Monday, November 06, 2006

Gestalt Theory

Not too long ago I got in a bit of a tiff on someone's blog (Kalinara? Ragnell? Someone I check frequently) with one of the guys from the excellent 4thletter blog, by inadvertently calling Marvel fans immature (long story), and suggesting that DC was generally more literary. At least I wasn't making a joke about the President and the troops (zing!).

Anyway, a question occurred to me the other day: does Marvel have an equivalent of Sandman? How about Alan Moore's Swamp Thing? See, despite the editorial separation of Vertigo and the mainstream DCU, the membrane 'twixt the two is at least semi-permeable. Swamp Thing was instrumental in the death of Zatara, Zatanna dated John Constantine, Martian Manhunter met Morpheus (in the moonlight!) and Dr. Destiny used Dream's crystal as the source of his power, and then there's Animal Man, who jumps back and forth more than almost anyone. Almost, because Phantom Stranger, Deadman, and Etrigan the Demon have a tendency to pop up in both 'universes' almost equally.

So, while the DCU wheeled about and did their things, early Vertigo comics bolstered the mainstream universe by giving it a distinct and deep mythology, developed through some of the best comics ever written.

And, so far as I know, Marvel really doesn't have an equivalent. There are great Marvel stories to be sure--The Death of Captain Marvel, Squadron Supreme, etc--but few are really tied into the fabric of the universe. I can't think of any that have the same scope, the same intent, as the Moore and Gaiman and Morrison work at DC. And maybe this is where I made my me, one of the best things about DC is the tapestry, the universe as an entity, with all its history and mythology and epic scope. Marvel's greatest strength, on the other hand, is in great single stories that build on character tapestries. You could cut Spider-Man off from the rest of the superhero community, and you wouldn't lose much (these days, you'd gain quite a bit), because Spider-Man's strength is in his personal history, not in his relationship with the rest of the Marvel universe. The same could be said with any single hero or small team--break the Fantastic Four away from continuity, or the Avengers, or the X-Men, and just tell stories about their characters (and rogues) for a year, and the stories really wouldn't suffer. In DC, characters are defined by their relationships to other superheroes as much as they're defined by their own lives and supporting casts. Imagine a DC without the World's Finest team, or the Trinity, or the Brave and the Bold team, or GL/GA, or GA/Hawkman, or GA/Black Canary. Suddenly, it's a much less interesting universe. Marvel's strength is in the individual; DC's is in the sum of its parts.


Anonymous said...

I have been thinking for a long long time about parsing out why I prefer DC to Marvel in a post on my own blog. I always thought the tapestry aspect you mentioned was important. Along with that, I honestly have to say that across the board I think DC has better, or at least more interesting, characters than Marvel, at least for what I look for in a comic book, which is the ability to stretch my imagination. The thing most people find appealing about Marvel is the thing that turns me off a bit... the characters are just too relatable. Like, I get that Spider-Man is an everyday guy who has powers; it doesn't take too much work to put myself in his shoes. You can tell some excellent stories with Spidey, of course (Brian Bendis' "Ultimate Spider-Man" is consistently great), but it's just somehow not the same as DC.

The great thing about DC is that it's a world of gods and icons. There are very few of these in Marvel (gods: Thor, Hercules; icons: Captain America), but almost everyone in the DC universe fits one or both of these categories, and those folks who don't almost always have to struggle with living up to this legacy, like they're halfway in the world of gods and halfway in the world of, well, Marvel (like early Wally West or Kyle Rayner stories). This has a couple interesting effects. One, I think, is that DC ends up being more literary, at least in a classical/mythological sense (and it doesn't hurt that they really do tend to get the better writers). Another is that DC opens up a world that Marvel really can't get at. So while I can sympathise with a bad day for Spider-Man, I can't even begin to imagine what a bad day is like for Superman. That's why I love it when Morrison, Moore, Busiek, Johns, or some other great talent can show me.

