Holy Bat-Hoax; Or, SIEGEL AND SHUSTER’S BAT-MAN

Ten years ago, the Internet might have actually surprised you. On September 26, 2003, regular readers of Comic Book Resources clicked on Mark Millar’s regular “The Column” and stopped.

Simply titled “Orson Welles and the Bat-Man,” Millar’s column on that day halted coffee cups in midair. Millar detailed (for the first time) a newly-discovered cache of scripts, notes, and photos that revealed that Orson Welles wanted to make a Batman film in 1946.

Millar listed actors, experts, and pre-production images detailing an astounding vision of what might have been.The forum boards exploded with nerdthusiasm. In an inverse response of the Batfleck decision, it was all could you imagine?  followed by they should do this now!  If you’ve never read the article, or were too young to have seen it, go read it now. Trust me. I’ll wait for you.

Done?

So the whole thing was a hoax. The art was supplied by Bryan Hitch and it seems like even the editors were in on it. I won’t get into the particulars; maybe CBR can get the outspoken Millar to run a decade-later tell-all. People were upset, but forgave Millar because it was such a brilliant lie. Gregory Peck as Batman? Basil Rathbone as The Joker?!? Back then in 2003, before real Hollywood stars were begging to get Marvel franchises, this was a lie we believed could (and should) have been real, even as just an imaginary possibility. The hoax was Millar’s last column for CBR. Now, ten years later, Millar is making movies and comics that he retains ownership of. And he is still generating controversy.

But that’s not why I’m writing this. I found something of my own that is not a hoax, but reminded me of Millar’s. Ten years ago, when I read that column, I was starting my own long research into the book that would become Super Boys (St. Martin’s, 2013). I was really excited about Millar’s discovery — and disappointed when I found out it was fake. I’m not Mark Millar’s biggest fan (though the first 6 issues of Enemy of the State are perfect comics — up there with Avengers Annual #10), but the Bat-hoax was really inspirational for some reason. Millar’s story made me think that there could be – had to be – real stories and secrets out there. In my book, I ended up finding plenty of unbelievable things (I think) about Siegel and Shuster, the creators of Superman – stories about a mysterious ghost writer, a religious cult, the real Lois Lane, the FBI, secret military work by Jerry, a bulletproof man, a detective who dies named Corrigan, and tons of other secrets – but this post is about Batman. Because I did find something pretty crazy about him, too.

We all know that Superman was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two young Clevelanders who sold ALL OF THEIR RIGHTS AWAY TO SUPERMAN for $130 in 1938, but who continued to chronicle his adventures for ten years. The story of Batman’s creation is very different. As the company sought to capitalize on Superman’s success, the story goes that in early 1939, editor Vin Sullivan gave a young cartoonist named Bob Kane a weekend to create a new superhero. Kane allegedly returned with a sketch of Batman, who then debuted in Detective Comics #27, carrying a gun and wearing purple gloves. Kane’s story also differs because he collaborated with (or outright stole from) a shy writer named Bill Finger, who wrote the early stories in obscurity. For the definitive word on Finger, see Marc Tyler Nobleman and Ty Templeton’s excellent book, Bill: The Boy Wonder and Marc’s additional blog postings here. Kane, due to some slick legal maneuvering and coincidence (he was supposedly under eighteen when he signed his first Batman contract) was able to negotiate a new deal that made him rich.

Obviously, Siegel and Shuster, who sold their caped guy for $130, didn’t much like Batman. They were jealous of Kane’s sweet deal while they fought for $10 raises. In fact, Jerry and Joe thought that their own publisher was deliberately flooding the market with superheroes like Batman to hurt Superman because they were scared of a Jerry and Joe lawsuit. Batman was getting really popular — Jerry himself was drawn into a cameo role (see image) in Batman #13. And though Superman was certainly indebted to the culture around him, he was more of an original concept while Batman relied heavily on existing film and pulp sources, both in content (“The Black Bat”) and visually (Kane’s numerous swipes). This has been documented elsewhere.

