Outside of Superheroes at DC and Marvel
Travis Hedge Coke
Most of what we go to DC or Marvel for are superhero comics. And, largely, DC and Marvel are, basically, the same thing when it comes to superhero stories and have been since, at least, the mid-80s. One publisher has Spider-Man, the other Supergirl. Individual characters are different, one publisher may have this writer or artist at the time, and the big marketing theme might be this at DC and that at Marvel during any given year, but otherwise, it’s pretty much the same product.
Outside of superheroes, they do still feel often different, though, at least to me, and a lot of that is because those characters, titles, and genres simply don’t get as much play. The beauty of this, is that it is increasingly easy for us to read older comics, either in print or digitally, and that the respective publisher still, generally, owns the rights to these properties and could resurrect them for new material any time they feel there’s a buck in it for them.
Some of you savvy cats may notice I’m excluding creator-owned or licensed comics from this. And, yeah, I am. While I don’t believe DC has it over Marvel on creator-owned comics, or that Marvel had better licensed books, I do think that they each have cultivated a much better reputation for them. No matter how many great comics came out under the Epic imprint or how things looked in DC-published toy comics or their occasional dip into The Spirit, Marvel’s ROM or Star Wars tend to be more beloved by their fans, and Vertigo just sounds like something that only ever happened that once. Power of marketing. And, these properties can shift to other publishers, the characters and narratives cannot often be utilized to new stories just because the publisher’s heads decide it should be so.
(I’m also not going to get into Watchmen spinoffs and guest-starring roles here. That’s a whole article and one someone else should write.)
I think DC has better horror.
Were you expecting me to objectively describe a few books or classic stories and then give you a winner at the end?
Nah. DC has better horror comics. And, it has more of them. In the 1970s, especially, DC published roughly three entire imprints of horror comics, alone, mostly anthology books that ran the cross-genre gamut from horror-romance to the high concept The Witching Hour, which would have stories by three sister-witches who competed, in-story, for best creepy tale.
I love Gene Colan, but no issue of Tomb of Dracula ever scared me. I like Son of Satan, I like Nightstalkers, a lot of Ghost Rider comics, but none of them creep me out. Early Marvel Chillers creeped me out a little. Hellstorm was quality all the way through, but it made me sad more than it scared me. Sister Nil is a messed up character and Dr Strange keeping her like some weird too-sexualized slave is unnerving. The recent Dead of Night Featuring Man-Thing by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and four artists was smart, cool, endearing and not very frightening.
Early Sandman is frightening. There are House of Mystery comics that put me on edge if I reread them today. Hellblazer #4, "Waiting for the Man," scares me silly. Jamie Delano, John Ridgway, and Digital Chameleon cofounder Lovern Kindzierski did something deeply weird and painful comic that, in full disclosure, my mom bought for me when I was probably too young and too chicken to be reading it.
Marvel's licensed horror always seemed leagues above what it did with characters it owned. DC, when it came to little shivers or serious gut-twisting meanness would just plain commit. Neil Gaiman could turn a diner into Hell. Alex Toth could unsettle you with line width alone. Jack Kirby, in the early 70s on The Demon, had a Frankenstein’s monster mistaken for a hippie anti-war protestor by a police officer who immediate opens fire on him, and who, later, is forced out of hiding by a mob including two guys who just grab an innocent girl and begin threatening her to coerce him into letting them get on with their lynching.
It was on a DC book that the Comics Code Authority reportedly refused to approve any potential artwork by Kevin O’Neill. When you’re so disturbing the prude board won’t even consider that you can produce work that’s acceptable for grocery store sales, you’ve succeeded at something huge.
So, what about romance comics? Maybe Marvel is better with the love.
And, yeah. It’s pretty even.
When you take into consideration what’s available to you, now, without paying an arm for original issues, it’s really even.
Patsy Walker and related titles are amazing. Millie the Model is really good. And we can’t read them without paying for the original issues (or… um… pirating). Waaaah! Marvel. Waaaah! like Penguin disappointed at not being reelected as Mayor after his first term was cut short by Batman punching him in his cigarette holder. Put these in circulation. Now.
At least Fantagraphics collected Young Romance: The Best of Simon and Kirby's Romance Comics.
The comics in Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love are still beautifully readable. The more glib Secret Hearts is full of gushy stories that weren’t meant to be taken all that seriously by anyone over twelve even back then.
Look at the cover of Secret Hearts #149. That “Oh, shit, I’m caught!” look will never age out.
The only reason I can give DC the win over Marvel, is my not at all secret dream of writing a series where Jimmy Olsen hooks up with different characters issue after issue, called Jimmy Olsen Slash… Edited by Alisa Kwitney, drawn by Alex Toth and a rotation of goest artists and colored by Tatjana Wood, I even have guest-writers picked out. Because it’s my dream and I’ll make it as impossible as I can.
Another clear win for DC, though Marvel has some glories. What kills Marvel, here, is that most of their historical or future-set comics are also superhero comics. So, I can’t seriously count them for the sake of this article. Marvel 2099 is cool, but they’re all superheroes outside for a couple short comics about wizards or cowboys. Marvel’s cowboys and brigands all wear masks and have cool superhero names. They mostly fight crime. Jonah Hex, by comparison, has a lot more straight western oomph, even when he’s in the far future or in a horror story. The Golden Gladiator, Kamandi, Anthro. I suppose Brother Power and the band, The Maniaks play like period pieces now. DC may have some pirate superheroes, but even Captain Fear is more straight pirate than anything.
And Captain Fear is everything.
Ignore the inane Azzarello version. Everything else is fantastic. Captain Fear is brilliant.
Marvel has Modred the Mystic, the Black Knight, and probably someone else.
Ah, but how does the really important subgenre of the costume drama stack up?
I hate to keep giving these to DC. I want to be a Marvel guy, if I’m either. But, Marvel westerns don’t do much for me. Apache Skies is beautiful and fun. Leonardo Manco is a genius. John Ostrander ain’t too shabby, either, but Ostrander has done westerns for DC, too, that are just as good.
And, DC has Joe R Lansdale comics! Joe R Lansdale wrote westerns for DC! Be excited with me!
DC has Bat Lash. Bat Lash is hilarious and darling. The original Nick Cardy, Sergio Aragones, Sheldon Mayer comics. The later stuff by John Severin, Walt Simonson, Peter Brandvoid, among others, it’s all more than readable. I’ve never read a Bat Lash comic I did not mostly love.
Not “mostly like.” Mostly love.
But, Marvel does have the better focus-on-the-job comics. Night Nurse is the ultimate nurse/hospital comic between the two publishers. Cops is the best police book that doesn’t have superheroes or villains in it, though Gotham Central beats it by miles if you make allowances for the occasional Batman in the background.
Marvel and DC have excellent comics about journalists. Some have some superheroes, mostly kept at a minimum, some have even less than that. The Daily Bugle, The Pulse, Lois Lane: When It’s Raining, God is Crying are all more than worth reading.
There's a Whole World Out There
Mostly, we got to DC and to Marvel looking for superheroes, or content with superheroes. But, there is a plethora of worthwhile, moving, exciting, gorgeous comics from both publishers that are not that. If you want a thriller, DC can set you up. You want a cowboy comedy, Marvel can have your back.
Comics about babies having silly adventures. Comics with nurses in haunted mansions. Beautiful girls and their dopey, but handsome boyfriends. The world’s first murderer telling you stories. Mod witches and their annoying big sisters. Soldiers deep in the war. There’s something for you.