Comics in the Courtroom

From the exhibit, “Superheroes in Court! Lawyers, Law and Comic Books”, curated by Mark S. Zaid, Esq., and on display Sept. 4-Dec, 16, 2010 in the Rare Book Exhibition Gallery, Level L2, Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School.

The successful appearance of a new type of comic book character by Detective Comics, Inc. (now D.C. Comics) – a “Superman” – in Action Comics no. 1 (June 1938) sparked the dawn of the Golden Age of comic books. It also spawned copycat creations by competitors such as Bruns Publication, Inc. which published Wonder Comics no. 1 featuring “Wonderman” in May 1939. An injunctive victory for copyright infringement ensured “Wonderman” would never appear again. Detective Comics, Inc., v. Bruns Publications, Inc., 28 F.Supp. 399 (S.D.N.Y 1939), aff’d, 111 F.2d 432 (2d Cir. 1940). This copy of Action Comics no. 5 (Oct. 1938) was used in the litigation to prove “Wonderman” had infringed upon the Man of Steel.

 

Action Comics no. 5 (Oct. 1938). Personal collection of Mark S. Zaid, Esq.

This telegram from Jack Liebowitz, owner of Detective Comics, Inc., instructed Jerome “Jerry” Siegel, the co-creator of “Superman”, to be present in New York to testify in the “Wonderman” infringement trial. This telegram has a dual legal significance as the top markings also denote it as a defendant’s trial exhibit in the 1947 lawsuit in which Siegel challenged D.C.’s ownership of “Superman” and “Superboy.” Although Siegel entered into a settlement in 1948, he sued again in 1969 in federal court and lost. Due to changes in the Copyright Act which allowed creators and their heirs/estates to recapture creations under certain circumstances, regardless of whether the rights were signed away in prior agreements, Siegel’s heirs sued in 2004 in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California and in decisions issued in 2008 and 2009 regained some of the rights. The litigation continues today more than 60 years after it began.

Telegram, Jack Liebowitz to Jerry Siegel, 3 Apr. 1939, From a private collection.

Now operating as National Comics Publications, Inc., D.C. found itself squaring off with Fawcett Publications, Inc. in a 1941 lawsuit challenging publication of “Captain Marvel” (now known as “Shazam”). It took several court decisions, a 1948 trial and 13 years of litigation before “Superman” ultimately prevailed in 1954 when Fawcett agreed to settle amidst a decision to leave the comic book business altogether. This copy of Whiz no. 91 (Nov. 1947) was one of many exhibits introduced during the trial.

Whiz Comics no. 91 (Nov. 1947). Personal collection of Mark Zaid, Esq.

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