Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Marvel Acquires Marvelman. Or Mirarcleman, if You Prefer

Among the biggest announcements made at this year's San Diego Comic-Con International was that Marvel Comics has acquired the publishing rights to Marvelman, also known in the United States as Miracleman. While I have no real sentimental attachment to the character, I must admit that it does not make me particularly happy.

For those of you who have never heard of Marvelman, the character may well be the most famous superhero to merge from the United Kingdom, at least here in the United States. He also has a rather interesting history. Marvelman's origins go back to the character of Captain Marvel, Fawcett Publications' best selling superhero and one of the best selling characters during the Golden Age of Comics. It was only a little over year after Captain Marvel had first appeared that Detective Comics Inc. (one of the companies that would later become DC Comics) sued Fawcett, contending that Captain Marvel infringed on the character of Superman. The lawsuit would literally take years, until at last, in the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, the famous Judge Learned Hand ruled in favour of National Periodical Publications (as Detective Comics Inc. was now known) and sent the case back to the appellate court to assess damages. It was then that Fawcett Publications simply decided to settle out of court. Not only did Fawcett pay National $400,000 in damages, but they agreed to cease publishing any and all Captain Marvel titles. Fawcett then not only cancelled every single Captain Marvel title, but stopped publishing comic books altogether.

Like Superman, Captain Marvel was a character who was popular outside the United States. In the United Kingdom L. Miller & Sons, Limited had held the licence to publish Fawcett's titles since 1942. Over the years they had reprinted many Fawcett titles in the UK, the most popular of which were the Captain Marvel titles. When Fawcett ceased publishing comic books, then, L. Miller & Sons, Limited faced losing a lucrative income, which ultimately could lead to financial disaster. Fortunately, publisher Len Miller developed a solution. He turned to writer/artist Mick Anglo to create a character who was similar enough to Captain Marvel to capitalise on the World's Mightiest Mortal's popularity, but different enough from either Captain Marvel or Superman to avoid a lawsuit from National Periodical Publications. It was on January 24, 1954, that Marvelman made his first appearance.

In many ways Marvelman was similar enough to Captain Marvel to nearly be considered plagiarism. Marvelman was Micky Moran, a copy boy for the Daily Bugle. He had obtained his powers from a mysterious astrophysicist named Guntag Barghelt, who somehow had power over the "key harmonic" of the cosmos. Barghelt treated Moran in a strange machine, after which the boy had the power to transform in Marvelman simply by saying the word kimota. Like Captain Marvel, Marvelman would have his own "family" of related superheroes. "Young Marvelman" was Dicky Dauntless, a delivery boy, while "Kid Marvelman", who was nine year old Johnny Bates. Various Marvelman titles would be published regularly until February 1963.

Marvelman would be revived 1982 in the pages of Warrior, which featured a darker, more adult Marvelman series written by Alan Moore. The series was successful enough to see interest in the United States. Unfortunately, this would also lead to Marvelman's first legal difficulties. By the Eighties Marvel Comics owned the trademark to the word "Marvel" with regards to comic books. It was because of pressure from Marvel that the Marvelman stories would be reprinted with the name "Miracleman" in the United States. Initially published by Pacific Comics, Eclipse Comics would take over the publishing the character after that company's collapse. Once the Warrior stories ran out, Eclipse started publishing original stories by Alan Moore. Neil Gaiman would take over after Moore left the series. Gaiman would continue the series until 1992. It would be in the Nineties that Marvelman/Miracleman would become part of a battle over who precisely owned the character between Todd McFarlane (who bought Elcipse's assets, who got the rights from Dez Skinn of Warrior publisher Quality Communications, whose right to the character was always a bit of a question...) and Neil Gaiman (who got Alan Moore's share of the rights to the character, who got his share from Dez Skinn...you get the picture...).

Regardless of the legal battle over ownership of Marvelman, it would appear that creator Mick Anglo actually owned the character and had never relinquished his rights. As a result Marvel Comics began negotiations with him in 2007 to purchase Marvelman. The company plans to publish new Marvelman stories as early as next year.

As I said earlier, in some respects this does not please me. As I have read and enjoyed a few Marvelman stories in my time, I do like the idea that the character will see print again. And I am remain open minded as to how Marvel might deal with the character. My problem with Marvel's purchase of Marvelman comes down to the simple fact that the majority of classic superheroes have belonged to only two companies for the past forty years. Since the Sixties, DC and Marvel have had a near monopoly on superheroes in comic books. What is more, DC owns most of them.

Sadly, the history of the comic book industry reflects the history of other industries in the United States, with smaller companies eventually being bought by larger ones. It was in 1945 that Jack Liebowitz bought out Max Gaines' shares in All-American Comics, thus making that company officially part of its sister company, Detective Comics Inc. (which Liebowitz also co-owned). The new company would be known as National Comics, which would become the corporation National Periodical Publications, but better known as DC Comics (its official name as of the late Seventies). In 1956 Everett M. "Busy" Arnold would sell Quality Comics to DC, thus giving DC control of such classic characters as Plastic Man and Blackhawk. In 1983 Charlton Comics sold out to DC, giving the company the rights to The Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, and The Question. In 1991 Fawcett, the company which DC sued to the point of closing their comic book line, would also sell the rights to their characters, giving DC such properties as Captain Marvel, Bulletman, Ibis the Invincible, and so on.

Marvel Comics has not made nearly as many acquisitions over the year as DC. Much of this is due to the fact that, as hard as it is to believe, Marvel was not that major a player in the Golden Age and by the Fifties was struggling to survive. In fact, if it was not for Stan Lee striking lightning with The Fantastic Four and the characters who followed in its wake, it seems likely Marvel might not exist today. Regardless, Marvelman is not the first property Marvel has purchased. In 1994 Marvel Comics bought out Malibu Comics Entertainment, Inc., at the time the fourth largest comic book company in the United States. This gave Marvel the rights to Malibu's revival of the various Golden Age Centaur characters (who had lapsed into public domain), such as Amazing Man, Airman, Man of War, and others.

In the end, it would seem that the majority of classic superheroes are owned by DC or Marvel. Archie Comics still owns its classic Golden Age characters, although they have licensed the rights to the characters (again) to DC. A few others superheroes are owned by their creators. This is a stark contrast to the Golden Age of Comics Books, during which time there were several different companies which published superheroes: All-American, Detective Comics, Fawcett, Fox, Harvey Comics, Marvel (actually a number of different companies, all owned by Martin Goodman, which would become the modern day Marvel Comics--generally referred to as Timely by modern fans), MLJ (now Archie Comics), Quality, Nedor, and yet others. The competition between these companies produced both a number of classic characters (Captain Marvel, The Flash, The Blue Beetle, The Black Cat, The Human Torch, The Shield, Plastic Man, and so on) and a wide diversity of styles. After the Golden Age many of these companies went under, so that by the Silver Age only a few remained. It was during the Silver Age that DC Comics (always the biggest comic book company) became more powerful and Marvel Comics rose to power. Since then there has been less diversity in the world of comic books. While several independent publishers arose in the Eighties (many of which would go under) and others have since then, there is still less diversity in comic books than there was in the Golden Age.

This is the reason I am not overly thrilled with Marvel now owning Marvelman. It means that one of the two biggest comic book companies, who already own the bulk of classic characters, now have yet another one. I would have much preferred to have seen an independent publisher, such as Dark Horse, get the rights. While I do think that Marvel will do right by the character, in hope of more diversity in the ocmic book industry, I would rather someone else (other than DC) had acquired the character

1 comment:

Holte Ender said...

So even the comic book world has its own corporate monopolies.