2.2.09

Marvel vs. DC

Hercules, Samson and Beowulf are superheroes. They don’t wear capes or fly, but they do fight monsters and bad guys, same as Superman. The idea of the superhero wasn’t invented by American comic-books. It is as old as we are. The superhero story is one of the oldest types of story, along with fables and creation myths. I would argue that they are universal, and cite the growing number of superhero summer blockbusters as evidence. Why they are becoming popular now is a difficult question to answer, and not one that I’m gonna tackle now (I’m pretty much open to suggestions). Anyway, my problem is that I invariably prefer Marvel’s output over that of DC, even though (surely) they are doing the same thing. Why do Spiderman stories interest me more than Batman ones? The X-Men over the Justice League? The fault is not with Marvel having all the talent. The top writers and artists in comics have usually worked for both companies. I’m becoming more and more convinced that there is something innate about the Marvel characters that make them more interesting for the reader -- something about their backstory and design that gives them greater potential than their DC cousins.

I think this is partly due to the fact that the DC superheroes were thought up earlier than the Marvel ones, when comic-books were in their infancy, and so it is harder for them to remain exiting in today’s world. DC were setting out the rules of the game, and so their characters and stories had to be simpler, and crucially, familiar. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the rest were like the old superheroes of myth and legend -- idealized crusaders for justice who are also successful in their regular lives. They are paragons that should be looked up to, not real people. Wonder Woman is interesting in that she usurps the male superhero role, but she is likewise a figure of perfect womanhood to be admired rather than a real person to identify with. Very few details humanize the DC superheroes. Usually (with Superman, Green Lantern and The Flash) it is their attempts to form and maintain a romantic relationship while keeping their superhero identity a secret. But now, their stories have developed so that all is revealed, and all are happily married. At least, I think so. DC have an annoying habit of retconning their lengthy character histories to make them more resonant with todays audience. But I think their task is a difficult one. No matter how much you revamp, the blueprint will remain the same. And although that blueprint is universal and as old as time, comics now are more sophisticated, and need more complex, flawed, characters.

This is the particular genius of the Marvel universe. Marvel pushed the little humanizing details into the centre of the action. What is interesting when comparing the two flagship characters of the two companies -- Superman and Spiderman -- is that one of them is perfect, and the other one isn’t. Peter Parker is a teenage nerd with no friends and with very little family. He isn’t a highflying journalist or a multimillionaire or an Amazon. He is a regular guy thrown into the superhero life by the chance bite of a radioactive spider. He is not a born superhero, but a boy trying to be a superhero. Readers don’t so much look up to him as relate to him as he tries to do the right thing with the opportunity he has. And he doesn’t always get it right. Crucially, it is guilt that drives him forward to fight crime. Peter Parker could have stopped the man who kills his uncle, but doesn’t. This is different from the anger Bruce Wayne feels at the murder of his parents. Batman always feels himself in the right, Spiderman cannot do so because of that one moral lapse. Furthermore, his attempts to be a superhero are not always a resounding success. The Daily Bugle hates him, and the mammoth trials he faces often make him want to give up. His regular life is also more difficult. Because of his uncle’s death, Peter Parker has to find work as well as study at school and look after his aunt. With Spiderman, Marvel created a new kind of superhero -- one that self-consciously tries to be better than what he is. I think this makes him more inspiring than the godlike DC characters, and is what sustains his popularity today.

The other big Marvel title -- X-Men -- does the same thing. Mutants are regular people who have to learn to deal with superpowers, not all of them desired. The Xavier Institute exists to take these confused and afraid people and turn them into functioning members of society and, what is more, superheroes. Like Spiderman, the X-Men are not born to be heroes, they have to make themselves into heroes. Also like Spiderman, mutants are not welcome in the community. Their weirdness and power mean that they are spurned, and often persecuted, which serves to add to the issues they have to deal with. Moreover, this set-up serves to allow the series to parallel and comment on the civil rights movement, with Professor X as Martin Luther King and Magneto as Malcolm X. It can also provide metaphors for discrimination against a person’s sexuality. As if that wasn’t enough, the X-Men title is set apart by the fact that it documents the trials of a group of superheroes, rather than just one. There are other superhero groups, but they have always been collections of individuals. The Justice League collects Superman, Batman and Wonderwoman, the Avengers collects Captain America, Iron Man and Thor. But at the end of their adventures, the individual characters disperse to continue their own lives in their own titles. The X-Men have to live as well as fight in a group, which multiplies the range of stories you can tell. The Justice League will never play basketball together, or have a barbeque, or hook up and fall out. There is no soap-opera element in their adventures, which makes you truly believe they work together in a team.

Although Spiderman and X-Men were the most revolutionary in bringing superheroes down to earth, their example reverberates through the Marvel universe. Unlike Clark and Lois, Reed Richards and Susan Storm’s relationship is always on the rocks. Superman’s values are shared by the world he saves, while Captain America has to deal with a world that has moved on from the Nazis he faced. Bruce Wayne’s corporate doings are peripheral to the Batman story, but they are a central aspect of Tony Stark’s. The latter is an alcoholic and a womanizer, who’s Iron Man activities are an attempt to redeem his actions as a weapons developer. By giving their characters flaws, Marvel gave superheroes depth and a resonance that remains to this day.

DC’s strengths do not rest with their superheroes, but maybe they have other things going for them. Their simpler format (perfect superhero beats bad guy) means they have a large rooster of villains to choose from, the most interesting of which can make a return, have longer arcs and reveal a more complex and interesting character. The Joker, Two-Face and Catwoman were probably more interesting than Batman, at least until Frank Miller came along and made him into a kind of anti-hero. Likewise, I have always been more interested in Superman’s arch-nemesis -- Lex Luthor -- than I have been about Superman himself. I know Superman and Batman are the good guys, but why does Lex Luthor want to rule the world, and why is the Joker crazy? Spiderman doesn’t have villains as interesting as this (see Green Goblin). Usually they remain visually striking, but rather conventional bad guys. The focus is not on the hero solving everyone’s problems, but on the hero dealing with his own.

Nevertheless, villains come and go; it is the hero we spend the most time with. And DC haven’t got a monopoly on interesting villains, while Marvel can boast of a more interesting range of superheroes. I think this is at the heart of why most comic-book readers I have met (as well as myself) prefer Marvel over DC.

Pity this advantage doesn’t cross over into superhero films. ‘The Dark Knight’ remains the illest shit I’ve ever seen.

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