Jerry Siegel (1914 – 1996) and Joe Shuster (1914 – 1992)
“Up in the sky, look: It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s Superman”. Superman is one of the most enduring superheroes to have appeared in American comics. The man from the planet Krypton wandered around Earth as Clark Kent on the look-out for possible trouble and adventure. The stories of his astonishing derring-do in the fight against evil have enchanted millions and filled the coffers of publishers and movie companies over decades. But who created him and did they get a sizeable share of the pie?
From around 1933 Messrs Siegel, a writer, and Shuster, an artist, had been developing the idea of a character who would turn out to be Superman. The story goes that Siegel’s father< Mitchell, died on 2nd June 1932 during a robbery staged at his second-hand clothes store in Cleveland. Although the coroner claimed that Siegel’s dad died of a heart attack, the police report indicated that gunshots were heard. In memory of his Dad Siegel created a character who was immune to bullets and would wage war against evil. Shuster was corralled to provide the artwork.
Coming up with an idea and selling it are two different things. The duo’s original idea was to sell it to a newspaper syndicate to be run as a cartoon strip with them retaining ownership and rights to the Kryptonite. Unfortunately, they were unable to find any takers. By now they were working for National Allied Publications and struck a deal in March 1938 with their successor company, Detective Comics, Inc. Under the terms of the contract the duo assigned all rights, goodwill and title to Superman to Detective Comics for the princely sum of $130.
Superman first appeared on the cover of Action Comics on 18th April 1938 and was an overnight sensation. Siegel travelled to New York to meet the co-owner of Detective Comics, Harry Donenfeld, in an attempt to renegotiate the ill-advised contract but was told to do one. The owners did throw the duo some scraps, offering them first refusal on any other creations they may come up with, allowing themselves a six-week window to make a decision. Siegel presented them with the idea of Superboy, stories of Superman’s childhood but encountered radio silence. True to form, Superboy appeared in More Fun Comics whilst Siegel was serving in the army, the script being largely based on Siegel’s script and using Shuster’s illustrations.
In 1948 the pair launched legal action to regain control of the characters and to get a “just share” of all the profits that had been made out of Superman. They failed to wrest control of the character but did get occasional slices of the action but not enough to transform their lives of penury. Their partial breakthrough came when DC Comics sold the film rights to Warner Brothers in 1975. Anxious to avoid any bad press which might have marred the launch of their block-buster movie in 1978 starring Christopher Reeve, Marlon Brando et al, the film company agreed to pay the pair $20,000 a year and include their names on all credits on future Superman publications.
The story didn’t end there. In 1999, after Siegel had died, his family finally won rights to half of his creation. But that decision was immediately challenged and the only ones who have subsequently got rich out of the whole mess are the lawyers.
Siegel and Shuster, for giving the world Superman and giving him away for $130, you are worthy inductees into our Hall of Fame.
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