Jul 5, 2010

DC Comics vs. Victor Fox and Will Eisner - The Real Score! Plus, Steel Sterling, Master Man, and Captain Marvel!

So it's pretty much a well-known fact throughout comicdom that when Fawcett Comics first came out with Captain Marvel, National Periodical Publications, now known as DC Comics, sued the pants off of them. Although National/DC never officially won the case, it did win the battle by making Fawcett agree to finish publishing Captain Marvel -- and later on, of course, DC went on to buy the entire Fawcett line of comics, and now Captain Marvel is a fixture in the DC Universe.

But what is not so well-known is the fact that Captain Marvel and company wasn't the first or only property that National Periodical sued over. It was only the most famous because Captain Marvel is, of course, the most successful - at one point in the Golden Age, outselling Superman by a good number of copies (anywhere in the neighborhood of tens of thousands, I think). No, National sued more properties. The first of these was Fox Feature Syndicate's Wonder Man, created by none other than the legendary Will Eisner!

Unlike Captain Marvel, who could fly and whose stories mainly revolved around Billy Batson instead of the superheroic alter-ego, Wonder Man was just a blatant ripoff of Superman. Sure, his origin - being given a mystic ring by a Tibetan yogi - is different, but he was exactly like Superman in every way that mattered, going so far as to being called "the champion of the oppressed," a term that was used in Action Comics #1, the first Superman issue. You can go ahead and read the entire Wonder Man story here.

As the story goes, Victor Fox contracted the Will Eisner-Jerry Iger studio, as many companies contracted them at the time, to create a superhero that was an exact replica of Superman. So they created Fred Carson, meek and mild-mannered radio engineer who would become Wonder Man, the first of very many Superman imitators. After just one issue of Wonder Comics, Fox Features was sued by National Periodical Publications, and Will Eisner was called on to give testimony. To avoid the worst scenario in terms of legal consequences, Victor Fox instructed Eisner to lie on the stand and claim that the Eisner-Iger studio came up with the idea of Wonder Man independently. The rationale was that the studio couldn't be sued for it because they were hired to produce something for Fox Features, and Fox Features couldn't be sued for it because they were ignorant of the plagiarism.

Here's the interesting bit: In various records - in his biography by Bob Andelman, A Spirited Life; in his fictionalized autobiography, The Dreamer; just to name a couple - Eisner has always claimed that he refused to perjure and that he told the truth about how Wonder Man was conceived.

From The Dreamer (1986) 
(Bill Eyron = Will Eisner, Victor Reynard = Victor Fox, Heroman = Wonder Man)

As the story goes, it was Eisner's testimony that won the case for National and DC, which led to Fox Features not paying the Eisner-Iger studio their US$3,000 for the work. It's a high point in Eisner's biography, a moment that cements even further Eisner's iconic status in the industry. No one even challenged it - Eisner comes off as a really principled man here.

At least until recently, when the Comics Detective acquired a transcript of Eisner's testimony! Head on over there and check it out, and then come over here.

Did you read it? Did you get it? Did you see it? That's an eye-opener there. Will Eisner's testimony is completely different from every account he's ever given about the case. In his testimony, he not only claims full and total credit for Wonder Man; he also claims to have no knowledge of Superman prior to knowing about the lawsuit! It's very lucky for Eisner that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster sent Superman to so many publishers and studios, that they must have forgotten the time they tried selling Superman to the Eisner-Iger studio and got a big fat rejection! If that piece of evidence had come out, it would have been very difficult for Eisner to get out of that specific bind.

I don't blame Eisner for perpetuating the image of his sticking by his principles as it pertains to the court case, honestly; it was likely the story he told his children, and he probably never thought that the transcript of the case would ever come out in his lifetime (and it didn't). Many people have embellished or hidden details from their biographies in order to look more admirable, which I think is very understandable if one has children and would like one's children to look up to him. Still, it's an eye-opening document, and it fills my mind with many questions, such as how Fox still lost the case, and why Fox refused to pay the Eisner-Iger studio the money they were owed. Thankfully, however, the Comics Detective has agreed to reveal all in due time.

Now, after reading this document, I thought it would be interesting to see what else National sued for infringing on Superman's copyright. There was, of course, Captain Marvel, who actually flew before Superman:

There was MLJ/Archie Comics' Steel Sterling, who actually had the handle of "Man of Steel" before Superman:

And then there was Master Man, who was, like Captain Marvel, published by Fawcett Comics, and, like Wonder Man, was created by Will Eisner in Master Comics #1:

That last one is especially interesting for me. Take note of Master Man's opening copy:

"Stronger than untamed horses! Swifter than the raging winds! Braver than the mighty lions!" sure sounds a lot like the opening to the Superman radio show, TV show, and cartoon of the time, "Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!" At first glance, it would seem that Master Comics and Eisner were just ripping off DC and Superman again, but as far as I know, the Superman blurb started with the radio show, and the show debuted in February 1940. Master Comics was dated March 1940, meaning it came out, I think, in February 1940. And I don't know if the radio show used the blurb from its debut. So I don't know if there's any copying here, but if there is, I'm inclined to think it's on the part of National!

It's interesting that it seems that Superman took as much from his "imitators" as his imitators took from him.

Of course, soon afterward, the torrent of Superman imitators was too much, and they didn't bother filing suits against these copycats anymore. Which is partly why, I guess, when Marvel in the 60s came out with a black-haired, invulnerable, flying strongman named Wonder Man, they completely let it go:

Thanks to Toonopedia for the additional information!


The Professor said...

Yet another example of someone being both young and human. I expect that after a while Will Eisner had grown to believe his story. But, cripes, he covered Victor Fox's &$$ and still he got shafted by Fox?

The more I read about these sorts of things, the more I wonder how DC actually won their case against Fawcett and Captain Marvel. There was a lot more transparent swiping going on in the 1940s.

Have you read any of the articles by Will Murray or Anthony Tollin about Batman swiping from The Shadow? It's well known that the early Batman was "inspired" by The Shadow and other pulp heroes (mainly ones who themselves were "inspired" by The Shadow). In various articles in the current Shadow Doubles reprint series, an overwhelming case is being made that quite a few Batman story lines and ideas were taken directly from The Shadow. In fact, the very first Batman story is a direct adaptation of a Shadow story from a couple years before.

Maybe Street & Smith should have sued DC.

Duy Tano said...

I'm sure Eisner believed his story eventually, and I really think that having kids would have had something to do with wanting to perpetuate that myth about himself. I don't blame him at all. The Comics Detective is posting the rest of the testimonies now. They just put up Iger's and Fox's testimonies.

I actually ran across a magazine called Comic Book Marketplace in Easton a few years back. The issue mainly dealt with Captain Marvel. There is the thought that National never won the case against Fawcett for Captain Marvel, and that they pretty much just sued Fawcett until they bled them dry, and Captain Marvel sales started slipping and it was no longer worth it to pursue the case.

But they said that if they had pursued the appeal, Fawcett was essentially screwed because it had already been publicized that the editors had explicitly told Parker and Beck to "make me a Superman." Beck's recollection was "Bill Parker said 'Dammit, all they want is a carbon copy of Superman, and I'm not going to give it to them.' So we proceeded to give them a character that looked somewhat like Superman, but in character was completely different."

To be honest, I'm really surprised that Eisner made TWO Superman clones.

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