$130: The Ongoing Saga of Jerry Siegel and Superman

The sale of the rights to Superman by Siegel and Shuster to National Periodicals has been likened to the sale of Manhattan Island from the Native Americans. The purchase price of $130, as well as follow up questions about page rates, work for hire vs perpetual ownership and percentages of merchandise and licensing was a source of consternation for the Siegel family up until very recently. Accounts have differed over the years about who was to blame for the meager cut that Jerry and Joe received, compared to what the higher ups at DC were earning regularly, but all agree that whatever arrangement was made was sorely lacking for Superman’s inventors.  I’m currently reading the wonderful book Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book. It has been cited as a source for two other fantastic history books I’ve enjoyed, Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero by Larry Tye, and Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster by Brad Ricca, not to mention by countless documentaries and YouTube videos. It’s too bad Gerard Jones turned out to be a creep, because he is one heck of a nonfiction writer- perhaps the best comic book historian I’ve come across. I’d heard so much about his magnum opus that it’s been on my to read list for a while, and I’m glad I finally got around to doing so. Nearly half the book is about the creation of Superman and the character’s impact on the industry. Along the way, Jones gives us his take on the saga of Siegel’s relationship with DC, and he includes a few details I hadn’t heard before.  

For one, in addition to a lump sum for rights to the character and page rates for work produced, the boys were promised a percentage of merchandise and licensing rights to Superman from the very beginning, something I’d never heard. According to Jones, the wording in the written agreement between the two parties was there but was “dangerously ill defined.” In addition, a reason the two saw such little revenue from merchandising was because of shrewd accounting by suits at DC, who claimed their profits were far less than they actually were. According to some, when members of Siegel’s family claimed that Jerry should hire a lawyer early on, Jerry claimed he didn’t need one. Also included in this book is a little more information about Siegel’s relationship wth members of his own family, in particular his mother. Nowhere else had I read that Sarah Fine Siegel was a dominant woman who objected strongly to Jerry’s first marriage. His mother’s feelings toward Bella Siegel led Jerry to keep his distance from his mother, and after her passing, part of what contributed to Jerry’s guilt. He even attended her funeral without his wife, so palpable had the negativity been from her and extended family. Did this have anything to do with his despondency with DC? Either way, powerful, powerful stuff. There are other notable thoughts on Jerry’s situation which Jones includes in the book, including many inferred deductions which had never occurred to me. Why hadn’t he requested an audit of DC’s books when they cried poor? Why didn’t Jerry hire an attorney, push to renegotiate, or threaten to take his talents elsewhere? All good questions which paint a much deeper and complicated picture of Jerry and Joe’s story, posed by someone excellent at their craft. Men of Tomorrow provides an extremely fascinating and eye opening picture about how comics were made and what the relationship was like between editor and artist. Jones even likens it to a tailor cutting cloth to make a suit, who then sells it someone else who goes to a successful job interview. In the higher ups’ eyes, the person who made the suit is not entitled to the proceeds of the job.

Was it this simple? Lawyers are still working on that question today.  The hardest part of reading about Jerry and Joe’s experience is the chapters about the difficult 1950s-1970s. In Men of Tomorrow, Jones also goes into more detail about Siegel and Shuster’s lawsuit with DC in 1948. I didn’t realize that even in the post war years, Superman’s creators were still collecting royalties on some merchandising and avenues outside comics. Had their lawsuit with DC been in 1949 or after, they would have received a portion of the revenues from the Kirk Alyn matinee serials, or even the George Reeves television show when it premiered three years later. Instead, because DC (technically National at that time) won their suit, the boys were essentially no longer entitled to much of anything. Reading about the failed career moves and hard years of life for Jerry and Joe has always been gut wrenching, and not one I enjoy reading about.IMG_0517
Gerard Jones meticulously and beautifully uses material from interviews with members of Siegel’s family to “fill in” some of the blanks of Jerry’s story that might have differed from other accounts. Each historian is going to put their own spin on it of course, but it’s always fascinating to read. Jones’ book, while not quite as detailed or personal as Brad Ricca’s, or as nuanced as Tye’s, nevertheless provides incredible POVs on the Superman story I had never heard, and I am the better for it as a Superman fan.

Chances are, if you have ever read about Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s fight with DC, Jones’ book is probably cited as a source. Some may find books like this to be too dry, and that certainly might be the case for the more casual fan. Personally, I’m loving it. If you want to know more about the ongoing saga of the Man of Steel’s legal troubles, or if you like books about comic book history, definitely check this book out.

More thoughts on Men of Tomorrow to come!

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