Eye on Comics

Comics criticism and commentary from Don MacPherson

Everybody Hercs

Posted by Don MacPherson on April 22nd, 2008

Hulk Special #1 from 1968New publisher Radical Publishing is looking to make a name for itself in the world of comics, and it’s recruited some big-name talent to help in those efforts. The Los Angeles-based company issued a news release Tuesday to announce that comics legend Jim Steranko has provided cover artwork for the first two issues of its new Hercules: The Thracian Wars series. Furthermore, Steranko designed the look for this incarnation of Hercules as well as the cover logo for the series.

What I found interesting about the announcement was the nature of the Steranko cover art for the second issue. That cover is an homage to a well-known cover the artist produced for Marvel Comics 30 years ago: that which adorned Incredible Hulk Special #1. It’s an easily recognized image in comics, one that’s been reproduced and homaged often. Boasting a strong Will Eisner influence, perhaps the reason it’s been referenced time and time again over the years is how effective it is in conveying the power and struggle that are inherent in the premise and character.┬áThe Hulk is in danger of being crushed under a rock that spells out his own name. The earth and rock beneath his feet cracks and crumbles from the sheer weight. The seemingly simple cover says a lot about the title character. The biggest threat that the Hulk faces is himself, his own raw, uncontrolled power (and how others perceive it as a threat).

Radical might attract the attention of fans of comics history and the medium’s iconic images, especially since it’s Steranko himself who’s crafting the homage to his original effort (which, the Grand Comics Database notes, also included input from Marie Severin, who rendered the Hulk’s face on the cover).

Radical's Hercules #2Marvel's Incredible Hercules #112A potential problem arises with another recent homage to that classic cover. Four months ago, Artist Arthur Adams provided cover artwork for a Marvel comic that also paid tribute to Steranko’s Incredible Hulk Special #1 image. That comic: Incredible Hercules #112.

I’m not suggesting Marvel will have a problem with another publisher offering an homage to one of its classic covers. Radical’s Hercules #2 Steranko cover is clearly an homage, not a swipe. And hey, the original artist is merely reproducing his own efforts. Where’s the harm? Well, a potential problem arises as a result of the convergence of a number of factors. Both covers feature characters called Hercules. They’re published within a short timeframe (the Radical comic book in question is due out in June).

The same character. The same pose. The same genre of storytelling. The same medium. That’s a lot of sameness.

I’m not saying Marvel will or should take issue with Radical Publishing’s move. The chances of the average super-hero comic enthusiast mistaking the new title from a small publisher for a Marvel title are limited, perhaps even negligent. But when it comes to copyright law and trademark protection, the reality of the situation rarely comes into play. There are principles and precedents to consider.

Conversely, let’s consider for a moment that the folks at Radical Publishing considered the slight possibility of some kind of controversy or a legal challenge. Hey, they could have anticipated. It’s incredibly (pardon the pun) difficult for a new, small publisher to get noticed in the Western comics market today, and any kind of discussion about Radical’s products can be helpful.

After all, there’s no such thing as bad publicity, right?

15 Responses to “Everybody Hercs”

  1. anthony r. Says:

    and so similarly dressed! maybe if radical’s were wearing a nice dress suit it wouldn’t cause such a problem, heh. it does seem rather odd tht they would choose such timing to release such a similar cover, but maybe it was just a coincidence and this was produced some time ahead the release of the cover image for herc 112, as farfetched as that may sound.

  2. Jon H Says:

    The thing is, it’s pretty easy to imagine probably lines of thought that would end up producing the similar covers, without the new Steranko intending to mimic the Marvel cover.

    Put Steranko on a Hercules comic, and it’s pretty natural that he’d think of homaging his Hulk cover, since they’re both super-strong characters, and he was the original artist.

    For Marvel, the replacement of Hulk with Hercules naturally leads to the same homage.

    If it wasn’t Steranko doing the Radical cover, I’d think it more suspicious. But if you’re going to hire Steranko, then you pretty much want him to do a cover that echoes one of his classics, and Hercules arguably lends himself to this one.

    So I figure it’s just a coincidence.

    I mean, if you’re planning out the Radical series last year, what would you think were the odds that Hercules would get such prominent play in 2008?

    And once Marvel’s plans became evident, would you expect Radical to ask Steranko to redo a perfectly fine cover?

