Review: Slugfest: Inside The Epic 50-Year Battle Between Marvel & DC
[Editor’s Note: This review may contain spoilers]
Author: Reed Tucker
Page Count: 304 pages
Publisher: Sphere (October 5, 2017)
Reviewed by: Seth Singleton
Over the years, the companies have deployed an arsenal of schemes in an attempt to outmaneuver the competition, whether it be stealing ideas, poaching employees, planting spies, ripping off characters or launching price wars. Sometimes the feud has been vicious, at other times, more cordial. But it has never completely disappeared, and it simmers on a low boil to this day.
This is the story of the greatest corporate rivalry never told. Other books have revealed elements of the Marvel-DC battle, but this will be the first one to put it all together into a single, juicy narrative. It will also serve as an alternate history of the superhero, told through the lens of these two publishers.
In my review: Slugfest: Inside The Epic 50-Year Battle Between Marvel & DC, nobody comes out looking good. Author Reed Tucker describes his perspective as someone who has enjoyed the benefits of a cushy job writing movie reviews for the New York Post.
While he knows that he did not grow out of the comic book age like many of his colleagues or friends, he no longer reads either Marvel or DC. Instead, Tucker prefers independent titles like Saga, Queen and Country, and The Walking Dead. I like the attempt to remain impartial, but I felt like he took the side of Marvel on more than one occasion.
Tucker’s introduction begins with a statement that his story, or the story he’s telling at least, is one about innovation. And that as much as we like to romanticize the comic book industry, it’s just that — an industry. More importantly, it’s a business. In fact, Art Spiegelman, Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist for Maus, is credited with calling comics “the bastard offspring of art and commerce.” Ouch.
The longstanding feud between DC and Marvel is an old grudge cemented in time. The kind where too much has been done and said. It started when DC became the biggest banana on the block. Upstart Marvel began writing flawed characters that were outcasts and loners. Readers identified with the raw and unpolished approach. The balance of power shifted.
Soon, Marvel was in charge and setting a course independent of its main competitor. DC struggled to catch up and found itself hampered by the very conventions that had made them so successful. Stubbornly refusing to recognize Marvel for the competitor they had become is a mistake that still haunts the brand.
By then the terms of coexistence had been established. Neither side was going anywhere, and but a war of attrition appeared endless. It reminds me of what Powers Booth says in Red Dawn, “I don’t know. Two toughest kids on the block, I guess. Sooner or later, they’re gonna fight.”
For the most part our story begins after the scrum of the 1940s. When DC became the last brand standing, it also monopolized the system. But a story without history is an incomplete narrative.
Interestingly, this is gold mine for anyone looking for greater insight. Tucker does a very impressive job researching the complete history of DC Comics. First as it began as National Comics and then detailing the merger that would lead to its name change and business structure.
In Tucker’s version, DC’s origin story begins in 1935. Former US Cavalry officer Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson was a pulp fiction writer who created New Fun Comics. The publication was notable among competitors because it was the first comic book to print original material. Many publishers at that time had been reprinting old funnies from collections or Sunday papers since at least the 20s.
Despite printing black and white tabloids, New Fun Comics is considered the first modern comic. Nicholson’s company was called National Allied Publications, and it released five issues and before running out of money.
To get more money, National partnered with Independent News. Independent was launched by Jewish immigrants Harry Donenfeld and his business partner Jack Liebowitz. The three men struck an agreement. Donenfeld and Liebowitz hoped to diversify Independent away from the girlie material it had been subsisting on. Donenfeld was trying to put an embarrassing history behind him, one that included publishing a photo of a naked woman in Pep!
Detective Comics, Inc.
The New York Citizens Committee on Civic Decency demanded a pound of flesh in the early days of the 1930s and Donenfeld was still paying for it. National offered a portfolio that expanded into the more innocent publishing arenas. Detective Comics, Inc. was born.
Nicholson’s continued money problems allowed his new partners to force him out in 1938. Donenfeld and Liebowitz now controlled the Detective, More Fun, and New Adventure titles. But it was the purchase of Superman for a mere $130 that would change destiny.
Through it all, Tucker presents layers of colorful dialogue that bring the story to life. From journals, interviews, and wide-ranging sources, the reader learns how more than one person felt in any given moment of the timeline. The impressive collection of cited sources and hearsay recreates the atmosphere of each time period.
It’s important to know that the history is not pretty. But it also points out the contrast between the not-quite-tawdry alliance that formed Detective Comics and the polished face it wanted to present in the decades to come. This would foreshadow a growing concern facing the industry.
The changing tide and viewpoints regarding comic books during its Golden Age brought trouble. According to Tucker, the first salvo came from newspaper writer Sterling North who published “A National Disgrace” in the Chicago Daily News in 1940. North called comic books “poisonous”.
