This was, believe it or not, a headline in the Guardian Online earlier this year, and it’s been bubbling in the dark recesses of my brain ever since. And I think I may now have come up with something approximating an answer.
The original article made much of the sexualisation of Harley Quinn in the much-derided Suicide Squad movie, especially coming straight after a universally slated animation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel The Killing Joke and compared DC very unfavourably with Marvel’s varied female characters. Essentially, the writer couldn’t work out why Marvel could do something approaching equality for its female characters when DC couldn’t.
I think the clue here is in the history. DC stood originally for Detective Comics, and in the 1930s and 1940s – the height of noir – the comics were fairly basic detective pulps. This is also why Batman doesn’t have any superpowers – he’s not a mutant, he’s a man, a vigilante trying to deal with the cartoonish criminal elements of Gotham City, which itself had to face a corrupt police force and a frankly insecure lunatic asylum. Marvel, on the other hand, seems to have had one foot squarely in the science fiction magazines, such as Amazing Stories! and Astounding!, so things like superpowers, mutants and aliens were second nature to the writers.
Naturally, times change and the comics changed with them – but with Marvel’s background in science fiction, that change seemed to come a little easier. Certainly, DC’s shift from the detective pulp to become more of a direct competitor to Marvel never seemed to sit comfortably; their main superhero was Superman, an alien stranded on Earth who lived a double life as a journalist on the Daily Planet with the thinnest of disguises, by which time Marvel had already started producing titles such as Hulk, Fantastic Four and X-Men. Even the Justice League of America seemed to flail alongside the might of Marvel’s Avengers.
To be honest, everything about DC feels dated and I think that’s got a lot to do with its background as a detective pulp in the days of noir. As a result, it has a very dated attitude towards women, and this is what The Killing Joke especially seems to feed on. Whether or not it’s appropriate in this day and age is irrelevant, really – while it relies on titles and characters that first saw the light of day before the Second World War, I suppose we ought to half-expect the attitudes to be equally fossilised.
This isn’t to suggest that Marvel gets away scot-free – it doesn’t, but it’s streets ahead of DC. However, there is room for improvement all round and I can’t wait to see RiRi Williams donning the Iron Suit for the first time.