Comparing the DC & Marvel Universes

There are many publishers of comic books today. At least a half dozen in the United States, more than a few in Japan, and a handful everywhere else. In the US, smaller publishers like Darkhorse Comics, feed the niche markets of hardcore enthusiasts and people interested in IP fiction like Star Wars or Aliens. However in terms of more mainstream publications, few have the wide appeal of the DC and Marvel Comics universes. Both companies have stables of extremely popular characters, all of whom are well established and many of whom have become part of our culture. They have interwoven these characters amongst each other to form communities and pantheons, capitalizing artistically and financially off their own intellectual assets. The similarities in the DC and Marvel universes extend from business models to character nuances, names, and costumes. Yet despite that, the ways these two famous houses portray heroism are different as man and god.

Marvel Comics: The House of Men

Humanity is a large issue at play for the majority of Marvel Comics characters. Actors like Spider-Man deal with humanity by pressing themselves to be as noble and righteous as possible. Others like Captain America deal with it by presenting themselves as men capable of amazing tasks. This feats inspire audiences to strive equally hard to do amazing things, thus appealing to man’s capability. Finally, characters like the X-Men struggle to remind themselves and their world that they are indeed human, despite their unusual traits, and are deserving of the basic rights, respects, and compassion that one would afford any human being.

There are a few heroes who are godlike. Characters like Wolverine, whose ability to heal makes him nearly invulnerable, may have amazing powers, but they are still driven by confusion, vulnerability, and the same other emotions a typical man might deal with. Others like Adam Warlock or the Silver Surfer, are indeed godlike. However they are more the exception than the rule for the Marvel universe, and in the case of the Surfer, was originally created to be a villain.

The villains of the Marvel Universe range from humans themselves, rarely taking on the godlike traits common in the DC universe. Though with the obvious exceptions of those like Galactus, the majority of villains are driven by petty greed, hatred, misguided altruism, or primal aggression. They are therefore on par with the human heroes or beneath them. This allows the writing to be more dramatic when heroes, like the Fantastic Four, face off against a larger than life villain like Galactus.

DC Comics: The House of Gods

In contrast, the DC Universe characters deal more with the concepts of emotion and existence versus the actual humanity behind them. Batman, for example, is just a man, but his dedication to his cause and the way in which he goes about that cause are so far outside what a person might normally do, that he too is pushed from reality into the level of some kind of symbol. Like a god, Batman becomes something we can learn lessons from more than we can draw inspiration from.

Wonder Woman, on the other hand, is a god. Immortal, lovely, strong, and intelligent, her grace and ability aren’t just testaments to the power of women, but to the nobility possible in any sentient person. Youths reading her stories might idolize her, but they can’t hope to follow in her foot steps as they are neither Amazon princesses nor godlike in ability.

Superman is perhaps the greatest example of this trend. His abilities and strengths are amazing and matched only by his righteousness. Superman doesn’t kill. He fights even the deadliest of enemies with the intention to disarm and pacify. Unlike Batman or the Punisher, his focus is justice, not vengeance. Unlike Spider-Man or the X-Men, he has absolutely nothing to prove anyone. Unlike the Hulk or the Fantastic Four, his powers are his birthright. And unlike Captain America, he is nearly immortal. This immortality does not make his struggles against villains less selfless. Rather, his struggle to use moderation and chivalry in his actions demonstrates a superior level of self control and principle which sets him apart from normal men.

Villains in the DC Universe, as in the Marvel, run the gamut from god to man. Despite this range, many of the human villains in these stories act on strange themes and motifs which allow the writers to make specific statements about the hero and about the concepts they bring up. The Joker is human, yet his madness and style say something about psychosis and are mostly done in answer to Batman’s own unusual style. This creates a perfect dichotomy, another theme popular both in mythological literature and in comic books.

Representation: The Art of Difference

Artistic representation is as important in comic books as the actual writing. In the photo above (second on the page), you can see that stature, color, tone, and emotion are used to depict Galactus as a godlike mega-being. Styles like that are used often to convey specific character attributes not readily portrayed in dialogue and action. Marvel Comics characters are almost always drawn with the perspective at eye level with the character. They are usually drawn running or flying at the camera, weapons out and discharging, coming right at you.

This is to show how aggressive and powerful these characters are– holding nothing back. In the picture at right, which depicts the X-Men, this is shown clearly. You are more or less standing in front of the X-Men as they charge in your direction. Though some of the characters are aiming away from the camera, Wolverine in particular is looking right at you while he swings his claws. This is highly aggressive art is common in Marvel Comics, as characters are shown to have more primal characteristics– more human characteristics than what would be seen in a DC Comics title.

In contrast, DC Comics characters are often drawn in flight, flying passed or away from the camera, in a dramatic pose reminiscent of Greek depictions of their gods or Judeo-Christian artwork of angels and saints. The audience perspective is almost always below the hero, as if to demonstrate that this person is elevated above you– a superior form of life. In the X-Men picture above, the setting sun is visible behind the characters. In a photorealistic image, that sun would blot out the heroes, blurring everything behind radiant light, yet in this image its like they stand in front of a giant melon.

By comparison, DC Comics characters, particularly when drawn by artists like Alex Ross, are depicted in shining light. The light’s obscuring their image is invocative of their own halos, distorting our mortal view of these godlike heroes. The image at right in this case, is a drawing of the Justice League as depicted in Bruce Timm’s animated series.

This isn’t the best example of DC Comics particular brand of heroic imagery, and yet in this case we can see that we are indeed placed below the perspective of the heroes. They are descending upon us, either to save us from some threat or to stop us from our villainous deeds. They arrive like angels, like gods descending from the heavens to set right misdeeds on the Earth. This helps to set a specific tone for their stories and remind us of the power inherent to these beings.

Conclusion

Ultimately, these differences are cosmetic. Though they go a long way in characterizing both families of heroes, their distinct styles allow us to benefit from two very unique storytelling styles. Crossovers have brought both sets of characters to the same level, to fight against or with one another to uncover more layers of depth. However these styles are best seen in their own venue. Alongside this article, we are publishing two reviews which are excellent examples of what we’ve discussed. Click here to read the review of Marvels, and here to read the review of Kingdom Come.

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