What is the difference?
I think, with Paul and Jim each producing a thoughtful piece regarding DC Comics, it’s got me thinking about what it is that makes people prefer one company over another. I’ve never been able to put my finger on what it is about DC that feels one way, and what it is about Marvel that feels another.
Also, I realize that there are other comics out there, being made by other companies, and if I had to choose one superhero book right now, it would be Invincible, and that doesn’t come from either of the big two. But as far as history, legacy, and general fun-of-debate, it’s hard to beat the Marvel vs. DC pondering.
So what really is the difference? First off, it’s absurd to say that one is better than the other. That’s like saying cheese is better than fruit. It might be to you, but not to another. It’s also a given that some people have an allegiance or preference for one over the other. There’s nary a comic book reader out there, no matter how indie they’ve ended up that isn’t or didn’t at one time identify themselves as a DC or Marvel guy. I think we all have an innate preference, and most of the value judgments that come are based on that choice.
Is the choice between publishers ambiguous, or just based on which one you started with, or is there a real difference? Is it just because you like Dan DiDio better than Joe Quesada, or is it just gut instinct? Is there something in the DNA of the core characters that makes something feel like a DC property or a Marvel one?
One word that’s thrown around a lot is “legacy,” as in “DC comics are based on a strong sense of legacy,” and the idea of passing down the torch from father to son, or ward, or whatever. While I certainly think it’s obvious that many of the better DC Comics exploit their legacy, it’s not really consistent. So many superhero characters start from a point of loss, and in that way, Batman is no different than Spider-Man, who is no different than Superman. Go through either company’s roster of characters, and you’ll likely find an equal number of mantles being passed on, as time and sales dictate. I think legacy is something writers try to take advantage of, but really, it exists in both universes, and isn’t really enough to differentiate the publishers’ products when really looking at them on an individual level. I start to think that Marvel has more broken families and characters born from instability, but every time I think of a Marvel character with a crap childhood, I think of a DC character who’s just as bad. For every Frank Castle, there’s a Bruce Wayne. Interesting characters are often born of tragedy, and as such, neither universe is lacking in that department.
Then yesterday, I read Young Avengers Presents #6, about Hawkeye, and the whole damn thing is about legacy, and Clint Barton fostering the next generation of youngsters, and I’ll be damned if Matt Fraction didn’t bring the DC special sauce over to Marvel. And wouldn’t you know? It fit like a glove. It didn’t feel like I was reading a DC book. It felt right. It felt totally normal. So it’s not legacy. Captain America and Bucky anyone?
Is Marvel Comics more realistic than DC? I might think so at first impulse, but then I remember Identity Crisis, and I think not. I’d like to table the idea that one is more ridiculous in continuity than the other. That conversation has been beaten like a Colombian who scores an own goal in the World Cup. They’re both completely absurd. I was just reading Infinite Crisis, and Geoff Johns summed up Crisis on Infinite Earths in about a page, and it was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. It was the first time I’d ever had it explained to me so well, and I was shocked at how really not confusing it actually was. Marvel has so many all powerful beings and devices, that between the Scarlet Witch and the Cosmic Cube, it’s a wonder there’s any continuity at all.
Speaking of Infinite Crisis, it turns out I very much enjoyed reading it. I was indeed quite surprised by this turn of events. Conor had said it was actually pretty good, following a re-read for him in the wake of the Crisis show we did, so I thought I’d give it a try. While it was just as big in scope as 1986′s Crisis on Infinite Earths, I wasn’t really all that lost, and when I was, I didn’t care. Now, I have the benefit of reading that which came after Infinite Crisis, which helped me put a good deal of it into context. Also, I read it in one shot, which I think, for me, was a better choice, because I might have gotten bored with it, in a monthly format. But the fact remains that I really enjoyed it. I liked the universe-spanning adventure. I wasn’t at all confused about the multiple earths, and context pretty much helped me keep things straight.
