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CSBG Archive

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).

Thanks to Don Hilliard for reminding me to make myself clearer.

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 developer was now Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief), and the Speedball ongoing series made its debut.

Image hosted by Photobucket.com

Note that Shooter doesn’t say that DeFalco CREATED Speedball, so it is unclear whether Ditko was the sole creator of Speedball, or if it was a tandem effort between Ditko and DeFalco.

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!

28 Comments

For some reason, even when I was a pretty sheltered 11 year old, I was under the impression that the Hulk TV show changed the name from Bruce to David because Bruce had become the quintessential ‘gay name’ and they presumably wanted to avoid the implication of that. Do you know the official reason they went with David?

The idea of the name “Bruce” being “too homosexual” is pretty widely-believed. Stan Lee even mentions it on the recent Hulk movie DVD.

At this years San Diego Comicon, Kenneth Johnson, the creator of the Hulk TV series, said that he switched the name from Bruce to David because he hated allitirative names which he felt were too “comic booky”. Someone in the audience brought up Stan’s version of the story (that the name Bruce was too “wimpy” to which Kenny replied, “Well, that’s Stan’s story.”

Um, the name “Bruce” becoming associated as a name for homosexuals comes from the use of the name in the song ‘The Ballad of Ben Gay’, where a character named “Bruce” hangs out at a gay bar called “The Chartreuse Moose”

Be aware that in Australia, “Bruce” is a standard name for sociologists.

Unfortunately, you’ve created or perpetuated a new urban legend with your comments on the Quality issue. Under present copyright law, any initial copyright prior to 1950 was good for 28 years, at which point renewal was required to maintain and extend the copyright.

The earliest any Quality character existed was 1939. Twenty-eight years from that date is 1967. Quality closed up shop and sold a selection of their characters to National Periodicals (DC) in 1956.

Quality never renewed their copyright because they were out of business a decade before it was ever due for renewal. If DC renewed the copyright in 1967 or earlier – and it’s reasonable to assume they did – the characters are all theirs until 2034 at the earliest.

You are correct, Don, in that DC could have renewed the copyrights.

That’s the point, though. DC didn’t renew the copyrights during the period when the characters weren’t being used. That is why the characters are in the public domain.

I apologize for not making that more clear. Totally my fault.

Brian –

What is the source for the claim that DC didn’t renew the copyright prior to ’67? The US Copyright Office’s online databases (old and modern) only show 1978 and later filings, and I’ve found no other sourced citations.

If this is indeed the case, you’ve found a loophole – but it’s not one I’d want to take to court. (I’m not a lawyer, but I can see a number of plausible bases for DC to defend their copyright as it now stands.)

Cheers!
Don

Sure, Don. To borrow a tort legal term, it’s a bit of “Res ipsa loquitur.”

AC Comics currently publishes reprints of a number of Quality Comics characters, including Phantom Lady.

The character “Nightveil,” by AC Comics, is just a continuation of Phantom Lady under a new name (although, as with most things, the character has changed over the years into becoming a much different character).

AC has been doing this for almost two decades.

DC knows AC does this (as they requested that AC Comics founder Bill Black change the name to Nightveil instead of Phantom Lady – something that Black now feels he did erroneously, as when DC told him it was a trademark of theirs, they neither had a registered trademark nor were publishing a Phantom Lady comic book), and they allow them to pubolish these comics.

AC Comics cannot, though, do reprints of Blackhawk, GI Combat or Plastic Man.

Therefore, this is where res ipsa loquitur comes in. Res ipsa loquitur is Latin for “The thing speaks for itself,” and used here, it would go:

1. These are Quality Comics characters.

2. AC publishes them without license.

3. AC has been allowed to publish them openly and notoriously without license for almost two decades.

4. They must, then, be public domain characters.

5. If they are public domain characters, then the copyright must not have been renewed.

6. DC owned the characters when the copyright was up for renewal.

7. Therefore, DC must not have renewed the copyrights.

So while I do not have categorical proof (anyone live near a library that has a copy of the Catalog of Copyright Entries? That would be extremely helpful here), I think there is enough to go on to fairly state (as, well, I have done) that the vast majority of Quality’s characters have become part of the public domain due to a lack of renewing the copyright.

And, again, this isn’t some irresponsible thing for DC to do or anything. They made sure to take care of the characters who were making them money. That they did not lock up the copyright on, like, the Red Bee or Lady Luck really does not affect DC any.

