By Charles EP Murphy
The Avengers and Justice League go to war! Wonder Woman wields the hammer of Thor! Peter Parker tries to go on a date with Lois Lane! The Joker is surprised to learn the Red Skull is a Nazi despite him being the Red Skull! LOBO THE DUCK! All of these are things that have happened in the sporadic Marvel/DC crossovers that existed from 1976’s Superman VS The Amazing Spider-Man to the early 2003’s JLA/Avengers. Due to increasingly at-odds upper management, these crossovers will never happen again. But they could have been permanent if Marvel had taken over DC back in the 1980s. Buyout Crisis Jim Shooter was the editor-in-chief of Marvel from 1978-1987 and responsible for helping turn the company around, making it more profitable and ensuring the comics actually came out each month – something that had badly slipped in the 70s. In the process, he imposed more of a ‘house style’ back on Marvel and the free-wheeling experimentation of the 70s would end as well. In early 1984, as he’d reveal on his blog in 2011, Warner Communications’ bigwig Bill Sarnoff phoned him up and asked if Marvel would like to license DC Comics’ properties. In effect, DC’s publishers would shut it down and hand the keys to Marvel. According to Shooter, “Bill said, more or less, that Marvel seemed to be able to turn a substantial profit on publishing comics, as opposed to DC, which consistently lost money”, while DC outdid Marvel in licensing. Shooter would also say that he had to talk his superiors into this, as Marvel’s president Jim Galton felt DC’s characters couldn’t be that great or Marvel wouldn’t be outselling them. “I explained that they were great characters and that the DC editorial people were, frankly, doing a pretty poor job with them. And that we could do better. A lot better.” The business plan Shooter put together was for a launch of seven titles – Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Teen Titans, Justice League, and Legion of Super-Heroes (which he’d worked on as a youth) – with a cautious expansion if sales permitted. His blog included a scan of his cover letter to management, comparing the deal to Marvel’s existing one for Star Wars, “pay them an advance and guarantee against a very small royalty”. “What’s in it for us is the money we’d make publishing those characters and the elimination of an irritation.” However, soon after, independent company First Comics launched a lawsuit accusing Marvel of anti-trust violations and that made Marvel back off the plan. As Shooter said, “I think it’s safe to say that when you’re being sued under anti-trust laws, it’s a bad time to devour your largest competitor.” Interestingly, in 1986, Jim Shooter came up with “the New Universe”, a separate continuity of more ‘realistic’ superheroes – and Jones & Jacob’s The Comic Book Heroes (1997) argued several of these characters are deliberate takes on DC properties, with Shooter’s Star Brand spinning off Green Lantern. Amalgam Comics
What would the comics have been like? Shooter said in his blog’s comments that the line would be a separate continuity, at least at first. We can safely assume that would inevitably change because that is how comics work. At the very least, the DC characters would start to have dimension-hopping crossovers, just as the ‘Golden Age’ DC characters used to pop over from their home on Earth-2. As for what the comics would be like, Shooter claims that writer-artist John Byrne heard about the plans and showed up at his office with a mock cover and a story plan. Byrne was, at this point, a big name at Marvel for his work on X-Men and then Fantastic Four; two years later, DC would poach him to reboot Superman for the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths series Man of Steel. While some details would differ, he would have the same interests – making Superman the sole living Kryptonian, revamping Lex Luthor as a Trump-esque business mogul, dropping the Superboy backstory, and bringing in more 80s aesthetics and soap opera. Similarly, it is highly likely Frank Miller still works on Batman due to his work revamping Daredevil as hard-boiled noir – that is, after all, how Miller got the job in OTL. Shooter’s Marvel was more hidebound and regimented than DC at the time, so The Dark Knight Returns is unlikely to be something it would allow but elements would turn up, and a version of Year One is likely as an early story. Top creators on other Marvel comics, such as Chris Claremont and Walt Simonson, are likely to be brought in, and loyal editorial figures as well. Possibly you could see Mark Gruenwald , who did work on a mid-80s Squadron Supreme miniseries: an alternate-universe pseudo-DC team of heroes. In that story, he had them take over the world to bring about a utopia, and a variation of this that doesn’t go quite that far might be approved for an actual Justice League story. Would Shooter himself be involved? He did write the flagship Star Brand for New Universe. The comics would likely be good. In some cases, we know they would be because versions of them exist! There’s no problem getting good comics out of this. The problem is everything else… Civil War The first thing that happens is DC Comics shuts down. The “irritation” is removed, as Shooter put in. The DC Universe that’s existed since 1956 and its various alternate worlds, they’re