In doing research for my book, I attempted to read everything Siegel and Shuster created. One night, eyes closing from too much reading (and probably on a weekend because I had no life), I was at my desk looking at a fading scan of a “Doctor Occult” panel – when I froze:

The panel I saw (pictured first) depicts a shadowy figure with bat wings drawn by Joe Shuster whom Jerry names a “Bat-Man!” This story was created in 1937 and published in the January 1938 issue of More Fun #28. The panel below it is the official 1939 Batman from Detective Comics, though in a reversed composition, with the same spelling of “Bat-man!”

A year later.

The two panels have visual similarities, but here’s where it gets really interesting: two issues after the Doctor Occult story in More Fun, Kane himself began contributing to the magazine, meaning that he surely must have been familiar with Siegel and Shuster’s work. And the editor on More Fun in who gave Kane his first work there? None other than Vin Sullivan, the man who would then allegedly ask Kane to pitch a new superhero to him, just like Siegel and Shuster’s.

Was Kane (or Sullivan himself?) inspired by the creators of Superman to create Batman? Without further proof (or a time platform), we can’t say for sure. Siegel and Shuster’s version (a vampire) certainly has nothing to do with Kane and Finger’s vigilante human hero who stalks the night for evildoers. But the visual similarities, the spelling, and the aligning coincidences of writer, job, date, and editor, are at least worth a pause. 

Maybe.

Ten years ago, the top two comics in September sales were Batman and JLA/Avengers. We like Batman in combinations. We like mixing and matching him, the human, against all the other gods and aliens because conflict helps us define him. Batman is where we find our common ground in superheroes. It’s why Superman vs. Batman is being worked on as we speak. We want to see the underdog; we want to see us.

In his original column, Millar talks about comics stories being respected as emotional narratives worthy of Hollywood:

The superhero is sixty-four years old this year, but it’s only now (and maybe not even now) that he’s attaining some kind of mainstream respectability. Crime, horror, romance and even science-fiction have touched The Academy’s hearts over the years and been lauded as adult or sophisticated in a way that we’ll probably never achieve and the reasons for this are twofold.

The Dark Knight (a Batman film) changed that. That isn’t a coincidence, I think. It had to be Batman. But Millar goes on:

The first is that superheroes look silly in a way that even cowboys don’t. I love them and always will, but Joe Public can’t suppress a smirk when he sees Ben Affleck dressed as the banned fifth member of the Village People.

There you go again. Say what you want about Millar, but he knows our industry, and our culture, very well.

A hoax is a lie that pretends to be the truth. Superheroes are all about that disguise, with their masks and capes and flashy outer underwear. The same goes sometimes for the writers who work on them, struggling in a difficult system of freelancing, corporate ownership, and gaining new readers by any means possible. But it also goes for readers, historians, and fans hungry for connections and truth. Facts and images don’t lie, but they can be read in different ways sometimes. When it comes to superheroes (and I love them too) we want that truth so badly that we take it and make it any way we can — as fiction, history, or an imaginative combination of the two. Isn’t that what they really are anyway?

Jerry and Joe, though they certainly resented Batman, never seem to have mentioned this peculiar panel of a “Bat-man” during their lives – maybe they dismissed it as coincidence, or simply just forgot about it. Or was it something else entirely?

What do you think?

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The Superman Home Movies: Explained

Just this week, Mark Evanier posted a video of Superman Day at the 1940 World’s Fair. Though the footage has been available online for some time, this was the first time it has been noticed by a larger amount of people and fans (Evanier’s blog has lots of followers, for obvious reasons).

As Robot 6, Bleeding Cool, and other sites picked it up, people who had never seen it before responded in astonishment — here were home movies of the first time that National/DC trotted out someone dressed like Superman. Seeing legions of kids with \S/-shields on their shirts being led by Boy Scouts IN AN ELEPHANT PARADE! This was a big moment for the American superhero. Before there could ever be a Hollywood blockbuster with a Hulk and schwarma, this was IT. And it was barely two years after Action Comics #1. And all the original characters are there: Donenfeld, Gaines, Liebowitz — and Jerry with his wife, Bella.

