As comics' biggest rivalry crosses mediums in the quest for market dominance, there are a number of reasons why fans are making theirs Marvel. ♦
Spring 2014 is a good time to be a comic book fan. Marvel and DC’s longstanding fight for comics dominance has now spread into an all-out battle across different entertainment media: both companies are putting out new books (featuring new or revamped characters and storylines), both working on live-action, big-budget film adaptations, and both churning out full-length animated features and television shows based on their properties—DC, in particular, has had critical and fan success with animated adaptations of graphic novels such as New Frontier and The Dark Knight Returns. Nevertheless, there’s a definite sense of Marvel pride right now. The Marvel/DC debate has been compared (jokingly?) to the Mac/PC debate—you just tend to be one or the other—though a number of longtime DC fans are switching sides these days, and without a hint of guilt. Statistically Marvel has had the edge for several years: in March 2011, before Marvel NOW but after DC’s New 52 was launched, Marvel owned 39.63% of comic sales to DC’s 27.62%, and while Marvel’s share has gone down since then, to 34.09% as of January 2014—the result of smaller companies such as Image Comics, which owns The Walking Dead, cutting into sales—DC’s share has remained second-place, with 28.06%. But Marvel’s supremacy has to do with more than just sales figures; the company has taken on the feel of a full-on media force. So the question is not if Marvel is winning—in terms of market and public perception, they are—but why?
As a fan, it's easy to see how growing discomfort with DC Comics began around the launch of the New 52, when DC erased all previous storylines and cancelled all ongoing titles in hopes of getting new readers. The thought was that if they restart the books and relaunch the characters, more people could read their titles without the confusion of decades of (storied) history. Old fans were upset that their favorite characters were being shelved and their favorite storylines gone forever . . . though it turned out that these weren’t completely gone, but instead were just being redone, recopied, making lifelong fans more even upset because storylines were being made that they'd already seen, just not as good this time around.
As if tensions weren’t high enough, there was also the fact that, with the New 52, DC's female comics creators went down from 12% to 1%. Fans were upset, rightfully so, and DC didn’t exactly handle the situation correctly; instead they brushed off comments about the treatment of females, disrespected their female fans, and even straight-up said that they were targeting white males from the ages of 18-34. When they did tease certain characters coming back, they'd simply reintroduce them with different hair or eye colors, which apparently, to DC, counts as character development.
This is when I, personally, switched to Marvel. I found characters I loved that were being treated correctly. Shortly after I made the move, Marvel came out with Marvel NOW, following in the footsteps of the New 52. Instead of an utter retcon, Marvel NOW was a reboot of the titles, without erasing the history and storylines, and an opportunity to create new storylines instead of simply rewriting (or rehashing) old ones. Countering DC’s benching of female characters, Marvel decided to release several big female-led books such as Black Widow, Ms. Marvel, Captain Marvel, and Elektra. The perception, at least, is that Marvel hears its fans' concerns, whereas DC ignores theirs to launch a contest to draw Harley Quinn naked in a bathtub committing suicide (this is an actual real thing, guys). In fact, Marvel’s editor-in-chief Axel Alonso has said that the focus of their female-led books is on their protagonists as women "with rich interior lives, interesting careers, and complex families," not on their bodies in skimpy outfits.
However, it would be incorrect to say that the only reason people are reading Marvel is because they’re more progressive than DC. The books that Marvel puts out are unique. The Hawkeye series by Matt Fraction questions what a superhero book should look like. The minimalistic style took off in this book, and readers do nothing but rave about it. Easily one of the most popular ongoing titles at the moment, Hawkeye has the ability to bring in new readers because of how different it is, how it takes chances in the medium. It has brought former comic readers back to the fold, and graphic novel readers are even intrigued by it. As for myself, I’m easily buying five different Marvel comics monthly, though I haven’t bought a DC comic since 2012. I can probably guess what’s going on over there, though. I’d guess Aquaman is still hated, sidekicks who’d matured into their own heroes are back to being sidekicks, and there’s gore, bad art, the same old storylines, and plenty of bad writing. DC is sticking to the tropes, while Marvel is pushing the envelope for what a comic book should be.
As well as what format it should be in. Marvel Unlimited is Marvel’s online subscription service that takes the shape of Netflix. It’s behind six months, but you pay a monthly (or yearly) fee and can read anything on their site. Granted, DC is the one who brought around the online revolution of comic books by offering same-day print release for digital comics, but Marvel makes it easier to read their comics online, let alone in digital form. You can read DC comics online, but they do not have a subscription system in place. You can buy books, but not have access to their entire online library of books.
The expansion into other media is also helping Marvel. DC has only two ongoing cartoon adaptations at the moment, and one is a spinoff of the old Teen Titans cartoon. A year ago they had both a Green Lantern cartoon and a Young Justice cartoon, though these have been cancelled because the audience was not what Cartoon Network and DC had in mind. (It was mostly female viewers, and they were afraid that females just weren’t buying the merchandise the way boy viewers would.) There’s also an age issue in play; older viewers, which both shows had a lot of (me being one), would not go out and buy toys. Marvel, on the other hand, was bought by a company that instead of being happy with its demographic, wanted to reach out to other demographics – I’m talking, of course, about Disney. Disney is traditionally marked towards girls, so acquiring Marvel was a step toward diversifying its audience, in the hopes of pulling boys into their demographics. There’s currently an Avengers and a Spiderman show looking to do just that.
Need I even mention the cinematic universe? Marvel has had The Avengers, two Captain America movies, three Iron Man movies, and two Thor movies in recent years that have done ridiculously well. (As well as four Spiderman movies, the X-Men movies, Daredevil, Elektra, and the Hulk movies that everyone likes to pretend didn’t happen.) DC has had three Batman movies, a Green Lantern movie (complete flop), and a Superman movie. They are, in typical DC style, now retconning the Batman movies and casting Ben Affleck as the new Batman (so wrong). DC is attempting to counteract the Marvel cinematic universe with one of their own, but they’re in the awkward position of playing catch-up. The only movie we’re guaranteed is Man of Steel 2 which will feature Batman and Superman and Wonder Woman all at once, instant universe. A Justice League and a Wonder Woman movie are both rumored, but DC likely wants to see how this next installment plays first. Before taking any big chances on a whole series of films. Like those other guys did.
I think ultimately why Marvel is winning is both something they’re doing well and something DC is not doing at all: Marvel is willing to change its approach to accommodate and respond to an ever-changing demographic, while DC is stuck in what they think comics should be, what they have been, and not what they need to be going forward. Once they change that mindset, then maybe it’ll be a fair fight, but until then it’s Marvel: 1, DC: 0.