all gone. And the only way to see some of the characters is at Marvel. Many existing DC readers are going to be very unhappy about that. Many comic creators and editorial & admin staff will lose work, and they’ll be unhappy too. The nascent direct market comic shops are going to be extremely unhappy because that’s a lot of sales gone. It's correct to assume that Marvel’s DC line will sell a ton of comics. It will have the shock of the new, it will have big names, it will have news buzz. Will it outsell the comics it replaces? Possibly, from “Marvel Zombies” (the fans who bought EVERYTHING) joining kids who just want to see Superman hit Luthor and the irritated DC fans who stuck around. But will it sell enough to replace all of those lost DC Comics? If it does not, the direct market could be in serious trouble. In fact, in our timeline, it was in serious trouble before and after – the early 1980s had seen the nascent direct market glutted with too much product, and when desperate comic shops turned to upcoming Marvel (including Shooter’s own Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars), several smaller publishers went under. A greater crash would occur later around 1986/7 as a boom of black-and-white indie comics, inspired by the success of Ninja Turtles, turned into a major bust that shook the entire independent side of the industry. In an acerbic summary of the crisis in 1987, Fantagraphics’ Gary Groth summarised how the crash worked out in The Comics Journal #116: “Most comics retailers work on a tight financial budget; that is, they are under-capitalized and rely on week-to-week cash-flow to pay their bills. They must constantly move products in order to generate cash to pay for next week’s or next month’s books … This puts the retailer in the ridiculous position of being unable to fill the demand for books readers actually want to read because he literally cannot afford to buy them from his distributor. Mr. Retailer had to work with what capital he had left, which resulted in any number of ugly scenarios: if he had no capital left, he went out of business — as an inordinate number of retailers did in the last six months; he may have cut back orders dramatically because he didn’t have the capital necessary to buy his standard order; he may have paid his distributor late or not at all, which in turn forced distributors to pay publishers late or not at all. The domino was in place and it was an unmitigated disaster for distributors as well as retailers.” So, what happens if Warner abruptly pulls the plug on DC only a year or so after a small slump? That’s a lot of capital gone, kicking off that perfect storm Groth described. And unlike the black-and-white glut, this won’t be the fault of a mass of spivs and bad product, but Marvel killing its old foe and then exploiting the corpse. And in the 1980s, despite what Shooter may say about DC’s quality, DC had been running a number of quality comics under president Jenette Kahn: there’s a reason Shooter would’ve kept Teen Titans and it’s that Marv Wolfman & George Perez’s take was selling. DC Comics had also been experimenting with miniseries, taking risks with titles like Miller’s Ronin, allowing more creators’ rights than Marvel, and publishing creators like Alan Moore. What view will comic fandom take if they lose Teen Titans and then get it back with all the storylines rebooted; or if something as shockingly new and complex as Moore’s Swamp Thing, just starting out, is gone forever for Marvel-method work? And if that happens at the same time as numerous independent comics crashing out? In our timeline, Groth and others in more ‘serious’ fandom loathed Shooter as an arch-capitalist who ran an empire of homogenous product and was more dismissive of creators’ rights than his immediate rival. Many creators had it in for him too, due to his dominance over Marvel and their storylines. Tales abound of tension, as even big names like Claremont had planned stories overruled or ‘guidelines’ for storytelling were pushed on them. This loathing for Shooter would increase in parts of fandom if Marvel has wiped out DC and replaced it, but it would be worse for the creators – because for many, now DC’s dead, there’s nowhere to go. Creators who’d already left Marvel for DC would be stuffed, as would creators hoping to leave. Who would lose their job for good? Who would continue to seethe under Marvel management and have to put up with it? None of this, of course, would greatly affect sales. Marvel would continue selling. But how long could it go with that many disgruntled comic fans and creators hoping to see a challenger rise up, or to see blood in the water? This is also the era of a brief surge in belligerent creator’s rights, and of the cause celeb of Jack Kirby never receiving his original art from Marvel. The fight got extremely heated: Kirby told The Comics Journal at one point that he wouldn’t sign a special deal as a compromise as “I wouldn’t cooperate with the Nazis, and I won’t cooperate with them.” Without any real competition, can Shooter and Marvel ignore the pressure or does the PR damage still hurt? Does the end of DC kill the creator’s rights movement early or make it a harder movement? After all, where is there to go? Of course, if you’re a big name, you could go to the independents. But Who Is Left?
