Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
DC Comics are rooted in pulp origins and Marvel Comics spring out of sci-fi. How does that reflect in their “universes”?
I like that this question isn’t framed as a Marvel versus DC quandary. We’ve already had some fun with that in the past. It’s really not a useful thing to ponder though. While the publishers have different strengths and vary in quality in any given year, trying to declare one the winner of superhero comics is the height of silliness. It’s a lot more useful to examine how they contrast and what the means; that’s something this question gets right to the heart of.
While we look at these two as the modern titans of American comics publishing and classic rivals, there’s about a two decade span of time between their origins. You can point to Timely Comics and the creation of characters like Captain America and Namor, the Sub-Mariner dating back to the Golden Age. These foundations were built simultaneously with National Comics and Detective Comics rise to power (along with their merger in 1946) and the creation of Superman, Batman, and almost every other Justice League stalwart. It was only DC Comics that would continue as a powerhouse of superhero comics through the 1960s though. As Timely became Atlas and then Marvel in 1961, it moved between genres like romance and monster comics. The rivalry between these two as we think of it today did not really begin until after the publication of Fantastic Four #1 and birth of the “Marvel Universe” in November 1961, almost a quarter century after the debut of Superman in Action Comics #1.
This enormous time gap led to a variety of different influences, both in fiction and reality, influencing how these comics were structured and who was creating them. DC Comics earliest characters were born out of the pulp tradition, which was still very active when they began publishing. Pulps were focused on fantastic heroes set in a reality that loosely resembled our own. Doc Savage was a perfect man constantly going on adventures; The Shadow sought vengeance from the shadows; Ka-Zar swung through the jungles and battled dinosaurs. They were outstanding individuals who cultivated a unique mythos around their personalities and powers (natural or otherwise).
You can see that influence on early DC characters in more way than one. The most obvious comparison comes in finding the direct influences of comics creators. Superman co-creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster have spoke openly about a variety of pulp inspirations for the Man of Steel, including Doc Savage. No matter what that schmuck Bob Kane may have said, it’s impossible to deny that Batman traces his roots to The Shadow.
What’s far more interesting though is the structure of these characters and how they connect to their pulp origins. Take a look at how Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, The Flash, and just about every other well known DC character was initially presented in the Golden Age. They were not only the heroes of their stories, but were unique to their stories. Superman did not emerge as the greatest hero in a world of heroes, he was the only man with his abilities. In Action Comics and then Superman, his stories formed a mythos around him. He collected a rogues gallery and supporting cast. His mythology grew and grew, all in support of this singular protagonist.
That is how each of these characters were developed, as the story to be told with no concern to how they would or could connect. They certainly did, starting with the birth of the Justice Society in All-Star Comics #3 at the end of 1940, but that was an oddity. Each hero was given their own city, their own cast, and essentially their own world that would be shaped to support a mythos centered on them. Just like Doc Savage and The Shadow, they were meant to be figures of legendary stature, unrivaled in their defining characteristics.
The earliest characters that founded the Marvel Comics brand were based in the genre and ideas of science fiction though. This stems from a few core reasons. When the architects of this publisher, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and Stan Lee, began to create they possessed a much more uniform approach. This is thanks to having relatively few creators all working together. While Kirby and Ditko had vastly different styles, Lee still brought a unifying element with his dialogue crafted after stories were drawn. Kirby especially had a major fascination with modern science and innovation, a voracious reader who picked up words and ideas whenever possible.
It also came at a time in history when science fiction was hot. The pulps were largely a thing of the past, with their best representatives existing in the form of DC Comics. However, sci-fi novels had risen in esteem and created a growing fandom. This is linked to the Cold War and America’s fascination with scientists as both warriors and heroes in the period. Concepts of space travel and nuclear power were the future of warfare and civilization, and with each passing year the impossible became possible.
What you find with these early Marvel characters is that they tend to be a contribution to a larger world. When Tony Stark builds his first suit or Reed Richards takes his family into space or Hank Pym experiments with some new particles, they are already part of plots and experiments building the future. They are not unique or iconic in the same way that DC Comics characters are.
You can imagine the world and narrative around any of those scientists continuing after they die, and in a manner that isn’t continually meant to honor them. If Tony Stark were to disappear tomorrow, it’s not difficult to imagine James Rhodes continuing as War Machine (give or take a resurrection) without anyone needing to pick up the mantle or Iron Man. Stark and his inventions contribute to and expand the world, but he is not the only person capable of doing so. The important part of Iron Man stories is not Iron Man, but how the comics allow for new ideas and relationships to be continually explored and pushed in new directions.
To craft a metaphor, both the DC and Marvel universes are trees, but what makes them strong is different. DC Comics’ strength is found in its trunk. Looking at its longest-lasting characters like Superman or Wonder Woman, it’s the core idea of there being a Superman or Wonder Woman that not only gives these characters their power, but their entire family or allies and enemies. Remove Superman from the picture and you must rush to fill his place (sometimes with as many as four imitators). What gives his allies their power is how they relate to the core ideaology of the original. Even in a franchise like Green Lantern or Flash, the power of the concept is concentrated on a mantle. When Jay retires or Barry sacrifices himself, the title is passed on because The Flash must continue to exist.
