Faster than a speeding bullet; more powerful than a locomotive, able to make Warner Brothers mountains of money in a single bound.
Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane, it’s Superman!
Yes, it’s Superman, strange visitor from another planet who came to Earth to create a new artistic medium. Superman, who can inspire decades of television, cartoons and movies. And who, as a commercial property owned by one of the largest conglomerates in the world ground his creators into dust.
The economics behind the comic book industry aren’t substantially different from how every other industry works. You have the working class; the exploited proletarian artists, and their bourgeois managers reigning in massive profits from their labor. Today we’re going to talk about the character that started it all, Superman.
Our story begins in the late 1920’s, when two students from Glenville High School in Cleveland bonded over their shared love of the pulp fiction and comic strips: Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.
At the time, newspaper comics were big business. They were one of the main reasons people bought newspapers. Collected editions of comic strips were printed as promotional items, but they turned out to be extremely popular. Famous Funnies was the first magazine we would recognize as a “comic book.”
As Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster graduated, they did a familiar thing, they published a fan zine: Science Fiction: The Advance Guard of Future Civilization. In the third issue there was a story named THE REIGN OF THE SUPERMAN, written by Jerry Siegel and with illustrations by Joe Shusher.
This story was a sci-fi short about a mad scientist performing unethical experiments on a vagrant from a breadline. There’s psychic powers and an attempt to rule the world. He is not a strange visitor from another planet.
Famous Funnies was followed by a feeding frenzy by other printers. National Publications, the company that would eventually became known as DC comics, published MORE FUN, which was the first comic book containing all original content not originally published in a newspaper. With issue six Siegel and Shuster joined their ranks with their first work published on a mass level… Henri Duval. He was some kind of 3 Musketeers situation. He went on to appear in five issues of More Fun and he has never shown up since then. Which is shocking. Given his pedigree I’d expect at least a gritty reboot in the 90’s, or a trippy psychedelic appearance in FINAL CRISIS.
Siegel and Shuster kept plugging away on comics. Siegel couldn’t get the name Superman out of his head and he kept workshopping it. Eventually Superman began to resemble his modern form. Siegel and Shuster tried to shop it around to the big newspaper comics syndicates but none of them bought it. National Publications was getting ready to produce a new book of action stories… Action Comics. None of the names were taken yet so most of the comics back then had really obvious names.
Detective Comics, Planet Comics, Jungle Comics… Fight Comics. That sort of thing.
So Siegel and Shuster produced the first proper Superman story. It comes out of the chamber hot. In one page we get Superman’s origin, powers, and a comparison between Superman and insects to I guess make his powers sound a little more plausible or something.
And it doesn’t slow down.
Superman breaks into a governor’s mansion to force a pardon of a wrongfully convicted inmate about to be executed. Next Clark Kent is assigned to investigate his alter ego, but luckily before he can get too into it he gets a hot tip about a wife beating. Superman beats the unholy hell out of this guy, so badly his clothes start disintegrating.
Then he asks Lois Lane out on a date. It goes very badly and Lois ends up kidnapped for some reason. Superman then crashes and destroys the kidnappers car and hangs them from a power-line. The next day Clark is assigned to go down to a fictional South American republic to cover a war, but he decides to go to Washington instead and menace a lobbyist who’s trying to get America involved in the war in Europe.
This is thirteen pages. If this were directly rebooted today each sentence would be six issues and it would have some kind of narrative flow. But this first Superman story grew out of the adventure comics in newspapers. It was designed around a single line of panels at a time and to hint at his future serialized adventures. It was lightning in a bottle.
The sci-fi origin. The costume. The strange powers. The secret identity. The girl-dash-friend.
Siegel and Shuster sold the first Superman story to National Publications for one hundred and thirty dollars.
Pretty much immediately Superman became a media phenomenon. Imitators popped up from every publisher you could imagine. Really, this was the beginning of the comic book industry as we think of it today.
For their hard work Siegel and Shuster got a contract with DC Comics to continue working for them. In the decade after selling the first Superman story to them the duo made around 400,000 dollars, which is actually not too bad for a middle class income adjusted for inflation.
So good job, everyone’s happy, the end, right?
Superman was bringing DC comics–eventually they renamed themselves after their most popular publication, Detective Comics–millions and millions of dollars a year. Superman expanded out of Action comics into his own titular title and Adventure Comics, He had a radio show, cartoons and even a live action serial.
Let me just step back and explain the labor theory of value. Workers create value and sell their labor to the rich and powerful then the rich and powerful use that value to expand their wealth. This is what happens at your job and this is what happened to Siegel and Shuster.
Jerry Siegel got drafted into World War 2 and upon returning stateside he had that realization. He called an old friend who was an attorney and he set about building a case.
Siegel and Shuster sued DC Comics over the rights to the original Superman story from Action Comics #1, the Hollywood accounting DC had done with the radio show, cartoon and other adaptations of the character and from the derivative character of Superboy (er, this version of Superboy is literally just Superman when he was a boy).
