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Clash of the Comics Titans
Battle Lines, if Blurry, Are Still Drawn Between Marvel and DC

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 1, 2006

Of the great brand-loyalty debates -- Ford or Chevy? John or Paul? Road Runner or Coyote? Newport or Marlboro? Orthodox or Reform? -- only a very few people still sort themselves along one of the narrowest consumer dichotomies of all:

Marvel or DC?

Back when it mattered, you used to be certain. You would ally yourself and endlessly argue the merits in comic-book stores or at a convention at the airport Ramada. DC Comics, led by Superman, was for people who adored the fantasy, the Ubermensch triumphant. These readers loved skyscrapers and archvillains and sidekicks, billowing flags, unerring ethical strength.

Marvel, led by Spider-Man, was a place for the smart but troubled reader, the deeply weird. They loved the night, the underground, accidents in the lab. All that dialogue, so many thought balloons! The heroes always on some emotional ledge, and the hubris of it all -- a grittiness that came with saving the world.

DC was about younger kids in back yards, wearing bath towel capes, leaping from treehouses.

Marvel was about older kids in basements, possibly stoned, deconstructing Thor.

DC invented places to go -- Metropolis, Gotham City, Paradise Island.

In the Marvel universe, New York is New York, and it's nothing but trouble.

DC: It was always the Fourth of July.

Marvel: It was always Halloween.

DC: Comic books are a wonderful escape.

Marvel: Comic books are a dark refuge.

From a business perspective, the two companies have engaged in a real and bitter rivalry, even as their writers and artists and editors enjoyed friendships and hopped between houses. DC (which is owned by Time Warner) and Marvel (a publicly traded company) are again putting their weight behind summer blockbuster movies. "Superman Returns" opened this week (didja know?), and if you flip through this month's Marvel titles, you will find ads touting the DC movie, an intentional irk that once would have been thought taboo. Meanwhile, "X-Men: The Last Stand," a Marvel production, has earned a comfy $224 million since its release last month.

Each publishing house has also launched a new, complicated series in its own universe this summer: "Civil War," a seven-issue epic clash of heroes, is currently unfolding at Marvel, while "52," a weekly saga launched by DC in May, will continue for one year.

To read either company's comic books now -- the complicated story lines, the endless relaunchings of old characters -- is to enter a world that can still be divided into Marvel people and DC people: A DC comic is still for the more orthodox, Marvel is still for self-styled rebels.

DC hires fantastic writers and artists but is cautious about its canon and where they take the characters. (The company's more provocative work can be found under its other imprints, such as the Vertigo brand.)

Marvel, it seems, will always possess the allure of the cool.

DC feels very Windows. Marvel feels very Mac.

Paul Jenkins, who is currently writing Marvel's "Civil War: Front Line," which is about reporters embedded with warring factions of superheroes, has also worked for DC. The big difference, he thinks, is that DC editors want stories to stay in imaginary places, with imaginary presidents, rock stars, cities. Marvel loves anything that references popular culture and current events. When DC goes after a big story, Jenkins has noticed, "it means they want a big story that will really impact the DC universe. But at Marvel, it's more like 'We want a big story that really gets to what's going on in the real world.' "

Joe Quesada, Marvel's editor in chief, remembers the rivalry when he was young -- not only between the two houses, but among readers. In regular conversations with fans on the Internet and in interviews, he says, "I've been trying for years to get that rivalry back up, to really stir the pot, and I think finally it's starting to work. Every once in a while you take a shot at the competitor. Marvel comics are the best in the world, I don't care what anybody says. All of it good fun, with tongue firmly in cheek . . .

"There's still a bit of a difference," Quesada says, in what kind of people read which brand. "Some fans prefer that higher level of pure fantasy that DC has. They've come a lot closer to that Marvel grimness, grittiness. Wonder Woman just killed someone. Snapped his neck. You see their heroes doing a little more morally questionable things. They used to be goody-two-shoes!"

