Sunday, July 11, 2010

Completely Spoiling The Haiku-Like Elegance of That Last Post

My job mostly involves sitting in my bed drawing pictures. So, ever since I wrote:

Old D&D = DC

New D&D = Marvel

I've been sitting here drawing and wondering what exactly that means.

Helpfully, right after I wrote that, James Mal posted about these two comics:

Now, if you knew absolutely nothing else about them other than their titles and (not even seeing these covers) I said "Hey, buddy, you wanna read 'Kamandi: The Last Boy On Earth' or 'Devil Dinosaur' I bet you'd probably say "Devil Dinosaur".

Why? Because you know it is going to be about a fucking dinosaur--maybe even a devil one. And that is cool. Whereas all you know about Kamandi is he's a boy, and if the fact that there's a boy is--by itself--enough to make you want to read something (which is, by the way, creepy), then why not choose from one of the innumerable comic books with more than one boy in them?

Now, of course, this little experiment gives Kamandi short shrift because, really, Kamandi isn't just about a boy, it's about this crazy fucking mutant animal Kirbyfuture in which he lives, full of Communi-Bears and Mao-Tse-Tigers. View its genius:
About now you're wondering what the fuck my point is. It is the following thing:

Here are two comics, they are by the same guy (Jack Kirby) they are from roughly the same era (the '70s--when everything was primitive and hairy and DC and Marvel were almost indistinguishable) but one's DC and one's Marvel. And--perhaps just coincedentally--the "Which would you choose based on the name alone?" question points up the difference between DC and Marvel.

The Marvel Comic is about an awesome mutant weirdo, the DC Comic is about a place where there are awesome mutant weirdoes.

DC Comics--like Old School D&D--are more about the world being interesting, whereas Marvel Comics--like new D&D--are more about the characters being interesting.

Marvel characters--as is commonly remarked--had way more personality than DC characters. The Silver Age Green Lantern and Flash were--as people--nearly indistinguishable. But DC characters always inhabited distinctive worlds. Superman, as a guy, is just a really nice guy (zzzzzzz)--but he had the Phantom Zone and the Bottled City of Kandor and Braniac and Luthor and 1000 kinds of Kryptonite and girlfriends whose names always started with "L" and a Fortress of Solitude and a million other wacky concepts. Batman--while by no means personality-free--was, shall we say, a simpler and more mythic sort of gritty badass than Marvel's Wolverine--but Batman played the straight man against the expressionist-noir funhouse that was Gotham City and its glossy parade of psychotic giggling theme villains. Batman needs Gotham like a 1st level human fighter with a sword named Ed needs a kobold-blighted, Alice-In-Wonderland-inspired labyrinth stuffed full of twisted deathtraps designed by a sadistic wizard.

Marvel characters--on the other hand--all lived in New York City. Their villains and adventures were often only half as important as their own personal problems (take a look at the recent Hulk and Iron Man movies: clearly nobody at Marvel told the filmmakers "if you're gonna use the Hulk, you gotta have The Leader"--there's no iconic "go-to" villain--or environment--for either character. Whereas you knew Superman and Batman were gonna fight Luthor and the Joker). They were always meant to be a little more "relatable" and human and "real" and so the stories were more about them than where they went.

This is like the old RPGs vs, the newer ones: do your players want to be amazing things or do they want to see amazing things?

And now we come to a commonplace: Marvel Comics (which were the hip new kids on
the block in the '60s around when DC Comics were turning 25) are edgier and more realistic than DC Comics. And more popular.

The DC universe grew out of a company producing stories for little kids about shit like Wonder Woman fighting a giant communist egg with a prehensile mustache. The Marvel Universe grew out of a company producing stories for teenagers in high school about a teenage Peter Parker in high school.

So Marvel was more relevant, real, hip, etc. On the other hand, ever since the '80s, postmodern geniuses like Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and Keith Giffen seem to be much more at home in the DC Universe--and they seem to embrace the total bugfuck lunacy of it. Moore made a Green Lantern that was a fucking planet--hell, Grant Morrison even brought back Egg Fu.

