Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Who Really Owns Atlas Comics? Not Jason Goodman...Yet!

Who owns Atlas Comics?  If you answered with the obvious reply, Jason Goodman (grandson of Martin), then you’re only partially right.  While it’s true that Goodman is publishing comics using the old Atlas/Seaboard characters, and is running a line under the Atlas Originals brand, his company, Nemesis Group Inc, is currently battling a person named Jeffrey Stevens over the Atlas name.  How did this all happen?  To understand how this has all come about, it’s worth looking at the history of the name, Atlas Comics, and how it relates to both Goodman and the current characters that he’s using, and just how Stevens, who is the current owner of the Atlas Comics trademark, has been able to sneak in and snare the name. 

After leaving Marvel Comics in 1974, Martin Goodman went and formed another company, which he named Atlas Comics.  Goodman had used the name Atlas previously as a predecessor for Marvel Comics (in order, the company was known initially as Timely Comics, then Atlas, then, finally, Marvel Comics).  It’s well known that Atlas (or, as it’s generally known, Atlas/Seaboard, which is the name I’ll refer to from now on to differentiate it from the original Marvel Atlas) exploded onto the comic book scene in 1974 and was gone, in a spectacular fashion, in 1975.  The company was dead and buried and the characters lay with their respective copyright holders, with the Goodman family owning a number of them.  The name, Atlas Comics, remained fairly stagnant until 2002 when Stevens, who claims to have created many comic book characters and concepts for a number of years as both writer and artist, began using the name Atlas Comics with the view of being able to, “…pay homage to comic book history, while simultaneously incorporating a modern twist in an adult-oriented tongue in cheek manner.”   Stevens then established a web presence via his site, Atlas Comics Group, and moved things up another notch by filing for the Atlas Comics trademark.  As nobody disputed the trademark application when it was gazetted, the trademark, and name, was duly handed to Jeffrey Stevens in October 2005.

Jeff Stevens' Atlas Logo
Atlas/Seaboard 1970s logo
1950s Atlas Comics Logo

In his 2005 claim for the Atlas Comics trademark, Steven stated that the name would be used for the publication of comic books and was selected due to the historical connotations of the name and with the understanding that the name had lapsed in 1975 shortly after Atlas/Seaboard ceased publishing.  Stevens also claimed that he believed the name Atlas Comics would remind people more of the first, 1950s pre-Marvel Comics, Atlas Comics, also a Martin Goodman owned company, than the second, 1970s Atlas Comics.  Contradicting this claim, Stevens has elected to use the 1970s stylised Atlas logo, as opposed to the 1950s Atlas ‘globe’ logo.  Despite his use of the name, Stevens’ stopped just short of using the Atlas/Seaboard characters, but not for wont of trying.  Stevens has admitted that he did look into the possibility that some of the Atlas/Seaboard characters were also in the public domain, but a search discovered that Jason Goodman owned them outright.  Stevens made an approach to Goodman but couldn’t meet the asking price, so that idea was soon forgotten.  Similar approaches to the likes of Harris Publications and the Byron Preiss estate also proved fruitless.  As a result Stevens has created his own characters; Creole Science Action, Astro Pygmy, and Psychic Octopus Jr.

From 2002 to 2005 according to his own memories, Stevens worked hard creating his characters and in 2005 and 2006 he began to contact a number of comic book professionals to provide art for his comics, including (by his own account) Steven Silver (Kim Possible), Kazu Kibishi, Sheldon Bryant, Alex Nino and Alex Ross.  Stevens claimed to have attended the 2004 MoCCA Festival where he handed out fliers for his Atlas launch, and where, he claims, Batton Lash also started to promote the new line.  There’s no real proof of the latter though, other than a photo of Lash and Stevens in a photo gallery on Lash’s web-site, taken at the MoCCA 2004 function, with no mention of Atlas/Seaboard other than a caption referencing a Grim Ghost cartoon that Stevens had published in issue #40 of Lash’s Supernatural Law.

