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Wednesday, November 18, 2020

X-amining Marvel Versus DC #1-4

"DC Versus Marvel Comics: Round One" / "Marvel Comics Versus DC: Round Two" / "Marvel Comics Versus DC: Round Three" / "DC Comics Versus Marvel Comics: Round Four
April - May 1996

In a Nutshell
The greatest heroes of the Marvel and DC universes battle one another for the fate of their universes! 

Writers: Ron Marz & Peter David
Pencilers: Dan Jurgens & Claudio Castellini
Inkers: Josef Rubinstein and Paul Neary
Letterer: Bill Oakley
Colors: Gregory Wright
Separations: Digital Chameleon
Editors: Mark Gruenwald & Mike Carlin

Plot
Across the worlds of two different universes, heroes find themselves being transported from their respective home realities into strange surroundings, coming into conflict with the natives of the new worlds. This is the result of the two cosmic entities who comprise each of the universes learning of the other's existence, triggering a battle between them. Caught in the middle is Axel Asher, a young man unknowingly imbued with a shard of the brothers' cosmic power. The two brothers each select champions from amongst their respective creations to do battle, with the winning universe continuing to exist and the losing one wiped out. Though reluctant, the heroes battle one another to save their worlds, until the result comes down to the evenly-matched Batman and Captain America. Axel, embracing his power and taking the name Access, imbues both heroes with a bit of their own universes just as the cosmic beings Spectre and the Living Tribunal force the universal brothers together, attempting a comprise to save both universes. This results in the heroes and villains of both worlds combing into amalgamated versions of themselves for a time, before Access forces the two worlds apart using the shards he embedded in Batman and Captain America. Their battle resumed, the two brothers easily overpower the Spectre & Living Tribunal, leaving Batman & Captain America to convince Access to bring them into the fight. He does, and the two brothers read their minds, realizing the two heroes are like the brothers: unique amongt their worlds, with little interest in the conflict the brothers are perpetuating. This brings them to a halt as they realize the pointlessness of their fight, and the brothers allow both universes to continue, shaking hands and declaring that each has done well. 

Firsts and Other Notables
A joint publication venture between the two biggest publishers of superhero comic books, this miniseries pits the respective heroes of the Marvel and DC universes against one another for the fate of their universes. While not the final collaboration between the two publishers (there would be subsequent cross-company crossovers involving various characters through to the end of the decade), this miniseries does feel in many ways like the culmination of the friendly rivalry between the two companies which started with stuff like the Superman/Spider-Man crossover back in the 70s, cooled a bit in the 80s with Marvel under Jim Shooter's control (during which time the original JLA/Avengers crossover stalled out) and then began again in 1994 with a Batman/Punisher crossover that led to semi-regular crossovers between the two companies (including Spider-Man/Batman and Silver Surfer/Green Lantern crossovers in 1995 and 1996 which are obliquely referenced in this series). This new era of cross-company cooperation was likely spurred in large part by the popping speculator bubble at the time and the hope that these kinds of crossovers might wring a few extra dollars out of fans as the market crashed around both companies. By the early 00s, with Marvel coming out of bankruptcy, the Jemas/Quesada leadership team eventually put an end to the inter-company crossovers, actively thumbing their noses at DC and making the rivalry a little less friendly (to date, 2003's JLA/Avengers, a crossover that was effectively grandfathered in and survived the conflicting & contractual interests of Marvel, DC, and Crossgen to come to fruition, is the final official crossover between the two companies). 

The general conceit of "Marvel characters fight DC characters" in this miniseries unfolds in a series of eleven one-on-one matchups between characters from each universe roughly analogous to one another (more on this shortly), with the creative team deciding the outcome of six battles, leaving the final five battles to be voted on by the readers. The first six battles are Aquaman vs. Sub-Mariner (with Aquaman winning), Elektra vs. Catwoman (Elektra), Captain Marvel vs. Thor (Thor), Jubilee vs. Robin (Robin), Flash vs. Quicksilver (Flash), and Silver Surfer vs. Green Lantern (Silver Surfer). The fan-vote battles are Superman vs. Hulk (Superman), Wonder Woman vs. Storm (Storm), Wolverine vs. Lobo (Wolverine), Superboy vs. Spider-Man (Spider-Man) and Batman vs. Captain America (effectively a draw, though Batman technically wins). 


