Monday, March 22, 2021

Book Review: Poisoned Chalice: The Extremely Long and Incredibly Complex Story of Marvelman (and Miracleman)


I’ve always found the history behind Marvelman fascinating, but I never got around to doing a deep-dive into it. Fortunately, Pádraig Ó Méalóid’s book Poisoned Chalice: The Extremely Long and Incredibly Complex Story of Marvelman (and Miracleman) exists to fill in this history. As the title suggests, the history of the character Marvelman (also known as Miracleman) is both long and complex. Poisoned Chalice provides a detailed chronicle of the character.

The book starts before the creation of Marvelman. It provides details and context for the rise of superhero comics, and the lawsuit that led to the creation of Marvelman. It goes on to discuss the character’s resurrection in the early 1980s, its name change to Miracleman later in the decade, and the legal wrangling that has sidelined the character for the last few decades.

Marvelman was created in the ’50s. The character exists because of DC Comic’s lawsuit against Fawcett’s Captain Marvel, in which Captain Marvel was found to infringe upon DC’s Superman character.[1] After the lawsuit, the publisher of Captain Marvel comics in Britain decided to continue the series by changing the name of the comic and character, redesigning the costume, and making some other changes to the story. Hence was born Marvelman, a character that enjoyed some success in Britain until publication stopped in the early ’60s.  

A new publisher relaunched the character in the ’80s in Warrior magazine. The new  stories were written by Alan Moore. Moore’s run on the character, and later Neil Gaiman’s, are what elevated the character in the eyes of many fans. However, complex legal issues involving the character have stagnated new stories for decades.

Ó Méalóid does his best to untangle the complex ownership issues that surround the character. It is a daunting task, and he relies mostly on previously given interviews and those that he has conducted himself. Without being able to directly review the contracts of those involved with the character, it is nearly impossible to completely answer the question of ownership at most points in time. However, as the book notes, Marvel seemingly owns the character now.

Of particular interest to me are the copyright and trademark issues that surround the character. Marvelman’s creation sprang directly from a copyright lawsuit. Additionally, the question of who owns the copyright in the character has played an important role in the character’s publication history in the past.

While not as well handled in the book, trademark law has also played an important role in the character’s history. In the late 1980s, U.S.-based Eclipse Comics chose to reprint the Marvelman stories that ran in Warrior and to continue the stories that Moore started. Trademark law is the explanation for the character’s name change from Marvelman to Miracleman so as not to run afoul of any trademarks owned by Marvel Comics. Additionally, the question of who owned the trademark for Miracleman in the United States likely delayed Neil Gaiman’s and Marvel’s attempts to republish and continue Gaiman’s stories with the character.  

Poisoned Chalice is a self-published book that collects and expands on a series of posts Ó Méalóid did for Comics Beat. The book could have benefited from better chapter formatting and some additional editing to tighten up some sections. Additionally, as I alluded to above, at times the book did not always clearly reflect or describe some of the nuances of copyright and trademark law and its impact on the character. However, Ó Méalóid’s attempts to rely on legitimate sources instead of merely industry heresay is commendable, and it makes the book a treasure trove of information for anyone interested in researching the history of the character.

Overall, Poisoned Chalice is a fascinating and detailed look into one of the more intriguing characters of the comic book industry.  

Update (2024-06-08): The affiliate link has been removed, and a new link to purchase the book is below.

You can order the book here.

[1] Click the link for my brief description of the Captain Marvel lawsuit.