He claimed to have examined 108 books available on the newsstand. He recounted finding, to his horror, that at least 70% contained “material that no respectable newspaper would accept.” North would go on to say that “Superman heroics, voluptuous females in scandalous attire, blazing machine guns, hooded ‘justice’ and cheap political propaganda would be found on almost every page.”
Tucker’s research includes other critics who piled on including Frederick Wertham, the notorious author of “Seduction of the Innocent“, which was published April 19, 1954. That was the same year that the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency investigated the “pernicious evils” of comics. Publishers held their breath.
The response was heartbreaking. In 1950 approximately 630 titles graced the news stands. That number dropped to just 250 by 1956. According to Tucker’s calculations this was a staggering 252% depreciation.
DC was one of the few publishers that managed to weather the crisis. According to Tucker, this was due in part to its family-friendly rep. Tucker points to the summer of 1941 when an in-house board was formed to ensure all content met “wholesome” moral standards. Twenty years later those guidelines became a millstone around the company’s neck.
The great fear of an insidious evil invading America’s youth tarnished the once lustrous age. The few who survived struggled to stay afloat. DC’s new position as the largest name in the game was advantageous, but it also came with an air of superiority that would eventually be its downfall.
There were still rivals. DC had made some leveraged decisions that often put competitors in an unfair position. In part, when Timely Comics lost two distributors in two months. Forced between a rock and a hard place, a deal was struck with the devil.
Timely was the second name that owner Martin Goodman called his company. The first was Atlas News Company which published its own content for five years. The third was Marvel.
But somewhere during the second and third name changes Goodman lost his distributor when American News Company abruptly closed. Before he relented and sold the rights to Captain America, Sub-Mariner, and the Human Torch, Goodman made one last desperate attempt to keep his company afloat.
In the spring of 1957 he inked a publishing deal with Independent News. A percentage of every Marvel book sold would go to DC’s bank account. At this point Marvel was trapped in a lose-lose predicament.
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
In walks the story of failed novelist, Stanley Lieber, aka Stan Lee. Lee started as a staffer/gopher for Atlas/Timely/Marvel. By the time he became a writer and artist, Lee learned to follow Goodman’s model of “let’s do what the other guys do.” From 1941 to 1961 Lee wrote the pale imitations of popular characters that Goodman required.
But 1961 was when Lee teamed with Jack Kirby to try something original. Kirby had just left DC after an ugly legal battle with an editor over royalties for a syndicated newspaper strip. The introduction of the Fantastic Four in 1961 quickly upset the status quo.
These were superheroes who fought each other and more would soon follow. The world where they lived was not the sanitized order that defined DC Comics since the conservative 1940s and 50s. The 60s were changing America’s identity and Marvel was the mirror of a growing sophistication in storytelling. DC executives called it melodrama.
Changing of the Guard
I was genuinely surprised at this decision. I never grew up thinking of DC as this close-minded. But this also took place decades before I was born. The version of history that was available to me as a child had included the story of Roy Harper’s drug use when he was Green Arrow’s sidekick Red Arrow. The problem was how long it took DC to get to the place where editors would allow that kind of story to be published.
Marvel’s sales were still limited by distribution but this created an unforeseen benefit. Lee could oversee a singular vision that was exemplified in every title. Tucker claims that DC’s corporate structure prevented this type of universe from forming. Tucker’s insight reveals the growing distance in identities that the companies embraced
Meanwhile, Marvel’s position and stature grew. DC had spent so much time cementing a corporate structure that it had lost connection with the readers it believed would always be loyal to Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. In 1968 Goodman sold Marvel to Perfect Film which owned magazine distributor Curtis Circulation. In September of 1969 Marvel ended its deal with Independent and Curtis became Marvel’s.
DC’s response was to hire new editors and writers. Joe Orlando and Dick Giordano were among the first new senior staff. Joe Kubert was next. “Wear a tie,” Kubert was told by Carmine Infantino. “We’re editors now.”
Steve Skeates and Denny O’Neil were among the twenty-somethings that DC was suddenly hiring. Mike Friedrich was hired during his freshman year of college. Len Wein and Marv Wolfman soon followed. By 1971, they were joined by Howard Chaykin, Gerry Conway, and Alan Weiss.
Hiring decisions went both ways. Jim Shooter had spent years writing the Legion of Super-Heroes and taking verbal abuse from DC editor Mort Weisinger. Weisinger was famously quoted, comparing writers to oranges, saying, “You squeeze them until there’s no juice left and then throw them away.”
When Shooter told Lee during a meeting that his nickname at DC was the “Marvel writer” the two men sat down and talked comics. Three hours later Shooter had a new contract. A war of attrition was beginning.
DC struck a big blow when it picked up Kirby from Marvel. Infantino was in California working on the Super Friends cartoon and invited Kirby to dinner. Kirby revealed three covers for a new line of connected titles in a series: Forever People, New Gods, and Mister Miracle. These were passion projects that Kirby did not want to do for Marvel.
