Slugfest: Inside the Epic, 50-year Battle Between Marvel and DC by Reed Tucker
Once upon a time, Reed Tucker reminds us in Slugfest: Inside the Epic, 50-year Battle Between Marvel and DC, comic book fans might come to blows over the great dividing question of their time: Are you Marvel or DC? This may seem a strange debate for those who are now living through what could easily be called the Age of Marvel, as their ubiquitous heroes dominate our screens both large or small. It’s nearly impossible, after all, to go to the theater or turn on a network/cable/streaming TV channel and not come across some Marvel character flying, tromping, or speeding across the screen. Nor was Marvel-DC much of a debate in my own youth, as I grew up reading comics in the late 60s/early 70s, when upstart Marvel had beaten the staid DC almost to its knees. I didn’t know anybody who read DC on a regular basis, and though we might occasionally dabble in a Justice League here or a Green Lantern there out of short-lived curiosity, our assemblage of random DC comics wouldn’t have outnumbered even our collection of Classics Illustrated, let alone Marvel. The times, and fortunes, may be a-changin’ once again, though, now that DC has shown signs of television life with a successful series of small-screen shows, and is revving up its heroes for a big screen assault on the Marvel entertainment fortress. Which makes this a good time to take a closer look at how these two behemoths got to this point. And I’d be hard pressed to offer up a better examination of that strangely twisting journey than Tucker’s Slugfest.
True, a good part of what Tucker offers up is probably familiar to comic book fans who have read other books on comics or the companies’ own histories, but Slugfest’s sharp focus on the relationship between the two (as opposed to a more generalized history of the form or business), as well as Tucker’s skill at plucking out the wonderfully quirky little twists in the story or those humanizing details with regards to the figures involved, makes this an easy book to recommend even for those who know some of the background.
Tucker informs us in his introduction that he has “no dog in the Marvel vs. DC fight. I don’t read comics from either these days,” though he does confess he prefers the Marvel movies (he’s far from alone in that judgement, which is pretty much consensus opinion). His general thesis throughout is that DC corporate personae often hindered its attempts to take on the less conservative, more nimble Marvel, a point he supports with a myriad of examples and quotes.
Slugfest opens with a general discussion and a history of both comics, running from the introduction of Superman and his quick-to-follow imitators to DC’s dominance with Wonder Woman, The Flash and others, to a dip in sales then the Silver Age rejuvenation, followed by Marvel’s explosive and transformative creativity under Stan Lee and Jack Kirby as they introduced in short order The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, The Hulk, and the rest. Tucker does a good job of concisely explaining just how revolutionary these stories were in terms of characterization (troubled, realistic), setting (a shared universe), and visuals (dramatic, dynamic). As he says, “Marvel’s art was a double espresso, DC’s was like a pleasant green tea” (Tucker regularly shows a deft hand at the biting analogy/phrasing).
As noted, much of this kind of history will be familiar to fans, even if it’s all handled smoothly and entertainingly. And the same holds true when we shift into the boom years of the comics speculation bubble, the plunge afterward, and the rebirth via film. Where Slugfest shines, though, is when Tucker dives into the details.
Some of those have to do with the nitty gritty business details. Somehow Tucker manages to make even the nuts and bolts of return sales, pay scales, sales data, real estate value, and distribution interesting. More fascinating, though, are the inside-the-building details on the competition, such as the way the jacket-and-tie corporate editors over at DC could never wrap their heads around just why that upstart down the street was winning, even when their own writers were trying to tell them via meetings and memos. These first-hand accounts are wonderful, especially as so many of the people worked at both (some forced to do so under pen names so as not to get fired by their main employer).
Tucker also highlights some intriguing “what-ifs” and coincidences (or not). Such as the similar characters Man-Thing and Swamp-Thing (both swamp monsters). Or how both Marvel and DC had a story of a super-hero group led by a “wheel-chair bound genius … gathering a team of misfits to fight crime.” One, of course, went on to become one of the most successful comics of all time (The X-Men). The other disappeared into history only to be brought back to life here. Just as fun are the ways each company tried to poach the others’ talent (DC even snuck Stan Lee away for a time), tried to employ spies to find out what the other was working on, or, via some mischievous writers, snuck in visual/textual references to the other’s superheroes in their own stories (as opposed to the official crossover events that eventually occurred and then were halted in a more hostile period).
Employing an ear for good stories, effective use of plentiful quotes and first-person accounts, a willingness to bore down into the details, concise and smooth prose with a flair for funny or acrid phrasing, Tucker has taken a subject that might have been a bit stale and breathed new life and new substance into it via Slugfest. Highly recommended.