Because you asked for it: the real difference between Marvel and DC.
The Permanent Damage message board conversation I mentioned last week still rages on, though like most Internet conversations it has shifted gears, to why Marvel always seems to have a market advantage over DC, despite DC being a part of a much larger megacorporation. Among the accusations are that DC writers whine that they can't tell good stories because the characters are too old, or married, or whatever. But the age of the characters isn't DC's biggest problem. Their biggest problem is the age of their fanbase, and what that fanbase was built on.
The real difference between Marvel and DC is that Marvel's fanbase dates back to 1962, and DC's fanbase dates back to 1940.
Think of Marvel in 1962, perched tremulously on a shaky market, all their genre comics faded away but for a couple "girl" titles, a handful of westerns, a passel of new superheroes: the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Thor. And Spider-Man. THE HULK hits cancellation quickly. FANTASTIC FOUR stays above cancellation level, but it's a slow burn. Halfway through the year: The Mighty Thor, in former monster book JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY, and looking much like a Marvel monster title itself. And, in the dying AMAZING ADULT FANTASY, desperately renamed AMAZING FANTASY: Spider-Man. Who vanishes for another half year, leaving little hint of the monster success the character will become, and not until the second issue of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN does the Marvel brand even appear. There's even a longrunning fiction during guest appearances across that line that the characters are being used "by permission" of their home titles, despite the same editor generating all of them. Why Stan Lee did that I couldn't guess, but it must've seemed a good idea at the time.
Think of DC in '56-'60, birthing "The Silver Age." Sure, Captain Comet and the Phantom Stranger existed earlier than the revived Flash, the patron superhero of "The Silver Age," but they were relegated to inter-age limbo, mostly forgotten until years later, and of zero influence overall. The Martian Manhunter predated The Flash, but he was a backup player, getting minimal attention. (Given how powerful he was supposed to be, the development seemed mostly geared toward hamstringing him.) New creations like Space Ranger, Adam Strange and Challengers Of The Unknown were marginalized almost from the start. While they had their own fans (I was big on Adam Strange as a kid, though I rarely saw issues of MYSTERY IN SPACE) to superhero fandom they were secondary. The Flash in '56, Green Lantern in '59, Justice League Of America in '60. Doesn't seem like much of a revolution when you hang it on a timeline, but the length is secondary to the result:
DC Comics created fandom.
With the Justice Society Of America.
Here's the thing: it was superhero fans who demarked comics history into "ages" based on the dominance of superheroes â€" the "limbo" (or, by some reckonings, "dark age") between gold and silver is identified mainly by the general absence of superheroes, though the artistic and, for lack of a better term, literary developments of that period had a tremendous impact on how later comics were done, and DC Comics fans didn't know they were "fans," as we think of the term now, until the silver age. Nobody talked about "the golden age" during the golden age. But golden ages are always nostalgia, much better in selective and malleable memory than in reality. By generating the silver age, DC comics created fandom. The downside was it was golden age fandom.
From virtually the instant The Flash reappeared as a new character in new costume and new setting, readers who remembered the original Flash, created in 1940, wanted to know what happened to him. They wanted the two Flashes to meet. If DC could revive the Flash could they revive other old characters? That's what they wanted to know. Most telling: would they revive the Justice Society of America?
The Justice Society may be the most pivotal creation in superhero fanthink. Sure, there were occasional stories where Superman would drop in on Batman or vice versa (before their team-ups were a regularly featured eight-times-per-year fait accompli in the old WORLD'S FINEST COMICS) or Captain Marvel would cross paths with Spy Smasher, or the Human Torch would fight off an invasion attempt by the Sub-Mariner, but the Justice Society was the first regular series in which superheroes from across an entire line of comics acknowledged each other's existence as a matter of course, and everything that the DC Universe â€" the superhero comic in toto, in fact, from whatever publisher â€" has become evolves from that one concept. That one.
Superhero fandom really coalesced around the demand for a new Justice Society Of America, and DC, understandably, gave it to them.