I don’t really think the multiple earths are that confusing. Marvel has multiple dimensions, but they just don’t bring them up as often. DC relies on them more for storytelling purposes, and I guess that might be something people either like or don’t. I think I like it every once in a while, when it’s done clearly. But even though there are apparently 52 universes, there are only a few that actually come up that often. Earth 1, 2, 3, and Prime. That’s about it. There are some others, but that’s about the size of things. Earth 1 is the main DC Universe, DC 616, if you will. Earth 2 is when the old timers are from. Superman has grey temples. Earth 3 is reverse, where the good guys are bad, and the bad guys are good. That’s about it. It can get confusing when you start trying to figure out which characters are from when, but 98% of the time, we’re only dealing with Earth 1 characters, unless it’s a multiverse based story, like Countdown.
I have to bring up the “Johns” factor. Geoff Johns’ metahuman ability is to distill these concepts down into something we can all get behind, no matter how jaded a reader we’ve become. Johns’ work isn’t flashy. It isn’t striking, and very often, you don’t really see how good it is until after the fact. He fools you into thinking he’s a bit plain. But he grabs these themes, and finds the essence, and importance of a character, and makes you understand. It’s uncanny how often he does this, and how good he is at it. Infinite Crisis is a perfect example. If you don’t understand why Nightwing is important after reading that book, you’re not going to appreciate him at all. But Johns throws it right out there on the paper, and it’s just this side of obvious, with just enough subtlety. It’s actually quite elegant, and he does the same thing in Green Lantern and JSA every month, as well as his other titles.
This brings us to the difference between DC and Marvel that is, to me, most apparent. Marvel’s got more writing talent at the moment. It’s as simple as that. Over at Marvel, the big guys moving the pieces around are Brian Bendis, Matt Fraction, Ed Brubaker, Mark Millar, Dan Slott, and many others, depending on your preferences. DC has Geoff Johns. Grant Morrison is over there doing work, but Johns is doing all the heavy lifting for the major characters, and where he’s not, the titles are floundering. Classic big writers like Mark Waid aren’t getting the job done on characters like the Flash, and Dwayne McDuffie, while respectable, is not making JLA the huge book it needs to be, even if he’s held by editorial constraint. Greg Rucka just left an exclusive DC contract. Chuck Dixon, the best guy to ever run the Bat family, just left. Sure there are other guys doing excellent work on boutique type books for both publishers, but the decks seem to be currently stacked in Marvel’s favor. I love Paul Dini’s work on Detective Comics, but that book has nothing to do with the DC Universe, except in its own pages. Marvel’s upcoming writers are just better than DC’s upcoming writers right now. They’re more exciting. Marvel has Jason Aaron as newly exclusive. Geoff Johns can’t pull all the weight over there, and Grant Morrison isn’t quite consistent enough to be the flagship writer. When he’s on, he’s the best, and that might be the case with Final Crisis. But out of those two guys, there’s no one I’m super excited about writing a big DC book. DC needs a Mark Guggenheim. They need an Abnett & Lanning. They need a Robert Kirkman. They need a Jonathan Hickman. They need a Jason Aaron. They don’t need to bring back Marv Wolfman, unless he’s going to blow us all away. This all makes sense, because when I look at Marvel, I see bigger sales numbers, which translates to more money, which means more incentives. Where would you go work? In a couple of years, things will shift around, and you’ll see talent migrate, and the tides will shift. Maybe that will put some spark into DC. Maybe they should give Adam Beechen some more work to start with, and try not going back to the well quite so often.
After really thinking hard about the two publishers, I just don’t think one is inherently better than the other, or that the stylistic differences are so great. For every character I like at Marvel, I can think of one at DC. But more often than not, I like the writers at Marvel better, and this is Joe Quesada’s strength to me. It’s what made Marvel Knights so good when I first learned his name, and it’s what makes Marvel seem to be more vibrant at the moment. There was a day, not so long ago, when a certain Greg Rucka, and a certain Ed Brubaker were kicking ass and taking names in the Bat department, and a young Geoff Johns was making his name on Flash, and a comic called Starman was making everyone sit up and take notice. Those days can certainly come again. In the meantime, we see that it can be done by Geoff Johns. If only there were more like him, and if so, hopefully Marvel doesn’t sign them to exclusives first. It might be that some of us picked a home team a long time ago, and most of us will probably stick to that. But it never does a reader any good to ignore good work being done anywhere, regardless of what team is putting it out.