There’s a currently a lot of excitement in the comic world following the announcement last week that Marvel Comics has purchased the rights to the character Marvelman.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the character – and that’d be understandable, as he’s had only two main bursts of popularity, in the 1950s and then the 1980s – the hook of the character is that he’s Mickey Moran, a young orphan who, by saying the word ‘kimota’ (read it backwards to see the origin of that word), tranforms into a Superman-level superhero, with great strength and the power to fly and all that.

In the original incarnation in the 1950s, Moran was a child, but in the celebrated 1980s revival, Mike Moran was an adult who had only vague memories of having been Marvelman, and the 1980s run showed what happened when he remembered who he’d been, and set out to find why and how he’d forgotten (amongst many other things). As you can tell, the revived version was a lot more reality-based, and indeed was one of the comics during this decade which genuinely pursued the idea of ‘superheroes in the real world’, along with Watchmen, which you’ll be unsurprised to hear was written by the same chap.

Since the early 1990s, the Marvelman character has been trapped in an insanely convoluted tangle of ownership and copyright disputes; I won’t go into them here, though I like to think I’m fairly well-versed in who owned what percentage of it and when (if indeed any of them ever did after the original publication run ended – that’s the kind of uncertainty that reigns), to the extent that on occasion when I’ve been having trouble getting to sleep, I’ve been known to run through the ownership issues in my mind. I’m not proud of that, but believe me, once you get to the late 1980s or so in reviewing the copyright ownership of Marvelman, the brain tends to shut down out of sheer bewilderment and sleep is pretty much inevitable.

Anyway, one of the stranger aspects of the whole messy business is the fact that, as demonstrated by the fact that the above-linked announcement was made at all, Marvelman was not published by Marvel Comics. In fact, at the time the character was first in print, I don’t think Marvel as an entity actually existed (they came into being in the 1960s if memory serves), but there wasn’t any kind of legal objection from Marvel until the late 1980s – the argument being (logically enough) that it might be believed that Marvelman was a Marvel character. This led to the suspension of the revived series for a while, under the cloud of legal uncertainty (Marvel, unlike the then-publishers of Marvelman, had lots of money to spend on lawyers) until the character’s 1980s stories were first reprinted and then continued in a series published in the USA, but for the sake of legal safety the character was renamed Miracleman.

This, of course, removes the oomph of it being a revival of a beloved 1950s character, and all the callbacks to the original series become fairly meaningless and robbed of their narrative power. Imagine if the recent TV series had been called Bottlestore Galaxion for legal reasons, and you get an idea of how the ‘impressive revamp of a slightly cheesy old idea’ was weakened. Add in the fact that a character called Miracleman had actually appeared a few years previously – albeit for a mere handful of panels – in a comic which actually was published by Marvel comics, and was by the very same creative team as was handling Marvelman at the time Marvel was sending letters threatening legal action in the 1980s, and I think that you can see how fractal and recursive and frankly bonkers the whole situation is.

So, under the name Miracleman, the series ran into the 1990s, until the publisher went belly-up, precipitating even more confusion about who owned the copyrights on the characters. These stories were very well-received, and were written by Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, whose names are well-known outside of the comics world; you know those films V For Vendetta, Coraline and Stardust? Based on their work (to varying degrees of success, but we all know that’s often the case with adaptations). The copyright uncertainties meant that the single-volume reprints of these stories went out of print pretty swiftly, so they remain more of a legend than a known quantity for a lot of comic readers – though the pedigree of the writers, and the artists (Garry Leach, Alan Davis, Rick Veitch, John Totleben and Mark Buckingham, to name but a lot) has meant that a lot of people are keen to see the stories brought back into print.

It’s far from clear from Marvel’s press release whether they actually have the rights to reprint the Moore-Gaiman era of the character, though the pictures on the above-linked page suggest not; the symbol on his chest is different from the 1980s-era image I’ve reproduced here (of which, more in a moment), and the fact that the release refers to Mick Anglo, the character’s creator and original writer/artist makes me suspect not. There have been suggestions that Marvel will be talking to the various writers and artists who’ve worked on the book; Marvel has a good relationship with Neil Gaiman, and as far as I know pretty decent relations with Alan Davis and Rick Veitch, and as the very talented John Totleben is unfortunately suffering from a degenerative eye condition (a horrible thing to happen to anyone, and made all the more vicious a twist of fate by the fact that Totleben’s artwork is so detailed) may mean that he’d be amenable to his work being reprinted if permission was sought.

