Superman 1.92: The Curse of Jerry Siegel

A CURSE ON THE SUPERMAN MOVIE!
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Re: THE VICTIMIZATION OF SUPERMAN’S ORIGINATORS, JERRY SIEGEL AND JOE SHUSTER

I, Jerry Siegel, the co-originator of Superman, put a curse on the Superman movie! I hope it super-bombs. I hope loyal Superman fans stay away from it in droves. I hope the whole world, becoming aware of the stench that surrounds Superman, will avoid the movie like a plague.

That’s the beginning of a ten-page typewritten manifesto penned in 1975 by Jerry Siegel, the co-creator of Superman. Siegel had just learned that somebody was making a multi-million dollar Superman movie, and it did not sit well with him, and he wanted people to know that.

“Jack Liebowitz, a member of the Board of Directors of Warner Communications, stabbed Joe Shuster and me, Jerry Siegel, in the back. He ruined our lives, deliberately, though Joe and I originated Superman, which enriched Liebowitz and his associates.”

At the time, Siegel was 61 years old, living in California and working as a clerk-typist, with a side hustle writing stories for Italian Disney comics. He’d last worked for DC Comics ten years earlier, writing stories about Bizarro and Jimmy Olsen for the standard page rate, and parted on bad terms. There was no credit that said “Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster” on the comic books, the spinoffs or the merchandise, and he watched the company executives grow rich on his creation. He was poor, and he was forgotten, and he was very, very angry.

“The publishers of Superman comic books, National Periodical Publications, Inc., killed my days, murdered my nights, choked my happiness, strangled my career. I consider National’s executives economic murderers, money-mad monsters. If they, and the executives of Warner Communications which owns National, had consciences, they would right the wrongs they inflicted on Joe Shuster and me.”

He sued DC twice over the years. The first lawsuit, in 1948, was about ownership of Superboy — Siegel claimed that he’d come up with the idea, and that DC started publishing Superboy stories without his knowledge, while he was serving in World War II. He sued, and got a decent settlement — but that was the end of his career writing Superman comics, and the “by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster” credit was removed from all future comics.

After ten years of freelance work, he was allowed to come back to DC in 1959, where he worked on Legion of Super-Heroes stories and was regularly humiliated by his editor, Mort Weisinger. Frustrated, Siegel tried to sue again in 1965, and lost, and that was the end of his work with DC.

“Why am I putting this curse on a movie based on my creation of Superman?

“Because cartoonist Joe Shuster and I, who co-originated Superman together, will not get one cent from the Superman super-movie deal.”

There’s a blog called 20th Century Danny Boy that published the entire manifesto, along with copies of the letters from Liebowitz that Siegel talks about, and I think it’s fascinating.

The first letter from Liebowitz is dated September 1938, about six months after the start of Action Comics, before anybody really started making serious money from Superman.

Liebowitz is responding to a very angry letter from Siegel, accusing National Publications of taking advantage of them. Liebowitz writes:

“Now, in reply to your letter. Frankly, when I got through reading it, it took my breath away. I did not anticipate that when I asked you to come to New York to discuss this matter of newspaper syndication, that you would want to take advantage of this visit and try to boot up your price on Superman.

Liebowitz explains that Siegel and Shuster are getting a higher page rate than anybody else (which is probably true), that Superman isn’t much more popular than the other features in Action Comics (which is absolutely not true), and that the company doesn’t have much to gain so far from syndication (which may have been true at the time). Siegel wrote back and said, sorry, I must have misunderstood; thanks for the updated contract.

The second Liebowitz letter is from January 1940, and it’s a lot sharper. By that point, National is working on putting the radio show together, and Liebowitz makes a big deal about the risk they’re taking, making the pilot episodes.

And there’s some very patronizing static about an interview that Siegel and Shuster did with a Cleveland newspaper, and it sounds like Siegel complained about how they’re being treated. Liebowitz writes:

“We plan to go after various licenses. In connection with this we have set up a publicity department which is to issue all information regarding Superman. It is therefore important that you give no further interviews. You might have mentioned in your interview that you have a very satisfactory arrangement with Detective Comics Inc., as compensation for the transfer of all your rights, so hereafter we forbid you to grant any interviews related to Superman and its development. Please refer all inquiries to our office.”

