The High Price of Superman
I‚Äôve been reading a lot of Golden Age Superman comics the last couple months, so my eyes and ears have become unusually attuned to stories about the character. Over the last few years, I‚Äôve also been paying attention to the slowly unfolding legal proceedings involving DC Comics‚Äô parent company Warner Bros. and the family of Superman creator Jerry Siegel. Last week, as I scanned through the comics news stories, two items in particular jumped out at me: 1) Action Comics #1 sold for $1 million at auction and 2) DC fired and replaced their lawyers in the protracted legal fight with Jerry Siegel‚Äôs family. Besides the fact that both stories are about Superman, they actually seem to be unrelated‚ÄĒeven incongruent‚ÄĒat first glance. But the more I think about the big-picture practical legacy of Superman, the more I understand the sad, intricate connections between these stories.
The cover date for Action Comics #1 (the first appearance of Superman) is June 1938. This is the book that sold for $1 million on Feb. 22. Back in 1938, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joel Shuster sold the Superman rights to National Allied Publications (later DC Comics) publisher Harry Donenfeld for $130. The comics medium was relatively new then, and the superhero genre was nonexistent. Superman was the first. To be fair to DC and Donenfeld, no one really knew how much of a cultural phenomenon Superman would turn into. No one could have. Comic books had turned into a popular and lucrative publishing business in the late 1930s, but there was no way to gauge the staying power of what was then seen as a lowbrow, disposable medium. The Siegel/Shuster Superman sale isn‚Äôt much different from countless other corporate intellectual property rights cases. The money involved is obviously different, but the scenario is similar: A publisher takes a risk (albeit a relatively small one) on a new creative property, and two na√Įve kids sell away their creation for relatively nothing in the hopes of hitting it big and gaining steady employment. If the latter part of this scenario had happened, I wouldn‚Äôt be writing this column. And DC wouldn‚Äôt still be in court 70 years later.
The biggest problem with DC‚Äôs handling of the Superman rights case is their treatment of the men who created their most recognizable and lucrative property. Regardless of the steps DC took in the 70s and 90s to make amends (or to repair their image in the matter), the way they treated Siegel and Shuster for decades was at the very least unethical. As Jeet Heer wrote in a 2008 Guardian piece, ‚ÄúFor most of the next 70 years, the ownership of Superman would be under intermittent legal dispute. During most of their working lives, Siegel and Shuster didn’t enjoy the fruits of their labour: they worked, off and on, as freelancers with no healthcare. By the early 1950s Shuster’s worsening eyesight prevented him from drawing, so he ended up making money as a deliveryman. In the years before his retirement, Siegel worked as a file clerk. In the spring of 1975 DC Comics promised Siegel a pension if he withdrew from a lawsuit. He did so, and then DC immediately stopped talking to him. The two men only received a pension in the end of 1975 because, in the run-up to a big-budget Superman movie, their cartoonist friends launched a publicity campaign to shame DC Comics by letting the world know that the creators of the Man of Steel were destitute.‚ÄĚ Joe Shuster, who died in 1992, remained largely quiet about the Superman incident and (at least publicly) seems to have put it behind him after the fanfare of the 1978 Superman film. But like Jack Kirby at Marvel, Jerry Siegel never really seemed to let it go. He remained in a legal battle with DC until his death in 1996. And if he seemed angry, embittered, and most likely unreasonable about the DC‚Äôs compensatory offers by the end of his life, it‚Äôs certainly understandable and justified.
It‚Äôs not particularly shocking that factions are still fighting over the rights to Superman. The $1 million sale of Action Comics #1 was a cultural statement on many levels, but it was also a reminder of just how much is at stake financially in the fight over this copyright. If one single copy of a Superman comic book can command this amount of money in a recession, attention must be paid to the property‚Äôs potential earnings. A new Superman film is in the works, largely because of a legal agreement dating back several years. The merchandising revenue from Superman is already substantive, but the bump that will be created by the film (as well as the millions that stand to be made from the film alone) will be significant. Warner Bros. wants to retain its control over this revenue, and the Siegels want their part of it too.
