Sunday, August 10, 2008

SDCC Topic 2: Loyal Opposition?

I've not been around comics enough to know the tradition of the competition between DC and Marvel. From the things I've been able to pick up, the relation between the two major superhero companies was one of genial competition, and perhaps some ribbing. For instance, I recall Clark Kent showing up behind the scenes in an issue of Marvel Team-up. And then there was the annual Halloween festival in some town in New England where folks in costume would show up on the other company's comics. Of course, the Squadron Supreme is a Marvel-ized Justice League and DC eventually followed up with the Extremists, an Avengers knock-off. There was also a period of company crossovers, led by Superman vs Spiderman, and followed up by others, including the unlikely Batman/Hulk. We're lucky that these are available as back issues with a little searching and have been collected in trades.

In the lifetime of my buying comics as they are released (opposed to seeking out back issues), there have been two major moments of cooperation between the two companies: the Amalgam cross-over, resulting in some of what I thought was that time's best story-telling, as creators were allowed to let their imaginations run wild and combine characters from the two companies. I was particularly fond of Dr. Strangefate and Bruce Wayne, Agent of SHIELD, the names of which just evoke all sorts of possibilities in story-telling. After a long period of time, Kurt Busiek and George Perez were allowed to do a JLA/Avengers cross-over that had pretty good sales for its period, but there are indications that we've entered a cold war period and the companies will not cross over again any time soon.

Of course, my readers and those who know me also know my interest in questions of genre. And so I have spent some time pondering the differences between the two companies, especially in light of Steven Grant's excellent recent post on the difference (

I had reason to think of these issues recently when the Speculative Nephew came to stay with us for six weeks (sadly, Grant's excellent piece had not yet come out while the Nephew was living here). I've been pretty unabashed for my love of DC, and the Nephew is the stereotypical Marvel zombie. And while we don't really clash on it, especially since I read the Ultimate universe from Marvel and pass those comics on to him, and since I spent a good deal of time working in a comic store and so had to learn the Marvel Universe fairly well in order to be an effective service representative. But when he had spare time, he was only able to find mostly DC stuff sitting around the house, and I was pleased to find him poking through The DC Encyclopedia for example. He also found some of Batman: The Animated Series on cable, which piqued his interest enough that he started watching the collections of it and Justice League from our DVD stacks. He's a curious kid, and a smart one, so one day he asked me why the DC animated shows were of such a higher quality than the Marvel ones (actually, it was something like "Why are the Marvel cartoons drawn so bad compared to this?" as he was watching Batman). This led to some interesting conversation about what I could only guess were some of the philosophies behind their editorial and licensing practices. And of course, having talked about it and trying to be even-handed, I had to spend some time thinking about it both during and after the conversation.

And so it was with this background that Mrs. Speculator and I found ourselves sitting in a "Mondo Marvel" panel in San Diego as we waited for a DC Universe panel to begin. While I know that things are kind of cold between the companies at the moment, and Marvel holds a decided upper hand in sales—and until The Dark Knight came out, they were pleasantly surprising reviewers with Iron Man (some calling it the best superhero movie ever made). Mrs. Speculator and I were surprised by the partisan animosity both in the crowd and in the panel. Granted we didn't see the entire panel, but soon after we got in the room, the panel was mocking Green Lantern in a complete non sequitur from the conversation topic. Now I've seen DC make a snide remark about the competition, but there is generally a little laugh and the conversation goes on. But the panel went on riffing on the relatively asinine weakness of the Green Lantern Corps for some time. Now anyone with knowledge of comic book history has to have a little respect for Green Lantern as it brought in some of the great names of science-fiction into the comic writing field. A little joshing would have been fun, but it went on and on, to the point of uncomfortableness. And when they went on to other questions from the floor, a young fellow asked them to name their favorite comic book movie. As they went down the panel, it was fascinating to see the verbal and visual contortions they went through in order not to give credit to the Dark Knight, going so far as to talk about Howard the Duck rather than say the name of a character from the other company.

What happened? I thought that the writers and artists of comics were fans of the medium and would appreciate the efforts of anyone else in the field. And the belittling that was going on had the opposite of the intended effect among some of the audience; instead of joining in the laughter, the audience got quieter and quieter as Marvel spent time calling attention to the successes of DC by refusing to talk about it. It was sad and peculiar all at once, especially as there are more and more eulogies for the comic industry, especially superheroes. It seems to me that for either company to succeed, the industry has to remain relatively vibrant—which requires at the very least minimal cooperation between its two leaders.

It's like the ridiculous siege mentality that has overwhelmed recent American politics has carried over into comics. No longer is politics about the weighing of the benefits and costs of various proposals of the different parties to chart a course to make America excel. Now it's "us" versus "them" and nothing good can be said about the other side, no matter the cost to the process at large as a result. Perhaps DC and Marvel have reached this in part because of their use of exclusive contracts, but there really is no reason to not wish the other side luck in their work to maintain a marketplace where both companies can do well. There's no reason not to appreciate the good work that the other company has performed.

Let's be honest, if this is a battle, Marvel currently holds the position of the Republicans in 2004. The presidency is theirs and they have cleaned up in the midterm elections. Instead of spending their effort belittling and mocking their opposition, they should be doing what they can to expand their market and reach. And folks, it sounds like Brand New Day went over about as well as firing federal prosecutors did for the Republicans. The adamant supporters of Marvel swear it's okay, that Marvel will make it right eventually. But those who are more moderate are asking publicly "What the hell?"

So what I came away from that panel with was an idea that Marvel needs to tends its own needs and let DC take care of itself. DC has managed to shoot itself in the foot a number of times in the last couple of years, and doesn't need Marvel's help in making a mockery of what used to be their strengths. And you know, it's just petty, taking away from the joy that events like Comic-con are supposed to engender in their attendees.

Besides, everyone knows Superman would clean Spiderman's clock if he really wanted to.

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