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Battle of the Superheroes: DC vs. Marvel

December 30, 2019 Archive Insight

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DC’s superhero stories, like this 1961 issue of
The Flash, invariably ended happily—with problems resolved and loose ends neatly tied up. THF305327

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Marvel superheroes often questioned both their superpowers and their general existence, as suggested on this dramatic cover of issue#50 of The Amazing Spider-Man.*

The Flash, the Hulk, the Thing; Batman, Ironman, Spider-Man; the Legion of Super-Heroes, the Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy.  On and on it goes.  The list of comic book superheroes can seem almost endless.  How do you tell them apart?  To get you started, it helps to know their origin—their company of origin, that is.  With a few exceptions, all comic book superheroes trace their origins back to the talented writers and artists who created them at only two companies—DC and Marvel.  From their beginnings, these companies differed radically in their approach to superheroes, and these differences can still be discerned today. 

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Superman comic book, 1951 THF141569

DC Comics

Comic book superheroes originated back in the 1930s with Superman.  This superpowered alien was the brainchild of two shy but talented teenage boys from Cleveland, Ohio—Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.  Pooling their drawing and writing talents, they devised the story of a he-man they simply called “The Superman,” who crash-landed on earth from another planet.  To keep his true identity safe, Superman needed to adopt a secret identity.  Enter Clark Kent, a meek, mild-mannered reporter with a personality remarkably similar to the two boys who had created him. 

Siegel and Shuster originally thought their character would lend itself to a great newspaper comic strip.  But they had no luck selling the idea to newspaper publishers, so they reluctantly agreed to sell their story in 1937 to the just-formed Detective Comics, Inc. (later shortened to DC).  Comic books—especially those featuring single characters rather than simply being collections of comic strips—were as yet an untested medium and both the young creators and the publisher took a risk.  Superman first appeared in Action comics (published by National Allied Publications, another corporate predecessor to DC) in June 1938.  Surprising everyone involved, he was immediately so popular that the publishers decided to feature him in his own comic book the very next year.  This marked the first time a comic book was devoted to a single superhero character. 

During the hard times of the Great Depression, Superman’s unprecedented popularity can be attributed to both his secret and his super identities.  Clark Kent represented the regular, unassuming common man that people could relate to, while they could happily dream and fantasize about being as infallible and invincible as the larger-than-life Superman.

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Wonder Woman comic book, 1948 THF141561

The formula was potent and durable.  Superman established the essential vocabulary for all DC comic book superheroes to come.  He, like superheroes who came after him, represented courage, humility, steadfastness, and a natural sense of responsibility to serving others in need.  He placed lofty principles above personal advantage, seeking nothing for himself.  As the Great Depression shifted to the patriotic World War II era, new DC superheroes like The Flash and Wonder Woman similarly placed the greater good above their own personal needs.  They never questioned their role in defending American democracy.  And, following the DC formula, they always triumphed in the end.

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During the late 1940s and 1950s, young readers were more likely to purchase a comic book about the humorous adventures of teenager Archie Andrews than one about a superhero. THF141542

During the 1950s, sales of comic books declined, especially those about superheroes.  Not only were adults concerned about the harmful effects of comic books on children, but superheroes seemed to lose their sense of purpose.  During the war years, it had been easy to know which side they were on.  What were they fighting for now?  Who exactly was the enemy?  Only Superman’s popularity continued apace, due to the popular TV series, The Adventures of Superman, which aired from 1951 to 1957.  It was through this series that the American public came to know Superman as championing “truth, justice, and the American Way.” 

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The Legion of Super-Heroes, a group of super-powered teenagers who join together to fight villains in the 30th century, have been popular DC superheroes since 1958. THF305330

By the late 1950s, DC superheroes were making a comeback, with both new and revived characters and a host of new supervillains for them to face.  New stories were created to fit the times, usually focusing either on scientific advancements (always seen as a positive force) or science fiction.  DC superheroes were competent, in control, and single-minded in their devotion to simply being heroic.  They solved any problem they encountered in a well-ordered world—a world that, for each character, had to be internally consistent.  Stories were comforting, positive, optimistic, reassuring, rational, and moral.  Superheroes used their powers responsibly, inevitably siding with established authority.

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This DC series, which started way back in 1941, featured Superman and Batman teaming up to battle villains. THF305328

The popularity of DC superheroes continued through the 1960s, spiking again with the trend-setting Batman TV show (which aired 1966-68), as well as their being featured on Saturday morning cartoons, in Broadway productions, and through related merchandise.  By this time, DC had settled on a standard and successful formula for its superhero stories: colorful and dramatic covers that grabbed kids’ attention, then a focus on plot development that would inevitably lead to a happy ending.  Little room was left for developing individual characters.  The editors at DC felt that this formula appealed to kids and young teenagers—their core market.  Why mess with success?

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Tales to Astonish #60, from 1964, featured two stories of classic Marvel superheroes: Giant-Man (introduced in 1962 as Ant-Man) with his female partner the Wasp, and The Incredible Hulk, re-introduced after his own series had been cancelled the previous year. *

Marvel Comics

In the late 1930s, following quickly upon the success of Superman over at DC, Timely Comics (later to become Marvel) introduced The Human Torch and Sub-Mariner.  The ultra-patriotic Captain America followed them during the World War II era.  But Marvel superheroes truly came into their own in the early 1960s. 