And it's not like Marvel doesn't try to keep things grounded this way. Civil War: Frontline is a great example of how disastrous is it for them to make sure their stories happen in the "real world" (how real can it be, anyway? There are superheroes running around, you know?!) In the latest issue of Frontline, a character states "This is worse than the Korean, Vietnam, and Iraq war combined!" That kind of stuff just makes me feel sick. Instead of giving me a world rich with imaginative possibilities, Marvel is trying to toss me the conflicting message that A)its characters exist in a real world(where Bush is president, even) and thus are credible and B) its characters are somehow more intense and therefore more real and important than the real world, since obviously a battle between some superheroes is way worse than the Vietnam war.

Maybe this is too much of a generalization, but I don't see Marvel as a company that really cares about comics as art too often, at least not anymore. Sure, DC has its share of trash, but they also put out daring experiments like 52 and have a whole line dedicated to adult comics, where "adult" means full of complexity and not full of boobies (remember Chuck Austen's launching MAX title, US War Machine?). And while people will be talking about 52 for years and years, I'm guessing in somewhat reverential terms, I would bet that five years down the line Civil War will be remembered as a cheap event book meant to prey off the political paranoia of the time.

Marvel was definetly on top in the 60s, and they had some great stuff in the 70s and 80s as well. But since then, I see DC as the more rich universe. The best books Marvel puts out now tend to be the quiet ones (Runaways, New X-Men).

That was way more than I wanted to write, and it still didn't give me enough space to say everything I wanted. Le sigh.

Seth T. Hahne said...

I can't really speak to the tapestry idea - though some of Marvel's outliers do get incorporated into mainstream continuity (a la Jessica Jones) - just like some of Vertigo's don't (Yorick Brown and those 100 bullets people). There may be something to it. I don't know.

I did always like the fact that I didn't have to know anything about the Avengers to enjoy Spider-Man stories or the goings-on in Daredevil. Still, Spider-Man is constantly helping out Daredevil and the reader senses a begrudging friendship there. Maybe that's not interconnectivity enough for you. I don't know.

But then, maybe that's what I like about the DC titles that I've so enjoyed. I didn't need to know squat about DC to really like Starman (all I had to do was believe that once upon a time there was a JSA that involved his father). I loved the first 25 issues of Catwoman. Completely self-contained.

And then you have Vertigo. I rather enjoy several Vertigo comics, but I've never really thought: Oh, I'm reading DC comics now. There's such a disconnect between the feeling of a "DC comic" and a "Vertigo comic" that I can't even place them in the same universe.

And the whole "grounding in reality" idea rings kinda false to me. It seems more that reality is something to be escaped in the product of both Marvel and DC. They only maintain the most ephemeral grasp on our reality - just enough to keep us relating to their characters.

And as far as relating to their characters, I don't have any more difficulty relating to the problems of Superman than I do those of Spider-Man. If they're written well. I think relating to characters is less a mark of the character or type of character and more just a question of good writing. Heck, I could relate perfectly fine with Ch'p if he were written well. I could probably even relate to Mogo if there were some good characterization going on there. So I think the "gods and icons" perspective is another blind.

Seth T. Hahne said...

Hey plok, I wasn't actually making any positive statement one way or another on the tapestry idea. Mainly, I was questioning it.

Really, I can't know about whether DC comics form this grand tapestry or not - because I never really read DC comics (save for temporary devotion to particular runs that really, well, did it for me, eg. Starman, Catwoman, and Batgirl). From about 1980 through 1995, I was buying almost exclusively from Marvel, just cuz that's what I was familiar with. And I never felt bound to see it all as a "tapestry" (and I'm still not sure what that meant). There was interconnectivity, sure, but I thankfully never found it to be necessary.

I've since moved largely away from both Marvel and DC, though still following a handful of titles from each publisher. And from here, I still don't see much difference between the two brands. In fact, I never did. One never struck me as more childish than the other. Would DC support a book like Bendis's run on Daredevil? Probably. Would Marvel suppport a book like Morrison's run on Doom Patrol? Probably.

But I'm willing to be wrong. It's just I have yet to see anyone point out a difference that I can't fairly look at and say, "Yeah. That's the difference between Marvel and DC."

Matthew E said...