After that, Liebowitz chides Siegel about the quality of their current work, and says that they’re not getting the work in fast enough.

“Get behind your work with zest and ambition to improve and forget about book rights, movie rights and all other dreams. I’ll let you know as soon as things happen. After all, you must realize that we have a bigger stake in it than you have and we will take care of things in the proper manner.”

So the relationship between them is clearly getting worse, and Liebowitz is patronizing and hand-wavey about the spinoffs. It’s clear that Siegel’s being treated like an underling, rather than a creative person who’s actually writing the damn strip.

That being said, it also sounds like Siegel was an asshole, and difficult to work with. He decided right from the start that he was being cheated, and it sounds to me like he poisoned that relationship. If I gave an employee his dream job, and six months later, he wrote to me saying that I was killing his days, murdering his nights and choking his happiness, then yeah, I can imagine why I’d want to cut him out of discussions about spinoffs and merchandise.

Also, as I’ve documented in this blog, there are a lot of important elements that came out of the radio show — Perry White, Jimmy Olsen, Kryptonite and, most importantly, flying — which Siegel and Shuster deliberately avoided incorporating into the comic. Siegel and Shuster created Superman and Lois in 1938, Lex Luthor in 1940 and Mr. Mxypzptlk in 1944, and I don’t think they created a single other engaging character in the first decade of the comic.

In 1948, when Siegel and Shuster won the lawsuit but lost their jobs, they got another gig with a company called Magazine Enterprises and created their next big character: Funnyman, a TV comedian who accidentally catches a criminal in his first issue, and decides to become a prankster superhero. With a grab bag full of practical jokes, Funnyman fought Doc Gimmick, Slippery Sam, Timidio the Timid Menace, Giggles Cain and Hee-Haw Johnson. He lasted for six issues.

It turned out that Siegel and Shuster had one great idea, and it was one of the all-time great ideas in fiction. But it was the only one they ever had, and they didn’t really know how to develop it, beyond their original conception.

I think that if Siegel and Shuster had full control of Superman in the 1940s, it’s likely that we wouldn’t have Superman now. They probably wouldn’t have made the radio show or the movie serial; they would just do the comic book and the comic strip until they ran out of ideas, and then Siegel would join the army, and Superman would probably fade away, replaced by Captain Marvel and Batman and the hundreds of other imitations that would have taken the original’s place.

But, obviously, they shouldn’t live in poverty and obscurity. It was their great idea, and they were treated extremely badly. They deserved credit and compensation. And in 1975, when Warner Bros. was making a big-budget spectacle based on that great idea, Siegel had the opportunity to kvetch about it on an international scale.

He wrote up the ten-page document and sent it to all the big newspapers, and The New York Times and The Washington Post printed articles about Siegel and Shuster’s plight. He also sent it to the Academy of Comic Book Arts, where the organization’s president, Neal Adams, took it on as a cause.

Adams was a popular artist who worked for both DC and Marvel in the late 60s and 70s, working on Batman, Green Lantern, the X-Men and the Avengers, and he decided to help Siegel and Shuster make their case to the people. He helped to set up television and newspaper interviews, and over several months, publicly shamed Warner Communications into giving the boys a pension.

Adams’ pitch to Warner was that the story of Superman’s creators being destitute and alone was bad for business, with the big movie coming up. But if they give the guys a little bit of money, then Warner looks like the heroes, making things right.

After some negotiation with Adams, Warner gave Siegel and Shuster a lifetime pension of $20,000 a year, covered their medical expenses, and put their bylines back on the Superman comics. They also got a $15,000 bonus after the movie was a hit, and in 1981, around the release of the second movie, the pension was raised to $30,000.

Shuster was especially happy to have his name connected with his creation again; he told The New York Times, “We’ve received marvelous recognition for the Superman movie and our names also appear in the comics. A whole new generation knows us.”

Siegel still complained, of course, and in 1981 he told the Times, “Sometimes I feel like a fictional character myself. Sometimes I feel like half a corpse rescued from a horrible old age.”