The only character that really would have hurt DC was Plastic Man (and perhaps the Blackhawks), and DC was sure to protect their intellectual property interests in those two properties, which were actually valuable assets.

I must say, I get a real kick out of discussing copyright issues as they relate to comic books! I rarely get a chance to do much work with copyrights, so this is a really fun intellectual excursion.

Well, DC DID publish a “Ray” comic book during the 1990s (a 6-issue miniseries in 1992, featuring art by Joe Quesada, and an ongoing series starting in 1994 which ran 28 issues), so the copyright and trademark issues may be different for that character.
Regarding the whole “Bruce” matter involving the Hulk, there was the Mad Magazine parody of the show in which the “David Banner” character explains the name change. Due to the parody’s storyline, David was wearing a dress when he’s introduced to an elderly woman. He says his name’s David (the last name was parodied–I think it was “Bummer” in the story) when the woman remarks that, based on his appearance, she thought his name might be Bruce. He then says that in the comics, his name is Bruce but the TV producers felt the name wasn’t masculine enough. In the panel’s background is a TV set showing an image of Bruce Jenner in which the TV announcer comments about “Bruce Jenner is the world’s greatest athlete”. I always thought that single panel was THE best thing ever in Mad Magazine.

Yeah, Joseph, but once a work has entered the public domain, DC can’t copyright it after the fact.

They CAN copyright the new version, though.

And they COULD own a trademark on “The Ray.”

Nolan J. Werner

August 11, 2006 at 9:23 pm

So, heres my question.

Which of the characters would I be able to use?

Dollman? Phantom Lady? HUman Bomb? Ray? Black Condor?

Who else?

Basically, check out http://www.accomics.com/accomics/goldenage/index.html

It has a list of the characters they use.

I’d recommend being iffy with the Ray and Black Condor, as the more recent versions ARE in copyright.

I wouldn’t go ahead and start using any of those characters from the AC Comics web site. Just because AC uses them doesn’t mean they are in the public domain–they could very well have bought the characters from the owners and renewed copyrights since then–unless you have information to the contrary.

But why bother anyway when you can create the exact same character and just change a few names? That’s all DC and Marvel bother to do! Hawkeye = Green Arrow = Golden Archer = The Arrow. Mockingbird = Black Canary = Black Cat (1940s). Quicksilver = Flash. Mister Fantastic = Elongated Man = Plastic Man. Squadron Supreme = Justice League. And so on.

Thanks for bumping this up, Matt!!

I forgot to mention that I actually went out and got the Catalog of Copyright Entries, and looked up, and at least the characters that we were discussing were, in fact, not renewed (Phantom Lady, Human Bomb, etc.).

But I agree, I only checked the ones from Quality. There may be other ones that AC is just infringing the copyright without anyone complaining. Good point.

But thanks for giving me the opportunity to mention that I checked out the copyright info, and I can officially say that the Quality characters mentioned before ARE in the public domain.

Matt:

I think it’s safe to assume that characters from companies that went out of business before 1960s and weren’t bought by someone else can be safely considered public domain.

As to why anyone would want to use them – same reason why people create Justice League pataches (spelling?). You can do whatever you want with them and change them however you like, something you can’t do with DC/Marvel characters. Alan Moore did just that in Terra Obscura.

Felipe de Amorim

November 2, 2006 at 8:29 am

This whole Quality characters talk is very interesting… but I just wanted to point out that comic book characters in public domain is not really that unheard of concept. Thor, for example, is public domain since before his creation… a thousand years before, actually…

I thought Steve Ditko created SPeedball. That’s disapointing.

They changed Bruce Banner’s name to David Banner for the TV show to make a relation to David and Goliath.

wow

Okay, copyright issues so seem a little confusing. What about characters like the old pulp heroes that DC’s borrowed over the years?

The Shadow and Doc Savage were published by Steet & Smith, who went under a long time ago.

Would Steet & Smith’s copyright only be for magazines/novels or is it liscenced to DC

Basically Brian, I’m asking if The Shadow, Doc Savage and Tarzan are public domain?

re: the Freedom Fighter copyright thing.

I believe there is also an issue about the point at which any of these characters is taken for public domain use.

