Shuster Heirs Lose Final Appeal

Over at The Beat, Jeff Trexler explains and analyzes yesterday’s decision that affirmed that the Shusters could not terminate their half of the Superman copyright. According to Deadline, WB said that ”We are obviously very pleased with the court’s decision.” Jeff provides his usual incisive commentary:

Is it fair that the Shuster heirs only secured a meager pension while the Siegel heirs stand to gain tens of millions of dollars in exchange for the same rights? Arguably not, but from a legal perspective it’s a cautionary tale as old as the biblical story of Jacob and Esau, who sold his precious birthright for some lentil soup. Immediate benefits can be extremely costly in the longer term, especially if an attorney isn’t on hand to negotiate a better deal.

Read Jeff’s entire analysis here. Also news articles at Deadline and Variety. You can read the actual (unpublished) decision here.

I’ve made my opinion known on the Shuster side of the case before. The lawsuit is as complicated, dramatic, and unbelievable as any issue of Superman ever was. But it is real, and thus completely separate in a way that affects real people through (literally) life and death decisions. I present all sides (there are more than two) in the book so you can make up your own mind. Many people have told me that they really liked the way I did the lawsuit — though they hated having to read it.

So in footnote #1 of this new court document:

Cue me blinking. I know other authors and collectors who have worked with lawyers on both sides of this case in terms of providing information — I have not. It’s kind of cool to be part of the record, but it still feels a little strange.

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Coming Clean: The Siegel-Shuster “Bat-man” Theory

There was some interesting response to my Siegel and Shuster “Bat-man” theory. Over at The Beat, “Did Bob Kane swipe Batman from Siegel and Shuster?”:

As I said, the frequent mentions of hoaxes, made me suspicious of this but in a tweet, Ricca says it’s not a hoax…That said, if it were it would be a pretty clever gag…And the truth is both Shuster and the swipe-happy Kane were drawing on familiar Dracula images. So this is almost certainly a case of swiping the same influence.

Still…interesting.

That’s a good way of understanding it. Whatever this panel is, both sets of creators were both definitely prone to similar influences. They liked that bat stuff. But is it a hoax?  Well…

Here are the facts:

1. Siegel and Shuster’s “Bat-man” appeared in More Fun Comics #28 in January 1938 in a story titled “Vampire Venom” (sorry for the date correction from the first post — grabbed the wrong reference). This issue was edited by Vin Sullivan.

2.  Bob Kane started working on More Fun Comics #31 with “Ginger Snap,” so he probably knew the magazine well. Vin Sullivan gave him the work.

3. In 1939, a year later, Kane was given the opportunity to create a superhero like Superman by Vin Sullivan. The conversation allegedly began with Kane asking Sullivan how much Siegel and Shuster were making.

 

4. The Batman we know that was finally approved (and which contained many swipes of other sources) featured the scalloped cape and the spelling of “Bat-man.”

These are facts. Unfortunately, people who do have copies of More Fun #28 dont want to crack their CGC cases and take photos. Here is the original I used — a shadowy microfiche copy. This site offers the whole issue, which gets us closer to a confirmation.

The hoax might be what we can take away from this. Can we know for sure that this image inspired our Batman? Not without more evidence. But I agree with Steven Thompson (who comments after the Beat article) — it’s not just the pulpy cultural battiness that plays into the image (including The Bat Whispers, a 1930 film based on a play that Joe drew a poster for in high school), and the Springheel Jack/Dracula bat-cape that is enticing, but that name — Bat-manall under a common editor.  And timing: Siegel and Shuster’s version was published about a year before Detective #27.

The black hole in the middle of this is the fact that Kane was not the sole creator of the character. I am not a Batman scholar, so I’ll tell you the same thing I tell everyone who asks why my next book is not about Batman: 1) because it’s messy and 2) see Marc and Ty’s book. Batman’s creation seems largely economic to me, which isn’t as interesting (though the character itself going forward obviously is, arguably more interesting than Superman — for that Bat-stuff, wait for Glen Weldon’s eventual book). All I am claiming here is that this image was within reach to all three parties: Sullivan, Kane, and Finger (who was writing for Kane as early as 1938).

