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DC Comic vs. Marvel Comics! The History of American Superhero Comic Books

Updated on March 5, 2017

There's no bigger and more influential comic book companies than the big two - DC Comics and Marvel Comics. Both comic book companies have revolutionized the comic industry with iconic and amazing superheroes and have stood the test of time.

There's no doubt that the comic books and characters that these two companies have created have become such a huge part of pop culture, and not just American pop culture, but around the globe. Mostly everyone knows of Superman, Batman or Spider-Man, whether they're a comic book fan or not.

I'm not going to get into the entire history of comic books starting with comic strips and proto-comic books, I'm going to deal with the history of comic books starting with the golden age and silver age, and just how DC Comics and Marvel Comics influenced the industry in their own different ways.

So whether you're a DC or Marvel Comic fan, I hope you enjoy this little piece about the comic book history of two legendary giants, and the players who helped build these two comic empires.

In The Beginning...There Was DC Comics!

Were there comic books before DC Comics? Yes, there was, but when it comes to the superhero archetype, Superman was the first to pave the way. Yes, Superman was the first to establish what we now know of the superhero archetype, and every comic book superhero after has been influenced by the character of Superman to one degree or another.

Contrary to belief, Superman was not an overnight success. Creators Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster struggled immensely to get the backing of a publisher for their hero. Instead of taking on the comic book format, which was beginning to emerge and become more established, Siegel and Shuster decided to feature Superman in a comic strip format.

When Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson's National Allied Publishing decided to feature the Superman character in a new publication they were entitling Action Comics, Vin Sullivan called the duo to refashion their comic strips into 8 panel page layouts. The duo ignored the request and used their own creative visions to determine page layouts and panels for the comic.

Action Comics #1 and Superman both made their debuts on April 18, 1938.

The Strange Origin of DC Comics

DC Comics didn't start out as DC Comics. The companies earliest beginnings is traced back to Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson's National Allied Publications. The company was already printing comics like New Fun: The Big Comic Magazine #1 and New Comics, which would later evolve into the comic book Adventure Comics.

In 1937, Wheeler was in dept to printing plant owner Harry Donenfeld, who struck a deal with Wheeler to take him on a partner in order to publish Detective Comics #1. The result was Detective Comics, Inc, in which Wheeler, Donenfeld, and Donenfeld's accountant, Jack S. Liebowitz, owned the publication.

Because of further money problems, Wheeler was not around to enjoy the success of Superman or Batman, who was featured in Detective Comics #27 in May 1939, and was forced out. Detective Comics, Inc later purchased National Allied Publishing at a bankruptcy auction. National Allied and Detective Comics, Inc merged and became National Comics. Later, All-American Publications, founded by Max Gaines who had partnered with Liebowitz in order to get funding from Harry Donenfeld, merged with National Comics after Gaines allowed Liebowitz to buy him out.

All-American Publications was already known for the golden age superheroes such as The Flash, Green Lantern, The Atom, and Wonder Woman, and after the merger these characters were absorbed into National Comics roster of Superheroes. Liebowitz then orchestrated the merger of National Comics and all it's affiliates into one big corporation called, National Periodical Publications.

National Periodical Publications did not officially become DC Comics until 1977. However, it used the DC Comics logo on all it's comic books prior.

And Then Came Marvel Comics

DC Comics wasn't the only company publishing and distributing comic books. There was plenty of competition, and one of them was known as Timely Comics, founded by pulp magazine publisher Martin Goodman in 1939. Timely Comics also had popular superheroes during the golden age of comics.

Early golden age superheroes in the Timely Comic's universe consisted of Carl Burgos' android superhero, the Human Torch, as well as Bill Everett's mutant anti-hero Namor the Sub-Mariner. Timely's first publication was Marvel Comics #1 and featured The Human Torch. In 1941, Timely's writer and editor, Joe Simon, teamed up with legendary comic book artist Jack Kirby to produce the character Captain America, who was featured in Captain America Comics #1. The character of Captain America was created purely as a political vehicle against the growing disgust of the immoral acts committed by Nazi Germany of the time.

Captain America was a huge success during World War II, and was known as one of the "Big Three" successful superhero comics in Timely's arsenal. However, post-war saw the decline of superhero comic book sales. During the 1950s, Timely was known as Atlas Comics, and like other comic book publishers, chased pop-culture themes such as westerns, horror, sci-fi, crime, war, humorous, romance, and spy comic book.

