Tuesday, August 18, 2009

DC vs Marvel

Fighting Words

It's easy to imagine a DC fan and a Marvel fan locked in a raging argument about one's preference for DC and the other's for Marvel. I've never been in that argument, but the fact is: I have long been a fan of DC and have read very few Marvel comics over the years.

I have no particular animosity towards Marvel. I can plainly say that as an adult I read DC (as opposed to Marvel) largely because of momentum: I used to read DC Comics when I was a kid, and I read very few Marvel Comics when I was a kid. I can plainly say that when I see a Marvel comic, the main thing keeping me from buying it is a sense that I am coming into the story late; that I have no feelings towards the characters and I won't get what's going on without catching up on their histories, which I don't have the gumption to do. Basically, the same reason why I do read books in English (I know English, having learned it as a child) and don't read books that are in Russian (I don't know Russian, not having learned it as a child).

However, there's a more interesting story to this because at some point in my childhood, I chose DC over Marvel. In the Seventies, I read a fair number of Marvel comics and, without any anger or disdain, but just some ineffable disliking, I stopped buying them. That choice took place when I was a very different person than I am now. If I made the choice with my current sensibilities, I might choose differently, becoming a fan of Marvel, or both DC and Marvel... or perhaps neither. But as it was, I made a decision for DC and not Marvel.


Something about that decision came to interest me, because the boy who made that decision eventually became me, but with the fog of three decades' time, I couldn't, with my memory alone, reconstruct the decision much less relate to it.

I did remember, though, that sometime in the key years of my early comic buying, I read one particular comic and it played a large role in turning me off to Marvel. Or at least, it was one of many that collectively turned me off. It left me unsettled, somehow, like I'd seen a superhero cast as something I didn't want a superhero to be. I couldn't remember the whole story, but I did remember the gist, as well as a handful of random details:

1) It was an issue of Thor.
2) The date must have been around 1979.
3) Thor encounters some enemy in the woods.
4) Thor doesn't get the best of the enemy. But he doesn't really lose, either. He ends the story confused and discontented.
5) He is outdoors at night, apparently in some rural area, at the end of the issue.

Years ago, I looked through my boxes of old comics to see if I could find that issue, but it wasn't among the hundreds of comics I saved from the Bronze Age.

Archaeological Evidence

About a year ago, it occurred to me that I could find the issue anyway. Looking over a web page displaying the covers of every issue of Thor, I quickly had a very short list of candidates that matched what I remembered about the story in question. Then I was free to thumb through the used-comic bins at a local comic book store. Really, the whole process was almost as easy as finding this week's new comics. And so I was reunited with my past memories. The comic was Thor #272.

Just about everything I remembered was in there. If there was any discrepancy, it was that many Thor comics placed him in an Asgard that resembled some other planet, with a sky permanently black and thus full of stars. So I'm not sure if at story's end it was actually "night" or if Thor was just in some cosmic location with a permanent night sky. However, there is much about the comic that I did not remember.

The writer was Roy Thomas, who also scripted a large number of DC stories I had enjoyed, so certainly the writer alone did not cause this issue to emphasize any DC - Marvel distinction.

Structurally, the story opens with Thor interacting with some boys in an American city, choosing to involve himself when a bully picks on them. When they guess that Thor has never had to worry about anyone being stronger than him, he takes a walk down memory lane, relating a story to them that demonstrates that he had had such an experience. Most of the rest of the issue is a flashback to that event.

And here is the issue's most remarkable characteristic: Mr. Thomas borrows a chapter from Norse mythology, telling a story that is not of his own invention. A version of the story, deviating from the comic in a few details, can be found on the web here.

The story, in a nutshell, involved Thor and Loki wandering into the land of giants, where they were belittled literally as well as verbally. Then Utgard, the leader of the giants, set before them a number of tasks that initially seemed trivial, but Thor and Loki were humiliated (and perplexed) when they failed miserably in each challenge. However, upon Thor failing the last, Utgard revealed to them that each challenge was rigged: While Thor and Loki were tricked by illusions that made the challenges seem easy, in reality they had been pitted against unbeatable forces of nature: Thor's hammerblow that failed to disturb a giant had actually struck a mountain. Loki's failures in an eating contest and a footrace had actually pitted him against fire and thought, respectively. Then Thor failed to empty a drinking vessel that was actually being replenished by the ocean. When he thought he was unable to pick up a housecat, he was actually attempting to lift a serpent that encircled the world. Finally, when an old woman bested Thor in wrestling, he was actually fighting Old Age itself.
Impressed by how well Thor performed (destroying the mountain, lowering the sea's level, recovering his youth after fighting Old Age), Utgard decided against sending the giants to invade the world and wrest it from the control of the gods. With that, Thor's angry demand for a real battle with the giants was cast aside by Utgard teleporting Thor and Loki away. Contemplating what had passed, Thor noted that by preventing the giants' invasion of the world, they had actually won. But, humbled by the encounter, Thor stood there philosophizing about it. And then the story skipped back to the present, wrapping up Thor's talk with the boys and providing a brief lead-in to the next issue.

