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.
We’re going to need a bigger boat…
1.93: The Fish Movie
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.
We’re going to need a bigger boat…
1.93: The Fish Movie
— Danny Horn