Crown on the Ground / Rules of Engagement

 

Welcome to my brand new hopefully weekly column where I pick my brain about comics and you have to watch. The title does, in fact, come from a Sleigh Bells song, and I do like that song, but it’s really just the easiest way to reference the part at the end of The Filth when Greg finds a Burger King crown in a dumpster, because that’s what we’re doing here, finding beauty among the filth, “panning for gold in the archetypal dung of the human unconscious,” as Lady Edith Manning put it in The Invisibles.

To kick things off, I’ve decided to answer a prompt by Women Write About Comics’ Megan Purdy, who wanted to see more riffs on the site’s recent roundtable about brand loyalty between Marvel and DC. I figured I’d try an icebreaker instead of my usual icepick for an opener.

The last time I can remember being asked a question approaching the topic of loyalty in comics buying that I cared to answer was something like a decade ago at the comic shop I frequented for the first two thirds of my life, but it wasn’t a question of Marvel or DC partisanship. I can’t remember exactly what it was I brought to the counter that day, but I’m sure at least one of the comics in the stack was by Brian K. Vaughan. The cashier noticed that everything I had in hand shared the common feature of being from writers who were developing the kind of cult followings we take for granted these days.

“Do you follow writers or artists more?” was her question, and all available evidence pointed towards the former. I’ve always had my opinions about art and artists, but the way to follow comics seemed to be by hitching your star to a writer, there seemed to be more guarantees. This suited her just fine because the question was the lead in to a well practiced pitch to hand sell me a copy of We3 in trade, which I eagerly added to the stack. (Presumably she had a pitch ready to sell me on it based on Quitely’s merits had I replied artists.) If you’d asked me Marvel or DC at the time, I would have probably opted out by saying “Vertigo,” in spite of my growing collection of Daredevil trades beginning at Guardian Devil dwarfing everything else on my shelf. Brand loyalty in comics has always been a study in contradictions to me, especially when interrogating my own past.

 

If you’d asked me as a kid to choose Marvel or DC, I would have readily told you Marvel, that Spider-Man and the X-Men were better than anything DC had, that I liked Batman for the villains and Superman sucked. These weren’t really opinions backed up by anything I’d actually read in a comic, with Spider-Man being the notable exception. I thought the X-Men were cool because I liked the artwork in the trading cards and all I’d ever seen of Batman was in BTAS, Batman ‘66 in syndication, and the mountain of tie in merchandise I owned from the Joel Schumacher movies. If you’d taken a peek into my closet, the actual comics stacked there would have been almost exclusively Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Like I said, a study in contradictions.

Brand loyalty for Marvel or DC as a purchasing factor has never been a priority for me, and looking at the complexion of the current market, it looks to be at its nadir overall. Marvel has been consistently beating DC in sales recently, but that margin is pretty much swallowed up by the success of the Star Wars line, especially considering the overall failure of the All New All Different line to improve sales of the main superhero line.

The dawn of highly publicized exclusive contracts in the early 00s certainly signaled that both publishers had come around to the idea that their creators, and writers especially, offered a greater competitive advantage than their characters. Initially, those contracts left provisions for creator owned work and were only really intended by Marvel and DC to keep their most popular writers away from each other, but with more and more high profile writers like Kieron Gillen, Matt Fraction, and Kelly Sue DeConnick walking away from them both to publish through Image, the focus is changing. DC locking down Scott Snyder and Amanda Conner to exclusives seems to be more about keeping them away from the lure of Image and other creator owned venues than the House of Mouse.

Readers are going where the creators and stories that excite them go. That’s the dominant reality within the direct market, and it’s even more true outside the bubble where the graphic novel charts are dominated by young adult oriented work by female creators and manga. Passionate debates about the relative merits of DC and Marvel, and identifying with one over the other has passed right out of the comic shop and into movie theater lobbies. It’s definitely a victory for the industry and a pathway to better conversations among critics and readers, but it doesn’t lessen the vitality of either company’s output. As much as it’s tiresome to wade through partisan debates between supporters of either company in the corners of the Internet where that still happens, it also reads as bloodless and condescending to sift through the more prevalent comments that corporations will never love you back or that either company succeeds on the inertia of childhood nostalgia alone.

 

The sprawling mass of the worlds run by both Marvel and DC capture the imaginations of creators, critics, and readers in ways that shouldn’t be dismissed or denigrated out of hand and perhaps even more importantly, not flattened into a singular mass. One of the most fascinating things about them both, to me, is how distinct they are despite the significant overlap in creators and editors, say nothing about the passage of time.

DC, as a playpen, has always read more cleanly and elegantly to me, and part of that is a pretty inarguable product of its history. A major part of the company’s strategy in the early going was to buy up the companies hosting the talent and creations they most feared/coveted and giving them distinct places within the cosmology of the fictional universe. It’s a marriage of story to publishing concerns in that informs the company to this day, surviving the consolidation of Crisis on Infinite Earths to remain a quintessential part of the company’s mythology. The Question, Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, and Peacemaker always seem to find their back to each other, either directly, or through analogues in the likes of The Watchmen or Multiversity: Pax Americana, as just one example.