The Justice League begat the Fantastic Four (Atlas publisher Martin Goodman ordered up a superhero team from Stan Lee after hearing during a golf game that JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA was doing well) begat Marvel Comics, etc. On the surface there wasn't much difference between them, but here's the thing:
DC's silver age was built on revived '40s brand names. Marvel was built on new characters.
Sure, there was the Human Torch in FANTASTIC FOUR, and shortly after the Sub-Mariner, but both were radically recontextualized. (The Torch was a new one, and part of a team; the Sub-Mariner became a running guest-villain, and while the characterization wasn't exactly a break with his '40s persona, it wasn't how he'd spent the bulk of his wartime career either.) It wasn't until a couple of years later that '40s star player Captain America made the scene, but that was the last of Marvel's '40s triumvirate, since their other superheroes back then came and went with the wind; even when prime golden age fan Roy Thomas, years later, "brought back" '40s heroes Blazing Skull and the Destroyer, among others, there was no clamor for more of them. Nobody knew who they were. Fans approaching Marvel heroes were forced to view them as new characters, since, for the most part, they were. They had to take Marvel on its own terms.
DC, though, uh-uh. Sales were still the make or break issue for comics, but the main architect of DC's Silver Age, Julius Schwartz, came out of science fiction fandom and believed in letter pages, and sometimes made editorial decisions based on suggestions in letters. (Mort Weisinger was the main other editor to pay attention to letters, but for him it was mainly along the lines of doing more stories involving apes when readers asked for them, and the main change in Superman stories from the '50s to the '60s was replacing Wayne Boring as chief artist with Curt Swan. Most of DC's other books, including the Batman books until Schwartz took them over, remained mired in the '50s well into the '60s, so by comparison Schwartz's comics looked positively futuristic, at least until one looked outside the company.)
What Schwartz built was a well-meaning trap. The revivals were followed by cries for other revivals. The Atom and Hawkman in '62 threw fuel on the fire, and they wanted more and more: Dr. Mid-Nite. Starman. Dr. Fate. They wanted the new heroes to meet their old versions, but the moment Jay "Flash" Garrick set eyes on Barry "Flash" Allen in 1961's FLASH 123, the famous "Flash Of Two Worlds" story, the trap sprang on the company and they've never been able to pry open its steely jaws since. In fact, it has spread like quicksand, sucking in titles that had nothing at all to do with it, until the entire DC Universe â€" just the fact that we use an expression like "the DC Universe" indicates how mired we all are. From the moment it became officially established that "the golden age" had a "real" existence within the context of DC Comics (previously, the golden age Flash was just a comic book character to the silver age Flash, a conceit that was amusing and would have worked just as well) golden age fandom pushed to, basically, revive the golden age. If the Flash could meet the Flash, why couldn't the Justice League meet the Justice Society? Etc.
I'm not saying it didn't work, or that it wasn't good. I was there, a kid, and "Flash Of Two Worlds" was exciting. "Crisis On Earth-One" and "Crisis On Earth-Two" were exciting; I can still very clearly see in my mind that page where both teams meet for the first time, and shake hands. But they locked DC onto a path that ultimately turned unbeneficial.
Meanwhile, Marvel's "universe" â€" now the standard for superhero universes â€" coalesced more from necessity than design, like blobs in Jack Kirby transformation sequences that begin unformed and doughy and eventually squish together into a discernable, distinctive shape. If Spider-Man and Daredevil both lived in New York City, it wasn't due to any long term plotting strategy but because Stan Lee was working on many books at the same time and could look out his window and see New York City; he didn't have to research and he didn't have to imagine. It was there. That Daredevil could easily cross paths with Spider-Man was a bonus. When Stan whiffed his own continuity â€" was the Hulk Bruce Banner or Bob Banner? â€" and he got called on it, he mainly said, "Whoops" and moved on. There was no great urge there to create a coherent "universe."
