Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

“Stan, Dr. Doom’s suing us for libel. Oh, and our office just exploded”

How exactly do comics publishers in the MU and DCU survive?

Here they are, printing stories about people who commit multiple murders on a whim, or freeze entire cities instantly. Given the prickly ego the Joker and Doctor Doom, among others, have displayed over the years, you’d think the Impossible Man having a temper tantrum at the bullpen (courtesy of Fantastic Four #176) would be the least of their worries. Wouldn’t they need security on a par with the White House?

To say nothing of the legal questions. We know Namor thought some of his portrayals in comics were inaccurate; what’s to stop the Sub-Mariner or the Sons of the Serpent from suing over their depiction (“We are not racists, we simply want to make America great again!”)?

I’ll tackle that second question first because Marvel’s actually dealt with it. According to History of the Marvels, the Melter did sue over being portrayed in an issue of Avengers as one of the Masters of Evil: how could he get a fair trial with a wildly popular comic book company portraying him as some kind of super-villain? The judge’s decision apparently amounted to “too bad, so sad.” You put on a costume for crime, you’re fair game for the funny books.

I haven’t seen the issue itself so I can’t judge the fine points of the decision. Presumably the ruling, or subsequent case law, extended a broad protection against defamation, libel, right of privacy, etc. At least as long as the portrayal isn’t grossly inaccurate: I imagine that falsely portraying someone as a bigot, as Astro City’s Bulldog Comics did with Glowworm, would leave them vulnerable. Perhaps that’s why Silver Age DC began relying on trial transcripts and eyewitness accounts as the basis for stories.

Even assuming accurate comics portrayals of super-villains were legally protected (and that some variation of the law applied in the DCU as well), that doesn’t shield the publishers perfectly. Consider two sample problems: Wilson Fisk and the post-crisis Lex Luthor.

  • The Melter decision specifically applies to costumed criminals. Neither one qualifies.
  • Both men are widely seen as wealthy, respected members of the business community.
  • Both men can afford much better lawyers than Bruno “the Melter” Horgan. Billionaire Peter Thiel was able to bankrupt Gawker by financing lawsuits against it; it would be simple for Fisk or Luthor to drag Marvel or DC executives into court, harass them, hit them with suits in multiple venues (the U.K.’s laws on libel are much more favorable to the plaintiff) and nibble them to death with legal ducks.

So my guess is, comic book companies in the DC or Marvel Universes scrupulously avoid recognizable portrayals of men of this caliber unless and until they’re convicted. If Marvel used a “Kingpin of Crime” in their stories he was undoubtedly not named Wilson Fisk; it may be telling that when Marlon Brando plays the Kingpin in the Damage Control movie, he’s shown with hair.

Luthor probably doesn’t appear in that many “New Earth” stories. For years his criminal side was carefully hidden; it’s quite possible nobody even realized there was a mastermind behind some of his supervillain attacks on Superman.

This would be another divergence between our comics and those in the DC and Marvel universes. Marvel readers would never learn about the Kingpin’s tangled family problems; Luthor would barely appear. The same would apply to other power players.

But what about Doctor Doom? We know Earth-616’s Marvel did write him into their Fantastic Four stories. And he’s a guy with an extremely prickly ego, so what does he make of the way he’s portrayed? When he drops by the FF offices in #10, he forces Stan and Jack to help him trap Reed, but he doesn’t seem any more hostile to them than he does most human beings. He probably can’t sue them — as a head of state, he’s the kind of public figure who gets the least legal protection — but what’s to stop him sending Marvel into space as he did the Baxter Building?

My guess? Victor Von Doom, most brilliant genius of his age, princely monarch of Latveria, considers it beneath his dignity to act like he cares. Marvel Comics are kid stuff, after all; what can it possibly matter what those lurid four-color hacks say about a man of destiny, future ruler of the world? Though I’m sure Marvel was careful not to say anything that would piss him off too much.

Other supervillains, though, are a lot less worried about dignity. So what stops them from crashing into DC or Marvel like Glowworm did in Astro City (he’s black. Giving him racist dialog did not go over well).

Some of them probably don’t even notice; it’s unlikely Loki or Dormammu care what mortals think of them. Even more down-to-earth villains may not really care, not even on Earth-616 where Marvel is insanely popular.

Others may be quite tickled. Nobody dresses like Captain Cold or the Riddler because they shun publicity, and here they are, portrayed in all their amazingness. Sure, they end up losing, but hey, that’s what happened — can’t blame the writers for saying so. We know the Joker loves publicity; it wouldn’t surprise me if he likes autographing copies of Batman (“Oh come on, you know you want me to sign … don’t you?”). Though I could also see him dropping by the offices and making some “suggestions” about the art (“Mr. O’Neil, are you sure you can’t coax Neal Adams back for a special issue starring me? Would you rather sniff my flower?”).

The ones most likely to cause trouble would be losers like the Purple Piledriver or the Circus of Crime. They’re failures as villains and in almost every appearance they look like losers. I can’t imagine in-universe comics make them look any better, which has got to sting.

But then again, they’re the kind of villain the SCU or even ordinary cops could conceivably take down without too much trouble. Even if the Piledriver’s swore revenge, I suspect Cary Bates and Curt Swan were able to sleep at night.

#SFWApro. Images top to bottom by George Perez, Brent Anderson, Ernie Colon, Jack Kirby and Curt Swan


  1. Alaric

    It’s interesting to note that, back in 1943, in Fawcett’s Whiz Comics #43, when “Whiz Comics” (apparently the in-universe version of Fawcett) were under attack by the Nazis because the faces of six Nazi saboteurs were shown in a Spy Smasher story, Captain Marvel, Spy Smasher, Ibis the Invincible, and Golden Arrow (presumably a later descendant of the wild west version of the character whose adventures were shown in Whiz Comics) all showed up to defend the comic book company. I wonder whether super heroes in the Marvel and DC universes might feel protective of their respective comic book companies, as well- after all, many of the heroes have deals worked out concerning their own series. Maybe attacking those companies is considered dangerous, because there’s always the possibility of some visiting heroes being around to fight off any attack.

    1. Le Messor

      I’m pretty sure the FF have defended Marvel Comics from time to time.
      But it’s first thing in the morning, and I’ve only had one coffee. I could be making things up.

      1. The only time I remember is in the Impossible Man story I have the image from up top. Impy decides he wants to have his own comic and runs wild at the Bullpen until the FF calm him down and Stan makes insincere assurances he’ll get his own book.

      1. Alaric

        On the other hand, as you point out, the villains who’d be most likely to care about their comic book portrayals are mostly the extremely minor losers who might be at least a little worried about attacking a business protected by multiple major super heroes.

  2. Le Messor

    Glow-worm? I thought that was an off-brand Creeper!

    I kept thinking about the Thing (Ben Grimm) villain Goodie Two-Shoes, and the march on Marvel Comics because of how they portrayed the fight – and showing the differences between what we, the readers, saw (here in Earth… Uh… what’s the Real World’s designation?) and what actually happened.
    But, it was actually Ben who did all that, not the villain.

    “My guess? Victor Von Doom, most brilliant genius of his age, princely monarch of Latveria, considers it beneath his dignity to act like he cares.”

    Yeah, that was my reaction when I saw the question in the abstract.

  3. Matt

    All this makes me think of is how Earth Prime DC Creators would sometimes go to other Earths and interact with their own creations.
    The first Crisis stories, for instance, involved ‘real world’ creators becoming comic book villains.

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