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Empire of the Superheroes

Empire of the Superheroes
America’s Comic Book Creators and the Making of a Billion-Dollar Industry

A detailed look at the evolution of superhero comics from cheap pulp products to a billion-dollar film and publishing industry, and the artists' battles for their intellectual property and financial freedom.

Series: World Comics and Graphic Nonfiction Series

Sales restrictions: For sale only in the United States, its dependencies, and Canada
January 2021
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488 pages | 6 x 9 | 37 color and 72 b&w illus. |

Superman may be faster than a speeding bullet, but even he can't outrun copyright law. Since the dawn of the pulp hero in the 1930s, publishers and authors have fought over the privilege of making money off of comics, and the authors and artists usually have lost. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman, got all of $130 for the rights to the hero.

In Empire of the Superheroes, Mark Cotta Vaz argues that licensing and litigation do as much as any ink-stained creator to shape the mythology of comic characters. Vaz reveals just how precarious life was for the legends of the industry. Siegel and Shuster—and their heirs—spent seventy years battling lawyers to regain rights to Superman. Jack Kirby and Joe Simon were cheated out of their interest in Captain America, and Kirby's children brought a case against Marvel to the doorstep of the Supreme Court. To make matters worse, the infant comics medium was nearly strangled in its crib by censorship and moral condemnation. For the writers and illustrators now celebrated as visionaries, the "golden age" of comics felt more like hard times.

The fantastical characters that now earn Hollywood billions have all-too-human roots. Empire of the Superheroes digs them up, detailing the creative martyrdom at the heart of a pop-culture powerhouse.

  • Introduction: Comic Book Babylon
  • Chapter 1: In the Beginning
  • Chapter 2: World of Tomorrow
  • Chapter 3: More Super Than Tarzan
  • Chapter 4: Shadow Realm
  • Chapter 5: Superman versus Wonder Man
  • Chapter 6: The First Generation
  • Chapter 7: Superman, Inc.
  • Chapter 8: Patents and Patriots
  • Chapter 9: Up, Up And Awa-a-y!
  • Chapter 10: Battle of the Century
  • Chapter 11: The Adventures of Superboy
  • Chapter 12: The Trial
  • Chapter 13: Progenitors
  • Chapter 14: Judgment Day
  • Chapter 15: Crackdown and Crash
  • Chapter 16: Resurrection and Renewal
  • Chapter 17: Copyright Wars
  • Chapter 18: Masters of Invention
  • Chapter 19: Evolutionary Imperative
  • Chapter 20: Superman and Captain America on Trial
  • Chapter 21: The King and the Man
  • Chapter 22: Legacy
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Mark Cotta Vaz is a New York Times best-selling author. His dozens of books include Living Dangerously: The Adventures of Merian C. Cooper, Creator of King Kong; The Invisible Art: The Legends of Movie Matte Painting, coauthored with Craig Barron; and, most recently, Pan Am at War: How the Airline Secretly Helped America Fight World War II, coauthored with John H. Hill.


“[A] detailed, upbeat survey...Vaz’s history is comprehensive and finds ready drama in the exploitation of naive artists by rapacious publishers...This grand comic book adventure is not to be missed.”
Publishers Weekly

“Crafting a history based on the artists who imagined bigger and better worlds but were often denied their credits and profits, this is a must read for anyone who loves comic book movies.”

“[A] sympathetic chronicle of the inception and ascent of a modern mythology—a pantheon of bizarrely costumed characters with superhuman (if not supernatural) powers...Empire of the Superheroes is fascinating for its account of the business side of comic books.”
Shepherd Express

“[An] incredibly detailed and fascinating book...With Empire of the Superheroes, Mark Cotta Vaz adds an important, educational, and highly entertaining title to recent comic book scholarship and history.”
Houston Press

“Rights issues have been a massively important topic for comic book creators and companies over the history of the industry, and Cotta Vaz does a spectacular job of tracking the major flashpoints and their importance. If you are a comic fan looking for an informative and entertaining summer read, Empire of the Superheroes is a great choice!”
Comic Book Yeti

“If you are ever tempted to wonder how a string of lurid fantasies, printed on cheap paper and aimed at an audience of preadolescent readers, could evolve into the most lucrative "intellectual properties" of the twenty-first century, I commend to you Mark Vaz's Empire of the Superheroes, the best one-volume history of the comics industry I have yet read. The titanic all-star battle at the center of Vaz's narrative is the struggle of underappreciated creators—Siegel, Shuster, Simon, Kirby, et al.—to be properly credited, and compensated, for their "disposable" work on properties that would eventually come to dominate the American dreamscape and generate billions in profits worldwide. This affectionate, deeply researched, and compulsively readable book will delight scholars, critics, and casual fans alike.”
Sam Hamm, Screenwriter of Batman

“Every superhero needs a good backstory, and the genre at large gets a doozy in Mark Cotta Vaz’s meticulous account of the comic book industry, its origins and history, its principal players, and its expansive influence. Beginning with the cautionary tale of two young men barely out of high school who created a character and narrative that would launch a multi-billion-dollar media empire, only to sign away all the rights for a pittance, Vaz offers a dramatic, sometimes poignant, alternately affectionate and infuriating deep dive into the world of talented but naïve artists, predatory publishers, unabashed plagiarists, and high-stakes litigators.”
Don Shay, Founder of Cinefex magazine

“Superheroes symbolize American comic books—and today they form the backbone of a pop-culture empire. I can’t imagine anyone better than Mark Cotta Vaz to explain how this all happened. A veteran writer, he uses his passion for comics to show us how artists, writers, editors, and publishers all struggled to launch a new medium. It’s an inside story of poor conditions, plagiarism, creators’ rights and copyrights, oppressive censorship, changes in distribution, new technologies, art, movies, and influences from Japan—not to mention a seemingly never-ending series of lawsuits. It’s an American story, guaranteed to entertain!”
Frederik L. Schodt, Author of Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics

“Mark Cotta Vaz has long been one of my favorite pop culture writers, and he's at the top of his game with Empire of the Superheroes. His thoughtful, comprehensive look at the formative years of the comic book industry is readily accessible to newcomers but provides plenty of fresh insight for diehard fans and historians, too. You'll want this on your bookshelf whether you've memorized Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, you still hit your local comic shop every Wednesday, or you just like catching the occasional Avengers movie on cable.”
Andrew Farago, Cartoon Art Museum curator and author of Batman: The Definitive History of The Dark Knight in Comics, Film, and Beyond


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This book may also be available on the following library platforms; check with your local library:
3M Cloud Library/bibliotheca