Marvel vs DC: It’s a Real ‘Slugfest’

Everyone likes taking sides: Democrat or Republican; Beatles or Stones; White Sox or Cubs; facts or alternative facts. Well, perhaps that last one is a bad example, but you get the idea. This is the underlying debate at the heart of Reed Tucker’s Slugfest: Inside the 50-Year Battle Between Marvel and DC. For more than half a century, comic books fans have allied themselves with either Marvel or DC as their preferred purveyor of costumed superheroes. It’s a line that, as Tucker points out, goes all the way to the top, with those vying for power taking a hardline stance — albeit a surprisingly malleable one, as we soon learn — and settling on one or the other.

It’s this latter concept that proves to be one of the more fascinating elements of the book. For just as long as they have been in competition, both have offered a “grass is always greener” comparison, making for more than a few cross pollinations and ship-jumping, the most famous of which being Marvel’s resident story mill Jack Kirby — he who helped turn Marvel into the super power it would become — being poached by DC. But at all levels of the corporate hierarchy — it is a business, after all, as Tucker shows time and again — writers and editors, inkers and suits were engaged in a constant back and forth, generally depending on who was in charge at the time and whether or not their particular style of management was tolerable or stiflingly iron-fisted, change for the better (rarely the worse) being anathema.

Indeed, the battles being waged behind the scenes were very nearly as interesting as those filling the pages of comic books from both publishers. From Stan Lee’s internal memos chiding the stodgy, conservative DC approach to Carmine Infantino’s ill-fated tenure at DC (spoiler alert: they didn’t end up on the best of terms) to the subterfuge on the part of the artists inserting in-jokes and (not so) gentle ribbing of the competition both aesthetically and stylistically. As Marvel began to overtake DC in the mid-to-late-’60s, the latter began scrambling to make up the lost ground it never foresaw, thus losing to the rebellious upstarts, while the former adopted a cavalier attitude that very nearly proved to be its undoing. All of this during some of the most socially and culturally tumultuous years the United States has ever seen.

That the existence of each was integral to the survival of the other is not lost on either camp, the often heated rivalry prompting writers and artists to take their work to the next level, particularly when infusing the offices with young talent. These are some of the more fascinating stories, with young comics fans going from just that to story contributors to artists to often the head of the whole shebang, as in the case of Jim Shooter who began writing for DC at 13 and, a little over a decade later, was appointed editor-in-chief at Marvel. It’s a clear example of the fans taking control of the industry, for better or worse, and dictating its direction rather than the stodgy old-timers who were just happy to get a paycheck while biding their time until something more serious came calling.

This latter scenario is essentially how Stan Lee ended up the head of Marvel, having written hundreds of stories and titles on spec that went nowhere before he allowed his imagination to dictate the direction of the comics industry rather than prevailing pop cultural trends. In this, Marvel was and remains the rebellious young upstart hell-bent on taking down the DC establishment with their more envelope-pushing approach to characters, character development and story arcs.

But really, the heart of Slugfest is the constant back-and-forth, poaching and trashing of the competition, both literally and figuratively. From the Silver Age through the Bronze Age and into the 21st century, the war between the two publishers has run both hot and cold, generally in the years surrounding any major changeover (Kirby’s departure from Marvel, Shooter’s appointment as editor-in-chief, et. al.) These are the years in which Tucker’s narrative thrives. Yet the sheer volume of names of artists, editors, writers and more jumping back and forth between DC and Marvel can become a bit overwhelming, the names melding into one another to the point of becoming – for all but the most ardent followers of either Marvel or DC – an amalgam that underscores the constant changeover and the artists’ and writers’ love of the medium, often regardless of the name on the mast head.

Regardless, Tucker keeps the text light and compelling enough to overlook the surfeit of names and faces thrown at the reader. As Slugfest shows, the battles being fought behind the scenes could be just as interesting and engaging as those being acted out within the books’ panels. Whether you’re a Marvel fan or a DC loyalist, Slugfest: Inside the Epic 50-Year Battle Between Marvel and DC is a highly enjoyable look behind the scenes at one of the great matchups in the world of publishing.