Marvel and DC, the two biggest titans of the comic book landscape, have always been destined to face off on the fields of marketplace battle. So which is better? Neither; that's a dumb question. They both have strengths and weaknesses. They're both awesome. But how are they different? Because they kind of are. So what separates these two huge companies? Let's take a look!
Let's look at the current slate of comics for both companies and where they're headed.
DC Rebirth has been fantastic, and has created a number of books I love reading, something that simply wasn't true of the New 52 before it. Marvel has a lot of lower-tier books that I’m absolutely loving, like Ms. Marvel, Moon Knight, both Captain America books, Jessica Jones, and Occupy Avengers.
Also, Secret Empire is fantastic right now. Just SO good. However, both companies have their own issues that are inherent in their publishing schedules. DC's entirely meat-and-potatoes approach has resulted in some great comics, but they’re completely missing the more obscure, anarchic comics that used to be fun. The DC of today would never have published Hitman or Starman, two of the best things they've ever done. And Marvel's obscure books are fantastic, but none of the top-tier series (other than the Captain Americas) are all that exciting. They just feel a bit stale and in need of a shakeup.
It's funny, because each company needs what the other excels at. Odd, that.
What It Means for You
So hey, you, which comic company is right for you?
Well, that really just depends on what you personally want to get out of the experience. If you want big, bold superhero comics, go with DC. If you’re looking for books focusing on smaller, more personal characters, choose Marvel.
Wanna see a movie? That's definitely a Marvel advantage. But TV is DC's turf. Shared universe stuff will lean you more toward Marvel, but if you have a thing for long-running non-superhero books, or more adult themes, Vertigo will sit you in DC's camp. Essentially, you can pick and choose the best things from both companies and slap them together.
Improve your reading experience.
History of Popular Consciousness
Marvel and DC's next big difference comes when we view the history of their brands. And quite simply, if we're talking about impact on the popular consciousness, DC has had far and away greater success.
Look, everyone knows Spider-Man, Iron Man, and the Hulk; but Superman and Batman? Those two are American icons, through and through. Marvel's big guys (aside from Spider-Man and Hulk) didn't really gain a huge amount of prominence until the late nineties/early 2000s.
And when they did, it was on the backs of successful films. Superman is THE superhero for most people, and pretty much has been since his inception. Honestly, it’s hard to think of a more recognizable character the world over. He's one of the top eight most-recognized fictional characters on earth, with Mickey Mouse coming in first. But, for the most part, the Marvel heroes are recognized as comic book characters and as action film stars.
Superman and the Justice League? They're goshdarn pop culture legends.
Hey, let's look at live-action broadcast TV. And…DC wins.
DC has The Flash. That’s an automatic win.
That show is great! They also had Smallville, which was cheesy as all hell, but wonderfully so. If we were including on-demand and streaming television, Marvel would have a better shot, because Jessica Jones is the beeeeeest and Daredevil Season 1 was pretty great. Luke Cage was good too. However, since we're just looking at broadcast TV, Marvel is represented by"¦Agents of SHIELD. Oof. Look, that show's not, like, bad. But it isn't on par with The Flash. Or even the less-good Arrow. Also, I'm not going to judge things too harshly without seeing it yet, BUT if I wind up liking Inhumans, I will be so shocked I might die. Legion is rad as hell, but it isn't enough to win me over.
Who Owns You?
Let's talk about everyone's favorite thing, PARENT CORPORATIONS!!!!!!!!!
DC Comics was a subsidiary of Warner Communications, and is now owned by the corporate monolith Time-Warner. Fun fact: For those who don't know, a shockingly small number of companies own huge numbers of our entertainment corporations. Like, my chosen field of study is Film and Television, and the number of Disney-owned entertainment corporations alone is terrifying.
Speaking of great segues, Marvel Comics is one of those Disney-owned subsidiaries. The difference here is in the way both companies treat their comic book companies. Disney bought Marvel after the Marvel Cinematic Universe experiment was already a success. So their approach to the movies specifically was incredibly hands-off.
They pretty much hit on a keep doing what you're doing, it's working well, it'll be cool vein, and just rode it to success. However, DC has been owned by Warner since before the beginning of the huge superhero movie boom. So their film properties have always been funnelled through a huge studio system, which hurts the results. Marvel Studios was founded to avoid that whole thing.
DC steered into the curve.
Since I'm sure I've just pissed off a bunch of DC fans, it's time for me to win them back by saying that, in terms of animated television shows, DC beats Marvel, hands friggin' down.
Batman: The Animated Series is one of the greatest cartoons of all time. Ever. It's one of my favorite TV shows of all time. And what was it up against back in the nineties? That decent Spider-Man cartoon? That really, really awful X-Men cartoon that everyone is nostalgia-blind for? I dare you to find me one single episode of either of them that's even one-third as good as If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Rich?, never mind finding one as good as Heart of Ice.
