A super-sized rivalry
Avengers: Infinity War hits theaters on Fri, April 27 and marks the capstone of an impressive 10 year run for Marvel Studios. On the other hand, DC's superhero crossover event, Justice League, hit theaters last November. The two movie franchises have fans divided and arguing over the real champion of superhero cinema.
But, this rivalry goes way back before Iron Man even hit theaters in 2008. The Marvel/DC rivalry began early in the twentieth century with the inception of their respective comic series and has been intense ever since.
The Celebrity Cafe's Robert English spoke with David Brown, host of the Wondery podcast, Business Wars, looking at some of the most intense rivalries in business history.
David D. Brown is a veteran public radio journalist. Currently, he is the host and managing editor of the Texas Standard, a daily hour-long news program broadcast across the whole state. Over the course of his 30-year career in radio, Brown has been an anchor for the award-winning radio program Marketplace and has reported on national and international affairs on NPR and PRI.
Currently, David is working to complete his Ph.D. in Journalism and lives with wife and two kids.
Robert: What initially sparked your interest in the Marvel and DC rivalry?
David: What’s interesting to me is they speak to that larger sense of affinity that each of us has – whether Marvel or DC, Apple or Samsung, or Coke vs. Pepsi. There’s something to be said, for better or worse, about brands and how we feel an allegiance to them. I’m fascinated by that. Some people are Marvel and some people are DC. To me, DC is more buttoned, more celebrated in tradition. If you felt Spiderman was irreverent, it’s because the culture at Marvel was irreverent. It was a strength and its vulnerability as well. I think it’s fascinating and not talked about as much. For people, its almost as if they have a personal stake in it.
R: You discuss in your podcast the origins of both comics dating back to the 1930's with the creation of Superman for DC, but when did this rivalry actually begin?
D: I’d go with the early '60s. DC could’ve stopped Marvel back in 1962. Their veteran writers were swiping magazines and comics from an adjacent business office and brought back with the books that were published by the companies that would soon become Marvel. But the DC publisher scoffs at the idea of even thumbing through them, let alone considering absorbing the companies. Twenty-two years later, fledgling DC is coming to Marvel about a collaboration.
R: What were some of the things that each company did to attempt to get ahead of the other?
D: There have been several instances of important people crossing enemy lines. The biggest defection is signature artist Jack Kirby. At one point when Marvel learns Kirby is planning to leave for DC, three menacing members of Marvel publisher Martin Goodman’s family surround Kirby and bully him into finishing the current issue of Captain America before leaving. Marvel struck back when Jack Kirby’s DC ideas were leaked to them by an inker. Coincidentally, when a DC employee was giving intel to fan outlets and Marvel, DC executives flushed him by creating a fake idea called “Blockbuster,” which was a line of 500-page comics. That type of espionage was so commonplace, DC turns away Stan Lee’s brother when he’s looking for a job because they assume he’d be a mole. Turns out he just wanted a job!
R: How did Marvel respond to DC's success in television with the Batman TV Series in 1966?
D: Marvel had a Captain America series and a Hulk TV show in the 1970s, but neither matched the Batman TV series. Stan Lee even moves to L.A. in 1980 to pursue Marvel big and small screen projects, but he finds little success pitching them. The ones that are picked up aren’t well-received. A 1994 Fantastic Four straight-to-video is so bad Marvel is forced to buy all the copies and destroy them. It really isn’t until X-Men in 2000 that the comic book movie craze begins, even with Superman and Batman installments doing relatively well before that.
R: Jack Kirby, one of the founders of Marvel and most influential members of that company, eventually took a job in DC comics. How much of Jack Kirby's departure from Marvel was attributable to Marvel? Did DC have a hand in it?
D: Kirby and Stan Lee were at each other’s throats because each claimed ownership or wanted the characters to themselves. Kirby saw himself as the creator and so did Stan Lee.
There was a lot of interest in what Jack Kirby would do at DC and a lot of privacy and secrecy around the project he had in mind, and ultimately it kind of fizzled. He didn’t flourish there. It turned a spotlight on how this is a creative industry and if you don’t create a climate for those creatives, they can’t flourish. And DC didn’t have the environment or climate.
I wonder if DC didn’t fumble the ball with Jack Kirby when looking back at what he did and didn’t do. If they weren’t a buttoned-down culture, could they have let him loose and come up with a brand that would swing a little bit more?
R: Today we hear more about the rivalry in terms of film and that sector of the entertainment industry, but is there still a rivalry on the comic book side of things with each company?
D: Several reports have the comic book and graphic novel industry booming and having one of the highest growths in publishing. The comic market reached $1.1 billion in 2016 alone. So while much of the mainstream focus might be on the movies, there is still a huge market for published comics that DC and Marvel will wage battles over.
R: Does the DC extended universe stand a chance against the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
D: These things are often cyclical, and with these movies breaking records with every installment seemingly, I’d expect it to always be a rather passionate rivalry. Few would have seen Marvel catching DC 50 years ago. To assume DC can’t catch Marvel would be to ignore this great rivalry’s history.
R: Where do you see this rivalry going in the next 10 years?
D: It’s hard to say, and I think maybe there is a new or an up-and-coming third party that forces another balance shift. When businesses start to think they can’t be topped, it often spells trouble.
Check out the 'Business Wars' on Spotify.
What do you think about the Marvel/DC rivalry?