The case ended up being a bunch of extremely technical copyright erata. Siegel and Shuster had sold Action Comics #1 to DC, but DC didn’t properly obtain permission to publish Superboy, so Siegel owned that somehow. In the end DC settled with Siegel and Shuster to retain control over Superboy for 94,000 dollars. After legal fees and paying their lawyers, Siegel and Shuster ended up with 17 thousand dollars each.
But suddenly Siegel and Shuster were persona non grata at DC Comics. Neither of them were getting work from their old employer. They went on to create other characters (FUNNYMAN) but none of them had the same lightning in a bottle that Superman had.
Jerry Siegel cobbled together an income from freelance writing and editing, but it was always a struggle.
Joe Shusher kept working in comics, but it’s hard to figure out precisely what he worked on. The publishers on the early 50’s were gun shy about publishing credits after the rights battles over Superman and Batman. Eventually he may have ended up drawing some BDSM porn.
A little more than a decade after their first lawsuit Siegel returned to DC Comics and worked mostly on the Legion of Superheroes, creating Braniac Five, Triplicate Girl, Matter Eater Lad and many others.
But through it all DC Comics was making mountains of money on Superman. There was the live action TV show and even more cartoons by this point. He was one of the major faces of the company and a source of millions upon millions of the dollars they made.
Under the copyright law that existed at the time Siegel and Shuster applied for the copyright extension for their content in Action Comics #1. DC did the same. They sued to regain copyright control of Superman, but ultimately the court decided they had sold their rights to DC decades ago.
Siegel kept worked for Marvel and Archie and wrote some Disney comics. It wasn’t steady work and it wasn’t a great situation.
Shuster’s health was decaying. As his eyesight waned he ended up taking other jobs. In one possibly apocryphal story Shuster had taken a job as a deliveryman and he delivered a package to DC Comics. Someone recognized him and sent him to the CEO’s office, who gave him $100 and told him to get another job.
Around this time a new generation of artists were joining the comics industry. Neal Adams, then a rising star working on Green Lantern/Green Arrow and the Spectre (another of Jerry Siegel’s creations), tried to form a comics artists union. Unfortunately many of the other people working in the industry at the time felt they were damned lucky to be working on the comics they loved as children and went full stockholm syndrome.
But the fight for workers rights in the comics industry was born. Around this same time period you had Jack Kirby fighting with Marvel about his creations (pretty much the entire Marvel Universe) and Steve Gerber agitating for control of Howard the Duck.
In the mid 70’s the Superman movie was announced. It was going to be an immense tent pole event, the most expensive motion picture ever made. It was going to bring in mountains of money.
Meanwhile the creators of Superman were scrabbling together a barely livable income and working odd jobs.
As soon as Jerry Siegel heard about this he put together a press kit to curse DC and their new owner Warner Brothers and spread it as far as he could, which wasn’t far. He eventually managed to score a local TV interview and as luck would have it Jerry Robinson (one of the two guys who created Batman… and just let me tell you, the other isn’t named Bob Kane…) saw it. He reached out to Neal Adams.
Together they reached out to the burgeoning comics press. You couldn’t argue that the creators of one of the largest creative properties in the world should be destitute, barely scraping by. By the time the mainstream media started taking note Warner Brothers finally reached out to talk.
Ultimately they were shamed into paying Siegel and Shuster 20,000 dollars a year and covering their healthcare.
So that’s a great victory. Everybody wins forever. Right?
Well, just the Superman movies alone, that’s ignoring the various cartoons, serials, tv shows, action figures,blankets, coffins and comics, have, adjusted for inflation, made something on the order of two and a half BILLION dollars.
Take their original payments during their original tenure at National (400K->4.5 million), their first settlement (96k->1.2m) and what they’ve made since the Superman movie shame payments (~1.6 m->i’m gonna just back of the napkin math it and adjust half for inflation since 78 and take the rest as is, which is probably being very kind to the inflation).
That gives me around nine and a half million dollars. Just that is less than the 14 million Henry Cavill reportedly made for Man of Steel, and that’s not counting how it got split between two people.
And that’s for a lifetime.
The heirs of the Siegel and Shuster families have made further attempts to wrest the rights for Superman from DC Comics and Warner Brothers. Thus far they haven’t been successful and I don’t hold out a hell of a lot of hope for the future.
The legacy of poverty that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster begun has been lived out by countless comic creators since then. Many other proletarians toil in the mines of Marvel and DC Comics creating great wealth for the bourgeois masters of Warner Brothers and Disney. Billions and billions and billions of dollars.
In recent years the market for comics has transformed a fair amount. Now many creators own their comics themselves and only give publishers limited rights. But few of these properties become the media behemoths of Superman, Batman or the Avengers. You might see the occasional Scott Pilgrim, but it seems unlikely that the latest opening in the Alison Bechdel cinematic universe will open to billion dollar sales.
A better comics industry is possible.