The Top 10 Legal Struggles In Comic Books
When I think of comic books, many things come to mind. However, court battles are usually not one of them.
Below are 10 of my favorite legal issues concerning comic books.
1. Neil Gaiman vs. Todd McFarlane
One of the least known comic book legal battles was over an issue of Spawn, number nine to be exact. McFarlane approached several respected writers to each do an issue of Spawn. Other than Gaiman, McFarlane also approached Alan Moore, Dave Sim and Frank Miller.
The issue arose over who owned the characters that were introduced by Gaiman. In that issue, Gaiman introduced the mythos that there were more Spawns throughout time and introduced the characters of Medieval Spawn, Cagliostro and Angela. Gaiman believed that he owned the characters since he created them for the issue, whereas McFarlane believed they were his property since they were created for a series that he owns.
They sued each other back and forth for a decade. Eventually Gaiman was awarded 50 percent of everything he created. Eventually, the two came to an agreement and split the characters among the two. The most noteworthy result was Angela recent introduced into the Marvel Comics universe as Thor’s long-lost sister.
2. The Kirby Estate vs. Marvel
Arguably the greatest comic book creator of all time, Jack Kirby is credited with creating or co-creating Marvel’s most popular comic book characters. His estate in this dispute represented Kirby, who passed away in 1994.
The problem with the Kirby Estate stems from the authorship of characters and the question of whether or not Kirby had originally created them under a work-for-hire agreement. This means that if he had made them under this scenario then the characters are not his and are property of Marvel. But if they are not, then his estate would be owed for decades worth of toys, TV shows, movies and other comic book spin-offs from his characters.
Not a month ago, an agreement was reached by both Jack Kirby’s estate and Marvel. A joint statement was released on September 26, 2014 that read, “Marvel and the family of Jack Kirby have amicably resolved their legal disputes and are looking forward to advancing their shared goal of honoring Mr. Kirby’s significant role in Marvel’s history.” The details of the agreement have not yet been made public.
3. Irving Berlin vs. Mad Magazine
It’s not surprising that Mad Magazine, a publication that pokes and makes fun of individuals and institutions, may get sued somewhere down the road.
On their website, Mad Magazine describes a time they were once sued by Irving Berlin and several other songwriters. Yes, that Irving Berlin–Mister God Bless America himself–once sued Mad Magazine over a featured songbook containing lyrics that parodied existing popular songs, including his. The judge eventually ruled in favor of Mad Magazine, stating that parodies like the songs they were being sued for were okay under fair use, and upheld the use of 23 of the 25 songs lampooned in the magazine. When Irving Berlin and his cohort then appealed, the second judge then ruled that all 25 songs were okay under fair use.
They never made it to the Supreme Court…
4. The Family of Joe Shuster vs. Warner Bros
Similar to the Kirby Estate vs. Marvel, the family of the late Joe Shuster, co-creator of Superman, has been in a legal dispute with DC Comics and parent company Warner Bros over past royalties. Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1 in 1938 and is commonly referred to as one of the first superheroes. The first issue, in very fine condition (CGC graded 9.0), just sold at auction for $3.2 million.
The dispute wrapped up earlier this year, with Warner Bros. taking a victory when the lawyer representing the Shuster estate had his petition for a rehearing denied. The opinion of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals was that there was already an agreement made in 1992 where $25,000 a year for life was paid out for the rights to Superman.
5. Tony Moore vs. Robert Kirkman
One of the most popular television shows today is AMC’s The Walking Dead. It’s based on a comic book series that shares its name. The artist for the first six comic book issues, Tony Moore, claims that he should be considered a co-creator along with Robert Kirkman, who is generally considered the sole creator.
Moore first sued his childhood friend, Kirkman, for his rights because he said he was tricked into giving them away to Kirkman and that he has neither been compensated fairly nor has he seen any profit statements. After this, Kirkman countersued Moore, stating that he was overcompensated and should be reimbursed. With that, Moore sued Kirkman again, but this time wanted a judge to declare that he is a co-creator of the series.
After a few months of going back and forth the two came to an agreement, which was not made public. It would have been interesting to see Moore be awarded by a judge because he would’ve been able to negotiate his own Walking Dead series on another channel. But I will say that while watching the last episode I did notice Tony Moore’s name as a creator.
