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Marvel Vs. DC: A History of Comics’ Greatest Rivalry

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Marvel Vs. DC: A History of Comics’ Greatest Rivalry

Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige recently discussed, and dismissed, the notion of there being a rivalry between Marvel and DC, stating, “There’s not really a rivalry. The rivalry is much more amongst the press, I think. Geoff Johns is a very good friend of mine. We grew up together in the business and recently celebrated Richard Donner, who we both used to work for. So, I applaud all the success he’s had. I really just look at it as a fan. When the movies perform well and are well received, it’s good for us – which is why I’m always rooting for them.” That might be the case now, but Marvel and DC have had a rivalry in the past, one that has been going on for more than five decades now. Read on to learn the history of this classic rivalry.

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While there certainly were rivalries among the various comic book publishers during the Golden Age, by the time that the Comics Code Authority came into effect in 1954, there really were no longer any notable comic book rivalries, in part because there weren’t many comic book publishers left period. The two biggest publishers of that era were National Comics (DC Comics) and Dell Comics and their output (superhero comic books and Disney comics) were so different from each other that there really wasn’t a whole lot of overlap in their audience. Marvel, meanwhile, had a very good reason not to go after DC Comics, as in 1958, Marvel (then going by the name Atlas Comics) lost their distribution deal and were saved from going out of business by DC Comics allowing them to be distributed by the distribution company that National owned. As part of this deal, Marvel had to deal with restrictions on how many comic books they could release in any given month (generally eight comic books, but that was relaxed as the years went by). So there was little reason for Marvel to ruffle any feathers in those days.

However, when the “Marvel Age of Comics” started in 1961 with the debut of the Fantastic Four, it was soon clear that Stan Lee’s company had a significant hit on their hands. When they followed that up with Amazing Spider-Man a year later, they were clearly becoming someone to pay attention to, although not really anyone to worry about.

Likewise, since they were still so small, Stan Lee took an interesting approach to his competitors in those early days – complete magnanimity. When a reader wrote into Amazing Spider-Man in 1963, criticizing DC Comics, Lee quickly denounced the idea of knocking a rival company.

Over the next few years, however, Marvel’s fortunes continued to improve. DC Comics was still the undisputed top seller in the industry, but Marvel was doing well enough that everyone, including DC Comics, had to pay notice. In the meantime, Stan Lee had perfected his persona in the letter pages of Fantastic Four, turning the letter column into a sort of “conversation” with his readers, using that column to promote other Marvel Comics. That idea developed, in late 1965, into the Bullpen Bulletins, a page in every Marvel comic book where Stan Lee could talk about various things while also promote all the comics that Marvel had to promote that month.

In one of the earliest Bullpen Bulletins, Lee called out various comic book publishers for seemingly altering their comic books to make them more similar to Marvel (and DC was, in fact, slowly trying to make some of their books a bit more friendly to a Marvel audience). This notice wasn’t nearly as magnanimous as his earlier statement, as Marvel’s success began to embolden Lee…

Note that they’re still just “Brand X, Y and Z” and not anything special just yet.

Amusingly enough, though, this missive inspired a little blowback from DC Comics. E. Nelson Bridwell poked a little fun at the whole “Everyone is copying us!” angle in Adventure Comics #350, through Chameleon Boy of the Legion of Super-Heroes…

A reader wrote into Amazing Spider-Man #47 to let Stan in on the news…

“While thumbing thru a Brand Echh comic, I came across something that infuriated me. Some orange-faced character belonging to an (ugh) group of super-boobs had just finished tying up a monster with his web after turning into a spider!” He then said, “In case a certain web-headed character thinks I’m stealing his thunder, I’d like to remind him that I was changing to all sorts of weird shapes long before he walked up his first wall.” As you know, he was referring to our own Spidey! You fellas usually make your Brand Echh references in a good-natured half-kidding way; and you’ve never actually pin-pointed any competitive mag or character. But they’re getting nasty. I think you should really let them have it. I’ve never written before, but when I saw that statement, I just had to. Your comics are the greatest!”

Lee replied, “Quite a few indignant Marvelites have commented upon that same reference to Spidey in a mag which we shall charitably not identity. We deeply appreciate the concern of all you True Believers – but don’t worry about it, gang. Any knock is a boost… and our ill-advised competitors have been unintentionally boosting us all over the place!” Lee also added, though, that he’d like to think people would write in for reasons other than complaining about another comic book company.

Then a funny thing happened – the Batman TV series debuted in early 1966 and there was a major superhero comic book boom. New publishers were popping up and old publishers were bringing back their superhero comic characters for a second go at it. And these new publishers mostly chose to imitate the successful Marvel style of superhero comics as opposed to DC Comics.

This led to a brutal missive by Stan Lee in early 1966 that basically pointed out how Marvel Comics were for smart people and that other comic book companies…well…weren’t. This was the debut of referring to the other companies as “Brand Echh” (this predated Amazing Spider-Man #47) a reference to the ads of the time where companies would refer to their rivals in commercials as “Brand X.” Nowadays, a Coca-Cola ad will just SAY Pepsi, but back in the day, they would say “We’re better than Brand X.”

Lee had to quickly backtrack to explain that he wasn’t calling just DC Comics “Brand Echh,” but rather, ALL non-Marvel companies…

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Again, for the most part, DC just ignored it all, but one DC Comics creator who got his fair share of Marvel knocks was Bob Haney, who had his own little comic book universe in Brave and the Bold where he could seemingly do whatever he wanted to. First, in Brave and the Bold #68, he has Batman become the Bat-Hulk…

But more notable was Brave and the Bold #74, where he also got in on the whole “make fun of Stan Lee for talking about how everyone is copying Marvel” deal…

In 1967, Lee took things to the next level with a brand-new comic book series called Not Brand Echh

The series would specifically parody DC Comics characters, as well as Marvel’s, of course….