Like, DC animation is Emmy Award winning. And it's not just BTAS. Superman: The Animated Series, Justice League Unlimited, Static Shock, Young Justice, Batman Beyond, Batman: The Brave and the Bold…all of these shows are mind-bogglingly good.
Marvel has made some good shows, and their best, Spectacular Spider-Man, is certainly up there, but the sheer number of great DC shows is unparalleled.
WE ARE GOING TO BE ADULTS ABOUT THIS. I DON'T WANNA SEE ANYONE ACTING LIKE WHINY CHILDREN IN THE COMMENTS, OKAY?
Ahem. Look, DC's recent film slate is awful. There's no getting around it. Wonder Woman is getting positive reviews right now, and hopefully that'll rock. But as of right now, Marvel's haven't made a single awful movie, just a few mediocre ones MCU track record is embarrassing them. But once again, it stems from The Problem.
DC wanted the film franchise that Marvel had. But they started it by following the wrong leader. I’m convinced that both studios had their fates decided by their first huge successes in the late 2000s. Marvel's was Iron Man, and, as much as I adore the MCU, they've made a bunch of movies that feel like Iron Man. DC had The Dark Knight and, while that tone and aesthetic works very well for Batman, taking it and blanket slapping it on the rest of their characters is an awful idea that didn't work out. Like it or not, Marvel and DC have both been tracing their big hits from 2008. The only difference is, Marvel's attempt is working.
What Do You Want to Be when You Grow Up?
Here, I’ll indulge in discussing something a much better writer explored in much greater depth. In an edition of his famous Ask Chris column, former Comics Alliance writer Chris Sims (of whom I'm a huge fan) figured out why DC keeps making bad decisions. He dubbed it The Problem.
In short, The Problem is this: DC wants to be Marvel. Marvel was cool; DC was old school. So they rebooted after Crisis and tried to make their universe more like Marvel’s. The Metagene was introduced and gave DC mutants. They greenlighted books like Firestorm in an attempt to develop their own Spider-Man.
DC has rebooted and shifted and done so much because they really want to be Marvel. Even today. DC Rebirth finally seems like a start in their attempt to re-DC-ify their universe again, but the New 52? That was DC wanting to be Marvel. And what does Marvel want to be?
Well, they also want to be Marvel"¦just 1996’s version of Marvel.
Real People, Real Problems
The Marvel Universe was built out of a desire to integrate realistically written characters into comic book stories. But "realistic" is really a less than accurate descriptor, despite the number of people who use it frequently. These are stories about people who can fly and shoot webs. “Realistic” is pretty damn far from an accurate descriptor.
A better way of phrasing it is this: Marvel Comics built their characters to be flawed. DC didn't. DC would later go back and subtly characterize their stable of heroes, but Marvel's characters were built from the ground up to be antagonistic, short-tempered, and snarky. They built characters you could relate to.
People say that the DC pantheon are more akin to modern-day Greek gods than Marvel's heroes are, but that isn't true. The Greek gods were effed up. They did horrible things and made dramatic mistakes.
They’re in line with the Marvel method, through and through.
Horror! War! Romance!
Throughout the fifties and sixties, Marvel wasn't publishing superhero comic books. Well, for a lot of that, they weren't even called Marvel Comics. But Atlas Comics published a series of things.
They published horror comics. They published war comics. They published Western comics. They published romance comics. They published giant monster comics. And when they returned to making superhero comics, they brought all of that with them. So Marvel's new brand of superhero comics felt like nothing anyone had ever seen before. Their heroes went through scientific origins with ironic consequences like horror characters.
They fought foreign spies and tanks like war heroes. They dated and broke up like romance stars. Seriously, if you read Amazing Fantasy #15, it doesn't feel like a hero origin; it feels like an old EC horror comic . That monster on the cover of Fantastic Four #1? That thing is a classic Kirby Monster, through and through. And you know who else is a Kirby monster? The Thing. Even Marvel's heroes were swirled with other genres.
It's what's kept them going to this day.
Antagonism as Marketing
DC became popular in a vacuum. However, Marvel became popular in a world where DC was already a big deal.
So Stan Lee came up with one of the best and oldest marketing tricks known to man: Start some s**t. He took to the letters columns, and started referring to the company across the street as The Distinguished Competition. Get it? Stan would constantly rail against the competitors in a charming, tongue-in-cheek way.
There's no better way to get brand loyalty going than to create an enemy. But while Marvel was building a counter-cultural identity out of sniping at DC, DC really kind of ignored Marvel. Yeah, they take a shot now and then, but they have mostly sat out the squabbling, leaving Marvel to spearhead the rivalry. Heck, Marvel has created some of their best (and worst) comics through this rivalry.
True, Marville and Ultimate Adventures were crimes against sighted people. But Squadron Supreme is one of the greatest Marvel Comics of all time, and that’s nothing but Marvel proving they could make the greatest Justice League story to not actually feature the Justice League. Impressive.
