It began as a playground argument for Reed Tucker, who can remember schoolyard battles over which was better, Marvel or DC Comics, or whether Hulk could whup Superman. But the idea for a book about the creators of his childhood heroes didn’t come until 2016, when Time Warner–owned DC Entertainment threatened to release its long-awaited superhero movie Batman v. Superman on the same day as the Disney-owned Marvel Studios blockbuster Captain America: Civil War. The internet exploded.
Tucker’s resulting Slugfest: Inside the Epic 50-Year Battle Between DC and Marvel (Da Capo Press, $27), lays out the rivalry between these behemoths, beginning with DC inventing the superhero in 1938, with Superman, followed quickly by Marvel’s debut of the Human Torch in 1939. Competition deepened in the ’60s, when Marvel’s Stan Lee introduced the superhero to the sort of real world anxieties college students could relate to. By the mid-’80s, with DC’s reboot of Batman and the limited release of Watchmen, those worlds—on page and behind the scenes—got very dark indeed.
We spoke to Tucker about Slugfest a month before Marvel and DC face off in theaters again, this time with Thor: Ragnarok and Justice League.
Did your appreciation for comics grow as you worked on the book?
Oh, for sure. It’s hard to convey how marginalized comic books have been for most of their existence. They were considered trash, disposable. In the ’50s, Congress held hearings about the detrimental effects of reading them. So it’s amazing to me to see that comics are now [entrenched] in mainstream culture. Superheroes dominate the box office and TV—which is even crazier when you consider many of the early characters were dashed off quickly by journeymen writers and artists who never imagined their work would survive beyond the month the issue was on newsstands. But they created something so cool, so appealing and compelling, that here we are decades later enjoying this stuff, albeit often in media outside of comic books.
Even Martin Scorsese is making a Joker origin movie! What accounts for the profound obsession we have with superheroes and supervillains?
Part of it is that superheroes are treated in a mature fashion on screen, whereas previously they were considered kiddie fare. The head of DC in the ’70s, Jenette Kahn, used to pitch to Hollywood, only to be told superhero movies wouldn’t appeal to anyone but children and mentally stunted adults. Studios laughed at a serious Batman film. Today’s studio executives grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, after comics had become smarter and more sophisticated. The bar was raised by Alan Moore’s Watchmen in 1986 and Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns that same year [both are DC]. First-rate visual effects help.
DC and Marvel are fiercely protective of their brands. What happened when you approached them about the book?
Very politely, they were having no part of it. I guess I understand, though the subject’s not all that controversial.
You still managed to interview 75 people, including Marvel’s Stan Lee and artist Neal Adams, who helped reimagine Batman as a violent, brooding vigilante. Is there anyone you would have liked to speak to that you didn’t?
Bill Jemas. He was Marvel’s president in the early 2000s. He came from a job with the NBA and loved rivalries, and he was determined to ramp up the feud. It resulted in the ugliest period in Marvel vs. DC’s history. Jemas even wrote a 2002 comics series, Marville. Ostensibly, it was a parody of Superman, but the sole reason was to bash the competition. The opening page in issue No. 1 reads, in part, “Marvel’s Distinguished Competition (DC Comics) is run by a man named Paul Levitz who fights a never-ending battle to keep his business obscure.” It’s hard to believe Marvel published that.
What else surprised you? There were several instances of spying over the years. The best was probably in 1971, when DC suspected one of its employees was leaking secrets to fanzines and Marvel. The head of DC launched an honest-to-God counter-espionage operation, code-named Blockbuster, in which he created a fake memo about the company’s plans to publish gigantic 500-page comics. He then left it in his outbox. Sure enough, the spy took the bait, and soon there was talk over at Marvel of doing 500-page comics.
Marvel and DC had creative ways of undermining each other. For example, Marvel introduced a character in 1964 called Wonder Man that ticked off DC, who thought it sounded too close to Wonder Woman. So Marvel agreed to kill off Wonder Man. Then DC unveiled a hero called Power Girl just a few years after Marvel introduced Power Man, so Stan Lee exacted payback by reviving Wonder Man. One of the few times the companies collaborated, weirdly enough, is on the trademark for the word superhero. DC and Marvel filed jointly for ownership and still sue people who try and use it.
There were also “talent wars,” vying for stars like Wolverine co-creator Len Wein, who died last month. Yes. During the boom years—the late ’80s and early ’90s—some top writers and artists were raking in millions. X-Men writer Chris Claremont literally bought a plane!
Before they were acquired by conglomerates, the houses had very distinct cultures. Where would you have wanted to work? No contest: Marvel. They’ve always had a more laid-back culture, with wrestling matches and silly string fights in the hallways. DC was button-down. Somebody described the offices as out of Mad Men.