Public Domain Superheroes: Ranking the Top 5

Freedom Fighters You’re Free To Use

Long John Silver: “Aye! My name be Long John Silver, scourge of the space whales!”
Duck Dodgers:Long John Silver? Isn’t that some kind of copyright infringement?”
Long John Silver:Nah, boyo! It be in the public domain! I had me lawyers check.”

Duck Dodgers “Shiver Me Dodgers (Season 1, Episode 7)

The public domain is a boon to every storyteller. 70 years after a creator’s death or 95 after the work was first published, the story and character are freed from copyright and can be freely used by anyone. This doesn’t give carte blanche to everything though. Steamboat Willie entered the public domain in 2024 and Mickey Mouse became available, but you can’t legally use his appearance as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice or other more recent designs. Only his appearance in that movie is in the public domain… for now.

Many famous superheroes are quickly approaching the public domain. Superman will fly in on January 1st, 2034, followed by Batman in ’35, Robin and Captain America in ’36, and so on. Many superheroes are already in the public domain, largely because their publishers went out of business. So who are the top 5 Public Domain Superheroes? Let’s find out.

Public Domain Superhero Honorable Mention: Fables

Bigby Wolf: “You’re lying now, because you always lie.”
Jack Horner:Not this time!
Snow White:Jack, did you ever hear about The Boy Who Cried Wolf?
Jack Horner:Sure, he lives up on the seventh floor. So what?
Snow White:Never mind.

Fables: Legends in Exile

We all know the classic fairy tales. Little Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks, Sleeping Beauty, and their friends have lulled children to sleep for centuries. We know the heroes and villains, but what would happen if these public domain superheroes were forced to live together?

There is a hidden section of New York City known as Fabletown. The legendary characters were forced to move there to escape The Adversary, who conquered their homeland. Fabletown is a chaotic place, with old grudges, magical crime, political strife, and bigotry against non-human Fables forced to live on The Farm.

The series follows private eye Bigby Wolf (The Big Bad Wolf) and tough-as-nails Mayor Snow White. The duo try to keep Fabletown running without humans or The Adversary discovering them. This brings Snow and Bigby into conflict with other power players, including super spy Cinderella, arrogant politician Prince Charming, and immortal trickster Jack Horner.

Series author and sole IP owner Bill Willingham released Fables into the public domain in late 2023. He did so alleging that DC Comics had screwed him out of royalties and tried to take ownership of the franchise. DC released a statement claiming that Fables is not in the public domain and threatening legal action to protect their property. 

It’s ironic to have copyright struggles over incarnations when the characters were all public domain to start. Be that as it may, Fables is only an honorable mention until its legal status is cleared up.

#5 Pat Patriot: America’s Joan of Arc

Cabbie: [Tries to grab Pat after being rejected]  “Why, you little…!
Pat Patriot: [judo flips him] “Little what?

Daredevil Comics #2

Who needs superpowers to be a superhero? All you really need is a willingness to do what’s right and the strength to protect others. Public domain superheroes have plenty of both.

Patricia Patrios was a factory worker during WWII. She spoke out against a cruel foreman and was fired. Patricia joined a theater to make ends meet and portrayed a female Uncle Sam (Aunt Samantha?) While walking home from a performance in costume, she uncovered Nazi saboteurs led by her former employer. Patricia stopped their scheme and was lauded by the press, who misheard her name as Pat Patriot. 

Pat Patriot was recruited as a special agent and performer, using her shows to rally troops while performing reconnaissance. She relied on martial arts training, improvisation, and an all-women “Death Battalion” instead of superpowers. Pat Patriot was last seen battling a Japanese agent called The Mallet.

#4 Public Domain Superhero: Stardust the Super Wizard

Stardust:You are now in the power of Stardust.

Fantastic Comics #1

Heroism isn’t static. Research any mythological hero and they’ll have committed atrocities comparable to The Joker. Superhero prototypes were more noble but still tap-danced over the line whenever they wanted. This public domain superhero follows in their footsteps.