Obviously, the creator-decided battles reflect much more logical outcomes, as they are guided by narrative sense and an understanding of the respective characters, whereas the fan-voted battles are much more hit-or-miss, as they are seemingly decided by simple favoritism (the most egregious of these are easily Wolverine vs. Lobo - I know very little about Lobo, but what I do know suggests he should have wiped the floor with Wolverine, especially an adamantium-less one - and Storm vs. Wonder Woman - as there's simply no way Wonder Woman, who is nearly Superman-esque in terms of power levels, could be defeated by Storm). Of course, part of the problem is that each match-up is, out of necessity, fairly brief, which doesn't allow for a lot of back-and-forth or clever plotting in the fights to help sell some of the more unexpected fan-voted outcomes.  


In general, this series tries to match up characters based on their respective cross-company analogs, but while in some cases, this can be blisteringly-obvious (Aquaman & Namor are each company's respective "underwater/fish man characters", Hawkeye & Green Arrow are their "guys who think they can contribute via archery", even Jubilee/Robin (similarly-color coded sidekicks) and Elektra/Catwoman (femme fatale love interests of heroes) match-up fairly well with each other), in other cases, it's not as clear cut. DC doesn't really have a Spider-Man-style character, as Spider-Man represents something of a sea change in how superheroes were presented (as he effectively merged the responsible hero with the sassy sidekick into one character when he was created) but while Spider-Man does function as an analog to Superman in terms of being the flagship characters of their respective companies (which is why the two were the stars of the first Marvel/DC superhero crossover), Superman is needed elsewhere.  Similarly, Marvel has long-suffered from the absence of a strong standalone female character like Wonder Woman (with Captain Marvel effectively filling that role now, thankfully, but her ascendance was still a ways off in 1996). 

Even characters like Superman/Hulk, Shazam/Thor, and Batman/Captain America don't quite lineup. Thor is probably a better match for Superman than Hulk, given his mysticism and range of powers, but he admittedly does match up well with Shazam/the OG Captain Marvel given their shared links to mythology and lightning-based powers (though Thor could also serve as a Wonder Woman analog), while Batman probably has more in common with Punisher (both driven to eradicate crime by the deaths of their families) or Daredevil (both guilt-ridden vigilantes largely overpowered by their contemporaries) or even Spider-Man (in out-of-universe terms, being two characters capable of carrying multiple regular series at a time before that became trendy) than Captain America (though the two are largely considered the pre-eminent hand-to-hand combatants of their respective universes, which is the hook this series uses to hang their pairing on), while Captain America could also be an analog to Superman (as both are generally presented as the pre-eminent moral authorities & de facto leaders of their respective heroic associations). 

This series introduces a character named Access, who is imbued with a shard of the two comic book universe brothers' power and capable of dimensional travel between the two universes. He is technically co-owned by both Marvel and DC, created to serve as an easy vehicle for future such crossovers, and would appear again in All Access & Access Unlimited, follow-up miniseries of sorts to this one, though beyond that he has made scant few appearances (with DC the only company to use him in a non-crossover capacity, in an issue of Green Lantern). 


Access facilitates the creation of the Amalgam Universe at the end of issue #3, in which he merges the two universes into one, resulting in new characters that are fused versions of two or more Marvel and DC characters, like Dark Claw (Wolverine & Batman) and Super-Patriot (Superman and Captain America). This led, in a joint venture, to the publication, in one week, of twelve "Amalgam Universe" one-shots, cover dated April 1996 and published between issues #3 and #4 of this series, featuring the merged characters and written as though these were the versions of the characters which always existed (a second set of twelve Amalgam one-shots followed in 1997). 


The first two issues feature appendices offering brief Marvel Handbook (or Who's Who, if you prefer)-style entries on the various characters, with the fourth issue giving the same approach to the creative team. 


Creator Central 
Production of the series was split between the two companies, with each publisher handling two issues a piece, with the title moving the name of the company producing the issue into the first position for their respective issues and listing that company's creative team first in the credits. 

Writing credit is split between Green Lantern writer Ron Marz (for DC) and Peter David (for Marvel, though he has plenty of DC experience as well), with Dan Jurgens (DC) and Claudio Castellini (Marvel) handling the penciling duties. 

The Chronology Corner
Though published in 1996, this story is considered to take place further back in time, story-wise, with Jubilee (and Paige, briefly), for example, appearing here between issues #6 and #7 of Generation X, while Wolverine appears between Wolverine #92 and #93 and Storm between Uncanny X-Men #324 and #325. 