Yes, Marvels were more rational and serious and mature*, but then how immature do you have to be to turn to a medium based on 32-page installments of bubbles of fortune-cookie-length text squeezed into pictures designed to be easily legible at 3 inches tall in mechanical reproduction for your dose of rational, serious, and mature? Maybe try a novel--I hear they're getting pretty good these days.

The idea that DC is, in a larger sense, less "mature" than Marvel seems to be the same kind of argument that'd suggest that the guy who just sits and watches Star Trek and thinks it's fun to watch is less "mature" than some guy on who thinks that Star Trek would be way better if the relationship between Kirk and Yeoman Rand was explored with more realism and depth.

And herein lies the game comparison:

Yes, the new games make a hell of a lot more sense. I appreciate how newer versions of D&D have you making a Reflex Save to avoid explosions rather than making a Save Vs. Rods, Staves, And Wands to avoid explosions, I like that if you have a 13 in something that's always a +1 instead of having to consult a chart with percentile dice and chances out of 6 every time I roll a 13 for an ability. I like the fact that the newer games provide a way that I can build any kind of character I want with enough patience and x.p. rather than telling me that cause I'm a wizard I can't hold a sword. This all lets me get real into the character and the world and makes me feel like it's real and I'm actually there the same way that knowing Captain America wears stars and stripes for a reason I can understand makes him easier to believe in than Wonder Woman, who is a Greek chick from mythology (sort of) who wears stars and stripes (on her bustier and briefs) for no reason that has ever made sense to anyone.

But then again-- why not have a hot chick in a star-spangled stripper costume tying up fucking giant ants with a magic rope? That fucking rules. And so then again I appreciate the way that the old game (written for adults, by adults--though illustrated by wacky amateurs) seems to know it's a fucking game and if you want to do something hip and cool and grown up, then you might want to do that in a few hours, because right now all us adults have decided to sit down and play a fucking game about elves and so there's no reason we shouldn't just admit to ourselves that that's what we're doing and go ahead and next time you say "Demogorgon" have Demogorgon show up riding a glowing crystalline flail snail made from babies because you said his name one too many times and that he might as well zap you with a ray that sends you to a dimension where the Bugbears are all named after anagrams of dead comedians while psionic manta rays chew on your face and sing showtunes and everything is fluorescent orange because that would be rad.

So yeah. I can see both sides of it. I have as many Daredevils as Doom Patrols in my closet--which is good, 'cause a good DM doesn't get to decide what kind of funnybook s/he's running--the players do, and mine are all over the map:

Satine's a Marvel girl, all the way. Her rogue is dead--killed by goblins who talk backwards--and it's a big deal. She was in love with that character and it's dead as Jean Grey--she wants to roll on the "Random Personality Traits" table for her new character and play it like she means it. She wants to know who this 2nd level Monk is and why, exactly, she's chosen Crushing Lotus Strike. Connie, on the other hand, rides in pig balloons, makes friends with manticores, and jumps in an underground river of rusted black goo just to see what's in there. And I get the feeling she'd be doing it no matter what character she was playing.

So, yeah, that's what I think about that.

"Be awesome vs. See awesome". There is time for both, but some people vastly prefer one to the other.

(Re thinking this, years later, I'd say "Do awesome"--or at least "Do Interesting"--is something they have in common. Would you rather the awesome thing you do come out of how awesome you are or how awesome the thing you ran into is?)

* I do not want to have to point out the same obvious point over and over here, so please do note this is all relative. Obviously Marvel's "maturity" and "realism" (like the "realism" of any kind of D&D) is relative to the average level of realism in a typical DC comic--that's all. Also obviously: Marvel and DC comics are more like each other than they are like any other thing on earth, just as different RPGs are more like each other than they are like any other kind of game.

