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DC vs. Marvel: How a nearly 60-year rivalry disappeared without anyone really noticing

DC - Marvel rivalry
(Image credit: Marvel Comics - DC)

Somewhat overlooked in the recent announcement of writer Joshua Williamson's upcoming new Justice League Incarnate limited series - part of the second act of his 'Infinite Frontier saga' - is that he's introducing a new character to the DC Universe called Doctor Multiverse, from Earth-8. 

Why is that worth a second look? For those of you without encyclopedic instant-recall of DC's Multiverse as largely defined by writer Grant Morrison's 2014 Multiversity limited series, Earth-8 is DC's Marvel Comics analog world. That means the Earth (and its universe) is DC's take on Marvel characters and franchises, featuring teams like the Retaliators (that'd be the Avengers, of course) and the Future Family (the Fantastic Four), and heroes like the American Crusader (Captain America) and Machinehead (Iron Man), the latter of who has just emerged as a villain in Williamson's current Infinite Frontier limited series. 

Earth-8 is a legally protected tool for DC to editorialize on Marvel, which on its Multiverse map the publisher describes as a "home to a breed of heroes who fight with each other as much as they fight the bad guys," referring to Marvel's legit penchant for storylines pitting superheroes against superheroes. 

DC's 'marvelous' Earth-8 (Image credit: DC)

It's all a part of a long, larger tradition of Marvel and DC creating analogs of one another's characters, something Marvel itself revisited in its recent Heroes Reborn event.

Given the 'Infinite Frontier saga' is centered around the DC Multiverse and given Doctor Strange's MCU role in December's Spider-Man: No Way Home and March 2022's Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, we can't help speculate Williamson is latching onto something current and Dr. Multiverse will be an analog to Doctor Strange, but that's a conversation for another day.

What's striking is that even while the publishers are still dipping their toes in having a little meta-fun with one another's characters, what was once a storied, high-profile, sometimes good-natured, sometimes not rivalry is for all intents and purposes dead… kaput … an anachronistic remnant of a now bygone comic book era. 

The 'Big Two' are now just two big publishers

You know the terms - the 'Distinguished Competition' (Marvel's coded term for DC) …  'Crosstown Rivals' (when they were actually across town from one another in New York City) … and the 'Big Two' (denoting their dominant market position among publishers that serve dedicated comic book stores called the Direct Market). 

For decades Marvel and DC were the Coke and Pepsi … the McDonald's and Burger King … the Yankees and Red Sox of superhero publishers. And like those other three traditional rival pairings, one party more or less dominated the other for most of the history between them, and in this case, Marvel. 

While there have been a few years in which DC has eclipsed Marvel sales or kept the horserace close, Marvel has been the market leader consistently, at least in sales to comic book shops. 

And despite having a headstart with iconic successes like the George Reeve Superman and Adam West TV shows, the Super Friends Saturday morning cartoon, and Christopher Reeves Superman and Michael Keaton Batman film franchises, Marvel has also come to dominate DC in terms of media adaptations of its properties in the 21st century. But that too is a subject for another day. 

The point is even if by sales the rivalry has been lopsided, DC is still the publisher of the iconic Wonder Woman, Batman, Superman, and Justice League, and what that rivalry with Spider-Man, the Hulk, the X-Men, and the Avengers means to fans helped create something memorable … something fun … something special.

And it wasn't just comic book shop (and then message board and social media) talk about who had the better heroes or villains. The publishers themselves engaged in the rivalry … egged it on … which of course set things up for huge sales successes like 1996's DC versus and Amalgam and 2003-2004's JLA/Avengers when they could find their way to working with one another.

DC versus Marvel Comics

(Image credit: Marvel Comics / DC)

It was appointment comic book reading even for jaded fans, and in the case of Marvel vs DC and Amalgam, it came at a tenuous and much-needed time for the medium. 

DC and Marvel even got so good at working together they even seriously contemplated swapping two characters for one another before the legal implications became too much to overcome. 

And even when things got testy, the chemistry it created was additive … a net positive for the seemingly perpetually struggling Direct Market.

But that dynamic is no more.

The silence was deafening

The lack of anything resembling their historical back and forth and the absence of the good their combined power has the potential to do was particularly stark in the middle of 2020. The Direct Market was existentially threatened by the social distancing measures that dictated the closing of brick and mortar comic book shops and likely led to the dethroning of the once-dominant industry distributor Diamond

But while Marvel and DC individually took notice, there was no hint of a joint response to crises. 

In past decades, it might have been an opportunity for the two most powerful industry presences to find a way to work together to create a unique, unparalleled publishing event to help boost the fortunes of struggling retailers, but no such effort emerged (hey, we tried!). 

Today there is little to no prospect of an inter-company crossover or joint venture any time in the foreseeable future. And more than that, the market has evolved so that there is little to anything tying the publishers together in any practical way at all making it difficult for even fans to keep a spark of a rivalry alive. 

The crossovers are decades old and out of print. They don't vie for the attention of the same distributor anymore. And any banter, friendly or pointed, has all but disappeared, a byproduct of the low PR profile and lack of public dialogue adopted by both publishers to varying degrees in recent years.

The time of death for the Marvel-DC rivalry was 2020. What was the cause?

A lack of oxygen. 

There are a few specific factors, including geography, the now-lack of a centralized print distributor serving both publishers, the comatose state of the in-person comic book convention, and the practical implications of both publishers being owned by corporate giants and serving as some of their respective parent company's most valuable intellectual property farms. 

But most of all both publishers simply no longer have public spokespeople engaging in just about any (much less spontaneous) public dialogue other than carefully planned and approved promotion of its comic books and characters. 

In 2021 when a badly-worded tweet can cause an immediate backlash, Marvel and DC have seemingly made the decision that they'll rarely risk having an executive, editor, or marketing spokesperson making anything that could even be considered a wave, and have also seemingly asked creators to mostly refrain from doing the same. 

The DC-Marvel rivalry simply can't breathe in a vacuum, and there doesn't seem to be any prospect of the seal being broken anytime soon.

We'll get deeper into the reasons why another time, but for now let's just mourn the passing of an era.

Speaking of passings, Newsarama looks at the comic book character deaths that still matter.

I'm not just the Newsarama founder and editor-in-chief, I'm also a reader. And that reference is just a little bit older than the beginning of my Newsarama journey. I founded what would become the comic book news site in 1996, and except for a brief sojourn at Marvel Comics as its marketing and communications manager in 2003, I've been writing about new comic book titles, creative changes, and occasionally offering my perspective on important industry events and developments for the 25 years since. Despite many changes to Newsarama, my passion for the medium of comic books and the characters makes the last quarter-century (it's crazy to see that in writing) time spent doing what I love most.