Friday, July 10, 2009

Fans' anti-Siegel position in Superman case is frustrating

I’ve had more than my share of frustrating moments this week — Why, yes! I have been dealing with the health care industry. How did you guess? — nothing upset me quite as much as getting a message from the DC Comics Movies Group on Facebook that included the following bit of blood-boiling idiocy:
In saddening news, if the heirs of Siegel and Shuster have their way Superman will die in 2013 and DC will cease publication of all related Superman comics. Talk about punch to the collective American nutsuck, right?
I instantly sent a message back to the moderator, Allynd Dudnikov, explaining his claim was factually challenged in the extreme and that I was leaving the group immediately because of it.

What he’s talking about is the most-recent development in the ongoing legal proceeding between the heirs of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel and DC Comics, which produced a minor victory for the publisher and its parent company the other day. But I continue to be amazed at the number of people who profess to be fans of Superman in particular and comic book superheroes in general who propagate this idiotic notion that Warner Bros. and DC Comics are somehow the injured party in this dispute and that the Siegels are opportunistic and greedy people out to deprive the fans of the character they’ve come to know and love.

I’ve written about this before and there are plenty of great sites on the web that recount the facts and provide the original documents (which are fascinating reading and highly recommended.)

I'm not an attorney, but what I undstand from following all is this is that the court decided so far is that his heirs have successfully terminated effective in spring 1999 the transfer of Jerry Siegel’s half of the copyright to the Superman story published in Action Comics #1. That means DC owes the Siegels a share to be determined at trial of the money the character earned in the time since the copyright transfer was reclaimed. Similarly, the estate of Joe Shuster has an opportunity to reclaim the other half of the Action #1 copyright in 2013. Should Shuster’s estate succeed, then DC will lose the complete copyright to that original story and will have to license the rights to it back from the creators to use the elements it introduced or to reprint that story.

This most recent ruling states that when the trial to determine the amount of money owed to the Siegels, it will include only the profits earned by DC Comics, and not of Warner Bros. as a whole. The Siegels had argued that the companies are one and the same — a claim the judge rejected. That means the Siegels’ share will come out of a smaller pie, but it’s still coming.

But it doesn’t mean the end of Superman as he exists today — or will exist tomorrow. While Action #1 introduces some of the most significant elements in the Superman mythos — the orphan sent to Earth from outer space, the alter ego of newspaper reporter Clark Kent, the love interest in Lois Lane, the basic costume and powers such as strength, invulnerability and leaping tall buildings — everything that came after Action #1 is solidly work-for-hire owned lock, stock and barrel by DC Comics for a full 95 years.

And I can’t see it making sense for DC or Warner Bros. to stop putting Superman content out there because they have to pay a percentage of the character’s profits to the Siegels. A percentage of the profits is better than no profits. And neither Warner Bros. nor DC is going to go out of business because the courts say they have to pony up to the Siegels. As Harlan Ellison, a wise and smart man — as well as a terrific writer — said about one time the studio asked him to work without pay: “What is Warner Brothers, out with an eye patch and a tin cup, begging for money?”

As I’ve said before, what’s really shameful in all of this is that this conflict was, in my opinion, unnecessary. Warner Bros. got off to a good start in the mid-1970s by restoring Siegel and Shuster’s credit and establishing an annual stipend. Had they gone a bit further and given them a sum that would have been small for so large a conglomerate but lavish for Siegel and Shuster’s final years. Even just making a big deal of the pair — sending them to festivals, comics shows, putting them on TV every now and again — I think would have done a lot more to put this dispute to rest than taking a hard position that may make good legal and business sense but is morally and ethically bankrupt.

Publishers’ shabby treatment of the folks who create and give life to the comic books we love is truly the great shame of the industry. And it’s not just folks from the past, like Siegel and Shuster, Jack Kirby or Alan Moore who are the sole victims. Ask Hero by Night creator DJ Coffman how work for hire worked out for him at Platinum Studios. And as it becomes harder and harder to make money solely by publishing comics, many of the gains made in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s by folks like Dave Sim, Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman, the Image boys and Neil Gaiman have been pushed back by publishers who need those licensing and movie option dollars to stay in business. A quick look at the indicias and copyright notices on publishers that once used their creator-friendly deals as a selling point with fans will reveal a lot of shared copyrights — and I’ll give you one guess which party has the majority share. I expect this to get worse as more and more people create content — comics and not — with no sense of the lessons learned by the likes of Siegel and Shuster and have to learn this unnecessary lesson all over again.

