The History Behind DC Comics & Joe Shuster's 50%

It’s only while examining some of the correspondence that one begins to understand how DC Comics believe that their case against the Shuster heirs is open and shut – on their side anyway.  DC are standing firm that a deal was struck between the Shuster siblings, Frank and Jean, back in 1992, mere days after the passing of Joe Shuster.  And to help understand why this is, it’s worth a look at the collaborating evidence, right from the beginning.

In late 1975, after being embarrassed by Neal Adams, Jerry Robinson and others in the media, DC Comics (for simplicity’s sake I’ll refer to both DC Comics and Warner Brothers as DC from here on) entered into an agreement with Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, thus providing them with a life-long pension of $25,000 each per year, along with medical benefits and a bonus.  The flipside of that agreement was that neither of the pair would ever make another attempt to claim ownership of Superman in a federal court.  Built into the agreement was a provision that would see both men’s heirs – in Joe’s case, his wife and daughter (his son, Michael, was added later) and in Jerry’s case, his brother, Frank, and sister, Jean – paid a certain sum for a fixed time after their passing.  Throughout the years both men were content to take the money – it was a pittance compared to the millions that DC had made off Superman, but it was better than nothing.

In 1979 Joanne Siegel, Jerry’s wife, renegotiated the deal with DC and won a substantial increase in their annual pension, along with further bonuses and a promise of more money as the deal would be tied to the annual cost of living allowance, thus providing for an increase.  In return for this Joanne charged Joe Shuster a fixed 20% of all his bonuses and increased earnings.  This 20% kickback to the Siegels would later cost Joe an estimated $1,500 per month and it is a little known fact in the whole Siegel/Shuster agreement, and, indeed, there are those who refuse to believe it was ever in effect, but here’s the letter that proves it did exist.  This might have been worth it as the amount Joe Shuster was being paid in 1989 was $80,000, pre taxes and pre bonuses.  From that $80,000 Joe had to pay taxes, plus send $16,000 to Joanne Seigel.  That left Joe with less than what Jerry Siegel was getting, but it can be argued that whatever deal existed between the two was their business.  The amount increased to the point where Joanne was being paid in excess of $100,000 per year before she passed away, but we’ll get to that shortly.

Joe Shuster passed away on the 30th of July, 1992.  Ironically his death certificate listed his occupation as Artist of Comic Books and DC Comics as his employer, ironic as he’d barely worked there since the 1940s.  While settling Joe’s estate, Jean and Frank Shuster discovered something was very wrong.  Joe had died leaving approximately $24,000 in cash and some assets, but the cash was frozen until the legal wrangling surrounding his estate were settled.  Adding to the family’s woes were Joe’s many bills – his credit card bills were in excess of $20,000 alone, and that didn’t include funeral costs, probate, legal expenses and other sundry bills that would arise in the meantime.  It was also at this point that the Shusters discovered the 20% that Joe had been paying to the Siegels.  Faced with a huge bill, Jean Shuster-Peavy reached out to Paul Levitz and Time-Warner VP Martin Payson for assistance and then waited.

 The first thing DC did was to inform both Jean Shuster-Peavy and Frank Shuster that, although they were only legally entitled a payment of $5,000 per year under the terms of the 1975 agreement, DC would be paying them $25,000 per year each, plus bonuses.  DC also agreed to pay all of Joe Shuster’s final debts, both known and unknown, without hesitation.  Payson’s letter made it quite clear that, should any other creditor arise, the Shusters were to forward them straight to Levitz, who would pay them immediately.  However nothing comes for free, and in return for the $25,000 per year to both Jean and Frank, they signed a waiver acknowledging the payment and also signing over, “…all claims to any payments or other rights or remedies which you may have under any agreement or otherwise, whether now or hereafter existing regarding any copyrights, trademarks, or other property right in any and all work created in whole or in part,” by Joe Shuster.  In effect they signed away their rights for $25,000 per year, each and both Jean and Frank sent letters clarifying this to DC.

This is the document that DC claims proves that a deal was struck between them and the Shuster's for Joe Shusters 50%

At various points throughout the 1990s Jean Shuster-Peavy contacted Paul Levitz to ask for an increase in their annual payments.  In 1993 she stated that while both Frank and Jean were not planning to reclaim the Superman copyright, an increase would be appreciated.  This request for an increase was turned down, but once the Lois and Clark, and then the Smallville television shows began, and once Joanne Siegel began to make her own move, the payments increased and bonuses, ranging from $10,000 to $25,000 per annum were presented.  Levitz also made a point of sending the Shusters copies of books, merchandise and comic books as was relevant.  Levitz also arranged for Warner Brothers film department to read and consider a script about the life of Jerry and Joe, as written by Warren Peary, Jean’s son, along with a book also written by Warren.  Warner Brothers turned down both projects.

