(Poisoned Chalice cover art by Michael Carroll)
[Editor’s note: The Beat is pleased to serialize this of work of comics history by Pádraig Ó Méalóid, a known expert on things Alan Moore, British comics, and SF. In Poisoned Chalice he wades in to one of the strangest and thorniest knots of all of comics: the history of Marvel/Miracleman and still unsolved question of who owns this character. It’s a story that touches on many of the most remarkable personalities in the comics industry—Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Todd McFarlane, Joe Quesada and more—and one of the most fascinating. It’s a sad fact about the comics medium that only in the last few decades have its most talented and passionate creators been able to present their work with a guarantee of equity and ownership; I feel that it is no coincidence that since this began, the medium has risen in popular and critical regard. The story of Marvelman touches on the darker places of comics history, springing from the prehistory where greed ruled the day; it’s a tangled tale that I have occasionally attempted to untie myself, but Pádraig is far better equipped to do so, as I think the following will show, bringing the research and attention to detail the story requires. It’s a piece of scholarship that I am proud to present.
It’s my intention to serialize Poisoned Chalice over the next few months; but I would hope to see it published in a more complete form at some time. So with no further ado, let’s begin the story of Marvelman.]
Poisoned Chalice: The Extremely Long and Incredibly Complex Story of Marvelman – Part 0: Introduction
The comic character Marvelman has a fascinating – and probably unique – history in the field of comics. His extended origin goes all the way back to the very beginnings of the American superhero comics industry, and it seems likely that his ongoing story will stretch on well into the future. It involves some of the biggest names in comics. It’s a story of good versus evil, of heroes and villains, and of any number of acts of plagiarism and casual breaches of copyright.
I’m completely fascinated with the history and ongoing story of Marvelman – so much so that I’ve spent a lot of years tracking it down, and writing about it. I started writing what I thought would be an article or a long blog post, but it just kept growing, as I found out more about the character and his history. Eventually it ended up as a 100,000 word book, which isn’t even finished yet – the dangerous thing about writing about something that is still evolving is that, just when you think you’re all up-to-date, something happens, and you have to go rewrite something you were sure you’d finished with. Still, at this stage I probably know more about Marvelman – and his occasional nom de guerre Miracleman – that anyone might reasonably wish to. And, over the next while, I’m going to be serialising what I’ve found out, here on The Beat.
I’m going to start with a very brief overview of the pre-history and origin of Marvelman and Miracleman as I originally understood it, before going into greater detail about it all. This history is, at least to me, fascinating, and an important part of what makes the Marvelman story so compelling, with its twists and turns, its odd coincidences, its half-truths, red herrings, and rumours. So, here goes…
Marvelman was created in 1953 by Mick Anglo of London’s Gower Street Studios in response to a request from Leonard Miller of L Miller and Son Ltd, because Miller’s highly lucrative reprinting of the adventures of American comic character Captain Marvel was soon to come to a halt. Fawcett Comics, the publishers of Captain Marvel, were ceasing publication of the title, due to having lost a plagiarism suit brought against them by National Periodical Publications, who claimed that Captain Marvel was a copy of National’s Superman character, the world’s first comic book superhero. Superman himself in turn is often said to be based on the character Hugo Danner from Philip Wylie’s 1930 novel Gladiator.
Marvelman was to take over from Captain Marvel when the American material ran out, and it has never been disputed that the character was directly based upon its American predecessor. Marvelman first appeared in his own title in February 1954, and ran for 346 issues until February 1963, with Miller having been publishing reprints of older stories since 1959. After nineteen years in the wilderness the character was revived in UK comics magazine Warrior by Alan Moore and various artists, under the editorship of Dez Skinn, where it ran for the first twenty-one issues, from March 1982 until August 1984, before being withdrawn due to legal threats from Marvel Comics UK, who stated the character’s name was infringing on their own copyrighted name. The Warrior work was reprinted for the American market by Eclipse Comics – with the character now renamed Miracleman – starting in Miracleman #1 in August 1985. The earlier work took up the first six issues, and Moore then went on to finish his storyline by issue #16. Writer Neil Gaiman and artist Mark Buckingham then took over the title, lasting from issue #17 up to issue #24 in 1994, just before Eclipse closed down due to bankruptcy. Eclipse subsequently held a sale of their assets, including the rights they held to Miracleman, all of which were bought in one lot by Todd McFarlane in 1996. Since then, the character had not appeared, nor had any of the previously published work been reprinted, until Marvel Comics in the US started republishing the Miller-era stories in 2010.