Juggernaut appears briefly fighting the X-Men in issue #1, which is more problematic; it is considered to take place between X-Men #42 (when he's unconscious following Onslaught's assault in Uncanny X-Men #322) and Wolverine #93 (when he wakes up and hightails it out of the mansion out of fear of Onslaught), meaning the fight shown in this series between him and the X-Men either explicitly takes place during Wolverine #93 when he's trying to leave, or else he woke up, appeared in this series, got knocked out and taken back to the mansion to wake up again in Wolverine #93. 

A Work in Progress
Flash easily bests Quicksilver in their face-off, which is the correct outcome given that Flash is capable, via the Speed Force, of faster than light travel while Quicksilver tops out at around the speed of a supersonic jet. 


Jubilee is understandably bested by Robin in their matchup. 


Wolverine bests Lobo, with much of the fight happening off-panel (likely the result of the result coming in via vote; this way, only the final panel with the victor emerging needed to be done after the vote was tabulated). 


Storm somehow manages to defeat Wonder Woman (somehow: X-Men fans voted her up over Wonder Woman). 


Crossover Fun! 
After fighting the X-Men, Juggernaut runs into Superman. 


In issue #2, Bane tries to break Captain America's back in the same way he broke Batman's at the climax of "Knightfall", Batman's answer to the "Death of Superman" event. 


Rick Jones and Snapper Car, the Avengers and Justice League's respective professional fans, appear briefly in issue #3. 


Both Clark Kent and "Peter Parker" worry about ditching each other in order to get into costume. 


Thanos and the character who maybe, possibly, inspired his design, Darkseid, appear alongside each other a couple times. 


The Grim 'n' Gritty 90s
At this point in time, Peter Parker was no longer Spider-Man, as his clone, believing himself to be the real deal and using the name Ben Reilly, had taken his place (Peter eventually returns and Ben is confirmed to be the clone; for more on that, see most any Spider-Man comic from roughly 1994 to 1998). The writers dance around this somewhat this series by having Ben give "Peter Parker" as a professional alias in the first issue, then more or less acting like it's the original Spider-Man throughout the rest of the series, which is really the only instance of either company attempting to pave over a character's current status quo with a more recognizable/familiar-to-casual fans version. 


Similarly, the Superboy in this series is the "teenaged clone of Superman" version of the character who debuted as one of the four potential Superman replacements after "Death of Superman", DC's way of have their "the ongoing adventures of Superman as a boy!" cake while eating their "Superman was actually never Superboy and first started operating as a superhero while an adult" cake too. 

I'm fairly certain the Green Goblin who appears very briefly in this series is the Teen Goblin/nephew of reporter Ben Urich who will also participate in "Onslaught". 


A Warner Bros. Store, the WB version of the Disney Stores which could once be found in malls back when malls were still a thing, appears in issue #2, with some Pinky and the Brain statutes displayed prominently. 


Thor appears throughout the series in one of his bad 90s costumes (Thor was saddled with some terrible costumes in the 90s). 


Wolverine facing off against Lobo in issue #3 is somewhat ironic given that Lobo was created in the 80s as a parody of popular anti-hero characters like Wolverine, then went on to become a genuinely popular anti-hero in his own right, and ends up facing off against one of his out-of-universe inspirations in this series. 

Also, if you can't drop off your ballot at a comic shop, you can mail it in or submit it via American Online

The Reference Section
Jubilee makes repeated references to liking Robin's fashion sense, a nod to the fact that the coloration in her iconic Jim Lee design was a direct homage to Robin's color scheme (and, more specifically, the female Carrie Kelly Robin of Dark Knight Returns), with Jubilee at the time filling a similar "sidekick who lightens up the grim hero" role to Wolverine.


Young Love
After their match-up, Jubilee and Robin, who are smitten with each other throughout the series, end up in Venice together.


Austin's Analysis
First and foremost, this series is a novelty: the novelty of two ostensible rivals coming together to publish a series together, of seeing big name characters from comics two biggest universes interact with one another on a character level, from Spider-Man hitting on Lois Lane to Batman & Captain America comparing the motivations inherent to their origins, of seeing those same characters fight each other, and the novelty (and occasional frustration) of having fans vote on the outcome of those fights. As a novelty, then, this mostly works, with the biggest letdown being some of the fan votes and the fact that the mid 90s were a very weird time for a number of these characters, so we end up with some less-than-iconic interpretations of them on display. But otherwise, the sheer fanboy thrill of seeing Flash race Quicksilver or Wonder Woman wield Thor's hammer is there on the page, and it's all pretty fun. 

