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The Check That Bought Superman

Not all that glitters is gold

On March 1st, 1938, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were paid a sum of $130 by Detective Comics Inc. for the complete rights and ownership of a possibly promising but odd new science fiction adventure hero they’d just invented and named Superman. You can see in the above check, soon to go up on the auction block at Comic Connect, both Siegel and Shuster’s names (Siegel spelled incorrectly by co-owner and accountant Jack Liebowitz) and a tally of the money owed to them for the June issue of Detective Comics, and work for Adventure Comics and More Fun Comics.

This check represents the business transaction that sparked the explosion of American superhero comics, without which the American comics industry would be, for better or for worse, completely unrecognizable. It also represents the beginning of one of the thorniest, long lived legal battles in comics history.

(Click to embiggen.)

The question it raised, naturally, was one of perspective. Is the purchase of the full rights to Superman by DC Comics (Then Detective Comics Inc.) simply representative of the working condition of the day, full stop, no foul? Or did Superman, as a specific idea in a specific time and place, become so much more than anyone involved in the actual transaction could have imagined that DC Comics refusing to award further compensation and resisting many attempts to extract even the minimum of royalties for Siegel and Shuster basically like someone shouting “NO TAKEBACKSIES” very loudly?

Siegel and Shuster thought so when, in 1947, they sued for the rights to Superman, and were fired, their bylines removed from stories they had worked on. They sued again in the seventies, again failing to recover the rights. Finally, in the late seventies, after bad PR began to get out that while multi-million dollar Superman films weren’t too expensive to make the creators of the character didn’t even have pensions, DC awarded Siegel and Shuster health care benefits and life-long pensions of $20k a year. This is also when DC Comics started crediting Siegel and Shuster as the creators of Superman in comics and all other adaptations of the character again. A year later, DC renewed its copyright on Superman, this time adding a clause that Superman could be reclaimed by his creators between 1994 and 1999. Shuster died in 1992, Siegel died in 1996, his heirs filed for copyright reclamation in 1999, and it’s just gotten hairier from then on out, with DC and Warner Bros. firmly resisting any attempt by their families to get Superman back, despite the inclusion of a clause specifically allowing them to.

To see the back of the check, which is stamped as evidence in Siegel and Shuster’s first 1947 lawsuit, check out Bleeding Cool.

(via Bleeding Cool.)

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Susana Polo thought she'd get her Creative Writing degree from Oberlin, work a crap job, and fake it until she made it into comics. Instead she stumbled into a great job: founding and running this very website (she's Editor at Large now, very fancy). She's spoken at events like Geek Girl Con, New York Comic Con, and Comic Book City Con, wants to get a Batwoman tattoo and write a graphic novel, and one of her canine teeth is in backwards.