Superman should exile lawyers to the Phantom Zone

Posted by & filed under Shop Talk.

In June 2013 we’ll see yet another in a long series of Superman related products with the release of Man of Steel.  Millions of dollars will be generated from ticket sales and merchandise and this got me to thinking about the Siegel and Shuster lawsuit which is still flailing around the legal community.  To accurately address this whole mess of litigation I’ll start at the beginning:

It’s interesting to note that the original concept for Superman was that of a bald genius villain (ring any bells?) for a fanzine called Science Fiction back in 1933.  This started a 6 year quest by Siegel and Shuster to find a publisher.  During this period Superman changed conceptually a few times…at one point he was a time travelling baby from the future.  It finally found a home as the lead story in Action Comics 1.  Now, it’s pretty clear that Superman was creator owned well before it ever saw publication.  But part of the deal for publishing this book was that DC bought the rights for 130 bucks.  That’s right…130 bucks…which even in 1938 money only came to about 2000 bucks.  I know, I know…here comes the public outcry of the big corporate machine taking advantage of a couple young creators.  But I want to address this in a couple of ways:

  • No one else wanted this silly Superman character.  National Allied Publications (which became DC) was the only company willing to take a chance.
  • Corporations take a chance whenever they buy the rights for anything.  DC purchased the rights for a ton of material that never saw daylight or profitability.  Lots of money gets wasted before something “sticks to the wall” and becomes a success to some degree.
  • Something that very rarely gets addressed is that Siegel and Shuster also got a 10 year contract that paid $75,000 a year for 10 years.  In modern money that comes to a little over a million dollars a year.  Name me one artist or writer who gets paid anywhere close to that these days just for writing or drawing.

So, after the initial contract expires they raise a stink and try to get their rights back and it goes to trial and they lose in regards to Superman but they win and get the rights to Superboy.  DC then buys the rights for Superboy for $94,000 (about $900,000 in modern money).  Siegel and Shuster then acknowledge IN WRITING that DC owns the rights to Superman and “all other forms of reproduction and presentation, whether now in existence or that may hereafter be created.”

In 1973 Siegel and Shuster once again try to claim ownership of Superman and lost again in both district court and the court of appeals.  After all of this litigation it came out that they led a pauper-like existence so Warner Communications (the owners of DC) gave them a life time pension of 20 grand a year plus health care and stated that “there is no legal obligation, but [Warner Bros] feels there is moral obligation on our part.”

Not surprising is the fact that the Siegel family are again embroiled in litigation about the rights to Superman and Superboy.  Is this a blatant “money grab” or justified?  You be the judge.   As more and more comic book intellectual properties become blockbusters I really feel as though the lawsuits will come fast and furious because there’s a lot more money at stake.  Just Google Gary Friedrich and his ill advised lawsuit over Ghost Rider.  I have to think that when someone, in writing, sells the rights to one of their characters that they should probably just leave it alone and be content with the money they got up front.  But someone is prodding these people into filing lawsuit after lawsuit, many of which have no chance of success.  Hmmmm.   This leads me to one bit of certainty:  the only big winners are the lawyers who are involved in these cases.

p.s. Lawyers excluded from the Phantom Zone are Edward Thompson, Todd Page, Spencer Mckinness, and David Faughn.  All others may be tossed into the Phantom Zone.  To be eaten by space goats.  No salt.  Space goats hate salt. I’m just sayin’.

p.s.s. And that Ryan Utterback fella is a good guy.  We won’t banish him to the Phantom Zone either.