May we all live long enough to see the first Marvel-DC superhero cinematic crossover. Most geeks can recall #TeamDC and #MakeMineMarvel camps from our adolescence as training for all the polarized, pick-a-side battles on the horizon of adult life. Little did we know those schoolyard debates already had an adult significance.
“Marvel vs. DC” was always a business rivalry with grown-up consequences for the stakes-is-high comic book industry, full of quite mature profit margins. Shaking off the shellshock of Avengers: Infinity War, @Okayplayer spoke with writer Reed Tucker—author of the recent Slugfest: Inside the Epic 50-Year Battle Between Marvel and DC (and recent guest on the Wondery “Business Wars” podcast)—about the story of the greatest corporate competition never told.
Okayplayer: Marvel once began as Timely Comics in 1939, but even back then there was a rivalry with the DC characters, wasn’t there?
Reed Tucker: That’s something that I don’t think people know that much about, that DC and Marvel are about the same age. DC was founded in the mid-’30s and Marvel came along in the late ’30s. And Marvel was basically a response to Superman. Superman came out in 1938. That changed the game and there were a lot of competitors that came along and Marvel Comics was one of those. They started releasing superhero comics back then, but they weren’t all that successful. So they were dormant for a couple of decades in the superhero world. They published a lot of other stuff—romance comics, western comics, war comics. But it wasn’t until the ’60s when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby decided to launch The Fantastic Four that Marvel Comics became a force in the superhero world.
The battle has been raging for years, but it really got heated starting in 1961 with the release of Fantastic Four #1 and it’s been going ever since.
OKP: So back then, Marvel series with Captain America, Sub-Mariner and The Human Torch couldn’t compete with Superman?
RT: Exactly. The people who ran DC, they didn’t care at all about comics, but they loved money. So they were very good at marketing and harnessing the success of Superman. He had a radio show, a newspaper strip, there was a line of bread, there were all sorts of toys, he had a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. They were good from the beginning at merchandising the hell out of Superman. That really did pay dividends for them, and Sub-Mariner and Human Torch—the first two Marvel superheroes—were reasonably popular, popular enough that they got their own spin-off series. But superheroes fell out of favor after World War II and they disappeared, along with Captain America as well, who was also very popular. But not popular in the same way that Superman and some of the DC heroes were popular.
OKP: Jumping ahead to the ’60s, the Avengers was Marvel’s answer to the Justice League—ironic considering how much better the Avengers movies have been compared to last year’s Justice League. Did DC consider that a ramping up of the war between them?
RT: As far as DC goes with the release of Fantastic Four and The Avengers, they didn’t care. Until the late ’60s, DC didn’t care about Marvel at all. They thought it was a flash in the pan, they did not see them as a threat. DC was such a powerful force when it came to superheroes, they did not feel threatened by anyone. Certainly not Marvel, which had nearly gone out of business in the ’50s. It wasn’t until they started getting their ass kicked in the late ’60s that they started to sit up and take notice.
OKP: So Marvel first started overtaking DC in sales in the late 1960s?
RT: That happened in ’72. So it took them basically 11 years from the launch of The Fantastic Four to overtake DC in sales. That’s a pretty good record. The owner of Marvel at the time, Martin Goodman, decided to celebrate, so he gathered all the Marvel staff together and he decided to take everyone out for dinner and drinks at DC’s bar, Friar Tuck’s—right across the street from their office. Even then, it was like rubbing it in each other’s nose. And Marvel, outside of a couple of months, has not relinquished that lead since then, which is pretty incredible to me.
OKP: And what about the cool factor of Marvel compared to DC? The Hulk was on the cover of the counterculture bible Rolling Stone back then, and Doctor Strange was a hippy hero in the Woodstock era.
RT: That was exactly one of the things that set Marvel apart in the ’60s. People who don’t read comics who were not familiar with the comics from the 1950s should take a look at what DC Comics was doing in the ’50s. Their stated purpose was, we’re writing stories for people who are between the ages of 8 and 12. And so those stories look exactly like that. You’ve got stories where Lois Lane tries to brainwash Superman so she can get a kiss, or Batman has to change the color of his costume every night to throw off a villain. It’s completely juvenile stuff and intentionally so. That’s who the editors were trying to reach, and that was their stated audience.
But when Marvel came along with their superhero line in 1961, they rethought it and very smartly tried to reach an audience that was not necessarily reading comics. It was a lot of college students, who were probably getting high in the dorm and flipping through an issue of Doctor Strange, and it was much more sophisticated than what was out there. The characters were more sophisticated, the stories were more complex, the themes were more adult. And so it did have a counterculture cool. It felt underground, it felt dangerous in a way that DC absolutely did not. People who were reading DC, once they discovered Marvel, that was it. You could never go back to DC. Marvel really established itself in that way by, in part, attracting a whole new readership of people who had long ago given up on comics.
OKP: On the business side, what were some of the double dealings between the two companies?
RT: What I was told by the former editor-in-chief of Marvel was that back then, the business was more of a mom-and-pop business. The two owners of the companies talked business every once in a while. DC decided in 1972 that there were going to raise their prices to a quarter. They basically talked to Marvel and said, “Hey would you be willing to raise your prices a quarter?” In other words, there was some sort of collusion going on. The owner of Marvel agreed.
And so DC goes first, their price is 25 cents. A couple of months later, Marvel raises their prices 25 cents. But then the owner of Marvel decides that he’s gonna double-cross DC. So after just one month at the new higher price, he lowers the price on all the Marvel comics back down to 20 cents. So suddenly, Marvel comics are much cheaper than DC, and five cents apparently was a lot to kids. You could get five Marvel comics versus four for DC.
There were all these articles talking about how DC was just taking a complete bath, their books are sitting on newsstands, distributors don’t wanna carry them anymore. And Marvel just rocketed to the lead. That is what really finally propelled them over the top and helped them take away the sales lead from DC.
OKP: How exactly was Marvel hamstrung from doing their own films in the 1970s and ’80s when Christopher Reeves’ Superman and director Tim Burton’s Batman were riding so high?
RT: One of the reasons was, nobody was interested at all in these characters for many years. Even the Warner Bros. executive who sold the rights to Batman and Superman to a producer was like, “Go ahead and sell these rights, they’re not good characters, they will not make a good movie.” So they didn’t even believe in Superman and Batman. It’s funny to hear people talk now: ‘some studio should have optioned these characters years ago.’ Yeah, nobody was interested at all in these characters. Even after Superman came out and was a hit, no one in Hollywood believed that it was the beginning of anything. They thought it was a one-off success.
For many years, Stan Lee had been trying to get his Marvel characters optioned into movies and television series. He had some success. I think he moved out to Los Angeles sometime in 1980 and tried to pursue a deal. But nobody was interested, they did not think they were quality characters. And Marvel, their business plan was, they were just gonna license characters to other producers and studios to do with them as they will. There was not a lot of quality control. So if you look at the Spider-Man TV series from the late 1970s, Stan Lee said it in Marvel comics at the time: ‘It’s a terrible series, don’t watch this. It doesn’t represent Spider-Man.’ It doesn’t.
So there was a lot of that going on. The famous Roger Corman Fantastic Four movie from the 1990s. [Eventually] they formed their own studio, got their own funding and took control of their own characters. They could not control the representation of these characters, so that’s what really went wrong over the years.
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