The Big Three

By | Thursday, November 16, 2006 3 comments
There's a notion in business academia that, regardless of what industry or segment you're discussing, there will always be a "Big Three." Comic book discussions often hit on "The Big Three" publishers -- Marvel, DC, and (these days) Dark Horse. Last night, I heard an NPR report about "The Big Three" automakers in the U.S. -- Ford, GM, and Chrystler. Network television -- ABC, CBS, and NBC. Online search engines -- Google, Yahoo, and MSN.

In economic terms, "The Big Three" come about usually because there are two main product differentiators: price and quality. One company focuses on price, another focuses on quality, and a third does a reasonably good job at both. Some people will flock to the cheap prices of the first company, some people will flock to the high quality of the second, and the remainder try to split the difference by choosing the third -- not quite as cheap as the first company, but cheaper than the second; and not quite as good as the second company, but better than the first.

Psychologists would argue that "The Big Three" comes from the limits of human memory. Three, it is generally claimed, is the maximum number of items that a person can casually commit to memory without difficulty.

The Blue Man Group chose to stage their productions with three individuals because it is the smallest number that can be considered a group, and provide a sense of isolation. If two individuals were performing different tasks, they would be seen simply as two individuals. If two individuals were performing the same tasks, and a third was performing a different one, then that third individual would be perceived as breaking from the norm.

Personally, I think all of these factors (and I'm sure a great many more) are significant and each plays more or less prominence in any given occurance of a "Big Three." In any event, three, as George Newall wrote, is a magic number.

Now, why bring this up in comics? I noted over at Jim Roeg's Double Articulation that he talked about Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman as being DC's "Big Three." I'm not a big DC fan personally, but I don't doubt that anyone reading his blog -- myself included -- knew what he was talking about. But, let me pose this question: who are Marvel's "Big Three"?

Stumped, aren't you?

Spider-Man seems like a pretty obvious candidte. I suppose Wolverine's high on the list. Who else? Hulk? Thing? Captain America? I bet if you asked 100 comic book fans, you'd get 110 answers. Oh, it was easy enough in the 1940s -- Cap, Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch -- but not here and now in the 21st century.

Which begs the question: WHY doesn't Marvel have a "Big Three" the same way DC does? Is that an inadequacy in their marketing? Is it that so many of their characters are so complex that they can't be pared down that easily?

You know, Marvel did actually have a second "Big Three" the more I think about: Lee, Kirby and Ditko. (Lee, Kirby and Romita after Ditko left.) But that still doesn't get to who are Marvel's "Big Three" today. Even if I went the creator route, you'd pull out Bendis probably. Maybe Millar. Who else? Quesada? Brevoort? JMS?

I don't have an answer, certainly, and I'm not sure anyone really does. At least, not a decisive one that could be fairly readily agreed upon by everyone. But I think it does pose an interesting question, and might be worthy of some debate.
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3 comments:

Michael Harris said...

As to Marvel's "Big Three" in the Marvel U, one could make a compelling argument that rather than in individual characters, they have their "Big Three" in their supergroups. Remember, Marvel really hit it big when the Fantastic Four hit the scene. And when we think of Marvel, outside of Spidey, their big properties are the groups: the FF, X-Men, and Avengers. So really, they have the "Big Three." The FF, who when using the consumer product model, put out a small number of books of (usually) high quality adventures, the X-Men, who put out more product at the expense of quality, and the Avengers who manage to split the difference. Now, of course, over the years each have had their peak of excellence at varying time, but in the long run, the trend holds. Just my thoughts.

Interesting idea... Then you could also target a "Big Three" within each group: Iron Man, Cap and Thor in the Avengers; Cyclops, Xavier and Wolverine for the X-Men; Thing, Torch and Mr. Fantastic for the FF. In effect, this would give Marvel a "Big Nine."

Interesting take on things, Michael.

plok said...

I'll argue Spider-Man, the FF, and the Avengers. Between them, they mark out most of the meaningful spaces in the MU, and I don't mean just in terms of continuity, but in feel.

I'm just screwing around, though.

Lee, Kirby, Ditko/Romita is really where it's at here, I think, since Marvel is all about the ZAP! of design and composition that these three excelled at...but let me try some more...

Englehart, Gerber, and Wein?

Kirby, John Buscema, Sal Buscema?

Heck, Tuska, and ???

...This is fun! And kind of eerie, considering what I've been scribbling about lately...I'm so linking here from that! Even if it makes my answers here kind of superfluous...

Lee, Thomas, and Conway?

Dr. Strange, Reed Richards, Professor X?