October 13, 2017

Behind-the-scenes comic book battles and heroics

“Slugfest: Inside the Epic 50-Year Battle Between Marvel and DC” by Reed Tucker, 2017, Da Capo Press, $27, 286 pages

You know what your workplace needs?

A superhero.

Sure, a superhero! Someone who can leap tall problems in a single bound. An invincible mutant who can handle customers, recall conversations in great detail, dispense product in minutes and stop time in the break room. Yep, for sure, that’s what your business needs, so read “Slugfest” by Reed Tucker.

Our story begins in the 1950s in a conservative, button-down warren of offices. National Comics (later known as DC Comics) was the “undisputed leader in the spandex … genre,” secure in its ownership of the Superman strip. Across town, Marvel Comics was “just a ragged little shop with basically one employee,” named Stan Lee.

Comic books then were often considered fodder for juvenile delinquency and had, a few years prior, come under fire from a Senate subcommittee investigating the “medium’s evils.” The controversy had decimated the industry. Many comic book publishers went out of business, but DC stood strong. Still, says Tucker, readers were becoming “bored” with what they had to offer.

It was the perfect time for a small upstart to get serious.

When Marvel’s founder told Lee that they needed something like DC’s new Justice League, Lee had a few ideas. He and artist Jack Kirby created a group of superheroes with human foibles and modern problems. That created a kinship with readers and a problem for DC. They couldn’t figure out why Marvel suddenly had better sell-through with distributors.

For the next several years, the two comic book giants battled like, well, like fighting superheroes. Employees were “poached,” coincidences that might not have been so coincidental stunned the industry, and new features were copied back-and-forth with impunity. There was a brief price war between the two publishers, and possibilities of illegalities. Even fans became deeply divided — until the unthinkable happened and, in 1976, with the utmost delicacy in negotiation, the two briefly became one.

Remember summer afternoons with a pile of comics and a cold drink by your elbow? It’s hard to believe that the focus of that childhood memory was Big Business then, and even bigger now. In “Slugfest,” you’ll be taken — POW! BAM! — back to see how.

Truly, this book speaks to the heart of everyone who spent (or spends) weeks in eager anticipation of the next comic book issue with the next exciting adventure, but the nostalgia inherent in the subject doesn’t minimize one thing: time and again, author Reed Tucker reminds his readers that comic books are a business. It’s difficult to imagine this pastime-slash-obsession being so cutthroat, but everything that keeps a business owner awake at night happened through the years in this industry. In telling it, though, Tucker keeps things on the lighter side. There’s a hint of amusement in this saga, as there should be, which makes it a fun read.

Former kids will want this book for the insight to what’s behind the scenes. Business folks will want it for a new look at what’s surprisingly an old industry. If both, you’ll love “Slugfest” faster than a speeding bullet.

Terri Schlichenmeyer reviews books about businesses and business practice.


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