Mark your calendars. February 2022 was the first time in a long time Marvel Comics and DC engaged one another as comic book publishers.
And it may and probably will be the last time they engage one another as comic book publishers for a long while.
Because despite the temporary and limited reprieve due to an extraordinary circumstance, what was once a storied, high-profile, sometimes-good natured/sometimes-not rivalry is for all intents and purposes kaput … history … an anachronistic remnant of a now bygone comic book era.
You know the terms – the ‘Distinguished Competition’ (Marvel’s coded term for DC) … ‘Crosstown Rivals’ (when they were actually across town from one another in New York City) … and the ‘Big Two’ (denoting their dominant market position among publishers that serve dedicated comic book stores called the Direct Market).
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For decades Marvel and DC were the Coke and Pepsi … the McDonald’s and Burger King … the Yankees and Red Sox of superhero publishers. And like those other three traditional rival pairings, one party more or less dominated the other for most of the history between them, and in this case, Marvel.
While there have been a few years in which DC sales have eclipsed Marvel sales or kept the horserace close, Marvel has been the market leader consistently, at least in sales to comic book shops.
And despite having a head start with iconic successes like the George Reeve Superman and Adam West TV shows, the Super Friends Saturday morning cartoon, and Christopher Reeves Superman and Michael Keaton Batman film franchises, Marvel has also come to dominate DC in terms of media adaptations of its properties in the 21st century. But that is a subject for another day.
The point is even if by sales the rivalry has been lopsided, DC is still the publisher of the iconic Wonder Woman, Batman, Superman, and Justice League, and what that rivalry with Spider-Man, the Hulk, the X-Men, and the Avengers means to fans helped create something memorable … something fun … something special.
And it wasn’t just comic book shop (and then message board and social media) talk about who had the better or stronger heroes or villains. The publishers themselves engaged in the rivalry … egged it on … which of course set things up for huge sales successes like 1996’s DC versus Marvel and its companion Amalgam and 2003-2004’s JLA/Avengers by Kurt Busiek and George Pérez when they could find their way to working with one another.
It was appointment comic book reading even for jaded fans, and in the case of Marvel versus DC (yes, the publishers traded turns whose name went first) and Amalgam, it came at a tenuous and much-needed time for the medium.
DC and Marvel even got so good at working together they even seriously contemplated swapping two characters for one another before the legal implications became too much to overcome.
And even when things got testy, the chemistry it created was additive … a net positive for the seemingly perpetually struggling Direct Market.
But that dynamic is no more and despite the faint pulse it seems like it has this month with the news the two publishers are cooperating with the help of the comic book charity the Hero Initiative to reprint 7000 copies of JLA/Avengers, the relationship is likely to stay that dormant for the foreseeable future.
JLA/Avengers is an extraordinary circumstance. I hesitate to use the common term about three large storms converging because there is nothing resembling ‘perfect’ about it.
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George Pérez, a giant of the industry who also happens to be a giant of a human being, disclosed his terminal cancer diagnosis, stating his doctors have advised him he has only months left to live. Pérez announced his fate to the comic book community with such grace and generosity of spirit, it would have been difficult for Marvel and DC to not reprint JLA/Avengers when such a gesture seemed so obvious from the start.
But that isn’t to take away from the fact they did, which was almost certainly complicated.
Now I’m not going to get into the limited print run today, that’s a conversation for another time and shouldn’t supersede the fact Pérez’s circumstance might have been the only one that could have broken the DC-Marvel silence in the limited way it has, and perhaps more extraordinarily as quickly as it did.
But the exceptions prove the rule and as welcome as the JLA/Avengers news was, it only contrasts with the recent history all the more.
The silence was deafening
The lack of anything resembling Marvel and DC’s historical back and forth and the absence of the good their combined power has the potential to do was particularly stark in the middle of 2020. The Direct Market was existentially threatened by the social distancing measures that dictated the closing of brick and mortar comic book shops and likely led to the dethroning of the once-dominant industry distributor Diamond.
But while Marvel and DC individually took notice, there was no hint of a joint response to crises or even reasons to think the thought occurred to either side.
In past decades, it might have been an opportunity for the two most powerful industry presences to find a way to work together to create a unique, unparalleled publishing event to help boost the fortunes of struggling retailers, but no such effort emerged (hey, we tried!)
In fact, the market has evolved so that there is little to anything tying the publishers together in any practical way at all making it difficult for even fans to keep a spark of a rivalry alive.
Most of the crossovers are decades old and out of print and as mentioned, even JLA/Avengers will only see 7000 new copies hit the market. And let’s also take a second to recognize while Marvel participated in releasing the JLA/Avengers news to the comic book press, the publisher has more or less been publicly silent about their participation.
As to other x-factors…
Marvel and DC don’t vie for the attention of the same distributor anymore. And any banter, friendly or pointed, has all but disappeared, a byproduct of the low PR profile and lack of public dialogue adopted by both publishers to varying degrees in recent years.
Why was the firewall between Marvel and DC built?
There are a few specific reasons, including geography, the now-lack of a centralized print distributor serving both publishers, the comatose state of the in-person comic book convention in which both publishers participate and compete for attention, and the practical implications of both publishers being owned by corporate giants and serving as some of their respective parent company’s most valuable intellectual property farms.
But most of all both publishers simply no longer have public spokespeople engaging in just about any (much less spontaneous) public dialogue other than carefully planned and approved promotion of specific comic books and characters.
In 2022 when a badly-worded tweet can cause an immediate backlash, Marvel and DC have seemingly made the decision that they’ll rarely risk having an executive, editor, or marketing spokesperson making anything that could even be considered a wave, and have also seemingly asked creators to mostly refrain from doing the same.
The DC-Marvel rivalry simply can’t exist in a vacuum, and there doesn’t seem to be any prospect of the seal being broken anytime soon for any other reason but to honor a legend before his passing.
We’ll get deeper into the reasons why another time, but for now we can at least feel a little good about JLA/Avengers and hold out hope that the project might get the emails or phone calls flowing from New York City to Burbank.
Just don’t hold out too much hope.