I have had creators tell me revised contract terms have prompted them to stop working with publishers they had long worked with and take their work to houses like Image, which along with Fantagraphics and one or two other independent publishers, are perhaps the last bastions of creator ownership in comics.

What amazes me is that so many people buy the line that Warner Bros. and DC are entitled to make as much as they can off of Superman without any kind of legal or moral obligation to the Siegels of the world. It’s some strange kind of American corporatist thinking that gives all the power and rewards to the corporate executives who exploit a work and cuts out completely the creative people elements that give a character and a story life in the first place. (Again, I’ve been dealing with the health-care industry in a relatively very minor way this past week. It’s clear and logical to me that if someone is in the position of benefiting themselves, the company they work for or their investors by denying care, then making such a decision even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary is inevitable. And there are such people making that very decision at every level of the American health care system. No wonder the industry has become a black hole for money and morals.)

Given the United States is a country that, particularly of late, has sadly been more pro-business than pro-people, I’m not surprised to see the attorneys and execs for Warner Bros. acting this way. But I wish the fans of Superman, who represents an ideal of fairness above all else, were better represented in the online chatter than by this kind of remark, which exudes above all else a selfishness and short-sightedness that the Man of Steel, were he real, would hardly approve of.

7 comments:

Media Monkey Ninja said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lee Cameron said...

Read the post again. Superman was created years before Siegel and Schuster worked for DC. They sold the completed story to the company and did more Superman work (for hire) after that original story.

DarkKn1047 said...

Here's my problem with the whole thing...Siegel and Schuster are dead. DC paid them for their work on Superman, and yes, they slighted them, especially up until the 1970's, but they were paid, and were reportedly happy with that. Now their HEIRS are trying to make a buck off of a property they had no hand in creating. The people who will now get paid for Superman HAVE NOT AND DO NOT INFLUENCE ANY OF THE STORIES EVER TOLD ABOUT HIM. That seems a little bit odd, right? That's my issue...I have no problem with creators getting paid handsomely for their works, I just don't want people who didn't have anything but the good luck to be related to those creators to profit off of it. DC and Warners are the custodian of a timeless creation. They deserve the rewards for that.

Patrick Lemaire said...

The argument that Siegel and Shuster are dead is weak. After all if one is to follow that kind of reasoning, the people they sold Superman's copyright to are dead too and DC Comics ceased to have independent existence when it was bought by Warner. Just as the current DC and Warner are heirs to the DC of 1938, the Sieger and Shuster are heirs to their relatives.

Jamie Coville said...

Plus I absolutely 100% guarantee you Siegel and Shuster would involved in all this if they were alive. The 2 never felt they got their due from DC. Their *families* know this, which is why they are doing it.

Do you honestly think Jerry Siegel would be okay with his wife and child not getting his full, deserved portion of the income generated from his work while DC, the company that ripped him off continues to rake in millions. Really?

And not that it matters but Siegel's widow did have a hand in the Superman success. She was the physical model of Lois Lane, kept encouraging Joe Shuster to continue to draw when he wanted to quit, was apparently directly responsible for Jerry writing Superman during the mid/late 50's early 60s, and those stories continue to make Money for DC today in collected form.

David O'Conner said...

Media Monkey Ninja also believes that the sky is falling and pop rocks mixed with Coke makes your head explode. Please return to reality before you spawn.

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

There is also the bigger argument for the families to be involved. When Siegel & Shuster took their yearly stipend (handsomely is stretching it a bit), DC still had the National Periodical Publications stamp on each cover, they likely thought they were getting a good deal. And I'll admit in the 80s, I was a bit naive on the ads on the Eclipse comics demanding Marvel give Jack Kirby his art back. But when it comes to a huge corporation, as Warner (or is it still Time-Warner?) is now, you have two choices. One, you fight them and set a preecedent if you win, or, two, you do nothing at all and let the corporation get that much stronger and more confident.

No offense to your first poster (and those on FB), but do they really think DC will simply let the rights to the Superman character be sold to another company? Particularly with consideration to the fact that DC still owns Supergirl, Perry White, the Daily Planet, the Phantom Zone, Luthor, etc. Warner can afford to pay the families, and it wouldn't bother me if it was the great-great-great grandkids who finally win the case. Warner can afford it, DC can afford it, and going back to the 50s, National could afford it. They are and always will be bullies. Same goes for Marvel.