The new Superman film, Man of Steel is out in the UK this week amid a huge amount of publicity and fuss. It looks like it might even be a bit above the usual American summer blockbuster. It might even be a very good film and it’s got good people in front and behind the camera. It is however an an enormous fuck you to the creators of Superman and their family who have been fighting for as long as Superman has existing to get a fair share of the billions upon billions their creation has made for it’s corporate owners for over seven decades.
Superman was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and first published in 1938. You can see the pair discuss their creation of Superman here. The media are falling over themselves to provide studies of the myth and meaning of Superman over the last 75 years, but few if any will mention how Siegel and Shuster were shafted over the creative rights of Superman.
I didn’t know anything of this as a kid reading comics, not until I read in a fanzine about Neal Adams fighting for Siegal and Shuster to get due credit for Superman in the 1970’s and the story of the messy history between DC (and the companies before it became DC Comics) is in this excellent article here. Siegel struggled to make a living in comics for years, and there’s a mention ins Sean Howe’s excellent Marvel Comics: The Untold Story about how Stan Lee felt sorry for Siegel in the 1960’s when he was struggling for work, so gave him whatever job he could at Marvel but because his writing style didn’t fit into the Marvel style of the time this meant menial office jobs. The man who was partly responsible for the boom in superheroes and for creating employment for people at Marvel and DC was reduced to struggling for work and favours from friends like Lee. Siegel even worked for IPC’s line of boy’s adventure comics and created The Spider which appeared in Lion, which was a strip I adored as a kid.
In 1975 DC agreed to pay Siegel and Shuster $20,000 for the rest of their lives. At that point, they’d made billions from Superman, and even then this amount was only agreed after the work of people like Neal Adams. This was not something DC out of the goodness of their heart.
By the time of their deaths the dispute still hadn’t been settled, and carried on to their heirs, who continued to fight for what was a fair share of their creation as the sons and daughters of shareholders made money from Superman but the family of the men who created him didn’t. However due to US copyright law, the rights would revert to Siegel and Shuster’s families, and that would include the film rights as well. Early last year, DC’s parent company Warner Brothers won, which saw Man of Steel go quickly into production to ensure the film rights stayed with Warner’s .
So when you settle down to watch Man of Steel in your comfy chair in the cinema have a wee thought about the creators and their families and wonder why the media is talking about the heroic myth of Superman, but don’t feel it’s important to mention what happened to Siegel and Shuster? I’d imagine because it probably shows the myth up to be just that, a myth.
Siegel and Shuster deserved better. Their heirs deserve better. It would be nice if one journalist, or one person connected with the film mentioned this rather than repeat the same story which marginalises the creators and their plight into a footnote of a larger story rather than being something that taints the myth.