Also, dude, I don't know what kind of comics you like, or why, but trust me when I say I know that you don't have to read certain comics to like a certain game or vice versa.
Whatever combination you like, I believe you in advance.


Jim said...

Great post. I do agree that the world and the exploration of that world is much more important than the character in OD&D. Hell, in my favorite campaign, the characters happened by chance. No pre-design other than party balance, but that rag-tag group explored the world and did some amazing things.

thekelvingreen said...

Now I can't argue with your point as it applies to games, as it seems sensible enough to me. I'm still not sure about the comics analogy though; how rational and serious and mature is MODOK? But perhaps I'm just being prickly because, no matter how many times they screw it all up, I'm a Marvel man (note, not Marvelman) at heart.

All of which must be why Satine's my favourite. Sensible lady.

Zak Sabbath said...


Obviously, this is relative. MODOK--fucked as he is--is supposed to be a product of advanced science. On paper it looks like "serious" sci fi: deformed cyborg mutant with psionic powers.

Over at DC, there was never ANY explanation of why Egg Fu was a giant egg with a magic mustache.

Anonymous said...

I can see what you're saying. It strikes at me oddly though because the iconic RPGs for these systems seem to actually be inverted from what you're saying. DC's MEGS system was the serious math game with logarithmic scale increases. Marvel FASERIP on the other hand was the frivious random character generator game where you ended up with a grab bag of powers and had to figure out how the hell to fit them together.

(No comments on the most recent incarnations of these licensed games).

Zak Sabbath said...


thekelvingreen said...

Fair point.

mordicai said...

Anything I might want to comment would be better said over lots of drinks. Which I just finished drinking in the park.

A GM said...

*ponders Zak running a supers game and the character concepts everyone might come up with*

Kolb said...

Nice post. I think you straightened out something that i never really pondered before, but always wondered what the big fuss was. Was never really exposed to marvel as a kid, sweden was all about the phantom and modesty blaise.

Taellosse said...

Nice post. As pithy as your last one was, I honestly wasn't quite sure where you were going with it. Now that you've elaborated, I get your point, and it makes a lot of sense.

Although your analogy does apply a whole lot better to the two comic houses prior to the 80s, I'd say. DC jumped on the whole "let's give our characters some personality" bandwagon a while ago, after all. And any new stuff DC comes up with is a lot more likely to have a nod towards an explanation than the old stuff did--not to mention how often they go back and retroactively explain the bugfuck things they've got in the stable already. On the other hand, your point about them being more like each other than anything else applies as well, perhaps even more so now than 40 years ago.

erwin said...

Digged the read, man. Keep up the good writing.

Anonymous said...

Excellent. Very thoughtful analysis. Personally my comics background is almost exclusively late 70s/early 80s DC/Marvel so I feel the analogy. I always liked Marvel better really (back then; I hate all the mainstream supers comics reboots of the last 10 years). Maybe that explains my fondness for 2e.

Will Mistretta said...

Thanks for explaining. I've never read comics. They're just not my thing. So at least now I have an idea what you mean!

Adam Dickstein said...

AWESOME post! As a tried and true, dyed-in-the-wool DC fan I could not have put this better myself. While I could disagree with one or two minor points (the Silver Age GL and Flash were actually very different from each other personality wise IMO), I find your analogies very accurate and even intriguing on a personal level.

As I am a DC comics fan and as time progressed, D&D became more 'Marvel-like' and therefore I lost interest in it. I moved on to other games that we're about simulation or heavy crunch, unless that crunch was there to enable to build up the wacky multiverse you envisioned (such as Champions or M&M).

I will take fun and creativity over realism any day. Twice on Sundays.

Erin Smale said...

I never got into comic books, so I have no real understanding of how DC differs from Marvel. But your post is truly illuminating.