Hilariously, Lee then had a Stan’s Soapbox in late 1967 where he explained that they were going to stop calling DC Comics “Brand Echh,” except, of course, in the entire comic book series dedicated to calling DC Comics Brand Echh….

It was a very odd point by Lee.

By the time, DC Comics introduced some parody comics of their own, like Inferior Five, where E. Nelson Bridwell introduced some Marvel parody characters in Inferior Five #7, including a fun bit about how Marvel’s take on Thor was not really faithful to most versions of Thor from Norse mythology…

and a fun riff on Namor…

A couple of issues later, they brought even more Marvel characters into the series, even showing them on the cover!

In 1971, though, DC released their most brutal response to Marvel, as Jack Kirby (having just left Marvel for DC in 1970) released Mister Miracle #6, a searing takedown of Stan Lee (and Roy Thomas, too, for no real reason – it’s really quite odd how much Thomas gets ripped by Kirby here despite Kirby and Thomas not having any actual beef at the time) by portraying him as the manipulative Funky Flashman (with Roy as HouseRoy)…

Lee was especially hurt by how Kirby made fun of his toupee. Lee literally changed his look after this issue came out, shaving his beard so that he would no longer look like Funky Flashman.

Soon afterwards, Lee was then promoted to Publisher of Marvel Comics, and incoming Editor-in-Chief Roy Thomas was not one to trash on Marvel’s rivals. Similarly, the parade of Editors-in-Chief that followed Thomas in the 1970s were guys who worked for DC and Marvel, so it was hard for them to give DC much of a hard time (one of the harshest comics of the period was a Warlock issue where Jim Starlin viciously took down…Marvel).

One thing stood out during this period, though. Whether true or not, Jim Shooter recalled Stan Lee saying that DC told him not to have Wonder Man remain as a character because of Wonder Woman. Lee says that he agreed and then had Wonder Man die right away. However, later on, Marvel had had their own Power Man and then DC introduced Power Girl, so Shooter felt that that was unfair, so he had Marvel bring back Wonder Man as a sort of spiteful response…

But obviously, that was quite tame in comparison to “People who read DC Comics are dumb.”

Around this time, Marvel and DC even began doing crossovers with each other, with Spider-Man and Superman meeting up twice and Batman and the Incredible Hulk also having a team-up. These crossovers, though, led to the next rough period in Marvel/DC relations.

RELATED: Samuel L. Jackson on DC/Marvel Rivalry: ‘Success Breeds Contempt’

In 1983, Marvel and DC were set to have an Avengers/Justice League of America crossover, drawn by George Perez and written by Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas.

Perez began to draw the comic book in 1981 (while working on New Teen Titans), but then the project fell apart. Not only did both sides blame each other, but they did so publicly, with Marvel Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter explaining his side of things in Marvel Age #19 in 1984…

And then DC Executive Editor Dick Giordano responding in his version of “Stan’s Soapbox,” his “Meanwhile…” column. George Perez, in particular, was very angry at Jim Shooter for what Perez felt was Shooter stalling on the project so long that Perez had to drop it. All future Marvel/DC crossovers were canceled, including one that Perez was also going to draw, a New Teen Titans/X-Men crossover (a follow-up to the original Titans/X-Men crossover, which Walter Simonson drew, as Perez believed he was going to get the next one).

So Jim Shooter became a target of the occasional piece of ridicule, like when John Ostrander and Len Wein made him a villain in Legends #5 (he is Sunspot, like Starbrand, Shooter’s New Universe character)…

After Shooter left Marvel, the rivalry died down again, as there really was no animus between Paul Levitz (Giordano’s successor) and either Tom DeFalco or Bob Harras. Marvel and DC eventually even returned to doing crossovers. Heck, they even did a whole miniseries together and even shared characters for Amalgam Comics!

At the turn of the century, though, Marvel gained a new Editor-in-Chief in Joe Quesda and a new Chief Operation Officer in Bill Jemas and they were more than willing to return to the days of the rivalry. Quesada remarked in 2001, “I liked it when the two companies hated each other. It made it better for the fans. You know, if you like DC, then you hated Marvel. If you like Marvel, then you hated DC.”

He added some fuel to the fire by stating, “What the f**k is DC anyway? They’d be better off calling it AOL Comics. At least people know what AOL is. I mean, they have Batman and Superman, and they don’t know what to do with them.” (Quesada then compared them to being a well-endowed porn star and not being able to perform sexually).

Jemas even wrote a parody comic called Marville (whose first cover was a parody of the posters for Smallville, the TV show based on Superman’s younger years) where he ran with that AOL Comics gag…

And Marvel writer J. Michael Straczynski also threw some major shade at DC Comics in Amazing Spider-Man #516 by having a news report about how Time-Warner’s stock went down due to DC Comics…

But in the last decade or so, it has been very tame (outside of the occasional Deadpool bit making fun of DC, like when Marvel gave away a special Deadpool variant cover to people who sent in unsold stripped covers of DC’s Flashpoint event). Much of the rivalry discussions have moved to comparing their movies to each other, but even there, it was only very recently that DC Entertainment got into the shared film universe phenomena, so there was not a whole lot of opportunities to contrast the two companies with each other. As DC begins to do its own shared film universe, we shall see if a new rivalry will be born!

NEXT: How the Marvel Vs. DC Debate Hurts Comic Book Fandom

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