EMPIRE OF THE SUPER-HEROES
Author: Mark Cotta Vaz
Publisher: University of Texas Press
Publication Year: 2021
Topic: Comic Industry, Creators, Creator Rights
WHAT IS IT?
Empire of the Super-Heroes tells the origin story of superhero comics, and lays out the questionable business practices, contentious disputes and landmark court cases that determined who would get the credit for bringing beloved characters to life…and who would get rich off them!
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
This is a book that looks at authorship and ownership in the world of American superhero comics. Mark Cotta Vaz follows the Superman rights saga from the 1930s to the 21st century, while also taking time to surface and explain other key copyright disputes in comic history. He details why and how Captain America’s shield had to be redesigned, why Captain Marvel disappeared for most of the Silver Age, and how important it was that Batman beat another eerily similar hero to the stands by mere weeks. Empire of the Superheroes also looks at how some creators seemed to prosper (Bob Kane) while others simply got fed up and left mainstream comics behind (Wally Wood, among others). The book tracks Jack Kirby’s contentious battles with Stan Lee (for credit) and Marvel (for his art, royalties, and copyrights) and tells the story of Bill Finger, who was largely anonymous for decades, but who nearly everyone now recognizes as the co-creator of Batman.
Empire of the Superheroes walks a very difficult line, in that it is dealing with very dense and complex topics – contracts, licensing, and copyright law – and yet it is obviously intended to be a work that is accessible and interesting to the general public – or at least the comic-reading public. I am happy to say that the book succeeds admirably! Cotta Vaz utilizes short chapters, avoids legalese, and wraps his arguments around lively and interesting stories concerning the legends of the comic book world. Although it looks imposing at over 450 pages, Empire of the Superheroes reads surprisingly fast. The typeface is large and readable, each of the chapters is short and focused, and Cotta Vaz effortlessly transports us from one interesting tale to another.
One of the reasons that this feels so solid in its understanding and explanation of sometimes byzantine legal concepts may be that “superlawyer” Mark Zaid helped Cotta Vaz with initial framing and research. Zaid is a lifetime comic book fan and has studied and lectured on many of the legal battles described in the book. It is hard to imagine a better “phone a friend” option when writing this book!
Cotta Vaz grounds his narrative on Joe Siegal and Jerry Shuster and weaves the Superman creator’s victories and travails in throughout the book. I liked how the book detoured to look at Batman, or Captain Marvel, and then returned to Superman. Then it was off to cover EC comics and Marvel. But always the focus returned to Siegal, Shuster, and their decades-long battle with DC over rights and recognition. In doing this, Cotta Vaz gives the book a solid narrative in which holds everything together across the decades.
The handling of Jerry Siegal and Joe Shuster’s story is excellent. Cotta Vaz shows the unfairness of the system and the problematic actions of DC, but also details where the creators (largely Siegal) made significant errors that would haunt them in later litigation. The book deftly follows the story across decades as the duo signed away the rights, quickly realized they had made an error, and spent the rest of their lives regretting, renegotiating, and litigating in an effort to gain back the rights they had signed away – along with the fortune in sales and licensing that Superman represented.
Jack Kirby’s fight to be recognized for his contributions to the creation of Marvel’s pantheon on heroes is also handled well. As the MCU began setting box office records on the back of IP either created or co-created by Kirby, his decades-long struggle became increasingly more important, and Cotta Vaz provides a detailed review of all of the allegations and litigation surrounding Kirby’s battle with Stan Lee, Marvel and eventually Disney.
Almost all of the early greats get a mention and, for a significant number of them, we hear their story and see how the comics industry broke their heart in one way or another. Empire of the Super-Heroes makes it clear that the comic book industry has been unconscionably abusive to the writers and artists that its success is built on, but also shows that the last 80 years has seen slow but consistent progress on issues of creator rights. After decades of struggle, many of these early creators (or their descendants) are finally getting the credit and the payday that they deserve.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK?
The heart of this book is its look at the characters and cases that have impacted the comics industry. Because Cotta Vaz wants to cover the full sweep of superhero history, he also adds in events such as the 1954 senate hearings, 1960s Batmania, and DC’s Crisis reboot in the 1980s. These do add interesting context, but they do seem a bit off-topic, and I occasionally wondered things like: “Just what does Mike Saenz’ Shatter have to do with any of this?”
WHY SHOULD YOU READ IT?
Rights issues have been a massively important topic for comic book creators and companies over the history of the industry, and Cotta Vaz does a spectacular job of tracking the major flashpoints and their importance. If you are a comic fan looking for an informative and entertaining summer read, Empire of the Super-Heroes is a great choice!
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
For another expansive history of comics: Comic Book Nation by Bradford Wright
For more about the business side of comics: Slugfest: Inside the Epic, 50-Year Battle between Marvel and DC by Reed Tucker
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Cotta Vaz has written dozens of books, most of which focus on movies, art, and pop culture. Among these are works on Star Wars, Godzilla, and the Twilight Saga, many of which have been New York Times bestsellers. He has served on the board of the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco, and once interviewed the Dalai Lama.
HOW DO I BUY IT?
If you can, find a local bookstore, and buy there!
This book is ©2021 Mark Cotta Vaz. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED