It really did matter once, Marvel or DC? But that was decades ago, when the differences between the two publishers' comics were obvious and consequential. When editor/writer Stan Lee and plotter/artist Jack Kirby brought the Marvel Era to life with Fantastic Four #1 in August 1961, theirs was a radically new approach to superhero comics. The long-established likes of DC’s Superman and Batman were famously and flawlessly noble. But the FF and its many successor superpeople – Spider-Man, The Avengers, Daredevil, The X-Men, and so on – were emotionally tormented and intrinsically flawed would-be champions who often felt like hopeless losers. At DC, heroism and villainy were transparently distinct. But Marvel gradually embraced a humanist compassion for the despised outsider. In an America still hauling itself away from McCarthyism, Marvel even treated some of its initially Red-Baiting Commie villains sympathetically. The company, it appeared, stood with the powerless against the powerful.
High school students and even graduates applauded. The Counter Culture approved. From 1964, the X-Men served as an obvious metaphor for Civil Rights. In 1966, Kirby and Lee’s Black Panther decisively broke the superhero colour bar. Typically, DC's child-reassuring stories returned to a comforting status quo upon conclusion. But those of upstart Marvel featured ongoing conflicts rooted in continuity and change. Propelled by the intoxicatingly innovative and thrillingly dynamic storytelling of, in particular, Kirby and Spider-Man/Dr Strange co-creator Steve Ditko, Marvel's approach could leave DC's pages seeming static and staid. Complacency, censorship and contempt had defined the comic book as a worthless medium, fit only for very young children. Marvel's burgeoning development suggested something quite different.
But DC wasn't the creatively sclerotic embarrassment of myth. From the Superman titles to its war books, from the charming comedy of Sugar and Spice to its strange superhero outliers such as Doom Patrol, it published a substantial number of still-classic stories. By the same token, Marvel's titles were hardly strangers to potboilers, as readers of Ant-Man might concede. Nor did the nature of either publisher remain static. By 1966, Marvel's experimentation was hardening into formula, while by 1970, DC had briefly eclipsed its rival in terms of inventiveness and quality. So it went, decade after decade, with the back-and-forth of creators, the succession of editorial regimes and the endless synthesising of approaches. Absolute differences dissolved into a common comics culture. Mediocrity has typically been the rule, although no era has been without its excellence. In many ways Marvel was the victor, as its Sixties blueprint came to anchor much of both publishers’ titles. But arguing about Marvel or DC’s superiority has long been no more meaningful than a snapshot of personal taste at a particular moment.
Green Lantern discovers racism: By the late 60s DC Comics was making the running on social issues.
Yet the Marvel v DC debate still resonates today, and it often seems to reference qualities more profound than individual opinion. Perhaps the initial clarity of the contrast between DC's traditionalism and Marvel's radicalism still appears to embody an immutable and perpetually relevant conflict. Why not then use that original breakthrough at Marvel as a benchmark to measure the subsequent success, or not, of either company? That at least would give us a score of sorts. Marvel's first comics were, at best, revolutionary in style and content, blending tradition with previously untapped influences. (At worst, they were intermittently interesting.) That quality was provided by an able team of creators spearheaded by a vanguard of quite remarkable talents. The result set the company quite obviously apart from its greatest rivals. Excellent and even groundbreaking titles have often appeared, but what about entire phalanxes of them? Has either Marvel or DC matched the former’s early-Sixties achievement in that since?
Has either Marvel or DC matched Marvel’s early-Sixties achievement in that since?
I'd suggest there's been three comparable eras. The first was also at Marvel, between 1973 and 1978. Driven by the first generation of fans to make comics professionally, the company's traditions were enriched by any number of pop culture genres, from kung fu to horror, from Blaxploitation to political satire. Among many others, there was the glorious anti-authoritarianism of Gerber, Mayerik & Colan’s Howard The Duck, and McGregor and Graham’s Black Panther, whose epic, Africa-based Panther's Rage featured a taboo-breaking all-black cast. If the period wasn't revolutionary as Marvel's first years had been, it was still an estimable evolution of the company's initial promise.
The second occurred at DC from 1983 to 1988. In a deliberate attempt to challenge Marvel's commercial pre-eminence, the company secured a critical mass of top-notch creators while encouraging diverse and ambitious work. To that was added the revolutionary storytelling of writer/artist Frank Miller, on The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One, and writer Alan Moore, on Swamp Thing and Watchmen. In the company of their gifted co-creators, Miller and Moore hybridised their love of action/adventure comics with any number of largely untapped influences. From Libertarianism to anarchism, from Japanese to European comics, from the expertly esoteric to hardboiled crime fiction, their comics were ambitious, spirited, innovative and playful. Eclipsing Marvel in terms of sales, influence and prestige, the collected editions of their work achieved the long dreamed-of breakthrough; critical and commercial success in the mainstream.
Finally, Marvel underwent an eventful resurgence between 2000 to 2005. Facing imminent financial collapse, the company belatedly abandoned its then-painfully fannish house style and installed a raft of laudable creative teams. For many years, Marvel and DC had occupied but a fraction of the comics marketplace, beyond which innovation had tended to occur. Now Marvel imported several newer storytelling techniques to invigorate its core characters. And so, Bendis and Bagley depicted a youthful Ultimate Spider-Man through the slower-moving and character-focused lens of “decompression”, while Millar and Hitch used the blockbuster-evoking widescreen approach to reboot The Avengers as The Ultimates. (The influence upon the coming Marvel movies would be direct, if not as profound as often claimed.) Less a revolution than a recognition of how fantastically stagnant Marvel's comics had become, it was still a period of rare and joyful achievement.
So, who comes out best according to this wholly subjective metric? In terms of these post-Sixties bursts of substantial creativity, Marvel trumps DC by 2 to 1. Yet we could argue that the only truly revolutionary period since Lee, Kirby and Ditko’s height occurred at mid-80s DC. Add in DC’s vital role in pioneering the superhero genre itself in the late Thirties and early Forties, and it might even be said that its history trumps Marvel’s.
Or to put it another way, who knows? It really is all a matter of opinion.