I think the point about the interconnectedness is not that one company's comics are more or less interconnected than the other, but that, in DC, the stories featuring those connections contain more classic stories and character moments than do the Marvel stories featuring such connections; in Marvel the classic stories and character notes are more likely to be found when the characters stick to their own titles.

Whether it's true or not I have no idea.

And my interpretation of the 'literary' thing is that Sandman and Swamp Thing and all those malarkeys are more highbrow-seeming than their Marvel equivalents.

Matthew E said...

Well...but, damnit, what is being supposed here as being their Marvel equivalents, that's the point, right? Ooooh, this question-begging is maddening! Do all the DC people out there honestly think that, I don't know, Thor is Marvel's answer to Sandman, or something?

Well, I don't. I'd love it if you could do equivalents from one company to another up and down the line. It'd be fun. But you can't. You can hardly even start. And when it does work it's usually unsatisfying: Captain America ~ Uncle Sam? The only one I really like is Batman ~ Daredevil.

So when I say that about Sandman, what I really mean is that Sandman is more highbrow-seeming than anything Marvel has. What does Marvel have for Goths to flaunt? (I'm not saying, mind you, that Marvel doesn't have anything as good as Sandman.) I don't know if DC's more literate, but I do suspect that the reputation comes more easily to them.

As far as the interconnectedness thing goes, I don't know where the idea comes from; I'm just trying to interpret what Tom said.

Matthew E said...

I was talking about characters when I was doing equivalents.

Generally I have no strong opinions about which company is more literary; I'd need to know a lot more Marvel than I do to be able to discuss it intelligently. But for the reasons already mentioned I can see why people say it's DC.

Back to equivalents, because that's one of the reasons we're in this conversation (it has drifted a bit).

I'll give you Vision ~ Red Tornado and, for lack of any better idea, Dr. Strange ~ Dr. Fate. But I'll deny forever that X-Men ~ Legion; if anything, X-Men ~ Doom Patrol, which quite happily leads us to New Mutants ~ Teen Titans (although we could also use Young Avengers now) and, oh, X-Factor ~ Outsiders. I don't think Marvel has any Legion equivalent. If all the stuff I read about the differences between DC and Marvel have anything to them, I'm not sure Marvel could have an equivalent to the Legion.

Does Uatu work as an equivalent to Morpheus?

But it's hard to sort out the big ones. Iron Man ~ Green Lantern works okay. I'm tempted to say Spider-Man ~ Blue Beetle, even though it doesn't satisfy. I like Moon Knight ~ Question, but now we're back to minor characters. Do we have to do Thor ~ Wonder Woman? I'm tempted to say Hulk ~ Captain Marvel... but really DC doesn't have a Hulk, unless you want to say 'Solomon Grundy' or something.

And try this: Fantastic Four ~ Superman. I haven't thought it through yet, but it feels right.

Matthew E said...

I'm only answering this part of your comment because my only other option is 'running away and hiding' and I don't want to do that. But, understand, I'm not making an argument here myself so much as trying to isolate whatever argument seems to be floating around unstated. And I don't claim that it's a sufficient argument; only that this is what I think it is if it exists.

Sandman, the comic more than the character, is 'highbrow' because it deals with myth and legend and literature and dreams and stuff, and only incidentally superheroes. And it does so with a very quiet, serious (although not humourless) tone. And Sandman was a big popular comic, one that may have been the only DC thing some people read, and one that influenced the rest of the Vertigo line. Now, I am willing to accept that Marvel has treated similar subjects with similar skill, but for a long time (I don't know about now) the predominant tone coming from Marvel was Stan Lee's cheerful populist bombast in his editorial comments and stuff. And that tone, or the memory of it, might tend to distract from the comics' literary qualities.

Does that work? It's the best I can do. If it doesn't, someone else is going to have to step in.

Man-Thing and Swamp Thing: I've never read a comic with Man-Thing in it in my life, and only a few with Swamp Thing. They're the same? Okay, they're the same.

Much as I like Daredevil ~ Batman, a better one might be Daredevil ~ Doctor Mid-Nite, for obvious reasons, but it's not as satisfying.