It’s complicated, this awkward dance of Art and Commerce, and as you can probably tell, I have complex feelings about it. When you’re a fan of a long-running character franchise, you have to be aware that you don’t get books and movies and TV shows and theme park attractions unless there’s a corporate structure that makes those things happen. But that means that a new executive at Warner Communications on his very first day at work is making more money from Superman than the original creators ever did.

Jerry Siegel’s curse hangs in the air, a grim portent of the future. Commerce isn’t fair, but we can’t make blockbuster movies without it. I’m pretty sure this is going to come up again.

Tomorrow:
We’re going to need a bigger boat…
1.93: The Fish Movie


Footnote:

A little extra detail, if you’re curious: The last comic in the 40s to have the byline “by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster” was Superman #51, published in March/April 1948. When they restored the byline, the first issue with the restored credit was Superman #302, in August 1976.

Tomorrow:
We’re going to need a bigger boat…
1.93: The Fish Movie

Chapters
Movie list

— Danny Horn

16 thoughts on “Superman 1.92: The Curse of Jerry Siegel

  1. A guy who was kind of an asshole, who had one good idea that other people had to flesh out to make it work? That reminds of somebody…once had a dream about a girl on a train, I think…

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Creator’s rights are a sore point for me. Jack Kirby is a well-known example at Marvel. Another is Bill Mantlo, who created Rocket Racoon and many other characters and stories that appear in the MCU. He quit writing to become a public defender. Then he got hit by a car.

    The right medication might have helped him recover, but his insurance ran out, his wife divorced him, and he wound up in a cut-rate hospice.

    Meanwhile Marvel is making billions off his ideas.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Siegel might have been an asshole, but I’m not getting it from this. The “killing my days, murdering my nights” bit wasn’t from six months after he got his dream job, it was following decades of the big guy trying to cut him out.

    We can say all we want about how he only had one good idea, but it’s pretty shitty to have your name taken off of your creation.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. I’ve noticed that about the ‘creative arts.’ Maybe 10% of the people in them are capable of being creative. Everybody else just pilfers and regurgitates the 10%’s ideas and tries to pass those ideas off as their own.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Siegel may have cursed Superman: The Movie, and I don’t blame him, but most of the time it must have felt like being cursed–this idea, this amazing, culture-shifting idea–it came out of your heads, it was yours, without you it would never have existed, and that idea used you up and flew away and everybody followed it and you’re left sitting there going wait, what? What just happened?

    How on earth do you live the rest of your life after giving birth to a god? For every Stan Lee, who managed to hold onto the fire he stole, there’s dozens of little Promethei, being eagle buffets.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. In college, I took a creative writing workshop, taught by Judith Guest, the author of “Ordinary People,” which Redford later turned into a movie.

    I had long dreamed of my spin-off senior citizen superheroes, BatGran and SuperGran (and had written several iterations of their origin stories since I was in 5th grade). (I recently had a dream where two spirited elderly women were sipping tea and discussing different superhero powers they either had or would like to have.)

    For Ms. Guest’s class, I wrote a radio script, which connected my two superheroes and their “real” identities, the most complex being connecting Kal-El’s Kryptonian grandmother to Clark’s earthly grandmother. (I have long since misplaced this radio script.)

    For fun, I sent a copy to DC Comics, and I wish I had kept their response letter to me. The DC logo was at the top center of the letter, and on the backside of the letter was Superman and the pantheon of DC superheroes standing on each other’s shoulders, holding up the DC logo!

    The letter, as I recall, was basically complimentary about my radio script in one paragraph (that was nice, as Judith Guest did not care for it at all), but the next paragraph came with a stern warning – do not try to publish your script, the letter said, because you would be infringing on our copyrighted characters, and we (DC) will sue the pants off of you! Or words to that effect! Money-grubbing corporate culture lives on at DC and elsewhere… (Guess fan fiction was not a thing back then?)

    Bottom-line to any creators out there – be sure to have a good entertainment lawyer look over your contracts before signing anything with a publishing and/or media Goliath.

    I do remember Siegel and Schuster in the mid-70’s taking their grievances with DC to the court of public opinion, either before or after Superman I’s release. I saw them on “Good Morning America,” as I recall. I’m glad they ultimately got a pension and health insurance – it’s the least that DC could have done.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. “I had long dreamed of my spin-off senior citizen superheroes”

      That sounds like fun!

