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Friday, June 21, 2013

Superman and His Creators: The Shocking Truth

SUPERMAN has been in the news of late-- first with the discovery of a copy of Action Comics #1 (first appearance) alleged to have been found during a home renovation in the Midwest and sold at auction for some twenty times what the cost of the house was.

Second because of the Warner Bros release of THE MAN OF STEEL breaking records at the box office and unleashing a new Superman on movie audiences-- especially noteworthy due to his box office failure at the hands of director Bryan Singer only a few years ago, many speculated that Superman had lost his power with audiences, ignoring the fact that Singer's film was weak and Brandon Routh was a lousy choice to play the title character.

It also stirs up some mention of Superman's creators-- Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (pictured above in the mid 40s)-- the two young men had hoped to break into the then popular pulp magazines and they worked up several ideas including a mind reading villain named The Superman around 1933.

They reworked the idea a bit and attempted to sell it to the comic strip syndicates with no success and in a sort of desperation they brought it to National Comics (Now known as DC Comics) who bought the character rights for $130/USD and agreed to offer the two very young creators the job of producing his adventures in 1938.

Keep in mind this was during the great depression and finding regular work for artists was increasingly difficult.

Siegel and Shuster took the deal signing a 10 year contract and National soon had a huge hit on its hands.

Interestingly-- the check National wrote for $130 recently sold at auction for $160,000.00!

The two creators were earning in the neighborhood of $600/week for their work on Superman-- in late 30s early 40s dollars this was a pretty lucrative deal.  With the addition of the Superman newspaper strip and increasing calls for the character to appear in other books the duo had to hire ghost artist and writers to fill in for much of the workload-- eating into their base pay.

In 1947, approaching the end of their 10 year contract they sued National for ownership of Superman who responded in kind by firing them.  They found work at a rival publisher and created FUNNYMAN, a parody of type of their own character which never took hold-- and truthfully reprints show it just wasn't very good.

Comics sales were on the way down after achieving their zenith during WWII-- and the book floundered and only lasted a few issues.

Siegel returned to National Comics and began ghost writing Superman again for a number of years starting in 1959 while Shuster struggled to find work and began suffering the damages of his already weak eyesight.

Siegel again filed suit against National (Now called DC Comics) in 1967 during the popularity of the Batman TV series and the rebirth of interest in superhero characters and was promptly fired again-- while his lawsuit again went against his favor due to the "work for hire" stipulation of the DC Contract which stated on the back of every paycheck that the creator signed away all rights to the work by simply endorsing his own payroll check.

In 1975 with talk of a big budget Superman film soon to be in theaters Siegel tried a different approach, this time launching a public relations campaign and coming to his aid was comic book superstar Neal Adams who himself had been making a comfortable living drawing many superhero titles (including Superman) but who advocated tirelessly for creator rights.

Poster by Neal Adams with Siegel and Shuster looking on
Fearing a backlash against it's parent company, Warner Bros, as well as the negative publicity up against a multi million dollar film DC Comics agreed to pay the duo a pension of $20,000 a year each.

$20K in 1976 may not have been chump change-- but considering the BILLIONS of dollars Superman had generated for the company over the course of his then forty year career the settlement seems paltry.

Still in was better than dying in poverty -- as Batman's co-creator Bill Finger had done in the mid 70s, although its important to note here that Batman's other creator Bob Kane had negotiated himself a very fair agreement from the beginning- ensuring that his financial compensation as well as creator credit remain in place for the duration of the character's publication.

In 1976 DC Comics re-instated the Created by Jerry and Joe credit on all appearances of Superman but even past their deaths in the 90s as their families continue to fight to regain the copyrights on Superman and the Superman family of characters.

A judge in the mid 00's awarded the family the rights to Superboy-- but that decision was eventually overturned and DC Comics took back the character.

Still-- this is all a lesson to working creators out there-- you have to pay the bills, but know what you're signing in terms of contracts and always be working towards creations of your own.

It's the only way to ensure your own financial security.