Siegel and Shuster vs. DC + 11 more fierce comic book legal battles

As much fun as comic books are, they can get really ugly sometimes.

The world of comic books is a world in which characters can survive for decades, passing through the hands of dozens (if not hundreds) of writers, artists, letterers, colorists, editors and more on their way to the printers, and going through a number of incarnations. With that comes a unique set of challenges with regard to character ownership and licensing, and sometimes that leads to writers and artists battling publishers -- or each other -- over who owns what, and why. It's been going on since Superman changed comics forever in 1938, and it doesn't seem likely to stop anytime soon. 

So from Superman to Ghost Rider, here are some of the biggest comic-book-centric legal battles in the history of the medium.

 

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    Marv Wolfman vs. New Line Cinema and Marvel Comics: In 1998, as the big-screen version of Blade was about to hit theaters, the vampire slayer’s co-creator Marv Wolfman filed suit against Marvel Comics and New Line Cinema, claiming that he hadn’t created the character as a work-for-hire property and that he had never authorized the use of the character in a film. Two years later, Wolfman lost his claim when a judge ruled that the contemporary version of Blade differed enough from his original incarnation that Marvel owed Wolfman nothing.

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    Jack Kirby vs. Marvel: “King” Kirby was responsible for the co-creation of many of Marvel’s most lucrative comic properties, but he never got royalties, and spent much of his life trying to get back the original art that he’d contributed to the company, with little success. In 2009, Kirby’s estate filed notices of termination against Marvel, Walt Disney Pictures and others in an attempt to get some control over Kirby’s characters (which include the Hulk, the Fantastic Four and The X-Men), but courts found in favor of Marvel.

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    Steve Gerber vs. Marvel: In 1978, Gerber challenged Marvel’s copyright claim to his character Howard the Duck, which he created for the publisher in 1973. Gerber claimed that any ancillary characters he created while writing for Marvel (including, he said, Howard) didn’t fall under the “work for hire” agreement he had with the company. The suit was eventually settled out of court, and Marvel held on to the character.

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    Marvel and DC vs. anyone who wants to use the term “superhero”: The two comics giants have held a joint trademark to the term since the early ‘80s, and they’ve stopped several people and companies from using it. But people keep fighting for the right to the word. Most recently small-press publisher Ray Felix challenged the Big Two’s right to the phrase, but it’s unclear if anyone will ever be able to break the stranglehold.

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    Joe Simon vs. Marvel: Simon co-created the Marvel staple hero Captain America, but claims that a 1940 sketch he drew to demonstrate to publisher Martin Goodman what the character should be did not fall under his agreement with the company, therefore he owned the character outside of Marvel’s work for hire system. Simon challenged Marvel’s ownership of the character back in 1999, but Cap stayed with Marvel.

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    Gary Friedrich vs. Marvel: Friedrich, who created Ghost Rider for Marvel, has a long history of battling with the company over the character. In 2007, he filed suit against Marvel and other companies alleging that they had infringed on his copyright to the character by making a Ghost Rider film, claiming he’d won the rights back some time earlier. Marvel countered with a suit claiming that Friedrich did not own the rights to the character, and that he’d been illegally using the name and likeness for years to sell art and other merchandise at comic book conventions. The suit ended last year, when Friedrich was ordered to pay Marvel $17,000 and stop selling unlicensed Ghost Rider merchandise at conventions. He is, however, still allowed to sell his autograph on officially licensed Ghost Rider merchandise.

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    Steven Busti vs. Cowboys & Aliens: In 2011, comic book writer Busti filed suit against the producers of the sci-fi action extravaganza, claiming that the idea for their movie had actually come from a comic book story he wrote in 1994. No word on whether or not he got anything out of that claim.

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    Captain Marvel vs. Superman: In 1941, National Comics (what is now DC Comics) filed suit against Fawcett Comics, claiming that the Fawcett character Captain Marvel infringed on the copyright of Superman (a National character). National claimed the power set and look of Captain Marvel were too similar to Superman, while Fawcett claimed there were enough differences to make the character unique. A lower court found in favor of Fawcett, but a higher court judge eventually reversed that decision. Today, Captain Marvel is a DC Comics property, where he is largely known as Shazam!

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    Robert Kirkman vs. Tony Moore: Last year, artist Moore filed suit against writer Kirkman, claiming that he hadn’t been given enough royalties for his part in the creation of the hit zombie comic The Walking Dead (Moore drew the first six issues of the comic before leaving). Kirkman claimed he’d actually paid Moore extra for his time on the book, but Moore quickly labeled Kirkman a “fraudster.” A few months later, the pair settled the case, though the terms have not yet been made public.

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    Stan Lee Media vs. Marvel: In 2007, Stan Lee Media (a bankrupted company that no longer has any connection to its comic creator namesake) filed suited against Marvel Entertainment for billions of dollars, claiming Stan Lee Media was the real owner of all the copyrights to Lee’s Marvel Comics characters. Supporters of the Stan Lee Media legal efforts claim that Lee actually assigned the rights to his Marvel characters to them before he assigned the rights to Marvel, but so far no courts have agreed, and Marvel wins every time.

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    Neil Gaiman vs. Todd McFarlane: Though the pair have grappled over a number of things over the years (including the rights to British comics character Marvelman, which were finally bought by Marvel Comics in 2009), comic book writer Gaiman and comic book artist/writer McFarlane’s biggest legal tussle began in 2002, when Gaiman filed papers claiming McFarlane owed him royalties for various uses of the characters Angela, Cogliostro and Medieval Spawn, which Gaiman had first written in a 1993 issue of Spawn. McFarlane contended that Gaiman’s 1993 script (and therefore the characters) was work-for-hire, but courts thought otherwise. After a decade of litigation, the case was finally settled in Gaiman’s favor.

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    Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster vs. DC Comics: Superman’s creators were given a work-for-hire contract for their iconic character back in 1938 when he first appeared, but as the character grew more lucrative, they began to realize they’d gotten a raw deal. In the 1970s, the co-creators of the world’s first superhero finally won a victory in their lengthy legal battle with DC, earning $30,000 per year for the rest of their lives from the company. Today, Siegel and Shuster’s heirs are still battling DC and Warner Bros. over the rights to make Superman movies, but these days they seem to be losing.

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