Over at DC it was already a barrage of fan-emphasized "continuity." The DC Universe was consciously built from the moment golden age fans would write in with complaints like (simulated letter>) "I'm glad you brought back my favorite old villain The Icicle but he died in All-American Comics so please tell me how he's back alive now." I'm surprised Schwartz didn't hire Vinnie Colletta to just answer all the fanmail with a stock "fuggedaboudid." By '65, you can already feel the fatigue setting in. Starting then, when Schwartz tapped the Golden Age, he switched to straight revivals â€" of Dr. Fate, Hourman, Starman, the Black Canary, the Spectre â€" rather than modernized recreations. (His last "recreation," introducing Zatanna, the daughter of minor '40s magician character Zatara, in an early issue of HAWKMAN, interested a few readers but generally met with apathy, a sign, along with sluggish sales for both THE ATOM and HAWKMAN, that "recreation fever" was dying out.) None of those caught fire and from that point on, '40s revivals get relegated to existing comics, mostly JUSTICE LEAGUE and THE FLASH.
By the early '70s, most of DC's editors catch up to Julie Schwartz's progressivism â€" but by then Schwartz is himself mired in his own past, his glory days of the early '60s. By the late '60s, despite the variety of comics the company still publishes in many genres and their continued overall dominance in sales (enforced, partially, by DC's control, through their joint distributor, of how much Marvel can encroach on their market), DC is primarily perceived among the comics buying public as a superhero publisher, thanks to classics Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, and Schwartz' character stable, and especially the briefly huge, quickly dismissed but much remembered BATMAN TV show, the over the top image of which taints the character for much of the potential audience. New editors like Dick Giordano introduce new superheroes that quickly go nowhere, and the company's one really innovative superhero series of the late '60s, Deadman, debuts in the failing, marginal STRANGE ADVENTURES and is widely overlooked.
Because â€" this haunted DC almost into the '90s â€" by the late '60s, DC's fanbase â€" the core audience of their slowly shrinking fanbase - no longer wanted new concepts from DC. Their fanbase was the golden age fans, and whatever newer fans accrued to the same ranks, and those who wanted innovation and newness already knew to look to Marvel and its frequently sprawling, crazy storylines.
I don't believe that Marvel's rep for innovation came from any design. But almost to the beginning of its existence in the late '30s, Timely/Atlas/Marvel was a company that flew by the seat of its pants, unlike the apparently much more methodical DC. There were the "stable" companies in the '40s, that had pretty much the same features in the same books month in and month out year after year â€" companies like Fawcett and Quality, and it's interesting that these DC later accumulated â€" but there were also many like Timely that seemed to turn on a dime, shifting in whatever direction seemed destined for the quickest buck. Certainly publisher Goodman ran Atlas comics, where Stan Lee picked up most of his editorial habits and refined his writing style, this way. Marvel was more stable than Atlas â€" rising sales permitted it â€" but the same make-it-up-as-you-go-along habits were in play early on (especially since Stan couldn't afford a staff to speak of in the early days) and that inner chaos, as well as the necessity of allowing artists a lot of leeway just to get the books out, created the general impression.
It isn't that DC didn't try to meet the challenge. They had experience with handling falling sales from the superhero crash of the late '40s, and understandably pursued the same course in the '70s: introduce new books in different genres â€" war, action, western, sword and sorcery, romance, horror, etc.; revive other once-popular franchises, like TARZAN, THE SHADOW, CAPTAIN MAR-SHAZAM-VEL; "steal" successful talent â€" Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby - from competitors and let them work their "box office magic." With things like GREEN LANTERN-GREEN ARROW, they even took the unprecedented step of throwing caution to the winds and making the subject matter ultra-contemporary. (Previously DC's idea of "contemporary" had been to have a swingin' British rock star character in '69 dress and talk like The Beatles in 1964's A HARD DAY'S NIGHT.) DC put out a lot of really interesting books in the early '70s. Had their fanbase been interested in new things, some, at least, should have clicked. The only crowd-pleasers that came out of the whole affair were the "mystery" books like HOUSE OF MYSTERY and THE UNEXPECTED, and those rarely did much better than treading sales water, a situation not helped by DC (along with the rest of the comics business) effectively having its traditional outlets and distribution system pulled out from under it while still owing fealty to them for many years, a condition that kept it from taking advantage of the upcoming direct market as well as Marvel did.
