Ashcan Comics

By | Monday, June 21, 2021 1 comment
I made reference to ashcan comics the other day and my friend Matt rightfully pointed out that a description of what ashcans were might be in order, since the modern defintion is somewhat different.

Even if you're unfamiliar with the specifics, you're probably aware that copyright and trademark laws have changed quite a bit over the years. Back in the 1930s, ashcan comics were a direct result of what those laws looked like at the time. Throughout the decade, comics as we generally know them today, first took off with Famous Funnies in 1934 and New Fun (the first comic with entirely new material) in 1935, and kept radically growing in popularity over the next few years seeing the debuts of Superman (1938) and Batman (1939) towards the end of the decade. This popularity of what was essentially a new and cheap medium meant that a lot of people tried to jump on the bandwagon quickly, and broad names and ideas were getting snatched up left and right, and it was a continual race for publishers to try to secure trademarks on them before anyone else.

At the time, you couldn't just apply for a trademark on something; you had to prove it was a thing you had actually produced. Trademarks were, in effect, only granted retroactively. You had to publish Flash Comics and send the Trademark Office a copy of it before they'd grant you the trademark. The problem with this approach, however, is that if you took the time to put together an entire comic and publish it... well, somebody else could have their comic book called Flash Comics hitting the newsstands while yours is still coming off the printing presses! You could still try selling your version, but the other publisher could sue you for trademark violation. So you'd either have to destroy your entire print run or risk a huge lawsuit, both of which would be very costly.

This is where ashcans come in.

Ashcan comics were ones that were created expressly to secure a trademark. A cover could be mocked up quickly -- sometimes using pre-existing (or sometimes even no) line art, and just added a hastily prepared logo across the top. They would create a Velox (basically a black and white, high contrast photograph -- a precursor to photostats, if you're familiar with those) of the mockup and trim it to the size of a comic book cover. Add some more-or-less random contents that could be pulled from other comics, and the whole thing could be stapled together as a one-off in a day or two.

Well, I say "one-off" but they did usually produce a handful of them. One for the Trademark Office, one for their own files (in case they got audited), and maybe a handful to help try to sell the title to distributors and agents. It was all essentially a way to trick the Trademark Office into thinking that you'd actually published a comic while you were in fact still working on it. They were considered disposable -- even moreso than regular comics -- which is where the name 'ashcan' came from; that's where the majority of them ended up.

Even with these corner-cutting approaches to securing a trademark, you could still get beaten to the punch. In part because of National Comics' lawsuit against Fawcett (arguing Captain Marvel was a direct rip-off of Superman) we still have several ashcans specifically around the debut of Captain Marvel, and you can see Fawcett had tried to launch the character in Flash Comics and Thrill Comics but was unable to because other publishers (National and Nedor, respectively) had beaten them to the punch with those titles. That's when Fawcett finally landed on Whiz Comics.

The trademark laws were changed in 1946, so publishers only needed to file for intent to publish a comic, and the farce of creating ashcans stopped almost immediately. There was no longer a need for them.

The term got revived in the 1980s by Bob Burden when he created Flaming Carrot Comics. His initial books were incredibly small press runs of 30-40 copies that were sent out as previews to retailers to generate interest. Although securing the trademark was a non-issue here, the other similarities to the original ashcans were why Burden chose to call them that. Over the next decade or so, other publishers distorted the term further to essentially mean any cheaply made preview, and many of them were printed by the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands. Even DC and Marvel produced a number of so-called ashcans throughout the 1990s, mostly just promoting their various "event" titles.

There's some measure of irony that ashcan comics were called that because they were considered so worthless, but today they will fetch five and six figure prices if they're sold at auction. Conversely, the ones that were given a more premium value initially by way of their marketing potential are all but worthless and are often relegated to dollar bins.
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Matt K said...

Awesome. Thanks!