Superman vs. Spider-Man

Marvel creator and "chairman emeritus" Stan Lee -- good ol' Stan Lee! Eighty-three now, long since retired from the game, speaking to us by phone from his office in L.A.-- remembers the 1960s, when DC was always the company on top but had a way of flinching at whatever punches Marvel threw:

"I had friends at DC. Guys would tell me they had these editorial conferences over there and one of them would say, 'Marvel uses more dialogue balloons on their covers,' so they would start doing that and then we wouldn't do it anymore. Then it would be, 'The guys at Marvel use more red on their covers,' and they'd start using more red on their covers, and I'd tell my guys, 'No more red.' I used to marvel -- no pun intended -- that they didn't see what the reason was, why we were suddenly getting all these readers. It was right in front of them. It was the personal problems that our heroes had. When they weren't in costume they could have been you and me; they had to make a living. The DC stories were all plot -- this is the hero, this is the villain who is trying to do something dastardly, and here comes the hero to stop him. The stories I was trying to write were: This is the villain, this is the hero, but unfortunately the hero has a lot of other problems also, and will he be able to take care of his personal life and do something about the villain?"

Now here is Paul Levitz, in a separate phone call. He's DC Comics' president and publisher, and he's also on the West Coast somewhere, promoting "Superman Returns." There used to be more of a split in comic-book personality types, Levitz says -- a way of seeing the world, for loyal readers, in tints of DC or hues of Marvel. "I would argue if the separation is even valid anymore," Levitz says.

Oh, sure, he says, there was a time. Ask Levitz, a career DC man, about his regular poker games with some of the Marvel guys. And professional games. "Anytime anyone's doing great comics, you're playing, on some level, a game of 'Can you top this?' . . . You had a long period in comics history when there were few enough publishers that it was relatively easy to just say, 'I'll buy everything from the house I like,' and buy nothing but DC titles or another [brand]. But now there is just so much stuff, there's literally hundreds of titles and publishers. The field has never been more fertile. There's more creative work being done across this wide range of formats, audiences, styles.

"I'm not sure your thesis about being one or the other works," he says, clearly itching to be rid of this interview.

Stan Lee and his gang allegedly tried to buy DC in the '70s, but there was a dispute over which characters they could have. DC, the legend goes, wanted to keep Superman and Batman. The very idea -- Marvel buying DC? -- still conjures terrific "What if?" notions, debates and dilemmas for generations of comics readers, as well as writers and artists. The houses have, over time, engaged in "crossover" stories in which their superheroes encounter one another in some interdimensional neutral space.

"Do you remember when we had a book where Superman fights Spider-Man?" Lee inquires, like anyone who is male and American and alive in 1976 could forget.

"We used to make a lot out of the rivalry," Lee says, recalling the neck-and-neck days between the houses, when he created a "Not Brand Echh" series of humor comics that poked fun at DC. "But we weren't, really. Carmine Infantino" -- the former DC creative director and publisher -- "and I used to get together every couple of months or so for a drink at this bar, Friar Tuck's was it called? On Third Avenue. He'd bring some of his guys, I'd bring some of mine. There was this idea of this big feud."

Who won?

"Hunh?"

The fight, Stan, between Supes and Spidey. Do you remember who won?

"Well, naturally it had to be a draw," Lee says. "We had to make it so you could read it as either of them won, so that DC could claim they won and Marvel could claim we won."

Navigating the Universes

DC, back then: It's your kid brother, wacked out on Pop-Tarts, still in his underpants at 10 a.m., insisting on "Super Friends" over "Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space." Thinks he's Batman at night, thinks he's Aquaman in the tub. It's make-believe, make-believe, make-believe. A hot dog is not a death ray, now sit down and eat. And who used all of the red and orange crayons? And why is Robin always in here naked with my Barbies?

Marvel, back then: It's your big sister's boyfriend, already 18 and "kind of different, but nice," your mother observes, although he rides a motorcycle with no helmet. He draws an Incredible Hulk for you on a sheet of paper, and that's it, you're hooked, he's a god. From him you learn about Ghost Rider and Conan the Barbarian and Silver Surfer. He listens to Rush.

DC, back then: Shlockarific television! "Batman" in the '60s (Ka-pow! Wham!), "The New Adventures of Wonder Woman" in the '70s. The toys, the cartoons, the read-along storybook LPs.

Marvel, back then: Put out a comic book starring the rock band Kiss.

DC: "Sgt. Rock."

Marvel: "Doctor Strange."

