Marvel VS DC Part 1: Stan Lee VS the Patchwork Universe

Next month, I intend to rank all 52 of the New DCU titles based on the first five issues. I’m more of a Marvel Zombie, but an inevitable consequence of prepping for that series is that I’ve been reading and rereading a lot of DC comics. As a wannabe writer, I’ve noticed some similarities in the approaches of the two publishers, along with the structural differences.

There’s the obvious caveat that these statements aren’t universal. Marvel has borrowed from DC, and DC has borrowed from Marvel. You also have many trans-writers, with acclaimed runs for both companies, which means that they bring their approaches to the two universes. Ed Brubaker wrote Sleeper and various Batman titles for DC, before Captain America for Marvel. Peter David’s Marvel work is well-known, but he also did 80 issues of Supergirl and 50+ issues of Aquaman. Grant Morrison’s New X-Men ranks along with his All-Star Superman, Batman and Vertigo runs. Mark Waid started at DC, but his recent work at Marvel has topped “Best of 2011” lists.

The companies feature something rare in pop culture: shared universes with decades of backstory. The main difference between Marvel and DC seems to be Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. The majority of Marvel’s great characters were created during a ten year period in which Stan Lee was the lead writer and Editor in Chief of the company, with Kirby and Ditko as his top artists. While a few top Marvel characters were created before and since (Captain America, Wolverine, the New X-Men, the Punisher), there was no period at DC that was comparatively influential.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Marvel had an unfavorable distribution deal with DC, which limited them to eight books a month (this is why Captain America and Iron Man shared the anthology Tales to Astonish for a few years.) Restricting Marvel to eight books did have the benefit of giving the series significant editorial and artistic unity, as Stan Lee was able to edit all of the titles, and write a majority.

The unified foundation was part of Marvel since its inception. Two of the company’s most popular Golden Age characters: the Human Torch and Namor, first appeared in the same issue of the anthology title Marvel Comics.

DC has actually absorbed various superhero universes. The incorporation of Wildstorm into the patchwork quilt is just the most recent. The THUNDER Agents were originally published by Tower Comics. The Spirit was distributed by the Register and Tribune Syndicate. Plastic Man was the top superhero of the Quality Comics line. Captain Atom and Blue Beetle were Charleton Comics headliners. And once upon a time, DC was so worried about Captain Marvel that they sued publisher Fawcett Comics. When Marvel had some financial difficulties in the 1950s, DC made an effort at buying the rights to Captain America, the Human Torch, and Namor.

This was ingrained into the company from the start, as the publisher had many talents on their payroll contributing to their roster of superheroes and supervillains. Bob Kane and Bill Finger created Batman, though Jerry Robinson was probably responsible for the Joker. Another duo Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel created Superman. William Moulton Marston and Harry G. Peter introduced Wonder Woman, while the Flash was introduced by Gardner Scott and Harry Lampert.

It’s telling that during the Silver Age, different editors were responsible for reviving DC’s top heroes: Mort Weisinger with Superman, and Julius Schwartz with Batman. The era was also marked by new versions of Green Lantern and the Flash, which created a conundrum as Superman and Batman had some adventures with the Golden Age version. The result was the revelation that there was two DC Universes, Earth-1 and Earth-2, although the number would soon expand. A few other talents also made major contributions to DC franchises during this period, including Marvel Ex-Pats. Steve Ditko created the Creeper and Shade the Changing Man, while Jack Kirby created Darkseid, Mister Miracle, OMAC and the New Gods.

Grant Morrison summed it up in Supergods.

And now there were two healthy universes living and growing inside our own. The DC Universe was a series of islands separated for years, suddenly discovering one another and setting up new trade routes. And there was Marvel’s beautifully orchestrated growth and development.

Marvel is defined by one brilliant decade-long burst of creativity, while DC is defined by its ability to incorporate once standalone franchises. If Stan Lee had been hit by a bus in 1959, it’s entirely possible that DC would now own what was left of Marvel. As I’ll note tomorrow, this structural difference between the two shared universes ties to another point of departure for the publishers.

Partial List of Marvel characters co-created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and/ or Steve Ditko: Peter Parker/ Spider-Man, J. Jonah Jameson, Flash Thompson, Norman Osborn/ the Green Goblin, Mary Jane Watson, Harry Osborn, May Parker, Sandman, Curt Connors/ the Lizard, the Fantastic Four, the Black Panther, the Silver Surfer, the Inhumans, Nick Fury, Doctor Doom, the X-Men, the Sentinels, Magneto, the Avengers, Tony Stark/ Iron Man, Bruce Banner/ the Hulk, the Leader, the Abomination, Daredevil, etc.

About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. You can email me at
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