But what are these films, exactly? Where did they come from? I first learned of their existence in 2006 when I saw them on eBay. I contacted the seller (a film dealer) and helped him identify some of the people in the film. I told the families about the listing, too. After lengthy communications with the seller in which I did my best 1989 Young Indy impression (“belongs in a museum”), he agreed to sell DVD copies of the films to me. When they finally arrived nearly a year later (my Dad lent me the money), I sent copies to the families, and deposited a copy in the library (Young Indy for the win). I eventually used some of the footage in my documentary Last Son. A year or so later, Time-Warner bought some of the original 16mm reels from the seller (for thousands of dollars) and included them in their documentary Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics.

As I worked on SUPER BOYS, I began to find more clues as to where the films originated from.  Their pedigree became more complicated (we should expect that by now, right?). What I figured out (and the connect-the-dots are in the book), is that the films were originally Jerry’s. There are a number of segments I have (still unseen by the public) of his home life with Bella playing badminton and drinking cocktails and having a family dinner (personal stuff, so I didn’t really use it). I also think that Joe is the one behind the camera in the Fair footage, which is why we don’t ever see both of them in the same frame. After Jerry’s divorce from Bella, I am fairly certain she kept all the films (the original packages from Eastman-Kodak are addressed to their house, which she kept in the divorce and lived in for the rest of her life). A film camera is also listed in the divorce settlement. She kept a lot of things. When she died, I believe that the films passed down to her and Jerry’s son, Michael. When Michael died in 2006, he was still living in this very same house, alone. So I think the reels of film never moved.

After Last Son first screened, I began to get some calls and emails as to where I got the films. These were not DC people, or the seller, but local people here in Cleveland (lawyers, collection agencies, etc.). As I say in the book, I think (and this is just a theory), that these films were found in Michael’s house after he died — and then somehow ended up on eBay.

Are these films stolen? I don’t know, but I don’t think so. That ominous dash in the previous paragraph aside, I really don’t think there is a big conspiracy here. When single people die and their estates fall into probate, clearing out their stuff before a house can be sold is common procedure. It’s horrible — but it happens every day. Don’t ever let it happen to you.

Maybe someone did drop the ball or miss an email (or didn’t care), but I don’t think anyone was really at fault here — it all seems (sadly) fairly procedural. My theory is that the films were put up for sale or as part of a larger estate deal, and the film dealer eventually bought them, with no idea what they were (I do know that). The fact that no one knew who Michael Siegel was (or what these archaic films might contain) is completely feasible (and forgivable), I think. That’s why those of us who talk about these people and write books about them do the work in the first place.

I didn’t find out about Michael’s death til over a month later. I contacted his lawyer and monitored the case in probate, but there was only so much I could do or get access to.  I found out later that there had been an estate sale, and that I had missed it. What still puzzles me though is that fairly recently, while writing the book, I discovered that even more original reels had been sold on eBay for just over $2,000. Who bought those films, what is on them — and where they got them — remains a mystery.

I also found this: a classified ad in a 1958 page of the New York Times:

There are some things in the past we will never know for sure.  Maybe.

Theories aside, the strange circumstances of the film being made public, to me, don’t matter in the face of their obvious historical value. If something had gone differently along this possible chain of circumstances, we might have never seen Superman Day. And the footage is loaded with clues as to who these people really were. They speak volumes.

If you read the book, you’ll know I did communicate with Michael Siegel before he died. One of the things people really seem interested in is that Mike really liked Superman, despite all the other stuff. I like to think that these movies are kind of Mike’s legacy — we never got to hear his full story, but he (in a way) allowed us to see these things by keeping them safe for all those years. Whether he would want them made public or not, I cannot say, just as I can’t say for sure how they ended up in public at all, or even if they should have. But they did, and they offer the essential version of what Superman is — an iconic image best celebrated by childhood. What we see in the film is real — and not Hollywood.

