Empire of the Superheroes: America’s Comic Book Creators and the Making of a Billion Dollar Industry
By Mark Cotta Vaz
University of Texas Press
Pop culture and comic book fandom have been abuzz recently with the release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League. It’s an extended (way extended) version of the original director’s vision for the 2017 film that hoped to do for the DC Universe what rival Marvel’s did with the Avengers franchise. It of course features a slew of DC’s best known heroes like Superman and Batman, we well as cult favorite villains Darkseid and Steppenwolf.
But did you know that the Man of Steel was created by two Cleveland teenagers in 1938, who sold all rights to their creation to DC in 1938 for $130 (the equivalent of $2,425 today?). Or that for years Bob Kane was credited as the “sole” creator of the Caped Crusader and its mythos, but history has proven equal contributions from Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson? Or that Darkseid creator Jack Kirby has a long and tortuous history of fighting for both rights and credit to creations with both major companies including characters like the Hulk, Fantastic Four, X-Men, and Captain America?
In this incredibly detailed and fascinating book, Cotta Vaz traces the history of a whole industry that started as cheap disposable entertainment for kids but has morphed into the dominant pop culture force worldwide, touching everything from movies and TV to books, video games, toys, and merchandising, merchandising, merchandising.
Cotta Vaz begins—like all good superhero tales—with an origin story, vividly evoking the sometimes rough-and-tumble era of comic book publishing in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Familiar names to comic book historians like Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (those two Cleveland teenagers), Will Eisner, Joe Simon, William Moultan-Marston, and publishing magnates M.C. Gaines, Jack Liebowitz, Harry Donenfeld and Martin Goodman abound.
He shows how creators and execs were really learning on the fly in a medium that cartoonist Jules Ffeiffer called “movies on paper.” And there are plenty of instances of skullduggery, ship-jumping, and outright copying among all. And a contractual and business treatment of content creators that, while unimaginable today, was standard procedure at the time. Where a company could own your creations from the first time they took life on paper.
“The pioneering creators of the comic book superheroes, not that much older than the dazzled kids who were the medium’s chief customers, lacked business savvy that would have assured them that exclusive title of ownership—copyright,” Cotta Vaz writes. “The corporate owners that controlled the creations and cut the business deals that, to their giddy shock, spun pulp-paper adventures into gold.”
The book goes deep into the 1948 lawsuit where National Publications/DC sued Fawcett Publications, claiming that the latter’s Captain Marvel character was a copyright infringement and blatant copy on their own Superman. Even if instead of Clark Kent ripping off his glasses and shirt to reveal Superman, Captain Marvel only appeared when young orphan Billy Batson intoned the word “Shazam!” to become the hero.
Given the thousands of superheroes and villains who have come since, it seems odd that basic characteristics like flying, cape-wearing, and superhuman feats could belong to one character, but after years DC prevailed, forcing Fawcett to abandon their character.
In an ironic twist, in the 1970’s DC acquired rights to the Captain Marvel (even pairing him with Superman on occasion), and “The Big Red Cheese” was the subject of his own 2019 movie Shazam! with a sequel on the way. Ironically, at the time, the character was called “Shazam!” because of copyright issues with Marvel Comics who introduced their own…Captain Marvel, who had a movie out that same year. Yeah, it gets confusing.
To a lesser extent, Cotta Vaz also takes readers through the great anti-comic book scare/movement of the 1950s that hurt the industry badly and drove EC Comics (Tales from the Crypt, Crime Suspenstories) out of business. Save for this one remaining title they’d turn into a magazine called Mad.
But the book’s main focus is on creators and rights. Simple terms like “independent, freelance work” “work for hire” or “paid employee” could mean the difference between millions of dollars and nothing, something impossible to foresee or imagine decades ago. Then there’s the Byzantine trail of oddly worded contracts, check endorsements, and handshake or oral deals.
Cotta Vaz takes the reader through a brisk but fact-filled journey of how the comic book industry changed in the ‘80s and ‘90s, with creators like Frank Miller (Ronin, The Dark Knight), Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (Watchmen), and Howard Chaykin (American Flagg!) who would both reinvigorate existing characters while full expecting to own or have a big say in their creations. These books were often published by independent companies like First, Dark Horse, and Pacific, with subject matter and themes far more adult in nature.
But for originators like Kirby, Simon, Siegel, Schuster, Bill Everett (Sub-Mariner) and Carl Burgos (Human Torch), legal fights over creations, credit, and even original artwork would continue into the 21st century, either by themselves as men in their 80s and 90s or by their heirs. Changes in copyright law were more favorable to freelance/work-for-hire creators, but did not apply to pre-1976 creations. Jack Kirby’s case was settled between Marvel and his family just as it was to be argued in the Supreme Court. The heirs of Jerry Siegel were not so lucky.
Today, superheroes like Superman, Batman, X-Men, and various Avengers are raking in millions and billions of dollars in movies and television (and merchandising!), and there’s no end in sight to projects either already in production or planned. With Empire of the Superheroes, Mark Cotta Vaz adds an important, educational, and highly entertaining title to recent comic book scholarship and history. Not bad for what was originally supposed to be just “kid stuff.”
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