I brought up the Millar hoax to illustrate how discoveries like this really tend to capture our imaginations — and then run away with them. We have to be careful. After all, this is just a small panel in a comic book from 1938. And it is absolutely drawing on the writhing mass of bat imagery that both teams of creators absorbed. But the panel is real. So what does that mean? I like to think of it in the context of Holmes’ famously overquoted When you have eliminated the impossible” spiel — but with a twist. With these facts, the notion of Siegel and Shuster inspiring the Batman cannot be eliminated as impossible. 

It is on the table.


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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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Who Was Superman at the World’s Fair? Part Two

In case you missed it, there is raging simmering controversy over a longstanding claim (and one I repeat in the book) that Ray Middleton, an up-and-coming local New York actor, played Superman at the 1940 New York World’s Fair. See previous post here (or just scroll down = exercise). There is another good recap at Tenth Letter.

After lots of disagreement in the comments (Mark Evanier also posted on it again), I did some more hunting, but with no luck. So until we can find more primary evidence, I asked an expert to look at the evidence we already have.

Linda Budinoff Spurlock is a biological anthropologist with a Ph.D. from Kent State University in Biomedical Sciences who specializes in forensic art and scientific illustration. Her work with facial and head reconstruction helped solve the ‘Deerfield Joane Doe Case’ and was integral in the 2000 civil ‘retrial’ of the infamous Sam Sheppard case (which inspired The Fugutive). 

I gave Linda all of the photos we’ve looked at; this is her response:

After viewing the various pictures of Ray, I can see that his chin and nose often look different in some, depending on his facial expression and camera angle.  For example in the ’1950 Ray Middleton profile’ (right), his chin looks strong and projecting, much like the Superman profile from the parade. 

Too bad the ‘supermansameday’ parade picture (left) isn’t more clear.  I cannot ‘exclude’ Middleton as Superman in that picture because of the quality, and also because the facial proportions are so very similar.  This means there is not even one clear difference that would indicate that Superman was played by someone other than Middleton.

If the parade picture was clearer and I could tell that Superman really did have a strong bend in the bridge of his nose (which seems to be there) then Middleton would be excluded since his nasal bridge is obviously quite straight.


Visit Dr. Spurlock’s website here. She is also a professional archaeologist and is co-editor of Caves & Culture: 10,000 Years of Ohio History.
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Who Played Superman at the World’s Fair?

At Comic-Con, a few people asked me “So what do you think of the World’s Fair controversy???” I had no idea what it was (hey, I’ve been busy). After being filled in by Mike Catron, I think I’ve traced it back here to a guy named “Nostalgia King” who asked: “Q. How was Ray Middleton found to play Superman?”

What NK is talking about is Superman Day at the 1940 World’s Fair (more here on the Fair and the terrorist bombing that followed), where someone dressed up like Superman for a big, crazy parade that marked (I think) the beginning of Superman as franchise.

 

The newspaper accounts (and later media coverage) of who the actor was have always been deliberately mysterious and smack of hype: by not providing a name, the thought could lodge in all those kids’ minds You don’t think…….naahhh. But since the mid-seventies when someone wrote into DC and identified the guy as Ray MIddleton (a Broadway star), the association stuck. Like much of Superman history — somebody says something once and it mysteriously turns into fact. So that’s the great lesson of this whole mini-controversy (Raygate?) — don’t take anything for granted. I said it was Ray in the book. Was I wrong? Was it Ray or someone else?

Legendary comics/TV historian Mark Evanier recently weighed in on it (he thinks it was Middleton) and Steven Thompson continues to collate much of the discussion and evidence in an effort to reach a definitive conclusion. They both have good photos, dead-ends, and other ideas.