What If and Elseworlds
Where there are superhero comics, there are alternate universes. You can't have one without the other.
If you lock a bunch of writers in a room with a Spider-Man comic, in ten minutes they'll have come up with thirty story ideas about what he'd be like in medieval times or if he'd been bitten by a radioactive horse instead of a spider. They are incorrigible that way. But the way Marvel and DC have always handled their alternate universe stories has been dramatically different.
Marvel's attempts came in the form of their long running series What If?, a comic book that looked at specific moments in a character’s history and asked what would happen if something went a bit differently. Examples include What if Jane Foster Was Thor? and What if Spider-Man's Daughter Had Lived?
On the other hand, DC took the approach of doing prestige one-shots or miniseries that re-imagined their heroes in different times or places. For instance, Gotham by Gaslight, sees a Victorian Batman facing off against Jack the Ripper. Both interesting approaches, both approaches that I love.
Epic Comics, Icon, Malibu. All attempts to give Marvel what DC has had for decades: a Vertigo.
For those who don't know, Vertigo is a DC Comics imprint designed to give contracted creators a chance to release creator-owned comics. DC has released some of the best comic books of all time through Vertigo. Preacher. Transmetropolitan. Y: The Last Man. Unfollow.
These are undeniably some of the greatest comics I've ever read, and they were all shuffled out of DC through that Vertigo imprint. Said imprint was also used for books like Sandman, Swamp-Thing, and Hellblazer, which used DC Universe characters in darker, more mature stories.
I love Marvel Comics. I love Marvel SO much, but they've never had that. They tried fairly recently with Icon, and the most notable book to come out of that was Kick-Ass, which is"¦uh"¦literally as far from Sandman as you can possibly get.
Sharing is Caring
Marvel invented the modern conception of a shared universe.
True, Superman and Batman always liked to team up, but the built-in interconnectivity of the Marvel Universe was a huge deal at the time. And it created a very different universe for Marvel to play in. Pretty much all DC villains, for instance, are tied to specific heroes for the most part. While Marvel's famous foes are pretty free-wheeling.
For example, Dr. Doom has regularly fought the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, Doctor Strange, and Spider-Man, and that's just off the top of my head. The Marvel Universe was built in one city; everything is New York. The DC Universe is spread across the whole United States. Gotham is built for Batman. Metropolis is designed for Superman.
Yeah, Superman visits Gotham and Batman does business in Metropolis, but they mostly stick to their own turf, with exceptions. The Marvel Universe is made to be shared. The DC Universe is a series of pockets.
Honorable Mention 1: Legacy
The DC Universe took until the mid-nineties until to find its real heart, but when it found that heart, it shone brightly: legacy.
Jay Garrick to Barry Allen to Wally West. Dan Garrett to Ted Kord to Jaimie Reyes. Alan Scott to Hal Jordan to if I do all the Green Lanterns, we're gonna be here all day, so let's keep it moving.
Essentially, the DCU was able to function as a regenerating universe, with brand new heroes coming in to replace the old ones. Look, Peter Parker is always gonna be Spider-Man. But who's The Flash this week? Could be anyone. It keeps things fresh and new.
Well, it did until The New 52 reboot, which wiped all that legacy stuff away. But hey, at least it looks like DC Rebirth is trying to bring it back. Thank God. I missed it so very much. And it was the biggest thing separating DC Comics from Marvel Comics.
Honorable Mention 2: Re-Re-Reboot
Marvel has never had an outright, ground-up, end-to-end reboot. DC has had three hard reboots and a couple of soft ones.
The first DC reboot was the start of the Silver Age of comics, when DC replaced Jay Garrick and Alan Scott with Barry Allen and Hal Jordan and renovated from the ground up. Round Two was the maxi-series Crisis on Infinite Earths, which blended DC's multiple alternate earths into one unified timeline, folding characters like The Justice Society, Captain Marvel, and The Question into the same continuity as everybody else.
This created the legacy-happy DCU we all know and love. Then 2011 brought us the New 52 reboot, which was pretty much another start from scratch. And currently, the DC Rebirth event is soft rebooting a lot of elements of the universe, with Superman as the most recent. On the other hand, Marvel has never hard rebooted, although they went through a really soft reboot after Secret Wars (the 2015 one).
A couple of dudes got folded into the continuity (mostly Miles Morales and Old Man Logan), and some small stuff was changed, but everything else pretty much picked up where it left off.
So when you rack it all up and look at the totality of the thing, which is better? Marvel or DC? The old giant or the young usurper? The media darling or the struggling juggernaut? The house of ideas or the home of Superman?
Well, the answer is"¦Neither, you dingbat; I said this at the beginning. Like, I opened this entire thing up by talking about how I thought both were excellent and it was a matter of personal taste.
Do I think one company does certain things better than the other in some cases? Yes. Do I think one is inherently better than the other? No; that's silly.
Like what you like, it's all good, folks. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to get back to actually reading comics.