In what Heidi MacDonald aptly described as “shaman’s magic,” several weeks ago Grant Morrison portrayed the young Siegel and Shuster changing the world in a comic released on the very same day that a federal judge issued his historic ruling in the Superman case.
As longtime DC comics readers may recall, this was not the first time that Siegel and Shuster had the power to remake reality with their words. For example, in Action Comics #447, a storyteller named Joseph Jerome can fashion reality, including Superman, with the power of his imagination. Likewise, Action #554 relates how two boys save the world by creating Superman through the force of their belief. Yet as we have already seen in this series, not all depictions of their imaginative power are so sanguine. The Siegel-and-Shuster Superman in Adventures of Superman #612 is depicted as a relic of a long-forgotten past; while the power of imagination may bring him to life, the realities of life today might also make him obsolete.
This tension between past and present is equally evident in the Siegel case. On the one hand, for many within the comics community the ruling was a symbolic victory in the struggle for creators’ rights, vindicating not just Siegel and Shuster, but legions of comic book artists and writers whose genius was exploited by corporate greed.
Yet much to the surprise of longtime industry watchers, the judgment also provoked a strong negative response. Some critics focused on the fact that the winner was not Siegel himself but his heirs, who were said to have gained an unearned windfall. Other observers went a step further, questioning the wisdom of a law that voids otherwise valid contracts, and accusing the Siegels themselves of exploiting Superman for their own financial gain.
As you may have noticed if you’ve been reading comment threads, the debate can get rather intense. In this, our last post of the series, we’ll examine how the creative vision of Siegel and Shuster helped give rise to both sides.
The past, they say, is a different country, and when Siegel and Shuster sold Superman, they were living in a far different time. Pop-culture creatives weren’t widely known for closing multimillion-dollar deals on media properties. Unless you were lucky enough to know a bit about law or publishing, your best bet to make a decent living was to do whatever it took to get your foot in the door. The following are just a few of the most telling examples of how the world of the 1930s was unlike our own:
Costs of production: To understand the media environment, I recommend watching Citizen Kane, a film in which the pinnacle of wealth and power was owning a newspaper. Today it seems a bit ridiculous — newspapers aren’t exactly known for being profit points, let alone the authoritative arbiters of public opinion. Yet back in the 1930s, access to the printing press and other means of mass communication was, for most people, prohibitively expensive. If you wanted to distribute a comic, make a movie or produce an audio broadcast, you had to be rich or well-connected, a situation highly favorable to corporate enterprise.
The Depression: Until recently, we have been living in a time of sustained economic growth, one of the longest such periods in our nation’s history. Seventy years ago, however, money was tight and jobs were scarce to a degree that seems unfathomable today.
Marketable lifespan: Comics, like other serial publications, were generally seen as ephemeral. If you were lucky you might create a franchise character, but your money would most likely come from generating new stories, not in reselling old material.
The meaning of literacy: The early 20th century was a time of sharp cultural divisions between text and image as well as high and low art. In popular communication, text was valued far more than pictures, which were considered to be subliterate — while pulps were just bad writing, movies and comics were, by their very nature, trash.
Division of labor: The creator did not merely work for himself. I use the masculine pronoun deliberately, because back then the general assumption was that men made money while women managed the home. Accordingly, a creator had a responsibility to earn enough to support his wife and children both while he was alive and after he had passed away.
Given these cultural factors, Siegel and Shuster’s decision to sell all rights to Superman in exchange for their page rate made a certain degree of sense. Joe and Jerry understood that they weren’t just getting paid for 13 pages; they were getting the opportunity to create a shop inside Detective Comics that would produce Superman material for as long as it continued to sell.
However, just as Superman defied the laws of nature, their character also broke all the rules of comics publishing. He didn’t just star in a single comic book — he became a multimedia franchise. He leapt from Action to toys to radio to film and TV; he spawned spinoff comics and reprints; he was knocked off by other companies. Indeed, we would not be exaggerating to say that Superman sparked the rise of an entire industry.
Siegel and Shuster shared relatively little of the profit, and they were far from alone. Music, movies, books — new technologies of mass production were generating profits from copyrighted material far beyond what anyone expected, with properties capable of staying on the market even longer than the lives of their creators — and in the case of Siegel and Shuster, their jobs.
In the 1950s, Congress began a series of inquiries that lasted literally for decades, and in 1976, lawmakers ultimately agreed to extend the term of copyright. However, that raised the question of who should benefit from the extension. The easiest choice would have been to leave it in the hands of the current copyright owner, but in many instances that would benefit wealthy commercial publishers. To give rich corporations this windfall seemed unfair, if not undemocratic; depriving creators’ families of support made it seem downright immoral.
Termination rights offered a solution to this dilemma. From the perspective of the time, enabling creators and their heirs to regain copyright was a way to affirm the American dream. Just as the early Superman fought for the weak against the strong, the new copyright law — at least in theory — privileged the creative individual and his family over-entrenched corporate wealth.
