This probably also ties into my Stan Lee VS the Patchwork Universe explanation, but a major difference between Marvel and DC is how they reconcile the departures from the first storylines of the major franchises to the current comics. With the earliest issues, the creative teams haven’t yet figured out what works best about a series, so there’s often stuff that is going to be ignored and tossed overboard, in addition to later developments which will become defining aspects of a franchise. This isn’t exclusive to comics. Sherlock Holmes goes from a guy who doesn’t know whether the moon revolves around the Earth (because it isn’t important to his crime-solving methods) to a well-read polymath. Doctor Who turned from a children’s show about an old man played by an actor in his late 50s travelling across time and space with his granddaughter to a sci-fi series about a cosmic bachelor playing by actors in their 20s-40s.
There’s always going to be more interest among the fans in the first adventures of popular characters. The material is historically significant. And the stuff is often quite good, which is why it was usually popular and beloved from the very beginning. Because of the interested consumers, it will always be readily available in various reprint formats. It’s immediately perceived to be an accessible starting point for anyone interested, even though working backwards from currently published comics might be a better idea. While recommending Avengers comics for fans of the movie, Oliver Sava of the AV Club explains why new readers shouldn’t start with the earliest Marvel Masterworks volumes…
Silver Age comic books have their charms, but the best way to get into a superhero title is by reading contemporary stories first and moving backward. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s early Avengers issues are appropriately bombastic for the time, but probably too exaggerated for any fans being introduced to the characters through the more realistic film.
Marvel and DC have different responses with how to reference the first stories. DC tends to ignore the earliest adventures of their superheroes, which are usually out of continuity anyway. They have a lot more retcons, in which events and characters are established as important after the fact. Whenever this happens, they’re more willing to change major things about existing characters, including race, age and sexual orientation. As an example, CSBG looked at how Alfred retroactively became important to the Batman books.
Because the characters are essentially reinvented every decade or so, the first adventures aren’t as important, as much of that stuff has been changed. Lex Luthor changes from a mad scientist to the richest man in Metropolis, and as a result, his first encounters with Superman will constantly be retold. And readers will have less reason to acquaint themselves with the charms of Golden Age and Silver Age DC comics.
Marvel has less retcons, so the earliest stories remain in continuity, and they’re much more likely to refer to the humble beginnings of their characters. The Fantastic Four still fight the Mole Man and the Skrulls, bad guys from their first two issues. Spider-Man often fights enemies introduced in the first fifteen issues of his title. Hell, the current Sinister Six arc features five of those guys, while the next storyline features the Lizard, another early villain.
This continues even if a title or character has changed quite radically. Early X-Men enemies like Unus the Untouchable and the Vanisher still pop up often enough, even if the series became a different type of team book in the 1970s, and other villains have become much more prominent. Wolverine was first introduced as an enemy of the Hulk, and even though he is since primarily known as one of the X-Men, there are occasional highly promoted battles between the two. Daredevil’s yellow costume is still often referenced, and early villains like the Matador, the Owl, Mister Fear and the Ox still trouble the hero, even after Frank Miller elevated the Man Without Fear to something entirely different.
Writers for Marvel Comics are just more likely to go to the earliest stories for inspiration. In his first appearance, the Hulk was grey instead of green. This wasn’t addressed for decades, until Al Milgrom brought back the Grey Hulk in the late 1980s. A scene from an early story in which the Hulk had Bruce Banner’s head informed Peter David’s run on the series in the early 1990s. And even though the Hulk left the Avengers by the end of the second issue, he’s smashing planes in the movie.
One contributing factor to all of this is that the Golden and Silver Ages started with DC, so Marvel has consistently followed in their footsteps. As a result, the House of Ideas is able to copy the most popular elements of the DC comics, all the stuff that was achieved through trial and error. Marvel could skip all the stuff that doesn’t work, and cram all the good stuff in the very first issue. In the Batman comics, it took about an year for Bill Finger to essentially invent the superhero sidekick with Robin, and the arch-enemy with the Joker. Shortly afterwards, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby were able to give Captain America, their new hero, a sidekick and an arch-enemy in his very first issue.
When it was time for Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko to make Marvel the premiere Superhero Universe, they suddenly had a new advantage beyond their considerable talents as they knew what readers wanted from a superhero universe. And now their work holds up so well their successors are finding new wrinkles to explore in those first appearances.