Tuesday, July 24, 2007


Public Domain Superheroics

A bit of enforced couching today, since Georgia is home sick from school, so I've been catching up on by rss feeds when not pushing toy trains around on the floor. Interesting to note that several new comic book projects have been announced in the last week involving Golden Age superheroes that have fallen into the public domain.

The first is Superpowers, from Dynamite, by creators Jim Krueger and Alex Ross (the team behind Marvel's Earth-X/Universe-X/Paradise-X series, and DC's Justice). Newsarama has given the book the full court press, with the publisher's press release, an interview with the creators, and character descriptions and designs.

The basic concept seems very similar to Earth-X and Justice, in a lot of ways, to say nothing of Marvels and Kingdom Come. A "realistic" take on superheroes, complete with Ross-designed makeovers, exploring the theme of heroism and the impact of superpowered types on the world around them.

Mining a quite different ore out of the vein is The Next Issue Project from Image Comics.

Masterminded by Erik Larsen, the project will feature contributions from Mike Allred, Kyle Baker, Frank Cho, Bill Sienkiewicz, Howard Chaykin, Steve Niles, Phil Hester, Dan Brereton, Ashley Wood, Joe Casey, Ivan Brandon, Eric Canete, Gerry Duggan, Frank Espinosa, Jay Faerber, Steve Gerber, Brandon Graham, B. Clay Moore, Moritat, Tom Scioli, Jim Valentino and Tony Salmons (is that enough for you?).

Unlike Superpowers, which evidently takes place in a modern context, imaginging these Golden Age superheroes evolving over the course of the intervening decades into new forms, The Next Issue Project approaches the characters in their original settings. These will literally be the "next issues" of defunct Golden Age comics, picking up (more or less) where their adventurs in the 1940s left off, in a mix of modern sensibilities and Golden Age style.

The difference between the two approaches is best illustrated with the following images, which both depict the Golden Age (and public domain) character of Samson.

Erik Larsen's take

Alex Ross's interpretation

This isn't the first time that superheroes from the public domain have been given new life in modern projects. In the pages of Tom Strong, Alan Moore reintroduced the heroes of Nedor Comics on the alternate Earth of Terra Obscura, who were later featured in a pair of terrific miniseries by Peter Hogan and Yanick Paquette.

Many of these characters have appeared also in titles from AC Comics, both reprints and new stories. And there've been other scattered appearances here and there, over the years.

There's quite a lot of overlap here. The character of the Black Terror, for example, pops up quite a lot. An article about public domain heroes on Newsarama outlines the somewhat complicated history.
For example, take The Black Terror. Created in 1941 by Richard Hughes and David Gabrielsen, the character first appeared in Exciting Comics #9 in 1941. Both AC and ABC took the base character, The Black Terror, and modified it (in different ways), and renamed it The Terror (AC, after naming their version, later renamed theirs The Terrorist). Both were based on Nedor's The Black Terror, but were modified in unique ways by the respective publishers. Likewise, Beau Smith's version of the character, published by Eclipse (and co-written with Chuck Dixon and illustrated by Dan Brereton) used the name, but was world's away from the original version. The character also showed up in the 80s in versions published by Ace Comics, and in Roy Thomas Alter Ego comic series at First Comics.
Follow all of that? Nedor Comics featured a character called the Black Terror.

When the character, along with the rest of the Nedor line, entered the public domain, he was up for grabs, and over the course of the following decades gave rise to...

AC Comics's The Terrorist...

Roy Thomas's Black Terror (as well as the costume of his Mr. Bones)...

Dan Brereton's Black Terror...

Alan Moore's The Terror...

and now, Alex Ross's The Black Terror.

Of course, this is nothing new. Creators have been reimagining and repurposing characters from the public domain since before it was even called the "public domain." Certainly that's how Shakespeare made his name, either rewriting other people's characters (Hamlet) or taking figures from history (Julius Caesar), and Homer certainly got a lot of mileage about mixing and matching figures from history and myth in the Odyssey and the Iliad. Closer to the present day, Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes has found new life in innumerable pastiches and homages over the years.Of course, this isn't really anything new. Creators have been repurposing and reimagining In comics, Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Bill Willingham's Fables (and his and Matt Sturges's Jack of Fables) have made repurposing and remixing public domain characters their stock in trade, to commercial and critical success. But aside from the repeated reemergence of the Black Terror, it seems to have happened suprisingly infrequently with superhero characters.

Perhaps it's just steam engine time again. Or the desire to get a little mileage out of (comparatively) recognizeable intellectual property that's lying around, free for the taking. Most comic readers probably don't know much about the Green Lama or Samson or Pyro-Man, but many might recognize the name and costume, at least, from something like Steranko's history of comics or Jeff Rovin's encyclopedia of superheroes (hell, that's how I recognize them). So these are recognizable characters about whom the audience likely knows very little at all.

Much like the seventies action figures I discussed the other day, these are largely characters without stories. At the same time, though, as Ross and Krueger appear to be doing, the characters can be reduced to familiar types and archetypes, so the reader freights all sorts of associations with them when approaching the story. (Certainly Moore got loads of mileage out of this, casting the Nedor characters of Terra Obscura in extremely familiar roles and tropes, and then rolling them forward from an imaginary Silver Age to the present in novel and interesting ways.)

Of course, now I'm wondering if I might not have a Black Terror story in me, as well...

I've got a version of The Black Terror in the works as well, you can read the origin at:

I am currently waiting on the character designs right now.
Thanks for the tip, Richard. I'll be sure to check it out.
I know it has been a while, but I've posted the Terror and The Face designs up on the blog!

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