But look at DC now: It has become a retreat for grown-ups who've had it with the Marvel characters' endless angst. When you weary of 22-year-old mutants, Batman can seem comfortably adult. Superman feels right. Green Lantern is a terribly interesting idea, a meditation on burden. Wonder Woman and Aquaman are filled with what seems like literature and history.

And look at Marvel now: After decades of fawning over bad-boy Wolverine, everyone started paying a lot more attention to Captain America. He kind of rocks, in a way you never knew, and so does Iron Man. For years nobody except total Marvelheads read "Iron Man." The World Trade Center collapsed and Marvel took it personally, bub, and started drawing firefighters and cops more. Started drawing flags and sunsets. Had a moment.

But look at DC: Still more rigid, linear.

But look at Marvel: Still naughtier, weirder.

Open a title from either, look at a panel or two, and see if you know where you are.

In Marvel's "Civil War" series, the government has decided to regulate superheroes and require them to register and report for duty as federal employees. Captain America is opposed to the idea. Iron Man is for it.

She-Hulk: "Will we still technically be super heroes after all this, Tony? Won't we just be S.H.I.E.L.D. Agents when we're all on the federal payroll?"

Iron Man: "No, we're super heroes, Jennifer. We tackle super-crime and we save people's lives. The only thing changing is that the kids, the amateurs, and the sociopaths are getting weeded out."

That dialogue is so Marvel. Tony and Jennifer, worrying about work.

Whereas to love (and stay in love) with DC Comics, you have to stay focused on the symmetry of good and evil. Deliberations give way to monologues.

You must also buy into DC's overriding plot device -- that there is a system of infinite, parallel Earths. On one Earth, Superman could be 30 years old; on another Earth, in a different comic book, he is nearing 60. The true DC loyalist would have no problem with the fact that the company is now on its third or fourth version of the Flash. (And you don't even want to know about all the Green Lanterns over time.) Superman and Batman just got their umpteenth "relaunch" tweaks and makeovers. So did Wonder Woman.

DC fans never stumble on these intricate distinctions; right now, many of the company's titles bear the stamp "One Year Later," indicating that their plots occur after the "52" plotline currently in progress.

In Marvel's world, things are no less complicated. To be a Marvel reader is to believe in neither good nor evil but to appreciate shades of gray. Say it's been 15 years since you last read "The Uncanny X-Men." You go into the comic-book store and look for the latest issue. What you don't know is that nobody's reading "Uncanny X-Men" these days. They're reading "Astonishing X-Men." There's also just plain old "X-Men," and "New X-Men" and "X-Men Unlimited." There is also "X-Factor."

And that's just the X-Men -- perhaps next you'd like to catch up with the Avengers?

You'd never have enough time.

A New Golden Age?

Among comic-book readers, allegiances now routinely shift. "It's really about who has the best stories at the time," says Peter Casazza, standing behind the counter of Big Planet Comics store ("Serious About Comics") on Dumbarton Street in Georgetown.

It's a Wednesday afternoon.

Wednesday has always been new-comic-book day, and Casazza unpacks the latest issues, gives them a prominent spot, winnows out the old stuff. There are more people buying comics this year, he says, than in any recent year he can recall. The only problem now is there is no way to stock them all, especially in his 800-square-foot store. DC and Marvel, Casazza says, each used to put out around 35 titles every month; now it's around 70. (To say nothing of many more indie publishers of comics and graphic novels, or the growing shelf of Japanese manga.)

Around 100 regular Big Planet customers get weekly "pulls," in which the store sets aside a copy of each title a customer regularly buys and reads, in a nice, ready-to-go stack. Casazza says that when a comic book costs three or four bucks, as they now do, it's hard for a reader to stick with a title or brand if it's not working the same old magic. Some years they read more Marvel; some years they read DC; and for a long time, they have read a lot of both.

Imagine two churches across the street from each another, only the congregants keep running back and forth on the rumors of better Scripture.

"It's DC right now," Casazza says unequivocally. "Just the stories they're doing right now are so good. It's the writers."

'Nuff said?

Never.

Peter Parker has just unmasked himself to the world in "Civil War" [Ish #2 -- Ed] and the fast-selling series is hard to keep in stock. "More readers are coming back. People are talking about comics more," Casazza says.

"A lot of retailers argue if this isn't the Golden Age, right now."

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