In the superhero comics world the eternal question is: Marvel or DC? Most fans patronize both companies, but everyone seems to come down on one side of the dividing line or the other. Straddling is not allowed.
So which company is better? Let's break this baby down Dr. Jack style (with apologies to Bill Simmons and Dr. Jack Ramsey):
Note: Each category is worth one point, except for BAD MOVIES, IMAGIZATION IN THE '90s, and POOREST TREATMENT OF A SIGNATURE PROPERTY, which are each worth one negative point.
BEST HERO, Part 1
Obviously, "best" is a subjective term, but I'm looking at it from a recognition standpoint. Few would argue that DC's signature character is Superman and Marvel's is Spider-Man. But who's better? Wow, that's tough. I could probably write a whole essay on it.
Maybe that's because his origin hinges on a mistake. He thought too much of himself, didn't stop a thief, and later that thief killed his Uncle Ben. Spidey learned then that "with great power comes great responsibility" and has worked to redeem that moment ever since. The actuality of his powers ("bitten by a radioactive spider!") are silly, but the reasons for his heroism are flawed and genuine.
Superman, on the other hand, is often held up as the epitome of perfection. There's no mistake in his origin, no regret or moral ambiguity. Nevertheless, his is perhaps the best origin in all of comics. Rocketed from a dying planet, adopted by a kindly old couple who raise him with an uncompromising sense of compassion and duty. Though he could dominate with his powers, instead he serves. Though Superman is ultra-powerful and ultra-good, he is not completely unrelatable. My best evidence of that is Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale's Superman For All Seasons story, where Superman felt vulnerable and, well, human. And like Peter Parker, he struggles with a steady job and juggling his secret identity with his hero persona.
But I've got to give Spider-Man the edge, if only because I think his appeal is greater, from his sense of humor to his costume to his personal life. I always liked Superman, but I never wanted to BE him. And that's the difference.
BEST HERO, Part 2
Batman and Wolverine. They seem of a piece, these two. They're both cool but prone to violent fits, nearly impossible to subdue, and lacking in personal skills. Both claim to be loners, but subsequently surround themselves with as many people as possible (Batman joining the Outsiders and Justice League, Wolverine with X-Men and the Avengers).
But that's where the similarities end. Batman is rich and lives in a mansion built precariously on top of a cave. Wolverine is a drifter. Yes, both men are tough, but the one without powers must be tougher, right?
Whereas Batman has the most-easy-to-comprehend origin and motivation of any comics character anywhere, Wolverine's is mysterious, which was cool at first. Then it got too drawn out, and then when it was finally explained just felt like a convoluted mess.
As for villains, Batman's got the best set of rogues of any hero (Penguin, Catwoman, Mr.Freeze, Poison Ivy, Joker, Riddler, Ra's Al Ghul, Bane, Scarecrow, Clayface, King Tut, etc.), and a strong supporting cast. Wolverine's got Sabretooth, Lady Deathstryke, and some ninjas. Yawn.
THE NEXT THREE
Okay, so we're even on the big two iconic heroes, but what about that second tier? There could be a huge discussion on this, but I'd say Marvel's next three are the Hulk, Iron Man, and Captain America. Those characters are absolute cornerstones. DC's are even harder to pinpoint, but I'd go with Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and the Flash.
But which trio is better? Marvel's are riding high. Iron Man has moved from B list to A list thanks to John Favreau and Robert Downey, Jr. The Hulk can't seem to get a good movie made, but he endures in our hearts nevertheless. And in terms of character, Captain America is Marvel's Superman. He's the one who makes everyone better. To boot, all three have strong comics storylines going on right now, proving their lasting appeal.
Wonder Woman (more on her later) is probably the most recognizable of the any of these six, and her comic is currently in the hands of the talented Gail Simone. Green Lantern has a deep mythology and nearly unlimited story potential. Writer Geoff Johns has recognizes that potential and has been having a blast with it. Speaking of Johns, his next rejuvenation target is Barry Allen, the second and most recognizable Flash. I have very high hopes for his take on my favorite comics character.
Maybe it's a cop-out, but I'm not willing to make a judgment here.
It's often said that a hero is only as good as his villains, and it's pretty true.
Marvel has its fair share of morally complex despots: Dr.Doom, Magneto, and the Kingpin, namely. There's also Galactus, the world-devourer, who is cool despite the bucket on his head. The shape-shifting alien Skrulls are always good for some trouble, and then of course there're the thrilling Thunderbolts, villains posing as heroes initially, though later the concept became a warmed-over version of DC's Suicide Squad. And Spider-Man's rogues gallery is admirably twisted and weird.
