DC Comics Year By Year: A Visual Chronicle (2012 edition; first published 2010)
Marvel Chronicle: A Year By Year History (2011 edition; first published 2008)
Both 352 pages, both published by DK; DC book: 22 cm × 26 cm; Marvel book: 26 cm × 30.5 cm
The COVID-19 pandemic has provided the time to consider all sorts of odd notions, such as the differences between DC and Marvel by comparing the two coffe-table books covering their publishing history and see which one wins. Reading two 352-page books and taking notes is not something I would have done outside of a lockdown …
Let’s start with some basics: the Marvel book is the larger by width and breadth, which gets a bonus point to start with because it means that the font size on the interior pages is more legible – the font size is too small in the text accompanying each individual entry about a comic book or character. I know it’s about the pretty pictures, but some people like to read the words as well. The Marvel book has a great cover by Jim Cheung with lots of Marvel characters, whereas the DC book has a beautiful Ryan Sook cover of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman – can’t call this because they’re both great. Marvel loses a point by omitting the hyphens in the phrase ‘A Year by Year History’ (the title for DC does not need them, grammar fans), so we’re back to equal footing already.
Because the books are both from the same publisher (although not the same editors or designers), they are laid out in the same fashion. Each has a foreword from a former publisher (Stan Lee for Marvel, Paul Levitz for DC), an introduction (Tom DeFalco for Marvel, unnamed for DC), and then each section is a decade, with each year taken in turn: there is an introductory/overview text to the year, and then specific comics for that year are picked, with the cover or interior art and text about the particular issue. There is also some call-out text given historical perspective by highlighting other things happening in the world in the same year (Marvel has a large block [‘Meanwhile, in …’] on the right-hand page of the final entry, whereas DC [‘In the real world’] has a smaller block along the bottom of the page, which is less intrusive). According to the contents page, writers for Marvel are former Editors-in-Chief Tom DeFalco and Tom Breevort, long-time writer about Marvel, Peter Sanderson, and Matthew K Manning (who also writes for the DC book); writers for DC are unfamiliar names (Alan Cowsill, Alex Irvine, Michael McAvennie, Daniel Wallace).
Bizarre coincidence: in the introductions for both books, there is the mention that the cover date of comic books was deliberately out by three months (e.g. a book with the cover date of September would go on sale in June) because it was an instruction to the person who sold them at the newsstand that it was time to take the book off the stand and return it to the company.
Marvel Chronicle: A Year by Year History
Marvel starts in 1939 with Marvel Comics #1 (at Timely Publications), with Namor and the original Human Torch, plus two pages of Bill Everett’s moody art. Each year then has a month or season associated with a book of note, be it a first issue or a character makes a first appearance (e.g. March 1941, Captain America Comics #1). The information is factual but there is some corporate massaging, e.g. ‘when Editor-in-Chief Joe Simon and artist Jack Kirby left timely in late 1941, the only person left on staff to step up to the job of Editor-in-Chief was Stan Lee’ – if you’ve read Sean Howe’s excellent Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, you know that it is not how events occurred …
The book does a good job of showing the diversity of books being published (Animated Movie-Tunes, Millie the Model, Patsy Walker, Two-Gun Kid, My Romance), telling you when they started but also some when cancelled. The range leading into the 1950s was broad (Westerns, humour, military, adventure, crime, romance), and it talks about Seduction of the Innocent by Frederic Wertham. There is also honesty, informing us that Marvel screwed freelancers on page rates in 1956, so most left for the advertising industry, and even more left in 1957 when the distributor closed down, imperilling Atlas Comics (as it was known then).
The biggest and most important section for Marvel is the 1960s, which is clearly warranted – there are now more than two pages per year because there is so much to discuss: November 1961, Fantastic Four #1; January 1962, Ant-Man in Tales to Astonish #27; May 1962, The Incredible Hulk #1; August 1962, Amazing Fantasy #15 (first appearance of Spider-Man) and Journey Into Mystery #83 (Thor); March 1963, Iron Man starts in Tales of Suspense #34; May 1963 sees the company change name to Marvel Comics; July 1963, Doctor Strange in Strange Tales #10; September 1963, The Avengers #1 and The X-Men #1. Other major characters are launched in this time (Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, Black Widow, Hawkeye), so there’s a lot to pack in.
Annoyance: the text on scans of interior pages that are reproduced here, be it small next to the explanatory text or large in the double-page spreads, has been replaced with new text in an electronic font (e.g. p214 has an X-Men page from issue 137 where it is clearly not the work of Tom Orzechowski), which is really noticeable and detracting.