In 1953 to 1954, Atlas comics tried a superhero revival with it's "big three" - Namor The Submariner, The Human Torch, and Captain America - but the revival failed. The very last comic book to bear the Atlas logo was Dippy Duck #1, and the very first comic book to bear the Marvel Comics logo, then simply MC, was Amazing Adventures Vol 1 #3. This would further launch Goodman's attempt at capturing the new demand trend of science fiction movies to the world of comic books.

This attempt to capture the science fiction and fantasy market resulted in the making or revamping of five more comic titles including Strange Worlds #1; World of Fantasy #15; Strange Tales #67; Journey into Mystery #50; Tales of Suspense #1; and Tales to Astonish #1. In 1959, the space-themed comic books were unsuccessful, and the titles Strange Worlds and World of Fantasy #15 were cancelled.

DC Comics Superhero Revival

Most people get this wrong. They think that Marvel Comics revived superheroes during the silver age of comics, but this is historically wrong. Actually, DC Comics, known as National Periodical Publications during the time, brought back the superhero genre in comic books successfully.

DC Comics did a major overhaul on it's characters, and they were all revamped with new, updated costumes. Some characters such as The Flash and The Green Lantern were completely revamped with different origins, alter egos, and characters to adopt the superheroes name. Once known as Alan Scott, the Green Lantern was now Hal Jordan.

Flagship characters such Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman's original character's story lines and bios were generally left untouched, with slight alterations to their costumes. This superhero revival is commonly known as the silver age of comics, and DC Comics would pave the way for Marvel Comics to capitalize and, eventually, revolutionize the superhero archetype forever.

Marvel Comics Makes It's Move!

You can bet that those at Marvel Comics had a keen eye on what DC Comics was up to. Once DC Comics successfully relaunched their superhero comics and brought the first superhero team concept to the market - The Justice League of America - Martin Goodman advised Stan Lee to create a superhero team as well. Stan Lee, who was editor/writer of Marvel at the time, and Jack Kirby took the advice and followed suit! In 1961, the debut of the Fantastic Four #1 hit the market.

However, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby ushered in a new breed of superheroes. While DC Comic heroes were often one dimensional and seemingly without character flaws, Stan Lee wrote characters that had everyday human problems. This approach of "Superheroes in the real world" went the opposite direction of DC Comic characters and revolutionized the industry.

Spider-Man became another huge hit for Marvel, created by Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko. Featured in Amazing Fantasy #15, this move was basically a test run of the character as Martin Goodman was unsure of how successful the Spider-Man character would be. The result was phenomenal, and teens took the character of Peter Parker, and the teenage problems he had with girl troubles and his bully classmate Flash Thompson among other things.

Spider-Man was also the first teenage superhero who was not a side kick, and who had to deal with public hostility in the character's world. DC Comics were all in the black and white good/bad archetype whom were adored by the public in their characters' worlds.

Stan Lee also revolutionized the superhero archetype by using an anti-hero as the main character of a comic book. Furthermore, this superhero was a monster! The Hulk became another hugely popular success among kids and teenage readers.

Marvel Comics delivered a new type of superhero that had everyday problems. The readers could relate to these character's problems more than they could with DC Comic characters at the time.

This simple twist of humanizing superheroes quickly made Marvel Comics and it's superheroes the most popular comic book company on the planet, and they also paved the path for more darker themes and calling attention to social issues.

Marvel Comics And DC Comics

There's no doubt that both DC Comics and Marvel Comics made extremely influential impacts on American comic books. During the 70s, Marvel continued to be the brazen company by offering the market more controversial characters like the vigilante The Punisher, whom in reality would be seen as a criminal not a hero.

Marvel would finally don the practice of adding creative royalties to it's staff of artists and writers during the 80s, in which DC Comics started doing in the late 70s. Both Marvel Comics and DC would continue to influence each other during the 80s until present day, as the competition between both powerhouses continually revolutionize the industry on purpose or by accident.

in 2011, DC Comics did exactly what they had done during the silver age. DC's new 52 Relaunch revamped the DCU and many of their popular superheroes. History does repeat itself apparently, because the relaunch was a huge success.

However, one thing that's truly important is that both have created iconic characters that have become such an entrenched part of American culture and global pop culture. Without Superman's model for the typical superhero archetype would there be a Peter Parker and Spider-Man to challenge that concept of the perfect, flawless, and trouble-less superhero?

