Why Can't Marvel Use Fu Manchu If His Novels Are Now Public Domain?

Comic Book Questions Answered – where I answer whatever questions you folks might have about comic books (feel free to e-mail questions to me at brianc@cbr.com).

The other day, my pal Brian Foss suggested that I do a feature on how Marvel used Fu Manchu in their comic books after they lost the rights to the character. So I did that feature, which you can read right here. That piece, though, seemed to cause almost as many questions as it did answers! A number of readers wrote in about stuff that they didn't quite understand about the particulars of the situation, so I figured I'd lay it all out here.

As noted earlier, the British author Sax Rohmer debuted the Asian supervillain, Fu Manchu, in the novel The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu, which was serialized from 1912 until 1913, at which point it was collected as a novel...

A number of readers wrote in to make it clear that the famous Fu Manchu facial hair did not originate in the novels, as Fu Manchu was clean shaven in them. It was not until the movies started coming out featuring the character that the facial hair came about and even there, it wasn't even right away, as there were a whole lot of movies made starring the notorious villain in those years...

In any event, the character stopped appearing in novels after a while and after Rohmer's death, his estate was mostly looking to license the character for TV and films, and so they were not all that concerned about comic book licensing, so the deal that they cut with Marvel Comics in the mid-1970s was almost more of an afterthought. It wasn't like Marvel was chomping at the bit to get the rights to the character, either. They were busy trying to come up with their own martial arts-themed comic book series to cash in on the then-hot trend of martial arts stories in popular culture. Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin cleverly took the rights that they did have - the rights to Fu Manchu, and used them as the basis for a comic book series starring Shang-Chi, a new character that was the son of Fu Manchu and who turned against his father and served the side of good against his father's evil...

He graduated into his own series and soon, Doug Moench took over as the writer on the series and then three notable artists - Paul Gulacy, Mike Zeck and Gene Day - all had impressive runs on the book with Moench. Moench left Marvel in the early 1980s and Master of Kung Fu was canceled soon after that. Naturally, the licensing deal with Marvel and the Rohmer estate lapsed, as Marvel was not going to pay to keep the rights to a character that they were no longer using.

That caused a problem, however, when they wanted to use the characters again, as they no longer had the rights to one of the major characters from the series. That led to the previous article, where I wrote about how Marvel got around it by using different versions of the character and just making a point to not call him Fu Manchu.

This raises a number of questions, like "Wait, you can just use characters that you licensed without the license so long as you don't use their name?" and "Is Fu Manchu even copyrighted any more?" and, of course, "Wait, didn't they eventually collect Master of Kung Fu?"

Let's get into all three of them!

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