Unfortunately, there's also very little to this series aside from the novelty of it. Access, the one major original character from the series, is a valiant attempt at creating an "audience surrogate" in the story to ground the proceedings and comment on the happenings, but he's no Norman McCay from Kingdom Come, and doesn't really do much of anything (aside from create the Amalgams) until the final issue. The cosmic stuff involving the two "brothers" representing each universe works well enough (in terms of creating personifications that represent abstract concepts like "publishing companies controlling a shared universe of characters"), but most of the events in the story itself lack a sense of setting, and suffers for it - we're told at various times when events are happening in, say, Marvel's New York or DC's Gotham City, but it never actually feels like events are taking place anywhere specific or anywhere other than in front of a non-descript panel background. Similarly, the story suffers a lack of an antagonist: super-villains appear throughout, but don't really drive the action, while the central conflict of the two cosmic brothers is largely abstract. Secret Wars, for example, had the cosmic and (at the time) largely obtuse Beyonder, but it also had Dr. Doom, and this series suffers from the lack of a character playing a similar role. 

And for as much as the series likes to present big splashes of heroes on each side lined up with their respective opponent/opposite, there's no real sense of shared purpose on either side: the characters know what they need to do and what the stakes are when it comes to the individual contests, but there's never any scenes of the collective sides gathering and taking stock of what is going on, nothing like the scenes in the heroes' base on Battleworld in, again, Secret Wars, or on the Monitor's station in Crisis on Infinite Earths. Because, of course, this series is more concerned with the novelty of the individual match-ups than the collective ones, which is fine, but, again, the story - as a story and not just a gimmick - suffers for it as a result. It exists in this weird limbo between being an actual story with actual narrative consequences, and being a collection of out-of-context vignettes in which two heroes from different universes fight each other. 

Ultimately then, this doesn't really hold up as anything more than a gimmick. It's certainly not on the level of those big intra-universe crossovers like Secret Wars or Crisis, or even something like the X-Men/New Teen Titans crossover, which managed to be a gimmick but also tell a compelling story. But at the same time, it's largely inoffensive for being little more than a gimmick (it never really tries to suggest it's much more than that, and is easy enough to ignore if you don't care about one universe or the other), and there is some fun to be had in the match-ups and DC/Marvel interactions (if anything, it might have been better to shed its attempts at telling a story even more, jettisoned Access entirely and just leaned even more into the crossover elements). And, of course, it succeeds in arguably its most important task: rather than settling once and for all who is stronger, faster, or would win in a fight, it further stokes discussions amongst fans about such things, about who should have won which fight or who is the more appropriate Marvel analog to a particular DC character, or which character's universe is best. Because, after all, sometimes, it's the friendly arguing about such things that's the most fun.     

Next Issue
Next week, Rogue reunites with Magneto (sort of) in X-Men Unlimited #11!

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7 comments:

  1. I remember mailing in my ballot. I tried to set my Marvel fanboyishness aside and go as logically as I could -- but I kind of failed. I voted Superman over Hulk and Wonder Woman over Storm, which I still believe to be correct. I went Spider-Man over Superboy. Not knowing much about that iteration of Superboy, I just figured Spidey had more experience and could come out on top even if he was outmatched. I knew absolutely nothing about Lobo (still don't, for the most part, aside from his DCAU appearances), so I voted for Wolverine simply because I did know him.

    Then there was Batman v. Captain America. I wasn't a big Cap fan at the time. Had I been, I would've realized that his real "super power" is simply that he ALWAYS WINS, and I would've voted for him. But instead, I voted for Batman, who I figured was better rounded than Cap in terms of his skillset. I liked that the creators of this series basically made the fight a draw, even though Batman had technically won the vote. I've actually always liked the way Kurt Busiek and George Perez handled the fight in JLA/AVENGERS, with the two dueling a bit and then quickly realizing that they could literally fight each other for hours with neither ever gaining the upper hand.

    Speaking of which, while as you said, this series is an interesting little novelty, I tend to consider JLA/AVENGERs the "real" MARVEL VS. DC. In part because it was so long in the making, in part because it was created by the team that handled my all-time favorite AVENGERS run, and in part because Busiek found ways to work "iconic" versions of the characters into the story even when they didn't exist at the time. Where MARVEL VS. DC has to run with "of their time" things you pointed out, like Thor's dumb 90s look, the Ben Reilly Spider-Man costume (even though he calls himself Peter Parker), Kyle Rayner as the sole Green Lantern, and so forth, JLA/AVENGERS works in Hal Jordan and Barry Allen, gets the characters into their classic costumes whenever possible, and so forth.

