We've all heard it at one time or another from the Anti-Superhero snobs: "Marvel and DC are as different as Coke and Pepsi"...the familiar charge that America's two largest comic book publishers have product as indistinguishable from the other as the famous Cola Giants.
In answer to that charge, I'll let my favorite Norse thunder god do the talking, "I say thee NAY!"
True, there have been some superficial similarities (such as their mutual focus on superheroes), but the educated fan can easily rattle off key stylistic differences between Marvel and DC Comics...and that's what it's all about here at Comic Coverage. Educating the comics fans of past, present, future, and assorted alternate futures...so let's get to those differences.
Sure, there's the standard differences you find in all the comic book histories, such as DC's traditional preference for plot-driven, squeaky-clean stories vs. Marvel's more character-driven melodramas...or DC's anonymous "editor" figure vs. Marvel's affable "crazy uncle" figure of Stan Lee, and so on, and so forth. You've heard it a thousand times. Then there's the subtle, yet truly profound difference that will forever drive a cosmic stylistic wedge between these two publishing titans.
Of course, I'm referring to The Floating Head Cover!
However, before we fully analyze this strange phenomenon, a little background first.
Covers for superhero team titles were tricky devils to market. Beginning in the early 1940's with DC's Justice Society of America (the original superhero team), the first several decades of team covers typically featured the entire team jam-packed into every square inch of real estate. This approach would often result in confusing "mob scene", such as these early Silver Age (1960's) examples from both DC and Marvel:
A few years later, both Marvel and DC seem to have solved the "ant farm" problem by featuring a large attention-grabbing scene with a few main characters, surrounded by small head shots of the team (which almost resembled drivers license or high school yearbook photos).
This new approach could now grab the reader's attention with a dramatic central image, while simultaneously communicating "team book" with the handy sideline mug shots.
A few early examples of the Mug Shot Cover:
Now that they had the dramatic central image and snazzy team roll-calls, "Mission Accomplished", right?
Not quite. Marvel, as the Brash Young Brando to DC's Jimmy Stewart, quickly abandoned the Mug Shot Cover for something that was.....you guessed it....supercharged with melodrama.
Thus dawned... The Age of the Floating Head Cover!
The Floating Head Cover, as the term implies, featured disembodied heads of team members that were not only observing the dramatic event unfolding below them, but reacting to it as well!
Here's one of Marvel's earliest examples from Avengers #9 (1964):
We're not only privy to the creation of Wonder Man, but we also get to see the reaction of the Avengers themselves. Granted, it's difficult to tell what's on Iron Man's mind (a problem that would be partially rectified later), but the rest of the Avenger heads managed to muster enough mild concern or vague unhappiness to indicate there was something not quite right going on here.
That's the beauty of the Floating Head Cover: Its ability to amp-up an already dramatic cover by adding yet another layer of emotion to the scene. A "drama sandwich", if you will.
As it turned out, The Avengers would go on to set the world record for the most Floating Head Covers...racking up a staggering twenty-three covers over a (roughly) thirty year period:
While the Avengers seemed the most inclined to use the Floating Head Cover, the rest of Marvel's team books certainly got in on the Floating Head action as well:
So what was the response of DC Comics to Marvel's Floating Head innovation?
DC continued to slog along with the standard Mug Shot cover, despite the markedly more dramatic central images of the late 60's and early 70's covers. This usually created a bizarre disconnect for the reader, as the Mug Shot Heroes often seemed indifferent to the cover's central drama and, in some cases, strangely cheerful.
As you can see from the cover of Justice League of America #91 (above), despite the apparent death of the Flash, his helmeted predecessor and mentor Jay Garrick, is smiling ear to ear. C'mon, Jay....show a little respect!
Yes, DC Comics eventually (perhaps grudgingly) featured a few Floating Head covers....but those examples can quite literally be counted on one hand. It's clear that the DC editors never really approved of this melodramatic (yet effective) technique, as their cross-town rivals embraced it with their usual histrionic gusto.
While Marvel's Floating Head covers were used primarily on their team titles, they occasionally snuck onto some solo-titles as well:
Of course, no analysis of the Floating Head Cover would be complete without covering the final twist Marvel would add to the phenomena: The Talking Floating Heads Cover!
These covers, while extremely rare, are also extremely entertaining. Not only did they feature alarmed floating heads of teammates observing the action, but their running commentary as well!
Here's a perfect example from Avengers #154 (1976):
Normally calm and collected Captain America can't believe this is happening! Stoic Wonder Man snaps Cap back to reality! The Scarlet Witch desperately begs for anyone to save The Vision, while Iron-Man...well...states the obvious!
Speaking of whom, note the amusing little "frowny face" Jack Kirby gives Iron Man and how it helps convey at least some degree of emotion from the guy. The downcast eye and mouth slits had became standard operating procedure for Iron-Man's Floating Head appearances, though Kirby (of course) gives it an endearing, extra-dramatic flair on this particular cover.
Was the Floating Head Cover cheesy? Definitely! Was it over-the-top? Of course! Yet the Floating Head Cover was representative of the many qualities that helped make Marvel so distinct from DC dueinf their first few decades of competition. Of course, DC had its own unique and quirky qualities, but when it came to covers packed to the hilt with melodrama, Marvel was the clear winner....made possible in part by their generous use of the Floating Head Cover.