Comic book fans will always have their favorites. They identify with certain characters more than others, and often gravitate towards particular creators who use a style they prefer. Much like rooting for a chosen sports team, many comic book fans also have a company they find supporting the majority of the time. While there are numerous comic book companies out there, this argument is usually distilled down to Marvel versus DC.
Just so we’re on the same page… Marvel is – The X-Men, Wolverine, The Avengers, Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk, Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, and many others. DC is – The Justice League, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, Teen Titans, The Justice Society, and many others. For those not immersed in comic culture, there can often be confusion as both companies have multiple characters that display similar powers and/or names. For instance, Hawkeye of The Avengers and Green Arrow of The Justice League are both world-class archers. Namor, The Sub-Mariner and Dr. Strange are with Marvel, while Aquaman and Dr. Fate are with DC. Even more confusing, is that fact that the original “Captain Marvel” was created by Fawcett Comics in 1939 (decades before the birth of Marvel Comics) and was eventually bought out by DC. (1) That Captain Marvel is a magic-based hero who appears in the title “Shazam!” and the other Captain Marvel is/was an alien super soldier who gained cosmic powers.
But why does this all matter?
Much has been written about the creation of Superman, and what Siegel & Shuster where thinking back in those days. (2) While Bob Kane was obviously taking inspiration from other fictional masked vigilantes of the time for Batman, the word “superman” is a rough translation of “ubermensch,” a term philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche coined. Whether or not Nietzsche’s work was an influence, the overall concept resonates throughout the DC Universe.
This is almost the opposite of what Stan Lee and associates set out to do in 1961. Having already worked on the original incarnation of Captain America created at Timely Comics in his youth, and riding on the renaissance of superheroes DC had launched a few years before, Lee tried something different. (3) The Marvel heroes were flawed individuals with recognizable personalities, and it struck a chord with disillusioned fans.
Looking back over the decades of creative work and competition, the distinctions become more apparent if you search for them. More importantly, these distinctions are what allowed so many readers to lean towards one company or the other. There are obviously examples where this doesn’t conform to theory, but its more felt in the overall essence of each company’s style.
DC is largely comprised of archetypes that have been constructed over the years to form dynasties and pantheons. (4) There is a “Flash Family,” a Green Lantern Corps, and an entire legacy of ordinary detectives under the Mantle Of The Bat. The symbols themselves play a great factor in establishing DC’s distinction, too. The iconic sigils of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, and many others, not only identify each hero with a single glance, but wordlessly elevates them to that “uber” rank.
Marvel is composed of individuals who have chosen to unite for whatever reason. Outside of the Mutants and their X symbol, (which is more flag than sigil) there are few heroes or groups that hold to a singular banner. While Spider-man might fit this description in some cases, he has often been written as a solitary figure with temporary heroic associations. Instead of higher entities, Marvel heroes are presented as your peer.
At DC, you have The Dark Knight, The Amazon Princess, The Sea King, The Emerald Authority, The Martian Manhunter, The Scarlett Speedster, and The Last Son Of Krypton. At Marvel you have a soldier, a scientist, a billionaire, a spy, a god, a reporter, and a family. Do you see the difference in presentation? How a fan feels about that is one of the things that helps define his or her preference.
Perhaps one of the most telling signs is how fans react to flaws in continuity or non-canon tales. Loyal readers of Marvel have long been aggravated by any ret-cons or faulty story-telling. The speculative title “What If?” has never been terribly well received, and only a handful of special projects have found acceptance, such as The Ultimates line. DC fans, however, have been subject to multiple overhauls over the years, and numerous speculative “Elseworld” titles have been released to acclaim. One could theorize that Marvel fans feel they have a vested interest in the ongoing lives of their heroes and that DC fans feel they are most concerned about seeing the best story possibly told.
In the end, none of it matters. Wolverine is iconically recognizable despite having no definite outfit or sigil, and one could hardly argue Batman doesn’t need a few years of therapy. The creators, the writers and the artists, and the stories they’re giving us are what matter. And how these stories make us feel is what matters most. There have always ben critics and detractors, going all the way back to the true comic book villain, Fredric Wertham, but chances are they’ve never dreamt the way fans do. (5)
And regardless of which team you support, Marvel or DC, you dream big.
Since this essay was initially written, DC Comics has received criticism for their handling of the original Green Lantern character, Alan Scott, in the DC52 reboot. (6) Interestingly enough, the controversy does not seem to be centered around the change in his sexual orientation (the character is now gay), but in the fact a character created in 1940 has been so drastically ret-coned.
No longer is Alan Scott a father-figure hero in his early sixties, and an inspiration to generations after. His powers have been drastically changed, and (perhaps most notable) his superhero children have been erased from the timeline. Including his gay son, Obsidian. (7)
Still, the entire marketing ploy that many see as a scramble to adapt to the contemporary political climate at Marvel is causing less turmoil than had a veteran Marvel character been reworked in this fashion. What little eye rolling DC is getting for the move is more due to what feels like calculated timing and needless desperation. And any criticisms aside, fans will still flock to the book to see if it’s a good story.