My Essay On DC's Inferiority Complex

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Skavenger
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My Essay On DC's Inferiority Complex

Post by Skavenger »

So, last night on the Discord I spent a bit of time talking about the fact that for the past 60 years, DC has been trying to be Marvel and failing spectacularly. I was asked to clarify, and after posting a massive essay, I wound up saving it for those who wanted to read it again or just those who missed it.

So here goes, with a bit of editing and fixing so it reads more coherently.


DC and Marvel are two very different comic book universes. You can tell just from how the universes were structured, and who lead the way for each business. Every DC hero from the Bronze Age pulls its roots from Action Comics #1. That's the one that launched superheroes in general, but it also laid the blueprints for every superhero DC had coming out for the next two decades, not to mention the thousands of rip-offs and homages from other companies hoping to get into that lucrative industry. They became aspirational characters, heroes without limits who did miraculous feats while embodying the core concepts of truth, justice, and...y'know, other stuff.

Marvel, on the other hand, didn't really become a force to be reckoned with until Fantastic Four #1 came out, which was about characters with flaws, emotional connections, and characters constantly stating what their limits were, and then somehow surpassing those limits. Characters hid truths from each other, the villains were complex, and sometimes bad stuff happened to good people. But let's look back at DC.

Looking at DC, it's obvious that they were loving owning the market during the days that Marvel was just cranking out romance comics and monster stories. They were absorbing any possible competition that came too close to what they were putting out (Captain Marvel was sued and later bought out, Quality went down in '56) and crushing other competition when it dared to outsell them (DC and Archie pushed hard for the Comics Code). Don't get me wrong. Some great stuff came out of DC being such a pop culture phenom. We got Superman taking on the KKK, and that will never NOT be awesome. We also got Jimmy Olsen, one of the best characters ever made in comics history.

But they owned the biggest superhero on the planet. And the second. And the third. And the fourth. And the fifth, yadda yadda, so they didn't really feel the need to experiment, or try anything new, they just kept telling wildly imaginative stories with their beacons of hero-ness-dom. Heroism. Heroicness. Whatever. They had the monopoly on these characters, and much like Disney did for decades with Mickey Mouse, they didn't need to push the limits of what the character could do, because there wasn't any risk. They got complacent.

And then Fantastic Four comes out and comics are changed forever by reusing what they had in new and exciting ways.

Marvel took all their experience writing monsters, telling stories with massive pathos, having heart-wrenching romance, and just completely reinvented the entire genre. If you look back at Marvel's early stories, in fact, they don't even read like superhero stories. If you go back and look at Amazing Fantasy #15, where one Peter Parker first makes his appearance, and you didn't know that he would go on to be one of the most endearing characters in history, you'd think it was a single-story horror issue. A kid gets everything he wanted, just to realize too late what it would cost him, and it ends with him walking away feeling awful about what he let his newfound ego do. Fantastic Four is a horror story about what a man's scientific hubris does to his girlfriend, his best friend, and his girlfriend's brother. It could easily have led to a "constantly hunted like the Hulk" existence, or to life like any of the previous monster stories. Ben Grimm even BECOMES a classic Marvel monster, albeit in control of his body and much smaller than, say, It, The Living Colossus.

Marvel had depth and characterization that DC didn't, and if you look at those comics from the 60s and put them up against each other, you understand why suddenly people were joking that Hal Jordan and Barry Allen were "boring, flat characters." They were still heroic and fun to read, but they came across as much more childish, and suddenly DC realized they had a new problem. People who read DC comics in their youth in the 40s and 50s were aging out of them in their teenage years, and much like a lot of children's cartoons in the 70s and 80s, there wasn't much there to keep people who were moving on to more mature books and stories.

So, DC loses fans as they age out, and Marvel stands off to the side scooping them up with their more developed characters, and suddenly DC is scrambling to try to reach out and be relevant. You have things like the GA/GL Hard Traveling Heroes, Batman stories become darker post-TV series, they start having people struggle more to win, and then they reboot everything in the Crisis not just to clean stuff up, but also to redevelop their characters to have more of what Marvel had.

It was said in Discord that during the 80s, two of the biggest sellers at DC were the Teen Titans and Legion of Superheroes. The TT were essentially DC's X-Men with their drama and characterization, and the Legion's ALWAYS been about drama, struggling, and sometimes losing.

But I think DC's first real success in capturing that Marvel formula was when Wally West took over as the Flash. You had a young character who got these amazing powers and had some experience from being a teen hero who was friendly and quick-witted, made a bunch of mistakes in his personal life, and was driven above everything else by an example set by his dead uncle, whose name started with B.

Wally West was DC's Peter Parker.

