Welcome back to another DC History. Normally, this feature is a way for us to showcase a particular character or team involved somewhere in the New 52. That’s not the plan today. To celebrate that the first issue of Avengers Versus X-Men is officially hitting comic stands, we’re looking back on 1996′s greatest Versus series. That’s right, today’s DC History is all about DC Versus Marvel / Marvel Versus DC.
Written by Ron Marz and Peter David with pencils by Dan Jurgens and Claudio Castellini, DC Versus Marvel was a four-issue miniseries. It was easily the most exciting thing my 14 year-old self had ever seen. This was a battle between publishers. This was the final word in deciding just who would win in a fight: Superman or Hulk? Aquaman or Namor? It was everything I wanted in a superhero comic.
The plot of the piece was absurdly simple. Somehow, the walls of the DC and Marvel universes were unstable. Characters from each world began popping into the other publisher’s world with little rhyme or reason. Spider-Man found himself swinging through Gotham City unexpectedly. Bullseye found himself in the Bat Cave. Tim Drake woke up in Jubilee’s bed. Since this was a four-issue miniseries, and there had to be plenty of room in these issues for fisticuffs, everyone took this development in stride. For instance, the then-current Spider-Man Ben Reilly immediately got a job at the Daily Planet. J. Jonah Jameson inexplicably became the Planet’s editor-in-chief.
This was all just a ton of fun for fans. It was silly and implausible, played fast and loose with several characterizations, and I ate it up with a spoon.
Among the shenanigans on display in these pages was a moment where Wolverine and Gambit stole the Batmobile while Batman and Nightwing were distracted in a Warner Brothers Store. How were these two mutants able to overcome the Batmobile’s defenses and figure out a way to start it without Batman noticing? Was this some sort of new mutation that we didn’t know about yet? There was simply no time for questions like that. There was only time for fan service.
With only four issues to play with, compressed storytelling was the way to go. In fact, there was so little time for story that most meetings between universes were relegated to single images. Hearing the interactions between characters like Iron Man and Steel, Black Widow and Black Canary, and Jack Knight and Dr. Strange would have been wonderful, but standalone static images were all fans were given. Looking back on it, the fact that we never got a conversation between the two Captain Marvels is the greatest shame of all.
It turned out that two cosmic beings were behind this mess. A red being and a blue being, each responsible for a different publishing company, existed. Since time began, they had ignored each other but now they were beginning to interact and to challenge the other one. In order to decide who was the better being, they agreed to pit their mightiest champions against each other. A brand new character from the Marvel Universe named Access was the only person who had the ability to jump between worlds at will and he tried his best to stop everything from going crazy.
The red and blue beings each choose eleven champions to represent their world. The champions had to battle each other until one could immobilize the other. This wasn’t a battle to the death.
Choosing eleven battles was integral to the story. An odd number of fights meant that there simply had to be a winner and a loser. Usually when these types of crossovers happen, publishers bend over backwards to make sure that both sides come off looking completely equal. That couldn’t happen here.
The first six bouts in the book were decided upon by the writers and editors of the story. These fights were between Thor and Captain Marvel, Aquaman and Namor, Flash and Quicksilver, Robin and Jubilee, Catwoman and Elektra, and Silver Surfer and Green Lantern.
After each fight, which only lasted two or three pages, a victor was declared. For the Marvel Universe, the winners were Thor, Elektra, and Silver Surfer. For the DC side, Aquaman, Flash, and Robin were the victors. The universes were all tied up going in the final five battles.
By the way, the best part of the entire miniseries came during the Aquaman / Namor battle. Knowing that he was physically outmatched by his opponent, Aquaman used his ability to communicate with sea life to drop an orca whale on Namor. It was glorious.
The genius of this event came with the final five brawls. Instead of fighting amongst themselves in the futile effort to decide if the Hulk or Superman would win in a fight, the editors of the book turned it over to the fans to decide who would win. Ballots were sent out with the first issue of the miniseries. These had to be mailed in. Fans could also vote on an America Online page dedicated to the event. It all came down to a simple popularity contest.
