The title says it all: Slugfest: Inside the 50-year battle between Marvel and DC. Never have I read a non-fiction book with so many descriptions of conflict and deception. By the final page I felt as though I had done 15 rounds in a boxing ring. Tucker, a Brooklyn (New York) based journalist, has written a detailed history of Marvel and DC’s roles in the volatile comic book industry that he describes as ‘continuously ping-ponging between elation and despair’. The book’s dedication gives a clue to the tone and content that will follow: ‘To the fans who, for decades, have been tirelessly litigating this issue with their voices, keyboards – and occasionally their fists.’ I’m pleased that Tucker used the gender-neutral term ‘fans’ in his dedication, given the frequent assumptions and assertions throughout the book that all comic book fans are male.
If you’re a comic book reader – or even if you’re not – you’re likely aware of the long-standing rivalry between the two giants: Marvel and DC. Tucker’s book chronicles the ups and downs they have both experienced, alongside the shift in how comic books have been perceived over time, and the impact of political, cultural and technological changes on the industry. The ‘iconic trinity’ of DC’s Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman – and other key characters, such as Marvel’s Spider-Man – have survived both on and off the page, and their longevity now seems assured. It’s also interesting to read about characters that sank without a trace (or in some cases never made it to a first issue). They include Brother Power the Geek, The Hawk and the Dove, the Galaxy Green warrior women, Steel and Vixen.
Superman debuted in 1938, with limited powers. Unable to fly, he could however leap one-eighth of a mile. Tucker explains how Superman – and a raft of subsequent action heroes – offered ‘inexpensive escapist entertainment’ to North American readers during the challenging times of the Great Depression and the threat of war.
Not everyone was happy about the rapid growth of comic books, which were thought to be trashy and disreputable. Journalists, psychiatrists and other critics blamed comics and their ‘poisonous effects’ for the rise of the ‘bad behaviour’ of young people. In 1954, a Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency convened a hearing on the evils of comic books. In response, the industry produced a code of conduct outlining core values and standards for details such as titles, depictions of violence and costumes. Not all publishers could adhere to the code and many went out of business.
The early comic book readers were perceived to be either very young children or older people who ‘weren’t too bright’, according to Stan Lee (an influential Marvel identity who eventually worked for DC too). The same was true in New Zealand. Some of us can still remember Bob Jones’s public graffiti belittling a Labour Party opponent: ‘[This prominent Labour party politician] reads comics’ it read; see Bollinger (2017).
Tucker analyses comic book characters, the people who draw and voice them, and the artwork itself. The artwork is traditionally a key point of differentiation between one publisher and another, even though an artist’s creativity may be constrained by prevailing house styles. Tucker describes the initial DC characters as bland and steady do-gooders, compared with Marvel’s three-dimensional superheroes who had real-world problems and anxieties.
Tucker covers marketing strategies, print runs and distribution tactics, the emergence of brand identities, trends to watch (hello, martial arts), price increases, optimal page counts and the catastrophic effects of weather on delivery schedules during winter. He tells of territorial wars, accusations of plagiarism and spies, defections, hiring and firing dramas, poaching, friction and competition. Apparently insults and punches were frequently traded. Writers were seen as disposable, like oranges: ‘You squeeze them until there’s no juice left then you throw them away.’ Certain executives are described variously as a ‘world-class jerk… [with a] foul temperament’, a ‘grouchy and demanding…crusty…curmudgeon’, ‘abusive…notoriously difficult… [with a] volcanic temper’, and a ‘prickly…vindictive…bad-mouthing…prick’. And worse. Perhaps it’s no wonder that some former workers are described as bitter, and there are stories about the lingering ‘bad blood’ and ‘screw you’ attitudes that followed the departure or defection of key personnel.
Despite the intense rivalry, there have been several successful crossover co-productions, with labour divided between Marvel and DC. For one such publication, Superman vs. The Amazing Spider-Man: The Battle of the Century (1976), Marvel provided the penciller and the colourist, and DC offered the skills of a writer, an inker and a letterer.
Comic book tie-ins emerged as early as 1940, when character-themed merchandise included shirts, soap, pencil sets, belts and watches. Later, licensing and cross-promotion strategies brought in staggering revenue streams. The 1989 Batman film is reported to have generated an estimated $US750 million in merchandising sales. Products ranged from action figures and cereals to tortilla chips and satin jackets. Artists and many others associated with Batman soon became ‘filthy rich’.
Tucker acknowledges that the comic book industry was historically dominated almost exclusively by ‘old white guys’. Nevertheless, this book misses opportunities to acknowledge the work carried out by women in the industry. For example, there is only a passing reference to Marie Severin, a pioneering artist and colourist who at one time had the final word on every cover coming out of Marvel. Her contribution was significant as cover art was critical to ensuring an issue’s success.
I found the often male-centric language and tone – and some turns of phrase – off-putting. For example, why describe DC comics as being ‘suddenly as attractive as syphilis’? Why feature a quote reporting that executives ‘squabbled like two old ladies’? One editor apparently ‘went to the bathroom and puked’ when he heard that the next person to lead DC was to be a young woman, Janette Kahn. Kahn, who was well-educated, experienced and clearly the right person for the role, soon proved to be a ‘fresh and energetic…presence’. Her immediate goals were not only to improve the comics but also to treat the writers and artists with more respect.
As well as female industry executives, female characters such as Super Woman and Wonder Woman have played key roles in comic book history. There have also been many other female characters along the way, such as Wonder Girl, Marvel Girl and Elasti-Girl. (Curiously, I note that in the closing acknowledgments Tucker offers both thanks and apologies to his wife.)
Notes accompany each chapter for readers who would like to learn more, with full references linked to key quotes. There’s a fairly comprehensive although not all-inclusive index; some minor characters referenced in the book do not appear in the index. If you’ve ever wondered what DC stands for, Tucker provides both official and unofficial explanations. The range and scope of topics covered is impressive, although tighter editing of some of the verbatim conversations may have made for a better read.
Tucker makes it clear that this is an industry where ‘conflict equals audience engagement’. Indeed, fans are reported as thriving on the conflict that persists to this day between Marvel and DC. Tucker entertains the possibility that there is room for both companies to succeed, although he also notes the risk that DC’s superhero universe may yet suffer ‘a slow, sad descent into irrelevance’. He observes that the industry is heading into new, uncertain directions, having had to remain resilient and resourceful in the face of the decline of print media.
Slugfest would first and foremost appeal to comic-book fans, but may also attract readers interested in the history of publishing, pop culture, superhero movies, and comic book characterisation. It also includes lessons about office politics, divided loyalties, and marketing practices and strategies – if you don’t mind a book where four-letter words, misogynistic comments and put-downs abound. One surprise: the book contains no images other than the cover art and the starburst at the beginning of each chapter.
Reviewed by Anne Kerslake-Hendricks
Slugfest: Inside the 50-year battle between Marvel and DC
by Reed Tucker
Published by Sphere