The other day, quite by accident, I happened across a copy of three books that I spent untold hours reading as a kid — the three volumes in Michael Fleisher’s Encyclopedia of Comic Book Heroes.
Fleisher is a comic book writer who is best known for his run on DC Comics’ Jonah Hex. While he was writing comics in the 1970s, Fleisher was also busy writing a multi-volume Encyclopedia of Comic Book Heroes.
The plan was to do an 8-volume set. Volume 1 would cover Batman, Volume 2 Wonder Woman, Volume 3 Captain Marvel, Plastic Man and The Spirit; Volume 4 Green Lantern; Volume 5 Flash; Volume 6 Superman; Volume 7 Captain America; Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch; and Volume 8 Dr. Fate, Hawkman, Starman and Spectre.
The Batman and Wonder Woman volumes were published in 1976, and the Superman volumes was published in 1978. The other volumes never saw the light of day.
The books took the encyclopedia in the titles quite literally, consisting of hundreds of pages of encyclopedia entries, listed alphabetically, covering every major and minor character and event in history of the hero or heroine in question.
I was fortunate that when the Batman and Wonder Woman volume were published, my local library purchased copies of both. Being 8 years old at the time and a Batman fanatic, I had each of the books checked out on and off for more or less the next several years. Comics Treadmills speculates that it might not be humanly possible to read the Batman volume cover to cover, but I think I did that at least twice from 1976 to 1979.
One of the great things I loved about the Batman and Wonder Woman Encyclopedias as a child was almost certainly its downfall — Fleisher included lengthy plot summaries of numerous Batman comic books. For example, when the volume was published, Bruce Wayne’s Aunt Agatha had made a single appearance in Batman #89 in a story typical of the DC stories of the 1950s and 1960s. Aunt Agatha catches Bruce and Dick Grayson as Batman and Robin, but wrongly concludes they’re attending a costume party. Hilarity ensues.
Aunt Agatha is a very minor character, but Fleisher devoted hundreds of words to essentially retelling Batman #89 in his Encyclopedia (frankly, his retelling was probably better than the original). On the one hand, this was like a gold mine to an 8 year old. Today a very good of Batman #89 is worth $400 or so; it was probably worth significantly less in 1976, but still out of the range of this 8 year old’s allowance.
On the other hand, the long plot summaries made the book huge. This was a very large book — about 9″ x 12″ if memory serves — and about 400 pages. That would have been a fairly expensive book for a relatively niche market. It’s not surprising that after the Batman and Wonder Woman volumes appeared in 1976, the only other volume published is the Superman volume in 1978 which was intended by the publisher as a tie-in to the Richard Donner film.
I’m surprised that no one has done a similarly obsessive Batman or Wonder Woman project on the Internet. A Fleisher-style encyclopedia would lend itself well to a Wiki-based project.
Brian Cronin does an excellent job of explaining the very odd legal situation that DC Comics has found itself in over the copyright to the Superboy character.
DC owns the copyrights and trademarks to Superman, Clark Kent and the other characters created and derived from Jerry Siegel and Joel Schuster’s famous creation.
But a funny thing happened to Superboy — in 1976 the U.S. Congress extended the term of copyrights from 28 years to 47 years. It also made provisions so that copyright transfers originally made for 28 years could be cancelled after that period and the additional 19 years could revert to the original owner.
Suppose, for example, that you created a character in 1948 and transferred the copyright for what then would have been 28 years — i.e., the copyright would have expired in 1976. Under the new provision, you could file to regain the copyright in 1976 and decide who to sell the remaining 19 years of copyright protection to.
In 1947, a judge ruled that Jerry Siegel was the sole owner of Superboy, who had first appeared in comics in 1943. In 1948, Siegel and Shuster signed away all their Superman-related rights, including Superboy, to DC for $100,000.
In 2002, however, citing the provisions of the 1976 copyright provision, Siegel’s estate informed Time Warner, which owns DC, that it was reclaiming its right to Superboy.
Unfortunately for DC, it now has a hit show called Smallville which focuses on a young Superman. What a trial court will now have to decide is whether or not Smallville is a series about Superboy, as the Siegel estate contends, or a young Clark Kent, as DC and Time Warner contend.
And the situation is even more complex, since DC and Time Warner are the sole owners to the Superboy trademark, meaning no one could market Superboy-related comics or other media without DC’s approval.
What a weird mess, and frankly one that DC deserves given the shabby way it treated Siegel and Shuster for creating characters that made the company literally hundreds of millions of dollars.