Kapow! Whap! Bam!

When Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War was scheduled to hit theaters the same day in 2016 as longtime rival DC’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the internet exploded like warring factions in a superhero comic over the cinematic throwdown.

Reed Tucker ’95 grew up on a steady diet of the whap and bam of the comics.

“All these people took sides, and there was arguing back and forth and name-calling — I loved it,” said journalist and film critic Reed Tucker ’95, who grew up on a steady diet of the whap and bam of the comics. “I remember kids on the playground having those same kinds of fights. Who’s better: Marvel or DC? Can Superman beat the Hulk? All these other ridiculous things kids argued about.”

But the fury over the battle for comics world domination made Tucker — who previously wrote about superheroes (Tar Heels) versus supervillains (Blue Devils) in his 2012 book, Duke Sucks — think it would make for a great book. His deep dive into the rivalry resulted last year in Slugfest: Inside the Epic 50-Year Battle Between Marvel and DC.

DC pioneered the superhero genre in 1938 with the debut of Superman at the dawn of the comic book medium, dominating sales for decades. In 1961, Marvel changed the way superhero stories are told, giving its heroes imperfections, exemplified with its flagship character, Spider-Man.

Ever since, the two publishers have battled for supremacy not only on the printed page but on the big screen, and not only entertaining fans but impressing critics and Oscar voters: This year, Marvel’s Black Panther contended for the Academy Award for best picture and Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse won for best animated feature. As this year’s cosmic clashes begin hitting the multiplexes, Tucker talked with the Review about the backstory of the battle of the titans.

What was the best part of writing this book?

Interviewing people who worked in the [comic book] industry years. It was such a fascinating time back then, when comics were still really underground and disreputable. These people were often taking these jobs because they couldn’t get any other jobs. … They never really thought anything would become of it, which is why in part there’s a lot of fighting about who did what or who created what. These days it’s because nobody can remember anything back in the day because they never thought people would be talking about it 50 years later.

How have comics shed their disreputable image to infiltrate the mainstream?

The movies have given the comics medium a respectability it never had. My theory is the people who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s reading comics are now in their 40s and 50s and making films. Comics offer two things movies are really after these days. One is a built-in audience and a known brand. Spider-Man, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman all have that. … These movies with big special effects are the tentpole films making money around the world. That’s why Hollywood is leaning on them so heavily. Once one succeeds, you’ll obviously get many more until Hollywood’s completely burned out the genre. I try to explain to people in their 20s just how dark, underground and grubby comics used to be. … Now these characters are worth billions of dollars. It’s a real shock for me to see how far the industry has come.

Which is winning the battle in the movie boom: money or creativity?

Creativity. Along with creativity, comes money. Marvel’s demonstrated that well. Their movies are incredibly well-written and well-directed. … I’ve got to hand it to Marvel: They’ve done wonders with their cinematic universe. DC, on the other hand, has not. I don’t think they know how to present these characters. Marvel’s really good at taking these characters, distilling what’s interesting about them and putting it up on screen.

DC struggles in the movies, but Marvel struggles on TV. Why?

[One of] DC’s strengths is, “If you want to consume these characters, we want to give you as many different versions and ways to consume them as possible.” So if you like Batman but don’t like Ben Affleck’s Batman, no problem — there’s Lego Batman and the animated Batman. … Marvel has shot themselves in the foot — they’re only presenting one universe. The Daredevil you see on TV is in the same universe as the Avengers when you see them in the movies. When you watch those TV shows, you wonder where the Avengers are. Those shows, to me, feel a little bit small. Agents of SHIELD feels like a D-story cut from one of the Avengers movies. … That’s where they’ve gone wrong.

Marvel’s Stan Lee, co-creator of Spider-Man, was a key figure in building the comics industry. What impact do you think his death in 2018 will have?

I don’t think any. He hasn’t contributed anything to Marvel in decades. … I’m not taking anything away from him. He definitely had vision. … His current work didn’t affect pop culture as much now as it did in the 1960s. Filmmakers will continue to mine his old stuff.

Tucker reports Stan Lee’s secret formula for overtaking DC in the ’60s: “We were smarter than they were.” Lee got intelligence about DC’s strategy to copy what it thought was Marvel’s secrets to its best-selling comics, speculating that it was the plethora of word balloons and the color red splashed on the covers. As DC employed those tactics, Lee cut way back on cover words and cut out red entirely. “It didn’t make any difference in the sales,” Tucker quotes Lee as saying. “It must have driven them crazy. We played this little game for months. … They never caught on.”

— Kurt Anthony Krug


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