Via his Atlas Comics web-site, Stevens offered at least four new titles for sale: Atlas Comics Preview (as an ash-can), and three issues of Atlas Comics Previews (as a series), but there is no real proof that these comics ever made into shops or were offered at conventions, despite Stevens claiming that both outlets, and mail-order, have seen his titles sell since 2005, although he has yet to name any retailer who has stocked his line and, when challenged, Stevens has been reluctant to provide any documentation or account of any sales.  Despite there being no public record of sales, Stevens has also claimed to have been selling his product since 2005, however none of his Atlas Comics appear anywhere else, and there’s no entry for them in databases such as the CBG.  The artist, for at least one cover, was Mitch O’Connell, who promotes himself on his web-site as the ‘Worlds Grooviest Artist’, and who makes no mention of his work with Atlas Comics on his site, which appears to be very comprehensive.  Other than the credit for O’Connell there’s no way of knowing who wrote, drew, edited or did any other work on Stevens’ Atlas titles as such information has yet to be supplied.  Further muddying his claims the Stevens owned Atlas Comics web-site ceased to be updated with new content in 2007, despite Stevens claims to the contrary.

Stevens has claimed that he contacted Marvel Comics in 2006 with a threat of legal action over their Agents of Atlas series.  In an interesting turn of events, Stevens has claimed that although Marvel didn’t reply to his letter, they did cease publication of the offending title shortly after.  This is slightly disingenuous as the title in question was a six issue mini-series, and it’s more likely that Marvel merely ignored the request as frivolous, if indeed such a request was sent.  Since 2006 Marvel have published further comics with the title Agents of Atlas, including thirteen issues in 2009 alone, and while Stevens did file an objection to Marvel’s registration of the Agents of Atlas trademark in April 2011, the objection was terminated in August 2011 in Marvel’s favour.  Stevens has also claimed to have contacted Diamond about another offending title, The Killers, which was to be published by yet another entity known as Atlas Comics, and received a replies claiming ignorance and begging forgiveness from the publisher in question and a statement from Steve Leaf at Diamond stating that they had contacted the vendor in question and request that they change their brand name.

Fast forward to 2010 when Jason Goodman announced the relaunch of Atlas Comics, after a hiatus of over thirty years, and began to file for the trademarks of the characters, including Wulf, Vicki, Tiger-Man, Phoenix, Grim Ghost, Morlock 2001, Iron Jaw, Targitt, Scorpion and Devilina along with titles of the original Atlas/Seaboard range, such as Savage Combat Tales, Planet of The Vampires, Western Action, Blazing Battle Tales and more.  Nemesis’s re-launch featured the original Atlas/Seaboard characters, updated to reflect changes, and a group of writers and artists, including Steve Niles, Dean Zachary, Nat Jones, Tony Isabella, Kelly Jones and others were duly hired to work on the titles.  The last formality, or so Goodman must have thought, was to reclaim the Atlas Comics name.  Once the Goodman’s lawyers did a standard name search, in late 2010, they discovered to their shock and surprise that the name Atlas Comics was gone, claimed by Stevens in late 2005.  Naturally infuriated at being denied what he felt is the family right, Goodman set his lawyers to work on Stevens, petitioning for the cancellation of Stevens’ claim, on the grounds of abandonment, claiming that Stevens had done nothing to promote Atlas Comics, had not produced, let alone sold, a single copy of any title and as such had no right to the Atlas Comics name. 

When the case reached the stage for depositions, Stevens was nowhere to be found (his own lawyer stated that even he was having trouble locating him) and managed to avoid all attempts to tie him down for a deposition, while also not producing any materials or documents outside of a few emails and what appear to be covers for his comic books.  When pressed to produce names of people who could testify about Atlas Comics, Stevens elected to name the likes of Jeff Rovin (who worked for Atlas/Seaboard), J.M. DeMatties (who has worked for Nemesis), Richard Emms and Brendan Deneen (the Art Director and EIC respectively at Arrden Entertainment, the company who are publishing Nemesis) and Jason Goodman himself.  Tellingly Stevens did not nominate any person that he claimed to have worked with, such as Mitch O’Connell or Batton Lash, or who he attempted to work with, such as Alex Nino or Alex Ross, to assist his claims of using the name since he claimed the trademark.  Indeed Stevens appears to believe that he doesn’t have to prove his claims, instead putting the burden of proof firmly on the shoulders of Nemesis and Goodman, with limited material from his end.

