On the Twilight of the Superheroes

Joshua speculates on the consequences of superheroes going out of copyright.

There was once, in the heady days of the 1980s, a colossal mega-crossover proposed by Alan Moore to tell the story of Ragnarok through the lens of DC’s various super heroes battling amongst themselves as the world crashes down around them. It was to have been called Twilight of the Superheroes.

This is not about that. This is about math.

This year DC celebrates the 75th anniversary of Batman, just as it celebrated that anniversary for Superman last year. That’s an important number, not just because of the permanence attached to increasingly large numbers like that but because, until 1998, it was the point at which copyright protection for artistic works ran out. In 1998 Congress extended that time to 95 years for anything created before 1978, which includes the best known of our superhero friends such as Batman and Superman whose time limits will expire in 2034 and 2033, respectively.

Image source: http://indiannoob.in/new-batman-75th-anniversary-logo-revealed-dc-warner-bros/

What does that mean? Well it doesn’t mean that anyone and their brother can start publishing their own Batman adventures. Those characters are safely trademarked. What it does mean is that their original published adventures will enter the public domain and will be able to be reprinted or redistributed by anyone who has a decent copy of the art, for sale or free, with more and more issues available every passing year.

Comic book publishers like any other media distributor, live and die on their libraries. The goal of the young publisher is to build a solid library they can keep in print, keep reselling without having to pay for content all over again. This is the (cheap, popular) material that gets a publisher, a studio, a record company through the lean times when the new (expensive) material isn’t putting up the numbers the company needs. Without that archive one bad year can put a publisher or a studio or a record company down for the count.

Of course big league super hero publishing is a corporate division now, not the entrepreneurial venture it was once upon a time, but a division that doesn’t produce anymore can be shuttered (or reduced to a figure head stirring up old nostalgia) be it MGM or Marvel Comics. Could a day come when the various corporate parents of the superhero old guard decide it’s not worth it to keep producing four color serialized super hero stories anymore and switch wholesale to just film and television and video games (and I assume holograms and artificially intelligent toys, it is the future after all)? Sure it could, and with it would come a complete calcification of our friends Batman and Spider-Man. They would be forever closed off from the ability to add major new elements to the mythos (the way both did decades after their creation) in the name of protecting the IP, the way James Bond films stick to a rigorous pattern because the pattern has become what people go to see (even the modern films have played with the pattern as much as they’ve deviated from it).

It would be the twilight of growth, the twilight of change, the twilight of the superhero.

Does that seem a long way off? It is 20 years after all before this even begins to become a reality and several more decades before the major library stalwarts enter the public domain. Looking at the Diamond Comics Top 100 graphic novels for April 2014 we see Marvel Masterworks Spider-Man Vol. 16 (entering public domain in 2061); Uncanny X-Men Omnibus Vol. 2 (2071); X-Men: Days of Future Past (2076); Watchmen (2082). Batman: The Killing Joke (2083); Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes (2084); Books of Magic (2085) all still on the public’s mind.

It is true that I’ll be dead before I have the right to start running off photocopies of Watchmen and handing them out on elementary school playgrounds as I’ve always dreamed of doing. It’s also true that much can change between now and then, new thinking and new business models could come about, and that generally the only thing which can with certainty about the future is that it never turns out the way we expect. Back when the stories in that Spider-Man book were first being written they thought we’d be living on the moon by now.

We could see the date for public ownership get pushed off into the future again (this seems to happen more and more often as more and more copyrights enter corporate ownership). I actually expect this to happen about the time Warner Bros. can’t re-release the millionth version of the Wizard of Oz.

Or we could see publishers—looking for any new, untapped market—and readers—looking for any new, untold story—start casting about for new comic forms and provide an opening for not-Superheroes to take hold in comics the way they once did. It could be the dawn of comics. Again.

Or not, but it will be interesting to see which. 2033. Mark your calendars now.

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