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The Vampirella Wars:
The Untold Story of James Warren's Custody Battle with Harris Comics
Excerpted from The Comics Journal #253
By Michael Dean
Posted June 6th, 2003

In a promotion on its Web site a few years ago, Harris Publications announced that it had tracked down James Warren, the original publisher of the characters who populated Harris' comic-book line, including Vampirella, Uncle Creepy, Cousin Eerie, Pantha, The Rook and others. Invoking Warren's name as a kind of spiritual forefather of the Harris line, the Web site urged fans to fill out a questionnaire indicating any questions they would like Warren to answer, as well as their interest in a James Warren fan club or a James Warren Web site. The site reported, "It appears he may be receptive to launch a brand new... who knows what?"

As it turned out, what Warren came out of retirement to launch was an $80 million lawsuit against Harris Publications, alleging that Harris had stolen his characters and featured them in new stories and one movie without his permission. The suit was filed May 19, 1998. (See Newswatch, TCJ #210.) In early 1999, Warren told the Journal, "Now that I'm back on my feet and healthy again, I've assembled a team of allies, who have banded together to help in this legal battle for these magazines I've spent a lifetime creating."

Like many such lawsuits, it did not come to a speedy resolution, and within a couple of years, it had degenerated into a jumble of legal squabbles that included catty letters between a court-appointed mediator and Harris' counsel, as well as a bitter lawsuit between Warren and his own legal team. Also like many such suits, it began with a splash and ended in a quiet settlement that flew under the radar of the media.

Today Vampirella remains a very visible presence in Harris comics and on the Harris Web site, while there is no sign of the publishing comeback that Warren aspired to. On the other hand, other Warren characters who used to be prominent in the Harris Web site and comics, seem to have disappeared following the Warren/Harris clash.

Neither Warren nor Harris owner Stanley Harris are eager to talk about the suit, but in the following pages, the Journal has pieced together the untold story of what happened when Warren returned to the comics industry like a vengeful Ulysses and tried to wrest back his family of characters.

Warren was almost 70 when he filed suit against Harris -- late in life to be planning a comeback, but for nearly 50 of those 70 years, he had been involved in publishing. He told the Journal, "My attitude toward publishing hasn't changed since I was 8 years old. I have printer's ink in my blood, and I've had it in my blood all my life. I have it now. I have never changed. I have never been able to pass a newsstand or publication without stopping and picking it up and spending an hour."

As a publisher, he had acquired a reputation as a determined businessman who rarely shied away from confrontation. Legal conflicts had been with him from the beginning of his career, when the City of Philadelphia had charged him with disseminating pornography after he published a Playboy knock-off called After Hours in the 1950s. The only nudity in the magazine had been a topless Bettie Page centerfold, and the judge had thrown the case out, but the notoriety had been enough to finish off Warren's first magazine after only four issues.

His next attempt, launched in 1958, was the fondly remembered collaboration with Forrest Ackerman called Famous Monsters of Filmland. Built around Ackerman's extensive accumulation of photos and knowledge about the then flourishing heyday of monster movies, Famous Monsters was the beginning of the long-lived Warren Publishing Company, which incorporated in 1960.

Warren went on to work with talents like Harvey Kurtzman, Gloria Steinem and Terry Gilliam on Help! magazine. "We had Gloria Steinem," he said, "who could talk Jerry Lewis, Sid Caesar, Jonathan Winters, Mort Sahl, Hugh Downs, you name it, into posing for our covers for nothing. Also Harvey's reputation helped, because Harvey was the creator of Mad." Help! launched in 1960 and lasted for three years under Harvey's editorship, but it was not a moneymaker, and Warren and Kurtzman gradually cooled toward one another, as Warren increasingly found Kurtzman's humor to be edging beyond the bounds of what Warren considered to be good taste.

