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.
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.
“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