Justice (Part 3): Siegel & Shuster Get Their Due

Thu, March 16th, 2006 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Stuart Max Perelmuter, Guest Contributor

Jerry Siegel Joe Shuster
By the time the public became aware that a Superman would have his own feature film, his creators were destitute. It was 1975 and Joe Shuster was a blind man living with (and off) his brother in a tiny Brooklyn apartment. 1 Jerry Siegel, now in California2, had been exiled from Bella, his first wife, and Michael, his son. At 61, he worked as an office courier to support his new wife, Joanne*, and daughter, Laura, earning $7,500 a year. 3

Harry Donenfeld had died years earlier in a drunken accident4 and Jack Liebowitz was involved in the new Warner Bros. conglomerate that owned DC, but in a more limited capacity. 5 The mistreatment of Siegel and Shuster by Superman's new owners was less an intentional slight than an omission. Who remembered the two after all these years? It had been nearly three decades since they left the company and their names disappeared from the pages of the comics, and 37 years since they had given the comic book world its first hero. 6

For Jerry however, forgetting was impossible and he made a conscious effort to stay as far away from Superman as he could. All of that changed when he discovered that Mario Puzo was writing an epic script for which the rights to Superman sold for three million dollars.

An original Lois Lane sketch.
Not since his high school days had Jerry worked with such tenacity. He printed out 1500 press releases, detailing the horrible mistreatment received by him and Joe at the hands of DC, and sent them to every news outlet he could find. 7

Unlike their stories where a single hero brings about salvation in a swift blow, Jerry and Joe's justice was brought about by a league of players. Only one 20 year-old reporter responded to the press release - Phil Yeh from a tiny paper called the Cobblestone. 7 The cause of the creators seemed as futile in the '70s as it had been in every decade prior.

But the Yeh article got Jerry a TV interview, which was seen by Jerry Robinson. During the Golden Age, Robinson had been a Batman illustrator (responsible for the Joker), who, like all artists, knew of Jerry and Joe as the superstars of the industry. Robinson had since become a superstar in his own right and upon seeing the depths to which Siegel and Shuster had descended, he decided to take up their cause. 9

He recruited Neal Adams, an illustrator whose reputation with the comic book faithful was unrivaled, to rally support among the fans. Together they waged a media and consumer war against DC, ensuring that Siegel and Shuster could be ignored no more. 10

The first appearance of Clark Kent was in this 1934-1935 drawing. Courtesy Superman's Shield and its History!
DC's attitude was sympathetic when the two Jerry's first began negotiations to end the discrepancy, but their wallets remained tight. Jerry was recovering from a heart attack and Joe was blind; they had a pile of medical expenses matched only by their tower of legal expenses. DC's initial offer of $10,000 a year for life made no attempt to ease the burden of these bills. 11

Another sticking point was credit. Robinson argued that Siegel and Shuster deserved to accompany Superman's name in all media. DC could not allow it, especially with the release of the new movie on the horizon. 12

But as Robinson and Adams became more agitated, the voice of the public grew louder in the ears of DC. A second offer upped the yearly stipend and included expenses. But without credit, there was no deal. 13

For a third and final time the parties sat down to negotiate. Stopping the outcry from the public become a more urgent priority as the release of the "Superman" movie grew near. With Jerry too sick to seek a fourth meeting, all cards were on the table. The result, as Walter Cronkite reported that Christmas Eve14:

The first version of Superman as seen in this pencil concept sketch. Image courtesty Superman.ws
$20,000 a year for both Jerry and Joe, payment of medical and law bills, and the promise that all Superman stories from that point on (including the movies) would be accompanied by the words, "Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster." 15

Over the years, as the control of Warner Bros. was passed to comic book fans of old, the pay checks increased and Jerry and Joe lived out their remaining years in relative financial comfort. Billions are still at stake, and Joanne Siegel and daughter, Laura Siegel Larson, still dispute the Superman copyright; 16 the rights remain unresolved. But it is different now. Joanne says they now "have a good relationship with DC and Warners." 17

While there was no single hero in the Segal and Shuster story, the obstacles were as great as those faced in a comic book. Their struggles were epic and their salvation climactic, just like in a comic book. And just like in a comic, by the end, they had found justice.

* Jerry and Joanne had met decades before in Cleveland. She had answered an ad for a Lois Lane in the newspaper and showed up stunned to find that her bosses were no older - and certainly no more mature - than she was. She dated Joe briefly before he and Jerry moved away. They reunited years later at a masquerade ball. She dressed as Dixie Dugan instead of Lois Lane because she did not want to remind them of their legal troubles. 18

Bibliography

  1. Silver Bullet Comics: "Past Masters…: Neal Adams Will Fight" 2004-2005 Clifford Meth

  2. Coville's Clubhouse: "Jerry Robinson Interview" Jamie Coville, April 29, 2005

  3. The Plain Dealer:: "Son of Superman co-creator finally opens up about father" October 29, 2005 Michael Sangiacomo

  4. westportnow.com: "Irwin Donenfeld, Veteran RTM Member and Comic Industry Giant, Dead at 78" November 30, 2004

  5. Tributes - 2000 Jacob "Jack" Liebowitz 2005 Mark Juddery

  6. NEMO: The Classic Comics Library, issue #2, August 1983, pages 6-19

  7. Nemo

  8. ideaship.com: Phil Yeh: Godfather of the American Graphic Novel

  9. Nemo

  10. Nemo

  11. Nemo

  12. Nemo

  13. Meth

  14. Coville

  15. Nemo

  16. The Comics Journal: "An Extraordinarily Marketable Man: The Ongoing Struggle for Ownership of Superman and Superboy" #263 Michael Dean October 14, 2004

  17. Nemo

  18. Nemo

Related Articles:
Justice (Part 1): How Mitchell Siegel's Murder Gave the World Its Greatest Hero
Justice (Part 2): Real life Inspiration for Superman's Greatest Challenges

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