No matter how cynical any civilization becomes, its people will always need heroes. If the gods and demigods of the ancient world gave way to the saints and martyrs of the medieval world, the saints and martyrs of the medieval world gave way to the comic-book masked vigilantes, aliens, and mutants of the modern world. What will the postmoderns do? (Try to deconstruct the moderns, of course, and leave us with only our hopelessness.)
Like it or not, over the past 40 years comic-book characters have come to dominate the popular culture of America. Once thriving only on drugstore magazine racks and in the newspaper strips, superheroes, especially, have found profitable homes on television, at the movies, in video games, and in the young-adult fiction section of your local Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million. What was once the province of gifted but socially awkward kids and older socially awkward nerds has become mainstream. Not only a massive amount of money but the very soul of our society is at stake, depending on how we choose to interpret Wonder Woman, Batman, and Wolverine. Do we laugh at them or with them? Do we see them as heroes or antiheroes? Do they work for or against the government? Do they represent law and order? And so forth.
In his captivating new book, pop-culture journalist Reed Tucker explores the surprisingly bitter and diverse world of comic-book artists, writers, and companies. While a number of books — both academic and popular — have examined one superhero, one company, one artist, one writer, or one universe, Tucker’s is the first to offer a sweeping overview of how economics and cultural values have intertwined, collided, and struggled in the creation of the two empires — DC and Marvel — that dominate comics today. While many grown-up conservatives might still turn away comic books as a trashy genre, Tucker makes a convincing case that Marvel and DC matter greatly to the order and stability of our society, whatever the faults and egos of those involved directly in generating these publications.
A comic-book fan will learn a great deal from this book, as will those interested primarily in the workings of economics. Tucker has done such a fine job of explaining how DC and Marvel have competed with each other that there were times he could easily have traded out DC and Marvel, respectively, for Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. “If DC represented Eisenhower’s America, Marvel was like John F. Kennedy’s. The publisher was younger, cooler, and possibly sleeping with your girlfriend,” Tucker explains. The companies imitated, plagiarized, outproduced, undersold, outgimmicked, and spied on each other. Since 1972, DC has been second best, never quite catching up to Marvel in sales. DC explains calmly that it has always favored quality over quantity. As Tucker notes, financial success in comics is measured by having a high “sell-through percentage” — meaning having a low number of copies returned, unsold, from stores to the publisher.
Don’t be afraid, however, that statistics might dominate this book. (From time to time, the reader could even use a few more than Tucker provides.) The author focuses chiefly on the many fascinating personalities in the industry — such figures as Julius Schwartz, Frank Miller, Jack Kirby, and Todd McFarlane. This was — at least before the success of 2017’s film version of Wonder Woman — a nearly all-male world; the one important exception was Jenette Kahn, long-time president of DC.
No one figure appears more often than Stanley Martin Lieber (b. 1922), known now to legions of adoring fans as Stan “The Man” Lee. Tucker offers us a very different Lee from the one who appears in cameos in Marvel movies. The early Lee wanted nothing to do with comics, other than to make enough money to establish himself in respectable publishing. From 1941 to 1961, he thanklessly wrote, pulp-style, hundreds of comic tales — but when Marvel collapsed in the late 1950s and the publisher decided to reboot his approach to the business, it was Lee who was central to the project: He created (with help from Kirby and Steve Ditko) the comic-book antihero, a much more human and conflicted superhero than the do-gooding gods of DC. Ever since, Lee has been loved and hated by fans and industry people alike, and has been the most successful comics entrepreneur of the past half century.
As Tucker notes, Lee’s re-creation of Marvel was in keeping with the budding cultural nonconformism of the 1950s and built up to the seemingly unstoppable countercultural movements of the late 1960s. Far more than DC, Marvel captured the attention of the dissatisfied youth of America. Ever since, comic readers have tended to self-identify as either Marvel or DC fans.
The only problem with Tucker’s duopoly approach, as successful as it is as a narrative, is that it ignores a variety of other players in the field, especially a number of prominent comic-book companies from Europe and Japan, and even some North American companies such as Dark Horse and IDW. Overall, though, the book is a gem: I became so taken with it that I read the entire book in two sittings. Not only did I find the stories Tucker highlighted thoroughly fascinating, but I also quickly became infatuated with his writing style, something of a 2010s version of Tom Wolfe–meets–P. J. O’Rourke.
Though Tucker claims not to be a fan of either DC or Marvel, he certainly knows the ins and outs of each company well enough to make me skeptical about his claims to distance: It is his love of the topic that makes the book so fundamentally enjoyable. In his epilogue, he makes a plea for partisans of DC or Marvel to put their differences aside and instead recognize how incredible it is that kids who were beaten up in junior high for letting an issue of Batman slip out of their Trapper Keepers now dominate the film, television, and video-game industries. In sum, whatever the struggles of Marvel and DC, the nerds won.
– Mr. Birzer is a professor of history at Hillsdale College, where he holds the Russell Amos Kirk chair in American studies.