The story of the '70s was pretty much the same at both companies: reduced to their fanbases, both Marvel and DC spent most of the decade trying to serve those fanbases. But their fanbases were different. DC's fanbase remained the golden age fans, with a new component now added: silver age fans. By then Schwartz was focusing mainly on the Superman books, moving them from the '50s based Weisinger mode to the Schwartz mode, but everywhere else the silver age Schwartz mode had calcified into a fairly rigid house style. New writers rise out of fandom in droves, but those who want to shake things up seem to end up at Marvel and those who want to preserve the '60s DC legacy end up at DC, where golden (and now silver) age revivals or reinventions â€" Air Wave, Captain Comet, Starman, the Freedom Fighters, the Sandman, even the Justice Society Of America in a revived All Star Comics â€" become increasingly common and depressingly unsuccessful, while at the same time the first real effort is undertaken to weave all of DC "continuity" into whole cloth, partly to fit fannish desire and partly to challenge Marvel's "universe," seen as a great part of its sales appeal. Complicating things further in the '80s was a new emphasis on creator rights, which prompted many to withhold new creations from work-for-hire deals, which forced DC and Marvel both into a greater dependence on even more revivals and reimaginings. But now DC has enough of a creator-equity
So, like I said last week, DC's approach has largely been schizophrenic, torn between luring new readers and clinging to that fanbase, which has largely aged with them, in memory of the time when, as the song goes, if they hadn't had bad luck, they wouldn't have had no luck at all. Many DCU editors over the last 30 years came out of that fanbase, many are sympathetic to its core values. That fanbase does remain a key demographic for the company, and there's no doubt they still play to it, even as the weight of continuity crushed down on their entire line. But struggling to please that audience, which has been increasingly hostile to change (not that the hostility is entirely unfounded, nor that the changes were always well-conceived), and at the same time try to give new readers the impression that something new and bold â€" a break with "old" comics â€" is going on has badly strained the company's very necessary efforts to reimagine itself for a new era.
Conversely, Marvel, once also weighed down by its own continuity, has chosen to simply make light of it. Basically: "Cloak and Dagger are back; who cares what happened in their '80s series." Though Marvel hasn't exactly been run by the seat of its pants in a long time, that's still the impression they give.
Someone in the conversation said the difference between Marvel and DC is that Marvel believes in change, and DC doesn't. But that's not true. Marvel is, and has for a long time been, dedicated to the illusion of change, while DC has been dedicated to the illusion of the illusion of change, if you get the difference. Marvel's advantage is that it's entire ethic now (it wasn't this way ten years ago) is that, underneath it all, it keeps implying to its audience that what they're getting is really, really new. Whether it is or not. The DC universe books, with their obsessive continuity and continuing underlying golden age/silver age fixations, keep subliminally telling the audience that what they're getting is really, really old.
That's DC's big challenge at the moment, at least for the DCU books: how to break that cycle. Because continuity has its place but it's just one tool out of a whole workbench full of them, and the real "crisis" isn't how to milk continuity more successfully but how to break the shackles of continuity without gutting the fanbase. Possibly the best solution is the one that's least likely to ever happen â€" especially since many in editorial and management came up from the golden age/silver age fan ranks and their sympathies still swing that way - the one that Marv Wolfman proposed almost a quarter century ago: blow it all up and start from scratch. Not that anyone would believe it, not at first, since it's been teased over and over since CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, but it's still a sound idea. The original objections that got it overturned were that it a) disturbed planned continuity for various titles and b) it was "unheroic" for the heroes to have saved the whole universe but have no memory of it or the valiant heroes like The Flash and Supergirl who died in the process. But all that's nonsense. The real objection was that it didn't pay enough lip service to DC's vast history. But why should it? You don't clean a plate by paying homage to the crumbs, gristle and gravy stains left on it. A clean start wouldn't be a spit in the eye to all the comics DC published in the past. It would just be a clean start, and, finally, the manageable future they've been trying to achieve for years. I'm not trying to denigrate DC's current efforts. They're putting out some good books. Nobody's doing anything stupid or criminal. If they continue down their current path, they're likely not looking at disaster. But they're likely not looking at any breakthroughs either. They had a chance to effectively start from scratch with the One Year Later titles, and I know people were excited by the implied possibilities, but they treaded water instead.