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The Comics Code Authority stamp of approval
THF141590 (detail)

The public attack on comic books in the 1950s had put a damper on the comic book industry, forcing several companies to go out of business.  It was risky even being in the business at the time.  But partly because he figured he had nothing to lose at that point, talented Marvel writer (and later visionary editor) Stan Lee tried a new approach to superheroes that would change the course of comic books forever.  He decided he could work within the constraints of the industry’s new self-censorship board, the Comics Code Authority, while at the same time dealing with more serious topics and stories. 

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This Marvel Collectors’ Item Classics from 1965 marked the first time that early classic Marvel stories were reprinted—in this issue, Fantastic Four #2 (January 1962); The Amazing Spider-Man #3 (July 1963); the Ant-Man story from Tales to Astonish #36 (October 1962); and Journey to Mystery featuring The Mighty Thor #97 (October 1963). *

The new superheroes that Lee created had relatable personalities, human flaws, and real-life problems.  Their stories were purposely aimed at a new audience of older teenagers, who were wrestling with their own insecurities and feelings of alienation.  These stories also questioned the scientific advancements of the Atomic Age that DC had embraced as positive forces in people’s lives.  What if science ran amok?  What if things went horribly wrong? What if there were dire consequences?  Many Marvel superheroes, in fact, gained their superpowers because of horrific scientific accidents. 

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Even though the Human Torch and the Thing were both members of the Fantastic Four, in this issue of Strange Tales from 1964, a villain named the Puppet Master manipulated them into fighting each other. *

It started with the Fantastic Four in 1961—Lee’s answer to an assignment to come up with a team like DC’s recently created and very popular Justice League of America.  Lee had long thought that typical superheroes were too perfect, that “the best stories of all…are the stories in which the characters seem to be real.  You feel you know them, you understand them, you can relate to them.”  This “Fantastic” superhero family had four distinctive personalities.  Furthermore, they did not act like the polished, restrained, polite superheroes with which comic book readers had long been familiar.  They argued, mistrusted each other, had tempers, expressed opinions, led complicated lives.  Rather than the public cheering them on in the stories, people feared and were suspicious of them. 

The Fantastic Four were a revelation—like no other superheroes that had come before.  Older teenagers—for whom DC superheroes had come to seem shallow and one-dimensional—found them original, realistic, exciting.  One fan remarked that turning from the Justice League and Superman to the Fantastic Four was like “stepping through a gateway into another dimension.” 

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The Green Goblin, one of The Amazing Spider-Man’s most hated enemies, planned to reveal Spider-Man’s secret identity to the world in issue #39 from August 1966, but in the process, he dramatically revealed his own true identity. *

Marvel quickly followed the popularity of the Fantastic Four with The Incredible Hulk (1962), who not only turned into a brutish monster as the result of a nuclear accident but didn’t even look, act, or sound like a superhero.  In 1963, Marvel introduced its most quintessential superhero—The Amazing Spider-Man, an ordinary teenager beset by ordinary teenage problems who, having acquired super-powers after being bitten by a radioactive spider, only reluctantly sets out to fight crime and villains.

Dr. Strange
Dr. Strange, introduced in Strange Tales in 1963, gained his own title in 1968 and made regular appearances across the Marvel universe. *

A quick succession of superheroes followed, each character with his or her own manner of speech, personality, values, and quirks.  By the late 1960s, Marvel had woven together an integrated mythology of all its superheroes, in which stories continued, superheroes made guest appearances in others’ stories, and characters could be heroes one day and become villains the next (and vice versa). 

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Marvel’s The Silver Surfer was introduced as a tortured soul, permanently exiled to Earth on a surfboard-like craft as punishment for betraying the evil Galactus on his home planet. *

The Marvel formula, as laid out with Fantastic Four in 1961, became the standard.  Stories and characters often focused on alienated and even neurotic individuals with character flaws, inner struggles, and personal grudges.  Endings weren’t always happy or satisfying.  Superheroes didn’t always get along or leverage their powers to help others.  In Marvel superheroes, readers recognized their own failings, struggles, and anxieties.  As opposed to DC’s black-and-white world, the Marvel world was gray—more like the real world.

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This DC comic book series, about a group of misfit and alienated superheroes, was conceived in the Marvel mode but was never as popular as Marvel’s stories of similar outcast groups of superheroes like The X-Men. THF141602

Since the 1960s, most superhero stories in comic books have become darker, more complex, and more serious—often tackling social issues with a gritty realism.  This trend has brought DC and Marvel stories, characters, and mythologies closer together in content and tone, though the differences between them are still definable because these are so deeply embedded in their DNA.

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The King Kon Comic & Fantasy Convention, which ran from 1984 to 1986, was the first regular comic book convention in the Detroit area after the demise of the multi-genre Detroit Triple Fan Fair (that had run from 1965 to 1977).  King Kon was a predecessor to the current annual extravaganza, Motor City Comic Con, which began in 1989. *

Superheroes can now be found pretty much everywhere, from Comic Cons to an expanding array of movies, TV shows, mobile games, action figures, and other merchandise.  Their worlds are constantly growing, expanding, and changing.  It’s easy to get confused.  But don’t worry. If you’re trying to make sense of it all, start with the superheroes’ origins.  Are they DC or Marvel?  Knowing that will set you off on the right track.

Donna R. Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.  See her other blog posts, Hooked on Comic Books and Comic Books Under Attack.  Items marked with an asterisk (*) are from the author’s collection.

TV, popular culture, by Donna R. Braden, comic books

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