There is a good blend of historical information about the books but also behind the scenes, so 1968 talks about Marvel being able to produce more books (the distributor was owned by DC Comics, so had a severe limit, hence the number of split books), so Tales of Suspense #99 goes to Captain America #100, Tales to Astonish #101 goes to Incredible Hulk #102 and Strange Tales #168 leads to Dr. Strange #169. There is also the technically accurate but not the complete story of the line ‘Kirby left Marvel for DC Comics’ in 1970, and 1972 reveals that the reason for the horror books suddenly launched (Tomb of Dracula, Werewolf by Night, Man-Thing) was an update to the Comics Code, and a note about Stan Lee promoted to publisher and Roy Thomas to Editor-in-Chief.
However, there are some strange choices for inclusions of characters and their debuts – Miracle Man, Tyrannus, Hate-Monger, Princess Ravona, the Grim Reaper, Mangog, Qnax? Really?
The interesting thing is having a calendar of historically important dates in Marvel comics, such as March 1974 is the arrival of the Punisher and November 1974 is the arrival of Wolverine, with Giant-Size X-Men #1 in May 1975. It brings an external perspective that having the knowledge doesn’t always do.
The 1980s is an important section, not only because it’s the most dear to me in my historical comic-book journey, but also the changes that were happening to the medium, seeing Frank Miller on Daredevil, the introduction of the New Mutants, Beta Ray Bill, the black Spider-Man costume, Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars, Power Pack, X-Factor, the New Universe and all the rest.
The 1990s is weirder – I had moved away from being a fanboy of various Marvel titles and discovered Vertigo – and the selections are an interesting mix of the strangeness of the speculator boom and crash plus the darkness of comic books in general and the bankruptcy of Marvel in 1996. This means we get the bizarre inclusion of Ravage 2099 #1 by Stan Lee (a truly dreadful comic book) and Spider-Man 2099 (an excellent series by Peter David and Rick Leonardi); 1994 talks about the brilliant Marvels by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross but also the Clone Saga and Scarlet Spider in the Spider-Man books; 1995 has Age of Apocalypse and the death of Aunt May, but also mentions Druid and Ruins by Warren Ellis; there are later mentions for Thunderbolts #1 (best final-page reveal ever) and the Marvel Knights imprint.
Things become interesting again in the 2000s, as Bill Jemas becomes President of Marvel Comics and Joe Quesada becomes Editor-in-Chief, and we get the Ultimate imprint, Garth Ennis on The Punisher, Brian Michael Bendis on Daredevil and Alias, Grant Morrison on The New X-Men, Peter Milligan on X-Force, The Ultimates becomes the template for the MCU, Brian K Vaughan on Runaways, JLA/Avengers, 1602, Avengers Disassembled, Ed Brubaker on Captain America, so it’s shame the edition I have is only up to 2008. I don’t know if I’ll buy the continually updated versions, but I am curious to see if they are in the library so that I can read the subsequent years.
DC Comics Year by Year: A Visual Chronicle
DC Comics has a lot more to cover, not just because it started in 1935 as National Allied Publishing, but because it’s got a lot of history within the books as well – Marvel as people know it didn’t get going until the 1960s; DC Comics was there at the beginning and started things going. It also includes the important history of the company as an entity – founded by Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson to launch Detective Comics in 1937, but forced out by end of the year by the distributor (Harry Donenfeld) and Donenfeld’s business advisor (Jack Liebowitz), who took over the assets of the company. The business of comic books was already one of originators getting screwed over …
There is so much so quickly: Superman in Action Comics #1, Batman in Detective Comics #27 (a good use of the double-page spread is the origin of Batman, from Detective Comics #33, the nine panels that go from the death of the Waynes to the bat breaking through the window), Flash Comics #1, the Spectre in More Fun Comics #2, Robin in Detective Comics #38, Green Lantern in All-American Comics #16, the JSA in All Star Comics #3, Aquaman, Starman, Green Arrow in 1941, Wonder Woman in Sensation Comics #1 in 1942. There is even a mention for the debut of Captain Marvel in Whiz Comics #2, published by Fawcett, in 1940 (which seems a little harsh seeing that DC Comics would sue Fawcett until closure in the 1950s before DC picked up the rights to the character later on). There’s barely time to take a breath.
The post-war years at DC were interesting, as superheroes decreased in popularity and humour, romance, Western, sci-fi and celebrity-licensed comics took over (despite the George Reeves-starring Superman in 1951), even before Seduction of the Innocent in 1954. Then the second wind starts, as the Silver Age begins in 1956 with the Barry Allen Flash in Showcase #4, then the Challengers of the Unknown in 1957, the Legion of Super-Heroes, Adam Strange and Bizarro in 1958, Hal Jordan as Green Lantern, Supergirl, Kid Flash, Sgt Rock in 1959, the JLA in 1960 (in The Brave and the Bold #28) and the start of the multiverse in The Flash #123.
