There’s a question that has raged for decades, fueling fan debates on playgrounds, comic shops, and message boards the world over. “Who reigns supreme: DC or Marvel?” The answer is never cut and dry, owing to the multifaceted nature of both companies. Opinions vary based on each individual’s taste (nearly 2:1 at The Comic Panel in favor of Marvel) and the ever shifting flow of the comic medium, who’s winning today could change before tomorrow comes. I pose the question, not in an attempt to provide a definitive answer but rather, to set the stage for a brief look at the current state of each brand.
DC is currently in quite the resurgence. Their line of Rebirth titles has led to tremendous growth in market share which, outside of the initial launch, “The New 52” never seemed to accomplish. The New 52 was an attempt by the publisher to jump start lagging sales by relaunching the entire universe. Initially it seemed to work. However, as time went on the darker tone and decision to to take 10 years out of continuity, thereby excising some of the most fundamental aspects of the characters and their relationships with each other served to alienate long time fans. It was a grimmer world than what readers were used to and they soon became disenfranchised with the grand experiment. It’s telling that the two most highly regarded series, Batman and Green Lantern, were largely unchanged following the reboot, both continued right along with stories they were telling rarely missing a beat.
Rebirth while not a straight return to the pre-New 52 status quo, is marked by not only a lighter tone, but also a reconnecting of the ties between the characters. Green Arrow and Black Canary are together again, the original Wally West has returned, the original Teen Titans may have been a thing again. And oh yeah, the original modern age Superman is back with Lois Lane and a son in tow. The fans have responded enthusiastically to the shift in direction.
Comics however are just one, not even necessarily the main, part of the equation and I’d be remiss if I didnt mention the elephant in the room that is DC’s cinematic universe. While having tremendous success in the world of animation, both in the traditional cartoon space, but also a long running animated movie universe , their recent live-action offerings have left audiences cold, to say the least. A certain amount of the problem, I’m sure comes from the pressure of trying to match the unprecedented success that Marvel is currently enjoying with it’s cinematic universe. However comparing them to the publishing side, there are some interesting parallels that haven’t received much attention. The bleaker tone of the majority of the films can be seen as a direct correlation to the mindset DC exhibited with “The New 52”. A case can be made that it also has the mark of the seminal 80’s saga “The Dark Knight Returns” and perhaps even The Watchmen, but given the lead time necessary to get a movie off the ground for preproduction, it definitely shows the effects of the mindset of DC at the time.
On the other side of this equation you have Marvel who, in many respects, is currently DC’s polar opposite. Marvel’s shared onscreen universe, commonly referred to as the MCU is a juggernaut that shows no signs of slowing down. Their films break records everytime you turn around. Their television properties, wether via network tv or streaming services continue to churn out hit after hit (barring an Inhuman or two.) It boggles the mind when you stop to consider how all encompassing the MCU has become.
Unfortunately the status of the publishing side of things, the true home of the characters to us comic enthusiasts, is nowhere near as bright. Emergeing from bankruptcy towards the end of the millenium, Marvel began a long term run at the top under the direction of Joe Quesada. From the seminal event “Civil War”, which truly shook the Universe to its very foundations to the rise of a truly talented group of creators referred to as The Architects” featuring :Matt Fraction, Ed Brubaker, Jonathan Hickman and Jason Aaron the company was definitely on a roll. The lauch of a line of books designated the “Ultimate” universe lead by rising star (and fellow Architect) Brian Michael Bendis on Ultimate Spider-Man, featured a modern take on classic characters and was a hit with bith critics and consumers alike. To see the effects of the initiative you need look no further than the MCU, which is based in large part on it. They even managed to kill off Peter Parker and create a new Spider-Man who became not only viable, but also widely loved and praised. Here, however, are where the seeds that have lead to such a drastic decline in their fortunes were planted.
If I ask you to name your favorite X-man or Avenger, your most likely answers are going to be Wolverine, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk. To any and all answers my follow up would be, “well, which one?” Encouraged by the successes of Miles Morales and a few others, Marvel serms infatiuated with the old notion, “out with the old, in with the new.” In just over a year, Marvel has featured: 3 Wolverines, 3 Iron Mans, and 2 of each of the others. All in the main continuity and frequently simultaneously . They have taken to franchising the most recignizable faces of their universe, mudding the waters of what makes each of them stand out as unique and interesting characters. I’m not implying that ANY of these characters are in any way bad, but the surge in the sheer volume of these cases has definitely raised an eyebrow or two.
The MCU must shoulder a share of the blame as well however. The massive success of the films has lead to Marvel de-emphasizing the properties it no longer has the cinematic rights to. The X-Men have been largely marginalized , many believe in favor the aforementioned Inhumans. As for the foundation on which the whole universe was built? Marvel’s first family, the Fantastic Four, has been on hiatus for years once again, a property to which the rights had been sold. Alongside massive crossover events that underwhelm, a need to seemingly annually perform a soft reboot of the universe has lead to reader apathy towards Marvel’s current direction. The recent loss of Bendis, who has been such a driving force in the company for 17 years, to rival DC, in an exclusive contract, has raised a number of questions as to how they’ll move forward.
Despite these issues, neither company is in an irreparable position. Marvel recently announced a changing of the guard at editor and chief, from Axel Alonso to C.B. Cebulski, showing an awareness of the need to change. Quesada is reducing his role in the onscreen productions in order to allow more focus on the comics for the time being. The “Marvel Legacy” initiative is being touted as a back to basics, return to form for the line. DC’s position is a bit more precarious after it’s string of disappointing movies. However the, at this time, upcoming “Flashpoint” could give them a pre-made excuse to pull a reset with their universe. Ironically, in the comics, Flashpoint was the reality-altering event used to usher in the “New 52”. It very well could come full circle and rather than move the universe down a darker path, but rather, usher in a new dawn.
At the start of this article, I said I couldn’t definitively say who wins in the war of DC versus Marvel. Turns out, I was wrong. With the effort each is putting into wooing us to their side, it’s actually kind of obvious…We do.