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Friday, June 10, 2011

Joanne Siegel And Laura Siegel Larson v. Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.; Time Warner Inc.; & DC Comics: "Dear Mr. Siegel,"

One thing that court cases do is to bring a lot of otherwise unseen, or rarely seen, documents to light.  The Joanne Siegel And Laura Siegel Larson, Plaintiffs, v. Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc case is certainly no exception to that rule, and, much like the Kirbys v Marvel case, the documentation filed has been nothing short of exhilarating for historians like myself.  I've lost count of the amount of letters that have been filed, both to and from Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster from DC Comics, syndicates and others.  By studying the letters patterns begin to develop and, sadly enough, some traditional characterizations certainly stand up.

In this case there are letters from DC to Jerry Siegel dating back to 1937, detailing the contracts that the duo signed.  In those letters are the page rates that they received, in the case of Superman they would be sharing a massive $10 per page of finished artwork, but only if it was accepted for publication.  Added to that was approximately 35% of the money from the Superman syndicated strip, nothing to sneeze at in 1938.  Of importance is a clause which states that DC Comics would own the copyright to the character, despite the fact that it was brought to them and not created under any term of employment.  The contracts were duly signed and away DC, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster went.

Almost straight away the complaints began.  These complaints were mainly about money, or the lack of, as Superman began to show signs of success, even as far back as 1938 (shortly after the contracts were signed).  The bulk of the complaints were dealt with by Jack Liebowitz who, with Harry Donenfeld, took over DC Comics from it's founder, Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson (and making sure his presence was written out of the official history of the company over time).  Liebowitz clearly had little time for the pair, and his letters to Jerry Siegel show a man who must have thought he was writing to two boys who kept asking for a raise in their pocket money.  The letters are full of what appear to be veiled threats ("Don't forget Jerry, you and Joe are still young men.") made up to look like 'friendly' advice, along with promises of increases in payments, but only if the strip becomes as popular as Dick Tracy or Little Orphan Annie.  The fact remains that the pair were harassed over over aspect of the title and strip, from sub-standard scripts through to poor art (the latter only improving when Shuster began his studios and employed the likes of Wayne Boring), resulting in a final letter in which Liebowitz requests that Jerry only write to him on matters of business and in a business like manner.

During the time that Jerry Siegel was at DC (through to the late '40s), their issues were handled by others, from Vin Sullivan through to Whitney Ellsworth and M.C. Gaines.  At one point in 1942 Ellsworth informs Jerry that he's hired Windsor McKay Jr (son of Windsor 'Little Nemo' McCay) with the intention of having him draw Superman.  Ellsworth wasn't any better towards Siegel and Shuster, insisting that things had to improve and soon as he didn't want sub-standard stories appearing under his editorship.

These letters to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster are a fascinating insight into the relationship between the Superman creators and DC Comics, from inception through to the late 1940s.  And there's more to come.  I hope people enjoy reading them as much as I do.  Naturally if you click on the images they'll open to show a larger, and more readable, image.



1 comment:

The Seditionist said...

I think we have a situation of failing to see the forest for the trees going on here that this post reminds us of: Siegel and Shuster, during that initial ten year run with Superman? Had no ownership rights. (When Siegel returned to the character, though, he got a lot of Weisinger abuse.)

Whatever share Toberoff's taking, the estates got some ownership rights.

Flash: Warner's lawyers, inexplicably (to me), failed to appeal Larson's decision, so ownership of the copyrights is a done deal regardless what they do with Toberoff. Which, at the end of the day, is a settlement posture to weaken the estates' position. If they're smart, they'll fully support Toberoff for now, *then* see about whether a negotiation of their deal with him can be modified or whatever.