Talking To Bob Burden About Mysterymen, Mystery Men, Trademarks And Comics

Today, Marvel Comics publish Mystery Men #1, the first issue of a five part series,  The indicia of the comic however says that all characters featured are trademarks of Marvel Characters.

The title, while the name of a forties DC comic book, is better known these days as the Mysterymen comic written and drawn by Bob Burden, and made into a movie starring Ben Stiller, Hank Azaria and William H Macy.

On the cusp of relaunching Mysterymen online and with Dark Horse Comics, a few weeks ago Bleeding Cool talked to Bob Burden about this name similarity and what it means for his comic.

BC: Back in February, Marvel announced they were coming out with a Mystery Men comic. Having created the Dark Horse Mysterymen comic series that spawned the Mystery Men movie, what were your thoughts when you first heard about this?

BB: At first I thought this was a practical joke. You know, I thought maybe one of my friends photo-shopped it and sent it out. And I couldn’t imagine that Universal Studios or Dark Horse would be licensing this out without talking to me first.

BC: And whom did you contact first?

BB: Mike. Mike Richardson. Dark Horse Mike. I guess I could have called Marvel but I hardly know anyone at Marvel anymore.

BC: And what was Mike’s take on this?

BB: He was as flummoxed as I was. They even used my “Who are the Mysterymen” launch line.

BC: How did you first find out?

BB: I started getting a lot of emails about the Marvel/MM article. “What’s going on Bob?” “What are they doing?” “Are they ripping you off here?” And congratulations.

Congratulations?

BB: That Marvel was finally doing something right. (Laughter.) They thought that Marvel had picked up MY Mysterymen. They thought I would be writing again.

BC: And how did those fans feel when they found out what was really happening, that you were not involved?

Disappointment. Shock. Consternation. I don’t know. Weren’t there some shots on CNN of hysterical Flaming Carrot fans on a dirt road in third world countries hitting themselves on the head with rocks and wailing?

BC: Seriously though,

BB: I head from a lot of interested and concerned fans and want to thank them for all their support. And all the other creators who sent their support.

BC: What have other creators had to say?

BB: Well, a lot of creators are concerned, confused, worried.

BC: About the….

BB: Worried about their own properties, I imagine. Worried about the sanctity of their work, their creations, and their trademarks. I mean, what if Marvel trademarks Cerebus or… well, I don’t want to give anyone any ideas.

BC: No. So what was your interpretation of the announcement?

BB: Perhaps this is one of the first signs of some kind of comic book “colony collapse disorder”.

BC: (Laughter)

BB: Seems like it’s everywhere now. So why not comics?

BC: What’s everywhere?

BB: I think that today, there’s something in the air. A worldwide angst. Perhaps it’s a growing resistance, both here and worldwide, to the hegemony and seemingly infinite arrogance of all these power elites that are throwing their weight around; political, corporate, religious etc.

I mean, people are always rebelling and cutting up, but more today than in a while, don’t you think? Maybe the Internet is making people more aware.

BC: More aware? Like what?

BB: A sense that things are unraveling. You know, global warming. The Arab Spring exploding all over the Middle East. Chemtrails. Genetically modified food. The bees disappearing. Oprah gone from network TV. People can feel it. The natives are getting restless.

BC: Bleeding Cool ran a well-sourced rumor that DC was going to do some kind of Mystery Men comic too, that they were looking into it for this summer.

I guess I came up with a really good title after all then. MYSTERYMEN. Not as good as AMAZING ADULT FANTASY – my favorite – but pretty good.

BB: I originally came up with Mysterymen – the title and the whole concept -because Flaming Carrot, on his own, was stalled.

BC: Stalled?

BB: From evolving. Into other media, you know? Back then it was hard to visualize Flaming Carrot as a film, because of the huge, unwieldy mask. It was hard to see Flaming Carrot work as a movie. Back in the 80’s, special effects and CGI were all a lot more primitive than today. I would rather just not do it, than to see Flaming Carrot turn out like Howard The Duck did.

So I thought that making FC part of a team of misfit superheroes might work, where FC would be a harder sell all on his own, because of the mask and all. So I came up with the Mysterymen.

BC: And you were right. You did sell as a film.

BB: I didn’t sell it, Mike pulled that off, really. All I did was write a 12-page synopsis that helped close the deal. And created the original comic characters of course.

