There’s a strange thing happens with intellectual properties. When the copyright owner ceases to exist (i.e. dies if it’s a person or a company dissolves) or the copyright expires, literally anyone can make anything using fully fleshed, sometimes very popular, characters. This has happened countless times to many – now – public domain superheroes.
In some cases, certain aspects of the characters and their supporting cast have been retained due to being created later (or by someone else). However, eventually everything will enter the public domain.
In fact, most golden age superheroes will be entering the public domain pretty soon (if they haven’t already), even the powerhouses. Superman enters the public domain in 2033 and Batman will in 2034. This means anyone will be able to use these characters!
Many of the superheroes that have entered the public domain have played a massive part in comic book culture. A great deal of these superheroes aren’t known to most fans and don’t get the respect they deserve! So we decided to compile a list to make sure our brilliant readers known about all of the most important public domain superheroes.
1. Blue Beetle (Dan Garret)
Starting our list we have a character that most comic book fans will be very familiar with, Blue Beetle. Not the character in general, just the Dan Garret version of the character. He was originally created by Fox Comics, first appearing in Mystery Men Comics #1 (1939).
After falling into the void that most superheroes fell into after the golden age of comics, Fox Comics went with it. After this, there were allegations that the character was sold to Charlton Comics, but there was no actual proof of any official sale.
Despite this, they attempted to relaunch the character 3 times (one of these attempts were the first appearance of the Ted Kord version of the character). However, none of these were very successful and because of the lack of a real copyright notice, aspects of the character fell into the public domain at some point.
Although it’s unclear what the exact terms are, it is known that while Dan Garret is public domain, but the Blue Beetle name is trademarked and currently owned by DC Comics. They acquired the rights and turned him into one of the most well-known legacy superheroes in comic books.
Arrow (Ralph Payne) was first published by Centaur Publications in Funny Pages #21 (1938) and was the first archer-themed superhero to feature in comic books. He was also the second costumed superhero to appear in comic books (appearing just 3 months after Superman).
Arrow eventually got his own comic but it only lasted 3 issues and Centaur Publications went out of business in 1942. This caused Arrow to fall into the public domain. Malibu Comics (very briefly) revived the character with a different secret identity (Rick Parker). The character hasn’t returned since Marvel acquired Malibu Comics.
It’s never been stated whether he directly influenced any of the archer superheroes that followed. That being said, he definitely deserves his respect for being the first.
3. Amazing Man
Amazing Man (John Aman) was first published by Centaur Publications in Amazing Man Comics #5 (1939). I have no idea why they started his publication at issue 5 but hey ho! He was actually created by the Bill Everett who later went on to co-create Daredevil at Marvel Comics.
Of course, as we previously mentioned, Centaur Publications became defunct in 1942 and all of their characters found themselves in the public domain. Not before leaving enough of an impact to inspire the creation of Marvel’s Iron Fist.
Like many of Centaur’s characters, he was briefly revived by Malibu Comics and unlike most of their characters he also found himself a part of the Marvel Universe after they acquired Malibu. In this reimagining, Marvel paid homage to the original character by including him as one of the Immortal Weapons alongside the very character he inspired the creation of.
4. The Clock
Despite the fact that Superman is commonly recognised as the first costumed superhero in comic books. However, there was a costume crimefighter (not superhero) that proceeded him, Clock (Brian O’Brien).
He was yet another character first published by Centaur Publications in Funny Pages #6 (1936). As we mentioned, they went out of business in 1942 and their characters fell into the public domain. But before this, it was Clock that laid the groundwork for the parallel identity masked crimefighter trope.
So while it is Superman we have to thank for a large percentage of the “superhero archetype”, we have to give credit where it’s due to Clock.
We already mentioned Fantomah previously in our post about golden age female superheroes that pushed the boundaries, but we couldn’t possibly leave her out of this list. Especially since she was the first female superhero to appear in comic books!
Fantomah was first published by Fiction House in Jungle Comics #2 (1940) and over her lifespan there she went through multiple character changes and retcons. Although, in most of her appearances one detail remained. Whenever she used her powers, her usually beautiful face would become a blue skull.
Ultimately, Fiction House went bankrupt in 1955 and she fell into the public domain.