As great as Superman Day was (and we can see that), it was also, I think, the last day of the Golden Age of Comics. It was Superman’s highest point, and also the moment where Jerry realized that he was nothing more than a cog in a machine. And the day after the event, this one we can now watch in a digital conversion of flickering 16mm film, a terrorist’s bomb ripped through the fairgrounds, causing death and dissension to a nation already concerned about war. Coming home from this event, I think that’s when Jerry really decided that things had to change.

Here are more of the films, from the digital versions I purchased, which I present here for educational purposes. This is the actual awards ceremony that crowned Supergirl and Superboy. For more on their identities, see the great site Superman Thru The Ages, which has a letter from the actual Superboy, William Aronis.

Here is footage of Joe, c. 1939, with friends at a lake excursion. Watch for a cameo of Jerry, too.

Still think Joe was a geek?

Here is some footage from 1940 of Jerry and his wife Bella visiting the Empire State Building in New York. By 1940, Jerry was comics-famous and making lots of money. We always tend to think of these guys as bitter old men, not young creators who were literally living out their dreams. So it’s good to see this — the happy moment, on top of the world — sealed on film. It was not all bad. That’s good to know — and see.

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COMIC-CON, CONQUERED

Not really.  I haven’t been for a few years, so I forgot how overwhelming it is. For all of its problems and things worthy of criticism though, there is still nothing like it: crazy, expensive, beautiful. Frustrating but liberating. Like France. I hope you can go sometime.

This time was different too because I was actually there for work. And that was really cool. When I used to go, I would give a paper or be on a panel, but as a fan, I was also overcome with this huge desire to be part of it in more significant ways. I think a lot of people who go feel exactly the same way.

So…Superman. The DC display was very nice — they displayed all of the costumes from the movies (including Superman Returns) in these giant tubes like the memorial ones in the Batcave (symbolism?). They even had the Clark Action Messianic Fishing Gear Outfit. I wish they would have had some Lois stuff there too, but oh well. Otherwise, the DC booth had lots of MAD branding which seemed sort of odd, but not really given the success of their kids show.

I did go to the official DC Superman at 75 panel. I’m always sort of confused by how unorganized these things are — no video package, no format, just (mostly) dudes on a stage.

But what an impressive collection of dudes:

 

From right: Paul Levitz, Jack Larson, Dan Jurgens, Molly Quinn (the lone woman), GRANT MORRISON, Dylan Sprayberry, Jim Lee, Tim Daly (?), David Goyer, and Henry Cavill.

That’s some Last Supper. They just kind of talked with no format. Molly Quinn talked about her relationship to Supergirl. Morrison, of course, called Kal-el the Sun God. Molly looked at him like he was radiating beta waves or something. I got a genuine thrill out of seeing him. Huge fan of The Invisibles. I actually wore a blank badge on my backpack for about two years.

About halfway in, Levitz said something about “thanks to Jerry and Joe” and it went unheeded. Later on, when the moderator (in a t-shirt) asked what everyone’s favorite piece of Superman memorabilia was, Levitz said it was one of the bricks from Jerry Seigel’s house — which the Siegel and Shuster Society (w/ Brad Meltzer) made happen as part of the restoration of the house. So that was nice. Overall, it was a good panel. Not the “celebration” I was expecting, but certainly lots of talent. Jack Larson got an Inkpot Award, and shared some stories. No Lois. And no offense DC, but you could have sprung for t-shirts.

The big Superman/Batman announcement had been made about an hour or so before, so everyone already knew. Goyer made clear that they weren’t sure if it would be called “Superman vs. Batman” or “Batman vs. Superman.” Versus.

