March 30th, 2008 at 10:12 pm

Truth, Justice and the American Dollar

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Jerry Siegel’s Man of Tomorrow would have snatched the grasping fat cats out of their plush offices and dangled them over an urban precipice until they agreed to mend their nasty ways. Being mere mortals, Siegel’s heirs had to fight for justice the hard way, through the courts.

Their battle isn’t over yet, not as long as Time Warner is willing to pay lawyers to throw up roadblocks – and don’t think they won’t – but this week’s court decision is the closest thing to a victory that the Siegel family has seen for many decades.


Not that it’s probably going to make much difference to the Superman cash cow in the long run. As Mike Gold points out in his ComicMix blog, Time Warner is still very much in the picture, their total ownership simply reduced by a small degree to an as-yet-to-be-defined partnership with the Siegel family. It might be fun to fantasize about a Superman-Medieval Spawn crossover – maybe with those newly liberated boys in capes taking on Gerber and Kirby’s Godcorp for a total David vs. Goliath fanboy jamboree. But with DC and its parent corp still getting a vote, it isn’t any more likely to happen than the possibility of a competing line of Superman comics being licensed to Image or Fantagraphics.

(Mike also points out that the likely repercussions, if the Siegel decision can’t be reversed on appeal, will be a tightening of the screws at DC – and, though he doesn’t specifically say so, the same is likely to apply at Marvel and any other comics publisher that makes use of work-for-hire contracts. If you want them to publish your new concept in the future, you may get a bigger payday up front in exchange for giving up all rights irrevocably. Sad, but inevitable. Corporations at the highest level aren’t in the business of making comics; they’re in the business of making money, and Superman and HBO are just the particular widgets they manufacture to bring in the buck. As always in the comics business, let the seller beware.)

Even if the Siegel family prevails in every court, it doesn’t mean that they’ll stay in partnership with Time Warner for the life of the property. Simply taking a hefty settlement and walking away for good may be more attractive to them than dealing with the endless hair-splitting that will result. Dealing with the corporate bean counters can be just as soul-sapping as battling the corporate lawyers.

For the moment, the Siegels have won back their share of the elements established in the very first Superman story, as published in Action Comics #1. Period. So, conceivably, there’d be no licensing bucks for the Siegels in a T-shirt with this logo on it


since the version they own a piece of looks like this


The only useful things they’ve won an interest in are Clark Kent, Lois Lane and the earliest, non-X-ray-visioned and arguably non-flying, version of the big guy himself. So while it seems clear that they’re owed a respectable share of the millions that the property has racked up since 1999, when their suit was filed (the law was changed in 1997 to allow creators to wrest back a portion of the brainchildren that they naively sacrificed to the gods of work-for-hire), the accounting is likely to be a nightmare.


Take just two of the biggest pies to be divvied up, the receipts from the long-running Smallville TV series and the big-screen feature Superman Returns. Both of them have Clark and Lois all over them, so there’s no way even the slimiest weasel can deny the Siegels’ claim. But how much of both series and movie were based on elements that were created in comics and radio shows produced after Action #1? Those later elements include Luthor, the Daily Planet, kryptonite, Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, Metropolis and even Smallville itself. How finely will the hairs be split when it comes time to deciding just how much the Siegels are entitled to?

Whether we’re talking Time Warner, the Kinney Corporation or Harry Donenfeld, the corporate masters of Superman have always maintained that Siegel and Shuster were paid in full when they cashed that $130 check in 1938. Granting the boys from Cleveland a creator credit in the late ’70s didn’t cost the company a dime, but it was a concession that had to be shamed out of them over many years. There’s no reason to believe that they’re going to shake hands now and let bygones be bygones.

The long ordeal of Siegel and Shuster is the great Old Testament cautionary tale of comics, and DC has never liked the perception that they’re the thugs who exiled the prophets into the wilderness. For years, the situation was utterly ignored in DC’s official histories. At the corporate level denial – and, one would like to think, shame – runs deep.

Twenty years ago, I was hired to write the introductions to the three volumes of Superman: The Dailies. The intros traced the evolution of the character as a comics feature, and spent some time recounting its rapid growth as a merchandising bonanza. In one brief paragraph, I mentioned in passing the Siegel-Shuster situation, but tried to balance the simplistic version of their story with which most of us are familiar, by laying out how much money they’d made by continuing to work on their character into the 1940s. It wasn’t an inconsiderable sum, and – while my sympathies remained with the creators – I thought the objective facts made DC look a little better than the legend would have us believe.

But the very mention of the Siegel-Shuster dispute was more than DC could bear, even in a passage that softened their traditional image as rip-off artists. The rest of my material went into the volumes as written, but guess which brief paragraph never saw the light of day?

There’s still a long road ahead of the Siegels, and I wish them all the luck in the world. There’s a lot of kicking, screaming and obfuscating yet to be endured before they see anything resembling real justice.


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