superman vs spider-man 1976

This week’s announcement that DC and Marvel would be omnibizing their crossover events of the last 50 years created a lot of excitement among fans. Without a doubt, these unlikely team-ups visualize long running questions (Who is stronger, anyway?) and have even created some memorable tales along the way. When that forbidden door opens, it’s a thrill for readers. 

It’s also a thrill for accountants because these things are a license to print money, it seems. And in the past, Marvel/DC crossovers have heralded some down times for an industry in need of a shake-up. 

Comics are in a slump at the moment, so the time would seem ripe for another jolt…but is it even possible in these corporatized times?

The first crossover, Superman vs Spider-Man, arrived in a giant sized treasury edition in 1976. I wasn’t around for the editorial conferences behind it, but this was at the beginning of a shaky time for comics, with newsstands shrinking, and the direct market just a wobbling toddler. It’s not too much of a stretch to guess that both DC’s Carmine Infantino and Marvel’s Stan Lee were looking for a giant hit. One can only imagine the hubbub among fans in those pre-internet days when this appeared on magazine stands. (Which is where I bought my copy…now gone in a fire and going for $150 on ebay, sniff sniff.)

(BTW, the follow-up, 1981’s Batman vs the Hulk, enjoys less notoriety despite having art by Jose Luis Garcia Lopez!)

In 1982 the X-Men/Teen Titans crossover was a book that just had to happen, given the popularity of the characters, and writer Chris Claremont and artist Walt Simonson delivered with a story that is still considered a classic. 

By now, comics shops were on the rise, and new sales outlets meant good things. DC and Marvel were both located in New York City, and staffers regularly went from one company to the other – they even played an annual softball game. Folks were drinking (or even dating) buddies and relations were competitive but relaxed. A steady stream of various crossovers dotted the schedule. 

But don’t take my word for it: David Harper has an oral history of Marvel/DC Crossovers at SKTCHD that shows it was mostly pals sitting around. DC’s Mike Carlin and Marvel’s Mark Gruenwald were best friends, and the plots of many crossovers was hatched in Gruenwald’s apartment:

Ron Marz: Honestly, sitting around Mark’s apartment, you could have mistaken us for a bunch of 10 year olds sitting in a tree house making up lists of who should fight who from the Marvel and DC universes. The one difference being we were actually going to be able do it.

Peter David: It was easily one of the most entertaining creative days of my entire career. Because it was the four of us, who were essentially all grown up fanboys actually being able to bring to life the fundamental concept of “well, what happens if Superman fights Spider-Man?” These are the kind of battles we’ve been wondering about and debating with our friends about for all of our years growing up. And it happened on that day. We were essentially indulging in wish fulfillment.

Still, the potential for a lot of tension between the companies had been seen earlier. The other dream crossover,, JLA-Avengers, would have a tortured publishing history, as related here at the Beat by KC Carlson. The tale of how the original 1982 project was scuppered has lots of twists and turns, but as artist George Pérez put it in 2003:

“It just ended up being one thing after another — accusations both from DC and Marvel towards each other — until I realized there was a lot more private politics that seemed to be going on which were killing the book I really wanted to work on. After a while I became very bitter about the entire thing. It was never more apparent to me that, as much as I love drawing comics, it’s still a business, and politics and petty squabbles can kill a project, even such a potential money-maker.”  

But fast forward to 1996 and the Amalgam Universe event which saw Marvel and DC tag team on a series of books which mixed up their most popular characters – Iron Lantern says it all. 1996 was another bleak time for comics – thousands of outlets that sold comics were washed away by Marvel’s disastrous move to distribute their own comics via Heroes World, followed by the implosion of speculator markets for both comics and trading cards. (Many of the stores that closed sold mainly sports cards, along with heavily speculated comics.)

Amalgam proved several things – mainly that no one really knows how to pronounce “amalgam.” But I do recall at the time that it had a bit of the feeling of a needed jolt for the the market, following other attempted jolts, like “Heroes Reborn.” Again from the SKTCHD piece about earlier crossovers. Dan Jurgens speaking:

Mike gave me a call one day and said, “guess what, Marvel and DC have seen the market decline somewhat in the past couple of years and we want to give it a shot in the arm and we’re going to be doing a Marvel vs. DC crossover.