The arguments against Middleton are a) he was a judge in the Superboy/Supergirl contest (also part of the festivities) so he couldn’t be in two places at once, b) the Superman guy parts his hair on the other side, and c) they don’t look alike (see b.)

First off — does this whole question matter? Clearly, National and Duke Ducovny (who promoted the Fair event) wanted it to be mysterious. As I write in the book, this is where they saw how big this character in a cape could get. When you watch the movies, you can really see and feel this firsthand. It was the kids leading Superman, not the other way around.

For a), the parade and contest were separated by several hours so he definitely could be in both places at once. The following question then of why Middleton? is because he was already there. He was part of the big American Jubilee patriotic extravaganza at the Fair. His main role was of Abraham Lincoln. During the show, he would appear in the actual carriage (allegedly) that Lincoln rode to Ford’s Theater. This is Ray as the Great Emancipator:

The other celebrity judges of the Superboy/Supergirl contest (which also erupted in soccer mom controversy — see the book) were also already at the Fair in other roles. The better choice for Superman might have been Johnny Weissmuller, who I argue in the book was a physical model for Superman. But whether Johnny was too expensive, busy at the Aquacade (more likely), or too famous for what they wanted to accomplish (a very interesting possibility), they went with Ray.

For b) and c), I found another photo that is much closer in terms of POV. Both of these photos were taken on the very same day, a few hours apart.

So what do you think? I see them as the same person, but I am not using any kind of ultraviolet forensic technique other than the gut test. The obvious difference is the hair part, but that is easily changed, especially if they were trying to keep his identity mysterious — you couldn’t have the judge looking exactly like Superman. Though it is worth pointing out that in the 1940 comics, Superman did part his hair on the left. Still: look at how messy Ray’s hair is on the right — almost as if it was a victim of a recent restyling.

I sort of can’t believe I wrote that last sentence. But this is what history is sometimes.

My last bit of evidence is that I checked into the official Ray Middleton papers, which are housed at the University of Wyoming’s American Heritage Center. Assistant reference archivist Rachael Dreyer had this to report to Superman Nation:

Thank you for your patience as I researched your request regarding Ray Middleton’s 1940 World’s Fair appearance as Superman. I reviewed all of the boxes that contained newspaper clippings, publicity materials, and scrapbooks, as well as a box that appeared to contain correspondence from the early 1940s.

Unfortunately, the only materials that were related to the World’s Fair were programs that pertained to the show “American Jubilee,” which ran during the New York World’s Fair. Middleton is listed as a performer and the songs he sang appeared in print as well, but nothing about his Superman appearance or roles at the Fair. Once of the scrapbooks alluded to Middleton being awarded the “male leading role,” but did not give specifics as to what this role might have been.

So what was that “male leading role?” Maybe it’s more interesting if we don’t know for sure. Though if Ducovny and National were looking at head shots trying to find their Superman, it is easy to see them going for Ray Middleton’s:This whole discussion has also brought the home movies back into larger discussion. I’ve had a lot of people asking about them and have been thinking about posting them.  Check back soon maybe.

 

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Steranko!

So this happened on Twitter last night:

Was I totally fishing for that? You better believe it. @iamsteranko is Twitter at its best. It’s funny because last time I saw him, he was at an out-of-the-way table at the New York Comic-Con, selling prints and just standing around in a thin gray suit and turltleneck looking like a trim, 1967 superspy. Now, thanks to his Twitter Renaissance, I have no doubt he will be an invited, featured guest at next year’s Comic-Con. All these critics compare my book to Kavalier & Clay saying that Jerry and Joe inspired Chabon’s novel. They really didn’t, at least not that much. Steranko did.