But something else was happening, unrecognized by Congress and many so-called experts of the day. Siegel and Shuster did not merely create a successful character with a long commercial lifespan; their work expressed a radically new environment for mass communication.
The redefinition of literacy: As Scott McCloud has observed, comics are not a genre — they’re a medium whose fusion of word and picture has become the new normal. By making the archetype of iconic communication an individual unbound by physical laws, Siegel and Shuster unlocked the infinite potential within graphic media.
The democratization of creativity: The industry spawned by two teens from Cleveland sent an unmistakable message to any kid who read comic books: This was their own language, and they could speak it, too. Jules Feiffer poignantly portrayed this in his 1965 classic, The Great Comic Book Heroes, where he described how the first superheroes inspired him to create and to sell his own hand-drawn comic books. And boys weren’t the only ones affected in this way — check out the pen-pal pages and reader-submitted designs and you’ll find literally hundreds of girls joining in the mix. Even if publishers dominated the commercial landscape, generations of kids grew up with the sense that they were creators too.
The balance of power: As creators became more aware of their value, market conditions subtly began to shift. Part of this was a reflection of comic fans entering the industry themselves, not just as artists and writers but as corporate executives. More generally, the comics community became far more sophisticated in its understanding of how the industry worked, from the impact of consumer response on their favorite books to the importance of intellectual property and contract law, especially in regard to royalties and the retention of key rights.
The cost of creating: Perhaps the most significant change since the 1930s has been the dramatic reduction in the cost of producing and distributing iconic mass media. This is in itself a natural outgrowth of the industry’s growth, as the success of any medium tends to spur increases in efficiency.
In regard to iconic communication, the past twenty years have seen a revolution that places the reach of Depression-era Detective Comics in the hands of anyone with access to a web page and basic design software. As a result, teens who create The Next Big Thing feel that they do not have to sell out for a measly hundred thirty bucks. Instead they can self-publish until they can extract fair market value from a business with the resources to take their creation to scale.
Once again, Siegel and Shuster were far ahead of the rest of society in grasping the nature of the changes underway. Their persistent legal challenges may have relied on then-current law, but the deeper driving impetus was their conviction that the creative landscape had changed — writers and artists were as much a force in the success of a commercial property as the corporations that could afford to bring the product to market. The subsequent struggle for creators’ rights may have lasted several decades and claimed any number of unsung casualties, but it ultimately led to the standardization of contract provisions previously unobtainable by most comics writers and artists.
At the same time, the revolution that Siegel and Shuster helped inspire has also given rise to conditions hostile to the very actions designed to correct the imbalances of a previous age. For example, when creators had little to no leverage in dealing with publishers, allowing a creator or his heirs to regain copyright seemed like a fair response. Now, to some in the rising generation, termination rights seem like an arbitrary nullification of the legal framework that otherwise enables them to profit from their work. When the baseline contractual terms are seen as good enough, stability becomes the prime value — if the Siegels negotiated a pension in the 1970s, going back to the well would seem to undermine the potential for other creators to gain a favorable contract. After all, if a corporation senses that the creator may renege in 35 years, it may not be willing to concede as much up-front.
Thinking about the cultural changes makes it possible to see the logic behind other negative reactions, even if one doesn’t necessarily embrace them. At a time when creators are regularly negotiating for royalty payments and creator-owned work, the notion of an unconscionable imbalance of power can seem incoherent — it simply doesn’t mesh with what some people see. Similarly, providing for one’s heirs can seem less of an imperative to a generation where every member of the family has the potential, if not the responsibility to become financially self-sustaining.
We can extend this same line of reasoning to fans whose work has never appeared within the pages of a comic book. In a world where everyone is aware of the consumer’s role in shaping corporate action, the very act of buying a comic or posting on a message board can seem like a form of co-creation. Yes, the response that this engenders can seem self-centered, but that sense of co-ownership is a luxury that we enjoy to a significant degree because of what Siegel and Shuster imagined seventy years ago. Before them the comics were something other people made for us to read. Now we are all superheroes, as their creations inspire our dreams.
What happens next in the Siegel litigation is anybody’s guess. Throughout this series I’ve tried to explain the factors that militate in favor of settlement as well as reasons why settlement talks may collapse. I’ve also sought to outline the potential strengths and weaknesses of each side should the Superman and Superboy cases go to trial, along with what might happen if the Siegel and Shuster estates prevail on all their claims.
Nonetheless, while the outcome of the lawsuits is up to the respective parties and the courts, one thing is certain: We are all beneficiaries of the abundant legacy left by Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster and other comics pioneers. They gave us the gift of their boundless imagination, and we have all gained from their work. Whatever tribute we may pay them, it will never reflect all that they deserve.