I also signed over at Trickster. It was (thankfully) away from the madness at an awesome bar/bowling place (Market Tavern Bowl) where I could sit and drink beer(s). Luckily, I was saved by pal Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson (yes, that Wheeler-Nicholson; she blogs here)  and Jeff Trexler who was the focus of the legal panel. We talked a long time about shadowy conspiracies. I spent all my money at Trickster (thanks Anita). Pope, Mahfood, and Michael Golden were there so I was kind of dazed.

On Sunday, I was part of a panel on the lawsuit, and it was one of the best Superman panels I’ve ever been a part of. From left: Jeff Trexler, moderator Heidi MacDonald, me, and Pete Coogan (our host).

Heidi is a first ballot Hall-of-Famer. She used a chronological framework that worked really well for a relaxed, kind of Meet the Press (Russert era) conversational vibe. The room wasn’t completely packed, but it was attentive, as we reached a good mix of me spinnin’ yarns and Jeff offering absolutely aces legal explication. At one point, I told the crazy Howard Cosell story I tell in the book and Heidi actually impersonated the Humble One.

Like I said, the room was not full. Yet two major Time-Warner VIPs, one current, one former, were in the front row.

The stalwart Jamie Coville (with Catron, one of the medium’s major archival historians) taped the panel, so I’m sure he will have it soon (I’ll link to it here). UPDATE: Jamie has it posted (already!) at First Comic News. We all owe Jamie a big thanks — if you can’t go, he brings it to you. His work is of immense value to historians and fans alike.

Heidi’s last question on this, which she called comics’ “most important story” was simply “what-if?” My answer was that I wished the families could have shared in the celebration this year. Jeff’s wish was that Joanne Siegel could have enjoyed the fame and recognition she deserved in her last years. The night before, as we left the Con, we saw them setting up the Superman VIP party — complete with Fortress of Solitude structures and Superman lamps shining on the masses huddled in the Gaslamp below.

Overall, I had a great time and think DC did a nice job (at the Con, not the party). Not that my opinion matters. We knew they wouldn’t go out of their way, but the story was there, in the underneath. In the end, Superman was everywhere, which was really good to finally see.

But ha, nice location branding, Sony.

 

Thanks as well to Mysterious Galaxy who went out of their way to let me have a guerrilla signing there. If you want to buy cool signed books from the Con, head to their website. The response to my book from some unlikely people was really encouraging. Same with retailers. Otherwise, I got to hang out with my editor Michael Homler and talk Optimus Prime and other stuff. We walked around with Greg Weisman for about twenty minutes until I realized who he was (rookie mistake). He had some stories.

It was also great to see people like Craig Yoe, Bud Plant, Mike Catron, Matt Smith (the real one), and Bill Vuk, who I began my comic career with when we split up a collection of borrowed Invaders that we both devoured in two nights. And great to finally meet Heidi MacDonald. The big misses were not running into Sean Wicks (King of Blu-ray @WixPix) and Glen Weldon, author of Superman: The Unauthorized Biography (his NPR diary for the Con also is a must-read). The place is just too nuts to see everyone. But thanks also to Caroline, Duke, and Chris for coming out as support — though they saw more panels than me. Caroline saw Harrison Ford. I said “No, you saw Han.” Her: “No, I saw Indy.”

But this did happen:

I was debating with someone if we trudge to Comic-Con to do this stuff to recapture our childhoods, but I don’t think it’s that. It’s more like retribution or vindication or just plain old exhibitionism. Or science-fiction made science-real at last. Either way, being on the stage standing next to a Nova Centurion within arm’s reach of the Star-Lord helmet was . . . pretty mind-boggling.

 

Speaking of the House of Ideas, congrats to Sean Howe for winning a well-deserved Eisner Award for his Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. Easily the most entertaining book I’ve read all year. Go pick it up — it is an obvious passion project, which is the best kind of writing to read. 

Sean wasn’t at the Con, but had Tom Spurgeon read a letter of acceptance for him:

 

Thank you for this tremendous honor.

