Neil Gaiman Defeats Todd McFarlane in Legal Battle Over Spawn Characters
It’s not everyday you see the Associated Press link to Neil Gaiman‘s blog. So what’s all the fuss about? Yesterday, a federal court judge ruled that Spawn creator Todd McFarlane owed royalties to the Sandman writer, over three derivative characters—Dark Ages Spawn and shapely warrior angels Domina and Tiffany—based on Gaiman’s own “Medieval Spawn” characters, created when he guest wrote issue #9 in 1993.
We recount the case’s history, which stretches back over seven years, after the break.
For those of you unfamiliar with Spawn, the comic book was launched in 1992 under Image Comics, which was also responsible for launching series like WildC.A.T.s, Gen¹³, and Witchblade. In 1997, it was adapted into a TV series for HBO as well as a well-received feature film.
In 2002, a federal jury found that Gaiman, who had been invited by McFarlane himself to write an issue of the then-new Spawn comic, was a co-copyright holder in the characters of Medieval Spawn, the angelic bounty hunter Angela, and one-time ally Count Nicholas Cogliostro; exactly how much profit is owed from these properties are still being determined 17 years later.
Meanwhile, Gaiman asked for a trial on the issue of three characters from the 1999 crossover series Spawn: The Dark Ages. District Judge Barbara Crabb, the newest geek-loved judge in Madison Wisconsin, ordered an evidentiary hearing to be held on June 14. At that time, Gaiman testified that he thought the Dark Ages characters in question were imitations of his past creations. Last week, Crabb ruled in agreement of that claim.
Taking her job seriously, Crabb had evidently immersed herself in the mythology of Spawn. If the hellspawn only arrived on Earth every 400 years, she noted, why did McFarlane choose to introduce two Spawns from the same time period?
“…why not make him a Portuguese explorer in the 16th century; an officer of the Royal Navy in the 18th century, an idealistic recruit of Simon Bolivar in the 19th century, a companion of Odysseus on his voyages, a Roman gladiator, a younger brother of Emperor Nakamikado in the early 18th century, a Spanish conquistador, an aristocrat in the Qing dynasty, an American Indian warrior or a member of the court of Queen Elizabeth I? It seems far more than coincidence that Dark Ages (McFarlane) Spawn is a knight from the same century as Medieval (Gaiman) Spawn.
Crabb also offered an amusing observation of the similarities shared by Angela, Domina, and Tiffany, calling them “kick-ass warrior angels” with “voluptuous physiques, long hair and mask-like eye makeup. Their ‘uniforms’ consist of thong bikinis, garters, wide weapon belts, elbow-length gloves and poorly adjusted armor bras.”
On McFarlane’s part, he defended himself by claiming the rules of the Spawn universe were never constant, and that the characters were distinct from one another. “Certainly they are similar enough to be infringing if they had been produced and sold by someone other than the copyright owner,” Crabb wrote.
She ruled that the comic creator has until September 1 to provide Gaiman an accounting of money earned from any comic books and other merchandising in which Dark Ages Spawn, Domina, and Tiffany appeared. Gaiman, now holding copyright interest in these characters, would be entitled to half of the profits.
In a blog post last Friday, Gaiman wrote about his reluctance about the whole matter:
“I wish I took some kind of joy in this, but I don’t. At this point all I hope is that Todd can do an accounting for all the comics I wrote for which he paid no royalties, and the rest of it; and that he’ll settle up and I will make some comics charities very happy.”
To his credit, McFarlane graciously tweeted the following late last night:
COMMENT: Neil Gaiman has the absolute right to defend his position. That’s one of the great privileges we all have in this country. TODD
Here are images of the characters, so you can decide for yourselves:
(L to R: Dark Ages Spawn and Medieval Spawn, via)
(L to R: Angela, Tiffany, Domina, via)