Thursday, November 03, 2005

Comic Book Urban Legends Revealed #23!

This is the twenty-third in a series of examinations of comic book urban legends and whether they are true or false. Click here for an archive of the previous twenty-two.

Let's begin!

COMIC URBAN LEGEND: Bruce Banner got a new first name due to Stan Lee's forgetfulness.

STATUS: True

In the early days of Marvel Comics, Stan Lee was writing a lot of comic books. Not only was he writing a lot of comic books, but he was writing a lot of CHARACTERS, as some of the books he was writing had two features in them (like Tales to Astonish). As a result, it was often difficult for him to remember character's names. This was the genesis of the alliterative name for Marvel characters. It is easier to remember names when the first and last names both begin with the same letter.

However, even this did not always keep Lee from occasionally slipping up. One notable error occured about two and a half years into Marvel's existence, where Lee began referring (for more than a couple of months) to the Incredible Hulk's alter ego as "Bob Banner" rather than the "Bruce Banner" that he was originally named.

Responding to criticism of the goof, Stan Lee, in issue #28 of the Fantastic Four, laid out how he was going to handle the situation, ""There's only one thing to do-we're not going to take the cowardly way out. From now on his name is Robert Bruce Banner-so we can't go wrong no matter WHAT we call him!"

And that is the name he still has today, although they later changed the Robert to David for the television program.

This Urban Legend was suggested to me by Reilly Brown.

COMIC URBAN LEGEND: The recently killed off Phantom Lady, Human Bomb and Black Condor are in the public domain and are not actually owned by DC, therefore with their deaths, anyone can now come along and publish stories about them.

STATUS: False

The key to this question (which was posed to me by Kelvin Green) is the "with their deaths" aspect of the question. The fact that the characters have been killed off is irrelevant. All you need to be able to write a public domain character is for that character to be IN the public domain, which is the case for all of the Freedom Fighters. The Freedom Fighters were all published by Quality Comics until it went out of business in the 1950s, and eventually sold all its rights to DC Comics. The thing is, during this period in time, Quality allowed the copyright to lapse on their characters. This was not a strange occurance at the time, as very few companies actually bothered to renew their copyrights, as Quality quite reasonably did not feel as though there was anything to be gained by sustaining the copyright on the characters. Comics were a month by month enterprise. In addition, even had they WANTED to renew the copyrights, as the terms expired while the company was out of business, they couldn't ANYways.

So there you have it - you CAN write a comic book featuring the Ray, Phantom Lady, Human Bomb, etc.

The next question is, though, can you title the comic Phantom Lady, Human Bomb, The Ray, etc.? That is an issue for trademark to address. Copyright just dictates whether you can use the characters and/or reprint their stories. Trademark protects consumers by assuring that if they see, say, a comic with Batman on the cover, that the comic book WILL be by DC Comics. This is designed to protect consumers from bootleg (i.e. inferior) material.

The strongest protection regarding trademarks comes when someone registers a trademark with the federal government. However, this is NOT the only way to protect a trademark, it is just the easiest (for if it is registered, the presumption cuts directly to the person/group who registered the trademark). A great deal of comic book characters have NOT been registered as trademarks. Of the Quality Comics characters, DC has only registered Plastic Man and the Blackhawks for trademark protection. For the others, you would have a SHOT, but even though DC did not REGISTER the names as trademarks, the fact that they published a comic book titled The Ray and Black Condor would be a strong argument in DC's favor that they have a trademark on those characters.

So, while you can certainly write a comic featuring the Human Bomb, Phantom Lady, etc., you would probably not be able to advertise it as such.

Their deaths, though, mean basically nothing (except there is less chance for a comic featuring them to be placed into the stream of commerce, which, after awhile, would bolster an outsider's attempts at claiming DC was not protecting their trademark. In addition, if they are dead, perhaps DC would not even TRY to defend their trademark on the characters).

COMIC URBAN LEGEND: Speedball was invented for the New Universe.

STATUS: True

Describing his work on the New Universe (in this interview with Tim Hartnett), Jim Shooter stated :
About 18 months before Marvel's 25th Anniversary, I was called to an executive staff meeting (the President, all the VPs and Directors) to discuss the Anniversary. It was decided we should have a "publishing event" to celebrate. I suggested several things, including introducing a second "new" universe. Everyone liked that idea. I was given a development budget of $120,000. Later, Tom DeFalco asked me if he could be in charge of the project. I agreed. Months passed. Tom made little progress. The only idea I can remember that he developed in that time was Speedball, the less said of which, the better. Time got short, so I took over. I came up with the concept of a science fiction super-hero universe, as opposed to the original science fantasy super-hero Marvel Universe. By this time, Marvel Comics was being shopped for sale. Suddenly, the owners (essentially the Board of Directors) were as one might expect, loathe to make any investment in the future. Nothing "useless" that took dollars off the bottom line (such as developing characters that may pay off in the future, when presumably new owners would be in place) was tolerated. My budget was cut from $120,000 to $80,000 to $40,000 to "stop all spending" in the space of a week. We had spent only about $12,000 point, much of it on Speedball, I believe.
A few years later, I guess Marvel decided it wanted to try to recoup its investment in Speedball (and I guess it did not hurt that his creator was now Marvel's Editor-in-Chief), and the Speedball ongoing series made its debut.