However, many of Marvel's villains leave me cold: Modok, Ego the Living Planet, Apocalypse, Mr.Sinister, Thanos, even Ultron and the Red Skull lack real depth and motivation beyond boring old world domination. And that's weird, because Marvel's heroes are more relatable than DC's, so you'd think the villains would be the same.
Instead, DC almost has the market completely cornered on villains that are cool but also endearingly compelling. Of course there are the badasses like Darkseid, but there's also the frustratingly charming Lex Luthor. Of course Batman's got the Joker, and The Dark Knight proved that the villain can be your most interesting and compelling character.
Add in Superboy-Prime (the villain equivalent of an impossible-to-please comics fan), Black Adam, Bizarro, the rest of Batman's rogues, Flash's rogues (Zoom, Gorilla Grood , etc.), and DC is clearly the best at being bad.
Teams have been a hallmark of superhero books almost since their inception. When a team book is humming along, it's hard to beat the quality and the potential for good stories (plus, group shots are always awesome). The A-List are teams that even your mom might know.
Marvel's hard to beat on this one. First there's the Fantastic Four. Though members have shuffled in and out through the years, there's a consistency to F4, mostly because they're a family above all else. The Byzantine X-Men, in all their iterations, are a longstanding favorite. And the Avengers have always mixed big names with smaller ones to become the gold standard team of the Marvel Universe.
DC can't quite compare to that list. Of course there's the Justice League of America. It's hard to argue with that collection of heroes (and DC has done equally as well as Marvel with incorporating lesser-knowns with the big guns). And then there're the Titans (Teen, New Teen, New, adjectiveless, whatever), a collection of sidekicks and other young heroes. But beyond those two, can any non-comic fan name another DC team?
B LIST TEAMS
Okay, here's where Marvel falters. After the Avengers, F4, and X-Men who do they have? The Defenders? Alpha Flight? Power Pack? The freaking Champions?
DC, on the other hand, powers through. Not only can they claim the first superhero team ever, the Justice Society of America (who are still relevant in the comics today), but they also have the best superhero team of the future, the Legion of Super-Heroes (more on them later). In between there's the Doom Patrol, the Outsiders, Birds of Prey, Metal Men, Captain Carrot and the Zoo Crew, and the Secret Six.
For the most part, superheroes are the Utah of the comics world. But both companies have made some attempt to diversify. In some cases, the attempts were and are cloying and racist (an American Indian superhero called Warpath...seriously?).
Marvel was, not surprisingly, ahead of the game in introducing black characters. There was Captain America's partner, the Falcon, plus the Black Panther, Luke Cage, Blade, Black Goliath, Jim Rhodes (War Machine), and Storm (of the X-Men, who are pretty darned white for a group that's supposedly an allegory for racial tolerance). Representing Asians are Sunfire, a Japanese X-Man who didn't stick around long, and the Chinese Shang-Chi, who reinforced sterotypes by being a "Master of Kung-Fu." For American Indians there was the X-Man Thunderbird (Warpath's older brother, by the way). He was killed during his second mission with the team. There's also Shaman, from Alpha Flight. Latinos are out of luck unless you care to seek out the few times the Living Lightning showed up in The Avengers. The current Marvel Universe is still pretty white, though Luke Cage and Black Panther have taken on larger roles. The Spider-Man of the Ultimate universe, Miles Morales, is half black, half Hispanic.
DC, though slower, eventually came around. In terms of black heroes there was John Stewart, who became Green Lantern in Hal Jordan's stead, and stayed one even after Hal came back. Joining him are Black Lightning, Cyborg, Steel, Vixen, and Mr. Terrific. As with Marvel, Asian heroes are rarer, and usually related to martial arts (see Katana from the Outsiders, Karate Kid from the Legion, or Samurai from the Super Friends). Ryan Choi, the new Atom, is an exception. Latinos fare slightly better at DC too, with El Diablo, Gangbuster and the new Blue Beetle and Question all holding it down. American Indians are again under-represented, though Black Condor and Dawn Star can both claim that heritage (and wings!). And who could forget Apache Chief, from the Super Friends?!
However DC wins this one mostly thanks to Milestone Comics, the diversity-minded imprint they ushered into existence in the mid-'90s, and whose heroes they are now incorporating into their proper universe. The latter is great news. Static, Hardware, Icon and Rocket, and the Blood Syndicate are all vibrant, rich characters who deserve more time in the spotlight.
