The source of the most acclaimed stories is another major difference between the latest subsidiary of the House of Mouse and its Distinguished Competition. The majority of the best DC comics are self-contained, often separate from the main continuity. Examples would be Dark Knight Returns, All-Star Superman, Kingdom Come and New Frontier. There are also numerous Vertigo titles, usually in their own world. Many projects which are technically part of the shared universe are still rather solitary, like Batman: Year One or the Killing Joke. It seems entirely appropriate that a Batman anthology title continued for over 200 issues. You could look at IGN’s list of the best Batman collections, to see how few of their favorite stories are part of the character’s “present” and not flashbacks, or reimaginings outside of the standard DC Universe.
Meanwhile, it seems that the majority of the best Marvel comics are clearly in-continuity. The most acclaimed Marvel Stories (IE- Daredevil: Born Again, The Night Gwen Stacy Died, the Dark Phoenix Saga) are usually part of an ongoing title, building on the work of earlier creative teams and setting up from the next guys. The self-contained projects are still set in a specific time period, tying to prior continuity. Examples would be Marvels, Daredevil: Yellow or Spider-Man/ Human Torch: I’m With Stupid.
These are not all set in the standard Marvel Universe, but even with the exceptions, there’s still a clear foundation. The Ultimate books are simply a second shared universe for Marvel, and the same rules still apply. A few of Mark Millar’s recent standalone projects: the mini-series 1985 and the future Wolverine saga Old Man Logan, both featured characters who reappeared in Fantastic Four run with Bryan Hitch. Earth X, Marvel’s answer to Kingdom Come, was part of a 50+ issue epic, which still built on the history of the characters.
In the Emmys, DC would be the company that racks up wins in the Mini-Series and TV Movie categories. Marvel would usually win for TV series and Individual Episodes. And if Marvel wins in the “DC categories” it’s because of something set in a specific period of the character’s history, either an untold tale or a deliberate retelling. There are some exceptions. And I might be coming at this from an unenlightened perspective, as someone more familiar with the better-known and more accessible (and therefore less connected) DC projects.
But this does build on the idea that the major difference between the two companies is that DC is a patchwork universe, while Marvel is built on a solid foundation. Continuity has been altered so often in the DC Universe that there isn’t really a clear backstory for the characters. So there are incentives to just go with what’s iconic about the characters, and build from there, for the sake of a story. And with their trade program, there’s a bias towards more accessible work.
With Marvel, there’s a mostly consistent continuity, with a few patches. Their trade program is geared towards introducing readers to extensive runs on titles (Bendis’s Avengers, Mark Millar’s Ultimate X-Men, Frank Miller’s Daredevil, anything Stan Lee wrote, etc.) And anything set in the past, is set in a specific period of a character’s history, as a story set between Amazing Spider-Man #33 and #34 is going to be different than one set between #30 and #31. Not to gloat, but a key difference could just be that Marvel’s old stories hold up better, so writers feel comfortable explicitly referencing the stuff.
More Marvel Examples: Amazing Spider-Man #31-33 (the Master Planner Saga). Amazing Spider-Man #229-230 (Nothing Can Stop the Juggernaut). Fantastic Four #48-50 (the Galactus saga). Fantastic Four #51 (This Man, This Monster). Fantastic Four #258 (the Day in the Life of Doctor Doom). Fantastic Four #267 (“A Small Loss”). Uncanny X-Men #125-128 (the Search for Mutant X). Uncanny X-Men #141-142 (the Days of Future Past). Daredevil #168-181 (the Elektra Saga). Iron Man #120-128 (the alcoholism story). Incredible Hulk: Future Imperfect.
More DC Examples: Golden Age. Watchmen. Superman: Secret Identity. Arkham Asylum (either the Grant Morrison/ Dave McKean graphic novel or the Dan Slott/ Rick Burchett mini-series.) Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo’s Joker. Superman For All Seasons. Camelot 3000. Pretty much every Elseworlds project. The Paul Dini/ Alex Ross one-shots. Batman: Black and White.
More Marvel Exceptions: Unstable Molecules. Silver Surfer: Requiem. Startling Stories: Banner. Starting Stories: Thing- It All Started on Yancy Street. Punisher: MAX.
More DC Exceptions: Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing. Crisis of Infinite Earths. James Robinson’s Starman. Geoff Johns’s JSA. Geoff Johns’s Green Lantern. Marv Wolfman and George Perez’s Teen Titans. Mark Waid’s Flash. Gotham Central. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. 52. John Byrne’s Superman.