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Well, that's it for me this week!

Feel free to tell me some urban legends you have heard, and I will try to confirm or deny them!

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33 Comments:

Anonymous Daniel Apodaca said...

I don't know how Brian does it, writing comic articles at 5 in the morning, but I love it.

Keep up the great work, man.

11/03/2005 05:38:00 AM  
Anonymous The Ever-Lovin' Alex Freakin' W said...

I cannot think of anything I'd rather spend $12,000 dollars on than developing the character of Speedball. That is money well spent.

11/03/2005 07:43:00 AM  
Blogger Bill Reed said...

Poor Speedball never gets any love...

I always thought he was awesome.

11/03/2005 07:48:00 AM  
Anonymous Jason Sacks said...

I think it's funny that the cover of Speedball's first issue has him with his back to readers. On most first issues, they show a big bold image of the charactter. On Speedball #1 they show his ass. Classy.

11/03/2005 12:17:00 PM  
Anonymous RAB said...

Back in the early Eighties when ownership of the Tower Comics properties seemed to be in legal limbo and three different companies were publishing their own revivals of the THUNDER Agents, I thought a great way to use the situation would be for creators to all do their own THUNDER Agents. Instead of trying to beat everyone else and make one version of the characters the new "definitive" version -- which would inevitably fail -- take advantage of the high visibility and recognition of the characters to do something highly individual and unique with them. Imagine a dozen different THUNDER Agents comic series!

Obviously that never happened and the characters now languish in the hands of one owner, but now I'm imagining the same thing for the Quality characters.

Like the Tower lineup, these characters are mainly remembered for the great artists who worked on them; not so much for the plots or writing. From my POV as a writer, the great visuals of these characters were woefully let down by the lackluster stories. And surely there must be artists who want to pay homage to Fine or Baker?

I could see writing my own story involving the Black Condor, The Ray, the Phantom Lady et al. But maybe Tony Isabella has something special he'd like to do with those characters. Why shouldn't we both do precisely that? This may never have happened with a costumed super hero before, but it's not total madness; if two writers or a dozen writers all want to do Robin Hood or Dracula stories, they don't need to coordinate with one another or seek each others' approval. What I'm proposing here is something similar, albeit different only due to the need to respect the trademarks. It would be the polar opposite of a "shared universe" -- think of it as a friendly competition instead.

Anyone else tickled by this idea, or am I just insane?

11/03/2005 02:34:00 PM  
Anonymous RAB said...

Slight amendment to the above: I misremembered Tony Isabella as one of the writers of the Freedom Fighters comic series, but in fact he was an editor on the book.

11/03/2005 03:09:00 PM  
Blogger Ed Cunard said...

I always thought Ditko created Speedball.

11/03/2005 04:06:00 PM  
Blogger Kevin Melrose said...

"So, while you can certainly write a comic featuring the Human Bomb, Phantom Lady, etc., you would probably not be able to advertise it as such."

AC Comics apparently thought the same thing in the late '70s or early '80s, when they trotted out their own version of Phantom Lady. DC, asserting its claims to the Quality characters, threatened lawsuit, and AC backed down. They changed their character's name to Nightveil.

The character's copyright status/history is murky, but the only thing likely to clear that up is a court challenge -- and I don't imagine too many creators or publishers who could afford a costly legal battle with DC.

11/03/2005 04:10:00 PM  
Blogger Brian Cronin said...

Ditko could have been part of DeFalco's New Universe pitch, Ed.

That being said, I do not believe Ditko invented him, only drew him.

Can I use the same urban legend twice, with only slight changes? Hehe.

11/03/2005 04:12:00 PM  
Blogger Brian Cronin said...

Excellent point, Kevin, but AC Comics creator Bill Black has stated that, had the situation occured again today, he would have basically told DC to screw.

It was just easier for him to just change the name than fight it then, and yes, that is why most current people do not fight, because really, is using the name "Black Condor" really worth a fight with DC?

11/03/2005 06:40:00 PM  
Blogger H said...

This is an excellent series Brian. And this entry got me thinking. Is the time right for an inter-company ongoing series teaming up Speedball and The Human Bomb? I say yes.

