Let me say publicly that DonBoy’s answer exudes a combination of intuitive genius and confidence that make me think DonBoy is going to do big things in his life. -- Steven D. Levitt (Freakonomics blog)
Tuesday, December 02, 2003
By now we're all familiar with the story of Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Jerome Shuster, the creators of Superman, who sold their creation to what would eventually become DC Comics, saw next to no money from it, were reduced to penury, and eventually received proper credit only after a PR campaign by other comics creators in the 1970s. For another take, you can look at the letters column in Reform Judaism, the quarterly magazine of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. In their previous issue, they ran part 1 of a series on Jewish comics creators, which I'd say includes maybe 75% of those through the 1960s and a still-substantial proportion of those since then. As seen here:
Even Siegel and Shuster, creators of the world's first comic-book superhero, were bilked, earning a paltry $130 from Harry Donenfeld for the first thirteen-page Superman story and having to negotiate for meager financial and creative participation in subsequent Superman strips and spin-offs (all Superman licensing fees were paid to Donenfeld's corporation, "Superman, Inc.").Well..Harry Donefeld's son, Irwin, has another take on it, and it's in the letters column of the next issue -- sadly, not online, so here's some typing:
The turning point for Superman's creators came in 1978--exactly forty years after Superman's first release. During a TV talk-show promotion of the first Superman movie, an elderly gentleman rose from the audience and said in a soft voice: "My name is Jerry Siegel. I co-created the character Superman on which they're making this movie, and I work at a supermarket bagging groceries." The studio audience gasped. So did Jerry Robinson (a cartoonist, comic-book historian, and at that time the head of the National Cartoonists Society), who was watching the show from home.
Robinson decided to launch a campaign aimed at Warner Brothers, which, as the parent company of DC Comics, owned the Superman copyright. He wanted the media giant to compensate Siegel and Shuster for having created one of the most widely recognized characters on earth. It would take many players, hundreds of arts organizations, and considerable legal maneuvering before the studio bowed to the pressure. The inventors of Superman received a "created by" credit in the movie, and an annual stipend which continued for the rest of their lives. Today, when a movie or TV series (not to mention comic book) is released featuring Superman, it bears the credit line: "Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster," ensuring that future generations will know the genesis of the Man of Steel.
This is the true story of Siegel and Shuster. Dad decided to take a chance on a comic character that no one else wanted. Vince Sullivan, Dad's editor, cut up the panels made for newspaper syndication. It came out to thriteen pages, and at $10 a page it was more than the going rate, and easy money for the boys. Ther were paid for their artwork when no other publisher wanted it. In 1938, $130 was a lot of money. Dad paid for the first issue of Action, and the second issue at the printers, and the third issue on the way to the engraver, before he found out if Superman would sell. He had a lot of money riding on his hunch. I was the first kid in the country to read Superman, and in the original art.I see that Irwin Donenfeld has been a guest at a couple of cons, and was interviewed in the July 2003 of the fanzine Alter Ego by Mark Evanier and Julius Schwartz; I don't know if he got into this dispute in any of those venues.
After Superman became an enormous hit, Dad got it into newspaper syndication. After all the expenses were paid, all of the profit went to Siegel and Shuster. Dad kept none of it. they were far and away the best-paid artists in comic books. Despite this, and at the urging of a lawyer, they decided to sue dad for the rights to Superman and Superboy. In a settlement directed by the judge, they gave up all rights to Superboy (they never had any for Superman) and in return they each received $125,000. It didn't take them too many years to run through all their money. No one else would hire them. Toward the end, Joe Shuster needed an eye operation, but he didn't have the money to pay for it. Dad paid for his operation.
In 1948, after college and a stint in the Air Force, I went to work at DC. In 1954, I became editor-in-chief. In 1956, DC president Jack Liebowitz made me publisher. We built up our circulation to more than eight million copies (average) a month. We were the largest comic book publisher in the industry. One day Mr. Liebowitz called me into his office and told me Jerry Siegel was in financial trouble. He had a wife and a child, and he was broke. Despite the fact that he had sued us and caused us all kinds of trouble, Mr. Liebowitz asked me to hire him, which I did. All the time that I was there, until 1968, he always had work.