The crossover that wasn’t a crossover –  “Just Imagine…Stan Lee Creating the DC Universe” – came out in 2001 from DC, where I was working at the time. Sales were at their lowest point, according to Comichron estimates, down to an estimated $255-275 million in 2000. Getting the man whose name still presented the most memorable Marvel Comics to work for DC definitely had the feeling of a Hail Mary pass. But it didn’t seem to work as well, as none of the issues or collections cracked the Top 100, according to Comichron.

JLA/Avengers finally came out in 2003, and that did chart, coming in at #2 and #4 for the year. It was probably just a better concept, to be fair. 

But there the trail goes cold. Ultimates #1 came out in 2001, starting the steady climb in sales and influence for superheroes in the 21st century. It also marked the beginning of heightened antagonism between DC and Marvel, especially on the part of Marvel, whose bratty executives, Bill Jemas and Joe Quesada, were often heard to lob zingers at the “Distinguished Competition.” 

A piece at Screen Rant entitled “One Quote From a Marvel Editor Killed Any Future Crossovers with DC” has the story:

The answer may lie in an interview Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Quesada gave to the Observer in April of 2002. Quesada is quick to note his preference for “when the two companies hated each other.” saying “You know, if you like DC, then you hated Marvel. If you like Marvel, then you hated DC.“. While these quotes emphasize his belief that a healthy rivalry makes for a better product, Quesada goes even further with his most shocking line, bluntly stating “What the f*** is DC anyway?” and “they have Batman and Superman, and they don’t know what to do with them. That’s like being a porn star with the biggest d*** and you can’t get it up. What the f***?

Those were fighting words, for sure. JLA/Avengers had been in the works for years, so it had to come out, but after that an informal Cold War mentality set in. 

And then, in 2009, Disney bought Marvel and nothing would ever be the same. The previous crossovers were set in a world where Marvel was batted around from owner to owner, and DC was mostly a division that Time Warner (with occasional added AOL) preferred to pretend they didn’t own. Suddenly the superheroes were the hottest characters in all media, proxies battling for their corporate overlords and not just four-color heroes in a spinner rack. Disney and Warner have always been natural antagonists, and WB’s frantic efforts to keep up with the MCU ratcheted up the stakes to once unimaginable levels. 

So here we are, in a slump again (although at a level double that of the 1997-2001 slump, with about $400 million in periodical sales in 2021.) And we’re seeing history repeat itself. Ultimates are back. DC is cooking up something retro. As John Jackson Miller noted in his commentary on 2002:

The first real recovery year after a near-decade-long downturn, 2002 was marked by a revival of interest in 1980s toy- and animation-related titles, such as Transformers, G.I. Joe, and Thundercats

Sound familiar?

If Marvel and DC were just tootling along as their own little publishing companies, I have no doubt whatsoever they’d be planning a new line of crossovers in some fashion. Comics retailers are always demanding the magical product that will “bring customers into my store!” and DC/Marvel titles would do that for sure. I’ve said this before in various ways over the years, but when you see the Deadpool-Harley Quinn crossover that everyone has been dreaming of, you’ll know folks are desperate. 

Is there any way it could possibly happen? Jim Lee and Dan Buckley would have to persuade people at the highest levels that it would somehow be good for business, and given the stress that WB’s David Zaslav and Disney’s Bob Iger are under these days, I imagine they have other things to think about (in Zaslav’s case, proving he doesn’t give a crap about creative work.) Imagining this scenario is less likely than Stan Lee creating the DC Universe.

Still, you have to hold out a tiny shred of hope. It does make business sense. DC editor in chief Marie Javins and Marvel eic CB Cebulski appeared on a panel together last year, although they had to go all the way to Brussels to do it. (That particular forbidden door was just too explosive for North America.) 

Maybe that’s the closest we’ll ever get to another DC/Marvel team-up. Or maybe times are disrupted enough that the forbidden will be a sensible “shot in the arm.” 

