Around this time last year during C2E2 — the busy, sprawling Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo held each spring at McCormick Place — we spoke with the heads of DC Comics and Marvel Entertainment. We told them that, because we're curious, we would soon be bringing up an age-old question, a schoolyard tussle without a satisfactory answer.
The question: Which is better, DC or Marvel?
Their eyebrows raised, they chucked nervously — or was that condescendingly? (A truncated version of those conversations, lending context to that ultimate question, appears on these pages.) See, there may be many comics publishers now — Image, Dark Horse, IDW — but DC and Marvel have never loosened their grip on the comic book zeitgeist, the pop cultural ear. Certainly, they're still the two largest exhibitors at this year's C2E2, which begins 11 a.m. Friday. And so, with all of this in mind, we put together a poll of 25 questions and sent it to an assortment of Chicago comic book fans, comic book store owners, artists and writers. And then we waited.
The results, detailed below, were not intended to be definitive. We would not pretend to think we have answered what has been for many, for many decades, an existential conundrum. But it was fun.
Dan DiDio, co-publisher, DC Comics
Q: Demographically, who reads DC?
A: It's all over the place.
Q: Oh, come on, you know.
A: We don't give specifics, but 20 and older, the almost-graduating-college crowd and beyond. We know the ones who read then tend to get more loyal as they age. We also have a growing number of female readers.
Q: The New 52 has been really popular, but when DC launched the New 52 in 2011, basically resetting the needle to zero on every character and relaunching 52 titles, how nervous was DC?
A:The defining moment was when we realized “Detective Comics” — Batman — never actually had an issue No. 1, Batman-wise. (It didn't introduce the character until issue No. 27.) The plan was to continue numbering that as usual, but we heard back (from research divisions), “No, as long as the usual number of the comic continues, readers will think we can go back to the way it was.” And we would not. The goal wasn't to reinvent the wheel, but just get these characters back to what they were originally known for. Remember, there was years of storytelling built up, characters aging, talent aging. We get caught up in generational conceits. But can you get back to the place that you evolved away from?
Q: But could you improve on them? I bet Superman is a problem.
A:Superman is always a problem. He is a tough character to write. Wonder Woman too. People felt differently about things when they were created. Attitude and cultures change, but these characters are these characters. So, you start to look at what about them is timeless, what resonates, and build from there.
Q: Are there fundamental things about superhero comics that no longer work?
A: The sidekick thing. We keep that in Batman because it's so intrinsic to the character. Also, for some people, thought balloons don't work. And we certainly can't get away with some of the stories we might have at one time. The audience is well-read generally now and won't sit still for the superficial and shallow. On the other hand, you don't want things lock step with reality, because this is, eventually, about people in suits.
Q: But the latest round of Batman movies, for instance, have been so successful rooting these worlds within a recognizable world. Do DC Comics have to reflect on that as well now?
A: Depends. Batman is interesting because he is the most flexible character we have. You can put him at a courthouse or you can put him on the moon, and he does not look out of place. Superman? Not as flexible.
Q: What's your most underrated character?
A: The easy answer is Aquaman, and what Geoff Johns (a DC writer, as well as DC chief creative officer) did in the New 52 is take those decades of jokes about him and build a story about perception: He's in the culture, he's been around since the 1940s, he's incredibly powerful, and yet generally considered a joke.
Q: Big, profound question: Ever consider yourself a custodian of our contemporary myths?
A:You know, I feel like a renter, to be honest. I'm in charge at this moment, and the goal is to keep these myths healthy enough so that, eventually, you can pass them down to the next person who rents them.
Joe Quesada, chief creative officer, Marvel Entertainment
Q: Is it hard to launch a new character now?
A: I don't think it's harder or easier. People ask me why we can't create the next Spider-Man, but, hell, if we could, we would. The thing is, even the incubation period for some of the best-known characters is long. Superman was an immediate hit when he was created, but the rest, they have to work their way through the zeitgeist it seems. It's rare that a character worms his way into the public consciousness right away.
Q: But it's tough going past the blue-chip characters.
A: Yes, but it's never easy with a blue-chip, either.
Q: After a character moves past a certain age, there's always a degree of updating that happens.
A: Well, the Marvel Universe takes place in the real world, so characters have to reflect what is happening in the real world. As long as we do that, I think, we're fine. But Peter Parker, the persona, has been consistent since the 1960s. He may be social networking now, but he is schlubby to an extent, can't catch a break. It still doesn't make his life easier to have these powers. That's the beauty of what (Marvel) was founded on: Superman was a facade, Batman a facade, but Stan Lee and others said, “No, the alter ego should be the biggest element in these stories.” The best superhero stories we tell are alter-ego stories in disguise.
Q: As a casual comics reader, I have to say: I find the Marvel and DC universes way too big. To just, say, read an X-Men comic now, you have to decide between a zillion X-Men titles.
A: And at DC, that's true of Batman. But believe it or not, we wouldn't have as many Spider-Man titles if Spider-Man didn't sell. Marvel is in the business of making money at the end of the day, and I don't think that's a sin. Nothing would make me happier than a B-level character getting their own book, but 9 out of 10 times that character doesn't sell, but fans always buy a new Wolverine book. There is no magic trick to this. There are times when we love a product so much we put it out there, but you can't run a business that way.
Q: Do you find more people wait for the collected books of issues now than buy individual issues?
A: That's an interesting question, because when I started as editor in chief nine years ago, we were not into collecting issues together as paperback editions, not as much as everyone else was. We lagged behind. My feeling now is there are several audiences: The reader who wants the monthly fix; the customer like yourself, interested but can wait for the collected-in-one-place books; and a third reader who does both. The more important question to us now is, what about digital? Does it replace the whole shebang or augment it?
Q: You don't see the hard copy completely vanishing?
A: This is a lot harder for a newspaper than a comic book publisher. The issue for us isn't advertising, it's piracy. But I think for the next 10 years at least, I see a hard copy, yes. Partly because there is that collectible angle, that emotional connection people retain with some comics. But then, 15 years from now … ?
Q: How far ahead is the Marvel Universe, storywise at least, plotted?
A: We are planned for two years, penciled in for three. But the publishing arm of Marvel is very turnkey. If the audience wanted romance comics tomorrow, we could be doing that within six months. And that's not a joke.
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