I’d like to thank the dedicated scholars of the past and present, for ensuring that the historical details of the comic-book medium, and its attendant industry, are never forgotten. There’s still a wealth of information about our heritage that resides exclusively in dusty old files, curling mimeographed fanzines, and shoeboxes filled with photos, many of which are hopelessly neglected in garages or hoarded in basements. If you feel a shudder of recognition at that description, there are bright-eyed staffers at comic research libraries that would love to hear from you.

I’d also like to express my gratitude to those generous souls who shared their memories with me, who entrusted me with their stories and opened my eyes. It’s always been my hope that this book would serve as a reminder that credit should always rest with the men and women behind the comic books. No company has ever created a comic book, or a character, on its own — for that you need the creativity of individuals. I know you know this, but… sometimes we forget. Sometimes there are very enthusiastic consumers who will excitedly name the holder of a trademark but have no idea who sat behind a desk or a drawing table in 1966 and just let their imagination wander.

Maybe it’s not too late to change that. Thanks.

 

“Sometimes we forget,” but “not too late.”

And this last photo just because there is still some wonder to it all, when the imagination is left to wander:

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The 75th Anniversary of Superman at Comic-Con

Comic-Con week!

I will be on this panel:

The Secret History of the Siegel and Shuster Lawsuits (10:30AM-11:30AM; Room 26AB)—Five years after the Siegel heirs won a historic victory and regained a share of the Superman copyright, a higher court has set aside the verdict and also shut down the Shuster estate’s claim. As we face the final chapter of the Superman copyright dispute, this panel will explain what is really happening. What crucial details were overlooked or misinterpreted? Is there still hope for other creators?  Or does Superman’s 75th anniversary mark the end of truth, justice and the American dream?  Moderated by The Beat’s Heidi MacDonald with commentary by Siegel and Shuster biographer Brad Ricca (Case Western Reserve University), this panel features the legal analysis of Jeff Trexler (Fordham Law School), whose influential commentary on the Superman lawsuits set a new standard for comics-related legal analysis and also became part of the case.

This will be good — potentially with some major surprises (potentially not hyperbole), so don’t miss it. If you want a signed copy of Super Boys, come to this panel. That’s all I can say.

Otherwise, I will also be over at the offsite oasis known as TR!CKST3R:

TR!CKST3R was started by Pixar artists and celebrates creator-owned stuff, so of course it is the perfect place to sell Super Boys.  

And, what I am really happy about, I contributed an article about Jerry and Joe to the Con program. Very happy about that.

So it’s always kind of a nerd debate, but I don’t think there would be an original Con in 1970 if superhero comics had not taken off. And despite how out-of-context The New York Times quotes me (#problems), while I do think that somebody would have eventually come up with a superhero, it would not have been Superman. The character is just too unique. We might now be getting excited about Talkie-Con or Bravo-Con or Sharknado (sorry, can’t do it) -Con in that alternate reality. There is a very good chance it wouldn’t be Comic-Con.

The more conspiracy-minded people around me think it’s a little strange that the only panel that says anything about Siegel and Shuster is one about the lawsuit…at 10:30 AM on Sunday…opposite the Kirby panel with NEIL GAIMAN. I tell them there are three “Superman at 75″ panels (one with Morrison), but they note they are all DC-approved. Mark Waid, Glen Weldon and I proposed a panel about Superman’s anniversary, but it was rejected. Too bad — we had big plans. BIG plans. Maybe the world wasn’t ready. We would have talked about Vartox, the real person behind Bizarro, and heard Mark’s very quiet, thoughtful remarks about Man of Steel. Glen will be at the Con promoting his book and covering it for NPR. But no panel, so find him on Twitter @ghweldon in case we can host an impromptu salon somewhere probably nowhere.

There is an official Superman at 75 party:

Saturday Night. DC Entertainment and Warner Bros. Entertainment celebrate 75 years of Superman. 8:30 p.m.-midnight, Float Rooftop Bar, Hard Rock Hotel. Invitation only.