      “Money-grubbing corporate culture lives on at DC and elsewhere… (Guess fan fiction was not a thing back then?)”

      At least for Star Trek, fans can now know the rules for making their own stories and films.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Fan fiction was a thing people just didn’t know much about it. You had to make contact with a group of fans and then get run off copies. It’s much harder to find out that fanfic is a thing and that some of them are really pretty good. The best thing I ever read about fanfic was an article that compared using other people’s characters to write a story was like playing and building on a song someone else wrote.

        Like

  7. The Danny Boy blog is interesting. Have you and him ever done a Two Dannys Present Comics History show together?

    Today’s topics relates to some things I’ve studied and thought about a lot.

    This is a sad story. An episode not nearly as much fun as debating Superman’s powers.

    It looks like Siegel just brooded and brooded and brooded, until he lashed out. What if he had sought the best expert legal help, before more years and decades went by?

    The comics industry shenanigans remind me a lot about what’s become known of sleazy dealings in the music business. It’s not that people over 25 can’t make great music, or that the promo department couldn’t sell it to audiences. It’s that once they aren’t eager kids, people are much less likely to naively accept unconscionable contracts just for the chance to be a star. Thus the fixation on getting ’em while they’re too young to know better, with years of exploitable possibilities ahead. Sure looks like the same mindset for National with “you boys we’re helping.”

    These kinds of issues are why Hollywood’s Writers Guild goes on strike now and then. Its members are all protected by a 600+ page standard contract that spells out all of these details. Arbitration, payment schedule, writer’s repurchase of material, credits, audits, sequels… it’s all there. Fought for by collective bargaining. Someone lke Puzo can get a lot more than these minimums.

    Siegel’s 1933 deal letter says the publisher has all rights to any Superman art or copy “in any strip or comic or newspaper or magazine.” But that doesn’t mention film or TV.
    It looks like the 1938 “all rights” memo might include film and TV a part of selling any art or stories of the character, even though they aren’t spelled out. Could a great attorney have shown that since film rights weren’t specifically named in this memo, they weren’t included? We’ll never know.

    “I think that if Siegel and Shuster had full control of Superman in the 1940s, it’s likely that we wouldn’t have Superman now. They probably wouldn’t have made the radio show or the movie serial; they would just do the comic book and the comic strip until they ran out of ideas, and then Siegel would join the army, and Superman would probably fade away.”

    Or, maybe they would have done genuine profit-sharing joint ventures, with some talented people who added great creative ideas to the recipe.

    “How on earth do you live the rest of your life after giving birth to a god?”

    Without the power of flight, the duo gave birth to a demigod. They had a brilliant concept, a great unique combination of ideas with great appeal. They had good enough initial execution of it for it to be marketable.

    Their great idea was a one-hit wonder. And what a hit! What a wonder! Like a comedian with one joke, what a punchline retold and retold for so many issues!

    But if this two and a half hour Superman movie had to leave out flying and Kryptonite, since Siegel didn’t come up with them, it would have been an hour and a half shorter. And a whole lot less eye-catching and exciting.

    “We can say all we want about how he only had one good idea, but it’s pretty shitty to have your name taken off of your creation.”

    Yes.

    The bonuses to Siegel and Shuster were probably not much more than Writers Guild minimums at the time for first-time writers selling a story.

    If their pensions were paid for by annuities, those probably cost the studio not much more than minimum rates for first-time screenwriters on a high-budget film. And all together, probably not 20% of what they’d paid Puzo, let alone the rewriters.

    Being Super-generous to Siegel and Shuster, say a couple million bucks each to settle all concerns, could have been done for one percent of the film’s total budget. Instead of the maybe tenth of that which Warner Bros actually paid the initial creators.

    Cutting them in on a percent of profits would have been a real class act.

    And also a percent of the merchandising? That would’ve been a Super example of the American Way.

