Copyright Calamity: Marvel’s Bronze Age Licensed Titles

Nowadays there are literally hundreds of volumes reprinting much of the extensive library of Marvel Comics material from the past seven decades.  However, even with the proliferation of trade paperbacks within the last 15 years, there are still several titles that remain elusively out of print.  That is because during the 1970s and early 80s Marvel published a number of series featuring characters licensed from other companies.  These titles were set firmly in Marvel continuity, and introduced numerous characters that are still being used.  But due to the presence of those licensed properties, reprinting the original stories from the Bronze Age remains an elusive goal.

Master of Kung Fu 33 pg 1

The Bronze Age title that readers would probably most like to see collected is Master of Kung Fu, which ran from 1973 to 1983.  The series featured the philosophical martial artist hero Shang Chi, who was created by Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin.  Shang Chi made his debut in Special Marvel Edition #15, and proved popular enough that the book was re-titled Master of Kung Fu with issue #17.

Shang Chi is the son of the centuries-old criminal mastermind Fu Manchu, the pulp novel arch-villain created by author Sax Rohmer.  Shang was raised in isolation, educated & indoctrinated to become the perfect assassin, a living weapon to be aimed at those who sought to thwart Fu Manchu’s goal of “purifying” the so-called “corruptions” of human civilization and rebuilding the world in his own image.  Soon after completing his first assignment, Shang encountered his father’s longtime adversary, Sir Denis Nayland Smith of British Intelligence, who managed to convince the martial artist of his father’s evil intentions.  Shang subsequently turned against Fu Manchu, and his father vowed to eliminate him.

Although Shang Chi was initially devised by Englehart & Starlin, both of them departed from Master of Kung Fu rather early on.  Succeeding them were writer Doug Moench and penciler Paul Gulacy, who collaborated very closely.  Their acclaimed run features a very successful blending of martial arts and espionage, equal parts Bruce Lee and Ian Fleming.  Shang Chi became a reluctant agent of British Intelligence, combating both his father’s schemes and other terrorist plots, working alongside allies Clive Reston, Leiko Wu, and Black Jack Tarr.  After Gulacy’s eventual departure, Moench continued on scripting the book until almost the end, working with several artists including Mike Zeck and Gene Day.

Master of Kung Fu developed quite a cult following.  The characters of Shang Chi, Clive Reston, Leiko Wu, and Black Jack Tarr, as well as several villains who made their debut in the series, continue to appear regularly throughout the Marvel universe.  Unfortunately, though, the original decade-long run of Master of Kung Fu remains uncollected.  Fu Manchu, Sir Denis Nayland Smith and a handful of other characters who showed up periodically in the series are still owned by the estate of Sax Rohmer, which makes publishing trade paperbacks problematic.

Rom Spaceknight 65 pg 17

Running a very close second for most demanded reprint still caught up in contractual complications is Rom Spaceknight, which Marvel published from 1979 to 1985.  Rom actually began life as a rather clunky toy produced by Parker Brothers.  In order to generate interest in their odd action figure, Parker Brothers approached Marvel to publish a comic book featuring him.  Practically a blank slate, the character’s entire back-story was devised from the ground up by Marvel writer Bill Mantlo.  Rom was a reluctant cyborg warrior who had sacrificed his humanity as one of hundreds of volunteers from the planet Galador, which was under siege by the malevolent, shape-shifting Dire Wraiths.  After driving off the Wraiths, the Spaceknights pursued their foes across outer space for the next two centuries, with Rom eventually finding his way to Earth.

Arriving in West Virginia, Rom discovered that the Dire Wraiths, utilizing their sophisticated science and dark sorcery, had begun a covert invasion of the planet.  He launched a one-man war against the Wraiths, a task made all the more imposing by his difficulty in convincing humanity that they had been infiltrated.  To most humans, Rom appeared a hostile monster who was attacking innocent people.  But gradually, as time progressed, the Spaceknight was able to prove his good intentions to various members of humanity, including a number of Earth’s superheroes and the forces of SHIELD.

