DC vs. Marvel Part I: How Geek Culture Became Pop Culture



DC vs. Marvel Part I: How Geek Culture Became Pop Culture

VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton WRITTEN BY: Nick Spake
Remember when comic book heroes were for nerds? Yeah, seems like a LONG time ago now. Today, superhero mythologies dominate the big and small screen. How did we get from panel A to panel Z? Join us for the sixth episode of our series "How Geek Culture Became Pop Culture", where we'll be focusing on the epic rivalry between DC and Marvel and how comic book stories became mainstream. In Part I, we'll be covering the 1930s all the way to the 90s. What was YOUR first comic?
Remember when comic books were for nerds? Yeah, seems a LONG time ago now. But for decades, THIS was how people saw comic book fans … We’ve come a LONG way!

Welcome to WatchMojo’s series How Geek Culture Became Pop Culture, and today we’re looking at how DC and Marvel blazed trails into mainstream culture. For “DC vs. Marvel Part 1”, we’ll be covering the origin story of comics, from the 1930s right through to the 90s.

For the longest time, comics were perceived as a lower form of media, reserved for kids and adults who never grew up. Today, comics have not only inspired multiple billion-dollar franchises, but superhero mythologies have taken over pop culture. How did we get from Panel A to Panel Z?

You could argue that comics are as old as Egyptian hieroglyphs and other ancient texts. The art form wouldn’t truly start to materialize, though, until printed media entered the equation. While comics have been printed in magazines and newspapers since the 19th century, the first true modern comic book wasn’t published until 1934. “Famous Funnies” provided a stepping stone between the original newspaper Funnies and comic books. That same year, two highly-influential names emerged. Pulp magazine writer Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson founded National Allied Publications, which would eventually evolve into DC Comics. Meanwhile, King Features Syndicate introduced readers to a space hero named Flash Gordon, who was created to compete with the Buck Rogers strip.

Flash Gorden is often credited for influencing some space movie. We think it was called “Adventures of Luke Starkiller?” Gordon also inspired several game-changing comic creators, including two kids from Ohio named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. In 1938, DC Comics wrote Siegel and Shuster a $130 check (that’s $65 each) for the exclusive rights to a character they created … named Superman! Making his debut in Action Comics #1, Superman wasn’t the first superhero per se. In addition to Flash Gordon, the character shared similar traits to Robin Hood, Zorro, and the Phantom, who’d made his debut two years earlier. Yet, Superman perfected the superhero archetype with his design, powers, and backstory.

The success of Superman motivated DC to publish more superhero stories. In 1939, Bob Kane came up with the idea for a new hero named “the Bat-Man”. It was writer Bill Finger, however, who gave Batman his cape, cowl, and other defining features. Since Kane negotiated the contract with DC, only he received an acknowledgment. A true unsung hero, Finger tragically wouldn’t be credited as Batman’s co-creator until 2015, 41 years after his death. Few could have fathomed how iconic Batman would become after making his first appearance in Detective Comics #27 (the series whose initials give DC its name). Perhaps even more popular than Batman himself was his rogues gallery, showing that a hero is only as great as his nemeses.

With the rise of other DC heroes like Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and The Flash, it was truly a Golden Age for comic books. DC expanded their audience through animated shorts and film serials. The Fleischer Superman cartoons reflect the hero’s role as a symbol of American patriotism during World War II; one even had Hitler making an appearance. Other DC series also invoked the war; in the 1943 “Batman” serial, the antagonist wasn’t the Joker or Two-Face, but a Japanese agent named Dr. Daka. Definitely a product of its time.

After the war, superheroes saw a decline in popularity, with comics shifting focus to sci-fi, horror, and other genres. That’s not to say superheroes didn’t still have a fanbase. 1951 saw the release of “Superman and the Mole Men,” the first theatrical feature based on a DC property. Being independently financed, though, superheroes clearly weren’t seen as big business. Comics even suffered a backlash in 1954 with the bestselling book “Seduction of the Innocent,” which associated the medium with juvenile delinquency. Right, and video games are corrupting our youth [sarcastically]. Despite criticism, The Comics Code Authority was introduced to provide censorship, although publications weren’t required to abide by it.