The big independent players of the 80s were First Comics, Eclipse Comics, and Comico. They were the ones holding over ten per cent of the market share each. Eclipse was the most ‘middlebrow’ of them, leaning very left-wing but more ‘genre’ in its output than the alternatives like Fantagraphics. At this point, they’d also published fundraising comics for Jack Kirby and reprinted Moore’s Marvelman. First and Comico were the more aggressively capitalist companies. The former had hits with comics like American Flagg! and had bought up several titles left homeless with the early-80s market crunch. Comico had been picking up the rights to cartoons like Robotech and Johnny Quest as well as running original titles. Both First and Eclipse would OTL start up translated reprints of mangas like Lone Wolf & Cub. And in OTL, all three would be effectively dead from a changing market before the 1993 crash. In this timeline, however, do they survive? All three are going to be massively hit by the impact on comic shops and as independent companies, that puts them at severe risk. However, in the mid-80s, Comico was extremely health until, as Bill Willingham told The Comics Journal #278, it “grabbed defeat from the jaws of victory” and thought it was a successful enough company to throw caution to the wind. The big issue was in 1986, they decided to try for newsstand distribution and “that just sucked money out of the company like nobody’s business”. If Comico has taken a severe hit, they won’t want to try playing in the less safe newsstand market and will survive as an independent irritation to Marvel. First Comics also experimented with the newsstand at the same time, which will be out for the same reason. Financially it too would be fine. However, just like Marvel, First Comics also got involved in fights over creators’ rights issues – namely, it wasn’t properly giving them. Eclipse did, which puts it in a better position to attract creators with some name brand who want to work on anything non-Marvel. Comico had several titles it ‘shared contract’ with but with the licensed comics, it has a backup if it can’t attract its own titles; in this, it would be equivalent to how Dark Horse Comics ran in our time, several titles of its own and a core of well-received licenses. The possible outcome is Eclipse and Comico surpass First Comics in the direct market, though First still holds on and likely recovers by going after manga reprints. Eclipse becomes the home for creator-owned work by major figures, Comico for licenses, First for manga. And happily for Eclipse, there will be a lot of major figures who might want to try working on something they own and can’t be told what to do on. Equally, there will be a lot of creators who would not be able to get work from Marvel after DC fell, and Comico and First might be open. Of course, this all depends on one thing: that the black-and-white boom/bust doesn’t still happen. If it does, that’d be the third major hit to the direct market in a five-year period and the third to hit those ‘medium three’ indies, who would likely all have been heavily involved in the boom (Eclipse published titles like Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters…). Who survives after that? Does anyone? Does this end up with the comic shops devastated before the mid-90s? Possible Alternative Future
Three medium-term outcomes suggest themselves here. The first is that there is indeed a massive hit to comic shops, which will also hit Marvel. Eventually comic shops recover; Marvel is in better shape than in the OTL 1994 crash, as it hasn’t yet become a public company and isn’t overextended; whichever of the three big indies survives becomes the main player there. Do Eclipse, First, or Comico rise to become the new DC in terms of challenge to Marvel? What does this comic market look like in the 90s? The second is the crash is averted or not as severe, and then Marvel continues to go public and overextend. Jim Shooter has likely not been fired in 1987 and keeps going up the corporate ladder, and so will not start Valiant Comics. Hot artists like McFarlane and Liefeld still work for Marvel and still decide they want to go elsewhere – but elsewhere may be Eclipse. Image does not exist but suddenly, to Marvel’s horror, somewhere else is publishing their hot artists and making a killing. The third is Warner Communications sees all the money Marvel is making with its characters, changes its mind, and yanks the license back to restart DC Comics. Disgruntled creators can flee in droves to it and Marvel is facing a major challenger once more…
Charles EP Murphy is the author of Chamberlain Resigns, And Other Things That Did Not Happen, published by SLP.