Welcome to the three hundredth and forty-fifth in a series of examinations of comic book legends and whether they are true or false. This week, learn about the complicated legal history of Red Sonja plus the surprising history of her metal bikini! Plus, the strange and amusing story of how Holly Robinson was brought back to life!
Click here for an archive of the previous three hundred and forty-four.
COMIC LEGEND: Red Sonja was too close to Robert E. Howard’s Red Sonya character for Marvel to have gained an independent copyright on the character.
STATUS: I’m Going With False
A couple of weeks ago, I discussed how it was that Marvel Comics owned the copyright on a character, Shuma Gorath, who was clearly named after an old Robert E. Howard character. In that instance, the case was that the characters only shared a name, and you can’t copyright just a name. However, the comment section was quickly filled with readers wanting to know then what was the deal with Red Sonja? Why doesn’t Marvel own Red Sonja? Was she really too close to the Robert E. Howard character that inspired her?
The answer seems to be that Marvel COULD have gotten the copyright to Red Sonja – they just chose not to.
Red Sonja was the result of Roy Thomas hoping to add a compelling female character to the Conan series, and when Thomas heard of an interesting sounding female character from a non-Conan story by Robert E. Howard called “The Shadow of the Vulture,”
The character in that story was called Red Sonya of Rogatino. She was a 16th century character set firmly in that century.
Thomas and Barry Windsor Smith adapted “The Shadow of the Vulture” for Conan the Barbarian #23.
From Conan the Barbarian #24 on, though, Red Sonja was developed as if she was a blank slate. The famous “Song of Red Sonja” created her backstory from nothingness and Thomas developed her dramatically over the years.
So could Thomas/Marvel have pushed for ownership of the character? I think that yes, they definitely could.
Heck, when Conan Properties (owners of Howard’s copyrights) spun Red Sonja off into her own company, Red Sonja LLC (which is why Red Sonja comics are at Dynamite and not at Dark Horse), they later ran into some legal problems when Paradox Entertainment (who bought Conan Properties) took issue with Red Sonja’s stories taking place in the copyrighted world of Hyboria.
But after a quick legal battle (a major point against Paradox was that apparently “Shadow of the Vulture” had some copyright problems, like whether it was even copyrighted in the first place!), they reached a settlement where Paradox was licensed the use of “Shadow of the Vulture” and Red Sonja was licensed the use of Hyboria (but only the world itself, no other characters from Hyboria).
Paradox then sent out the following fascinating press release…
To All Conan and Robert E. Howard Fans and Licensees:
It has come to our attention that there may be some Conan and Robert E. Howard fans or licensees who could be confused about the origins and ownership of Red Sonya (with a “y”) and Red Sonja (with a “j”) and their relationship to Hyboria. We don’t believe that there should be any such confusion and would like to do all that we can to clear up any that might exist.
The Red Sonya (with a “y”) character was created in 1934 by Robert E. Howard. Howard’s Red Sonya of Rogatino first appeared in the Howard story The Shadow of the Vulture. She was a 16th century Russian woman fighter who participated in the battle against the Turks in Vienna. She had absolutely nothing to do with Conan, or the Conan world of Hyboria.
The Red Sonja (with a “j”) character was created by Roy Thomas in 1974 and was set in Conan’s Hyborian Age. This Red Sonja was the heroine of the 1985 Film entitled Red Sonja and is featured in the current Dynamite Comic books.
Ownership of all Robert E. Howard characters, including Conan®, Kull®, Bran Mak Morn™, and Red Sonya™ (with a “y”) was acquired by either Paradox Entertainment, Inc. or by its affiliated company, Conan Properties International LLC, from the various entities which held the rights to the Howard characters and the derivative characters created over the years by such licensees as Marvel.
Red Sonja® (with a “j”) is owned by Red Sonja LLC which is not affiliated with either Paradox Entertainment, Inc., or Conan Properties International LLC.