[An aside: the covers for DC Comics’ books in the 1960s are so static compared with those at Marvel …]
The DC Comics book has a broader scope and includes some interesting historical mentions. Jim Shooter’s first story in Adventure Comics #346, at the age of 14 years old, is highlighted (perhaps more positively than Shooter’s tenure as Editor-in-Chief at Marvel Comics). Blue Beetle #1 at Charlton Comics, featuring Blue Beetle and the Question, is included for historical perspective (DC Comics wouldn’t acquire the rights until the 1980s). Brother Power, The Geek #1 is included; Wonder Woman #178 (the reboot of Wonder Woman that depowered her and saw her tutored by I Ching, lasting for 5 years) is pointed out, which is something that could have been glossed over; the ‘Hard-travelling Heroes’ of Green Lantern/Green Arrow #76 is highlighted, as is the ‘Kirby is here!’ on Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #133 in 1970. The book talks about the infamous DC Comics Implosion in 1978, where 31 titles were cancelled by the end of the year, despite that being the year of Superman: The Movie. The first official limited series, World of Krypton #1, is documented, as well as the first maxi-series, Camelot 3000 in 1982; even Ambush Bug’s first appearance in DC Comics Presents #52 warrants an entry.
As with the Marvel book, the 1980s is of interest from a historical perspective, but DC Comics has a bigger claim to the effect on the medium. Alan Moore writing Swamp Thing in 1984; Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1985; 1986, to quote the book, ‘many consider the greatest year in comics’, has to pack in Batman: The Dark Knight #1, Watchmen #1, Man of Steel #1 (as well as Blue Beetle #1, Booster Gold #1 and Heroes Against Hunger #1). An aside: on p224, the double-page spread is the full-page spread from Watchmen #12 showing lots of dead people – is that really the best choice here? Then 1987 has to make do with Batman: Year One, Wonder Woman #1, Superman #1, Justice League #1, The Question #1, Suicide Squad #1; while 1988 has Hellblazer #1, Batman: The Killing Joke, Animal Man #1 (Grant Morrison) and the Death in the Family storyline that killed of the Jason Todd Robin, a section that talks about the phone number vote to decide whether he lived or died (p236 has an interior page from the book with the phone numbers for the vote). Then, 1989 finishes a very busy decade with mention of the Batman film, The Sandman #1, Doom Patrol #19 (Morrison), Batman: Arkham Asylum, the ‘Five years later’ reboot of the Legion of Super Heroes and Batman: Gotham by Gaslight.
Also of equal importance is the 1990s, with the comic boom, the Death of Superman and Batman: Knightfall, Vertigo (which gets a ‘Decade in focus’ double-page spread), James Robinson’s Starman, Preacher, Kingdom Come, Morrison’s JLA and even mentions of Lobo and Alan Davies’ JLA: The Nail. It’s interesting to see some of the choices in this decade and next, because although DC published books some very ordinary books in large numbers (2007–2010 is not a good selection), there was a lot of very good books that would have a broader impact. Kevin Smith’s Green Arrow, Brubaker and Cooke’s Catwoman, Fables, Y: The Last Man, Gotham Central, The Losers, RED, JLA/Avengers, Identity Crisis, Ex Machina, WE3, Seven Soldiers of Victory, All-Star Superman, Desolation Jones, Infinite Crisis, 52, Scalped, Final Crisis, Wednesday Comics all get a mention, as does Superman: True Brit by John Cleese and John Byrne for some reason.
It’s an interesting overview of the history of DC Comics because it’s so wide-ranging, and it is more honestly portrayed (although it doesn’t go into the sordid details about Alan Moore’s later interactions with the company) and gives a better perspective. This could be due to the involvement of DC Publishing – despite getting former Marvel people involved on the Marvel book, the company doesn’t seem to be involved – which also thanks Mark Waid ‘for looking over this book with a keen eye’, something that brings clarity and detail to what should be included as historically important and not just a hagiography.
I can’t decide which book is better. The Marvel book is bigger, whereas the font size in the DC Comics book is too small; the choice of double-page spreads in the DC Comics book is much more interesting and revealing than the more mundane choices in the Marvel book. The historical perspective in the DC Comics book is better, and the Marvel book doesn’t include certain things that you might think warrant it, such as the Captain Marvel graphic novel by Jim Starlin where the character died of cancer, and the New Universe is mostly glossed over. All told, I’m just glad I have both books because together they provide a much better view of the history of the mainstream comic-book industry, and I get to ignore any supposed rivalries between the companies and just enjoy their combined output.