|But not without a good punch-up first.|
How, I pretend you ask? Think on this: culture changes with the times. Art is a response to the culture. The art that lasts is the art that evolves with the times and culture to convey timeless subject matter and themes. Comic books are such an art. For example, Batman turns seventy-five this year. He’s been punching evil in the mouth since May 1939. He's fought the Axis Powers, mad scientists, eco-terrorists, gang members and leaders, natural disasters, disease, his rogues gallery, and his own traumas for an entire human lifespan, and he's still going like, well, a bat out of hell. The same goes for Superman, Wonder Woman, Robin, Captain America, Namor… and even though characters like the Fantastic Four, Spider-man, the Hulk, Iron Man, and others have only been around since the sixties, they're all pretty close to retirement age.
|FLASH: "I used to be the fastest man alive. Didn't I? I was."|
AQUAMAN: "I should probably wear sunblock."
BATMAN: "Why do we still hang out with these guys, Clark?"
To be slightly less grandiose, comics are cool, and they are more than they seem. Thanks to continued film adaptations, they're arguably higher-profile than ever before, though their source material remains a niche market. So, why now? What brought comics to the screen in such a forceful way? The proliferation of visual effects helps, but that's not a main cause. Answering the "why now?" question could fill an article in and of itself. For the purposes of this article, I postulate that the timing is right. As an audience, we respond and relate to the simple, wish-fulfilling ways superheroes tackle the same big emotions and issues we see in the world. To paraphrase Aunt May in Spider-Man 2, there's a hero in all of us, and that's a reason these heroes who have been with us since childhood stick around. There's something primal there that we recognize.
Now then: if Marvel and DC have each produced high-level works over the course of their storied histories, why the disparity? Why does Marvel seem so much cooler, and why can't DC get their act together?
|"Hey, Robert, you know what's funny? How much more awesome we are than EVERYONE."|
"I think that's just me, Kevin. But you go ahead."
That said, public perception does matter, and the perception is that DC has fallen behind Marvel in adapting their properties to screen. DC retains a temporary advantage on TV—no less than four of their characters are coming or returning to TV in 2014-15, including Arrow, The Flash, Constantine, and the various people to be found in Gotham. Marvel has Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but is getting in on the Netflix game with four series (Daredevil, Iron Fist, Luke Cage, and Jessica Jones) culminating in their Defenders event. On film, Marvel's legacy is well-known, having broken new ground in moviemaking with their Cinematic Universe. DC is in the process of building their own on-screen universe, playing catchup.
Let's move on to some of that history I mentioned. DC, originally National Allied Publications, published Action Comics #1, the first appearance of Superman, in June 1938. He's the blueprint. Everything stems from him, more or less. A string of imitators, including Fawcett Comics' Captain Marvel (who would, confusingly enough, be bought and later published by DC), followed as Superman became an incredibly popular character. Batman was essentially created as a response to Superman, the night to his day. To draw from Grant Morrison again, Superman was inspired, but Batman was assembled in such a way and from such pieces that he, too, endured. Robin, Batman's famed sidekick, debuted in 1940 to provide younger readers with someone they could relate to. Wonder Woman arrived in 1941, a heroic feminine archetype meant to make comics more inclusive. A few other titles published around this time, Green Lantern and Flash Comics, might sound familiar as well.
As these heroes grew up during World War II, they were often drawn into fighting real-life enemies. Superman took the fight to the Nazis years before America itself would enter the war. Batman and Robin worked side-by-side with the Man of Steel to entice readers to buy war bonds. Early on, the trinity of the DC Universe tackled the big fights, as much a part of the Greatest Generation as anyone from that era. National merged with an offshoot of their company, Detective Comics (where Batman debuted in #27, May 1939) along with a host of others in 1944 to form National Comics and National Periodical Publications, but the company eschewed those mouthfuls for the friendlier Superman-DC moniker, which by the Seventies simply became DC Comics.
Marvel had its World War II heroes as well, but back then it was called Timely Publications. The company's first comics magazine, Marvel Comics, featured the hot-tempered and fierce Namor the Sub-Mariner and his erstwhile nemesis, the original Human Torch—an android whose skin, by quirk of design, caught fire on contact with air. Publisher Martin Goodman, releasing material through several different companies under one banner, hired a family friend in 1939 who would by 1941 become the main editor for Timely output. His pseudonym was Stan Lee. Also in 1941, writer/editor Joe Simon and legendary artist Jack Kirby produced one of the first patriotic heroes. Captain America punched Hitler square in the jaw on the cover of his first eponymous comic magazine. Eventually, as the demand for superheroes waned, Goodman published his comics using the name of his newsstand company, Atlas Comics. Only one of the original Timely characters, though, would endure at the core of the Marvel Comics that debuted in 1961, and this is where the differences between the Big Two begin.