Based on covers alone, I choose Kamandi. Not because it's about a boy, but because Lady Liberty is up to her waist in water, and the Empire State building is all Dutch-angled. Clearly, things have gone wrong. I want to know what and how, and I realise that my instinct would have been rewarded with the cool map inside depicting exactly how wrong things have gone (because now there's a "Mad-Hole" and one of The New Rulers is a donkey wearing a skullcap).

And that pretty much fits my experience with RPGs - setting has always been more interesting to me than characters. Which supports my preference for older-school, where characters are a bit more free-form and thus more easily defined by their environments.

Thanks for the RPG Rorschach.

Jason kielbasa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
A GM said...

RPG Rorschach?
*has the watchmen dc heros supplement and one of the modules*
I think that double-take gave me whiplash...

Tom said...

Ahh, the poor human fighter and Ed the Sword (I wonder if he's any relation to Ed the Sock?)
When the world is "a kobold-blighted, Alice-In-Wonderland-inspired labyrinth stuffed full of twisted deathtraps designed by a sadistic wizard" he is, in fact the most surreal and bizarre thing in it. The sane man in an insane land.

Good post.

Sage said...

I'm not quite sure I buy your core conceit about DC and Marvel here.

So, in the DCU, there are some fantastical places, but most of them are home bases and/or stand ins for real places. How much does Metropolis really matter to Superman? Does anybody really care where The Flash, Green Lantern, or Green Arrow is based (Keystone City, Coast City (when it's not being blown up) and Star City (except when he's in Seattle) respectively). The Justice League sometimes has a satellite (but doesn't do much there beside make the Atom sit in the tiny floating chair) and Superman has his Fortress of Solitude, but those are both just backdrops that never really factor in the story much.

Meanwhile in the Marvel U, there are all kinds of fantastical places that serve as major adventuring destinations. The X-Men head up to Asteroid M to make a deal with Magneto, then stop by and see Ka-Zar in the Savage Land, pay their respects at Genosha, while the Fantastic Four are in Latveria and the Immortals are hanging out on the moon. There are entire classic stories built around the interesting features of these locations.

This whole thing also kind of reflects how I think about your point about types of games: there's no reason classic D&D can't have serious plot and character, or why modern D&D can't be crazy-go-nuts fun. The games aren't really intrinsically that different.

A more fair divide might be to point out that most of DC's deep characters are villains. Lex Luthor and The Joker have each had stories that are as good as anything focusing on their opponents. That probably leads to a pretty obvious gaming insight: good challenges help create good characters, no person at the table can be entirely responsible for any part of the game.

Zak Sabbath said...


Like i said, the companies are more like each other than like anything else.

However, I maintain: the best DC stories are about the DC universe as an interesting place. The best marvel stories are about the characters and the backdrops are a metaphor.

Keystone, Coast, and Star Cities aren;t interesting, which may be why the characters associated with them aren;t at their best in those environments. Gorilla City, though? it isn;t just an a location where a villain sometimes is---like Asteroid M--it's a permanent distinctive feature.

GL is not about his city, he's about Oa, and the universe, and Qward, ad being on the road with Green arrow and Neal Adams.

The marvel U destinations are interesting,, too, but--aside from latveria--they define the character of the story much less.

And--duh--of course you can do whatever story in whatever comic or whatever game. I am defining a feeling, not a classical category.

Sage said...

Those are some pretty good examples and they make the point a bit clearer. Thanks!

artikid said...

Loved this post, now I have to understand the implications of me favoring Marvel Comics and Old D&D...

Demostenes said...

Interesting and quite insightful ^^ i think i will be coming back to your blog...

that made me think about my way to dm... and the personality of my players... (they are narcisistic and i indulge them with Marvel Style storytelling...) I have been wanting to switch to a more colorful and diverse universe and had to use AD&D info instead of 3.5, so I think you are right)

Rex Venom said...

I just love the map...
(but everything is here)
Rock on!

GCM said...

Une excellente lecture, très intéressante ! (very interesting post in english, I guess)