The other central piece of the DC puzzle is that the vast majority of its output explores the relationship between the individual and the iconic, the struggle of a given protagonist to embody the value or idea they represent. For that reason, much of the most highly regarded work starring DC’s most visible and popular characters read like exercises in the creative team reconciling themselves with those concepts, using the hero as a surrogate. It’s particularly evident in Grant Morrison’s work and the fascination with Otto Binder he returned to throughout his tenure both directly in Kid Eternity and indirectly in Doom Patrol and Flex Mentallo, but that constant theme of reconciliation is what also drove him to step right onto the page to confront Animal Man. Morrison’s self consciousness in using Buddy as a surrogate is evident from very early on in the run, spelled out quite plainly in The Coyote Gospel, but he’d clearly felt that he’d overrode the voice of the character to the point that he needed to explain himself and his particular agenda to both Buddy and the audience at large.

Morrison regained his confidence and disappeared back behind the page but it left a lasting legacy of hypervisibility of the writer’s voice in a narrative that has gone on to define the work that was later consolidated under the Vertigo imprint. That motif traces its history at DC all the way back to the formative years of the trinity, hell, it’s why we call them that, but Animal Man is the clear dividing line at which it was made the most clearly visible and became a self conscious part of the way readers, creators, and critics engage with DC. Deconstruction is the typical term we use to describe the era, but it was a period of intense self examination that the term doesn’t begin to describe. Morrison may have been the most transparent by flat out telling Buddy that he was working through the death of his cat in the pages of Animal Man, but Neil Gaiman’s exploration of imagination and storytelling in The Sandman and Alan Moore’s meditations on humankind’s relationship with nature in Swamp Thing are no less the product of intimate self examination towards a reconciliation with a greater intangible.

 

That drive has resulted in a tremendous amount of great work, much of it centered around Superman with Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow, All Star Superman, and What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way? being prominent examples, but it can also result in relentless and fruitless interrogations, as is typically the case with Wonder Woman. The relentless reinventions and cycles of depowering and repowering she’s gone through speak to the fact that there are a very select few writers who have ever been able to properly grasp the higher ideals that inform Diana, most notably Greg Rucka, Christopher Moeller, Gail Simone, Marguerite Bennett, and Grant Morrison.

Marvel, having never been structured the way DC is, appears much more anarchic when held up against that construction of the Distinguished Competition, which starts to shed some light on why readers have the preferences they do and why the same creators produce work with very different inflections when moving between the two. That isn’t to say that there isn’t a dominant motif that works through Marvel, though. The creation myth of Marvel is a classic tale of Gnostic Christianity. The supreme being, Jack Kirby, shaped the Marvel universe out of wet clay and while he was out taking a smoke break, the fearsome archon Stan Lee took over, lording over a broken world in which only glimpses of the original divine spark could be recovered. I’m kidding of course, but the dominant motif that came out of Kirby, Lee, Ditko, and Simon’s early efforts is far more earthy than what coalesced around DC’s trinity.

Instead of gazing upwards, they looked outwards, producing a stable of iconic characters whose primary question in life was their place in society and the world around them. Alienation, in particular, is a key theme that runs through the X-Men, The Hulk, the Fantastic Four, and even Captain America (insofar as being displaced in time). The general public of the Marvel Universe has been generally more fearful and mistrustful of its heroes in a way that reaches far beyond the mutant metaphor, which is what has made Marvel such particularly fertile soil for the emergence in recent years of Miles Morales and Kamala Khan, giving them the space to explore the social stigmas they face in a fictional world particularly receptive to that kind of storytelling.

That distinction goes far beyond alienation though, and becomes evident when comparing and contrasting each company’s nearest equivalents. Captain America specifically represents the nation state while Superman embodies the less tangible values of Truth, Justice, and the American Way. How that affects creators is probably most easily seen in Jack Kirby’s transition from Marvel to DC in the 1970s. After co-creating the lion’s share of the characters who set the enduring tone for Marvel’s output, he created the Fourth World at DC, a sprawling collection of cosmic beings that sit easily within DC’s cosmology and far away from anything he’d done previously. They were a wild and enduring success. His attempt to create analogues of them upon his return to Marvel with The Eternals failed to catch on in any meaningful way. It’s hardly an isolated incident either. Any writer who’s found success at both companies has done so by adapting to those sensibilities.

Preferences naturally arise out of those differing sensibilities, but reducing the companies and their output to a simple issue of branding is a reductive and anti-intellectual viewpoint. You can’t boil them down as being equivalent to prefering the taste of the artificial sweetener in Diet Coke to the one in Diet Pepsi. There isn’t and ought not to be a rule to engage with either or both, but there’s a wealth of insight to be gained by remaining open to it. That’s why questions of loyalty ultimately ring hollow to me.

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