Stardust the Super Wizard is an enigmatic giant from outer space. As the self-proclaimed “most remarkable man of all time”, he has an endless array of gadgets that make him omnipotent. No villain ever succeeded at slowing Stardust down. He also recruited child soldiers to form The Sixth Column, an army that used a portion of his technology to fight crime.

Stardust is not merciful. He knowingly allowed criminals to kill and steal before punishing them. His methods include forcing a crook into a safety deposit box while the narration describes in detail how the victims bones shatter or by ripping a villain’s head off and throwing the still living head to a monstrous head collector on another planet.

Stardust the Super Wizard is technically a superhero, but even in The Boys, he’d be considered a monster.

#3 Mother Hubbard

Mother Hubbard:Trapped by the evil of their way/no more steps are they allowed this day!
Crook:Help, help! I’m stiff! I can’t walk!
Mother Hubbard:I go, I go, your dooms to sow!

Scoop Comics #1

Peek behind the moonlit veil
And you will find a once-lost tale
A forgotten hero, the briefest reign
Now soars again in public domain
From skies above to deepest ditch
This world’s protected by a witch.

Mother Hubbard was a stereotypical witch who left her coven to protect innocents with her magic. Gnomes were her most common enemy. They stole the souls of children to power wooden robot slaves or pried out eyes with a crowbar. She also fought ogres that ate babies, random thieves, and Nazis,  the threat du jour.

Mother Hubbard uses rhyming incantations, a flying broom, and a spying crystal ball. If that’s not enough, she’ll pull potion ingredients out of her cupboards and brew some trouble. Mother Hubbard’s powers are linked to her pointy hat and inaccessible if she loses it. She always speaks in rhyme when she rides out to stop crime. Not many heroes use that prattle, Etrigan should challenge her to a rap battle. 

#2 Public Domain Superhero: Lightbringer

Lightbringer:It’s alright now. Step out of the darkness… and into the light.

Lightbringer #1

Most public domain superheroes are decades old. They were printed in Golden Age era comics and fell by the wayside when their owners folded. A new era gives new ways to consume media, resulting in the first public domain webcomic and its hero.

Carter Granholme is a comic nerd living in crime-ridden Pharos City. His parents raised him to believe in pacifism and to keep his light-based superpowers secret. After witnessing an attempted rape, Carter became the world’s first superhero: Lightbringer.

Lightbringer wants to make the city a better place to live by inspiring its citizens. He struggles to balance his commitment to pacifism and beliefs that the end justifies the means. Several supervillains rise to challenge Lightbringer, chief among them Darkbringer, the champion of an evil god.  

Series creator Lewis Lovhaug lost interest in writing Lightbringer, canceled the series, and released it into the public domain.  He views it as an old shame, but has drawn on the experience of writing Lightbringer to create a comic book review show called Atop The Fourth Wall that continues to this day.

#1 Sherlock Holmes

[Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are searching for a kidnapped woman]
Holmes:I mean to find her. I’m going through this house until I do find her.
Peters:Where is your warrant?
Holmes: [draws a revolver] “This will have to serve till a better one comes.
Peters:Why, you’re a common burglar.
Holmes:So you might describe me. My companion is also a dangerous ruffian. And together, we are going through your house.

The Disappearance of Lady Carfax

A cape does not a hero make, nor bulletproof Spandex trousers. Many great superheroes eschew everything about the genre, possibly because they existed before Superman solidified the tropes. There’s one public domain hero who embodies everything that was to come in comics and big budget blockbusters.

Sherlock Holmes is Victorian England’s only consulting detective. A genius who has run out of challenges, Holmes seeks out the strangest mysteries he can find to entertain himself. He is also a skilled martial artist, proficient with guns, and backed up by Army veteran Dr. John Watson.

Throw a dart at a list of other franchises, and it’s safe to say that Sherlock Holmes has appeared in whichever you hit. He’s matched wits with Count Dracula, hunted gentleman thief Arsene Lupin, and mentored Batman among other pursuits. Now freed from copyright restrictions, there is no mystery that Sherlock Holmes won’t investigate.

Who is your favorite public domain superhero? Is there one we missed? Tell us in the comments.

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