Superman Court

This week, the Supreme Court denied the likely last gasp for the Joe Shuster Estate re: Superman.  Variety reports:

The Supreme Court’s action lets stand a lower court ruling in favor of DC Comics, which has blocked efforts by Shuster’s family members to reclaim copyrights in Superman. A provision of the Copyright Act allows authors to terminate and reclaim previous assignments of copyrights, although certain conditions must first be met.

The decision on Monday means that a lower court ruling stands in favor of DC Comics, which contended that a 1992 deal they made with Shuster’s sister Jean Peavy and Frank Shuster had given up their ability to reclaim the Superman copyrights. The deal included pension payments of about $25,000 per year.

The story was also reported on by NBC news, FOX, and pretty much everywhere else.

Though the fan community held out hope that the case would be heard by the Supreme Court in some fireworks display of justice. I get that. But legal scholars have always cautioned against that optimism. Justice — and the law — isn’t that simple. Superman, and this case, certainly is not.

But now that I am no longer writing the book, so to speak, I don’t have to be so objective. Of all the parties involved, I think the Shusters have been taken advantage by nearly every single party they have come in contact with. Don’t get me wrong, there have been bad things on all sides of this case — some of them unforgivable. But now that legal avenues have been exhausted (how many times have we said that?), it is my strong hope that DC one day acknowledges Joe’s family — the artist who co-created Superman — with a more appropriate settlement. It is not the most important thing in the world (the Shusters would be the first to agree), but that’s my two cents. When a settlement does come — someday — to this case of two dead men, I hope that both families are treated in equal measure. Because that is what a settlement should acknowledge. That is what they did.

This image by the great Drew Friedman is available here as a very limited print. I have mine.

Drew’s new book Heroes of the Comics (just out) is my second favorite comics history book next to Steranko’s.  And it’s gaining. What Drew does is brilliant: not only does he provide great facts and stories about each person, but his portraits of them offer their own narratives as to who these people actually were. I haven’t gone back to a book like I have with this one in a long time.  Highest possible recommendation, especially as a gift (for yourself, too).

For those of you who subscribe to the blog — thank you!  I think that the Court case offers a good time to take a hiatus. Or an Adam Warlock cocooning. I will have a big announcement soon — the next book! — which is going to be very, very different.

 

The Lawyers Weigh Inn

Last night I got to speak at a really unique event: the Cleveland chapter of the William K. Thomas Inn of Courts (a bunch of lawyers club?) invited me to talk about Superman. So that, but then — but then — a bunch of high-powered attorneys acted out the Superman litigation history. To elevate the drama, Time-Warner was played by Lex Luthor and Superman himself represented the families. Brainiac, Daredevil, and Batman (he was the bailliff) were there, too. The judge was played by a prominent Cleveland standing judge (no names, please). I really wished Jeff Trexler was there — seeing it this way was actually very enlightening, even as (especially as?) farce. The Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court was there, too (talking about Groupons). Thanks to legendary civil rights attorney (and fantastic host) Avery Friedman for inviting me.

As we mingled in the cocktail hour, I spoke with real-life lawyers who had all reviewed the case. They all said: what a ____________ mess. After years of being convinced I was just dumb, this felt really good to hear. I also felt relieved that the two things I was most mad about in the case — the termination/trap letter to Jean Peavy Shuster and the 6-page dismissal from the 9th Circuit — were also looked at by the lawyers as really bizarre, shady events.

Afterwards, I met Adam (above), who was working there and got Rosa from Mac’s Backs some much-needed coffee. He grabbed some of our empty book boxes for “his comic collection.” I asked what he read and he showed me this:

Who Discovered Superman

Over at The Comics Journal, R.C. Harvey tries to sift through all of the various books and accounts to figure out who was the first to “discover” Superman. His account is very comprehensive. This is the toughest part of the story to decipher, I think.

Why? This is where personal narratives overcome the facts the most. There are letters and documents, but it is (at best) an impressionistic picture. Like almost every part of the Superman creation story, there are a lot of voices saying “Me, me, me.”  It’s Superman.

Harvey claims it was The Major, who was definitely interested in publishing Superman. He definitely saw how the character would work. But he put it off a lot and Jerry and Joe didn’t trust his money. He was their mentor in comics, but his appreciation of Superman may have worked against him as it gave them confidence to keep trying elsewhere. They wanted Superman in newspapers, not comic books. That was where the money was. I don’t know if I would say that The Major discovered Superman, but he definitely discovered Jerry and Joe. No question.

I think it was Gaines who set the publication of Superman in motion. Taking into account the timeline, as well this key bit of evidence below — that Gaines urged Jerry to submit to Detective — really made me wonder if he wasn’t the mastermind. By sending Superman as a tryout to Detective first so that Donenfeld himself could make the syndicate sale — that made them both rich. And this shows that Gaines and Donenfeld were in that office together with the Superman proposal literally on the table. Whether by intention or not, the results were the same. The deal was made and Jerry and Joe were left out in the cold.

The “discovery” of Superman is a tough question because so many different people — writers, artists, publishers, and readers — are part of that bigger equation. But it’s one we constantly ask because we want to know where he came from.

Be sure to read Harvey’s full version here.

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.

Take it up with Legal

MORE last words on the legal case by Jeff Trexler at The Beat:

As expected, the district court has ruled that the 2001 settlement agreement between DC and the Siegels is binding and did indeed transfer the Superman copyright to DC. But what about Superboy?This is how the lawsuit ends, not with a bang but a whimper:

In so many ways, the legal story has become just as much a serial as the comics. And because it still seems unresolved in many peoples’ minds, equally as mythic.

I Give Up

More new news on the lawsuit from Jeff Trexler over at The Beat:

In keeping with the court’s schedule, yesterday Marc Toberoff filed his response to DC’s summary judgment motion in the Superman/Superboy lawsuits. Toberoff has filed these same arguments before, but the accompanying exhibits do include something new: correspondence in which Laura Siegel Larson and the Siegel estates reject a 21 million dollar payment from DC.

Read the whole post here.

Me? I think I give up. So the book is really done, but I’m still adding costly (literally) little bits and qualifiers on the case to be as current as possible. But yeeeesh.  I’m just going to say: “Ongoing.” Will that be ok?

Telling moment in the new documents where the two lawyers snipe at each other over SPELLING ERRORS. Hey I do that too but I bet I get paid way less.

EXTRA BONUS SIEGEL/SHUSTER IRONIC LEGAL DRAMA SCENE:

Check, Yourself

This year marks the 75th anniversary of Superman – but of what? His first publication was in Action Comics #1 in 1938, though the character was actually created several years earlier. It could be March 1, 1938, which was the date on the infamous check that signed away Superman for $130. This exact check is what they received in Cleveland, argued over, then signed – and then fought against, through letters, lawyers, and families, for 75 years.

Trying to figure out what exactly happened with the sale of Superman to the company that would become DC Comics was probably the hardest part of writing this book. For one, there are almost no records and the people involved were conniving, ruthless, and smart. Nobody portrays this shady culture of the early industry better than Gerard Jones in his Men of Tomorrow.

I didn’t want to just re-tell his story, so I dug around into what else was going on with the actual sale of Superman. Why did no one else really touch it for five years? Why only then? I think I’ve figured it out – it’s a theory since there is so little physical evidence – but I think it makes sense. The answer will surprise you.

And that decades-old story that the Superman proposal was discovered at the bottom of a slush pile and magically/instantly put on the cover of a colorful new magazine, thus changing the lives of its creators forever in a stroke of romantic fate?

The powers-that-be knew what they were doing when they bought Superman. I think they knew exactly what they were doing.

The check itself was “found” and then sold at auction for $160,000 about a year ago. The buyer remains anonymous, meaning the check may have ended up in the abyss of a “private collection” rather than in a museum.

Allegedly, the check was rescued from the trash by a DC employee after one of the later lawsuits. Note: The first thing a lawyer will tell you if you are trying to claim ownership of something is, literally, “say you found it in the trash.”

 

More on private collections later. I’ve met some great collectors – generous and incredibly knowledgeable people who have helped me tremendously – but I’ve also seen the other side of it. The hardest thing about writing about comics is that you really can’t just go the library for everything. Not even close. You have to track people down, somehow say the right things, and then maybe – maybe – you can get close to the truth. Comics creators stretched the truth so much (which was their job, really) that physical artifacts become incredibly important. So the story of finding this stuff is sometimes as bizarre as the story itself – I tell some of this parallel story in the book, just because some of the stories are so good. I got mad plenty of times – and was actually threatened more than once. Never underestimate a collector of things.

Thanks to Tom Heintjes of the great Hogan’s Alley for reminding me of this date.

More Last(?) Words

 

More last words on the court case at The Beat.

 

 

I’ve always been a big fan of The Beat. With the lawsuit, it is literally the only place on the Internet where the late filings and judgments of the case are analyzed and explained — not run as the Most Hyperbolic Headline Possible. Great work: Jeff Trexler with the analysis and Heidi MacDonald for publishing it.

Just go read it for yourself.

 

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.