There'd have to be rules, of course. Shut it down and start from scratch. A clear editorial vision of what specific characters should be. (Restarting doesn't necessarily mean radical departures, and certainly for the big license tickets like Superman, Batman and Robin there wouldn't be.) No "old continuity over in a parallel" universe to seep in. Don't refer to old continuity. Everything new again. Who wouldn't come by, even those who'd protest the loudest, just to see what happens next? (Which is the real hitch: making what happens next great.) After a year or so, it would be the new status quo and everyone would start getting along just fine. Look at the Batman movies. Sure, they're based on THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, BATMAN: YEAR ONE, and various other bits of Bat-continuity - but it's just presented as a coherent new whole, fresh off the presses, without forcing viewers to confront the entirety of Batman continuity to get it. It's presented like it's all something new, with enough new in it for the audience to accept it as something new and exciting, even if they remember Batman debuted in 1939, or there was a BATMAN TV show, or an earlier series of BATMAN movies. Christopher Nolan just tells the story like it's being told for the first time, and the audience eats it up. There's no real weight of the past on any of it, just the shock of now, and familiarity with the source material is completely unnecessary, while knowing it adds texture.
And that's all continuity really needs to do: add texture.
You may not like Frank Miller's screwy version of The Black Canary in ALL STAR BATMAN AND ROBIN THE BOY WONDER but even with her propensity for ultraviolence and selective promiscuity, and aside from that ghastly brogue, she's a far more interesting Black Canary than any seen in regular DCU titles in a long time. Should DC go to a "new universe" of ultraviolent and selectively promiscuous characters? Nah. Counter-productive. But if the company seriously want to compete with Marvel on Marvel's playing field, it's essential that instead of constantly attacking the surface problems they recognize the underlying conditions and change those, to level their own playing field. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus pointed out about 3000 years ago, latent structure is the master of obvious structure.
William Faulkner once said, "The past is not dead. It isn't even past." But maybe it should be.
Notes from under the floorboards:
Someone I know is looking for a Dalek alarm clock â€" not a round one with a little Dalek on top, but an actual talking Dalek â€" so if any merchant out there plans to be at San Diego with one, please drop me a line to let me know where your booth will be, pretty please? Thanks a bunch. (Apparently I'm to look for Torchwood mugs too, so if anyone has any of those, same thing. Thanks.)
Me, I want a Dalek doorbell. Just the voice, so that when someone pushes the ringer, a loud Dalek voice blares (imagine the voice): "You! Are. Not A... Dah! LEK! You!Are!A!... HU! MUN! ExTERminate! EX!TER!MIN!ATE!!!" That would be the best doorbell ever. I don't like people coming to my door. This would help ensure they wouldn't like it much either.
Sorry for another short column; same conditions apply as last week. San Diego encroaches next week but we'll still be here.
Speaking of San Diego, the schedule is up and I'm now officially on Larry Young's "So You Want To Do A Graphic Novel" panel, 6:30-7:30 Thursday evening in Room 3. Boom! Studios has decided not to hold signings at their booth this year, so while you still stand a decent chance of finding me in that vicinity (as good a chance as finding me anywhere else anyway) there will be no signings scheduled. I'm theoretically signing copies of THE SAFEST PLACE at the Image booth, but I don't have the schedule yet, and if you wander by with TWO GUNS or anything else I've done I can probably squeeze that in too.
Boom! has announced, however, that they're starting an online comics service (click on the link in the paragraph above) so if you haven't yet read TWO GUNS, START HERE. (They're not running it or any of the other features like ZOMBIE TALES or HERO SQUARED all at once that I know of, though as of last glance the first nine pages of TWO GUNS are already up, with more added each day.) They're also featured this week over at Boing Boing, the arbiters of all that is hip and cool on the web.