BC: Are you ever going to publish Mysterymen again then?

BB: We are right now. We have a number of Mysterymen stories set for DARK HORSE PRESENTS. And then there’s the four Mysterymen issues done in 1999 that have never been collected or reprinted. In fact, Mike and I got talking about doing it last summer, before all this.

BC: Weren’t you going to…

BB: I actually solicited for a Mysterymen collected volume in 2009, but had to pull the plug for health reasons. I wanted to self-publish, but I couldn’t be schlepping boxes all over, that soon after all the operations that I had between ’06 and 08.

But now Dark Horse is doing it. The name Mysterymen will be in the title, on the cover. Mike felt that just doing back up stories in DHP wasn’t enough.

They’re going to have them out this summer for the cons. For San Diego. Or before probably. They might be coming out sooner. We would have solicited back in the February or March Diamond catalog?

BC: You don’t know?

I’ve been out of the loop on all this, and Mike’s been handling it.

BC: Out of the loop.

BB: BB: Well, a lot’s been going on around here on my end. My Mother just passed. Since last fall, the whole family was dealing with this; her sudden illness, a mysterious illness that hit her out of the blue, and she passed away the end of March.

But I’m back on line now, finally.

BC:
Have you heard that Disney (who owns Marvel) tried to trademark “Seal Team Six”?

BB: Yeah, I just saw that. I saw it on Bloomberg or Disinfo.com, I forget where I saw it first.

BC: Pretty crazy, eh?

BB: Strange days indeed.

BC: Do you think that compares to what they’re doing with your property?

BB: No. Mysterymen is just a comic book, but those seals are brave men, dedicated men. And ironically, they are real, true Mystery Men. Aren’t their identities pretty secret, right?

I mean I think its bad for corporations to rip off creative people. But these guys are real heroes, that put their lives on the line in the real world? How do you look at yourself in the mirror every morning when you rip off those guys?

BC: In what way do you see all this affecting the comics industry?

BB: Nothing good will come of it. I don’t think this kind, clipping indie titles for trademarks, will open the world like an oyster for them. There are probably lots of titles and characters out there that have lapsed, and I’m sure there are a lot that were never officially trademarked at all.

BB: It could create a backlash. Resentment. And that’s no good. And the whole industry depends on Marvel and DC to stay alive.

BC: Did Dark Horse originally trademark Mystery Men or did you?

BB: I think it was Universal. What Mike explained to me – and this is important for everyone – is that while copyrights last many years, Trademarks last only ten. Well, I think Universal filed for the trademark august 5th 1999, the day before the movie came out. The Marvel trademark was filed August 5th 2009. That could even mean that someone was sitting there ready to snipe it. So who knows what else they have their eye on, or what they’re going for next.

BC: Do you think that someone at Marvel maybe had just never heard of the Mysterymen? I just have to think, someone had to know.

BB: If they didn’t, then the editor or the guy at the next desk or the scrubwoman that cleans up at night must have been able to tell them. Hell, the Mystery Men movie has been playing almost every day, last month, on Cinemax.

BC: What do you think were they thinking?

BB: Well, I had to figure that out. When they first announced it, they didn’t mention anything about the creative team. That told me something. I mean this comic industry is so artist/writer driven…

BC: What did that tell you?

BB: Maybe this was a test. They wanted to see if people put up a squawk maybe? And I was ready to make a squawk.

BC: And what did you plan to do?

BB: I was down at my parent’s house in Jacksonville and I flew up to Atlanta that Sunday to Wes Tillander’s superbowl weekend comic con.

I walked in there, with a hammer and a frying pan, jumped up on a chair, gonged the pan and gave a speech to a crowd. We stirred it up, sure. People were all cheering and screaming and yelling and taking Marvel comics and hitting them with their shoe.

BC: Why with their shoe?

BB: Well the Arab revolt thing was just starting up and that’s what the Arabs were doing. They were hitting pictures of Hosni Mubarak with their shoe on CNN and I guess these kids saw that and… it’s a sign of disrespect and contempt; to hit someone or hit their picture or statue with the bottom of your shoe. In the Arab countries. Here we have “dissing” or un-friending someone on Facebook.

BC: Cool!

BB: But we never released it.

BC: There was film of this?

