Superman's powers include super-strength, super-breath... and super-lawyers? The iconic DC Comics character has been known to go after plenty of other strongmen in court, crushing any characters with more than a passing similarity. The most famous super-litigation was the 1951 case where the Man Of Steel killed Captain Marvel, the Superman-esque character who gets his powers from saying "Shazam!" But the world's most litigious hero has gone after plenty of other peers, and here's our history of super-lawsuits.
Superman v. Wonderman: Hoping to capitalize on the success of Superman, Fox Publications commissioned Will Eisner to create a similar hero. Thus, both Wonderman and a lawsuit were born.
Wonderman’s Story: Fred Carson was a mild-mannered engineer who met a yogi while visiting Tibet. The yogi gave Carson a magic ring, which endowed him with super strength, super speed, invulnerability, and the ability to leap tall buildings in a single… well, you get it. Outcome: The case found its way to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. The opinion, written by August Hand, carefully compared the panels in Wonder Man’s first issue to those in Action Comics #1-11. Fox Publishing tried to get around the comics’ obvious similarities by arguing that proto-Supermen went all the way back to the legends of Hercules, but the court didn’t buy it. They ruled that Eisner’s comic went beyond use of the same archetype and enjoined Wonderman after only a single issue.
Superman v. Master Man: Following its vanquish of Wonderman, National Comics (which would later become DC), went after Master Man, the superpowered lead of Fawcett’s Master Comics. Master Man’s Story: A weak young boy receives special vitamins from a wise doctor. These vitamins make the boy “Stronger than untamed horses! Swifter than raging winds! Braver than mighty lions! Wiser than wisdom, kind as Galahad is Master Man, the wonder of the world!” This strongest man in the world had no secret identity and couldn’t fly, but did have a fortress on the highest peak on Earth, where he looked for trouble through his giant telescope. Outcome: Fawcett didn’t bother to take Master Man to court. Under the threat of a lawsuit, it pulled Master Man, who had appeared in six issues.
Superman v. Captain Marvel: When Captain Marvel’s books began outselling Superman’s, National Comics took aim at Fawcett once more. Captain Marvel’s Story: Twelve-year-old Billy Batson is taken to the wizard Shazam, who gives him the ability to turn into Captain Marvel. Marvel has the powers of wisdom, strength, stamina, invulnerability, and speed. But some similarities between Marvel and Superman, such as the power of flight and a bald nemesis, appeared in Fawcett’s Whiz Comics before appearing in National’s Action Comics. Outcome: Since Captain Marvel was Fawcett’s flagship comic, the publisher decided to fight National this time around. This suit also made it to the Second Circuit where Learned Hand (Augustus’ more famous cousin) ruled that Fawcett’s plagiarism of the Superman comics was “deliberate and unabashed.” Fawcett stopped publishing Captain Marvel, and soon dropped all its superhero properties. Captain Marvel would eventually be resurrected in DC’s Shazam!, finding a home with the same publisher who’d gotten him shelved decades before. This didn’t mend fences between the two heroes, who have continued to battle each other in the DC Universe.
Superman v. The Greatest American Hero: After the success of Superman: The Movie and Superman II, the vision of William Katt sailing through the skies in a red suit and cape proved too much for Warner Bros. and DC, who quickly filed an injunction against ABC’s klutzy superhero. The Greatest American Hero’s Story: An alien gives schoolteacher Ralph Hinkley a superpowered suit in order to protect the people of Earth. The suit gives Ralph a mess of powers — flight, super strength, invisibility, telekinesis, super speed — but not the knowledge to use them properly. Outcome: In 1983, another Second Circuit decision found that the TV hero didn’t infringe on the Superman story. Though depictions of Superman and Hinckley bore some similarities, the reluctant and inept hero with powers thrust upon him was a far cry from the bold and confident Kryptonian. And though many of the show’s special effects echoed those in the Superman films, they did so in parody rather than plagiarism. By the time of the ruling, the show had run its course, but it left ABC free to sell the character’s comic book and movie rights.
Superman v. Superboy: Superman creator Jerry Siegel submitted a proposal to DC Comics for a series of adventures about Clark Kent’s youth. DC rejected the proposal, but later printed Superboy while Siegel was serving in the US Army. When Siegel’s heirs attempted to terminate Superboy’s copyright, DC and Time Warner claimed that Superboy was merely Superman as a young man, and not a distinct character (and thus not copyrightable as distinct from Superman), giving DC the legal right to publish books featuring Superboy with or without Siegel’s permission. Superboy’s Story: The original Superboy follows the adventures of the young Superman growing up in Smallville. He wears glasses as his alter ego Clark Kent and the iconic suit as Superman. Like his grownup self, he has superpowers and battles Lex Luthor, and he eventually travels to the 30th century to join the Legion of Super-Heroes. Outcome: In 1948, a referee in a dispute between Siegel and DC found that Superboy was a distinct entity from Superman, and that DC had published the comic illegally. The findings were vacated in a settlement between DC and Siegel, but in 2006, the Ninth Circuit agreed with the referee, granting termination rights to Siegel’s heirs. However, the court later vacated that ruling, granting Warner and DC’s motion for reconsideration. Although Siegel’s family has recaptured some rights to Superman, the Superboy question remains undecided.
Gladiator v. Superman: Superman was nearly the victim of a lawsuit himself. In 1930, eight years before the first appearance of Superman, author Philip Wylie published Gladiator, a novel about a man cursed with superhuman strength. Gladiator’s Story: Scientist Abednego Danner discovers a formula that cures the innate weakness in animals. He injects his pregnant wife with the serum, producing Hugo, a super strong and bulletproof child. Like Superman, Hugo grows up in rural America and his strength is explained in insectoid terms: he has the strength of the ant and a grasshopper’s ability to leap great distances. But unlike Superman, Hugo Danner has trouble finding an outlet for his inhuman abilities, leaving him in a state of perpetual frustration. Outcome: In 1940, Wylie threatened to sue Siegel and National comics for plagiarism of his work. Although nothing ever came of the suit, Siegel did sign an affidavit claiming that Gladiator was not an inspiration for Superman, although Siegel had reviewed Wylie’s novel in a 1932 issue of his fanzine, Science Fiction. The Greatest American Hero video via Reddit.