In September, 1999, Jean discovered that Joanne Siegel had filed her first termination claims for the copyright to Superman.  In response to this Jean wrote to Levitz, again re-iterating their stance that they would not be filing and instead wished to honour their long-standing agreement.  This was accepted, however in late 2001 Jean Shuster and Warren Peary signed their first contract with Marc Toberoff, who was acting in his role of president of his film company, Pacific Pictures Corporation.  This contract enabled Toberoff to claim 50% of the Shusters right in Superman (if they decided to file for it) along with 50% of all payments relating to the character, including, presumably, the annual payments and bonuses already existing from DC Comics.  By contrast the Siegels were able to, once again, cut a better deal, protecting Joanne’s DC payments and only giving up 40% of their 50% stake in Superman.  In December DC send out their annual $25,000 bonus to Jean Shuster-Peavy.

In 2003 Toberoff drafted a supplemental agreement to the 2001 arrangement and had both Jean Shuster-Peavy and Warren Peary sign.  This supplemental agreement was to ratify Toberoff’s position, this time as the family lawyer, as well as president of PPC.  In 2005, as the Siegel case was just getting started, Levitz made an offer to Jean Shuster-Peavy and Warren Peary.  This deal was along the same lines as the contentious deal offered to Joanne and Laura Siegel, and would see the Shusters given an advance of $2,000,000 upon signing, along with other considerations, percentages and more which, DC claim, has now accrued to around $20,000,000 for the Siegels - should they claim it.  However as the Shuster heirs didn't sign this deal, DC are stating, simply, that their original deal should stand as is.  DC were also well aware, by this stage, that Marc Toberoff had signed up both families – the Siegels and the Shusters - and issued a warning about the duality of Toberoff's roles (as a legal representative and also promoting their product in the entertainment world).  Although Toberoff would wrap up his film corporation, he still would be acting, as he does, as the lawyer for both parties, and, if DC were to lose the cases (presuming that the Shusters file in 2013), Marc Toberoff would own 45% of Superman on his own, with the remaining 55% being split between Joanne Siegel (30%), Warren Peary and the now ailing Jean Shuster-Peavy (12.5% each).

That’s where DC stands on this.  Naturally there are two sides to any story, and, even with millions being thrown about, any payment that is offered to both families is scant reward to the millions that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster should have shared in while they lived.  Someone recently remarked that it was a shame that Superman himself couldn’t fix this, but, sadly, it’d take a magician to wade through the many layers surrounding the case, and, with DC filing for a summary judgement to ward off the Shusters, the layers just keep adding up.  The case is no longer about fairness, it’s about who can made the more compelling case before the judge, but, even if Joanne Siegel and the Shuster heirs do win, they still won’t control Superman under the terms of agreement between themselves and their lawyer - Marc Toberoff, a man who never met either Joe Shuster or Jerry Siegel - will own the controlling interest and will dictate where Superman goes, what happens to him, and ultimately, Toberoff will be the one making the most money.  Thus this case looks anything but a win-win for either family.

And therein lies the true sadness.


Graeme said…
The more documents that are released (and thanks to you for disseminating them) the more confused I am as to who I should be cheering. DC's treatment of Jerry and Joe was high-handed and mean in the '40s (though Jerry's own temper exacerbated things from the looks of it) but I find DC's treatment of Shuster's estate to be in equal measures humane and opportunistic. And I don't know what to make of Joanne Siegel taking a 20% cut on Shuster's take. As you say, it's the deal made between two adults and their business, but as an outsider not in the room, the optics of avarice are there. And the tone of Joanne Siegel's letter, pointing out she went to the trouble to photocopy things for Joe (!) doesn't sound much better than the patronizing treatment Liebowitz et al gave Jerry and Joe back in the day

And the whole Tolberoff thing just gets stinkier and stinkier.

I used to side with the heirs I do think that the circumstances Laura Siegel grew up in means she should share in the success of the character her father created. But now I don't know. I don't think any side in this dispute comes out of this looking particularly good.

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