Monday, July 16, 2012

Tales from the Long Box: Is Marvel Winning the Comic Book Wars?

Every week Seth goes into his back issue bins, picks out a single issue, story arc, or creative run, pours through it and then writes about it. He calls it Tales from the Long Box. Though old and now either retconned out of existence or made irrelevant by the latest event, these books still share something in common... they're bagged, boarded, and a part of comics history.

Is Marvel Winning the Comic Book Wars?

On the most recent episode of our podcast (out now) we were sent an e-mail by faithful listener Michael/@Ctcher asking us if we believed, like him, that Marvel is currently the better company. He mentioned the depth of Marvel's character roster as well as their stable of creative talent. Paul and I got into it a little bit on the show but I felt I had more to say on the subject. So here is me saying more on the subject.

For my part, the importance is always placed on the creators. Sure I love Batman but plenty of bad writers have written awful Batman stories. This was a lesson I learned when I first started reading comics regularly. It all comes down to the creators. When you look at the big guns at Marvel, names like Hickman, Bendis, Fraction, Brubaker, Aaron, Loeb (regardless of how you feel about his work, he's still a big draw for many people), Zeb Wells, Waid... I could go on. At DC you have Johns, Morrison, Lemire, Snyder... I guess you could toss Gail Simone in there but she's only writing one title currently. This isn't to say there aren't more solid writers at either company; there are. But these are the guys who will sell a comic based on name recognition alone.

The shear volume of creative talent at Marvel really does seem to dwarf DC. Even their lesser-known writing pool is impressively larger than DC's. Guys like Christos Gage, Greg Pak, Brian Wood, Kieron Gillen... DC likewise has a growing depth of unknown talents but this is more a measure of how deep the well goes than one of name dropping. Marvel has two great "b list" writers for every Matt Kindt that DC has.

This is subject to change on a moment's notice. The nature of the industry is such that creators hop over fences quicker than Marvel can turn out Amazing Spider-Man issues. Writers and artists are discovering they can, in fact, make a go of it on creator-owned books and they're far more prone to leave for greener pastures even if it is one in danger of drying up over night. In the last two years, Marvel has lost one of their biggest writers, Mark Millar, and are starting to feel the sting of Ed Brubaker's inevitable departure.

But that's the thing about Marvel of late. For every Millar lost, there is a Jonathan Hickman gained. They seem much more willing to give their writers leeway on their books. I'm not saying there isn't any editorial interference, but we haven't heard as many stories of insane acts of editorial meddling like we have from guys like George Perez at DC. Is Marvel just more hands-off or do they simply have a more stringent non-disclosure policy in place? It's hard to say. There's no arguing that Marvel has a much broader range of writing talent than DC does these days.

It's pure speculation to guess at why certain creators abandon one company for another unless those creators ruminate on the subject in interviews. Guys like Greg Rucka and Brubaker (both former mainstays at DC) have both talked about their departure for Marvel from the Distinguished Competition, and neither seem too fond of the latter. It's a business and like any other, you have your loyalists and your dissenters. Why people dissent from one company to another usually comes to down to either money or creative control and usually creative control boils down to money. So maybe Marvel just pays more moolah than DC.

The artistic side of things is a little more even (but not by much), and once Marvel NOW! kicks off, I'm guessing even less so. John Cassaday is a huge draw. He may even be the only artist with name recognition on the same level as someone like... well, Jim Lee. Francis Yu is coming back to Marvel fairly soon as well, if the rumor mill is to be believed. However, DC has a large and varied array of artistic talent themselves. Nicola Scott, Ivan Reis, and Francis Manapul just to name a few.

When we get to the character stable, it's a little harder to concede that Marvel has the upper hand. Mostly because I'm a DC guy. Sure I grew up reading more X-Men than Superman, but my comic fan rebirth began with DC in the early 00's. BUT, it's very hard to discount that while DC has reset their line and lost years of continuity in favor of bringing in sales (how dare them make money!), Marvel has continued building on their decades of story and character development while also creating entirely new characters. In the DCU, the JSA is pretty well gone. At Marvel, the Defenders are still a major aspect of the history of the 616. No, I'm not knocking DC and their decision to wipe the slate clean with the New 52, but they lost a lot of things that the few and faithful held dear, some beloved characters and years of amazing stories amongst them.

Does this mean that Marvel is the better "company"? I have no idea. I'm not involved in the business side of comics. Does it mean that Marvel has a leg up on DC's character/creator stable right now? As much as I regret choosing to refer to their creative line-up in equestrian terms, yes. I think Marvel does hold the upper hand right now.

Strangely enough I'm fine with this. DC, for as long as I've been reading monthly comics, has been the underdog. It suits them. Until they can get a handle on bringing on more, young, fresh creative talent instead of relying on a small handful of big names, they'll probably be lagging behind Marvel. Maybe not in sales, but in the minds of readers.

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