In 1964, under a cover by Jack Davis, Warren launched Creepy, the first of a small group of black-and-white magazine-format comics. "There are three authentic geniuses that I've worked with: Harvey, Will Eisner, Frank Frazetta," he told the Journal. Eerie followed Creepy in 1965. Like Creepy, it was a horror anthology periodical with comics stories introduced by ghoulish hosts (Uncle Creepy and Cousin Eerie) in the manner of the old EC comic books, Kurtzman's former home. Warren's comics regularly featured work by such artists as Frazetta, Neal Adams, Steve Ditko, Jack Davis, Alex Toth, Wally Wood and Richard Corben. Blazing Combat, a black-and-white comics magazine anthology of war stories patterned after Kurtzman's EC title, Frontline Combat, was also launched in 1965 with a Frazetta cover. Unlike Creepy and Eerie, it was short-lived, ending after only four issues.

The magazine format allowed Warren to circumvent prohibitions against zombies, vampires and relatively explicit violence imposed upon comic books by the industry-sponsored Comics Code Authority -- which had helped to bring about the demise of EC's comics line some 10 years earlier.

A major source of profitability for Warren was The Captain Company, which offered eight-millimeter reels and other monster-movie collectibles via mail order. The last several pages of every magazine Warren published was given over to a catalog of mail-order merchandise.

Eerie gradually shifted from stand-alone stories to experiments in limited-series concepts, but the series that paid off for Warren was Vampirella, which began as a self-titled comics magazine in 1969. The lead series of the magazine followed the adventures of a sultry, skimpily dressed, good-hearted blood-drinker from the Planet Drakulon. Ackerman wrote the first appearance of Vampirella, but the series was soon turned over to Archie Goodwin, who developed many of its recurring characters. She proved to be a major draw for Warren's teen readership and provided Warren with an ongoing iconic protagonist.

In 1972, Warren incorporated a new publishing entity called Warren Communications. Warren Communications licensed the rights to publish the Warren titles from Warren Publishing. In 1974, Warren Publishing was dissolved, with Warren Communications carrying on with publication of the Warren titles. The change-over was a sleight of hand that would have major ramifications for the Warren/Harris lawsuit down the road.

Warren had carved out a space for horror comics on magazine shelves, and over the years, various other comics publishers attempted to compete for that space, most notably Marvel's 1970s launch of several horror, martial-arts, heroic-fantasy, superhero and science-fiction comic magazines. In the long run, however, nobody made the format work the way Warren had.

Warren Communications took over re-publication of Eisner's The Spirit from Denis Kitchen in 1977, adapting it to Warren's established magazine format. A year later, Warren launched 1984, a black-and-white comic magazine of titillating science-fiction stories. Not long into the magazine's run, as 1984 began to seem less and less futuristic-sounding, the title was changed to 1994. Just before 1984 made the transition from future to present, however, the magazine ceased publication in April of 1983, along with all of Warren's titles, as Warren Communications went bankrupt.

As Warren explained it to the Journal in 1999, it was not the failing viability of his magazines that led to the bankruptcy so much as blows from outside the industry. Warren's personal wealth was vast enough for him to maintain a beachside mansion and a chauffeur-driven helicopter, but in the early 1980s he discovered that his fortune had been largely wiped out by investment disasters. "The people who handled my financial stuff made very bad investments," he said, "investments with people who were less than honest and outright crooks. When the scam was discovered, one of them committed suicide and the other is in federal state penitentiary. Millions of dollars disappeared."

These financial setbacks did not directly affect the profitability of Warren Communications, according to Warren, but they served to distract him from the day to day operations of his publishing company. "My absence from the office meant that their leader was gone," he said, "the guy who created the magazines and steered the editorial and kept them on track the way he thought they were going to go and followed the trends and watched the technology and handled the business and kept the eye on general overall business conditions."

Whatever the cause, overall business conditions at Warren Communications deteriorated during Warren's semi-absence to the point where an involuntary petition was filed for bankruptcy relief under Chapter 7. One of Warren's creditors was World Color Press, which was reportedly owed $206,652. Harris Publications, interested in obtaining material for its small line of black-and-white comic books, acquired that claim from World Color. As physical items from Warren's offices were auctioned off in a court-ordered liquidation, Harris purchased $27,250 worth of original art. In March of 1984, court-appointed trustee Robert Fisher authorized the sale of backstock and intellectual property assets of Warren Communications and The Captain Company to Harris Publications for $125,790 in order to pay off the bankrupt company's debts.

