Origins of a Marvel Fanboy
That being said, I remain in my heart a Marvel fanboy. The reason, as is so often the case amongst the comic fans of the world, dates back to my introduction to comics.
As a wee tadger in the late seventies and early eighties, I was exposed to the standards from both companies. Superman, Batman, The Amazing Spider-Man, and Fantastic Four were the most common funnybooks you’d find on my bedroom floor. How I remember them from yonder days can best be summed up with a hypothetical.
Monstroso the Giant Robot Earwig is attacking [insert city name]! [Insert superhero] has attacked the beast head-on and been rebuffed, his body smacked into a building! What’s the first thing that comes into the hero’s mind as he climbs from the rubble?
SUPERMAN: “Great Rao! I’ll use my super-[insert power] to hurl the Giant Robot Earwig into the depths of space and into the heart of the sun!”
BATMAN: “Hmm…I’ll have to head to the Batcave and develop the Bat-[unstoppable super weapon]! I’ll stop this beast yet!”*
SPIDER-MAN: “Oh come on! How the heck am I supposed to stop that thing? It’s bigger than Shea Stadium!”
The DC heroes met setbacks with iron-jawed resolution. The Marvel heroes met setbacks with exasperation, then iron-jawed resolution. That moment of hesitation added a lot.
The iconic heroes of DC were undaunted by the dangers they faced. The Marvel heroes were daunted—but they saved the day anyway. Which inspires more? Perfection and victory, or imperfection overcome and victory?
This is not to say that DC didn’t later pick up on this idea. Nor that Marvel didn’t hose it up on occasion--the idea of imperfection proved easy to twist into great gaping flaws. Great gaping flaws are as boring as perfection.
But when we debate “Marvel Versus DC” in the abstract, it is this split that forms the core of the fight.
Scipio of the Absorbascon, a DC fan, sums it up nicely:
And, as I've mentioned before many times in my "DC vs. Marvel" tirades, I don't want heroes who make me feel better about who I am (à la Marvel); I want heroes who inspire me to better myself (à la DC). I don't want heroes who view their abilities as burdensome responsibilities (à la Marvel) but as wonderful opportunities (à la DC).
My counter-argument is to ask why would I want a hero whose experience is so alien to mine that we may as well be different species (à la DC), as opposed to a hero who lives in a world with the mixed messages I have to parse out myself (à la Marvel)?
The achievements of Superman and Batman were nothing to me beyond pure spectacle. Courage meant little to Superman, since he didn’t seem even capable of fear. The possibility of failure meant nothing to Batman, because he never failed. Right and wrong were always clear, the line between friend and enemy was obvious, and doing the right thing always brought reward and renown. Their problems were direct: The Joker is on the loose, Cheetah is kidnapping scientists, Luthor’s stolen the ocean, and so forth.
The achievements of Spider-Man and the Thing resonated better with Wee Harv. Courage mattered to them, because they felt fear. The Marvel heroes failed as often as they succeeded. On occasion they had to struggle just to figure out what the right thing to do was. Virtue wasn’t always rewarded. They even quit being superheroes in frustration a few times.
But they always came back, fought the good fight, and saved the day.
Take the moment often regarded as the Great Break in Marvel history: the death of Spider-Man’s girlfriend, Gwen Stacy. The moment is considered seminal in superhero comics for any number of reasons, such as permanent continuity changes, the “end of innocence,” and so forth. But what about its core? What is the story about?
Spider-Man does everything right, tries to save the love of his life, and she dies anyway. There was nothing he could have done. Being brave, being right, being heroic just wasn’t enough. Sometimes nothing is.
That’s some heavy shit to lay on a kid.
It’s also the way to reach a fan that more standard heroic tales cannot. The follow-up story is equally important: Spider-Man hunts down the Green Goblin and, in his rage, nearly murders the villain. But he does not, because his sense of ethics won’t let him. Confronted with the chance to indulge his desire for revenge, he struggles with himself and his better nature wins out.
That is heroism. It is inspiring, and illustrates how one can become a better person. Iconic heroes cannot match this inspiration, because the iconic heroes did not even acknowledge this struggle, much less fight it. Wee Harv recognized the problems instantly and drew from Spider-Man’s example. There Spider-Man was a hero fighting evil within and without, not just some dude in a funny suit punching out another guy in a funny suit.
Moreover, the fact that Gwen died despite Spider-Man's best efforts added an emotional flavor lacking in most comic stories, a hint of the tragic. The depths of tragedy provided a counterpoint to the heights of brightly-colored adventure, making both stronger.
Could it flop? Sure, and it often did, sinking into cheap pathos. But the flatness of old-style DC did not and does not strike me as preferable.
Looking over the giant reprint volumes that have come out recently has reinforced my opinion of ye olden comics. Old-style DC comics are full of fun and spectacle, but the struggles were only external, and thus of limited interest. Old-style Marvel was full of fun and spectacle, but the struggles were internal as well as external, adding a second dimension to the one-dimensional heroes of old.** (A full three dimensional superhero? Haven’t seen one yet.)
True, modern Marvel is dull and convoluted, and modern DC is a riot of awesomeness. I can’t deny it.
But it weren’t always so.
* That’s how Batman rolled Back in the Day. When was the last time he went back to the Batcave to construct something to defeat a bad guy? I’d kill to see a new issue of Detective Comics where Our Hero creates some sort of specialized “Bat-Dingus” to stop a rampaging dimetrodon in Gotham Park.
** Old-style Marvel also had a sense of humor. Not the bemused grins of DC, but full-fledged jokes and smartassery. This was no small draw for Wee Harv. Or for Big Harv, either.