Tuesday, 25 February 2020
Slugfest - Inside the Epic 50 Year
Battle Between Marvel and DC
by Reed Tucker
Sphere ISBN: 978-0751568974
Well, this is certainly a book I didn’t know I needed. The title says it all... Slugfest - Inside The Epic 50 Year Battle Between Marvel and DC. I didn’t even know there was an ‘epic battle’ and both companies have been going, in one form or another, since the 1930s so... maybe the title is a little misleading in terms of the timeframe (although I’ll get to that in a little while).
I was always a bit of a DC kid when it came to comics but then again, I also used to love both Harvey Comics and Marvel Comics too, growing up in the late 1960s/early 1970s. In fact, I learned from this very tome that Marvel, who pretty much always used to copy other people’s products, at least until the early 1960s (although a big case could be made for after too) had tried their own version of the Casper, The Friendly Ghost comic called Homer, The Happy Ghost. I’d love to see one of those. So I read more Superman, Batman, SHAZAM! and Casper than most other titles but I was always there for Marvel’s Spider-Man, Captain Britain and various others of their comics too. What did it matter who was publishing the things... isn’t there room for all the publishers in the marketplace?
As I got older and went to College, I got my first inkling that, quite ridiculously, there are people... many of them... who are either for one or the other. They lived in a world of exclusivity which meant that if they enjoyed DC, then they wouldn’t buy or support Marvel (Marvel and DC have always, until maybe very recently in terms of actually selling comics, been the dominant two of the four-colour comic book publishers on the block). And there was a wild rivalry between the fans of each... a bit like that bizarre split in fandom nowadays which means a lot of people are either Star Wars or Star Trek people. I mean, c’mon folks, really?
The thing is, I’d always assumed that this rivalry between the companies was only existent in the heads of the readers themselves. After all, grown adults working for these companies wouldn’t stoop to such shenanigans, would they? Well, as it turns out, the answer is yes and that’s why I needed this book to come along and make me realise that the constant, perceived rivalry between Marvel and DC was and, very much still is, a very real thing... and this details quite a lot of the interesting stories from 1962 onwards, when Marvel started launching their very different superheroes such as Fantastic Four and Spider-Man. Almost immediately they became a serious threat to the huge market share that DC had a grip on prior to those early days, as Stan Lee at Marvel finally hit on a winning set of ingredients for the comics that Marvel were putting out. So yeah, Marvel have been around almost as long as DC but this really looks at the early 1960s onwards.
Now, it has to be said, while writer Reed Tucker does a truly fantastic job of researching this with some of the key players and their colleagues, getting this stuff down in as entertaining a way as possible, he owns up right from the start of the book that he was pretty much a Marvel kid. Nothing wrong with that of course, one of my best friends is similarly blinkered in that respect but... I did feel that the book is definitely written with a not so hard to detect bias towards Marvel comics. So what we have, for the most part here, is a catalogue of errors as DC start to slide and continue to lose more of their place in the market, with the occasional period of upturn every now and again where they are holding their own against Marvel. Now, I’m pretty sure it’s all true and that, from the stories indicated here, DC weren’t always doing things right... and a lot of that came from the head people who were, quite often, fairly distanced from the product they turned out. They are the classy, distinguished, ‘olde worlde’ comic book company (not that Marvel were any less old) who ran their line of comics like a well oiled machine... Marvel were the upstart pranksters who were mixing it up and outselling them (proportionately, based on the sale or return model of comic book distribution... so they were selling less comics but pretty much most of their print run as opposed to DC who were putting out loads of comics with huge print runs, technically outselling Marvel but with a huge amount of their comics returned unsold).
It’s a fascinating story and there are lots of hugely serious Marketing mistakes made along the way in a desperate bid to gain dominance of the four colour market, many of them by DC but occasionally by Marvel also. So you get the industrial spies, the defection of major creative names to one side or the other and a lot of grim stuff happening... like the time Marvel were printing special versions of their issues which they knew their distributors could charge higher prices for in return for pulling 10 covers off the DC product for each copy and sending it to them so they knew the competition’s comics were not getting to the shop floor. So yeah, underhanded stuff like that.
A favourite story detailed here is where there was a big board meeting held at DC in the early sixties, with a big stack of Marvel comics on the table, so that everybody could figure out why Marvel had gained such a significant share of the market and work out how to combat it. The ‘kids’ in the room knew exactly why Marvel were winning but the executives and managers would not ever deign to actually read one of their competitors comics. They saw the art as crude and bad compared to theirs and they focused on things like... well Marvel have been using ‘more red on the covers’ or using ‘more speech balloons on the covers’, so that’s what needs to be done. They didn’t once think to stoop to reading what was actually between those covers and twigging just why the Marvel superheroes were so different from theirs. And this was going on for a huge amount of years.
And when they did manage to score a major, famous Marvel talent to defect to DC, such as the time they got Jack ‘King’ Kirby, who was pretty much the co-creator, along with Stan Lee, of the Marvel Universe (which was always a more coherent universe than the Distinguished Competition’s comics), the people at the top didn’t know why they needed him, thought he was a terrible artist and treated him badly. For instance, the young executive who managed to get him hired gave him Superman to work on but, the people at the top didn’t like the way Kirby drew him (which was the reason you would hire Kirby in the first place, frankly)... and so they ordered other artists to retouch the artwork by drawing new faces and hands on the character. Seriously? This is not how you treat a legend like Jack Kirby!
There’s a lot of stuff not covered in this book obviously... probably because it showed nothing of the rivalry between the two companies... such as highlighting the coming of the brilliant Jeanette Khan to DC without actually talking about, or perhaps even mentioning, the DC Vertigo line.
It does, however, cover some amazing stuff such as how some of the company crossovers like the original Superman VS Spider-Man Treasury from the mid-1970s (yep, still got mine) came to be. One of the things I either learned from this or had probably just forgotten was that the first crossover project between the two companies was another Treasury Adaptation of the 1970s, The Wizard Of Oz... so there’s a lot of these things covered in this tome. Not to mention... secret company crossovers that even the editors didn’t know about... but I won’t spoil that for you here, read the book. I especially liked the inclusion of the whole Captain Marvel/SHAZAM! legal issues which have dogged the original Fawcett Comics character since he was owned by DC too.
And yeah, not going to say much more about this book because the writer does manage to cover a lot of stuff and he does so in a very entertaining manner... even if Marvel almost consistently come acrosss as ‘the winners’ from decade to decade. Especially when it comes to the chapter talking about the movies and TV shows of the two companies. This book, however, came out before the release of Wonder Woman in cinemas and so the author didn’t know yet that, despite the Justice League movie, DC have made three truly great movies that are easily as good as the Marvel films... since this book was written we’ve had the aforementioned Wonder Woman (easily better than anything Marvel has ever done, cinematically speaking), the pretty great Aquaman movie and, of course, the truly brilliant Captain Marvel movie which DC were forced to call SHAZAM! due to the legal wranglings you’ll find detailed in this book. So maybe the author will update those chapters and give DC a better time in the movie section in future years, assuming they can keep up their winning streak at the cinema and it’s not short lived.
Either way, Slugfest - Inside the Epic 50 Year Battle Between Marvel and DC is an interesting and satisfying read, not just for fans of comic books but also, I suspect, for people who want to see how Marketing can just go wrong and backfire on companies (Can I hear you say Variant Enhanced Cover?). Much to be recommended in this book and I’m certainly glad I have this one on my shelf.