Neil Gaiman fights Todd McFarlane over Spawn characters

The issue that introduced Medieval Spawn and Angela.

The issue that introduced Medieval Spawn and Angela.

Two titans of the comics industry are locked in a mortal struggle in a Wisconsin courtroom. Hanging in the balance: control of a popular character and lucrative royalties.

The case pits Todd McFarlane--who was at one time the No. 1 artist in the business--against Neil Gaiman, a writer who has won numerous literary awards and was recently lambasted by the Star Tribune for having the temerity to charge for a speaking engagement at a local library (a fee he donated to charity).

Back in the early 1990s, McFarlane's hyper-detailed, anatomy-defying renderings of Spider-Man made him a fan favorite and the first of a new breed of rock star artists, a group that also included Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee. Recognizing their market value, the trio decided to break away from Marvel and start their own company, Image Comics.

McFarlane's contribution to the imprint was Spawn, a supernatural superhero who visually combined the best elements of Spider-Man and Batman--two books on which he had previously worked.

Within months of launching the book, McFarlane decided to bring in some other notable comic creators as guest writers on several issues. Gaiman, the creator of DC's popular Sandman, was tapped to write Issue #9.

Gaiman's story introduced a version of the titular character from the age of knights, called "Medieval Spawn," as well as"Angela," a scantily-clad woman who hunted Spawn.

These turned out to be great ideas and important contributions to the Spawn mythos.

There was just one problem: McFarlane didn't own them.

Image had proudly been founded on the principle of creators' rights rather than the work-for-hire system at Marvel. That meant Gaiman retained ownership of his creations and would be due royalties any time the popular characters were used in the Spawn comic or McFarlane's lucrative line of toys.

McFarlane seems to have arrived at an easy solution: He simply recreated the characters as "Dark Ages Spawn" and "Tiffany."

But as Gaiman pointed out in today's hearing, the Dark Ages doppleganger doesn't even make sense within the confines of McFarlane's own mythology, which states there can be only one Spawn every 400 years--meaning Medieval Spawn was it for the Middle Ages.

McFarlane later testified that he often has to bend the rules of the comic to suit the needs of "fans and the marketing."

Still, the differences between the Medieval and Dark Ages Spawn are far less pronounced than their similarities.

"It looks like the same kind of thing," Gaiman testified. "It's a knight in armor-y kind of Spawn."

Don't take his word for it; check out this side-by-side comparison:

Gaiman and McFarlane are also litigating over the rights to Miracleman, a mature comic that in some ways surpasses Watchmen as a deconstruction of the superhero mythos. Unfortunately, the Eclipse series remains out of print due to the ongoing dispute over copyright.

Gaiman previously offered to trade McFarlane the rights to Angela in exchange for his share of the Miracleman copyright, but McFarlane resisted, which led to this week's showdown in court.

McFarlane was also sued by legendary St. Louis Blues hockey goon Tony Twist after using his name for a mob boss in Spawn. The jury awarded Twist $24.5 million in damages, but the case was later settled for $5 million.

That's $2 million more than McFarlane paid for Mark McGuire's 70th homerun ball.