And from there you had them trying to constantly recapture that with Kyle Rayner, "Teen Atom," new Titans launches, Superboy and his amazing bomber jacket, getting all these characters with relationship issues and drama and pathos. Even in the New 52, they tried it again with Lois Lane dating some other guy and a less powerful Superman, because, well, they still seem to have that inferiority complex and really want what Marvel has...except the universe was never designed with that in mind. When Marvel had two heroes fight in the silver age, it was about ideology differences just as much as simple misunderstandings. Iron Man fights Namor because Namor believes that once again the surface world is trying to hurt his home. Wolverine and Spider-Man fight over whether it's okay to kill (see also: Daredevil vs. Punisher, Spider-Man vs. Punisher). Cyclops and Wolverine argue over the best way to follow Xavier's dream. You're just not going to get that kind of conflict between Superman and Green Lantern, or even the Doom Patrol and Metal Men, because DC isn't built around those kinds of conflicts.

It's hard to worry about your dating life when you face giant mind controlling starfish, bone monsters in tiny green shorts who can kill Superman, and Darkseid's forces constantly waiting for any sign of weakness. Plus, your primary big characters (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern) are designed for completely different stories. They're still built for those epic tales of heroism and being larger than life characters with almost no weaknesses. Superman's still pretty much invulnerable, Batman has nearly Scrooge McDuck levels of wealth, Green Lantern has a magic wishing ring that can do literally anything, it's hard to give characters like those feet of clay and have you worry as much about whether they're missing their dinner dates or making rent payments.

DC has made some steps forward with some of their characters, too, but the universes are just so fundamentally different in how they operate and work around the heroes, that I don't think DC will ever be able to get there.
Jabroniville
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Re: My Essay On DC's Inferiority Complex

Post by Jabroniville »

Yay, you posted it! Good points, all.

I'll also say that DC's reliance on its core 5 heroes has also proven to be a weakness again and again, as internal bitterness over the success of the Teen Titans ensured that those characters would all be relegated to obscurity until the 2000s when a cartoon came out. I mean, they had X-Men-tier popular characters right in their hands were like "Starfire & Cyborg ? NAHHHHHHHHH- let's just create a Peter Parker as our new Green Lantern!". And for pathos, they just killed all the supporting casts until these once-paragons now looked weak and ineffectual.
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Ares
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Re: My Essay On DC's Inferiority Complex

Post by Ares »

I think DC's biggest issues have been a matter of learning the wrong lessons and letting the wrong people get too much control over the setting. Though both could be symptoms of their true issue, which is "chasing success rather than creating it".

It's definitely not wrong that DC during the early Silver Age did have characters with only the most superficial personalities. Maybe you could argue that it was meant to allow for their young readers to project themselves onto the heroes, but this generally resulted in DC heroes of the time feeling bland and samey. The old joke about the Justice League being the same person wearing 7 different outfits.

When Marvel came along, it really emphasized character and personality along with more dynamic story telling and action. DC was still largely stuck in the 50's mentality where you had to play it very safe and stick close to the comics code, whereas Marvel was more than happy to dedicate an entire issue to the Thing and the Hulk brawling it out in a back and forth that actually had property damage and injuries. Marvel heroes had characters who felt like individuals, who didn't always get along, but who were still heroic. Most damning of all, they managed this on paragon style heroes like Captain America and Thor (who was more of a paragon in that age), something DC didn't manage to do with Superman.

DC eventually caught on to that and started to focus on giving their characters their own unique personalities, as well as tried to inject more Marvel-style heroes into their universe. And the idea of applying the "Peter Parker Principle" to some DC heroes to have a relatable younger hero is perfectly fine. Done properly you get books like the New Teen Titans / New Titans, which was a big seller in the 80s.

Unfortunately, at some points DC focused too much on trying to play catch up to Marvel, trying to emulate them and essentially becoming "a crappy Marvel comics instead of an excellent DC Comics". If they'd kept the "fun" feel of their own setting while focusing on characterization and having interesting supporting casts, you could get a fun setting that still felt distinct, the way DC Animated series like the DCAU, The Batman and Batman: The Brave and the Bold managed to do.

The success of books like Watchmen, the Killing Joke and the Dark Knight Returns (three stories I honestly feel are overrated to different degrees) had DC learn the wrong lessons again and decide that darker storylines were the way to go. This gradually morphed into every villain having stupidly high body counts, the heroes being morally compromised, and a lack of the kind of optimism that DC was known for. This trend only continued with stories like Identity Crisis, Infinite Crisis, Final Crisis and the Nu-52.

The Nu-52 was especially emblematic of the problems because it showcased how DC's trend of allowing "superstar creators" like Grant Morrison, Jeph Loeb, Geoff Johns and the like to do as they please under the guidance of Dan DiDio just led to the setting becoming more and more bent out of shape. This continued until Dan finally broke the setting with the Nu-52 to have the DCU HE always wanted, regardless of what most creators and the fans wanted. These guys would have a good story or run, and then the editors would stop editing them, allowing them to basically do what they wanted.

Basically, DC would just constantly chase whatever was successful and try to copy it, when they should have figured out how to use those elements to improve their own brand. Marvel is selling well? Let's inject some of that action and characterization in our own work. The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen and The Killing Joke all sell well? It shows that out of continuity stories that differ from our main brand can be good "change of pace" stories, so lets keep them out of continuity and occasionally tell these darker stories there rather than dilute our brand? Creators have a good run? Cool, but lets not stop editing them just because they had one good run.