DC's core cast of heroes were created or updated during World War II, the Korean War, and a few years after. They were upright moral citizens who fought crime because it was right. Superman's original foes were gang bosses, wife beaters, and crooked politicians. He was a champion of the little guy, someone who didn’t like bullies. He and his friends were symbols of ultimate right and good, and always knew how to save the day. Marvel's core cast, with the aforementioned exception of Captain America, largely came about in the Sixties, during some of the headiest days of the Cold War. Legend has it that Stan Lee, now in his forties and exhausted from trying to cope with editorial demands, was about to quit writing until his wife advised him to write something he himself would enjoy reading. He wrote Fantastic Four #1. Like many of the revamped DC heroes, such as "police scientist" Barry Allen / the Flash, the new crop of Marvel heroes were science heroes, but with a new inventive twist: radioactivity, the spark of life for a whole new generation of superheroes. During a time when the any-day-now fear of The Bomb was rampant, Marvel stole back the terrifying power of the atom and nuclear energy as a force for hope and possibility.
|A quick plug: this is actually from a DC graphic novel called Kingdom Come. |
If you like superheroes at all, read it. Also, Marvels. Both are drawn by Alex Ross. But I digress...
Stan Lee conjured a blazing rivalry between Marvel and DC where none had existed, out of paper and ink in his soapbox columns at the end of his books. He positioned Marvel as DC's chief opponent and, slowly but surely, Marvel began to out-cool the outmoded "Dad Comics." The head start DC had on Marvel started shrinking. DC tried copying the Marvel formula to little success, trying to compete with a mode of storytelling they weren't used to. DC's heroes didn't ring true under the Marvel traditions—their stories gave you an ideal to strive toward beneath the bright four-color printing. Marvel's stories told you that you were human, and that was okay, because so are the superheroes.
The human vs. myth dichotomy causes other kinds of problems for the DC pantheon. If I may personally interject for a moment, I cannot tell you to what extent I've become a Superman apologist. Before I'd read more of the source material, when I really only knew my heroes from movies and TV, I shared the view that Superman, the first superhero, was a dumb character because he had every power under the sun and no good villains. I ripped into him any chance I got, championing the far cooler Batman in his place. I didn't "get it" until I discovered the bounty of wonderful Superman stories told over the years, and realized what it was he represented—the best in us. It's hard to tell a compelling dramatic story with a character who is supposed to be ultimate good, ultimate right, and an ultimate power. Batman just made more sense. But a character can have everything Superman does and still be conflicted, still have narrative power.
Wonder Woman, though she is the preeminent female superhero, has similar problems because while people know who she is in pop culture, no one really knows what she's about. It's common knowledge that Batman became who he was through training, after seeing his parents gunned down before him. People know he protects Gotham. People know Superman came from Krypton, is super-strong and can fly, and is weak against a green rock usually wielded by a bald evil genius. Diana—that's Wonder Woman; see my point?—doesn't have the same level of recognition. Maybe people know that she's an Amazon, thanks to Lynda Carter and the Seventies TV show. Almost forty years on, though, those memories are fading. An abortive attempt to revive the character on television failed three years ago. A Google search for “Superwoman” turns up pictures of Wonder Woman, and there isn't even a real, consistent hero named Superwoman (evil Earth-3 counterpart aside). Franchises trade on known quantities, on the familiar, on giving people more of what they know. Marvel excels at this.
|Like this guy. They put him in every movie, and people keep coming back.|
Do you see the problem? And outside of Batman, these are some of DC's easier origins to comprehend. There's nothing wrong with these origins—they're just as plausible, inventive, and interesting as any other fiction—but they aren't as accessible. It takes far less work to understand how Marvel heroes became Marvel heroes. Marvel had the advantage of a greater public understanding of science with which to characterize their heroes, and this grounds them in a way that wasn't available to the more mythic DC heroes. Marvel's heroes can be explained with a handful of words. DC's take longer. Couple this with an increasingly short public attention span, and people's eyes start to glaze over when you explain how Superman gets his powers from our yellow sun, because of his alien physiology that evolved to exist under the red sunlight of his home planet Krypton…
|Aaaaaand even Batman's bored.|
That's Marvel's ultimate advantage and, I think, its ultimate appeal. Its characters are more human. Under the full face mask, Spider-Man could be anyone. We recognize the rage inside the Hulk. The X-Men's struggles reflect those of almost any minority group. These are well-known characters with huge popular appeal, and with the continued global successes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Marvel brand has never been so pervasive. DC, however, may well own the three most instantly recognizable superheroes in the world in Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, alongside a few cultural touchstones in characters like the Flash and Aquaman—but there's a reason they call those first three the "trinity." DC characters watch over Earth from a base on the moon or from an orbiting satellite fortress, and retreat to dark underground caves or remote arctic sanctuaries, instead of living in New York.
This is why I bear my DC bias, because I prefer the mythic characters. I enjoy the metafictional cosmic epics about realities tearing apart. It's just my groove. (Perhaps ironically, I prefer the more human Star Trek over the epic Star Wars. Maybe it's just the characterization.) People respond differently to different art. Personal taste is, well, personal. Thanks to a combination of relatable source material and some moviemaking brilliance, Marvel is again the dominant force in the superhero industry. Its greatest weakness is simply that it didn't get there first, in comics or on film, and wasn't able to set the templates for superheroes to come. It doesn't have Wonder Woman. It doesn't have Superman. And, most crucially, it doesn't have Batman. There's something to be said for the classics.
Talk about your preferences in the comments. Superhuman frailty or heroic myth? Stones or Beatles? (I'm honestly not sure which would be which, or by what metrics one would even measure those comparisons, but you get the idea.) Think I'm right? Think I'm wrong? Think I've spent way too much time thinking about this in the first place? Leave it all below.