There are zero unofficial Superman parties. That being said, I think Comic-Con ITSELF is the unofficial party. And that’s maybe how it should be. This isn’t sour grapes, I’m kind of joking around to make a point. Superman, our Superman, is the triumph of the meek, the nerd, the awkward. Let’s face it, Clark would only get invited to a LexCorp party as a power move anyway (and would probably spill the shrimp cocktail). Lois would surely get invited — but she’d leave.

So no, despite what my Kremlinologist colleagues whisper at me, it is actually not the end of the world that there isn’t a giant Siegel and Shuster celebration at Comic-Con this year with giant gold statues and hologram replicants on panels. Far, far, from it. If there were, I’d probably be making fun of that instead.

 

The point of Superman — the whole story, really — was the triumph of the underdog. This is still how it is — and there is a lot of power there.

I’ve talked about who really owns Superman before. After Man of Steel, it is definitely the fans who have bankrolled/Kickstarted another ten-year franchise. Whether you like the film or not, it is you who are in control of the story (come on, you know there will now be massive punishment/introspective soliloquies before Supes forgives himself in #2). The people at that party know that. We should, too.

I’m not going to lie, if I was invited to that DC party, I would totally go. But 131 people (thanks Jeff Trexler) have already posted that they are going to our panel, so I’ll be getting ready for that instead. I am bringing a book to Comic-Con about Superman — and I still can’t believe it. Dream come true (Ed. update: still not invited).

Now that I have to miss the Kirby panel with @NeilHimself, I am reminded of Gaiman’s article “The Myth of Superman” from 2006:

Superman is different because he doesn’t really belong to the writers who’ve created his adventures over the last 68-plus years. He has evolved into a folk hero, a fable, and the public feels like it has a stake in who Superman “really” is . . . the specific stories we tell about Superman – the what-happened and what-he-did – don’t matter that much. Superman transcends plot. We retell his tales because we wish he were here, real, to keep us safe. Everyone knows the Superman story.

You might think this quote is a bit problematic about creator rights, but he’s right. Superman is bigger than ©Superman. And I think that a big part of that balancing act of transcendence — that story – is how he was created. For me, that’s how the story — as underdog, as fighter — is always maintained. The story of Jerry and Joe makes Superman as mythic as any flash of heat vision ever could. Even better because it is real. That’s how we should be positively celebrating the character — not just with history and panels and collectibles, and who owns what, but with our own imaginations. Our own launches into open space. Superman is, for me, always a story about making art — just as much as it is about punching Brainiac into space.

I disagree with Neil a bit though. No one thinks of Superman as real. They think of themselves as him. That’s the secret. That’s why we make our way west in July. We don’t want to get rescued. We want to put aside the glasses, open up the shirt, and take that first step up — in a positive act of defiance. We want to act in a slightly strange, slightly dangerous way. Superman, even in his earliest incarnation, can leap several stories into the air.

Stories.

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Silence over (Legal) Superman; Or, China Says “WoW”

Two weeks ago, as you probably know, the decades-long legal battle between the Siegel (and by extension, Shuster) families against Time Warner Inc. over who owns Superman came to a kind of, sort of, maybe end. I won’t go over the whole timeline; suffice to say it took a long time. Check Trexler at The Beat (again) to get up to legal speed on the ramifications of the case.

It was a big deal, a landmark case of creator trying to get back his creation. Of course, it was not that simple, but it was painted in those broad cartoon strokes: Clark Kent vs. Lex Luthor, David vs. Goliath, the Starving Artist vs. The MBA/JD Suits. We like mythologizing these things. Almost every website googled up some Superman-court-judicial image (SEARCH: “Superman” “trial”) to accompany their reporting of the progress of the case .

The end ruling came that the Siegels will get an earlier settlement, a very substantial one, but they will not have any ownership of the character, though they will, allegedly, still participate in royalties, which is very owner-like. The Shusters get the settlement they had always had, which is much, much less. No one is talking about that, either.