But dumb Twitter-bragging aside, I wasn’t kidding: his History of Comics, Vol. 1 really was my model. I had to save up to buy one on eBay. When I got it, I read the whole thing in one sitting. He made comics history pulpy, a bit dangerous, and inserted a lot of actual narrative (Jerry Siegel woke up…etc. etc.) — that’s the kind of history that I felt really reflected what comics are. Some of the style of my book is in direct homage to him. Not Kavalier & Clay. Steranko also had great, unique discoveries — his stuff on the pulps’ relationship to superheroes is still must-reading. And all this from an artist and storyteller who used to be an escape artist. 

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Review at MTV Geek

Patrick A. Reed reviews SUPER BOYS over at MTV Geek:

But in this book, Brad Ricca works something little short of a miracle. He creates a complete and well-rounded picture of the creators and the process of creation, builds a complex narrative from a staggering amount of research, and gives far greater insight into the genesis of Superman and the circumstances surrounding those events than any previous account has accomplished.  The writing is crisp and easy, the narrative is compelling, and the pages are profusely illustrated with pertinent images (many of which have never been reprinted in other volumes) – it tells an often-repeated story in a whole new way, and sheds fresh light on a vital piece of cultural history.

Read the full review here.

Reed also reviews new books on Margaret Brundage and Bazooka Joe. Big fan of Brundage (and of thin, credit cardlike gum and jokes).

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The Ghost of Jerry Siegel II

“Nature is a haunted house — but Art — is a house that tries to be haunted.”

                                                                                                      -Emily Dickinson

Over at The Beat, I wrote a post titled “The Ghost of Jerry Siegel” about the mysterious third man who contributed plots to early Superman stories. His name has not been lost to comics history, only misdirected, mostly because he has, 99% of the time, been attributed as an alias of Jerry.  He wasn’t.

Except for one tantalizing clue in an old article in a comics mag by Bob Beerbohm (see the post), everyone else, from Sam Moskowitz on (including me a few years ago), said Kenton was a pseudonym. Even after reading Bob’s article, I was still half-convinced he was. It took a long time to find actual proof — and the rest of this man’s surreal life story. Super Boys has an entire chapter devoted to him, titled “Bizarro.”  Kenton/Kantor is an exercise in never taking things at face value when it comes to comics history — truths are mislaid, adapted, and often deliberately altered. But more importantly: if Jerry had Kantor, how many other writers had ghosts out there? We know about Bill Finger — were there others?

 

Here are some random Kenton/Kantor appearances of the many I found. The really bizarre ones are in the book. My first clue that he was a real person was a letter to a pulp magazine — people were saying it was just Jerry behind a false name — but it didn’t sound like him.

 

 

His name also appears a few times in the Glenville Torch — in articles and stories that I am fairly sure were written by Jerry, his friend and admirer.

But his name appeared the most — dozens and dozens of times — in the comics themselves. As I read through their work, it became quickly obvious that Kenton was more than just an inside joke. In the book, I say what that is — and it’s big. This is from “Slam Bradley.”

The full story is in the book and it is way weirder — and incredibly telling of how difficult it was to make it in comics. It was hard to write the post for The Beat, because there will be people who do not want to hear that Jerry bought plots from someone else. And I get that, especially for those who admire him. I also know that there is a fair amount of anti-Siegel sentiment out there because of the lawsuit, and this may add fuel to that. But as I write in the piece, don’t read this as gossip or book-selling; read it as the truth. Comics as industry is something we tend to forget about the Golden Age. Comics were a business that was being improvised, and there was no better operator than Jerry Siegel. Readers, for decades, have read versions of Jerry as the sad victim of connected fatcats. I think that history says otherwise: Jerry, who doggedly pursued publication, helped create the side of things that finally made comics work. Siegel used the medium to tell personal stories with autobiographical elements, which forced comics from disposable serial (“Hanko the Cowhand“) to the beginnings of a legitimate artistic medium. Superman and Slam Bradley and all the others weren’t (just) adventure strips, they were mixing the real lives of their creators through a new uncanny, fictional genre. Superman was a type of magical realism. Ghosts haunt Superman; Superman was art.

Whether we knew it then or not.

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