BB: There were the usual cell phone cameras, but there was a documentary crew from a web magazine there. They got some good footage, professional, but then I told them to hold back. Mike told me to cool it for now, for then, and not say anything. For no one to put anything up on YouTube yet and he would take care of it.

BC: I’d heard about this. There were rumblings out there. When will you release it?

BB: Oh, we’ll release it.

BC: And Mike’s handling it. How’s he handling it?

BB: He has his lawyers on it, working on the trademark, and I recall they may have sent a cease and desist order to Marvel or something. I’ve been out of the loop this last month or so. I’m just coming back on line now. But he’ll have something going on. He’s not going to drop the ball. I count on Mike like a brother. He’s no slouch.

BC: No. He’s one of the pioneers of the whole comics-to-Hollywood thing. I’m sure he doesn’t want to look bad, having one of his top creator-owned comics and one of his movie titles commandeered without a fight.

BB: Mike’s a fighter.

BC: I just don’t see how they can take this title and not expect anyone to oppose it, as if, like you abandoned it.

BB: We never abandoned it. Everyone knows that. If they try and say that, they’re finished. There will be a massive groan heard across fandom.

And we’ve had it in use and our website for ten years now. We’ve had Mysterymen product for sale and in print on the website. I don’t know, there’s copyright issues too I think.

BB: The first thing you see when you go to Mysterymen.net is WHO ARE THE MYSTERMEN. It doesn’t say: “Who are these Mystery Men?” of “What about these Mysterymen guys?” And the copyright is still in force.

BC: So what are they really doing here?

BB: I don’t know what they think. They may have pulled my name out of a hat. Maybe this is just a dry run. A test to see how creators will respond when you trademark their characters out from under them.

BC: From what little you know, how does their book differ from yours?

BB: To me, setting their book in the 1920’s pulp era may not be differentiating it enough from the source material. And by the way, ironically, in the original Mysterymen set-up, the idea was that Mysterymen groups had sprung up over the centuries going back to the Knights of Malta and the Freemasons. And then on into the future. The Dark Horse comic series was set in present day and the Universal movie was set a years into the future with an entirely different Shovelor and Mr. Furious than my originals.

BC: The original Mysterymen stories in Flaming Carrot were set in his peculiar and ethereal universe, wherever that is.

BB: Well, first there was the Golden Age comic series from Fox comics in the 40’s. Then there was the one in the Flaming Carrot universe. Then the all-new Dark Horse comic series in 1999 was in a more gritty, realistic world.

Anything and any era was an option. I even had a Mysterymen episode set in sword and sandal era about the Maccabees. It was going to be like one of those Sons Of Hercules movie from the early 60s.

BC: The Maccabees. Who are the Maccabees?

BB: They were a sort of biblical era group of freedom fighters and rebels in ancient Judea who fought against the Romans or Greeks I think. And it still exists today. Now they exist as a corporation. My grandfather was actually the president of it, back in the 60s and 70s.

BC: I’ve never heard of this?

BB: It was sort of a fraternal order that evolved into an insurance company over the years. You know how back in the early 1900’s, they had all those Fraternal orders based on the Freemasons. Or emulating the Masons, you know. The Knights Of Columbus, The Optimists Club, the Loyal Order of the Moose and my personal favorite, the Mystic Knights of the Sea.

BC: Have you heard of any other properties that have been hit?

BB: No. Just me, and the Seals. I don’t know what will happen. And it’s ironic. See, this whole medium is about heroes doing good things and fighting for the little guy, fighting tyranny and evil. But I don’t know if the creators and fans want to stand up, to be heroes themselves, or do they just want to read about it. What do you think?

BC: They have got to be a lot out there that care.

BB: Some will care, some will probably just sit back until they see which way things are going before they take a stand. I think that we’re a lot stronger if we stand together, than we are if they take us down one by one.

BC: And you plan to fight this, right?

BB: With every inch. Of course. I have to. What’s the point of doing it in the first place , if you’re not going to stand up for what you do?

What is an artist who doesn’t stand up for his creations, and stand up for his right to create and freely publish the things he does?

Marvel representatives tell me that there was no intention to “snipe” a trademark and that the timing was purely coincidental. That the writer, David Liss, asked if the name was available, and it was. And that the whole series was completed before the name was publically announced.

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