Since the early 1960s, comics have been dominated by two major publishers, Marvel and DC. Despite both publishers being primarily focused on the same type of comics—namely superheroes—each has a distinct feel. While a reader may not be familiar with a particular character, if they are at all familiar with the Big Two, it is pretty easy to determine which publisher the book came from. The natural question then is, if both publishers are putting out what is essentially the same type of book, why do they feel so different? The best answer I have heard, and the one that I’m going to explore in this post, is the idea that DC characters are gods attempting to be man, while Marvel’s are men attempting to be gods.
DC started the whole ball rolling with Superman, way back in 1938. He was quickly joined on the market by both unique heroes and copycats. In fact, a significant number of the main DC characters have their roots firmly planted in the Golden Age. The characters that come out of this era are products of their environment, primarily The Great Depression. They are characters that stand above the problems of the everyday man and who, in many ways, are there to help those less able deal with their situations. In his first appearance, Superman goes after a slum lord and in Batman’s, he attacks organized crime. There is still a very real connection to the Joe-on-the-Street, but it is from the perspective of someone looking at them from on high, protecting them from the things they are powerless against.
Superman is an alien who has nearly god-like powers, Batman is a millionaire (now billionaire) who is basically good at everything, and Wonder Woman is the warrior princess and champion of a group of Amazons. And yet they are spending their time in the betterment of mankind. I’ve always found that one of the things that makes Superman such a great character is that he is the personification and the ideal of what humanity can be—not as a physical specimen, but as a truly good person. He doesn’t kill; he fights for those who can’t defend themselves; he is honest almost to a fault; and he is just an all-around great guy. He is an incorruptible paragon without being arrogant or condescending.
Marvel, on the other hand is the new kid in town (if one considers having been around nearly as long as DC being new). In fact, the publishing company that became Marvel began putting out superhero comics in 1939 under the name Timely. The later publishing company would take its name from the first comic they published: Marvel Comics #1. Even in the early days, Marvel took a different approach than its predecessor. One of its first characters was Captain America, a young man who is too weak and small to join the army unless he volunteers for an experimental program that will turn him into a super soldier. The experiment is a success, and Cap goes on to spend the next several years beating up on Nazis. When Marvel really took off in the 1960s, their books were filled with heroes that were just like the kids reading them, but with super powers.
Unlike the ultra-rich Batman, Marvel’s Spider-Man was often barely making ends meet. The only reason Peter Parker was able to pay the rent each month is that he was able to get amazing pictures of himself and sell them to the local paper. Marvel filled their books with real people who had real problems. The Fantastic Four constantly squabbled amongst themselves. Iron Man had a drinking problem. Thor was really a crippled doctor. When they went out to fight crime, it was because they felt a sense of duty to protect those who are just like they were before they got their gifts. And not only did Marvel’s characters have problems, but they made mistakes. Spider-Man inadvertently caused the death of his own girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, while trying to save her. He managed to break her fall, but the sudden stop caused her neck to break. Marvel’s heroes do amazing and wonderful things, but sometimes even they are unable to save everything and everyone.
So which take on superheroes is better? In the end, it’s really all a matter of reader taste. Some people like their superheroes to be iconic demi-gods, and others prefer them to be flawed and more relatable. And as the years have gone on, those lines have begun to blur quite a bit. As part of efforts to tell new and different stories, DC characters have become more fallible, and some of Marvel’s, more beatific. What matters most, is that there are various options out there, attempting to fill the desires of any potential reader. And of course, if someone doesn’t find what they are looking for, they can always throw their hat in the ring and write their own stories. It’s a beautiful, comic book-filled world out there.