    I think I only bought one Amalgam book, which was AMAZON -- only because it was John Byrne and Terry Austin doing Storm. Though when they did the second round of Amalgam stuff, I also picked up DARK CLAW ADVENTURES, since I was a regular reader of BATMAN ADVENTURES. While I remember a lot about MARVEL VS. DC, I barely recall anything about those two issues.

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    1. I really dig JLA/AVENGERS too. I may have try to find some excuse to revisit & review it when the time comes, since it's not really X-Men-relevant in any way (I guess Quicksilver & Scarlet Witch are there, but that's about it).

      I've actually always liked the way Kurt Busiek and George Perez handled the fight in JLA/AVENGERS, with the two dueling a bit and then quickly realizing that they could literally fight each other for hours
      with neither ever gaining the upper hand.


      Something similar happens here - it's suggested that the pair have been fighting to a draw off-panel for hours and have concluded they're too evenly matched for either to win before the sewer pipe breaks and Batman wins on a technicality.

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  2. Meanwhile, someone at Capcom is reading this series and saying "Hold on a minute..."

    One other huge indicator that this series was "of its time": no Iron Man, because I think he was too busy betraying the Avengers and being replaced by his teenage self or somesuch. Granted he wasn't in Marvel Vs Capcom either, but that was because of liscensing issues.

    I agree that JLA/ Avengers did this whole concept much better, what with having an actual story. Amalgam was a lot of fun though. Dr. Doomsday as a concept is sort of the scariest villain combination I've ever heard. And Dr. Strangefate has a fun twist ending for X-Men fans.

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    1. Good point on Iron Man - I almost wrote a little blurb about his absence. He was Teen Tony at this point in time, and I'm sure Marvel wasn't terribly invested in featuring him after "The Crossing". He's also one of those characters with no clear DC analog. Sometimes he gets paired up with Green Lantern (they both...shoot...energy beams?) and sometimes Batman (rich playboys secretly fighting crime) and I suppose he lines up with Steel a bit (inventors operating robotic suits of armor). If we're comparing the Avengers Big Three to DC's Trinity, he's definitely the Batman, but outside of that context, there's no clear fit.

      And Dr. Strangefate has a fun twist ending for X-Men fans.

      Good to know! I'm planning on doing something here with the X-Men-relevant Amalgam books at some point, but I haven't read Dr. Strangefate before, and wouldn't have considered it an X-related one, so I'll have to check that out.

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  3. Man what a disapointment the main series of this was. The compbined character books were at least fun with some neat ideas. Getting around a page a fight really doesn't do anything for this big showdown type of book and as mentioned, who wins is because of fandom and not actual power/ability.

    Seeing that Dan Jurgens was doing the art, I knew right away that it would feel very bland and he'd play it safe without any fancy character design or anything with any energy. Dan's like the ultimate comic book artist Jobber. He's the B student that never passses above average but draws everyone and everything as it should be.

    What would have been much cooler is if the hero's switched places and they had to figure out how to handle the other persons villains. The closest thing really to Peter Parker in DC at the time was probably the Flash. Imagine if they switched worlds and Spider-man was up agains the Rogues and Flash was against the Sinister Six.

    By the time the JLA/Avengers book came out, eh. I wasn't a big fan of either of those two teams so it did next to nothing for me and the cost was something like $5 a book. Avengers to me has generally been boring and JLA is basically so overpowered compared to most threats.

    Again, I liked the Amalagram random books as they were fun and creative. Fun to see who got mixed with who. Dr StrangeFate was such a cool design and I'd buy that regular book.

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  4. All I remember was the art was bland. Also Marvel running and then later apologizing for ads touting their win because of an agreement they and DC had made that the winner wouldn't do that.

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  5. I unironically love this series. I recognize its shortcomings in retrospect (in art, especially) but man it just hits my right in the nostalgia for exactly the reason Teebore hits at the very end: "it's the friendly arguing about such things that's the most fun."

    > Rick Jones and Snapper Car, the Avengers and Justice League's respective professional fans, appear briefly in issue #3.

    I have never heard of Snapper Car or quite got this panel until this write-up.

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