The story of mythical heroes with extraordinary powers saving their kin from villains dates back to ancient history. The Greek scribe Homer gave us earthly warrior heroes battling with one-eyed monsters and women with snakes for hair. In the Middle Ages, the enduring tale of a mythical hero was that of King Arthur, a man who wielded a magical sword to save his kingdom from ruin. These days, the average person might be hard-pressed to suspend belief in such gloriously bloody stories, but that hasn’t stopped us from telling tales in which Good is pitted against monstrous Evil. The most prevailing of these modern heroic tales have been the creations of storytellers whose medium is the comic book, and in turn, the film industry. Today we’ll compare two of the champions of the comic book genre, in this episode of The Infographics Show, Marvel vs. DC.
First we’ll start with an introduction to DC, which is often hailed as ‘the king of comics.’ DC, abbreviated from Detective Comics, was an iteration of the company National Allied Publications that was founded by Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson in 1935. That year, Doctor Occult came into existence, and is still part of the DC Universe today. Arguably DC’s two most indisputable heavyweights in the superhero milieu are Superman and Batman, which made their debut appearance in 1938 and 1939, respectively. Detective Comics wasn’t called that until ’39, so Superman was really the invention of a line of comic books called Action Comics.
Cultural critics have often said that the popularity of such comic books, the resurrection of the unassailably ethical character fighting evil, was partly a consequence of the global disharmony at the time. And so it was, in 1939, Marvel also appeared on the scene. Marvel was started by pulp fiction publisher, Martin Goodman, and it was first called Timely Publications. Though Marvel introduced a handful of superheroes before March 1941, it was on that date that possibly its most enduring hero came to life. His name was Captain America.
If you’re not a comic book fan, we should tell you who belongs to whom. Some of DC’s main characters are: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and The Flash. We should also remember DC’s formidable villains, such as Batman’s nemesis The Joker and Superman’s arch-enemies Darkseid and Lex Luther. Marvel’s band of super-famous superheroes includes Spiderman, The Hulk, Captain America, Wolverine, Iron Man, and Daredevil. Its memorable villains include Red Skull, Doctor Doom, and Magneto.
The main difference between the two universes of DC and Marvel is a kind of inverse logic, in that DC’s characters are more God-like but in the guise of humans, whereas DC characters are more human but given God-like superpowers. DC’s hero is endowed with almost immutable virtue, whereas Marvel’s characters are often thrown into the superhero position by accident and still deal with their all-too-human condition.
Now we’ll take a look at business and how these two giants rate in terms of success. We’ll start with comics and move on to the movie business later. Not surprisingly DC got out of the gate fast with its double team of Superman and Batman. Action Comics, which introduced DC’s Superman, has sold over 600 million copies. Batman comics have sold around 460 million copies. One issue of the Superman series, 1987’s Superman number 74, sold over 3 million copies alone.
Marvels biggest selling comic is the Spiderman series, which has sold around 360 million copies, with X-men and Captain America in second and third, selling 270 million and 210 million copies, respectively. The bestselling issue was Spiderman number one, which sold over 2.5 million copies after its release in 1990.
Marvel and DC regularly change places in topping the sales rankings, demonstrated by Diamond Comics which publish sales figures for each month. If we look at the top 100 sales figures for April 2017, we can see that DC and Marvel own the market, with only a few appearances of titles that are not published by the two giants, such as Image Comics’ The Walking Dead and Dark Horse Comics’ American Gods. The top five selling comics for April, in order, were Marvel’s Secret Empire, DC’s Batman number 21 lenticular edition, Marvel’s X-Men Gold number one, Marvel’s X-Men Blue number one, and in fifth place DC’s Flash number 21 lenticular edition. The list goes on in a similar vein.
After suffering a slump in popularity, comic books have made a comeback in recent years. In the mid-90s, Marvel almost went out of business, only to reemerge from its broken state to become a multi-billion-dollar behemoth – perhaps mirroring its own heroes’ rise and fall and rise again.
Prior to that, in 1984, DC almost suffered an ignominious death when its parent company, Warner Brothers, put a deal down on the table to sell its characters to Marvel. Both titans suffered near-death experiences, only to come back stronger than before.
According to The Comichron, in June 2016 comic books saw the biggest sales they had in 20 years. This was largely due to Marvel releasing its Civil War II, and DC doing something they’d done before…killing off the most virtuous of heroes, Superman. Some critics called his demise “pointless.”
The resurgence of comic books pales in comparison to the rise of the superhero movie industry. DC was the first to export their heroes to a movie format, with the release of Superman and the Mole Men in 1951. That was followed by the first Batman movie in 1966, but it wasn’t until 1978 that a superhero blew the roof off the movie industry with the blockbuster, Superman, that earned 300 million dollars at the box office. Marvel heroes first appeared in film in 1977. Those were Spiderman and Doctor Strange in films made for TV. Two successful Superman sequels appeared on the big screen as well as a not very successful Supergirl movie, before Marvel heroes ever made a splash in Hollywood. Marvel’s first character that made it into a feature film was Howard the Duck, and the movie was considered a huge flop. Things would soon change, though.
Currently the highest grossing superhero movie of all time is Marvel Studio’s 2012 The Avengers. It is thought to have grossed 1.5 billion dollars. Marvel takes second place with its 2015 ‘The Avengers: Age of Ultron’ which grossed 1.4 billion dollars. Third place is Marvel’s Iron Man 3, which grossed 1.2 billion dollars, and fourth place also goes to Marvel and its 2016 movie, Captain America: Civil War, which grossed 1.1 billion dollars worldwide. DC does however get a spot on the top five list with the 2012 brutal rendition of the Batman story, The Dark Knight Rises. The movie grossed 1 billion dollars worldwide. Also in the top ten in terms of sales are two other Batman movies and three Spiderman movies.
The highest grossing superhero movies of 2017 see another split between Marvel and DC, with Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 coming in a squeak above DC’s Wonder Woman regarding ticket sales.
If sales numbers alone don’t cut it for you, then DC, while being pushed out of the rankings money-wise, is often credited with having one of its creations being in the best reviewed superhero film of all time. That was Cristopher Nolen’s, The Dark Night, which regularly comes at the top of critics and viewers top ten lists of superhero movies. Ultimate Movie Rankings, which gives a combined score based on box office, reviews, and awards, puts DC’s The Dark Knight in first place. It is, however, followed by four Marvel movies: Guardians of the Galaxy, Iron Man, The Avengers, and Spiderman 2.
Will DC make a comeback to the days it ruled the superhero movie scene? That’s debatable, and depends on how well its upcoming features do. Soon to come from DC is its Avengers-esque movie, The Justice League, as well as Aquaman, The Flash, and Green Lantern Corps. In the pipeline, Marvel has Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, and Avengers: Infinity War.
While DC arguably created the biggest legends in the world of superheroes, it certainly looks as if Marvel is currently ruling the roost. So, considering the past and present, which of the two companies do you think deserves the credit for having created the best comic book heroes of all-time?