These battles were among the heaviest of heavy-hitters. Lobo fought Wolverine, Wonder Woman fought Storm, Spider-Man fought Superboy, Hulk fought Superman, and Batman took on Captain America. The Wonder Woman / Storm fight was very nearly unfair when Wonder Woman found herself in possession of Thor’s Mjolnir. Strangely, picking up the weapon caused her to lose nearly all of her clothing.
She dropped the hammer before the battle got underway and Storm sped to an easy victory. In the popularity contest of Wolverine and Lobo, it should come as no surprise when Wolverine pulled out a win. In what was probably a much closer battle, Spider-Man beat Superboy even if the Spider-Man under the mask was the much maligned Ben Reilly and not Peter Parker. Hulk proved to not be the strongest one there is when Superman super-punched him into unconsciousness. Finally, a well placed Batarang was able to incapacitate Captain America.
For those keeping score at home, Marvel won six matches. DC won only five. Marvel was the clear victor in this inter-publisher rivalry. Though this could have meant that DC was forced to quit publishing its comics and never show its face again, Access was able to fuse the two universes into a single shared space. Characters were suddenly smooched together. Character designs were instantly less about aesthetics and more about easy identification. The Amalgam Universe was born.
During Leap Week of 1996, DC and Marvel ceased publishing all of their titles. Instead, they jointly published twelve one-shots which chronicled the characters of the Amalgam Universe. Superman and Captain America became Super Solider. Wolverine and Batman became Dark Claw. Dr. Doom and Doomsday became Dr. Doomsday. Dr. Strange and Dr. Fate became Dr. Strangefate. Most enjoyably for me, Captain Marvel and Captain Marvel became Captain Marvel, though he now had Kree-green in his costume.
As you can see, things got weird.
Just like the DC Versus Marvel miniseries that these comics spun out of, fan service was what each of these titles were all about. It was a game that creators were playing with readers. Utau the Watcher became a Guardian of the Universe. Wanda Zatara was, of course, a mix between the Scarlet Witch and Zatanna. Spider-Boy was an on-the-nose combination of Spider-Man and Superboy.
Everything was gaudy and tongue-in-cheek but oh, what fun it was. No one bothered to pretend that a character like Bizarnage, a mashup of Bizarro and Carnage, was a great name or a great character. It was just fun. Nowhere was this as obvious as in the letter columns of each issue. That’s right, most of these one-shots had a letters page. Fake letters written by fake fans discussing fake continuity were found at the back of these stories. This was world building on a meta level.
After these initial twelve issues, the Amalgam characters cropped up again in two Access miniseries released the following year. Finally, in 1997, a brand new batch of Amalgam Comics was released. Featuring such new character pairings as the Challengers of the Fantastic and their sworn enemy Galactiac, this second round of comics delivered.
Perhaps the moodiest of these titles was a comic by Keith Giffen and John Romita Jr. A mix of the Kirby creations Thor and Orion, son of Darkseid, Thorion was a cosmic blast.
After the first round of Amalgam comics were published, DC Versus Marvel concluded with its fourth issue. Access was able to split the Amalgam Universe back into the DC and Marvel universes and reset things to normal. The cosmic beings saw just how awesome each other’s world and characters were, shook hands, and called it a day.
This was a big, stupid story with no consequences. It was also a very enjoyable read. The art styles of Jurgens and Castellini were completely different and could give readers whiplash when they traded off art chores from page to page. According to Mike Carlin’s introduction to the DC Versus Marvel collected edition, over thirty editors from DC and Marvel had to agree to this story. It had to have been a nightmare for Marz and David to write. But for all its blemishes and strange story beats, this miniseries was really a love letter to silly corporate superhero comics and the simple joy of getting a bunch of friends together and asking, “Who’d win in a fight…?”
Jeff Reid wonders what kind of behind-the-scenes bet DC owed Marvel for losing this series 6-to-5. It had to be something. Speculate with him on Twitter.