The problems with Solomon Grundy are a) he doesn't have a Bruce Banner and b) he's a villain. The Hulk might be an odd, unconventional kind of superhero, but we kind of have to put him in that category anyway. I think he's an example of stuff Marvel does and DC just doesn't.

For FF ~ Superman, consider this: one of Superman's nicknames is 'the Man of Tomorrow'. Could we not say that the sentiment wrapped up in that phrase is one that resonates just as strongly with the FF as it does with Superman? I'll defer to you on this.

I know nothing about Marvel's future, but I do know that they haven't explored it to the extent that DC has. For future-heroes, DC has, or has had, the Legion, the Flash and his descendants, the DC One Million characters, Tommy Tomorrow, Kamandi and Hex. Who's Marvel had? The only one I know of is Cable (do I have the right guy? Or is it Forge?). So I don't know if Marvel's future is messed up or not.

But one of the things I've seen said about the two companies is that DC is much more concerned about superheroic legacies being passed down from generation to generation than Marvel is. The Legion is an expression of that: it's the legacy of Superman ten centuries later. Does Franklin Richards work as a Legion comparison? That's not a rhetorical question.

Another thing the Legion is, is a relic of what we like to call Silver Age Innocence. Marvel did have some of this too; I'd say that Iron Man and the Fantastic Four also participated in this, but their other major characters of the early years were much less innocent; Spider-Man, the Hulk, the original X-Men, even Thor were more monstrous and Silver Age Weird than the clean-cut naifs of the Legion. (Captain America isn't Silver Age at all, of course.) So that's two wells that the Legion draws from that Marvel doesn't really go for in a big way.

If the Legion is what Marvel doesn't do, and the Hulk is what DC doesn't do, then can we learn anything by speculating whether Hulk ~ Legion? It actually sounds kind of scary.

I don't know Nightmare. Was he another story-framing-device/host of, like, a horror title or something? That's the connection I was going for with Uatu ~ Morpheus, anyway. Instead of Morpheus I maybe should have said Cain and Abel, if that's what I was going for, but who cares about Cain and Abel?

I know! Silver Surfer ~ Morpheus! I think it fits even if it doesn't fit.

Matthew E said...

When I said

I'm only answering this part of your comment because my only other option is 'running away and hiding' and I don't want to do that.

I meant to imply if not say that I'm much more happy and comfortable answering the rest of your comment.

Matthew E said...

Well, I'm glad that's all settled.

Another somewhat obvious comparison: Marvel seems to have quite intentionally set up Hawkeye + Mockingbird ~ Green Arrow + Black Canary. But it strikes me that that's kind of superficial and doesn't really work at all.

I'm okay with Henry Pym ~ Atom on several levels, and also Scarlet Witch ~ Zatanna, I guess. But Marvel doesn't seem to have a Flash. (I'm not buying Quicksilver.) How about Wonder Man ~ Martian Manhunter?

Matthew E said...

No, it would make him Speedy.

It's not that I don't *like* the Hawkeye/Mockingbird team. I just think they're different enough from GA/BC that the correspondence doesn't go very deeply.

I was toying with the idea of Spider-Man ~ Flash last night but I don't think it really works.

I thought of one DC character (and a character, I think, very much in the Marvel style) who's just a little like the Hulk, but I think there might be a better comparison out there for him: the Creeper.

At this point we're just listing stuff (She-Hulk ~ Power Girl! Sub-Mariner ~ Aquaman!) and I'm not sure we're creating any new insight. I wonder: are there stories that have equivalents from one company to the other?

Tom Foss said...

I've been avoiding this comment section for several days (weeks?) for a variety of reasons, mostly stemming from the fact that I'm not sure how much of my original post I believe or can defend reasonably.

