Comics

Like an Episode of Perry Mason. An Episode About Busty Warrior Angels.

For the past month, over on her blog, the great and good Maggie Thompson has been chronicling an unfolding legal battle that has implications for comic book creators, publishers and fans.

The combatants: Todd McFarlane (hugely successful artist/entrepreneur and creator of Spawn, a character that was to comics in the '90s what Justin Bieber is to Twitter), and Neil Gaiman (y'all know who he is).

The octagon in question: Room 261 of the Robert W. Kastenmeier United States Courthouse in Madison, Wisconsin.

At issue: What every comic book legal battle is always about — creators' rights. In this case, whether or not certain McFarlane characters are derivative of characters that Gaiman created in Spawn #9, a 1993 issue that he guest-wrote.

(Note here that legally, "derivative" means something very specific. Which is good, because if broadly derivative characters were made illegal, every superhero comic ever made would promptly vanish in a puff of jurisprudence.)

If all of this sounds vaguely familiar, it's because McFarlane and Gaiman have gone a few rounds already, once back in 2002, and again in 2004, when that original 2002 decision — which granted Gaiman co-ownership of those Spawn #9 characters — was unsuccessfully appealed.  Because McFarlane's company went into bankruptcy, Gaiman never got paid his share of the licensing of those co-created characters.

But McFarlane's company has now come out of Chapter 11, and Gaiman's lawyers are looking to collect. They argue that McFarlane went on to use and license characters that are obvious knock-offs of the Spawn characters Gaiman has a legal claim on, in an attempt to avoid paying him. McFarlane's lawyers say nonsense, you can't copyright an idea — in this case, the idea of warrior angels.

Sexy, sexy warrior angels.

Got all that? If not, you're not alone. Happily for you and me, Maggie Thompson has been in the courtroom every day, turning her voluminous notes into a series of pithy, insightful missives that capture the proceedings, place them in context, and generally reflect the perspective of an engaged, passionate and smart-as-all-get out lover of comics. She's a pro, and she's absolutely killing it.

This is not Thompson's first time at the rodeo; she was there in the court for McFarlane vs. Gaiman Round One, back in 2002; she knows both men well, and she also, not for nothing, invented comic book fandom.

I overstate.  But not by a whole lot: Back in 1961 she and her husband Don created the fanzine Comic Art, which was instrumental in building a sustained community of smart, literate adults who read, discussed and gleefully debated comics, comics creators, and comics characters. Under her editorship, the magazine Comics Buyer's Guide has racked up industry awards by the metric ton. And gradually, because she and smart people like her tirelessly wrote and talked about the medium of comics, something in the culture changed so thoroughly that nowadays, believe it or not, there's even a dude who blogs about comics for NP-frickin'-R. [And, we should fully disclose, she's also the mom of NPR Music's Stephen Thompson, who undoubtedly would have loved, but was not allowed, to insert "Hi, Mom" into this discussion.]

You can start reading her dispatches from the 2010 trial here. (Closing arguments have been made, and the judge hasn't yet rendered her decision, so there's plenty of time for you to catch up.)

Some stuff I love about her coverage:

She captures the participants with an unforced immediacy that makes it easy to follow along. Here's her first post about Gaiman's testimony — you can practically hear the guy's voice. The next day, she linked to Gaiman's own blog about the proceedings. Reading them back to back, you lose track of where one ends and the other begins.

Another thing: Cases like this one call for copyright lawyers to vigorously debate the minutiae of comic book origin stories, costumes and power sets.

This. Is. AWESOME.

Why? Because it reads like my local comics shop on a Wednesday afternoon. Or like an episode of Law And Order, with Comic Book Guy as Jack McCoy.

Seriously: There's gripping cross-examination dealing with the fact that two characters have "slightly different headpieces."

At one point, Gaiman patiently explains to the court the internecine mythology behind the Spawn character: "But, no, you don't get two Spawns at the same time; you get one and then you get another one 400 years later."

Here's a goodie:

[McFarlane attorney] Grimsley noted the reference to an evolving neural parasite.

(Imagining a court reporter typing "evolving neural parasite" into the record: This pleases me greatly.)

How about this?

Grimsley posed an example. 'If you were to create a caveman character ... you might give him a club as a weapon, right?'

Gaiman said, "It's a strange hypothetical. I've never written a caveman that I can think of and I don't think I'd give him a club because it's kind of stupid. I'd probably give him a stone ax, because that's what they used."

Note: Gaiman's testimony is filled with this kind of bemused, gentle disdain. It's fanTAStic.

Not that McFarlane doesn't get a few good jokes in:

'Why is Angela scantily clad?' 'A couple of obvious reasons: the history of women characters when men are at the helm.' [McFarlane] cited paintings by Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo. 'If we don't show skin, we put her in skin-tight clothes. Boys have been doing it since, I assume, the invention of boys.'

So seriously: Go, read.

And while you're at it, don't miss yesterday's post, in which Thompson reviews the things she's learned over the course of the trial.  And she cautions her readers:

I know there's a tendency to look on all this as some sort of entertainment for the rest of us - but it's not an entertainment for [Gaiman and McFarlane].

....

Er.  Um.

Cough.

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