Beard: Who should own the rights to Superman?


In 1938, two young lads from Cleveland saw their dream come true. After several years of peddling their creation, a dynamically costumed man of super-human strength and endurance, National Periodical Publications (NPP) agreed to not only publish the boys’ crimebuster, but make him the star of their new title, Action Comics. Then, in a move that would have ramifications for decades to come, the two young creators sold their “Superman” to NPP for a few hundred dollars, signed, sealed and delivered. For them, there were other characters to create, more hills to climb and more horizons to seek.

From that moment on, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s die was cast. Years of struggling in the comics industry, of eking out a living paycheck to paycheck, lay ahead of them. And Superman? He flew and flew high, the perfect synthesis of dream and idea, with a dash of legend and archetype for good measure. And he made money — lots and lots and lots of money for the company that would become DC Comics and eventually be part of the Time Warner conglomerate. Siegel and Shuster had signed the back of a check as brash young men full of vim and vigor and sealed their fates forever.

At the ends of their lives, DC, after pressure from other creators, agreed to a stipend for Siegel and Shuster, a tiny corner of the Superman block. After their deaths, the men’s estates asked for more and brought the power of the legal machine along with them. Years of litigation followed — the families were only asking for what was right, they reasoned, an acknowledgment from DC that Superman put it on the map and that it had never fully compensated the cartographers. In 2001, a judge awarded the plaintiffs millions of dollars. Victory was at hand.

Then, a lawyer named Marc Toberoff entered the picture and said to the heirs of Siegel and Shuster, “You can have more. Trust me.” And so, with the families’ blessings, he filed for more, namely the copyrights to the Superman character. In 2008, another judge awarded partial rights to the estates, an unprecedented victory for the “little people” of the comics industry.

The Man of Steel looked toward a very strange future, indeed. End of story? No, not by half. On Jan. 10, in yet another court, the 2008 ruling was declared null and void by a judge, and the 2001 cash award was upheld. Toberoff had inadvertently cost the estates the rights to one of the most popular fictional characters of all time with a few imprecise words in 2001 that have now been ruled as legal and binding. The Siegels and Shusters get their millions, but Superman stays with DC.

As the dust from the fracas clears, the question remains: Who should own Superman? The courts say what is legal, but what is right? In whose hands would the world’s greatest super-hero be rightfully safe and sound?

Comic fans are split right down the middle in their opinions, but one might assume that the industry’s veteran creators would side with the “little guy.” As it turns out, that’s not an entirely safe assumption. “Seventy-five years after he was published, Superman has evolved beyond Siegel and Shuster’s original unsophisticated conception,” said novelist and journalist Will Murray, himself a past scripter of Superman as well as the writer behind “The Destroyer” series of novels. “The Man of Steel no longer represents the personal vision of two aspiring Depression-era kids. Taller, more polished and powerful, encrusted by a mythology his creators would not recognize, he is clearly and unmistakably a corporate creature. In that sense, the 21st-century Superman — whose chest symbol was modeled after the old Warner Bros. emblem — belongs to Time Warner.”

Two former DC staffers and longtime comic book creators and novelists in their own right would seem to agree with Murray. “In an ideal universe, all creations would belong to their creators,” opined Paul Kupperberg, writer of more than 600 comic stories, many of them Superman-related. “But we’re hardly living in an ideal world, and I’ve been in the business long enough to know that most creators know the rules going in, even back in the [day of the] bad old ‘work for hire’ contract stamped on the back on the check that had to be signed and agreed to in order to cash the check.”

Bob Greenberger, former editor for both DC and Marvel and well-known “Star Trek” novelist, perhaps summed it up best when he said, “Siegel and Shuster ignored their editor’s advice to use a lawyer, and then repeatedly sued and lost. They willingly signed the check, knowing the company would own the character and stories in their totality. Yes, DC’s management treated them shabbily for decades, but their eagerness for publication trumped good business sense.”

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