And that’s the short version of what had happened: Moore’s Miracleman was based on Anglo’s Marvelman, who was based on Captain Marvel, who was said to be based on Superman, who was alleged to be based on Philip Wylie’s Hugo Danner. Something like this:
However, at almost every point in that story there were complications, mostly to do with perceived breaches of copyright, with apparent abandonment of copyright, or with outright and blatant violation of copyright. Sometimes there were court cases, or more often threats of court cases. There’s even a few rumours of threats of court cases.
But much of what I originally believed turned out to be wrong, either due to being misunderstood by me or others, or in some cases simply to having no basis in fact. Perhaps the prime guiding principle I had in writing the book, and this series of articles, was to try to chase down the source of every story and allegation, to try to find out if there was any actual truth in them – sometimes there was, and sometimes there wasn’t, and often the truth lay somewhere between the two. I’ve looked at all sorts of court records and company details, read all the relevant interviews and biographies I can find, and in general tried to find and assess every piece of documented evidence I can. Where this was not possible, I’ve tried to speak directly to the people involved, as much as this was possible. So, all that follows, as much as is humanly possible, is based on actual verifiable fact. And, as much as possible, I’m going to put the facts in front of you, and give you references and links to where I found the information, so that you can go check it out for yourself.
This series of articles will be in several separate parts: first, there’s the prehistory, dealing with events from the first appearance of Superman in 1938 up to the last appearance of Fawcett’s Captain Marvel comics in the early 1950s. Then we have the Miller-era Marvelman; a brief intermission from the end of the Miller-era Marvelman up to the launch of Warrior; the Warrior-era Marvelman; the Eclipse Comics Miracleman; and finally Marvel Comics’ acquisition of Mick Anglo’s rights to Marvelman in 2009, after which I shall attempt to draw some sort of conclusion from all the foregoing. Some of those subheadings will be broken up into several parts, as there really is a lot of information to get across, but I promise you it’s all relevant.
So, why is this (and the book) called Poisoned Chalice? It’s from something Alan Moore once said:
I told Neil, ‘This may well be a poisoned chalice.’ And I remember saying to him, prophetically, at the time, ‘I’ve got no idea who owns Marvelman.’ I said, ‘For all I know, it might still be owned by Mick Anglo.’
And, later on, Neil Gaiman echoed this:
Every now and then he apologizes for having given me Miracleman… It’s a poisoned chalice.
And who am I to argue with those two? Although I will do, later on.
In this series of articles, I’ll be going through the history of Marvelman again, dealing with each step in considerably more detail. In the first part I’ll be starting with the first appearance of Superman in 1938, and going as far as the end of Captain Marvel in 1953. Expect to see it here soon.
Pádraig Ó Méalóid is a middle-aged Irishman. He has written for Fractal Matter, The Alien Online and Emerald City, all of which are now defunct. He has also written for the Forbidden Planet International blog, which is thriving, thank you very much. He did a lot of interviews while he was there, with people like Eddie Campbell, Neil Gaiman, Peter Hogan, Todd Klein, Dave McKean, Alan Moore, Steve ‘No Relation’ Moore, Kevin O’Neill, and Bryan Talbot. Besides all this he has spent twenty years or more running small SF conventions and comics events in Dublin, his home town. He has been fascinated with the story of Marvelman for a very long time, and has written a book about it, which is currently looking for a publisher. He is very happy to be writing for The Beat, which he considers to be the best site of its kind on the ‘net, hands down.
©2013 Pádraig Ó Méalóid