6. Captain Marvel
Another popular superhero that some may not know is in the public domain, is Captain Marvel (who later became Shazam!) He was first published by Fawcett Publications in Whizz Comics #2 (1940).
At the time he was one of the most popular superheroes in comic books (even outselling the likes of Superman!). He was also the first comic book superhero to be adapted in film in 1941.
You’re probably thinking ok, so how did he end up in the public domain, right? Well, in 1953 Fawcett had to stop publishing the character after a copyright lawsuit stating that he was a copy of Superman. Ironically, it was DC Comics who would end up licensing the character from them.
The murky details are unclear but it’s common knowledge that parts of the character are now in the public domain due to his first appearance not being trademarked.
This one’s a bit of a wildcard because whilst he’s not a comic book character, he is one of the first superheroes in literature. Not only this, but the Nyctalope is also believed to be the first cyborg superhero to feature in literature.
He was first published in the French novel L’Homme Qui Peut Vivre dans l’Eau (1908), the title of which translates to “The Man Who Could Live Under Water”. It was written by Jean de La Hire who died in 1956 so the character has long been in the public domain.
Surprisingly, none of the major comic companies ever snatched the character up and made a version of him. However, he did appear as the main character in The Chimera Brigade, a comic book written by French writer Serge Lehman.
Here’s another character that inspired one of our favourite character. You can probably guess who already but we’ll get to that… Hell Rider was first published by Skywald Publications in Hell-Rider #1 (1971).
He was created by Gary Freidrich, the same man who went on to create Ghost Rider. You can see how Hell-Rider served as a prototype to Ghost Rider in many ways. The comic only lasted two issues (a third was completed but never published) and none of them featured any copyright.
This of course means that it became public domain upon its release and the folding of Skywald Publications in 1975 had no effect on this.
9. Plymo the Rubber Man
Another character from Centaur Publications on this list is Plymo the Rubber Man. He made his first appearance in C-M-O Comics #1 (1942), making him the first “elastic-type” superhero in comic books.
As we know, Centaur Publications ceased to exist in 1942 so he didn’t last very long (he only appeared in one issue) before becoming public domain. It’s unknown if he directly inspired any of the elastic superheroes that followed such as Mr. Fantastic and Plastic Man. But what we do know is he was the first so he deserves his props!
10. Miss Fury
Another incredibly important female superhero on this list is Miss Fury (Marla Drake). Who at first glance could quite easily be mistaken as a certain “feline femme fatale” (here’s looking at you Selena Kyle…). Originally billed as Black Fury, she was first published by Bell Syndicate in Black Fury Newspaper Strip (1941).
She may not have been the first female superhero. But, it’s very easy to see how influential she was on the “female superhero archetype”. Another accolade she boasts is being the first female superhero drawn by a female cartoonist.
Her title ceased printing in 1952 and Bell Syndicate became defunct in 1972 after being absorbed by United Feature Syndicate. It’s unclear when exactly the character became public domain, but she is now.
11. Lion Man
We previously mentioned Lion Man in our post about forgotten superheroes. He was first published by All-Negro Comics, Inc. in All-Negro Comics #1 (1947) meaning he holds the title of the first black superhero in comic books.
Despite only ever appearing once the things the character was doing in the story were very pivotal given the state of race relations during this time period. We didn’t have any black heroes in our stories at the time. Let alone any with their own title within which they’re depicted fighting white antagonists and getting the better of them!
Unfortunately, the boldness of All-Negro Comics, Inc. caught the attention of the racist distributors who blocked any further entries from this title. Presumably it was at this point that the company could no longer operate, forcing their characters – including Lion Man – into the public domain.
12. Plastic Man
Another public domain superhero that is famous for his DC Comics portrayal is Plastic Man (“Eel” O’Brian). Some may not be aware but he was first published by Quality Comics in Police Comics #1 (1941). He was one of their staple characters throughout the golden age.
Sadly, for Quality Comics when the golden of comics ended, so did they. So, in 1956 when the company dissolved, many of their characters were snapped up by DC Comics. For some reason when this happened (similar to Captain Marvel situation) certain aspects of the character fell into the public domain. It’s not been made clear what the exact details are though.