The Siegels could still try an appeal to the Supreme Court, but people smarter than me say this is remote. But never say never. DC played the long game, some argue, and it worked. Though “worked” is a very relative term: Jerry, Joe, and Joanne Siegel, Jerry’s widow and the model for Lois Lane, died before seeing the end of the case.  There’s more to be said there that I just don’t want to imagine. But there may be a longer game at hand. You know the families’ names now. Their story will always be entwined with that of the character, copyright or not. That is a different kind of ownership. And, along with the unprecedented settlement, a substantial sort of victory.

What I don’t get is that this, the big, true news comics story of the last two decades (right?), finally ends — and yes there was coverage everywhere, for maybe a day, but people (fans, creators, punditos) are SILENT AS LORD BOLTAGON. No one is saying anything. Fans too seem apathetic, either mystified by the numbers and legalese or in outright denial.

Has the story passed us by? Is it now a quaint WIkipedia entry from a bygone age? Or has the switch now been flipped on a fully operational Death Star? Corporate comics, post-Avengers and with this decision, seem to be more powerful than ever. Superman began, unequivocally, as the ultimate indie comics creation. But you can see the plus to corporate ownership: DC Comics kept Superman in popular culture for 75 years — this is not an easy task in America. But what does it tell the people who imagine things? What does it tell the kid who just got out his best crayons?

Or is it just that we don’t know which side won?  And what that is?

As always, CHINA KNOWS THE ANSWER. In faraway Changzhou, a brand-new amusement park called “Joyland” just opened, dedicated to the monstrously popular World of Warcraft MMORPG. Complete with grim, towering statues and speeding rides, the park cost $48 million to build. According to reports, it is not owned, approved, or sanctioned by Blizzard Entertainment, the company behind WoW. It is completely unauthorized.

And it is already open.

What th-? Why? How?  Surely Blizzard knows about it. Photos and video are on Reddit. The photos on Imgur have over 64,418 views. So why is this park still open? Is Blizzard weighing — or have they already — the cost of shutting this thing down against the good PR it gives them among their fans who keep their product sucking bandwidth? Or is this the new model for continued popularity of a colossal IP in the transmedia age? Lucas did it with letting fan films go — + Family Guy, + Robot Chicken — and now everyone’s talking/caring about a new Star Wars film. In the face of tons of vocal nerd backlash, he, in some ways, gave the property back. He let people participate. He let them play.

DC did the same in 1975 with Jerry and Joe when they gave them a settlement even though they had no legal mandate to do so. Could it do the same now in regards to evening out the settlements? DC just settled with a freaking barber shop in Florida over copyright infringement. As you will see in the book, Joe Shuster was ABSOLUTELY the co-creator of the character, not “just the artist.” You will be surprised.

What Joyland perhaps tells us is that now, in the era of big corporate owned entertainment over multiple digital platforms (Blizzard is owned by Vivendi of France) and especially during a recession, the ownership of characters does not mean the control of consumption. Transmedia characters begged to be played with. The toys must be shared. Should that approach include the creators as part of a good business plan? What this means for Superman is unclear: will Time Warner offer an equitable deal to the Shusters? Will both families join with DC to celebrate the character’s 75th anniversary in a united front? Will DC license Superman to Image for a yearlong series by Rick Remender and Paul Pope? Or Hope Larson? Better yet, why would we assume these creators would even want to go near these properties? As with Joyland, is ownership over our giant fictions now a relative term? Or could they do something bigger for the overall problem of character ownership and royalties? Or are we due for more silence, and uncertainty from all sides about the state of the artists in the art.

On Google today, work for hire with the promise of fame:

UPDATED: Jeff Trexler just contributed another great post about what the parties *could* do over at The Beat. It is really hopeful, which is why I love it. But it also again highlights the tremendous cost of this case on the families. My book is unauthorized, but the Siegels and Shusters are good people. Can’t ever say that enough.

 

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