panther was the first mainstream black super-hero, a proud African prince. Marvel characters faced bankruptcy, divorce, alcoholism, drug abuse, political corruption. From time to time, supporting characters actually died.
But reading Marvel comics was neither a maudlin inspection of troubled souls nor an exercise in social conscience. Most of all, Marvel was fun – full of action, plot twists, high drama and, more than anything, an abundance of humor. In characterization, vocabulary, intricacy of storytelling, Marvel aimed at the older reader, high school, even college age. Generations before the advent of social media, Marvel cultivated interaction with its fans, publishing and responding to letters, including a gossipy Bullpen Page in every issue, creating clubs like the Merry Marvel Marching Society, hyping the month’s offerings in the Mighty Marvel Checklist.
Did DC stand still while Marvel conquered the comic book world? Of course not. Indeed, over the years there’s been so much cross-migration of artists and writers that you can’t really differentiate in quality on that basis, at least past the Silver Age of the 1960s. But from that point, Marvel was established as the innovator and DC much more a trend-follower. To this day, DC is still clunking behind Marvel’s lead in establishing a cinematic universe. And DC remains moored to its platform of fictional cities and a too-powerful Superman.
So don’t dismiss me as arbitrary or capricious when I say Make Mine Marvel. It’s the Apple to DC’s PC. And don’t get me started on Quisp versus Quake.