Sometimes the most unmemorable of events can leave a lasting impression on popular culture. This thought comes from something I read recently that boggled my mind, and is exactly the kind of thing that makes me a lover of Comics History. For this insight I am thankful to the late Jules Feiffer, and his book ‘The Great Comic Book Heroes’.
In 1938 was born one of the most iconic comics characters, the man of steel, Superman. Probably the most enduring character created, the longest running, and which has never been out of print since its inception. He is the savior of our race, belonging to another planet, an alien, but not a foreigner, human yet superhuman, everything a child or flighty adult could want. And he did what comics need to do, sell lots and lots of copies (incidentally, a copy of Superman issue 1 recently sold for USD 1.5 million)
This success spawned dozens of imitators, all of whom sought to replicate the formula of success that they thought was embodied in the character. So we had more and more, more-than-human heroes with awesome powers – Captain Marvel, The Shield, Captain America and so on. But not many know how many of the unique characterizations of these characters were a result of courtrooms and lawsuits, and not just vivid imaginations.
The success of Superman necessitated the protection his identity from copycats. When the protector of the masses needs protection, he gets together with his lawyer. So legally competitors were prohibited from imitating the most obvious features. The mighty man who felt the pinch of this was Captain Marvel. A long legal battle, with judgments and appeals galore, was fought between National Comics Publications and Fawcett Publications over copyright infringement, and eventually National Comics Publications and Superman won sending Captain Marvel spiraling out of print for a long time.
Significant repercussions included the fact that publishers henceforth had the understanding not to dress their new characters with capes, not to import them from faraway planets. The next wave of comics for years thereafter resorted to twisted science labs and radioactive gamma rays to explain the germination of superheroes like Spiderman and the Marvel Comics family.
Normally lawyers embody the spirit of killjoys, but here let us give them credit for making comics more outrageous and more enjoyable for kids of all ages.