Posted December 20, 2012 by Emily King in Comics

DC and Marvel – there’s no point in competing with their comics

DC Marvel opinion pic 1 Superman
DC Marvel opinion pic 1 Superman

A couple of weeks ago I was lurking in a LinkedIn group dedicated to Comics and Graphic Novels and I happened to notice that someone, having linked to a blog post on the subject, was asking whether DC and Marvel will ever have “any real competition”. And perhaps, to someone who has only scratched the surface of what comics the world has to offer, it may seem that DC and Marvel don’t have any competition and never will.

Now, I haven’t been into comics, manga and graphic novels for very long. The love of these formats spans less than my obsession with videogames, but not by much. And while I may not be the kind of person who can tell you off of the top of her head how many different types of Kryptonite there are and what colours they happen to be (according to an entry on Wikipedia… lots), I can tell you that I believe The Death of Superman was too 90s for its own good and that Clark Kent becoming a blogger makes a lot of sense in today’s actual mediascape.

The blogger/web comic creator who originally spurred on my line of thought here may have focused on the return of Valiant this year – and it’s been a pretty big return – seemed to think that Valiant had failed to challenge “the big two”. And so I shall answer: “They were not meant to challenge them, because they don’t have to.” Thing is, Valiant’s current iterations of characters like Bloodshot, Archer and Armstrong are not extremely similar to the kinds of comics that DC and Marvel produce. Valiant isn’t a pure, superheroes focused publisher. In fact, with the way the new owners are treating the IP at the moment, Valiant is like a toned down version of TopCow (a publisher that the originator of this piece didn’t include in their overlook of new publishers from the 90s and didn’t attribute Witchblade to), a bit like Image, a bit like Dark Horse…

All those publishers that surfaced in the late 80s to early 90s who were fed-up with the constant barrage of superheroes and supervillains, fed-up with playing ball with the Comics Code Authority. And in a way, DC and Marvel had their own ways of breaking out of the CCA’s claws with the likes of their Vertigo and Epic Comics (respectively).

What I am trying to point out is that the main focus of Marvel and DC are their obsession with superhero, not creator owned, franchises. They’re narrow in terms of the scope of genres they mass market. And there are a lot of genres in comics and graphic novels. Is there any point in competing with Marvel and DC on the superhero genre? No, they’ve got it pretty well cornered. But non-fiction, the everyday/literary fiction, supernatural, horror, SF, war, western, crime, satire and political, abstract, post-modern, historical, adaptations, biographical, auto-biographical, etc – those are just some of the genres that Marvel and DC do not specialize in.

And with the rise of small press/indie publishing, crowdfunding and digital distribution – it’s not like people have to rely on just Image, Dark Horse, Top Cow, Valiant, 2000 AD and IDW to get their non-superhero comics. But also – despite it seeming like it’s been an age since comics started being published,  beyond satirical cartoons in newspapers and magazines – comic books and graphic novels are a relatively young format, something the comments on the LinkedIn discussion seemed not to realize.

To put this in some degree of historical context, how long it took older mediums to grow – between the likes of Daniel Defoe having one of the first novels ever published (Robinson Crusoe) to the one of the first proper horror novels being published (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) – we’re talking 99 years. And during that time, novels had managed to become an almost properly established form of mass media entertainment, but it wouldn’t be until the likes of Mark Twain and Charles Dickens (and other novelists of their time) that novels really became popular (that’s more than 110 years from the publication of Robinson Crusoe).

(Note: I’m not bringing in films, TV and videogames on purpose. Film was able to build on theatre (which has existed for millennia), but games and TV go against the public nature of the latter, hence what I think is a deep seated cultural bias against them, plus the fact that videogames have suffered from being infantalised, because it’s long been held that adults are not meant to “play”.)

While it may not look like anyone can compete with DC and Marvel in terms of sales, the format is still relatively young with the American comic book format not coming into existence until the 1930s. Meanwhile, manga, which is hugely popular in Japan and a mainstream entertainment product, has been going since before Frankenstein was published. Manga also has a hugely diverse range of genres, like novels.

No one may ever really compete with Marvel and DC on the superhero front, but there’s still time for comic books and graphic novels to properly ascend to the podium of actual mass popularity and the sales that brings.

Emily King

Games, film and comics lover, I'm helping out with comics coverage here & I'm behind the Nerds Assemble podcast.