I don't mean to persuade anyone to dislike the story. I react to it very differently now than I did as a pre-teen. But I think I can reconstruct why, in 1978, I disliked it:

a) The hero didn't win. While he declared a sort of victory in having prevented a war with the giants, even the cover sold the issue as the story of "The Day The Thunder Failed". The very point of his story was how he was humbled by it. Moreover, while his physical skills were ultimately revealed to have been impressive, he was tricked and never realized the deception until Utgard revealed it to him.

b) The hero was not obviously morally better than his enemy. In the flashback itself, there was little reason offered for us to want Thor to beat the giant. There was no reason given in the story to suppose that the world was better off run by gods than it would be by giants. You can fault the giant for planning an aggression, and for deception, but none of that makes the hero particularly good. Subtleties aside, the contest between Thor and Utgard was a sporting event of obvious consequence only to them, not to mortals.

c) Thor's emotional range trended hard towards the negative. A few panels presented him with a facial expression that was slightly upbeat, but he usually looked intense, often as though he were straining physically even when he was not. He looked confused a few times and at other times enraged. He did not smile once.

d) The dark art. There's an enormous topic here for future posts: Dark themes tend to bring on dark art, with heavy lines and black backgrounds. I have gone so far as to collect some preliminary data (specifically, from the first JLA series) along these lines suggesting that DC began to feature much darker covers in the years leading up to 1970 or so, then began making them lighter again, full of bright colors by the early Eighties. This Thor issue was darker than a DC comic literally as well as figuratively. The cover background was black. The skies were always black. Shadows were ponderous, claiming large portions of figures and faces. It made it seem gloomy to me.

e) Thor's whole look was off-putting to me. No men in the world around me had mullets. Was he a hippie? A hockey player? Baring shoulders and armpits seemed inappropriate, maybe low-class.

f) The rural setting for the beginning and conclusion of the flashback. Superhero stories have canonically used America's large cities as, effectively, the stadiums in which superheroes play their sport (thwarting evildoers and natural menaces alike) in front of huge crowds. On some level that I felt, but couldn't articulate at the time, it seemed to me to be beneath a superhero to be wandering around the woods lost, far from any useful mission or glory. If a superhero had to fly in and out of some remote area for a mission-specific reason, fine. But for a hero to be wandering around the woods lost made him seem far less relevant if not downright pathetic.

And I had, for my tastes, a hero to prefer. Thor ended the flashback with a question, intended to be rhetorical: "Who is so great, so mighty, that some day, somewhere he will not meet his master?" And the answer was right in front of me -- the star of a movie that was released that very same summer, as well as comics on the rack next to Thor's. This panel from Superman #325, published the same summer as the Thor comic in question, answers the Norse god's question.

Everything I found distasteful about the Thor issue met its opposite in Superman comics. He always won, and was always morally superior to his opponents (who vied not only to challenge him but to conquer, maim, and kill other people). He opened the story smiling in four panels straight. While tights were maybe as odd a choice of street apparel as was Thor's costume, his costume was far too burned in my consciousness for me to question why a man would wear tights and a cape. When they're that colorful and suggestive of hope, why worry?

Light and Dark

It is not too great of a simplification to conclude that Superman's stories of that time simply aimed at a younger readership, and since I was a younger reader, naturally they appealed to me. I came to comics seeking something purely escapist and always morally black-and-white. The Thor story, in being a bit more subdued and a bit darker, asked bigger questions and probably aimed at an older reader. Seen in that light, the quality of each comic is purely subjective, with Superman having been "kid stuff" when Thor aimed a bit higher. It provided a "real world" lesson which is undeniably truer than anything about a Superman story: That whoever you are, there is always someone stronger. If I started to try to argue which comic is "better" as I see it now, I would drift from my point. The real point is that by being "better" in the ways that it was, (Thomas's longer run on Thor was nominated for an Eagle Award, and offered some cultural awareness by putting a Norse myth into the story) the Thor story lost me as a young reader, simply because it strove for things contrary to my sensibilities.