While the Quality characters DC put together for the Freedom Fighters are in PD, and the stories published by Quality are most likely there as well, everything DC has published in the past 30 years with these characters is still under copyright.

A potential writers would have to limit themselves to the original characters and to the background material from the Quality books.

IIUC this is what AC has done with Nightveil. She exists as an exertion of the Phantom Lady material from prior to DC’s first actual use of the character.

That’s a very nice clarification for folks who were confused about that.

Thanks.

As I understand the copyright law as it existed in 1967, the renewal of the copyright had to be done by the original copyright holder and could not be transferred or sold to another entity although, in the case of death of an individual copyright holder, the renewal could be accomplished by an authorized representative of the estate.

A few years ago I went down to the Library of Congress and looked into the matter of Quality Comics’ copyrights and almost nothing that Quality Comics published in 1939-45 was copyrighted by “Quality Comics.” Rather, consistent with what would have been the practice in the 1940’s, Everett “Busy” Arnold, the publisher of Quality, filed for copyrights on the Quality material as an individual. He passed away before the copyrights came up for renewal. Once again, as I understand it, that meant his surviving spouse was the only entity legally entitled to renew the copyrights that came up for renewal in 1967-1973. As noted above, she didn’t do so for any of the copyrights effecting Phantom Lady, Human Bomb, etc. However, if I’m remembering what I learned correctly, she did renew the copyrights for Plastic Man and the Blackhawks when books relevant to those characters came up for renewal. This makes sense because, at that time, in the late ’60’s – early ’70’s, DC was using those characters and would have wanted to maintain the copyright for them whereas they had no notion of reviving the earlier Quality Comics characters.

As for Trademark, as far as I can remember, DC Comics has never published a comic book titled “Phantom Lady.” Meanwhile, AC Comics has put out books advertising “Phantom Lady” on the cover many times over the years when reprinting the old Quality and Fox “Phantom Lady” stories. So, as far as using the phrase “Phantom Lady” as a mark in trade in the comic book industry, it seems AC has a stronger claim to the mark than DC. When Verotik put out a book titled “Phantom Lady” about a decade or so ago it was AC not DC that sent out the cease and desist. Actions sometimes are telling. It seems DC’s lawyers know that they have no trademark claim to the written phrase “Phantom Lady” in the comic book industry and, consequently, DC has never claimed that trademark.

DC has put out a Phantom Lady action figure through license, however, with “Phantom Lady” emblazoned on the packaging and probably would claim the trademark of the name in the toy industry. Also, their visual depiction of Phantom Lady (yellow costume, green accessories, glasses, blackout light) has been used on the covers of their comic books over the years, so they arguably may claim a trademark on the likeness of their Phantom Lady. Finally, in my opinion, the poster above is absolutely correct that DC Comics has the copyright on their version of Phantom Lady from the 1970’s Freedom Fighters to the present. I don’t think there’s any valid legal argument to be made that they don’t.

You are absolutely correct, Paul.

Really, with something this complex, I probably should have just limited myself to the basic “Are X number of Quality comic books in the public domain?,” to which the answer would be yes.

Or rather, just the specific question I got that led to this urban legend, which was “Now that they are killed, can they be used?,” which would be no, as their deaths in the comic books mean nothing to their copyright/trademark stance.

By going into MORE depth, I ran the risk (which absolutely occurred) of failing to give enough details to be comprehensive.

Perhaps this could all be done as a future FAQ? It’s quite fascinating stuff.

Jim Shooter spends 12 grand on speedballs, film at eleven.

:D

“Basically Brian, I’m asking if The Shadow, Doc Savage and Tarzan are public domain?”

I think these characters are still owned by someone. Like Tarzan, which is owned by the estate of Edgar Rice Burroughs. I’m pretty sure Shadow and Doc Savage are owned by the heirs of their creators as well.

And Zorro, too, which is owned by a company called Zorro Productions, Inc.

Doc Savage and the Shadow are owned by Conde Nast, who took over from Street & Smith.

And they have been known to have very little humour with unauthorized use of those characters !

Regarding Steve Ditko’s involvement in Speedball’s creation… he did do a VERY similar character named “Static” for Charlton in their final days (circa 1985-86 or so). I always wondered if there was any connection there.

the human torch was left out of the second fantastic four tvshow so vewers would not imitat the torch by liting them selves on fire states;false the torch was tyed up in a planed movie project

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