1956 marked the beginning of the Silver Age of Comic Books. DC revived many of its superheroes, even forming the Justice League of America in 1960. While DC was by far the biggest name in comics, their most formidable rival was taking flight. In 1939, Martin Goodman founded Timely Comics, renamed Atlas Comics in 1951. By 1961, the brand evolved into Marvel Comics, which gave DC a run for its money with a superhero team known as The Fantastic Four. These were the first superheroes that writer Stan Lee created with artist Jack Kirby. The two went on to create other Marvel heroes such as The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, and the X-Men. Lee also collaborated with Steve Ditko on characters like Doctor Strange and Spider-Man. In 1963, Marvel brought together Earth’s Mightiest Heroes in The Avengers #1, proving that DC wasn’t the only publisher with a sizable hero roster anymore.

Just as the Avengers were assembling, a couple of comic book enthusiasts named Bernie Bubnis and Ron Fradkin decided to bring their fellow fans together in 1964. Up until now, fans had connected through fanzines, starting with sci-fi fanzines in the 30s, and soon expanding to cover comics. Sci-fi was also responsible for the first fan conventions. By the 60s, a comic book convention was long overdue. Fortunately, Bubnis and Fradkin were on the case!

Taking place over a single day, New York Comicon was the first official comic book convention - and it wouldn’t be the last. Conventions had grown exponentially by 1970, when Golden State Comic-Con was launched. Later renamed San Diego Comic-Con, this convention attracted 300 guests. It was a significant number for the time, but minuscule compared to the crowds Comic-Con attracts today. The fanbase for comics remained relatively small compared to the audiences for film or television.

A true fan could tell you the difference between a comic book and a graphic novel, a term coined by Richard Kyle in 1964. Meanwhile, mainstream audiences mainly associated superheroes with the Adam West “Batman” TV series. While modern opinions of this show vary, its campy, comical tone pretty much summed up how the public saw costumed heroes. Regardless, the industry continued to evolve their craft in the Bronze Age of Comic Books. During this era, comics began tackling more social issues, with the X-Men touching on racism. They also explored darker storylines, such as the death of Gwen Stacy. Comic book stores began sprouting up, while underground comix drew in the geek hipster crowd.

By the 70s, DC had had some success on both the small and silver screens. However, it was 1978 that really changed EVERYTHING. This was the year that saw the release of the first ever big-budget superhero movie, Richard Donner’s “Superman.” While still lighthearted, the film had a sense of gravitas and importance that hadn’t been present in previous adaptations. This was reflected through the talent involved, which included Oscar-winning actors like Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman, Oscar-winning writers like Mario Puzo, and Oscar-winning composers like John Williams. With a price tag of $55 million, “Superman” was the most expensive movie ever produced at the time. The investment paid off with a total gross of $300.5 million, setting the standard for every superhero film that followed.

As Superman soared on the big screen, superheroes entered the Modern Age of Comic Books with reboots, redesigns, and a reevaluation of the Comics Code. This paved the way for grittier imagery, as well as the rise of antiheroes in titles like “Watchmen.” Batman, in particular, was taken to a bold new territory in titles like “The Dark Knight Returns” and “The Killing Joke,” both of which influenced director Tim Burton when he brought the Caped Crusader to the silver screen. Revisiting Batman’s darker roots, Burton proved that a more adult tone wouldn’t alienate a mass audience. The summer of 1989 would go down as the summer of Batman, amounting to $411.6 million. Box office revenue aside, you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing the Batman logo, suggesting that superheroes and comics had finally hit the mainstream.

Where “Batman” inspired a four-film franchise, Marvel was struggling to find its groove on the screen. While “The Incredible Hulk” TV series had a respectable following, “Howard the Duck” bombed, “Captain America” was sent straight-to-video, and Roger Corman’s “Fantastic Four” movie wasn’t even released. Oh, and did we mention the live-action “Spider-Man” show, the “Dr. Strange” TV movie, or the unproduced “Thor” TV series?

If “Superman” and “Batman” proved anything, it was that in terms of popularity, feature films could take superheroes to unprecedented heights that comics couldn’t. On that level, DC had emerged the clear winner, beating out their rival Marvel . . . at least, for the time being . . .

Make sure to check out our next episode, where we’ll be looking at DC and Marvel from the 90s to today!