UP UNTIL THE MID-1970s, the rivalry between DC and Marvel Comics, the two largest comics publishers in North America, meant that any collaboration was unthinkable. There were plenty of stories showing Batman and Superman working together, but fans of, say, Batman and Spider-Man hoping to see the two of them work together were just plain out of luck.
But in this oversized book, the first-ever major crossover between Marvel and DC, comic fans finally got to see the companies’ top two heroes in the same story. Billed as “the battle of the century,” the story saw Superman and Spider-Man apprehending their respective archenemies, Lex Luthor and Doctor Octopus. The two criminal geniuses promptly escape from jail to plot a new evil plan. After the requisite misunderstanding and fistfight between Superman and Spider-Man (whose strength was temporarily boosted to Superman’s level by Luthor), the two heroes join forces to foil the villains’ scheme, save their girlfriends, and avert a planetary disaster caused by Luthor’s latest evil device.
All in all, it was a fairly standard outing for both heroes, with scripts and art by Gerry Conway, Ross Andru, and Dick Giordano. The story was plainly outside the “official” history of either hero; in the story, both the heroes and villains acted as if they had always lived in the same universe.
It doesn’t take a lot of effort to wonder why Marvel and DC co-published this book. Everything about it, from the inclusion of their flagship characters to the oversized format (10 inches by 13 1/2 inches) was designed to make it a guaranteed sales blockbuster. Stan Lee and Carmine Infantino, respectively the heads of Marvel and DC at that point, put aside their companies’ competitiveness for the simple reason that they hoped to have a bestseller on their hands. By combining their two greatest heroes in one package, they were reaching out to each other’s fans and attempting to attract new ones by publishing a book starring the two characters that everyone, fans, and non-fans alike, had heard of.
Despite the initial interest, the sales figures weren’t as high as they had hoped. DC and Marvel went back to the well with a second Superman/Spider-Man team-up and a Batman/Hulk story in 1981, but neither issue delivered impressive sales results. They had better luck with a 1982 crossover between the hugely popular X-Men and New Teen Titans super-teams, but by that time the companies decided the benefits of inter-company crossovers just weren’t worth the effort. (As well, the old rivalry was still a factor — during the mid-1980s, a proposed JLA/Avengers crossover was scrapped when the two companies couldn’t agree on how to produce it).
Fast forward to 1996. The “Big Two” (as they’re called in collectors’ circles) still had a firm hold on the top two spots in the business, but their supremacy was threatened by a number of factors. The arrival of the independent comics movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s turned many fans away from the old superheroes, and the 1990s saw a succession of smaller companies — Image, Malibu, Valiant, and Dark Horse, to name just a few — grabbing readers and headlines with their bold marketing campaigns, fresh new artwork, and lucrative licensing deals. Dark Horse, for example, used its right to publish the comic adventures of such popular movies as Alien, Predator, and Star Wars to win readers away from Marvel and DC.
Faced with the increasing competition, Marvel and DC put aside their differences and went for broke, publishing in 1996 the “Marvel vs. DC/DC vs. Marvel” four-issue mini-series. The admittedly contrived story saw the major heroes from each company pitted against each other in a series of matches that would (of course) determine the fate of their universes. As a bonus, the mini-series was accompanied by a dozen “Amalgam Comics,” which introduced new heroes that incorporated characteristics of both Marvel and DC heroes (“Super-Soldier,” for example, was an amalgam of Superman and Captain America). This time, Marvel and DC struck gold, and the issues flew off the shelves, prompting several mini-series sequels and a new batch of Amalgam titles the following summer.
Superman vs. Spider-Man, the crossover that started it all, deserves a space on this list because of what it represents. Comic publishers have always used gimmicks to drum up fan interest in their books, but this issue is perhaps the first tangible piece of evidence that Marvel and DC were serious about staying on top. The lessons they learned in producing and marketing this title would serve them well in the years to follow when they would attempt to consolidate their hold on the industry.
Finally, on a lighter note, the book was just a helluva lot of fun. For the first time, fans of both the Webbed Wall-Crawler and the Man of Steel could enjoy a story with both of them in it. Make no mistake, comics are first and foremost a business, but they’re also a pleasure to produce and to read… and it’s nice to know that, just like our favorite heroes, the two can mix every once in a while.
From The 100 Greatest Comics of the 20th Century By Mitchell Brown
Did you know…
The very first Marvel/DC co-production was a 1975 one-shot comic based on MGM’s version of L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. At 84 pages, the oversized comic sold for the then-uncommon price of $1.50
Sales of Superman vs. Spider-Man were strong enough to warrant a second printing, a rare event in those days. Five thousand numbered copies signed by Lee and Infantino were sold through the mail.
The late 1990s saw a plethora of Marvel/DC crossovers, most of them one-shot issues in the so-called “prestige” format. Team-ups included Batman and Spider-Man, Batman and the Punisher, Green Lantern and the Silver Surfer, and Darkseid vs. Galactus.
The outcomes of five of the 11 battles in the “Marvel vs. DC” mini-series were, like Robin’s death in Batman #428, determined by the fans, who had the chance to phone and e-mail their votes in favor of their favorite heroes.