This is tough. Marvel has a lot of strong female characters: Invisible Girl, Wasp, Scarlet Witch, Emma Frost, Jean Gray, Rogue, Shadowcat, Captain Marvel, Black Widow, Elektra. DC also has it's share: Power Girl, Black Canary, The Question, Zatanna, all the ladies of the Legion of Super-Heroes, and Catwoman.
DC loses points because so many of their heroines are analogues of heroes. Think about it Supergirl, Superwoman, Batgirl, Batwoman, Miss Martian, Mary Marvel, Hawkwoman, etc. Marvel has been slightly less guilty of this.
However, DC wins where it really counts, because they have Wonder Woman. Marvel has not managed to create an iconic female character who sustains her own solo title, pilots an invisible jet, and is recognized by the masses.
Both companies have had their share of stories set in alternate realities, but which has done it best?
Marvel's primary way of of introducing a multiverse is through their What If... comic (which looks at pivotal scenarios in Marvel history and lets them play out in a completely different way) and their Ultimate line of books, which is basically an alternate version of their regular universe. That's all in addition to the New Universe and whatever Earth the Squadron Supreme come from. There was also the classic X-Men story Age of Apocalypse and the reality-spanning Exiles series.
DC embraced the idea of a multiverse early on, and created multiple worlds where radically different versions of familiar characters roamed free. Not only did it allow them to incorporate Golden Age characters into their mythos, it also provided fresh perspective for writers tasked with creating multiple tales about the same characters each month for years and years. Plus, it became an annual event to have the Justice League meet up with heroes from other worlds. DC eventually tried to simplify into one universe and continuity in Crisis On Infinite Earths. They still told alternate universe tales via the Elseworlds line, and then went full out and restored the multiverse during the Infinite Crisis and 52 miniseries. 2011's Flashpoint created an entirely new spin on DCs stable of heroes.
Which is better? While part of me prefers Marvel's simpler, compartmentalized approach, I think better ideas have come out of the DC multiverse.
With both Marvel and DC ramping up their movie release schedules, what better time to discuss their cinematic successes?
DC hit first and best in the late '70s / early '80s with Superman and Superman II. Both are held fondly in the hearts of fans and the general public alike, and both define the character in the public consciousness. Batman has had similar film glory, with the 1966 Batman film providing kitsch delight, Tim Burton's 1989 version redefining the character for a generation, and 2008's The Dark Knight proving that a comic book movie can be taken seriously AND rake in a ton of cash.
Marvel doesn't have quite the same highs as DC does, though they've ramped it up lately, and have definitively made more films of their properties. The first and second Spider-Man films are beloved (though not necessarily by me). As are the first two X-Men movies. The Blade trilogy has proven popular (though I haven't seen any of them) as well. The second Fantastic Four movie (Rise of the Silver Surfer) was surprisingly entertaining. The 2009 Iron Man film, despite its lack of depth, was a great film adaptation. 2011's Captain America was the best superhero movie I'd seen in a very long time. The Avengers had a nonsensical plot, but nailed the dialogue and characterizations.
This is tough. Though DC may have more historical quality on its side at this point, Marvel is way more relevant in the current moment, with a plan and direction behind their film division.
Now for the cautionary tales. Both companies have made their share of stinkers, but whose offenses have been the most egregious?
Marvel gave the world that famous rotten egg Howard the Duck, which despite its box office failure is still entertaining. I was not a fan of the first Fantastic Four movie, neither Hulk movie has managed to make the monster look convincing, and I couldn't sit through Daredevil or Ghost Rider. The third Spider-Man movie clearly belongs here. The second Iron Man looked dreadful, and Thor was full of wasted potential, especially in Loki's side of the story.
DC has its own list of stinkers, including the final two Superman films (Richard Pryor and a Soviet Superman, seriously?), Halle Berry's Catwoman, Shaquille O'Neal's Steel, and the limp Superman Returns. 2011's Green Lantern wasn't as bad as everyone made it out to be, but it clearly could have been better. And though Marvel may have more awful films under its belt, none is worse than Batman and Robin, a poorly-written, poorly-cast, poorly-acted, poorly-executed waste of time.
