Empire of the Superheroes
America’s Comic Book Creators and the Making of a Billion-Dollar Industry
Mark Cotta Vaz
Austin: University of Texas Press, 2020.
Hardback. viii+464p. ISBN 978-1477316474. $34
Reviewed by Nicolas Labarre
Université Bordeaux Montaigne
The University of Texas Press website describes Empire of the Superheroes as “a detailed look at the evolution of superhero comics,” while the back-cover quotes suggest that Mark Cotta Vaz has written a “one-volume history of the comics industry.” Both of these summaries prove inaccurate, as readers will learn little about the comics industry in general and not much more about the history of superhero comics. To take but one example, the author does not mention the best-selling comic book ever produced in the US, Marvel’s X-Men #1 (1991), which would appear to be a crucial milestone in either narrative.
Mark Cotta Vaz’s focus is narrower, as the book seeks to chart the way intellectual property laws in the United States have come to shape the comics industry, and how they have affected some of the prominent practitioners of the superhero genre. Thus, most of the book is devoted to detailed examination of a series of legal proceedings, connected by biographical sketches of the main protagonists—creators and publishers—summaries of early issues of key comics and brief historical sketches of the industry, which all help contextualize the creators’ struggle to be properly recognized and compensated for their work.
Empire of the superheroes is organized chronologically, starting with the publication of Superman in 1938 and ending around 2019, a period during which the comics industry evolved from the modest output of shady pulp publishers to a core component of global media conglomerates. The book aims to demonstrate the connection between these two radically different situations, by tracing the way in which early business practices helped shape later sprawling transmedia empires. A very effective section towards the end of the book chronicles the demise of some of the main protagonists, in the late 20th or early 21st century, making a crucial point: the original creators of the comic book industry were still alive to observe its transformation and to measure the gap between the value of their creation and the compensation they received for it.
Empire of the superheroes is well written and offers a compelling narrative that often straddles the border between an academic text and journalistic history, in much the same way as David Hadju’s The Ten-Cent Plague (2008). Fittingly, the physical volume is thick and sturdy, with large type and numerous illustrations, though the central color section is poorly used, with small pictures and colored backgrounds obscuring the text. While Cotta Vaz mostly avoids taking sides in the conflicts he recounts, he uses other voices to make clear that his sympathy lies with the creators rather than the industry. Even though the text becomes increasingly austere as it reaches the intricacy of modern copyright laws, it retains an undeniable drive and clarity.
The main protagonists of Cotta Vaz’s narrative are Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who co-created Superman and famously sold all rights to their character for $130 in 1938. The book examines the origin of Superman, their negotiations with the publisher and their failed attempts to get a share of the immense revenues that their work quickly started generating. Although the case appeared settled in the 1940s, later changes in IP laws, especially the 1976 copyright act, meant that the ownership of Superman was still being litigated in 2014. Enlightening as the story may be, it is also well known, as a cause célèbre in the comics industry and an object of sustained academic scrutiny. Cotta Vaz uses correspondence between Siegel and his publisher to great effect, analyzing the changing tone of these exchanges, but the overall trajectory is a familiar one. The same observations apply to the legal dispute between Jack Kirby and Marvel later in the book regarding the ownership of the many characters Kirby created or co-created while working for the company in the early 1960s (including The Fantastic Four, the Avengers and the X-Men). In both cases, Cotta Vaz provides a strong narrative, unfamiliar documents drawn from his archival research, and a useful summary of the most recent developments in these convoluted legal disputes. As such, the book constitutes an excellent and accessible history of these cases, but apart from the most contemporary developments, does not offer significant new insights into either. Cotta Vaz is equally deft in dealing with two slightly less famous trials regarding alleged plagiarism of Superman (Fox’s Wonder-Man, in 1939, then Fawcett’s Captain Marvel, starting in 1941); though the cases and their outcomes are well known, the book sheds a new light on the reasoning and testimonies in the Captain Marvel lawsuit, in particular.
Unfortunately, Cotta Vaz does not build upon this strong basis. He is interested in personal trajectories much more than in companies, structures and markets. The apparent contradiction between his sympathetic portrayal of progressive decision makers at DC Comics since the 1980s (Jenette Kahn, Paul Levitz) and the callousness of the company in dealing with Siegel and Shuster is never explained for instance. Similarly, the all-important transformation of both Marvel and DC into parts of entertainment conglomerates in the late 1960s is mentioned but not central to the narrative. This exclusive emphasis on the individual creator is perhaps best demonstrated by a marginal example: Cotta Vaz summarizes Wallace Wood’s autobiographical short story “My World” (1953) as a “manifesto” by the artist , while neglecting to note that the story was written by Wood’s usual editor (Al Feldstein) in a format fully defined by the publisher. At times, this disregard for structural forces even leads the author to questionable simplifications in his historical accounts. For instance, he is close to resurrecting the discredited view of Wertham as the nemesis of comic books, ignoring the existing scholarship on the subject, apart from Hadju’s The Ten-Cent Plague. In his discussion of the 1950s and 1960s, he also fails to mention the name of Dell, the largest publisher of the era, but includes an admittedly striking anecdote about the tragic death of a crime comics writer.
These shortcomings are all the more apparent when comparing the book to Shawna Kidman’s Comic Books Incorporated : How the Business of Comics Became the Business of Hollywood (UP California, 2019). The two books cover a similar period, have parallel goals, and to a certain extent examine the same legal proceedings (Siegel and Shuster, Kirby). However, Kidman never loses track of the context, not only of the comic book industry but also of the culture industry as a whole, and offers a questionable but cohesive discussion of the system in which comics creators partake. Comic books incorporated even warns academics and critics against the temptation of personalizing the industry too much, urging them to focus on structure and institutions instead.
Empire of the Superheroes does not heed that warning. While embracing complexity and seeking to disentangle intricate intellectual property disputes, its focus remains squarely on the individuals and on the consistency of its narrative (later mentions of Captain Marvel are irrelevant historically, for instance, but they reinforce the structure of the story by providing a coda to the Superman / Captain Marvel trial). This makes for a compelling book, and as such, a useful introduction the profound inequity of labor relations at major comics publishers, but its focus on the affective dimension of these conflicts also severely limits its explanatory power and its use for readers already familiar with the basic facts.
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