Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Superheroes in the Public Domain

Seventy-three years ago this month, a new kind of fictional hero made his debut and popular culture hasn't been the same since. The hero was Siegel and Shuster's Superman, and although he was not the first costumed hero, all others before him (and most since) pale in comparison. Within a year or two of Superman's debut in Action Comics #1 (dated June 1938, but on the newsstand for a couple of months prior), dozens of comic book companies had popped up, mostly in New York City, each trying to repeat the success National Periodicals had with its Man of Steel. Those companies and the studios under their employ created hundreds of costumed characters--superheroes, mystery men, phantoms, super soldiers, detectives, aviators, jungle girls, spacemen--most of which flopped and have seldom been seen or heard from since.

After World War II, superheroes themselves fell on hard times. During the 1950s, comic books came close to extinction. Many comic book companies gave up the ghost, while artists and writers were forced to go looking for work elsewhere. No one gave any thought to renewing the copyrights or trademarks for hundreds of characters and titles, or of thousands of stories. Consequently, those characters, titles, and stories fell into the public domain. They are free now for use by anyone, without permission, licensing, fees, or even attribution. There are no copyright violations or trademark infringements associated with their use and reproduction. Thus was born a new kind of character: the Public Domain Hero.

Five Star Comics began with the idea of reviving not only the characters of the Golden Age but also the  the spirit of the 1930s and '40s. Too often today, comic books are grim, negative, gratuitously violent, and nihilistic. So-called "heroes" are not heroic or even admirable in any way. Many are simply psychotic killers. Golden Age heroes were different. They were aware that there really is a difference between good and evil. Golden Age heroes knew where they stood: It was on the side of right.

So how did we find the characters for our stories? Few people today can afford to search through hundreds of Golden Age titles for just the right character. Fortunately, there are several websites devoted to characters in the public domain. The men and women who have compiled the information on these websites have done a lot of work. We should all thank them for it. They have made it possible for us, the creators, to tell new stories about old characters, and they have made it possible for you, the readers, to enjoy those characters once again, after all these years.

Websites for Public Domain Characters

The best of three websites we have found is called Public Domain Superheroes. It includes alphabetical lists of characters, types of characters, and comic book companies. Each listing has a summary of information and a picture of the character in question:

Comic Vine also maintains a list of public domain characters, complete with pictures, but there is less information on each character than what you'll find on the previous site:

Finally, Wikibin has a list of public domain characters, but it's mostly just a repeat of the previous two lists, though less comprehensive:

Public domain characters offer a lot of opportunities to artists and other storytellers. You might want to give it a try. As for Five Star Comics, look for the first issue this summer!

Copyright 2011 Five Star Comics

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