How Marvel Got It Right

Media, The Arts

The next set of Marvel movies has been announced, and they’re clearly on a roll. The makers are staying with their B team – there are no signs of the Fantastic Four after two attempts to jump-start them, despite the fact that they once led the Marvel comics pack. Most of the other lycra-lookalikes in the pantheon have been denied their own films in favour of the first Marvel B-generation, which is probably good business sense because they have the most brand recognition.

With their broken panels, frustrated anti-heroes, sexily-outfitted gals and brick-busting sound effects, Marvel pulled in the kids who fancied themselves as tortured rebels. Marvel had an overwrought, druggy writing style and lurid art. Marvel was vulgar.

DC’s stern fundamentalist superheroes were framed in neatly boxed panels and could only ever be on the side of the establishment. Like good Christians they kept expanding the family, so that just when it looked like Superman could get away with having dead parents, he was lumbered with a super sister, a super dog, a super cat, a super horse and even Beppo the Super Monkey.

And his friends were stiffs. Jimmy Olsen wore a bowtie and Lois Lane had gran-hair. DC artists really liked drawing offices, and weren’t imaginative enough to come up with decent aliens. DC appealed to Conservatives. Lois was her own worst enemy. Given a signal watch, she summoned Superman from his busy schedule of saving whole universes because the heel had come off her shoe. One of the most revealing story titles was ‘Lois Lane, Hag!’

What Lois feared most was being ignored by men. Lana Lang didn’t fare much better. She overplayed her only card, unappealingly reminding Superman that she used to be his sweetheart, and was forced to suffer the knowledge that she would never get to power, like the Green Party. The only other rival for the Man of Steel’s affections was a mermaid, and that presented another set of physical problems. Sometimes she got her legs back, only to lose them before she could use them.

DC floundered after the liberation movement of the sixties. Suddenly nobody respected Superman anymore. Only Batman was allowed to freak out. You could sense that Marvel heroes had sex lives. Superman may have had big biceps but there was obviously nothing much going on in his pants. The genius of the DC Silver Age was to reflect the secret fears of children, and may explain much about falling comic sales among the over-confident teens of the present.

Marvel heroes and sidekicks inhabited the real world and were a bit trashy. Their values perfectly coincided with the multiplex mentality, which made even the B heroes perfect for cinema. After the disastrous ‘Green Lantern’ franchise-doomer, it will be hard to see the DC B heroes achieving fame against Marvel Avengers.

For DC, everything now rides on The Man Of Steel, but it’s hard to imagine his reinvention working. Marvel has the right ideas about what people want to see – and they’re sticking with them.

Of course, it helps that so much control fell to one Marvel man – Stan Lee, who even went to the effort of sending a personal video message to my partner a few months back. He’s a hand-on guy who is still the face of a huge company. DC feels like a slick corporation looking for big bucks, but with the exception of Batman, now reaching the end of his current noir incarnation, they’ve failed to find it. It’s a shame, because in many ways they have a better stable of superheroes. It’s a pity they don’t know what to do with them.

2 comments on “How Marvel Got It Right”

  1. Rob Nott says:

    Whilst I agree that Marvel got it right in the 1960s (compared with DC) I’d disagree with the reasons why. The Marvel characters weren’t that different from the DC ones in terms of respectability and old fashioned moral values. While it’s fair to say the Marvel heroes in the 1960s were to a degree tortured souls, they weren’t by any stretch of the imagination rebels. Reed Richards dressed like Don Draper in early issues of the Fantastic Four (I think he even had a pipe…), and Sue Storm could have walked straight out of the pages of a 1957 issue of ‘Good Housekeeping’ magazine. Captain America in the pages of the Avengers would lecture Rick Jones’s Teen Brigade about the importance of going to bed at a decent hour and getting enough sleep, and pretty much everyone of course wore a tie. And often a hat. Even when the sixties began to get psychedelic you’d have been hard pressed to count many superheroes who would have been at a Velvet Underground gig in 1966 (maybe the Wasp, but only because it was trendy. I don’t think she would have actually liked the music…). Marvel heroes, for all their hang ups and anxieties, were staunchly moral in an old fashioned way. They were (with the possible exception of the Hulk who wasn’t really in control of his actions) heroic, clean cut and incredibly decent in every sense of the word. They talked about “with great power comes great responsibility” and were 100% incorruptible.

    What Marvel did do that was a game changer for the times were these things:

    Firstly the Marvel universe was fresh and new, without decades worth of publishing history, and so it came across to young readers as something that belonged to them, rather than past generations. It was their Rock n’ Roll.

    Stan Lee also introduced proper continuity. Yes, the DC characters in theory all occupied the same universe, but nothing ever changed from issue to issue. Like syndicated TV episodes, if dramatic situations arose in a single issue, everything was sorted out and resolved by the end of that issue, and the characters returned to a normal status quo. Marvel comics on the other hand adopted a soap opera approach, and Stan Lee was clever enough to extend the soap opera across all his titles, so in theory if you wanted to keep up with the universe as a whole, you really had to buy all his comics. With DC that had never been the case.

    Lee also made his characters flawed which is not to say they were rebels or anti-heroes (certainly not in the sense of cinematic anti-heroes such as Clint Eastwood’s ‘Man With No Name’) but rather that they had down to earth problems that adolescents, confused and bewildered by the onset of puberty, could relate to. The Thing was trapped in a monstrous misshapen form and despaired at ever having a relationship with a woman again. Peter Parker had his ailing Aunt May who teetered from one medical drama to another, and he was the subject of a media vilification campaign by cigar chomping right wing nut job, J Jonah Jameson. Daredevil was blind. Captain America was a man out of time, who didn’t understand the modern world (even though the ‘modern world’ of early Marvel looked a bit like 1955). The X-Men were feared and hated by a world they strived to protect. And so on. In fact, if you wanted to highlight one difference in particular between the Marvel and DC universes in the 1960s it was that in the DC universe everyone was friends with one another and the public trusted, loved and adored their super heroes. In the Marvel universe the heroes were just as heroic and decent, but on the whole they were feared and distrusted or at best, viewed with a degree of suspicion.

    Ironically, come the early 1970s, DC overtook Marvel towards a new approach with a complete revision of their universe that (temporarily at least) stripped away costumes (Teen Titans, Wonder Woman), super powers (Wonder Woman, and to a degree Superman) and Super Villains (pretty much all their titles) in their attempt to be socially relevant with titles such as Green Lantern and Green Arrow. In that they outstripped Marvel before everything was retconned back again.

  2. Dan Terrell says:

    Never really got into Marvel as they came a few years too late for my reading. DC comics I rather liked, but they could also be rather stuffy. EC comics: now those were the ones I liked, although the plots almost always had a snap ending, which was eventually boring. And, folks, EC comics did not – as the Republicans of the time then claimed – turn children into blood-sucking horrors. In fact, I hate blood food products.

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