The Comic Book History of Comics #2: Into the Murky World of Copyright

Comic Book History of Comics cover A by Ryan Dunlavey, published by IDW

The Comic Book History of Comics #2

Fred Van Lente (Writer and Letters), Ryan Dunlavey (Artist), Adam Guzowski (Colours)
IDW Publishing
24 January, 2018

Following The Comic Book History of Comicsfun first issue about the birth of graphic novels, the series moves into much darker territory in issue #2 – copyright and rip-offs.

Comic Book History of Comics cover B by Ryan Dunlavey, published by IDW

The first section, “The Grabbers,” examines copyright laws, or rather, how big corporations effectively stole the work of their creators. The second section, “1986 AD’” looks at comics in the UK and the slew of British knockoffs that were created after World War II.

The issue opens with a brief explanation of the copyright law as it is written in the USA constitution, specifically the 1909 law that had such a lasting impact on early comic book writers and artists in the USA. The issue outlines the “work for hire” clause that was often used by corporations to make massive profits off the labour of creators.

We are then given a brief history of the creation of Superman by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Siegel and Shuster were not worldly-wise and signed away their rights to the character to DC for a pittance, paving the way for DC to copyright the character in their name. Siegel and Shuster were hardly the only ones to be treated this way. DC did something similar to Bill Finger – co-creator of Batman and creator of Joker and Robin – albeit with a little help from one Bob Kane, whom many erroneously recognise as the sole creator of Batman and co. Marvel, not to be left out, had lawsuits filed against them, for similar reasons, by Joe Simon, Captain America’s creator. Jack Kirby, who created a massive number of Marvel’s characters, followed suit.

Lawsuits were never a good look for corporations, but they found a way to deal with them through the art of false promises and out-of-court settlements. Needless to say, it took far too long – more than forty years – for laws to be changed in favour of comic book creators.

The second section of this issue explores the arrival of American comics in the UK and the anti-comics movement that grew in the wake of their popularity. The creation of the Superman knockoff, Captain Marvel, by Whiz Comics, led to DC suing them and winning. The comic then looks at how this series of events led to the ‘British invasion’ of creators such as Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Mark Millar, among others, entering into mainstream American comics.

Comic Book History of Comics written by Fred Van Lente, art by Ryan Dunlavey, published by IDW

As one can see, writer Fred van Lente packs a lot into the 30-odd pages of this comic book and it suffers from being overcrowded. There is so much information, so many people – creators, lawyers, corporations – that you find yourself re-reading panels just to make sure you understand who created what and who sued whom. The second segment is the worst affected. It feels hurried, details being condensed to such an extent that the reader may actually have to do individual research to figure out what is going on. One cannot help but wonder if leaving out some of the more detailed historic elements wouldn’t have been the more prudent course of action.

I honestly felt that too much space was spent on the anti-comics movement in Britain. It could have been reduced, especially as we learned a lot about it in the first issue. What instead happens is that the more pertinent, and relevant, segment about Captain Marvel and Marvel Man (aka Miracle Man), became so confusing, I had to re-read the pages four times to make sense of it.

Despite my confusion, to pack in as much as this comic does is an impressive feat. And in the end, the book does exactly what it says on the cover – gives readers a history of comic books in a comic book. Could it have been better edited? Yes. Does that make the comic any less enjoyable? No. I am also certain many readers will relish researching the titbits of information they have learned from this comic.

Ryan Dunlavey’s art is solid – the characters in this comic are once again drawn as caricatures of the real-life creators. I am still a bit skeptical about using characters as stand-ins for the corporations, mainly because it broke the flow of reading for me. But, all in all, the art is vibrant and engaging, bringing history to life in a very unique way.

The final section of each issue of the series is dedicated to “HerStory,”where a female comic book creator is placed in the spotlight. In this issue it was The Skank Kid comic creator, Shawn Kerri. As in the first issue, the HerStory section continues to bother me. That women are being left out of the main narrative of this series is deeply troubling. How can this series be a proper chronicle of history if it leaves out the pioneering women that paved the way for contemporary powerhouses in comics like Sana Amanat, Gail Simone et al?

The same problem can be seen with the exclusion of creators of colour. Each issue begins with a section entitled “The Comic Book History of World Comics.” The first issue featured India and in this one, we learn about Kenyan comic creator Gado. But a single page is painfully little in the context of the larger world and fails to justify the exclusion of American and British creators of colour from the primary narrative.

I sincerely hope that upcoming issues will address women and people of colour and the very specific struggles that kept them out of big comics corporations. Aside from these rather problematic points, however, The Comic Book History of Comics is shaping up well and has been an enlightening read thus far.

Louis Skye

Louis Skye

A writer at heart with a fondness for well-told stories, Louis Skye is always looking for a way to escape the planet, whether through comic books, films, television, books, or video games. E always has an eye out for the subversive and champions diversity in media. Louis' podcast, Stereo Geeks, is available on all major platforms. Pronouns: E/ Er/ Eir