Marvels, Miracles & a Mighty Copyright Mess.

Marvelman. Miracleman. Names which sounds like legends to many comic book fans around the world.
And names that bring back decades-long controversy around character ownership and related copyright issues.

Born in 1954 to replace Fawcett’s Captain Marvel for the UK market (the “Big Cheese” had suddenly become unavailable to his readers: in the USA, National/DC had won a battle with rival publisher Fawcett over the character, too similar to Superman), Marvelman had been a favourite of British kids for a decade between the 1950s and 1960s. Then it was oblivion, until resurrection on “Warrior” magazine, under Derek (Dez) Skinn‘s direction. This also led to further publications in the USA on Eclipse between the 1980s and 1990s, under the Miracleman name (“Marvel” was definitely a sensitive word, in the American comics industry).

When in 2001 Neil Gaiman announced the formation of Marvels and Miracles, LLC to clear the copyright status of Marvelman/Miracleman and later sued Todd McFarlane over the ownership of some co-created characters, I tried to make some independent research. I had read George Khoury‘s fascinating book Kimota! The Miracleman Companion, published by TwoMorrows in 2001 (an updated “Definitive Edition” is due for release in August 2010), and through it had examined some of the information and versions given by some of the main “actors” in the Marvelman saga.

I performed websearches and tried to compare information from that book with data found online. In the end I checked the status of a company called L.Miller and Sons Ltd. (not “Son” but “Sons”, but apparently it seems to be a publishing company, so there is a good chance that we are talking of the same Miller company that went bankrupt in the 1960s), which turned out to be dissolved in 1990, many years after ceasing publications.

I came out with a few ideas; first the two obvious bits:
a) Marvelman started as a Captain Marvel clone (some of the characters are identical to their Fawcett counterparts);
b) it was Len Miller asking Mick Anglo to create that clone not to cease publication of some popular comic book titles;

then there are some infos that can be taken out of the Kimota! book:
c) Mick Anglo (directly or through his collaborators) was performing work-for-hire for Len Miller’s company; copyright law certainly wasn’t his main area of expertise.
d) it is dubious that Derek Skinn acquired anything when starting to publish Marvelman in Warrior. According to what Alan Moore suggested in his Kimota! interview, the rights could still be with the “official receiver” after Miller went into bankruptcy.

Finally, my own little, above-mentioned, discovery:
e) a company called L.Miller & Sons Ltd. (not “& Son” like often quoted) was dissolved in the United Kingdom in 1990. Apparently, nobody acquired its assets.

What conclusions can be drawn out of all this?
If Marvelman is heavily plagiarised from Captain Marvel, it is basically a bootleg of a Fawcett/DC character. It now belongs to DC and always belonged. ’nuff said.

If Marvelman had some level of originality/copyrightability, it was a L.Miller & Sons copyright, created/written/drawn by Mick Anglo’s studios as work-for-hire. Anglo never owned anything as he says in his own words on the Kimota! interview.
Skinn sort of bought Anglo’s silence through small payments for some reprints, in the 1980s. But certainly didn’t acquire any real rights from him or other sources.

If Miller owned the copyright, Skinn should have bought the rights off the “official receiver”. A bankruptcy court, since L.Miller & Sons went bankrupt around 1966. Neither Skinn nor anyone else ever provided any evidence to have done so.

Marvelman and its subsequent incarnation Miracleman stayed with L.Miller, as copyrights.

All of the subsequent passages involving people like Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Eclipse Comics, Todd McFarlane (who tried to recycle the character in his “Spawn” comics and even produced a Miracleman resin statue) and other people have no value, since all of those “shares” that were traded originated from Skinn. Who had nothing in his hands, in first place.

And of course Marvel acquiring the rights on the character from Mick Anglo (through Emotiv Records in Glasgow) is even more dubious, since Anglo didn’t own them in first place.

Miller’s company was dissolved in 1990: since nobody acquired anything, according to the British law, its assets now belong to the Crown.

This is what I discovered years ago and tried to get to Neil Gaiman via some Internet forum. I have no idea if he ever saw that.
And I don’t have 100% proof that my version is the definitive one: the L.Miller & Sons company I’ve found might not exactly be the same “L.Miller & Son” mentioned by many other sources. Someone in UK might go and check all of this better, and find evidence supporting my vision or denying it. Provided that some further tracks can still be found after all these years.

One last element needs to be checked; recently, in April 2010, my attention was caught by some bits of the Marvelman entry in Wikipedia (English language). Those bits suggested that another UK publisher who worked mostly with cheap reprints of American comics for British audiences, Alan Class Ltd., had acquired at least printing plates (if not the rights) to Marvelman, directly from L.Miller & Son.

Knowing that in 2005 Alan Class’ personal collection was put on sale by UK dealer 30th Century Comics, I contacted them.
Will Morgan of 30th Century Comics was so kind to reply:

Thank you for your enquiry. Unfortunately, you are misinformed.

A journalist asked a similar question last year for an article in Back Issue magazine, and I asked Alan Class at that time if he had any involvement with Marvelman. His response then, to the best of my recollection, was;

No, I didn’t have anything to do with Marvelman. When Len Miller, the publisher, died, I heard that some of his properties might be available, but by the time I got to his offices, virtually everything had already gone.

- those may not have been his exact words (it’s been a little time now), but those are certainly his recollections as he told them to me.

No Marvelman material has ever been reprinted in an Alan Class comic.

I think the Wikipedia confusion arises from the fact that Alan Class and Len Miller were active during much of the same period (mid 1950′s to early 1960′s), and produced similar lines of black & white comics primarily reprinting US material.

There were several other similar publishers (Strato, Arnold, etc.) during the period US comics were largely undistributed in the UK, and while there were links between many of them, Miller and Class were two separate and distinct publishers.

This solves one problem and keeps at least Alan Class and his company out of the enormous mess, but of course doesn’t clarify what happened to Miller’s assets (who eventually acquired them?).

Personally, I prefer to believe my finding to be the ultimate solution: it would be just natural – and somewhat poetic – that the only true British superhero belonged directly to the British Crown. :)

And since in the meantime Marvel was acquired by Disney, one could anticipate what we will see at some point in the future: high-level negotiations between Mickey Mouse and Queen Elizabeth over Marvelman/Miracleman’s rights; that’s an eventuality, and it wouldn’t be the most absurd bit of the Marvelman legal saga.

One Response to “Marvels, Miracles & a Mighty Copyright Mess.”

  1. [...] Arriviamo così all’ultima questione ancora aperta, quella del fallimento della L. Miller & Son. La versione ufficiale è che nel 1966, dopo aver cessato le pubblicazioni, dichiarò il fallimento e che le sue lastre di stampa vennero acquistate da altri che ristamparono anche Marvelman. Quest’ultimo dato però è smentito da alcune ricerche fatte dall’esperto di copyright Nicola Battista. [...]