Thursday, June 6, 2013

Worlds Apart: What if Marvel Never Merged With DC? by Ben Ronning

Entry for the DBWI Writing Contest.

It is almost impossible to imagine what the DC universe would look like if you did not see Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark attending the same cocktail parties or Spider-Man slinging with the Teen Titans yet such ideas would have been inconceivable thirty-five years ago. Marvel Comics seemingly brought DC, the giant that survived the moral panic that shut many of its competitors down in the fifties, to its knees in the sixties, struggled to stay afloat in the seventies, and vanished completely by the dawn of the eighties. Interestingly, Marvel’s demise did not come from the quality of its product but from deteriorating market and lack of editorial direction. The departure of Roy Thomas as editor-in-chief in 1973 left a gaping void within the company since there was no senior management to groom any replacement, which led to a revolving door of editor-in-chiefs and missed deadlines that came to a stop when Marvel’s parent company, Cadence Industries, suspended operations in 1981 and sold its assets to Warner Communications in 1983 in what many in the industry called a coup. However, the question of comic book aficionados and alternate historians is, “what if a more capable editor took the reins of Marvel Comics in the late seventies?” Would Marvel Comics still be in existence, and who could have been up to the task? One only needs to look to Jim Shooter for the answer.

Shooter was already something of a legend in the industry because he was the teenage prodigy who wrote the adventures of the Legion of Super-Heroes in Adventure Comics from 1966 to 1970. He had left the industry by time he reached maturity and despite a few brief forays throughout the seventies, he did not return to the fold until after Marvel had collapsed. By this time, several other professionals like Chris Claremont, Frank Miller, and Jim Starlin grew dissatisfied with DC’s policies towards freelancers who saw no benefits or royalties for the characters they had created. Shooter seized on this opportunity to attract these disaffected creators and exploit the burgeoning direct market by forming Epic Comics, which promised creators royalties should their title reach certain sales benchmark or if their if the character crossed over into licensed mediums like action figures and animated series. Had Shooter worked for Marvel in the late seventies it is likely that rising titles like Claremont’s X-Men would have possibly reached greater heights had the company not imploded. Many comic book historians and even Claremont himself admitted that The Outcasts was essentially a continuation of X-Men run but never regained its predecessor’s momentum. Even Frank Miller revealed that he meant for his hard-boiled revival of the Golden Age Daredevil to be a re-imagining of his Marvel namesake, which begs the question if Marvel missed out on a renaissance and what could have been if former Marvel staples like Iron Man, Spider-Man, and Thor remained with their mother company?

No doubt a revitalized Marvel would have had a ripple effects on its main competitor, DC Comics. While Epic’s titles enjoyed critical acclaim and robust sales, the company could not challenge the DC juggernaut, especially after the relaunch of several former Marvel titles (which all took place on Earth-4) reeled in old “Marvel Zombies.” However, sales became relatively stagnant in the mid to late eighties, as DC remained more or less complacent without any major competitors. Declining sales forced DC to completely reboot its entire line when Alan Moore, who ironically rose to prominence for his work on a character named Marvelman in the United Kingdom, destroyed the old DC Multiverse and folded all the characters in Twilight of the Superheroes in 1987. Would a viable Marvel forced a major change earlier? In my opinion, it would have. Many editors and writers complained that the concept of multiple universes was confusing with a Justice League on one earth, a Justice Society with older counterparts or copies on another earth, an evil “mirror universe” version of the Justice League on another, the Avengers on yet another, and so forth. A viable Marvel would have likely prompted such a drastic change perhaps two or three years before Twilight hit the shops and the newsstands of our world yet I will not complain as the event streamlined the DC line and renewed interest in its homegrown characters.