Conan Properties International and Paradox Entertainment, Inc. own the copyrights and trademarks to the Robert E. Howard world of Hyboria™. Red Sonja LLC is a licensee of Paradox Entertainment, Inc. and Conan Properties International LLC and has been granted the non-exclusive right to use the Hyboria world and setting as the home for its Red Sonja character, but only in that context, as long as there is no use of the Conan character in connection with any use by Red Sonja LLC of its Red Sonja character.
At the moment neither Paradox Entertainment, Inc., nor Conan Properties International, LLC has any intention of using the Red Sonya (with a “y”) character in any stories set in Hyboria, or otherwise, nor has it granted any of its licensees permission to use the Red Sonya character. Anyone desiring to use the character Red Sonja® should observe the trademark of Red Sonja LLC in this respect and contact them.
While obviously Conan Properties International’s position would have been different had Marvel tried to get Red Sonja back in 1974, it is likely true that their main position here, that Red Sonja is a distinct character, is correct.
However, Marvel ceded copyright a long time ago.
Note Red Sonja’s first solo story from Savage Sword of Conan #1….
Marvel essentially admits that Red Sonja is just a riff on Red Sonya and not her own distinct character, and thus owned by Conan Properties International.
Likely, Marvel was selling enough Conan comics that they did not want to piss off Conan Properties International (on a legal fight that they would not even definitely have won), and Thomas and Windsor-Smith likely would not have gained any notable rights themselves (under the “work for hire” concept), so they did not have major financial incentives of their own to try to get Red Sonja for Marvel (plus, Thomas might very well not have ever even really considered the idea). So the issue was moot from the start.
But HAD Marvel tried, I believe they would have had a very good case. But that, in a nutshell, is the answer for all you commenters who wondered why Marvel does not own Red Sonja.
COMIC LEGEND: Red Sonja’s famous bikini was designed in a non-commissioned sketch (which also got said artist the gig drawing Red Sonja’s first solo comic book story).
Note that this sort of thing almost never works, so don’t think that this will work for you, artists out there!
However, after Red Sonja made her appearance in Conan, the artist Esteban Maroto sent Roy Thomas (who was also the editor of the Conan series of comics) a drawing of Red Sonja.
At this point, this is what Red Sonja looked like…
Maroto’s drawings, however, had a different costume idea for Sonja …
And sure enough, in Savage Sword of Conan #1, in a story drawn by John Buscema, that costume made its debut…
and it has been Red Sonja’s costume ever since!
Maroto’s boldness also got him the gig drawing Red Sonja’s first solo story later in that same issue (the first page was printed above).
Pretty neat stuff.
Thanks to Roy Thomas for the information behind this story!
COMIC LEGEND: Ed Brubaker used a “dead” character as a major supporting character in his Catwoman series because he did not know the character had been killed off.
This month at Comics Should Be Good, we are featuring “The Abandoned An’ Forsaked,” stories or ideas that were introduced and abandoned by later writers, who would then essentially “override” the earlier stories. Here is an archive of the stories featured so far.
A particularly amusing example of this happened during Ed Brubaker’s great run on Catwoman.
You see, one of the main supporting cast members in Brubaker’s Catwoman was a character, Holly Robinson (not the one from 21 Jump Street), that he had used from the Mindy Newell mini-series that had picked up on Frank Miller’s new origin for Catwoman from Batman: Year One (Holly appeared in Year One, as well, but Newell developed her further). Holly was basically left open for grabs after the Newell-penned mini-series.
So Brubaker picked her up and did great things developing her character.
What Brubaker did not know, though, was that Newell had later picked up on Holly’s story herself and killed her off in a Catwoman feature in Action Comics Weekly (#613, to be precise)!
So Brubaker then wrote the following hilarious two-pager in Catwoman: Secret Files and Origins #1 that explained Holly’s return…sort of….
For another area where Catwoman’s Year One origins were abandoned for a time, check out this installment of Abandoned An’ Forsaked.
Okay, that’s it for this week!
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See you all next week!
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