Who would you like to see crossover? Let us know in the comments. I’ve got my heart set on that Harley Quinn/Deadpool story, the two anarchic avatars of disruption for these janky times. Get Gail Simone to write it and Amanda Conner to draw it. I think it would sell a few copies. 


  1. Well, I have a pitch for a Captain America/Wonder Woman crossover set during World War Two, so that’s what I would most like to see. :)

  2. I understand it’s impossible to top the original, but get Claremont and Simpson to do X-Men/Titans again.

    Hickman and Evely on Guardians of the Galaxy/Legion of Superheroes.

    McKay writing, Shalvey on art for Batman/Moon Knight.

  3. As you and Joe Field have pointed out, the crossovers historically have happened when both companies were desperate. And if superhero movies keep declining in popularity, might we see a big screen crossover? Never say never. There is now a precedent for Warners Bros and Disney working together to fight a common enemy: their new streaming Sports app…because they, too, are desperate–fox-combine-to-offer-streaming-sports/?sh=4197f70e396b

  4. I don’t want to be a doomsayer, but I have a gut feeling that if Gunn and Safran don’t deliver on their vision of DC’s movie slate, Zaslav will just shutter DC and move on. I’m sure he would license the characters to another publisher: hopefully it would be only one, and not have the characters scattered across various comic companies. But he doesn’t care about creativity: he just wants profit.

  5. The ones I’d like to see are Ambush Bug/Gwenpool, Silver Surfer/Black Racer, Harley Quinn/Frank Castle Punisher, Dr. Doom/Black Adam, and Dr. Strange/John Constantine, but I don’t see them happening.

  6. It isn’t Marvel or DC, but I know that a Daredevil/Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles crossover has been desired by both fans and some creators (including Kevin Eastman, who’s done some cover and anthology work for Marvel lately) for years. DC made plenty of sales with their 3-4 crossovers between TMNT and Batman, and even animated one as a DTV. In addition to the ones mentioned above, with a solid creative team I don’t see how such a crossover sells under 100,000 copies each, and lord knows it’d be priced at $4.99 an issue at best.

    By and large, Marvel Comics stopped doing intercompany crossovers in 2010, when the ink of the Disney deal dried (their last one was with Dynamite in 2009, a Red Sonja/Spider-Man story). DC has been more than willing to do intercompany crossovers, as have BOOM! Studios, IDW Publishing, and Dark Horse. So really, the 800 pound gorilla in the room is Marvel feeling desperate enough to either share profits or pay a license fee to do so. Ever since 2010, the most they’ve been willing to do is license out kiddie comics to other publishers (like IDW). Disney has decided to license out franchises outside of Marvel instead of publish them thru Marvel, which is why Dynamite (and before them, Dark Horse) has Darkwing Duck and other Disney Afternoon comics.

    Is DC willing to do such a crossover? They’ve been willing for years to do so with anyone. Right now they have the Justice League fighting Godzilla and King Kong, for heaven’s sakes. It’s Marvel’s brass and bean counters who seem to be the most hesitant over the last 10-15 years. Which is a bit absurd considering how poorly many Marvel titles sell; they’ve unofficially become a publisher that sells mostly mini series as a result. Not even Amazing Spider-Man or the X-Men can go more than 3-5 years without a reboot, and they’re driving the line.

    IMHO, the success of Marvel’s film division (at least until last year) has made the company very very smug. Negotiating an inter company crossover with a rival publisher for the greater good requires some humility, and Marvel hasn’t been a humble publisher since summer 2008. I imagine a few Marvel brass are more personally arrogant than Elon Musk, and at least half as delusional. I imagine the only way Marvel envisions doing such a crossover is if DC is willing to crawl to them, hat in hand, and beg, “Please, sir, I’d like some more,” and that is not happening (yet). So unless sales of films and/or comics get Marvel to budge on this, I doubt we’ll be seeing any crossovers involving them anytime soon.

  7. i vote for kelly thompson to write her captain marvel “team” working with her birds of prey “team”

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