Sunday, December 15, 2013

Marvel Comics: My Untold Story (4) - Rivalry

The objective differences between Marvel Comics and DC, in terms of style and subject matter, in and of themselves would probably have been enough to make me align with the former as a means of identification and self-expression. I read comics from both companies (in fact I read whatever I could get my hands on) but would not have hesitated to label myself more of a Marvel fan; I always ended up liking those issues more. Not to digress too much, but part of this was likely due to the relative ages of the two publishers and their respective fictional universes. Marvel had twenty-four years of history, which I had been helpfully provided with numerous guidebooks for (as my previous posts have attested), and which had been intended from day one to be cohesive and cumulative. DC was nearing fifty years of lore which had been forcibly unified as it gradually went along, including numerous reinventions. Both companies had backstory from before my time, but picking up a random Marvel comic in the early '80's was a completely different experience from picking up a random DC comic. On the one hand, the Marvel characters always seemed to be more recognizable, because their classic formula hadn't been messed with too much; there was no need, the ideas were all still (just barely) fresh enough to resist radical redesigns. Whereas DC comics were trying new things all the time in an attempt to recapture their former glory, while at the same time Saturday morning cartoon versions were streamlined and movie versions hearkened back to decades-old origin stories, so getting a definitive handle on Superman was tricky (did he work as a reporter at a newspaper (like in the movies)? or as a television journalist (comics)? or just hang around the Hall of Justice all day waiting for the Trouble Alert to go off (cartoons)?). And on the paradoxical other hand, despite the superficial changes DC characters never seemed to grow and evolve, whereas Marvel characters did. I might pick up an issue of The Defenders and find it referring to some earlier issue I had never read, but I found it strangely reassuring that the whole long tapestry of story would fit together if I ever tracked down those previous installments. And for the most part, those continuity nods added some depth of flavor but were not essential to comprehending the story at hand. Contrast that with DC, where I might remember some old adventure of Batman's which, it turns out, never really happened and therefore has no bearing on the story I had just plucked off the spinner rack. DC had a tendency to let older stories drift away into irrelevance, because their characters never aged and therefore it made no sense for a perpetually 36-year-old Superman or Batman in the early 1980's to have any memories going back as far as World War II, despite printed evidence to the contrary. Missing some of the intricacies of Marvel's finely tuned machine bothered me far less than grappling with DC's kludgy devices. And judging from the waning of DC's fortunes as Marvel's star was on the rise, lots of other people felt similarly.

That was thirty years ago, and Marvel has since struggled with a lot of the same weighty baggage as DC in the intervening time, but in the halcyon days of my childhood the distinction was clear. Marvel comics spoke my language and hooked me in and made sense to me, whereas despite loving certain characters of DC's (Green Lantern always never far from my heart) I couldn't invest myself in the current comics they were putting out at the time.

Yet there was another factor that emerged early on, one which infiltrated countless aspects of my young life, with comics fandom only one instance among many: the ongoing love/hate relationship between myself and my younger brother.

It's difficult now, in retrospect, to draw a straight line connecting cause to effect to follow-on effect, and to a large extent the sequence probably doesn't matter. By the time I was 10 and my Little Bro was 7, we were both actively trying to differentiate ourselves from one another. So it might have been the case that he was drawn to DC Comics on their own merits, which only made me double down on my devotion to Marvel as an act of separation of our interests. On the other hand, it may have been that a slight but noticeable preference for marvel Comics on my part pushed my brother to embrace their Distinguished Competition (as Stan Lee oft referred to DC) as his own necessary fraternal rebellion. Whichever came first, the end result was the same, a mutually reinforcing cycle of staking out claims to our preferred superhero territories and then escalating to an ongoing battle for supremacy. We both fervently believed that Marvel and DC would duke it out in the hearts and minds of their respective fans, and eventually only one would be left standing. Little Bro and I both had a vested interest in picking the right side. We argued the points endlessly. Granted, my approach was generally to point out concrete examples as to why Marvel comics were inherently, objectively superior, whereas my brother would dig in his heels that he liked what he liked and he thought what I liked was stupid, but the argument sustained itself all the same.

Still, I can remember distinctly riding in the back of our family station wagon, on the infamous tailgunner bench, reading a comic book and getting to the end and uncontrollably yelping for Little Bro to take a look at the unassuming house ad that had been placed on the letters page. A little while ago I went through the comics collection I have tucked in the back of a closet in the basement, and I was able to find and scan the ad:

Well, there you go. Batman and Green Lantern and Superman and Wonder Woman and even Hawkman (Little Bro was a particular fan of his) were going to become Marvel characters. I had heard rumblings and implications (though I do not in any way recall how a ten year old picke dup on industry rumors back then in the pre-interwebs primordium) that Marvel was going to assume control of some of DC's characters, because Marvel was strong and getting stronger and DC was weak and losing its grip. And here was proof that such was in fact the case. My side had won the war and to the victors the spoils, including the right to rename the Justice League as the Squadron Supreme, apparently.

As in most cases of sibling rivalry, I expected my brother to meekly admit defeat, but he in turn did no such thing, instead brooding (as only a 7-year-old can brood) that it either wasn't going to happen or didn't matter anyway.

It all, of course, turned out to be an elaborate bait and switch. Sean Howe's Untold Story assures me that (in this case, at least) I am not crazy and my memory is not entirely faulty; there were, in fact, non-trivial inquiries made into the possibility of Marvel Comics acquiring licensing rights to DC characters up to and including Superman and Batman, although nothing ever came to fruition. But the Squadron Supreme had nothing to do with any of those backroom inter-publisher brokerings, had in fact always been a Marvel property, albeit a none-too-subtle homage to the Distinguished Competition. But misleading ad campaign or no, their turn in the spotlight ended up being one of my favorite comics of all time, which prompted me to seek out and learn more about their history, both within the fictional universe and in the real world of publishing. I will get into that more next post.

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