Perhaps so, perhaps not! What is important is that these two comic companies have given us timeless great characters, stories, and artwork that has stretched our imaginations beyond our wildest dreams. Their superheroes have inspired us, become a huge part of our lives and conscious, as well as given us so many awesome memories that are truly priceless.

DC Follows Suit

Never had the issue of drug use been in the world of comics. That was until it appeared in an early 1971 issue of The Amazing Spider-Man. By the end of silver age, DC Comics had watched Stan Lee and Marvel break new ground and revolutionize the comic industry. Sales of their main characters declined, and Marvel had the majority of the market during the bronze age of comics.

Following suit to the drug use issue that Marvel brought to light in Spider-Man, DC followed suit with an illegal drug use storyline by Dennis O'Neil and legendary artist Neal Adams in Green Lantern/Green Arrow #85. In this comic issue, Green Arrow's sidekick, Speedy, was depicted as a heroin addict.

DC Comics also followed Marvel's suit during the bronze age by introducing the social issues of racism and civil rights. Marvel had long brought this subject to the attention of comic book readers with the famous mutant team The X-Men.

While DC Comic characters had dealt with little social issues before - such as Superman comics addressing child abuse and worker's rights - never did their characters have a drinking problem like Iron Man's Tony Stark or did their characters reflect the issues of being a "minority" like in the X-Men comics.

Marvel Comics was even ahead of DC when it came to diversity. Marvel introduced the first black superhero in mainstream comics - The Black Panther during the silver age. The first African-American superhero was once again put out by Marvel Comics as Captain America's partner The Falcon was also introduced in the silver age. DC Comics did not introduce their first African-American superhero until 1971 with Black Racer in Jack Kirby's New Gods #3.

However, even though DC Comics started to introduce social issues and went with slightly darker themes to compete with Marvel Comics, they did revolution the industry during the bronze age.

The first was with comic books industry practices. In an attempt to draw more talent to come work for them, DC Comics broke the industry work-for-hire concept and offer royalties to comic artists and creators. Before, all artists and creators worked for a flat fee and signed away all rights. Though, they were not the first to do this, as much smaller independent comic companies such as Eclipse Comics already practiced this "royalty" concept, DC's move to do this with it's creative artists set the practice as an "Industry standard."

The second way DC Comics revolutionized the industry is by creating the concept of the limited series. While competing with Marvel, there strategy was to flood the market with new superheroes and more spin-off titles of their more popular superheroes. Many of these new titles started off strong but would later fizzle out. To test a new character's strength and popularity, DC Comics would put that hero in a limited series.

Learn More About the History of Marvel Comics

Learn More About DC Comics History

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    • Taranwanderer profile image

      Taranwanderer 2 years ago

      Wow...I did't know half this stuff. Good read!

    • Taranwanderer profile image

      Taranwanderer 2 years ago

      Wow...I did't know half this stuff. Good read!

    • rabbit75 profile image
      Author

      rabbit75 5 years ago

      Well SkeetyD, thanks for dropping by anyway and commenting. Glad you did like the paragraphs you did read to be interesting. Actually, the whole history of DC Comics and Marvel Comics and how they both influenced each other is really interesting.

    • SkeetyD profile image

      SkeetyD 5 years ago from Barbados

      Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to read the whole article but I love comic books, especially Marvel Comics and I found the paragraphs I did read to be very interesting

    • rabbit75 profile image
      Author

      rabbit75 5 years ago

      Thanks montecristo, I enjoyed writing this one a lot, and I enjoyed reading your article as well.

    • montecristo profile image

      Angel Caleb Santos 5 years ago from Hampton Roads, Virginia

      Wow! Awesome information. Great article. Voted up!

    • rabbit75 profile image
      Author

      rabbit75 5 years ago

      Thanks Steve...I think the history of comics is pretty interesting...especially when it gets into the superhero genre. That's really cool that they started a graphic novel collection in the UK with multi-issue stories...it's a great way to read all the great old stories without having to handle the comics in your own collection. That's for interesting and vote up.

    • Steve Lensman profile image

      Steve Lensman 5 years ago from London, England

      Wow a very interesting, informative hub, thanks! I agree with what you say, both companies are indispensible doesn't matter if one is more popular than the other. And despite their rivalry they joined forces a few times in the past, I remember a Superman vs Spiderman comic back in the 70's, I still have it somewhere, a large-sized issue. And others came later.

      Here in the UK they've started a fortnightly Marvel graphic novel collection, multi-issue stories in a hardback book and I've started collecting them. Brings back memories!

      Voted Up and Interesting.