NPR's Planet Money explores the economics of super hero intellectual property

I've been reading comics my whole, and among the many things they've given me, one of them was my first real entry into understanding the many complications of creators' rights and intellectual property. Comics are supposed to be a cheap, affordable art form for easy mass consumption … but they can also be cash cows. As a result, the history of comics is riddled with complex contractual conundrums.

For funsies, just try to imagine the look on my wife's face when I tried to explain how Shazam was originally created by Fawcett Comics, where he was called Superman knock-off called Captain Marvel, but then Marvel grabbed the name "Captain Marvel" (for a man) after Fawcett went under, which it made things more complicated when DC Comics bought the rights to Shazam, who was still technically named "Captain Marvel" but they couldn't call the comic book "Captain Marvel," and that meanwhile that Captain Marvel from the Marvel movies was originally Ms. Marvel just so Marvel could further secure the copyright and — you get the idea.

(A better example would probably be the IP tribulations of Watchmen. DC buys up the rights to some old Charleston Comics characters, and lets Alan Moore run loose with re-named versions of them that also homage other existing DC characters. The contract says that the character rights will revert back to Moore and artist Dave Gibbons after the book goes out of print — a fair stipulation, at a time when trade paperback collections of comic book issues weren't a thing. Except that Watchmen took off, sparking a whole new trade paperback industry … and never going out of print.)

This was all on my mind as I listened to "How To Buy a Superhero," an EPIC BLOCKBUSTER TRILOGY from NPR's Planet Money podcast. The premise is right there in the title: they try to buy a superhero.

Vintage superheroes — created in the 1940s and 60s — are powering a massive economy. Movies. Merchandise. Musicals! The most important characters are owned by just two companies: Marvel and DC. These companies own thousands of characters, but just a handful are being used in movies. What about the thousands of other characters!?

In this series, Planet Money sets out to buy a real, authentic, vintage superhero. If we can just get our hands on one of the forgotten, unused characters, we can give that superhero the adventures it deserves! A new comic book! An action figure! A movie! The possibilities are endless.

Our quest begins to understand the high-stakes world of superhero intellectual property. We go inside the billion-dollar business of licensing and deal-making that turns an old, two dimensional muscle-head with a cape and underwear over his pants into a money printing franchise. We're going to build our own, mini Planet Money superhero empire. We just need a vintage superhero to start the empire.

It's a delightful look at the commodification of creative culture, public domain rights, and storytelling, presented in 3 short installments that are — naturally — framed like super hero stories themselves.

First, they search for the most obscure Marvel character they can find, and they try to figure out how much it would cost to buy that character and make it their own. But this is easier said than done: as they point out, a sentient tree that only says "I am Groot" and only appeared in a handful of 70s comics would have seemed like a useless corporate asset in 2004, but now it's brought in millions of dollars for Marvel. From there, they explore public domain heroes (and the myriad complications around those laws), all in hopes of creating their own blockbuster franchise.

It's a worth listen, even if you don't give a shit about the various etymologies of Captains Marvel.

Planet Money Buys A Super Hero [NPR]