Superman is not only the most lucrative comic book superhero of all time, with countless spin-offs into films, animation and television, but he was also the first. Despite being a worthy tale, the Superman saga pales in comparison with his creators’ struggles to assert their rights over their property.
In 1933, 17-year-old high school buddies, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Schuster created a comic strip vigilante without superpowers or costume called Superman. Influenced by pulp magazines characters like Dick Tracy they hoped to syndicate the Superman comic strip in newspapers, which paid a lot better than the upcoming comic book market. Frustrated by rejection, Schuster destroyed everything but the cover.
In 1938 the friends were professionally scripting and illustrating for Detective Comics. Having some success with characters like Dr Occult, Federal Men and Radio Squad, they pitched Superman to their employers for the new imprint ‘Action Comics’.
By now Superman was a colourful costumed hero with extraordinary abilities: super strong, able to hurdle a twenty story building, outrun a speeding locomotive and with skin tough enough to withstand an exploding shell. Other powers such as flight and heat vision came later.
Superman was sent to earth by his parents as a baby in a rocket ship because his planet was dying, and brought up by childless farmers John and Martha Kent, who instilled American values in him. Only later did the Kents find the child’s rocket crashed in a cornfield, originally they adopt him from an orphanage.
Some years earlier, Philip Wylie had published a novel called Gladiator about an infant given a serum derived from insects by his scientist father. It produced the same powers as Superman: super speed, bullet proof skin, the strength of an ant and the ability to leap like grasshopper.
Schuster denied Wylie was an influence, instead citing Edger Rice Burroughs’ hero John Carter, an earthman who is super strong and can leap prodigious distances due to Mars’ low gravity.
Schuster’s reluctance might have been prompted by Gladiator’s hero. Hugo is a freak, isolated by his powers, which he never really controls. After accidentally killing a boy in a college football game he becomes a drifter. Although he never wears a costume, during the First World War he is idolised as a ferocious invulnerable killing machine. After the war he seeks refuge in the French Foreign Legion, where his skills are again used for murder.
Equally Schuster might have denied Wylie’s influence because of what was to come: long dawn out legal battles to regain ownership of his character. Accusations of copyright infringement would have seriously weakened his, already rocky, case.
Because DC would not publish any character they did not own, the duo sold the rights to Superman for $130 (around $2,500 today). April 1938, Action Comics was launched featuring Superman and was an overnight success.
Buoyed by the character’s popularity Siegel attempted to get a better cut, only to be told DC owned Superman and could replace them both. DC then offered Siegel and Shuster an extended contract and a pay-rise as a gesture of goodwill
Over the next year, Siegel proposed a Superboy character which DC rejected on two occasions. While he was serving in World War 2, without his knowledge DC published a Superboy story based on his pitch.
In 1947 Siegel and Schuster sued hoping to recover the rights to their characters, and receive a ‘just share’ of the profits. Due to the contracts they signed, the judge ruled DC owned Superman and they only owned Superboy. The two men settled out of court, signing away all the rights to both heroes for $94,000 (almost a million today).
Under the 28 year term of copyright law, Siegel and Schuster attempted to regain the rights to their characters in 1965, only to discover the previous out-of-court settled waived the renewal rights.
The long bitter dispute continued.
In 1975 when Warner Brothers announced the Superman movie, a public campaign forced them pay the creators $20,000 each. In 1992 when Schuster died, his family signed away their rights for an annual sum of $25,000. In 1996 when Siegel died, his widow won a 5 year battle with a Warner Brothers for a settlement of $3,000,000 and an annual payment of $500,000.
On his widow’s death the law suits continued until in 2010 DC Comics took Siegel’s heirs to court to deny them any further claims of ownership… And won.
I would like to say Superman’s sorry saga is a one-off.
It seems the victims who most need a superhero’s help are often their creators.