On the other hand, Marvel’s tree finds its strength in its branches. While you can pinpoint an origin for a character like The Hulk, Bruce Banner as a scientist has grown himself and those around him in countless new directions. The Hulk is not fixed in a core ideal. That original concept meant to explore a Jekyll and Hyde-like relationship has been expanded to include life as a Vegas fixer, gladiatorial champion, and super-strong super scientist. None of these roads are any more quintessential than any other. In addition to Banner’s own changes, he has brought to rise the stories of She-Hulk, a fourth-wall breaking attorney, and dozens of other Hulk-types. The key to his stories and those of so many other classic Marvel characters is the continual need for invention and experimentation.
It’s easy to talk about this essence versus experimentation difference when looking at some of the most popular characters at either publisher. Superman and Batman are unchangeable tentpoles who have created expanded universes swirling around and in relation to their identities. Mr. Fantastic and Ant-Man are often best recognized in stories and characters to which they share only a tangential relationship. However, I think the best example of each publisher’s strength can be found in heroes who typically lack ongoing series or mainstream recognition. If I was going to summarize the pulp and sci-fi cores of these two and why they are strengths, I’d have to discuss Starman and The Vision.
The original Starman was created by Gardner Fox and Jack Burnley in 1941, but never managed to become very popular and faded largely into obscurity over the next five decades. It wasn’t until 1994 when James Robinson and Tony Harris introduced Jack Knight, Ted’s son, that the name took on any significance in the world of superhero comics. Over the course of 81 issues and various mini-series and one-shots they not only told Jack’s story, but created a mythos around the Starman mantle.
Pulling from a variety of heroes who had used the name and inventing others, they wove the concept of Starman into a single cohesive narrative. It became a story about exploration and discovery. Whether it was plunging into the hidden history of Opal City or flying into space, the various Starmen always were seeking the horizon. These men almost always were tied to The Opal, a city defined by its hero as much as it defined its hero. Local police and other supporting cast members like The Shade and The Mist circled around their story. They were typically united by a few key powers, flying and utilizing a power source to control external elements.
Most significantly, it became a story about legacy focused on fathers, sons, and brothers. Starman was a title that united all of the men who bore it, even if only for a few days, and it was that title that was ultimately important. Starman was the hero of Opal City. Starman was the hero of the series. Starman was the legacy that pulled so many disparate elements together. This one title became a legend that none of the story could exist without. While the series crossed over with characters like Captain Marvel and Batman, they were always extraneous to the plot. Starman was a DC property without significance until the name itself was given importance.
The Vision on the other hand was born from a strange combination of elements, drawing oddities together rather than affirming a central identity. For those unfamiliar with the character’s comics origin, he was created by Ultron 5 who was the latest iteration of Hank Pym’s experiment with artificial intelligence gone homicidally wrong. While Pym is best known for the discovery of Pym Particles, allowing objects to grow or shrink, his creation utilized new discoveries to allow The Vision control of his density. Furthermore, Ultron 5 used the brain pattern Simon Williams, a deceased man super-powered by the machination of the Masters of Evil, to provide him with a personality. It’s a confluence of inventions, discoveries, characters, and stories creating something entirely new.
Since his creation The Vision has led to a wide array of bizarre stories. He has had impossible children with fellow Avenger Scarlet Witch, lost his “soul” to Simon Williams, seen his android family grown in a variety of forms, and been recast as a teenager. There is no pure or essential form of The Vision. His origin and existence lends itself to stories about the nature of humanity and self-determination. Yet the mad science that concocted him has allowed for his story to be reshaped year after year. He is a malleable character formed by bizarre combinations and adding to plenty of new ones.
Looking at characters like Vision and Starman, specifically series like The Vision and Starman, it seems obvious to me that they come from very different places. Comparing them leads to a complex array of differences that originate with the very publishers to which they belong. But it’s not a versus comparison, it’s a discussion of difference. Because looking at The Vision and Starman, while you might have a preference, there’s no way you’d want to live in a world with only one. They embrace the strengths of these publishers origins and what their characters tend to do best based on those roots. They are incredible comics because of where they originate.
In case the title of this week’s column didn’t snap into place, it’s a dumb reference to my alma mater’s sports conference: The Big Ten. It refers to differences between all of the schools involved, between those with established reputations defined by their history and those making constant changes in their athletic and academic programs. It’s a terrible naming scheme for a notable conference, but it does seem oddly fitting for this comparison.
DC Comics is a publisher defined by legendary characters. They are shaped by archetypal superheroes and incredible legacies. Marvel is a publisher defined by experimentation and alteration. Their characters regularly alter themselves, one another, and the world around them. These two legendary worlds of superheroes are separated by much more than two decades; they’re differentiated by tradition, style, and influence. It’s those differences that have allowed both of their universes to last and what allows them to remain relevant even when set side-by-side today.