Writer Alan Moore has a much more chequered history of relations with Marvel, to put it mildly, and although things appeared to be thawing slightly recently when he agreed to let them reprint his Captain Britain run in a collected volume (including the ‘Miracleman’ panels alluded to above), even that was soured by a production error which meant that a note giving a specific creative credit at Moore’s request, was left out of the reprint. Still, it was suggested that Moore had agreed to the reprint in the first place to enable his co-creators to earn royalties from sales of the collected volume, so there remains a possibility that he’d be willing to let Marvel reprint it, though the fact that they’re the same company whose actions caused the strip to first be suspended, and then undergo a name change, could well cast a cloud over the discussion (I think it would for me, frankly).

There’s a fair amount of excitement about the prospect of these comics being reprinted, which I can fully understand, but I’m not entirely sure if they’d be republished in a straightforward fashion, for the following reasons:

– Firstly, as you can see from the panel above, the re-named reprints of the series would need to be re-lettered to give the characters back their original names. A minor-ish task, I’d imagine, but still something that would need doing, and I don’t know if Marvel – or anyone else – would have easy access to the original artwork, or film of the art, to do that in a professional way.

– Secondly, and also visible from the panel I’ve reproduced, whilst the original chapters of the revived series were in black and white, the US reprints of the series were coloured (the vast majority of US comics are in colour). And as you can see above, they were not coloured very well – our hero appears to be flying from SatsumaWorld to a Mr Greedy-shaded planet, though at least he’ll fit in there, as he’s the same colour. Again, re-colouring the strips shouldn’t be a particularly challenging task, though it inevitably raises the question of who the colourist should be, and the opening chapters by Garry Leach are so obviously oriented to black and white that you could argue that they shouldn’t be coloured at all.

– Thirdly, and oddly enough this is the topic I have seen least discussed online, is the issue of content; a lot of the revived series was adult in tone – the final chapters of the second volume feature scenes of graphic childbirth, and there’s an issue in the third book which is based around a disturbing depiction of a supervillain running amok in London – he doesn’t rob a few banks and then kidnap the hero’s girlfriend and sit and wait to be beaten up and arrested, he turns the place into a burning, blood-drenched laboratory of cruelty and destruction, with human skins flapping from flagpoles as maimed children traipse the streets screaming for their parents (okay, I’m working from memory there, but do you get the idea that there was imagery in the issue which stuck in my mind?). It’s genuinely unsettling stuff, and made all the more so by the fact that the story’s heroes don’t behave wildly nobly in order to defeat their enemy – for these gods, it seems their Olympus will be built on a foundation of death and destruction.

Is this, do you think, something that Marvel comics is likely to publish without any changes? It’s a far from easy fit into their existing ‘universe’ (Spider-Man, Hulk, Iron Man et al), and looks far more like a ‘mature readers’ title, and given the way that the stories ended, it’s not able to be set in the ‘Marvel Universe’ generally, as events in the title clearly place it in a very different setting. So even if Marvel do have the rights to reprint the existing revived material, would they do so without editing it? And if they did, would they then continue to use the character? And would that be in a more mainstream manner, or similarly adult-themed? For consistency, you’d imagine the latter, but Marvel’s not as oriented to comics for older readers as its competitor DC, and it would be moderately pointless to bother acquiring the character only to put him on the margins. Though of course having the material from the 1980s onwards just in reprint form would be a good earner in itself.

Given the use of the 1950s version of the character’s logo and the comments from Mick Anglo in the press release, my gut feeling is that Marvel have bought the rights to reprint stories of the original incarnation of Marvelman, and possibly to create new stories featuring him, though possibly not ones which continue from, or encroach on, the Moore-Gaiman work. The original stuff is quite charming, and fun, but I have to say I’m far from sure how much appeal it would have to modern readers, unless Marvel were to pitch it to a younger audience (which wouldn’t be a bad thing; there are too many comic readers my age, and not enough new readers coming in).

My suspicion is that Marvel have bought the rights to the Mick Anglo version of the character and nothing else, and that it may well be a case of ‘a sprat to catch a mackerel’ – starting off an involvement with the character, with an aim of trying to get full ownership (which would seem possible as Marvel have previously paid Neil Gaiman for work via the company Marvels and Miracles LLC, which Gaiman set up with the stated aim of resolving the issue of copyright of Marvelman), and the rights to reprint the work by Moore and Gaiman.

That’s my guess, anyway – but I’m open to counter-speculation or correction, especially on any of the facts which I’ve outlined in my semi-history given above; I like to think I know a fair amount about this subject, but I’m all too willing to believe that I’ve got confused on more than one point.

Let’s face it, it wouldn’t be the first time.