MOST CONSISTENT LONG-RUNNING TITLE
The front cover proclaims boldly, "The World's Greatest Comic Magazine!" and it's pretty much true. The Fantastic Four have seen amazing runs by some of the most talented creators to ever work in comics. Of course you have to start with the amazing 100 + issue run of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, which spanned from 1961 to 1970. Since then the book has been written by Roy Thomas, Marv Wolfman, Gerry Conway, Tom DeFalco, Chris Claremont, J.Michael Straczynski, Mark Waid, Dwayne McDuffie, Mark Millar, and Johnathan Hickman. It's been drawn by the likes of John Buscema, John Romita Sr., George Perez, Bill Sienkiewicz, Paul Ryan, Art Adams, Alan Davis, Salvador Larocca, Mike Weiringo, Paul Pelliter, Bryan Hitch, and Steve Epting. Plus there were runs by writer/artists John Byrne, Walt Simonson, and Carlos Pacheco. No other book, Marvel or DC, can claim the talent AND the dedication that The Fantastic Four can. Many of these creators didn't just work on the book for an issue or two; they stayed for years!
POOREST TREATMENT OF A SIGNATURE PROPERTY
As I often tell my English students, a story without a problem is not a story. Since superhero stories are pretty much neverending, our beloved characters are naturally going to experience lots of trouble. However, each company has one character that they have put thorough so much misery that it borders on sadism.
For Marvel, it's Spider-Man. Think about it. The poor guy, already orphaned, is an indirect cause of his beloved uncle's death. His best friend's father becomes his worst enemy, finds out his true identity, throws his girlfriend Gwen Stacey off the side of a bulding. When Spider-Man tries to save her with a web, her neck snaps, killing her. Later, he finds out he has been replaced by a clone, but not really. Finally, he is forced to give up his marriage through a deal with the devil. This is all in addition to the numerous buildings that have been dropped on him.
For DC, there's Batman. Tragedy is part of his origin, with his parents being shot down in front of him. He rallies from that, but then ends up with his worst enemy killing his partner, Jason Todd, and paralyizing another protege, Batgirl. Later, he has his back broken by a juiced-up monster named Bane. Then we find out that he has fathered a son, and the mother has taught the boy, Damien, to hate him. That's okay, because every woman Bruce Wayne has let himself trust has betrayed him. During Final Crisis, he was a victim of Darkseid's Omega Sanction, which sent him reeling through time. He was also drugged and made to believe that his father had faked his death.
So which is worse? Well, I think of it like this: Most of Batman's tragedies led to very good stories. Such is not the case with Spidey. The Clone Saga and One More Day were awful stories for the characters and readers alike.
JACK KIRBY IN THE '70s
Following his '60s heyday at Marvel, co-creating and drawing books such as Thor, Fantastic Four, X-Men, and The Avengers, Jack Kirby made the big jump to DC. While there, he created, wrote and drew New Gods, Mister Miracle, Forever People, The Demon, OMAC, and Kamandi. Mid-decade he returned to Marvel, and gave the world The Eternals, Devil Dinosaur, 2001, and Machine Man.
All of these books are tsunamis of big ideas, ambitious storytelling, and highly stylized pop art. However, the choice is obvious. The number of enduring characters and concepts created by Kirby during his time at DC is staggering, and the books themselves are rollicking, if convoluted, good reads. That's not the case with Kirby's '70s Marvel work, which was of variable quality and has produced very few lasting characters. Afterall, when was the last time you saw Moon-Boy?
GRIM AND GRITTY IN THE '80s:
The '80s were all about bringing gravity and realism to the superhero genre, but which company was more successful?
Marvel actually got the ball rolling in the late '70s and early '80s with Frank Miller's work on Daredevil. Then came the X-Men graphic novel God Loves, Man Kills. Perennial Chris Claremont scribe wrote the story, which concerned an predjudicial attempt to wipe out all of the mutants on Earth. The overt social commentary and dark subject matter were a clear attempt to bring shades of gray to the colorful world of super-heroes. Claremont also wrote the Dark Phoenix Saga, which wasn't quite as grounded in reality, but nonetheless featured grim death and unspeakable evil.
DC once agian came to the game late, but played it better, thanks to Alan Moore and Frank Miller. The former not only gave us Watchmen in 1986 (have you heard of it?), but also took the Swamp Thing and made him all metaphysical, plus he put Batgirl into a wheelchair in The Killing Joke. Frank Miller, after having his way with Daredevil, took over Batman and produced the classic Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One. Throw in Robin Jason Todd's death, and Crisis on Infinite Earths (which saw Barry Allen and Supergirl bite the dust), and DC clearly was grimmer and grittier, when it was still cool.