Kirby had watched Lee take responsibility for the work they had both done. His creations and all association with them had become distant. Kirby had created Silver Surfer only to learn that John Buscema would pencil the solo comic in 1968.
Kirby asked Infantino if he would make an offer. In May 1970, Kirby called Lee to announce he was leaving. But the leaving led to bad blood and loaded accusations.
When photocopied pages of New Gods #1 were spotted hanging in Marvel’s offices. It was later revealed that Vinnie Colletta, the inker assigned to Kirby, had taken the copies to make himself seem valuable to Marvel. He was quickly fired.
DC even met with Stan Lee about leaving Marvel. Lee was frustrated by Goodman’s desire to put his son Chip in a position above Stan. Whether the possible move was simply leveraging on Lee’s part is still unknown, and months later he was made Marvel’s publisher.
Tucker points out that before the first official crossover between DC and Marvel in 1975, an unofficial version preceded it. Len Wein, Steve Engleheart, and Gerry Conway crafted a secret crossover that ran from Amazing Adventures #16, Justice League of America #103, and Thor #207. The successful event, followed by the departure of Martin and Chip Goodman, and Lee’s right-hand man Roy Thomas, allowed Lee and Infantino to talk and strategize.
When they learned that both companies planned an adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, they co-produced MGM’s Marvelous Wizard of Oz. The collaboration would later lead to Superman vs. The Amazing Spider-Man. The universe-level crossovers would eventually arrive. But the story of each version is an example of the distrust and animosity that had built over decades.
Royalties and the Direct Market
Competition between the companies changed with the advent of the direct sales approach to comics-only shops and the outright war to get and keep the best artists, writers, and creators. Royalties skyrocketed. Comics like Camelot 3000 and Omega Men dealt with subjects like incest and cannibalism.
The introduction of royalties in the 80s came during a surge of business in the industry. Between variant covers and promotional gimmicks, books were selling over a million copies. Writers and artists were bringing home bonuses of $40,000 and more.
All-star artists like Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld were clearing six figures and both companies fought to keep their talent from wandering. My favorite story from this moment is when Marvel’s Chris Claremont says, “I bought a plane. You can either have a plane or you can have kids. It was an indulgence when I was doing the X-Men.”
Legendary figures like George Kasdan, Jack Schiff, Arnold Drake, Otto Binder, and Bill Finger are the true casualties of this war. Their careers were cut short any time DC needed to make a drastic change. Some retired, others were relegated to insignificant roles or paid such a pittance in cash and benefits for their work that they eventually left on their own.
Only a few, like Bob Kane, were able to secure a golden parachute. When he heard of a proposed sale of DC to new owners Kinney, Kane threatened to torpedo the deal. He received 1 million dollars paid out over 20 years to go away.
Newer artists were able to benefit from changes like royalties. But the eventual bust in the market made that a short-lived experience. It feels akin to the 1929 stock market crash, the dot-com craze of the late 90s, and the recession of 2008. There was success for some and destruction for the rest.
Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Ruffalo, and Jason Statham say some things that look really ugly in newsprint. The book captures trash talk from the good-natured to downright nasty. Even smiling Dwayne Johnson AKA The Rock is caught talking his share of smack.
They aren’t alone. The stories about what editors like Weisinger and others would say to writers and staff is an embarrassing look in the mirror for DC and Marvel. While it would be nice to think that the modern world is more ethically and humanely conscious, there are many other industries that have a history of resisting change. It is disappointing to consider that this is still the norm for the creators of the characters and stories we love.
Reed Tucker may not be a Marvel or DC fan but there are times when he supports Marvel with the enthusiasm of an underdog or a dramatist. Maybe its the film review background. While I felt that his harshest criticisms were pointed at DC, there are plenty of awkward moments for both companies.
DC fans are going to feel their guys are getting picked on. There are many times when this is true. The moments when it is a consequence of hubris are as much, if not more painful.
Marvel fans will cheer the story of an upstart becoming the king of the mountain. That excitement is tempered by the failures that so often follow meteoric success. There is always a moment that should have been done better.
I applaud Tucker for making the attempt to tell a story of a feud that just might rival the Hatfields and McCoys or Montagues and Capulets. I struggled to see through the shades of bias that colored the narration in moments that bode ill for DC, but the facts and supporting statements listed in the sources cited section, even when hearsay were damning and ear shuddering.
In my opinion this is a book that should be included in every conversation about the history of DC, Marvel, and the comic book industry. Smaller houses don’t get much, if any, coverage. But the climate that led to their arrival or extinction can be traced along the eddying currents that Marvel and DC created. Beyond the PG-13 language, this is a book that should not be recommended to older readers only.
Younger readers would benefit from an honest discussion with responsible adults about the positions and arguments debated within the pages of Slugfest. I would recommend this book to any reader seeking a deeper understanding of comics and the history of a rivalry that still dominates the industry today.