Those of you who are new to comics may find the whole Marvel-DC dichotomy a bit confusing, so in this edition ofThe Watchtower, I’ll try to lay out the basic trends of the respective companies, their characters and the worlds they inhabit. Though this inherently involves some generalization, this article should give you a broad sense of what the Marvel and DC Universes are all about.
Naturally, the most important part of each universe is the respective casts of characters. Marvel lays claim to Spider-Man, Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, while Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, the Teen Titans and the Justice Society of America call the DCU home.
Now, for those of you who’d like to see Thor taking some shots at Hawkman or watch Green Lantern and Iron Man going at it, you may be a bit disappointed to find that, with the exception of a few scattered crossovers, the two universes exist completely separate from one another. And though it would be fun to see the two companies’ extremely diverse sets of characters interact at least now and then, there are some very good reasons why they don’t do so. Foremost among them is the fact that the two groups inhabit distinctly different worlds, with a number of general trends and key factors working within them.
Key Aspects of the DC Universe
Virtuous/Heroic Protagonists: The heroes of the DCU are meant to be icons that readers can look up to and aspire to emulate. Sometimes emphasized to the point where their humanity is sacrificed, the characters’ portrayals tend to involve a great deal of iconography and almost always employ strict personal principles, particularly the “no-kill rule,” (recently coined as “the Batman rule”), making events like the Death of Superman and Batman’s use of a gun in Final Crisis particularly startling.
Corniness: A function of the first point, DC often lends itself to a greater degree of cheesiness than does Marvel, employing some more traditional underwear-on-the-outside, big-cape sorts of character portrayals, all in the interest of creating larger-than-life, clearly heroic characters. They also often embrace certain characters’ cornier conventions (the Green Lantern oath, for instance).
Networked Heroes: Nearly all of DC’s characters have networks. With the existence of Aqua-, Wonder-, Super- and Bat- girls, just part of a wide array of sidekicks and partners tied to any of the DCU’s bigger names, the prevalence of a “family”-style system of crime fighting is a definite cornerstone of the DC Universe
Tradition and Legacy: Legacy has always been integral to the DCU. Looking at a world that’s currently on its fifth active Robin and has three Flashes running around simultaneously, it’s very clear, even within the comics themselves, that tradition, legacy and history are core aspects of DC’s expansive multiverse.
Colorful Villains: One of DC’s most winning attributes is its cast of villains. Though the quality of the rogues galleries varies from character to character, groups like Batman’s Gotham Underground and the Flash’s Rogues are generally seen as major draws for their respective characters. With characters as clever, engaging and strangely ruthless as Captain Cold, the Joker and Hush to toy with, it’s safe to say the DCU would be a very different place without its great antagonists.
Strong Women: DC has always been an early stronghold of feminism in comics. The 1941 creation of Wonder Woman and her character’s prominent placement in the DCU (as part of its “Trinity“) has and will continue to make a leading feminist symbol for years to come. Though 2010 marks the beginning of Marvel’s yearlong Marvel Women project, it looks a bit forced compared to DC’s more organic, well-precedented use of female characters.
Key Aspects of the Marvel Universe:
Flawed Protagonists: Marvel’s heroes, try as they might, will always be fighting their own profoundly affecting flaws. With Iron Man’s alcoholism, the Hulk’s lack of control and the Thing’s oft-spotlighted “monstrosity,” it’s easy to see how flawed characterizations and internal conflict pervade Marvel’s world. This makes for consistently human, highly-relatable characters, and has always been a major draw of the Marvel Universe.
Politicism/Government Involvement: Considering the Cold War and Nazi-era roots of basically all of Marvel’s major characters, it’s only natural that politicism be a cornerstone for the House of Ideas. With major villains like Red Skull and the Mandarin embodying fascist and communist ideologies, the constant oversight of government organization S.H.I.E.L.D. and the polarizing nature of the widely-praised Civil War event, the MU is no stranger to political commentary.
Varied Public Perception: Marvel’s characters, largely due to their aforementioned flaws, are sometimes poorly received by those around them, with groups such as the press (think Spider-Man), the government and the common people lashing out at them with surprising frequency.
Internationalism: Unlike DC, Marvel has always promoted a great deal of internationalism, despite (or perhaps because of) its focus on government involvement. Even S.H.I.E.L.D., Marvel’s premier government organization, is international. Moreover, international super-teams like Excalibur (Britain) and Alpha Flight (Canada) have always played a major part in Marvel’s world.
Locations: While DC has a slew of fictional locations like Gotham, Star City and Metropolis, Marvel usually bases everything in real-world locations Washington, D.C. and New York (the X-Men being in Westchester). This disparity represents a larger attempt by DC to create a separate world for readers to immerse themselves in, with Marvel generally aiming to bring their characters into our own.
The worlds of Marvel and DC are two very different spheres of existence, with some shared elements in each. Generally speaking, though, Marvel’s cast inhabits a more modern, realistic world: the world of the everyman. Conversely, DC’s multiverse is a land of ideals, icons and larger-than-life characters. For new readers, and even reasonably old ones, it’s probably best to choose a world that appeals to your sensibilities most. In a broad sense, Marvel’s best stories are the ones in which they elevate their more human characters to an iconic, even titanic level; DC’s best are the ones where they can tell human, grounded stories about their inherently iconic, sometimes almost godlike characters. Just choose which you’d rather take your chances on — they both have remarkable stories to tell.