Saturday, March 29, 2008

Fighting for Superman

Numerous other blogs are binging on bytes in their coverage of the seismic Superman ruling of earlier this week. For a more naïve and way shorter view, here are four overly simplistic lists. They are rather quickly done, though, so I welcome your knowledge via comments in making them more accurate and more complete.

How DC Comics (primarily earlier, differently-named incarnations) went wrong

* They condescended to Jerry and Joe when they asked for more money, starting from early on. Even though Jerry and Joe were lacking in some ways, they were wonderfully insightful in others, and regardless, management was unscrupulous to take advantage of their hunger for storytelling.
* They rejected Jerry's pitch for a Superboy character but then began publishing a character by that name after Jerry was drafted and without his involvement.
* They removed Jerry and Joe's bylines after the first lawsuit in 1947. Yes, litigation is miserable, but firing Jerry and Joe and retaining rights to Superman should have been enough for DC. Taking away credit was done solely to steal identity and crush spirit, and that is cruel.

* They knew Jerry and Joe were struggling in subsequent years and did not help more consistently. This may seem incompatible with firing and removing bylines, but I believe DC executives never privately denied Jerry and Joe's significance. Management did allegedly pay for eye surgery for Joe at one point, and possibly took other action I'm not privy to, but a little more on their part could have gone a long way to alleviate the suffering of the two men who made their company.

How DC Comics went right

* They paid Jerry and Joe a good salary for the period, and I believe also gave them bonuses (albeit small) and perks along the way.
* They agreed to a settlement in 1975. Even though it took much pushing and even though it also served as slick PR, it was still moral.
* From the 1980s on, DC treated Jerry and Joe with public (though guarded) respect. Jerry and Joe contributed to the 45th anniversary issue of Action Comics and possibly other comics I'm not well-versed enough to cite. This is small consolation in practical terms, but they ran full-page commemorations when each man died (and possibly some kind of memorial service?):

© DC Comics

How Jerry and Joe went wrong

* They sold all rights to Superman.
Many other Golden Age creators did the same with their own do-gooders, but not all. So it was a mistake, but an understandable one. The Depression intensified short-term thinking. Expectations were different then.
* I don't know this as fact, but it seems safe to infer that they did not smartly manage the considerable amount of money they were making in the early 1940s.
* Jerry was a persistent noodge. That is not to say he didn't have the right to voice his displeasure to DC, but he sometimes struck a grating tone in his letters to them.

How Jerry and Joe went right

* They created Superman, on their own, and hustled for more than three years trying to get the idea published. They were not afraid to have unchecked enthusiasm for what they felt was an exceptional idea.
* They had the backbone to sue their employer over what they genuinely felt was unfair treatment.
* Jerry decided against another lawsuit in the 1970s and shrewdly went to the media instead, hoping to get the public on his and Joe's side.
* Even when they had been offered a financial settlement, they held out for creator acknowledgement. Money is finite. Credit is forever.

Few of us are the villains in our own story, yet sometimes there is no hero.


Anonymous said...

The one thing about Jerry and Joe selling the rights that a lot of people forget is that no one knew that the Superhero industry would take off like it did. National took the risk of buying a story from unproven young men for an unproven character in an unproven field.
Now, if Superman would have flopped, National (DC) would have had to eat the cost. They made an investment, no different than if you or I decided to buy stocks.
DC paid them well for the time, and in later years gave them a yearly salary (for no work) that was more than a lot of people make NOW.
I have no problem with creators being given respect, but it seems that people tend to look at things through todays eyes instead of looking at the way the world was during the time period it occured in.

Graeme said...

I think one of the things Siefel and Shuster did wrong (raised by Les Daniel and I think Gerard Jones) was they had terrible legal advice. More than one person said Jerry in particular was unduly influenced and made discontented by their counsel. (In fact I think it's Jones who quotes someone who implies that the fix was in with their counsel).

I've said this before a couple of times on Comics Should Be Good, but here's my take on Siegel and Shuster: my sense is that Jerry Siegel was his own worst enemy. If Jerry had been less aggrieved and less litigious, they could have been like Bob Kane: they had their own studio of artists where they farmed out Superman work (and as a subcontractor could make a tidy profit) and they could have kept that going and made a nice bundle from that and traded on the fame of being creators of Superman. Bob Kane pretty much did exactly that (even if Kane didn't solely create Batman!) though Kane got a better initial deal from DC.

That said, I pretty much agree with your assessment of what DC did wrong.

Booksteve said...

Actually, it isn't fair to say, as in the previous comment, that Siegel and Shuster were "unproven young men." In spite of their frustrations at not being able to sell SUPERMAN for years, they had, in fact, been consistently and successfully selling not one but several series including SPY and SLAM BRADLEY to National and at least one other publisher for a year prior to ACTION # 1.

Anonymous said...

This is an excellent synopsis -- there were two sides to this story, for sure. And I still don't completely understand it, but what's helping me now is that Action #1 is theirs now since it was already done and wasn't work for hire. Right? No?

Anyway, I do agree with you Primus and used to agree with you a lot more, but no matter how many raises they got, National was making MILLIONS off Superman as early as the forties. To see them squabble over $10/page raises in that context gives us a moral word rather than a legal one: BAD.

If some crazy conspiracy theorist had proof that Leibowitz found a way for Jerry to get drafted, I swear I would half-believe it.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the most concise and even-handed summation of this whole mess. I get tired of seeing the ruling classified as some giant victory for All Mankind against Unrepentant Corporate Evil...and it's good to see someone honestly acknowledge the positives and negatives of both sides.

I'll second the book by Gerard Jones ("Men of Tomorrow"), since it provides more unvarnished views of Siegel and Shuster's role in their undoing.

rjsodaro said...

I agree that this was an even-handed overview of a very complex and situation. We do tend to view past events with a modern eye. Jerry and Joe were young, and made mistakes, and DC was a corporate entity looking to protect its assets. Too bad it required this many years and this much litigation to shake out in an (hopefully) equitable fashion.

Still, one can only wonder what this ruling does for Steve Ditko, the heirs of Jack Kirby, and other comicbook creators who developed now-popular characters under “work for hire” contracts