However, the liquidation of Cadence Industries in 1986 indicates that the company would have sold Marvel to a new owner but to who would be a good question. Take News Corporation’s acquisition of Epic Comics in 1992 as an example. Superheroes became big business in Hollywood in the wake of Batman’s blockbuster outing in 1989 and the buildup to James Cameron’s Spider-Man in the winter of 1993 after the massive success of Terminator 2 two years prior. Though Shooter had guided Epic with a steady hand for the better part of a decade, his dictatorial methods as an editor eventually alienated most of the industry’s talent. Alan Moore even sardonically compared Shooter to Hitler after his very public fallout with Epic in the late eighties. With sales declining in the early nineties, Shooter’s partners ousted him from the company and accepted News Corps’ buyout after a failed bid by Ron Perelman. Whereas Warner Bros. and DC touted Spider-man and the slightly darker Batman as family entertainment, 20th Century Fox wanted to bring the genre to the 18-34 demographic and gave Frank Miller free reign over the line. Many comic book fans view Frank Miller as one of the godfathers of deconstruction alongside Alan Moore but where the body of Moore work was both intellectual and subtle, Miller had all the refinement of a sledgehammer. Sentinels (based off of the Charlton characters Epic acquired in 1988) was the “forbidden fruit” of my generation because of the gratuitous violence and overt sexuality ostensibly meant for adults also titillated teenage boys by the hundreds of thousands and spawned countless imitators. Fans recollect the Epic Comics of this period as poorly written, extremely lowbrow, and almost absurdly horrendous portrayal of the human anatomy, which makes it a popular source of Internet memes to this day. It is hard not to find someone wearing a shirt with the infamous “Answer the Motherf***in Question!!!” panel silk-screened on it at a comic convention today.

Epic’s content drew ire from the usual suspects; evangelists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson called it “pornography” peddled to corrupt the morals of “Today’s” youth and found unlikely allies in the feminist movement who decried Miller’s treatment of women in the books. (An allegation that is impossible to dispute considering how Nightshade’s costume was essentially duct tape placed over her breasts and genitals.) Miller was defiant in the face of his detractors when he publicly criticized parents for not paying enough attention to what their kids were buying and that he was not their “godd**n babysitter.” The growing public furor raised interest in Epic Comics with Sentinels continuing to sell in the neighborhood of one million copies each issue and raised the profile of the film adaptation in the short term. Video games also came under intense scrutiny over the intense violence in games such as Mortal Kombat, and this combine Epic’s continued defiance towards its created the perfect storm that led to the moral crusades by the alliance of the Moral Majority, women’s, and parents’ groups. The nationwide boycott of comic books, video games, and other media deemed “unfit” for minors devastated both Epic Comics and forced hundred of comics specialty shops to go out of business. To make matters worse, the critically maligned 1996 Sentinels film flopped at the box office when it returned less than a third of its 75 million dollar budget. Roger Ebert famously remarked that, “This film is nothing more than pornographic snuff with special effects, and not enough good snuff at that.” The failure of Sentinels resulted in mass cancellations at Epic Comics and left a barren landscape of defunct publishers in its wake throughout the late nineties.

While comic fans did not witness a repeat of the 1954 Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency that saw the end of EC Comics forty years prior, the so-called “Epic Backlash” brought more rigorous control of content in the medium. The Comic Code Authority was no longer the “internal affairs” of the industry but a third party that enforced a rigorous ratings system where the Authority forced retailers to sell titles with “adult” content like Sentinels under the counter. While innocuous at first, the Comics Code Authority eventually earned a reputation as an industry censor when it rejected books deemed “subversive” after the terrorist attacks on Grand Central Station and Wall Street on September 9, 1999. For its part, DC Comics weathered the storm through its offering of “family entertainment” in contrast to Epic’s edgier offering. The Batman and Spider-Man sequels continued to turn a profit despite the mounting kitsch of the later films. It was only until recently the Edwards administration that the banality of the “vanilla” oughties is wearing off. DC Comics is finally experimenting again as new generation of writers ushered in an era of “reconstruction” in contrast to the postmodern deconstruction of eighties and nineties. Comics today borrow the imagination and weirdness from the innocent days of its Silver Age but with a subtle adult sensibility that would not have been possible fifteen years ago and it appears that the DC Juggernaut is invincible after the three-peat successes of Green Lantern, Flash, and Wonder Woman. A humbled Epic Comics is still in business today but relies more on licensed properties like Star Wars and nostalgia from its heyday to maintain its anemic twenty percent market share. Had Jim Shooter started at Marvel at that crucial period in the seventies I imagine we would see a completely different landscape in comics. While Spider-Man and Captain America retain their iconic status, some heroes like Thor and the X-Men fell by the wayside in the last thirty-five years. Perhaps The Avengers would have been the film to draw almost two billion dollars worldwide instead of Justice League.

But as Stan Lee famously said at a convention twenty years, “Just imagine.”

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Aspiring writer and platypus enthusiast Ben Ronning has lurked the boards since June 2006. When he is not roaming the multiverse, he can be found at his blog, Thoughts of a Platypus.

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