The first controversy over the purchases arose almost immediately as 58 Warren creators and editors, including Frank Thorne, Bill DuBay, Neal Adams, John Severin, Alex Toth and Forrest Ackerman protested that the art did not belong to Warren and could not be sold to Harris and that Warren had only purchased first-time publication rights for the material. DuBay said that it had been Warren's intention to return original art to the creators and the only reason art remained in its possession was that the offices were understaffed and slow about mailing art back to creators. "Much of the art was returned," he told the Journal. "Much wasn't."

Although the indicia in every Warren magazine had always claimed copyrights for all contents in the name of Warren Publishing, several creators asserted rights over the characters and materials they had produced. DuBay, Adams and others testified that no creator had ever signed a work-for-hire contract when producing work for Warren. Thorne told the Journal that if Harris were to publish new stories -- or even reprint stories -- featuring his Ghita of Alizar character, "I would move legally immediately to stop him." The bankruptcy court judge, who observed that different arrangements appeared to have been made with different creators, ruled that the sale of materials to Harris could go ahead, leaving objections to be settled between Harris and the creators on a case-by-case basis.

Robin Snyder, during a brief tenure as Harris Managing Editor, returned 500 pages of Warren art to creators in early 1985, but Stanley Harris reported him to the police, saying the art had been sent without his permission. Charges against Snyder were dropped, but Harris required him to call all the artists whose art had been returned and ask them to give it back. About half did so.

Beginning in 1985, Harris used the material it had purchased to publish comics reprinting stories originally released by Warren. In 1991, it published a new Vampirella miniseries, which was followed by other new miniseries and one-shots based on characters featured in the Warren magazines. Over the next several years, Harris expanded and rebuilt itself largely on the strength of the Vampirella character.

In the meantime, Warren had descended into a cloud of depression. He used a chainsaw to destroy his house and his private Sopwith Camel airplane, then disappeared from public view. He told the Journal, "I've had many doctors give many opinions. Some say it was some kind of immune deficiency, in which I couldn't work, I couldn't move. And because I couldn't move, I became depressed. Others say the depression came first. Who's to say? We don't know. But I was in bad shape for many, many years.... Nobody saw me for 12 years."

With the help of his current wife, Warren said he was gradually able to pull himself out of his paralysis. According to Warren, he had been unaware of the Warren Communications bankruptcy proceedings and knew nothing about Harris' purchase until he stumbled across news of an upcoming Vampirella movie in 1996. The movie appeared on the Showtime cable channel as part of a series of low-budget debuts "presented by" B-movie impresario Roger Corman. Aside from Corman's name over the title, Ackerman received a credit as the comics character's original writer and the trademark was attributed to Harris. No mention was made of Warren. "What happened was I got a phone call from someone who told me that a Vampirella major motion picture had been announced in the trades," he told the Journal. "I said, 'It can't be. It's impossible. He doesn't own those rights.' "

Warren came out of seclusion in a big way, announcing to the comics industry that he was back to claim what had been his. He took out ads, made convention appearances and granted interviews to the comics press. In a press release, he said, "The Vampirella that Warren Publishing created would share my sense of injustice and would be right with me, fighting for my rights."

He also had his attorneys fire off a letter to Harris warning, "Please be advised that we represent James Warren, the originator of 'Vampirella.' It has come to our attention that Harris Publications, Inc. has represented that it owns the movie rights to the character 'Vampirella.' Additionally, we have been informed that Harris has attempted to license and/or assign such rights to third parties.... It is hereby demanded that you cease and desist from licensing, assigning, selling or holding yourself out as the owner of the movie rights to 'Vampirella.' In addition it is demanded that you take all action necessary to prevent Mr. Warren from sustaining further damage as a result of your misappropriation of Mr. Warren's intellectual property, including, without limitation, preventing any party to whom you previously purported to sell or assign such rights from taking any action which will infringe upon Mr. Warren's rights or otherwise cause Mr. Warren to suffer damage." The letter went on to ask Harris if it had any information to indicate that Warren was not the holder of the movie rights for Vampirella. A similar cease-and-desist letter was sent to Showtime.

Harris' position was that its bill of sale from the Warren Communications bankruptcy trustee gave it unequivocal rights to Vampirella and all other Warren characters. Showtime went along with that position. Warren disagreed, and a lawsuit was born.

[To read the rest of this article, please see The Comics Journal #253.]

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