  3. Don MacPherson Says:

    Jon wrote:
    If it wasn’t Steranko doing the Radical cover, I’d think it more suspicious. But if you’re going to hire Steranko, then you pretty much want him to do a cover that echoes one of his classics, and Hercules arguably lends himself to this one.

    I agree completely, Jon. I think you make some assumptions about the lead time involved in crafting the cover, though. I think there’s a possibility that the publication of the Arthur Adams Incredible Hercules cover and the commissioning of Steranko to create the Radical cover could be within a relatively close timeframe. That could still easily be coincidental, though.

  4. Sandy Says:

    Although there may be no such thing as bad publicity, there is such a thing as costly lawsuits. And at least one other small publisher has run into a copyright lawsuit with Marvel that pretty much killed the company (legal fees are expensive, even when you win). See the following paragraph from the Wikipedia entry on Jim Shooter’s Defiant Comics:

    In early 1993, Defiant announced that its first title, Plasm, would, innovatively, be released as a series of trading cards that could be put together in an album to form “issue #0″. Upon hearing the news, Marvel Comics threatened a lawsuit against Defiant, claiming the new title violated a Marvel UK trademark for their book/character Plasmer. Though Defiant changed the title to Warriors of Plasm, Marvel continued its lawsuit. While the court court eventually ruled in favor of Defiant, the legal process depleted the company’s capital, having cost over $300,000 in legal fees. Defiant ended publication in Summer 1995.

  5. Don MacPherson Says:

    Sandy, thanks for the input, but one must keep in mind that there’s a significant difference between the two scenarios, and that’s the fact that Marvel can only trademark and copyright its version of Hercules. The actual name: it’s fair game. Radical’s version (designed by Steranko as well) incorporates lion-head imagery, as does Marvel. But that’s in keeping with the myth upon which both characters are based.

  6. Sandy Says:

    Oh – I’m not saying that Marvel would win a lawsuit, but the mere fact that it opens up the possibility of being sued is not really a good thing for Radical.

  7. Don MacPherson Says:

    My point was, though, that the kind of lawsuit you cite as an example isn’t applicable in this case.

  8. McE Says:

    And all of these covers have a thematic similarity to Auguste Rodin’s Caryatid Who Has Fallen under Her Stone, an image most art majors would have run across.

  9. Don MacPherson Says:

    Thanks for that perspective, McE. For those wanting to see the sculture to which he’s referring, click here.

    I agree, there’s a “thematic similarity,” and I’m glad McE doesn’t overstate it beyond that. There doesn’t seem to be enough similarities in the images for it to be a direct influence on Steranko’s original cover design.

  10. Rob Rogers Says:

    The chances of the average super-hero comic enthusiast mistaking the new title from a small publisher for a Marvel title are limited, perhaps even negligent.

    I think you might mean “negligible” there.

    Anyway, it seems to me that one problem that Radical might run into here is of potential buyers glancing at it, thinking it’s an alternate cover for the recent Marvel issue, and moving on by, not realizing that it’s an entirely different story.

    Heck of a nice cover, though.

  11. Don MacPherson Says:

    You’re absolutely right about “negligible,” Rob. I’m used to using the word “negligent” somewhat frequently in my day job as a courts/crime reporter. :)

    Good point about some Marvel readers perhaps dismissing the Radical comic as something they’ve already bought. Then again, one could argue that they want the variant-cover collectors to think just that and snap it up. Unlikely, but possible.

  12. Alan Coil Says:

    I don’t recall hearing before that Marvel continued the lawsuit and that it bankrupted the company. I just remember the Defiant line not being that good, and at the time, the market wasn’t very forgiving.

    Not that I am saying Sandy isn’t right, just that I never heard that at the time AND I don’t really trust Wiki.

  13. Robert Says:

    Dan – just more words of encouragement. Again, from foreign currency, team books, and Steranko tribute art – you cover matters showing an appreciative insight. You display a knowledgeable non-bias approach that’s so refreshing these days.

    No one has to tell you to “keep up the good work” because your work is a manifestation of quality throughout. It’s already a given!

    Thanks!!!!

  14. Don MacPherson Says:

    Thanks for the kind words, Robert. I take issue with only one of your comments: my name is Don, nor Dan. :)

  15. Tony Says:

    Jim recently asked us to post a series of Homage images to his most famous covers, including of course the Hulk annual #1. Jim agreed to write some commentary on the genesis of the covers. During this time of being immersed in Steranko Homages, Jim created the Hercules homage image. He said if everyone else is doing it, why not him :)