- - Thursday, February 22, 2018



By Reed Tucker

Da Capo Press, $27, 304 pages

One of my favorite childhood memories was going to Comics Unlimited, a now-defunct comic book store close to my high school. My friends and I would enthusiastically snatch up just about every new title before it was placed on the racks.

As we trudged back to our classes with bags of comic book booty, the conversation would often shift to who published the best titles. Some preferred Marvel (Spider-Man, Captain America, Avengers), while others supported DC (Superman, Batman, Justice League). Like most comic book aficionados, we playfully argued, debated and bickered — but never reached a consensus.

These discussions came flooding back as I poured through Reed Tucker’s “Slugfest: Inside the Epic 50-Year Battle Between Marvel and DC.” The freelance pop culture journalist/author has written an intriguing examination of the intense Marvel-DC rivalry that has helped shape, well, comicbookdom.

DC was founded by former U.S. Cavalry officer/pulp writer Maj. Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson as National Allied Publications, and it released its inaugural comic book, New Fun Comics #1, in 1935. After an additional five issues, Wheeler-Nicholson “ran out of money” and teamed up with Independent News.

The latter company, started by Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz, had made its money “by backing a series of racy pulps” but also received public scorn. Wanting to “diversify away from its girlie-heavy portfolio and expand into more innocent publishing arenas,” Independent consolidated efforts with National Allied and became Detective Comics, Inc. in 1937.

Marvel was formed in 1939 as Timely Comics. Its founder, Martin Goodman, “got his start producing low-rent magazines, just like the men who founded DC.” Marvel Comics #1 was released, and the company jumped “from fad to fad, with little originality or leadership in evidence.” Everything from superheroes to funny animal stories was fair game. In 1951, Mr. Goodman left his distributor and renamed his company Atlas Comics. He struggled financially, gave Atlas a fresh coat of paint, and launched Marvel Comics in 1957.

Marvel was originally seen as a “copycat” of DC and, as Mr. Tucker amusingly depicts, “the equivalent of a bad bar cover band.” Yet, there were some weird, early connections that tied them together.

DC, sensing Atlas was “fatally wounded” in 1957, offered $15,000 for three significant characters: Captain America, Sub-Mariner and Human Torch. Mr. Goodman considered this offer, which “looks insanely lowball by today’s hyperinflated superhero market,” but the millionaire businessman passed on it. Meanwhile, Mr. Goodman used Independent News as a distributor starting in the 1950s. This decision had “little to do with altruism,” but to help DC dispel concerns “about appearing to be a monopoly.” If this arrangement hadn’t occurred, Marvel could have potentially closed its doors for good.

Marvel and DC have remarkably different operating philosophies.

“If Marvel’s art was a double espresso,” Mr. Tucker notes, “DC’s was like a pleasant green tea.” Marvel was more interested in being “more experimental, more edgy,” or, as former editor in chief and publisher Stan Lee said, “a cornucopia of fantasy.” DC liked a “cleaner, more technically correct style” in its artwork, leading editor Julie Schwartz to remark, “If it’s not clean, it’s worthless.” Readers originally favored DC’s approach, but as its sell-through rate became noticeably “shakier compared to Marvel‘s,” the upstart competitor took control in the 1960s.

Both companies try to one-up each other, including multiverse stories like Marvel’s “Secret Wars” and DC’s “Crisis on Infinite Earths.” Unusual superhero similarities, such as DC’s Doom Patrol and Marvel’s X-Men (both feature a “team leader in a wheelchair”), have raised eyebrows.

There was a successful Marvel-DC team-up in 1976 with Superman and Spider-Man, but a Justice League-Avengers follow-up was “so fraught with difficulties and rancor that it killed cooperation between the companies for more than a decade.” Talented artists like Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby worked for both companies, which led to personal distrust and many expletives.

Superhero movies have also created a new dimension to this rivalry. DC is owned by Warner Bros. Entertainment, while Marvel is part of Walt Disney. “DC’s brand is not as strong or cohesive as Marvel,” in Mr. Tucker’s view, and “Marvel has also been much more disciplined with its planning than DC.” While there may be room for both companies to succeed in Hollywood, “Marvel marches on, continuing its historic run.”

Who will win this titanic battle of the superheroes? That remains to be seen, but let’s hope people keep reading their favorite comic books for years to come.

Michael Taube is a frequent contributor to The Washington Times.

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