Joe Shuster

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!)

Happy Valentine’s Day

I’m busy pitching woo with the one I love, so to tide you over here are a bunch of comics or semi-comics pictures celebrating love and the Holiday That Hallmark Built. Enjoy!

Lois Lane debuts with Superman in Action Comics #1 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, June 1938. Clark Kent pines for Lois but she only has eyes for the Man of Steel. And the superhero genre's psychological issues with identity and romance are off and running.

Archie Comics #3, Summer 1942, art by Harry Sahle features one of comics' classic love triangles. Will Archie choose Betty or Veronica?

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Copyrights and comics

As a preview to their upcoming Comic Book Comics #5 by Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey, Evil Twin Comics has posted a 6-page excerpt titled “The Grabbers”. It does an excellent job encapsulating and presenting copyright law and how it has effected the history of comic books. The piece focuses on Superman, so this is a great prequel to that BBC Superman documentary where we see Superman’s creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster a few years after the events depicted at the end of this comic.

The comic also covers the legal shenanigans involving Bob Kane (Batman co-creator), Bill Finger (Batman, Robin and Joker co-creator), Jerry Robinson (Robin and Joker co-creator), Joe Simon (Captain America co-creator), and Jack Kirby (co-creator of Captain America and half of the rest of the Marvel Comics superhero universe).

What’s amazing (and kind of sad) is that a lot of these legal battles are still being fought.

BBC doc: The Comic Strip Hero (1981)

In 1981, coinciding with the UK release of Superman II starring Christopher Reeve and Gene Hackman, the BBC television series Arena broadcast this great documentary about the origins of Superman and the comics industry in general.

Plenty of good stuff here:

  • great interviews with Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster
  • a look inside the early ’80s offices of DC Comics with then-president Sol Harrison
  • footage of Will Eisner teaching art students who debate whether superheroes are played out
  • a pre-Maus interview with Art Spiegelman (with a GIGANTIC mustache)
  • the wonderful Trina Robbins
  • a young and charming Christopher Reeve
  • Kirk Alyn, the first actor to portray the Man of Steel, telling stories of making the Superman movie serials
  • a sputtering Fredric Wertham insisting comic books are evil, linking Superman to Nazi Germany
  • some hilarious interviews with a sci-fi guy pointing out the lack of hard science in Superman (you think?) and what would need to happen for Clark Kent and Louis Lane to have a baby (!)
  • a little kid with every licensed Superman product imaginable
  • and a frightening final moment with preserved Superman birthday cake.

It’s important to note how much the comics industry has changed since then. This is before Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, two superhero stories that injected new life into the genre. This was before the publication of Maus, which went on to win a Pulitzer Prize and burst open the preconceived limitations of the medium to a lot of mainstream observers. This is before comic books could be found in bookstores, before manga was introduced to US readers. Before Hollywood’s technology became affordable enough and halfway convincing enough to pull off the special effects depicted in comics. (This was almost 30 years ago?! How?!)

Click through to watch all 5 parts through the power of YouTube: (more…)