Working with Mantlo on Rom Spaceknight for four and a half years was his frequent artistic collaborator Sal Buscema, who turned in some very solid, impressive, atmospheric work.  Beginning with issue #59 and continuing thru to the series finale in #75, Silver Age legend Steve Ditko assumed penciling duties, paired up with an all-star line-up of inkers / finishers that included P. Craig Russell, Bob Layton, John Byrne, Tom Palmer and Butch Guice.

The Rom toy was not a success, and it would probably not even be remembered today were it not for the work Mantlo, Buscema and Ditko did on the Marvel book.  Nevertheless, Rom is still a licensed character, now owned by Mattel.  So even though Marvel can use the Dire Wraiths and the Spaceknights, as well as the half-Wraith, half-human mutant monstrosity Hybrid, who were all devised by Mantlo, Rom himself is off-limits.  And that includes reprinting the entirety of the Rom Spaceknight series, as well as any appearances the character made in other Marvel titles.

Micronauts 8 cover

Bill Mantlo was also the writer of another series based around a toy, namely Micronauts, which ran from 1979 to 1986.  Once again, Mantlo conceived a rich back-story for the characters, giving them histories & personalities, creating several brand new characters, and tying their origins in with Marvel’s own previously established sub-atomic dimension the Microverse.  He set up a massive conflict between the Micronauts and the tyrannical Baron Karza, a cybernetic dictator who repeatedly returned from the dead to beguile them via his macabre body-snatching science.  Along the way, Mantlo introduced the Enigma Force, a non-corporeal sentience that merged with various people to become Captain Universe.

The early issues of Micronauts were penciled by a young Michael Golden, who did some stunning work.  Later issues featured art by Pat Broderick, Gil Kane, Steve Ditko, and Butch Guice.

And, yet again, Micronauts is another series with Marvel does not have the rights to reprint.  There was even a four issue X-Men and the Micronauts miniseries in 1984 which remains off-limits.  However, three members of the team that Mantlo devised independent of the toy line, namely Arcturus Rann, Mari, and Bug, continue to pop up in Marvel books from time to time.  The Captain Universe entity is also a Marvel mainstay.

Essential Godzilla cover

There is, however, one significant exception to this Bronze Age licensing limbo.  Between 1977 and 1979, Marvel published a Godzilla series set firmly within Marvel continuity.  Written by Doug Moench, with the majority of the 24 issue run penciled by Herb Trimpe, the book saw Japan’s most famous radioactive reptile pursued across North America by Dum Dum Dugan, Gabe Jones and their fellow Agents of SHIELD.  Along the way the Big G encountered the Champions, the Fantastic Four and the Avengers.  Devil Dinosaur and Moon-Boy even popped up in their very first post-Kirby appearances.

The Godzilla comic book introduced a handful of characters who went on to show up now and again in subsequent Marvel stories.  The titanic robot Red Ronin and Yetrigar the giant yeti both made their debuts facing off against Godzilla.  And in issue #s 4-5, Moench and guest penciler Tom Sutton introduced the demented geneticist Doctor Demonicus, who later became an occasional foe of Iron Man and the Avengers.

While it may lack the sophistication of his work on Master of Kung Fu, Moench’s writing for Godzilla was obviously targeted towards a younger audience.  His stories on this book are odd, if not downright silly (at one point Godzilla is shrunk down to the size of a mouse by Hank Pym, and spends the next few issues gradually growing back to normal size, in the process getting into all sorts of bizarre situations) but they definitely have a fun charm.  The artwork by Trimpe, Sutton, and their various inkers is also very good and dynamic.

Keeping all of this in mind, I was certainly glad that Marvel did have an opportunity to reprint the Godzilla comic book.  Somehow or another, they came to some sort of arrangement with Toho Studios which enabled them to publish a single printing of the black & white Essential Godzilla volume in 2006.  Of course I bought a copy!  Obviously that collection is now out-of-print, but it’s still easy enough to find, with a number of used copies of the book for sale at close to cover price on Amazon.