Sadly, a lot of these issues have bled over into the modern comic industry as a whole and is no longer limited just to DC. Marvel is just lucky to have Disney money at the moment.
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Skavenger
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Re: My Essay On DC's Inferiority Complex

Post by Skavenger »

Ares wrote: Wed Sep 29, 2021 7:42 pm The success of books like Watchmen, the Killing Joke and the Dark Knight Returns (three stories I honestly feel are overrated to different degrees) had DC learn the wrong lessons again and decide that darker storylines were the way to go. This gradually morphed into every villain having stupidly high body counts, the heroes being morally compromised, and a lack of the kind of optimism that DC was known for. This trend only continued with stories like Identity Crisis, Infinite Crisis, Final Crisis and the Nu-52.
Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns should have inspired creators across the board that you can tell superhero stories that weren't just "Biff! Pow! For Kids!" and have them handle actual mature themes. Not mature like "Rated R for nudity and swearing" but taking the concepts they had been handling for years, and not just dumbing them down or simplifying them, and letting people resolve issues without just punching each other. You can also tell stories with an ending (...well, okay, both stories were later expanded upon with varying degrees of success) and have people appreciate that and get closure from a medium that, by definition, is designed to NOT end. You can do all that with a high level of art, intelligent language, and good plotting.

Instead, we got a bunch of people who went "okay, so people like brutal fights in the mud, murder, death, sexual abuse, and Batman beating the tar out of Superman. Let's just do all of that again for the next 20 years."
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Re: My Essay On DC's Inferiority Complex

Post by NoOneofConsequence »

What's sadly ironic is that I remember Alan Moore - and even to a lesser extent Frank Miller - making comments to the effect that people seemed to have learned all the wrong lessons from those books. Moore's work in, say, Tom Strong or Supreme is clearly much different than Watchman or TKJ, so those clearly weren't the be all, end all of his take on superhero comics.

(Also the issue that Millar - and certain numbers of his fans - clearly want Batman to be The Shadow, which the character very much hasn't been since about 1940. And I think both DKR and Year One suffer a bit for it.)
What is tolerance? It is the consequence of humanity. We are all formed of frailty and error; let us pardon reciprocally each other's folly. That is the first law of nature.
Voltaire, "Tolerance" (1764)
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Ken
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Re: My Essay On DC's Inferiority Complex

Post by Ken »

I posted this a week or so ago on a thread on Facebook.
Are you looking at the heroes' solo stories or the JLA stories? J'onn's longing to return home didn't feel like Kal-El's weird obsession with the culture he lost didn't feel like Katar and Shayera's making their way through being aliens. Diana didn't talk about her gooey feelings for Steve Trevor when she was around the League. Aquaman left his concerns for Atlantis in Atlantis. But compare Aquaman with Mera to Katar with Shayera to Ray with Jean to Barry with Iris to Clark and Lois to Hal and Carol to Ray with Jean. The only two who seemed weirdly alike were Bruce and Oliver.

Granted, you put them in a room together, and they all put their egos aside and concentrated on the problem at hand. The Justice League was a professional organisation. Perhaps too professional to be believed. Gardner Fox's JLA stories weren't much on characterization. But in their solo features, they clearly had different personalities. But they were all adults, even though the target audience of readers weren't.

Conversely, the Marvel books were aimed at a more adolescent audience and counted on more reader identification. Ergo their heroes were more adolescent: more likely to wear their hearts on their sleeves and whine about their lot in life. It made their personalities less subtle, more obvious. But less adult. In real life, adults rarely consider a fistfight between colleagues as a good way to resolve professional differences.
Lightning Man wrote:Ken, this is all well said and I join you on that. I will add that I like heroes who are better people than I am. It gives me something to aspire to.
People give DC's silver age a raw deal. They want to compare Marvel's combined universe to DC's and DC didn't really have a combined universe, not outside of World's Finest on one hand, and the Schwartz edited books in the other.

What Marvel had wasn't more characterization. They just pulled from a different box of character traits then there DC counterparts. No, the DC heroes weren't, generally, inclined to mope and feel sorry for themselves. At least not the biggest names.

The other thing is that people ignore that DC started experimenting with "Marvel-style characterisation" a LOT earlier than people are willing to acknowledge. My Greatest Adventure #80, debuting the Doom Patrol, came out a few months before The Avengers #1 or The X-Men #1. Metamorpho debuted in the January '65 issue of The Brave & the Bold (#57). The original Teen Titans debuted a either a few months later earlier or a few months later, depending if you count the first teaming of Dick, Wally, and Garth. But despite what the naysayers say, The Teen Titans may have featured the JLA's sidekicks, but it reads nothing like issues of Justice League of America.

I'm not saying DC didn't develop a complex about Marvel. But I am sick to death of people forgetting that DC was publishing more books in the silver age than just Justice League of America, or that they had a lot more writers and writing styles than Marvel. In the silver-age, every Marvel book read like it was written by Stan Lee, and as if the writer was using Stan Lee's standard personality types.
My Amazing Woman - A Romantic Comedy of Super Heroic Proportions.
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