In a way, I understand DC‚Äôs position on this. DC has a right to protect its interest in a property that it bought and took a chance on before comics (and Superman) became a true cultural phenomenon. But that property‚Äôs creators had a right to be treated with dignity and respect and to be adequately compensated for their creative vision. When Siegel and Shuster were alive, DC treated them poorly. Unfortunately, much of this conflict became moot after the deaths of the creators. Fairness isn‚Äôt much of an issue at this point. One could argue that the heirs of both Siegel and Shuster are entitled to posthumous compensation that their fathers/grandfathers were owed while they were alive. This is the case that the Siegels are making in court now. But as a James Joyce scholar, I‚Äôve also seen and studied the damage and stagnation that unhappy, opportunistic, and (occasionally) domineering heirs can inflict on intellectual property. (Hello, Stephen Joyce.) I don‚Äôt know enough about the Siegel heirs to presume to make this claim about them. If they feel they‚Äôre doing the right thing by their father‚Äôs memory, their fight is understandable. The question, though, is at what cost? At what point does their legal fight stop being admirable and start damaging the reputation of‚ÄĒand inhibiting the development of‚ÄĒthe property they‚Äôre trying to obtain?
One could also argue that, by proxy (and probably inadvertently), the Siegels are also fighting to ensure that other creators of successful comic book properties are fairly compensated for their creations. This, too, is important and admirable. But it‚Äôs a fight that was largely fought and settled in the early- to mid-nineties. We often think of Image Comics as the major pioneers of independent comics and creator ownership, but Vertigo (an imprint of DC Comics) was offering creators the same opportunities and taking the same risks during those same years. During the past 20 years, DC has gone a long way toward rectifying some of the more problematic copyright/creator decisions of its first three decades. ¬†If DC‚Äôs treatment of its artists during the 40s and 50s reflected the dark, vampiric side of corporate capitalism, then Vertigo‚Äôs pioneering of creative ownership reflects the brighter, more productive and synergistic side of venture capitalism.
But the Superman case is a different story altogether. This one stands out as being particularly ugly. And as long as the legal fight continues, DC will continue to call attention to their biggest public relations disaster. By continuing to fight, both sides keep looking bad. The Siegel family looks bad because they‚Äôre holding up story development for what looks like overreaching, excessive financial gain. And by beefing up its defense team and resetting its legal strategy, Warner once again reminds people of DC‚Äôs ethically problematic past. DC chose to imprint a mark of injustice on the Superman legacy when it mattered‚ÄĒwhen its creators were alive. That‚Äôs a choice that will (and should) stay with them as long as the story of Superman is told. At this point, I‚Äôm beginning to wonder what anyone‚Äôs idea of victory is in this case.
A jarring irony of the Feb. 22 Action Comics #1 sale is that none of the parties fighting over the Superman money and copyright in court right now will see any of the million dollars spent on this book. While people are fighting over intangibles (prospects and principles) in court, the Action Comics sale demonstrates the value of a single book purchased by a single buyer. The book is tangible‚ÄĒthe actual, physical result of a savvy (some will say exploitative and manipulative) publisher and two visionary (some will say gullible and shortsighted) kids trying to work their way up to fame. It‚Äôs more than a comic book; it‚Äôs a snapshot of a unique, non-replicable moment in American cultural history. It‚Äôs just a shame that this has spun so far out of control‚ÄĒthat the legacy of that success in the summer of 1938 is a long, drawn-out court case borne of mistreatment and injustice.
The familiar ‚Äúnever-ending battle for truth and justice‚ÄĚ slogan debuted as a part of the Superman radio show during the early 1940s, when Siegel and Shuster were still working for National/DC. (The ‚ÄúAmerican way‚ÄĚ part was added later for the the 1950s television show starring George Reeves.) The slogan still sounds fantastic, but it‚Äôs difficult to apply to what we see playing out today. Truth? It‚Äôs hard to tell in the world of legal wrangling, where everyone has a different perspective. Justice? Certainly not. The American Way? This is no American Dream. And given the Supreme Court‚Äôs increasingly corporate-leaning rulings, it‚Äôs looking more and more like this is indeed the new American Way.