IMAGIZATION IN THE '90s
The '90s were generally an awful time for superhero comics. Sales were booming, but the industry fell victim into a money-grubbing, lowest common denominator mindset. This was mostly due to the success of Image Comics, the aptly-named brain child company of a bunch of Marvel superstar artists who wanted to own their own creations. The books, as a whole, were long on style and gimmick and short on substance, but they sold at a record clip. Rather than provide a sensible alternative, both Marvel and DC went for cheap imitation of something that was already pretty cheap.
That meant that both companies started producing comics with multiple covers adorned by holograms, glitter, foil etc, and employing artists who ignored the fundamentals of anatomy and storytelling. But whereas Marvel's efforts focused on the superficial, DC was a bit more drastic.
Marvel's crimes were mostly against fashion. The Avengers and Fantastic Four both started wearing brown leather jackets. (and don't get me started on the Invisible Woman's disappearing costume), and half the X-Men suddenly wielded improbably large guns (Freud alert!). But the characters stayed the same at their core, and so did the status quo.
DC, however, tried to keep up with the Joneses through SHOCKING EVENTS. They kept the costumes mostly the same, but instead royally screwed with their iconic characters. They killed Superman and Green Arrow, broke Batman's back, turned Green Lantern Hal Jordan into an insane, shoulder-padded villain. It was all in the name of sales, and any strong storytelling or or concept that resulted was gravy. To be fair, a lot of good things did come out of these stories, including replacement characters who have become beloved and iconic in their own right. But status quo has ultimately prevailed, with many of the events above being reversed.
I'm not a big fan of cross-company events in general. I feel like most great stories can be contained to one or two parent titles.
Marvel has been on a seemingly never-ending cycle of events. Civil War led to The Initiative which led to Secret Invasion which led to Dark Reign which led to Seige which led to the Age of Heroes, which led to Fear Itself which leads to Avengers Vs. X-Men. I haven't read most of them. Though they seemed well-coordinated across the line, I don't have the energy or money to commit to never-ending line-wide events.
DC though, seems to overhype every event, mismanage it, and then reset everything to status quo anyway. Though Identity Crisis, 52, and Blackest Night were very satisfying, and Final Crisis was an interesting experiment, Infinite Crisis, One Year Later, Countdown, Brightest Day, and Flashpoint have all been uniquely disappointing. One positive for DC is that they tend to confine their events to the mini-series themselves, or a single family of titles.
But the other part of this category to consider is both company's attempts at getting new readers in 2011 and 2012. In 2011, DC completely reset their universe. They effectively threw out all past continuity, redesigned costumes, and put all of their long-running titles back to #1. This "New 52" initiative were rewarded with crazy-good sales and buzz. Marvel's 2012 response is dubbed Marvel NOW!, a nearly line-wide creator-shuffle, with, yes, new #1 issues (which, in Marvel's case is admittedly less drastic considering nearly every title had already reset to #1 at least once before).
DC's hastily-thrown-together stunt has resulted in a confused mess of frustration for long-term fans like me. I've essentially quit the company after giving the "New 52" a college try. It's still early to judge Marvel NOW!, but at this point I'm willing to give Marvel the points because they learned from DC's mistake: They continued building on their existing universe instead of destroying it.
Both Marvel and DC have provided us with extended glimpses into the future, but who has done it most compellingly?
Marvel's vision of its own future has been interesting but not consistent. There was the M2 line, which featured an approximate 15 year jump and introduced the next generation of Avengers and May "Mayday" Parker, a.k.a. Spider-Girl. There were also the 2099 books, which introduced us to futurized versions of Ghost Rider, Punisher, the X-Men, Dr.Doom, and others. The best of the bunch was the future Spider-Man, who was featured in his own excellent series by Peter David and Rick Leonardi. The 2099 books only lasted 3 years, though the concept has returned a few times since. Finally, Marvel has the Guardians of the Galaxy, a ragtag group of space adventurers. Read more about them here.
DC, unlike Marvel, has a set future. We know that in 1,000 years there'll be a United Planets, and a group of young heroes from all over the universe who have banded together to fight evil. They are, of course, the Legion of Super-Heroes. While the "Lads" and "Lasses" names may be hokey, the Legion have, through many iterations, been a compelling group of characters. The genius of the Legion is how it connects to the present day DC universe in non-obvious ways. It grounds the concept while keeping it unique.
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Are you ready for the final score? This actually turned out to be somewhat lop-sided. Marvel ended up with 6 total points. DC earned 9 points. It's like Superman took on Moon Boy in a straight-up fistfight.