As expected, Jason Goodman’s reply to Stevens was full of rage and full of allegations of Stevens intentionally delaying proceedings, not appearing at his own deposition with no explanation and violating the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure by intending to avoid any form of discovery.  Goodman’s own declarations were full of invective, asking that Diamond be examined as to the nature of any dealings with Stevens, wanting to know why Stevens contacted Goodman to purchase characters and insisting that Stevens not only had never sold a title, but had no capacity to sell any titles via his Atlas web-site.  Goodman’s lawyers also stated that all attempts to contact Stevens failed over a six month period as his phone did not answer and emails were not returned.   Further insisting that he is the only person fit to hold the Atlas Comics trademark, Goodman stopped just short of calling Stevens an outright liar and con artist with his claims.  In Goodman’s eyes, Stevens is, “…nothing more than a squatter seeking a big pay day to buy back from him rights he never had the first place.”

By electing to stonewall Goodman, Stevens might have hoped that the issue would vanish or be resolved quickly in his favour (with either a monetary payout or unchallenged ownership of the trademark), but the effect was quite the opposite.  Goodman had his lawyers increase the pressure, and finally, on the 4th of January of 2012, well over a year since the action began, Stevens finally replied to Goodman’s allegations.  Again electing to ignore the claims of Nemesis, Stevens asked for summary judgement on the basis that Goodman has not established a prior right to the name Atlas Comics, nor have they supplied any proof to bolster their claim.  Stevens continued that, as Nemesis had no chance of winning their case due to Nemesis having an absence of prior rights to the Atlas Comics mark, he (Stevens) had decided not to undergo discovery and instead wanted the case decided on the documentation already supplied, such as it was.  Stevens also cried poor, to an extent, stating that he has a limited budget and time constraints due to external full time work, thus meaning that he wasn’t available for a deposition from August through to the end of November.  In an amazing move, Stevens, via his lawyer, has stated that, “Unlike NGI, which seeks to piggy-back on the colossally unsuccessful publishing efforts of NGI’s owner’s grandfather more than 30 years ago, Registrant has continued to use his trademark, as shown by the publications he has produced and sold since first introducing his ash-can in 2005.”  If that statement was deliberately designed to infuriate Goodman then rest assured, it will work.

Jason Goodman, via his Nemesis Group, has now published several Atlas related titles, including The Grim Ghost, Phoenix and Wulf the Barbarian, and is in the process of introducing Iron-Jaw.  The latest project is titled Atlas Unified, a series that will further re-introduce Atlas/Seaboard characters, including Manhunter, Sgt Hawk, Sam Lomax and Kromag, amongst others.  Goodman has indicated that he’ll continue to use both the Atlas Comics name and the Atlas/Seaboard characters for the foreseeable future meaning that the fight isn’t over just yet, not by a long shot.  In the event that summary judgement is handed down in favour of Stevens, it will be a sure bet that Goodman and Nemesis will file an instant appeal.  Jason’s grandfather, Martin Goodman, took on all comers from Joe Simon on down and won (for right or for wrong) and by the wording of the statements filed, his grandson appears to be cut from a similar cloth. 

Watch this space for more developments as they occur.  

In the meantime, does anyone actually own any of the Jeffrey Stevens Atlas Comics?  If so then let me know. 

Screen shot showing Jeff Stevens' Atlas Comics for sale, and the use of the 1970s Atlas Comics logo

Jeff Stevens Atlas Comics covers.  Stevens claims that these comics have all been on sale at conventions, mail order and at comic book stores across the USA
Jeff Stevens' Atlas Comics flier, supposedly handed out at conventions
Photo from Batton Lash's web-site which Stevens claims proves that Lash was assisting him to promote Atlas Comics at the 2004 MoCCA Festival

Email from Stevens' lawyer to Goodman's lawyer.

Emails from Goodman's lawyer to Stevens' lawyer.

Jason Goodman's Atlas Comics, via Nemesis.  Note the use of the 1970s Atlas Comics logo
Jeff Stevens' Atlas Comics Preview ashcan, which he states he has published and sold since 2005

1 comment:

Richard Guion said...

Interesting post on Atlas!

I was wondering if you have any insight on the ownership of Strikeforce Morituri. Marvel just published a new reprint of the first issue and will be reprinting all of them in TPB in 2012. I always thought the ownership of this was nebulous. At one point I thought Carl Potts owned it and this was hanging up a possible film deal. Do you have any insight on this one?