How Much Would You Pay for Superman?

Check to buy Superman (March 1, 1938)

How does $130 sound?

That’s what publisher Jack Liebowitz paid to own all of the rights to the character in 1938. Pretty good deal.

Above is the actual check received by Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster to buy their new Superman character outright. The check is dated March 1, 1938, and also includes payment for work by the creative partners appearing in comics cover-dated June 1938: $210 for stories appearing in Detective Comics #16 (21 pages in the publisher’s flagship book at the time), and $36 each for work in More Fun Comics and New Adventure Comics (probably issues #32 and #27, respectively). The total comes to $412. Noticeably absent is payment for their work in Action Comics #1, also cover-dated June 1938, although it’s possible that the $130 payment includes both the rights to Superman and compensation for their writing and illustrating the story.

The check is going to auction next year at ComicConnect. On Monday, it was posted to Twitter by Gerry Duggan (writer of The Infinite Horizon and fellow Emerson grad), where it immediately spread like wildfire among the comics community.

Andy Khouri of Comics Alliance has a great write-up that covers the historical significance of this check resurfacing after being assumed lost for decades. It is the beginning of a long and depressing narrative of the fight for creator rights and fair compensation in comics, and the complex series of ugly legal battles between DC Comics and the families of Siegel and Shuster that continues to this day. In 2008, the Siegel Estate was awarded half of the copyright to Superman as he appeared in his earliest comics and newspaper strips, but that ruling is currently being appealed. The Shuster Estate may be able regain its portion of the copyright in 2013. (In what maybe should have been a red flag of the troubles ahead, both Siegel and Shuster’s names on the check were misspelled by Liebowitz.)

The check was also used as evidence in the first comic book copyright lawsuit, Detective Comics, Inc. v. Bruns Publications, Inc. In 1939, Detective Comics sued Bruns regarding the latter’s Wonder Man character, which DC claimed infringed on Superman due to the likeness of their powers. That case was found in DC’s favor, establishing a precedent that led to the more popular Captain Marvel getting similarly squashed 11 years later. These cases allowed Marvel Comics to use both of these names in the 1960s and ’70s without any opposition. It also resulted in the British license of the original Captain Marvel to be reinvented as Marvelman by Mick Anglo in 1952, which is the beginning of a whole other epic battle of legal entanglements that only recently got cleared up (allegedly).

(Hat tip to Scott Shaw!)

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