Yes, you read that right. This is simultaneously a Retroactive Continuity entry, since some of what it discusses occurred outside the first year of STAS; an Imaginary Story, since it involves DCAU characters outside the DCAU; and a Crisis on N Earths, since it involves something entirely outside the DCAU or its characters.
There is, perhaps, no question less worth asking than who “would win” in a fight between two fictional characters, for a host of reasons, starting that the question is fundamentally meaningless as it leaves out vital context: What are the victory conditions? What resources are they allowed access to–sidekicks, allies, secret lairs, equipment used in one “What If?” story 30 years ago? Where are they fighting? Why are they fighting? How well-rested are they?
Leaving out that context, however, is the point, because this question more than any other is where the juxtaposition between the collector mentality and toxic masculinity we talked about back in “The Main Man” can be found. There is no meaningful answer to the question, but for any long-running character with multiple interpretations (for example, any well-known superhero), there is an essentially endless supply of data to throw at it in pursuit of a meaningless answer.
The answer to the question is always the character for whose victory the conditions of the combat were designed, which means it’s really a question of who gets to set those conditions: who, in other words, is able to assert dominance. Generally speaking, this dominance is established by shouting increasingly obscure factoids about past stories at one another, which is to say, the contest will generally go to whoever has curated the greatest collection of such factoids.
So an entire event series built around the question (which the editors of DC vs Marvel assert it explicitly is in the second issue) of who would win in a series of fights between Marvel and DC characters seems like a terrible idea–and it is. Fortunately, even the writers of mainstream superhero comics circa 1996-7 aren’t completely incompetent, and so that declared premise is essentially abandoned a little past the halfway mark, as the event which is allowing the two “universes” to interact causes them to merge entirely–and, more importantly, causes the characters and their books to fuse. The result was a month in which “Amalgam Comics” published several #1 issues like Super-Soldier (which combined elements of Captain America and Superman), Amazon (Wonder Woman and Storm), and Dark Claw (Wolverine and Batman). In actuality, Amalgam was, as the name implies, a joint imprint, with half the comics published by DC and the other by Marvel. The next year, long after the event ended, they did it again, with significantly weirder (and, as a consequence, largely more interesting) combinations like Dark Claw Adventures (an all-ages comic spun off from the fictitious Dark Claw: The Animated Series), Lobo the Duck (Howard the Duck and Lobo, which is possibly the best combination of the lot), and Super-Soldier: Man of War (which “reprints” WWII-era Super-Soldier stories).
As a premise, there is far more to play with here. Sometimes it works: Green Skull, the villain of both Super-Soldier books, is a fantastic character, a fusion of Lex Luthor and the Red Skull into a weapons developer who tried to keep World War II running forever so he could profit off sales to both sides. Other times it doesn’t: the titular Spider-Boy combines Peter Parker’s motormouth with 90s Superboy’s insufferable “attitude” and even more insufferable jacket.
More important than what does or doesn’t work, however, is the inversion of how event comics had tended to work up to that point: as thinly veiled excuses to get characters who normally wouldn’t to punch each other. In DC vs. Marvel, the “vs” part is the thinly veiled excuse; the point of the story is a different kind of spectacle, a blurring of boundaries with the explicit goal of reassembling old elements into something new.
Much of the 90s in comics were spent catering to toxic masculinity and collectors. Characters like those in Rob Liefeld’s Youngblood–perhaps the most 90s of all 90s comics–are pure power fantasy, hence the degree to which they are essentially indistinguishable from villains. They exist to hurt and punish, protecting no one. Meanwhile, gimmicks like zeroth issues, foil covers, and crossover events sought out a market of collectors–the former two by presenting themselves as objects which would one day be rare, the latter by presenting a challenge to the completionist urge.
DC vs. Marvel presents itself as an appeal to both impulses, being a crossover event based entirely on answering the question of “who would win,” but undermines those same impulses from the start. By making the outcomes of the battles subject to a reader vote, they denied the desire for dominance that is the root of the question. This confluence of masculinity and power is questioned in the text of the comic as well when, in one of its best moments, Wonder Woman sees Thor’s hammer, which had gone flying after Thor’s defeat of DC’s Captain Marvel, and reads its inscription. Her response: “‘…if he be worthy..?’ I don’t understand. ‘Worthy’ is an awfully subjective word. How does one determine worthiness to possess the power of [Thor?]” The last word is cut off by a burst of energy as she picks up the hammer, which is followed up the reveal on the final page of that issue, a full-page spread dominated by the image of Wonder Woman wielding the hammer, her costume modified to incorporate elements of Thor’s.
In the next issue, on encountering her opponent Storm, Wonder Woman immediately discards the hammer as an unfair advantage. There is an interesting contrast here: Thor, on realizing Captain Marvel’s powers were lightning-themed, used his hammer and its control over lightning to win the fight. Wonder Woman, on realizing Storm’s powers are lightning-themed, now discards that same hammer because it isn’t fair. The implication is that it would be wrong to keep the hammer, unworthy: her worth to wield the power of Thor lies in her willingness to throw it away. She is a reassertion of the protector fantasy over the power fantasy; it should be no surprise that this same issue sees the birth of amalgam, which replaces the question of “who would win?” with the far more interesting “how can we play with this?”
Whether the crossover or ensuing Amalgam comics are any good (they mostly aren’t) is not the point; the point is what this effort represents: a shift away from the shouting, hulking, murderous brute in the center of the story to the vastly more interesting things that can happen in the story’s fringes. Of course this is hardly new to comics; finding new things to say in the fringes of old stories and old characters is what Alan Moore did in Watchmen, Neil Gaiman in Sandman, and Grant Morrison in Animal Man, all a decade or more before Amalgam. But those were all “prestige” titles. Where Marvel vs. DC matters is that it marks the point where mainstream superhero comics finally, if only briefly, understood why those works are good, and tried a little of it on themselves.
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