Ketchup vs. mustard. Coke vs. Pepsi. Cats vs. dogs. In the world of comics, it’s almost always a binary division among fans that comes between Marvel and DC. For years, readers have argued between the Big Two, never coming to a consensus, while fans of both brands sat back and watched the chaos. In recent years, a third opponent has risen to challenge Marvel and DC: Image Comics is the mayonnaise to their ketchup and mustard, the Mountain Dew to their Coke and Pepsi, the hamster to their cat and dog. Which comic book behemoth reigns supreme across all platforms?
The first Marvel comic debuted in 1939 and featured the original Human Torch and Namor the Sub-Mariner. Over years with the talents and ideas of Jack Kirby, Joe Simon, Steve Ditko and Stan Lee came Captain America, Hulk, Spider-Man, Thor, Iron Man, The Avengers, X-Men and many more familiar heroes. Marvel broke the mold of traditional comics at the time and appealed to older audiences by making characters face everyday problems, like its readers did. Stan Lee made Spider-Man a high-schooler with teenage dilemmas and the Fantastic Four a dysfunctional family in order to add more nuance to the tried-and-true staples of superheroes.
Recently in the Secret Wars event, Marvel brought together its many alternate universes and put everything under an All-New, All-Different label. This served as a starting point for new readers and offered more diversity among the heroes. Kamala Khan, the Pakistani Ms. Marvel, Miles Morales, the Afro-Latino Spider-Man, and Jane Foster, the female Thor, quickly became fan favorites. Currently, the Marvel universe is embroiled in the Secret Empire event, where Captain America reveals himself to be a Hydra sleeper agent and attempts to take over the world.
DC icon Superman first appeared in Action Comics in 1938 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, which began the superhero archetype that we know today. A year later, Bob Kane and Bill Finger created Batman in the pages of Detective Comics, giving DC its two most popular heroes. The company later added Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, the Justice League and others to its ranks. Many of the characters had godlike powers and darker storylines than their Marvel counterparts. A major difference between the Big Two can be summed up by this popular quote: “DC stories are about gods that think they’re human and Marvel stories are about men trying to be like gods.”
With relaunching comic brands being a recently popular move, DC did it twice with the New 52 relaunch several years ago and DC Rebirth last year. Rebirth brought back missing heroes from the last relaunch, introduced new characters and switched up some of the writing and artwork teams on existing titles. What makes Rebirth stand out is that characters acknowledged the previous reboot of their universe and are trying to find out why it happened and what changed. It also appears the Watchmen universe is being absorbed into DC, as Dr. Manhattan seems to be the force behind the relaunches. In their titles now, Batman and the Flash are investigating the event and the Watchmen in the current storyline, The Button.
Image Comics was founded in 1992 and championed creator-owned comics, giving their writers the copyrights to their own characters, unlike Marvel’s and DC’s practices. Founders Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, Marc Silvestri, Erik Larsen, Whilce Portacio, Jim Valentino and Rob Liefeld brought Spawn, the Savage Dragon, Youngblood and WildC.A.Ts as the company’s flagship titles. A few years later after some of the founders left, Robert Kirkman came on as a new partner with The Walking Dead and Invincible, two of Image’s most popular and longest-running series. The company became known for its character-driven stories that spanned various genres, much more than just superhero stories.
Now, Image has a variety of award-winning series that rival Marvel’s and DC’s bests. Independent creators have flocked to the company to start their original titles that may not be picked up at other outlets. Saga, a combination of Star Wars and Romeo and Juliet by Brian K. Vaughan, is currently one of their most popular titles. Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have teamed for several crime noir limited iseries, like The Fade Out, Fatale and Kill or Be Killed. For an even stranger story, there’s Chew by John Layman, which is about a Food and Drug Administration agent with psychic powers who solves crimes in a world where chicken is outlawed because the bird flu killed millions of people. For anyone who’s tired of traditional superhero stories, Image has dozens of unique titles to fill any need.
The Movies and Shows
Look no further than the constant entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to see why the company is dominating the film world. Ever since 2008’s Iron Man planted the seeds for The Avengers to come to the big screen, almost every movie has been a blockbuster hit. Nearly every character to grace the screen has become a household name, and there’s no end in sight for the MCU. Along with the 20th Century Fox’s X-Men movies, there are Marvel films planned to release through 2019 and beyond.
Marvel’s venture into TV shows has been nearly as successful as their films. The greatest examples are Netflix’s shows, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist and the upcoming Defenders and Punisher series. The grittier, more violent shows have grabbed older viewers more than the mainstream movies. ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and FX’s Legion have proven to be hits, but time will tell whether upcoming shows, like Runaways on Hulu and Freeform’s Cloak & Dagger and New Warriors, will stand out. Marvel has had success with animated shows based on Spider-Man, X-Men and The Avengers, but many are geared toward younger audiences.
Before the MCU took off, the pinnacle of the superhero genre was Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Not only is The Dark Knight easily one of the best superhero films, it’s one of the most critically acclaimed movies of the 2000s. The movie’s dark story, especially Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker, won over almost every viewer, but set a bar too high for DC to reach again. Now the company is trying to build their own extended universe, but Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad were heartbreaking flops. The upcoming Wonder Woman, Justice League and Aquaman movies will attempt to break that trend.
Separate from the film universe, The CW’s Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow are arguably the biggest superhero shows on cable TV. The shows have been had huge success and even feature crossover episodes in their shared Arrowverse. Fox’s Gotham, a show following a young Detective Jim Gordon set shortly after the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents, even has a decent audience. Animated series based on Batman, the Justice League and Teen Titans were also popular in their time, and the fan-favorite Young Justice is being brought back after its sudden cancellation several years ago.
Due to being younger and having fewer recognizable characters, Image Comics haven’t had many of their titles brought to the big or small screens. Films based on Spawn, Wanted and Witchblade haven’t brought much attention to the company; however, that could all change with Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s upcoming Invincible movie. Robert Kirkman’s long-running Invincible series has subverted almost every superhero trope with its crazy twists and bloody fights. A movie based on the comic would have to be a parody of mainstream superhero movies with intense, bloody action.
Proving that Robert Kirkman knows how to make massively successful comics, the major Image series on TV is AMC’s The Walking Dead. With its upcoming eighth season, the zombie-drama show has been going strong for years and even has its own talk show following the episodes and Fear the Walking Dead, a spinoff. It is consistently one of the highest-rated shows in the 18-49 demographic and was breaking viewership records left and right in its prime. Sadly, the ratings for the last couple of seasons have dropped compared to the peak middle seasons, but the series shows no signs of ending any time soon.
Looking holistically at the comics, movies and TV shows of Marvel, DC and Image, it’s harder to determine a clear winner. Many people may not consider Image Comics to be on the same level as the Big Two, but in several years the comic industry may have a Big Three. Let me know your favorites and what you think in the comments!