For some clarity, by "literary," I suppose I really meant "intertextual." One of the hallmarks of Gaiman's Sandman and Moore's Swamp Thing was how much they intentionally took from world mythology, religion, and literature, in a way that made them feel much more substantial than your average comic book. Sure, it wasn't intertextual on the level of something like "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," where every other panel references some work of Brit Lit, but the more you know about T.S. Eliot, Shakespeare, the pantheons of various Mediterranean and Nordic religions, and pretty much every horror convention in literary history, the more you'll get out of Sandman and Swamp Thing and their ilk. Morrison's Animal Man referenced John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress as casually as it did Looney Tunes. And while those are all Vertigo examples, each one is firmly ensconced in the mainstream DCU--Animal Man's roaming around 52, the Endless got name-dropped in "Identity Crisis," Daniel/Dream has showed up in multiple JSA issues (and a couple of Morrison's JLA ones), Swamp Thing was directly involved in the death of John Zatara, Zatanna dated John Constantine, the Demon and Klarion the Witch Boy have made the leap back and forth at least once, etc., etc. While Y: The Last Man, Testament, Fables, and the like are clearly stand-alone tales, early Vertigo (and modern Vertigo, to an extent) was used (intentionally or not) to give some greater depth to the DCU. Meanwhile, Marvel has mostly squandered their 'mature' line; as Eric said (not in so many words), they have an adolescent's idea of mature: sex, cursing, and violence! This, I blame (rightly or otherwise) on Joe Quesada, who displays the same attitude in pretty much everything I ever see him say.

I touched on the "tapestry" thing somewhere in there, I'm sure of it, but I guess to me the difference between DC and Marvel is the difference between an oriental rug and a mosaic. In one, all the threads are woven together and interconnected, in the other, while everything touches everything else and contributes to a greater whole, each piece seems more easily able to stand on its own. Spider-Man's got a good, long-standing relationship with the Human Torch and Daredevil, but his interactions with the X-Men or the Avengers always seem a little forced. While Wolverine is everyone's favorite guest star, the majority of the X-Men tend to stay with the X-Men. While the Avengers roster changes biweekly, the characters who end up Avengers usually come out of the same pool. There's the occasional fluke, like Beast or Mr. Fantastic, but mostly the Avengers roster has its mainstays and doesn't really dip into the other teams. I think that's part of why the New Avengers concept seemed so forced; sure, anyone can accept a team with Captain America, Iron Man, Spider-Woman, and Luke Cage. It's once you throw in a loner like Spider-Man and a big-shot like Wolverine in that things feel artificial and gimmicky. Remember the "New Fantastic Four" in the '90s? Don't tell me that felt organic.

Maybe it's because Marvel's most successful team franchises created new characters entirely (X-Men, FF), or took characters that really hadn't had long to develop independently (the Avengers), while DC's big teams were all drawn from fairly long-standing original independent characters (JSA, JLA, Teen Titans). Maybe it's because DC's got the icons and archetypes that the characters need to define themselves through their relationships with one another rather than through their own personality development. I mean, if Spider-Man and Human Torch didn't have their love/hate relationship, sure the Marvel Universe would be a less rich place, but the characters would be pretty much the same. But could Green Arrow as we know him exist without Green Lantern, or vice versa? What about Batman and Superman? How different would the characters be without the World's Finest team-ups? Maybe it's just me, but I consider the Green Arrow/Black Canary relationship a lot more central to both of those characters than the relationship between Wolverine and Captain America.

And maybe this has something to do with the period of time when I really started reading comics. I was mostly a Marvelite from the late eighties into the early '90s, where I read a lot of Marvel Tales, had a subscription to Amazing Spider-Man (the "Peter's Parents Return" era), had a Daredevil subscription at one point (remember his armor? Me either), bought the other Spidey titles regularly, and I had an inexplicable Moon Knight addiction for awhile. I started into DC with the Death of Superman, and I've been pretty much solidly in the DC camp ever since. But for me, when X-Force showed up in Spider-Man, or when Spidey dropped by the Fantastic Four, it felt like a crossover. When the JLA showed up to help Superman, if felt like a Wednesday.

I don't know. Seems like any attempt to pin down "the difference" between DC and Marvel is going to end up conditional based on target time period and various definitions. Besides, it's late, and I don't think I can avoid that 19,000-word gap on the NaNoWriMo anymore. Thanks for all the comments, folks. Wonderful food for thought!