Shogun Warriors 5 cover

However, Moench & Trimpe’s unofficial follow-up to Godzilla, the 20 issue Shogun Warriors series that ran between 1979 and 1980, is another one of those uncollected toy tie-ins.  I’ve never read it, but it sounds like fun, with its trio of giant robots tussling with an assortment of rampaging monsters.  So, yeah, that’s one more you’re going to have to dive into the back issue bins to find.

On the one hand, it is frustrating that Marvel and the owners of these various properties cannot come to a financial arrangement that enables these series to be reprinted.  On the other, I can certainly understand that there is logic to those owners holding out for more money.  Marvel is, after all, a corporation with tremendous financial assets, especially now that they are owned by Disney.  Despite this, from various accounts I’ve heard, Marvel’s management has apparently often been on the penny-pinching side, unwilling to offer other, smaller companies or creators a reasonable amount of compensation for the publishing rights to their properties.

While I only have a handful of issues from both Master of Kung Fu and Micronauts in my collection, I do possess an entire run of Rom Spaceknight.  I bought most of the later issues as a kid when they came out in the mid-1980s.  A decade or so later, when I was in college, I finally decided to track down the rest of the series.  It took some time and patience, but I was able to find most of them for pretty reasonable prices.

I expect that the other out of print material Marvel published in the 1970s and 80s can also be found by the same means.  If you take the time to search for affordable copies on eBay and at comic conventions, eventually you’ll be able to pick up the majority of those comic books without breaking the bank.  Yeah, it’s not as convenient as just grabbing a trade paperback off the shelf at the comic shop.  But these are some quality, entertaining books with good writing & artwork, and I do think it’s worth a little extra effort to find them.

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6 thoughts on “Copyright Calamity: Marvel’s Bronze Age Licensed Titles

  1. Excellent summary of the situation. I have seen covers of Master of Kung Fu and the artwork looks amazing but I’ve never actually read a copy, and now I know why. I remember the Micronauts too. It’s very sad that we can’t see Michael Golden’s work there because he is an extraordinary artist who didn’t actually produce that many comic books. Without his run on Micronauts, it’s difficult to get a full appreciation of his career.

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  2. So many awesome comics there that would be great to see reprinted. The art for Master of Kung Fu is awesome, such a great character as well. I really like the Micronauts and Rom the Spaceknight as well, both brilliant series that would be fantastic to see reprinted.

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  3. There isn’t any reason that ROM doesn’t just go to Marvel. No one would ever have cared a fig if it weren’t for the 616. Shogun Warriors is one of those titles I have always meant to read but have never gotten around to. Need to get to it. Have you seen what http://www.longboxgraveyard.com said about Godzilla when Paul reviewed it? Good stuff. That book was at least 7 times better than it had any right to be.

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  4. I would give my. . . well, maybe not __MY__ left arm, but someone else’s definitely.. . for a full run of Master of Kung Fu. One of my favorite two-part stories in ROM is when Shang Chi guest-starred. Speaking of ROM, I too have a full run, which I acquired nearly exactly as you described (got most as a kid in the mid-eighties and filled in gaps in college), and since then I have supplemented this with every issue of other comics in which ROM and/or Dire Wraiths appear. Do you listen to Traveling Through the Bronze Age podcast? They are slowly covering the entire run of ROM along with other stuff.

    I recently acquired all but ONE issue of Micronauts (the last one, #59) – and am excited to delve into them as soon as I get that last one for a decent price. I really want a full run of Godzilla, too – but they are too expensive right now and I want them in color, not the B&W essentials which is easier to find. As you can tell, I have a thing for licensed comics.

    Anyway, enjoying your blog and look forward to reading more.

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  5. Pingback: Herb Trimpe: 1939 to 2015 | In My Not So Humble Opinion

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