6. Gary Friedrich vs. Marvel
Gary Friedrich’s most famous work was co-creating Ghost Rider. He became upset when he learned of a film being produced about his character, claiming that the comic book rights to the character belonged to Marvel while the rights to all other mediums belonged to him. He also claimed that he was the sole creator of Ghost Rider.
According to a ruling in 2012, Friedrich didn’t have any rights to Ghost Rider and in fact owed Marvel $17,000 for selling unlicensed merchandise at conventions. Plus, he was told not to claim anymore that he was the sole creator of Ghost Rider.
Approximately a year later, another judge ruled that Friedrich did have some rights with the character, and a few months after that Marvel and Friedrich settled the matter privately.
7. National Comics vs Fawcett Comics
In 1951 National Comics, which later became DC Comics, sued Fawcett Comics over its character, Captain Marvel. National Comics said that the Fawcett Comics character Captain Marvel infringed on the copyright of Superman.
At the time, Captain Marvel comic books were outselling Superman comic books. Due to the loss of their biggest title, Fawcett Comics quickly folded. While some characters’ stories were continued in other publications, Captain Marvel was not.
By 1994, DC Comics had completely bought all the rights to Captain Marvel, except by that time Marvel Comics had already gained the trademark for Captain Marvel. DC solved this problem by referring to their character as Shazam.
8. Archie Comics
One of the oddest legal disputes in the comic book world comes from Archie Comics. Well, not so much the comics themselves but the workers and owners. In two separate charges, the management has been sued by both a group of men and a group of women for sexual harassment.
At the end of last year, several male employees sued the CEO of Archie Comics, Nancy Silberkleit, for gender discrimination. According to the filed court papers, Silberkleit preferred to call male employees “penis” rather than their names, brought a Hell’s Angel member to the corporate office to intimidate some employees and stalked several others.
A few months later, earlier this year, three women filed suit against the company because of how they were treated by male executives. They claimed that the male executives who sued Silberkleit refused to talk to her directly. The men would speak to another woman who would then have to speak to Silberkleit, even if they were all in the same room. Two other women were forced to sign in and out of the office, while nobody else was required to.
Maybe that’s why Archie’s books tend to be so clean; all the strife and drama are left in the drawing room.
9. Stan Lee Media vs. Disney
Over the years, Stan Lee Media has been trying to acquire the copyrights to characters that Stan Lee created or co-created over the years. They sued Marvel several times over the years and have now sued Disney, who bought out Marvel.
A judge dismissed the suit and ruled in favor of Disney last year. Disney claimed that there were several things wrong with the lawsuit, including the fact that it did not specifically mention which characters they wanted the rights to. They also stated that the court papers were filed in Colorado and neither Disney nor Stan Lee Media do business in Colorado.
I believe it is important to note that Stan Lee hasn’t been connected to the company for a few years.
10. The United States Government vs. Comic Books
One of the more recognizable features of past comic books had been the Comics Code Authority approval image. Since 1954, nearly every major comic book publisher in this country had used that image.
Because obscenity was so frowned upon in the 1950s, laws were created to punish public scenes of obscenity. Comic books were covered under these criteria.
In 1953, the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency was created to investigate why America’s youth was deteriorating. A year later, hearings were convened specifically to focus on comic books. Yes, comic books! America just finished fighting the Nazis and was taking up a cold war with the USSR and our government was focused on comic books.
As a result of those hearings, the Comics Code Authority was created. Essentially, it was a self-regulating approach to the censorship of comic books and magazines.
Some of the standards that the CCA set up in 1954 include:
1. Divorce shall not be treated humorously nor represented as desirable.
2. The treatment of live-romance stories shall emphasize the value of the home and the sanctity of marriage.
3. Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal.
4. In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds.
5. Policemen, judges, government officials and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.
As time went on, comic book publishers began using their own rating system and no major comic book publisher has displayed the approval graphic nor sought their approval since 2011.
I know there are several I left out because the sad reality is that publishers usually screwed most comic book writers. This is why there are organizations now like the Hero Initiative that goes around and tries to support comic book artists and writers who’ve been hit with financial troubles.
This is also another reason why there tends to be no new comic book characters. Writers know that they won’t fairly be compensated and don’t wish to be in litigation with their employers for years, decades, or even after they die.
If there’s a legal battle that you think I should’ve included let me know below!
(Slider image credit: http://accredited-online-colleges.org)
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