11/03/2005 09:16:00 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

The wiki entry on Speedball lists the same Steve Ditko with help from Roger Stern that I'd always heard. And the UHBMCC entry on the series seems to indicate that DeFalco was only involved at all with the first issue and a half, even then co-writing with Stern and Ditko. Probably one of those things where DeFalco worked out the broad strokes and Ditko and Stern did the detail work. Or something. I dunno. I can't believe I just spent ten minutes researching Speedball.

11/05/2005 09:06:00 AM  
Anonymous Andrew Perron said...

...wait, so if Quality Comics characters are public domain, how can Plastic Man have rights issues preventing him from appearing on JLU?

11/05/2005 09:57:00 AM  
Blogger Chris Griswold said...

I think the rights issues involving Plastic Man have to do with a new project they are developing.

11/05/2005 01:20:00 PM  
Blogger Brian Cronin said...

Exactly, Chris.

It is similar to an Avengers movie being a problem because Marvel licensed different characters to different studios.

Marvel owns the rights to each character, but farmed out the MOVIE rights to characters to different studios.

11/05/2005 03:02:00 PM  
Blogger Brian Cronin said...

" The wiki entry on Speedball lists the same Steve Ditko with help from Roger Stern that I'd always heard. And the UHBMCC entry on the series seems to indicate that DeFalco was only involved at all with the first issue and a half, even then co-writing with Stern and Ditko. Probably one of those things where DeFalco worked out the broad strokes and Ditko and Stern did the detail work. Or something. I dunno. I can't believe I just spent ten minutes researching Speedball."

Sounds good to me, so long as he was originally intended for New Universe...hehe.

11/05/2005 03:03:00 PM  
Anonymous thekamisama said...

Glenn Danzig's Verotik Press did some reprints of Phantom Lady a few years back didn't they?

11/05/2005 06:23:00 PM  
Blogger kelvingreen said...

Thanks for answering my Phantom Lady question!

On the subject of Robert Bruce Banner, is it true that the TV show people changed his name to David because they didn't think Bruce was a manly enough name for a lead in a TV show?

11/07/2005 02:58:00 PM  
Blogger Brian Cronin said...

D'oh!

I meant to credit you for the question, Kelvin. Sorry.

11/07/2005 06:43:00 PM  
Blogger kelvingreen said...

Don't be silly, I don't care about credit. I'm just pleased to get an answer to the question. A very interesting answer too.

Now what about Young Avengers artist Jim Cheung being English and/or allergic to sunlight? :P

11/08/2005 03:44:00 PM  
Blogger Brian Cronin said...

Well, whether you care about it or not, I still meant to credit you. :)

11/08/2005 08:54:00 PM  
Blogger kelvingreen said...

Oh I see, we're getting into philosophy and semantics are we? ;)

11/10/2005 01:18:00 AM  
Anonymous tbrittreid/Ted Watson said...

Concerning the late 70s "Hulk" show changing Banner's first name from Bruce to David, developer/Executive Producer/occasional writer and-or director Kenneth Johnson was quoted at the time as finding the alliteration childish. I for one agree, and never understood why Stan Lee did that so much in the early years of Marvel (as such).

As far as the statement that while you could put out a comic WITH a PD character, TRADEMARK might get in the way of titling the book with his/her name, why did Atlas (70s version) give most of their comics anthology-like titles instead of the names of the actual features? Seems to me that there was some legal situation in that somewhere. Any ideas, anybody?

3/02/2006 04:32:00 PM  
Anonymous tbrittreid/Ted Watson said...

I forgot to mention:

The complications of a publisher licensing movie/TV rights to different studios is the truth behind another urban legend, that the late 70s Fantastic Four cartoon series had a robot named H.E.R.B.I.E. instead of the Human Torch because of fear that kids would set themselves afire to emulate the Torch. In fact, the rights to Ol' Hothead had been licensed out in the same deal between Marvel, Universal, and the CBS network that spawned the aforementioned Hulk series, a Spider-man series, two Captain American movie/pilots, and one Dr. Strange movie/pilot.

3/02/2006 04:39:00 PM  
Anonymous tbrittreid/Ted Watson said...

OOPS! My apologies for the "Captain AmericaN" typo. I also should have elaborated that the Human Torch project was abandoned because the requisite effects proved logistically unfeasible within the available budget. Another Marvel character licensed in that deal was Sub-Mariner, who got dropped when an original character called "The Man From Atlantis" got on the air. Ironically, Marvel put out a comic version of that!

3/03/2006 04:19:00 PM  
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Anonymous Generic Cialis said...

I knew that Stan Lee had issues with names but i didn't remember that he actually added the Robert to Bruce Banner because he called him Bob once.

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