They say there's no accounting for taste, but in tracking down that comic from 31 years ago, and contrasting my preferences then with my preferences now, I'm was trying to demonstrate that there is accounting for taste. Thor's and Superman's 1978 renditions served different audiences. In the cases I've presented, Thor was more sophisticated, in many ways. But that's not an intrinsic superiority, just a different taste. After all, if a reader favored sophistication, why choose a superhero comic book at all? And while this issue of Thor reinforced a lesson that works in the real world (in a way that most Superman stories did not and do not), we may also ask, if a reader favors real-world lessons, why choose a superhero comic book at all?

The late-Seventies Superman stayed fairly true to the Golden Age comics that provided simple stories with clashes between clearly-labeled good guys opposed by clearly-labeled bad guys, with the good guys destined to win. This is a simple template for a story, but one whose appeal has been enduring. Roy Thomas's run on Thor helped bring to comics the shades of moral complexity for which The Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns won rave reviews eight years later. They both provided some set of readers a way to forget about the day's worries, or to thrill to the silent joys of a story that spoke to them. The comic book rack was richer for having offered them both.


  1. Ha! That was one of my favorite issues of THOR!

    On the one hand, I was older than you were, but I don't think that had anything to do with it -- I'd been a fan of Norse mythology from a very young age, and had read that legend first when I was probably 6 or so. I wish Thomas, Buscema and Palmer could have stayed on for years, telling Norse-myth-rooted stories of Thor and Asgard. But first we lost Palmer, then Buscema, then the story turned into a complex mess involving the Eternals, and then even Roy left, mid-story. Ah well.

    And naturally, the arc that issue began, the "Red" Norvell arc, from #272-278, is the only major story in Roy's run that hasn't been collected in a TPB. Bah.


  2. Kurt,

    The funny thing is, I liked the example of pitting someone, unbeknownst to them, against an impossible task, but I didn't remember where I'd read it. It's sort of the inverse of the Five Chinese Brothers, where the brothers have the ability to do the impossible and are tricking the taskmaster. I think every time the Five Chinese Brothers came up, the gist of the Utgard scenario would flash into my mind without my knowing why.

    Your very own "Marvels" (which I discovered about 2 years ago) was a huge find. Hugely entertaining, informative, and -- especially since I was ignorant of the original stories -- dramatic. I immediately followed it up by locating the original Galactus story, and a big queue of other stories that I'd also like to track down. "Marvels" is on my short list of works with infinite re-read potential.

    Reading Kirby's original Fourth World stories (this year) made me feel like I had a backdoor to the older Marvel stuff. I get the feeling he would have written the same material for Marvel if that's who he's been working for at the time. I read the second-run New Gods series when it came out, but I was surprised to see just how much Kirby gave the original stuff had a tremendous quality that later renditions couldn't capture.

    But when a good re-imagining exists for something (as Roy Thomas did for the Golden Age DC characters) I have really enjoyed reading the old and new side-by-side and grooving on the alternate takes. Grand kudos for having written such a thing with "Marvels"!

  3. I agree with you on this Rikdad. I read Marvel almost as much as DC during the laste 70s early 80s. But I always preferred DC. Similar to what you wrote, I found the DC heroes to be morally superior (not that the Marvel heroes we lacking - esp Cap America), but DC always seemed to be slightly higher. I think a lot of that is that Marvel seemed to always be showing the heroes as humans with human flaws, while DC's heroes usually seemed to be humans without major flaws.

    I also think the endings of stories were happier for DC. The DC hero caught tha bad guy and all way right in the world. In Marvel, not always the case. Sometimes the bad guy got away (how long did it take Daredevil to defeat the Kingpin) or they caught the bad guy but their personal lives were in a shamble (just about any Spiderman story).

    When a firend of a DC charcater went bad, you didn't care. You probably just met the character specifcally because the writer was going to make them bad (Two-Face). In Marvel, a long running firend shows up as the enemy (Harry becomes the Green Goblin and hates Peter).

    In Marvel, yYou feel bad for the hero. In DC you usually did not feel bad for the hero. Instead you wanted to be the hero.

    So Marvel's decision to use "real" humans is probably the main difference. Not Marvel, but Watchmen is a perfect example for me. I know it is rated one of the best if not the best graphic novel. And I did enjoy it, but it is not one of my favorites of all time. The heroes were too human.

  4. I haven't analyzed why I liked DC over Marvel like you have. However, I know I have some Marvel (small numbers) in my old collection. I don't know why I bought them, but I did. Yet, for some reason, I liked DC's super heroes over Marvel's. Maybe it was my exposure to Wonder Woman on TV. Maybe it was the DC characters were more interesting. But that is why I remain attached to DC even to this day.