Not much that doesn't bore me to tears on the political front â€" I found the Obama NEW YORKER cover kind of funny, and doubt very much the twelve or so people who read NEW YORKER will vote McCain anyway (the cover was in fact a parody of right wing editorial cartoons that took their general thrust so far over the top that even the McCain camp was decrying it, which now means they have to pretty much decry the pro-McCain editorial cartoons that promote the same ideas) â€" but one very amusing bit caught my eye, as defrocked Senator Phil Gramm, the great champion of deregulation of oil companies, lending companies, savings and loans, food safety management, energy companies, and basically every other branch of American business beset by scandal over the last couple decades, stated that the economy is just fine and Americans are whiners. Gramm, an "economic advisor" to McCain who's allegedly pushing for Secretary of the Treasury in a McCain cabinet, was quickly proclaimed anathema by the McCain campaign, which stated Gramm does not speak for them. Then sent Gramm off to The Wall St. Journal where he did speak for McCain. Just another bumpy ride on the Straight Talk Express; this is why political satire is redundant now.
Off to a DARK KNIGHT screening tonight. Can't wait.
Saw the pilots of FRINGE and the American LIFE ON MARS. FRINGE is pretty entertaining, despite a heroine who's an irritating cross between Samantha Mathis and Laura Linney. I guess creator JJ Abrams felt enough time had passed since THE X-FILES since they tread similar ground, but he shrewdly stripped out aliens and similar pulp fiction gimmicks and wraps the series around a fairly down to earth premise of government agents trying to defend against all the outre tech being developed and which could target ordinary Americans at any time, though few even suspect such tech exists. While there are "dark conspiracy" overtones in the 90 minute pilot, Abrams has left the premise open enough that the show can easily exist without the specific conspiracy, so there's no need to flounder if that situation is resolved. The characters are nicely handled, especially an institutionalized mad scientist and his estranged son forced to become dad's guardian for the sake of American security, there's a nice bit toward the beginning that unexpectedly leads to a major payoff, and overall it's handled intelligently enough to merit watching at least a few more episodes. LIFE ON MARS, however, was so awful in so many ways that it's not worth discussing.
Congratulations to Chad Nevett, the first to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "7 Soldiers Of Victory." Chad wishes to point your attention to his comics crit/review blog Graphic Content. Check it out.
For those who came in late, almost every week I run a Comics Cover Challenge: the covers of seven seemingly unrelated comics (thanks to The Grand Comic Book Database for the covers) from throughout comics history are spread, usually not in any particular order, down the column. But a secret theme â€" it could be a word, a design element, an artist... anything, really - binds them together, and the first one to e-mail me with the correct solution can promote the website of their choice, subject to my approval. IMPORTANT NEW RULE: PLEASE INCLUDE WITH YOUR GUESS THE WEBSITE YOU'D LIKE TO PROMOTE IF YOU WIN. As in most weeks, there's a clue hidden somewhere in the column, but if you can figure out the code don't break it. Good luck.
TOTALLY OBVIOUS. Collecting all my "Master Of The Obvious" columns from 1998-2000, with still relevant commentary on comics, culture, creativity and the freelance life, revealing many previously unvoiced secrets behind all those things.
IMPOLITIC: A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEARS VOL 1. Collecting my political commentary of the early terror years, from Sept. 2001 through April 2005, revealing the terror behind the War On Terror.
HEAD CASES. A collection of comics scripts from work done c. 1992-1995 for various companies, including an unused script. Annotated.
Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it's not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They're no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don't really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read.
IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE OF COLUMN POLICY: any email received in response to a piece run in this column is considered a letter of comment available for printing in the column unless the author specifically indicates it is not intended for public consumption. Unless I check with you or the contents of your e-mail make your identity unavoidably obvious, all letters are run anonymously.
Please don't ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.
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I'm reviewing comics sent to me â€" I may not like them but certainly I'll mention them â€" at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send 'em if you want 'em mentioned, since I can't review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can't do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.