    If the studio was afraid of a precedent that they’d need to do giant payments to all story creators? They could have included a press release that it wasn’t just for this film, it was to honor the duo for creating the whole modern comic book story as we know it today. With that resolution, the audience could have felt even better about supporting the movie.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The problem with every signal truly great set up for a continuing story is that even though one person gets the credit for creating it. For it to really work, you need great ideas from a whole bunch of different people. Now often one or two people get credit for the thing as a whole even though what they thought of wasn’t really what we know it as. It’s even true for inventions in real life. To actually get a working sewing machine for example it took a dozen different small inventions to get a machine that works well, but Elias Howe gets the credit in the U.S.

      Like

  8. Every time I see a reference to Funnyman, I think of The Odd Man. In the mid-70s, DC Comics spent a lot of time hyping “The DC Explosion!,” their plan to dramatically increase the number of titles they published each month. Before that could go into effect, inflation kicked into high gear, forcing them not only to abandon their expansion plans, but actually to reduce their production levels. Disappointed fans sourly called that reduction “The DC Implosion.”

    One of the characters who was going to be launched had the DC Explosion come to pass was Steve Ditko’s The Odd Man. He was a costumed vigilante whose approach was to disconcert the bad guys by his peculiarities of appearance and manner. While the villain of the month was trying to trying to figure out what the heck he was looking at, The Odd Man would foil his plot.

    It would have taken a brilliant writer to make The Odd Man work as a regular series. Steve Ditko may very well have been able to make it work, as Jack Cole made Plastic Man work in the 1940s and Alan Moore would make Swamp Thing work in the 1980s. It would have taken nearly as much abundance of invention and cleverness of execution to make Funnyman work, and those were qualities Siegel and Shuster simply did not have.

    Their contribution to Superman was on a par with Bob Kane’s contribution to Batman. In addition to the name, they gave us the origin story, the secret identity, the costume, and the contemporary urban setting. Those were the four corners of the canvas. To that canvas they added some important elements, as Kane’s daily comic strip would add important elements to Batman.

    But what made it possible for the characters to become icons that still figure in stories being created today is precisely their crude simplicity. Superman’s power set was not invented by any writer or artist- it is as old as the first small child to fantasize about overcoming the limitations of his or her physical strength. Batman’s power set is only a couple of years older. In constructing stories about him, a writer may have to regard money as Batman’s super power, but his appeal is more basic than that- as Superman is the power fantasy of those frustrated by physical reality, Batman is the power fantasy of those frustrated by social obligations. Long before money was invented, there were folktales about mighty men who held some special exemption from legal accountability that enabled them to take the law into their own hands and set wrongs right. It doesn’t take a Steve Ditko or an Alan Moore or even a Siegel and Shuster to keep Superman or Batman going.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. “But what made it possible for the characters to become icons that still figure in stories being created today is precisely their crude simplicity.” Brilliant analysis post. Thank you for this.

      “Joe Shuster having falling on hard times…” That’s an appalling story.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Siegel and Shuster also created The Specter a supernatural entity that is still going strong and is a cornerstone of magical might in the DCU.
    Also Joe Shuster having falling on hard times worked as a “messenger boy” for an advertising company in the big apple.
    Ironically he had to drop off some material at his former place of employment the HQ of DC Comics offices then called National Periodicals.
    In a grubby suit and cracked glasses he was spotted by Mort Weisinger who gave him 50 bucks and promised him work. He lied.
    Mort then called Joe’s boss and tried to get him fired and tell him he was banished from DC offices forever.
    So a smile and a stab in the back. Corporate greed and Corporate Stogie entity, at least they’re consistent.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Jerry Siegel also spent some time at Marvel. Stan Lee had a lot of faults of his own when it came to creators but he recognised what the industry owed to Siegel. I think he was quoted as saying that there was no way Jerry Siegel was going to be unemployed while he had any say in the matter.
    Admittedly it wasn’t great work that Lee offered – a few back-up strips and proofreading and the like (as you say, Siegel wasn’t exactly bursting with creativity anymore) but plus points for doing something.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Besides the Spectre, Siegel also created Robotman. In the mid 1960s, when Archie Comics was jumping on the superhero bandwagon, Siegel wrote Mighty Crusaders stories in either a bad imitation of Stan Lee, or a parody of Lee, signing the work “Jerry Ess.”

    Like

Leave a Reply to Stop Motion Cyclops Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s