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Wednesday, April 2, 2008

'Superman' ruling rocks comics world

By now, news of last week’s ruling that restores to the heirs of Jerry Siegel part of the copyright to Superman has spread far and wide. (Variety's report focuses on the Siegels' attorney, Marc Toboroff, and his antagonistic relationship with WB.) It’s impossible to not want to comment on this case, given the stature of the Siegel and Shuster in comicbook history and the implications it may have for one of the most popular characters in the world.

I could prattle on about the fascinating details for pages, but will refrain as many others have already done so better than I could and apologize even so for the length of this post. I confess to having read the judge’s full ruling, available from Jeff Trexler’s comprehensive site, more than once and will probably go over it again. It also has sent me back to Gerard Jones’ excellent book, “Men of Tomorrow,” which recounts in detail the origins of DC Comics, Superman and the entire comicbook industry and is highly recommended.

The real issue is what does this mean for Superman? The copyright that was reclaimed by the Siegels was only to the Superman material in Action Comics #1. Which may not seem too significant given the thousands of issues published since, except that that story establishes a heck of a lot about Superman, including his origin as an alien child sent from a dying planet, that he wears tights and a cape, his alter-ego of Clark Kent, Clark’s employment as a newspaper reporter, his faux mild-mannered behavior as Clark, the odd love triangle with beautiful reporter Lois, and powers including invulnerability, super speed, super strength and the ability to leap long distances through the air. That’s a lot, but not all of what we’ve come to know as the Superman mythos. There’s no Jimmy Olsen, flight powers, Fortress of Solitude, Perry White, Kryptonite, Lex Luthor, Brainiac or General Zod. (The Superboy mythos, including Smallville, the Kents and Lana Lang is part of a separate case the Siegels have filed.)

In the short term, the ruling seems like it won’t have much of an impact even if it is upheld on the inevitable appeal. The real impact would likely be behind the scenes as attorneys try to assign dollar values to the elements each party can claim ownership to since the copyright reverted in 1999. This would result in a massive and long overdue payday for the Siegels, especially given this ruling has opened the door for making WB account for its earnings from the character in other media. That means the studio would be on the hook for tens of millions of dollars to the Siegels for “Superman Returns,” various animated projects like “Justice League: The New Frontier,” the upcoming “Justice League of America” movie and any sequels to “Superman Returns.”

But given this complex situation, it's hard to imagine the character being significantly altered or departing DC/WB for another studio or publisher. Extricating the Action #1 elements from the rest of the Superman mythos and one side proceeding without the other appears practically impossible for either party. And since I also can’t imagine the Siegels have the interest at this point in creative control over the character’s comics or movies, DC and WB likely will be free to continue to do what they’ve been doing, with the only difference being that they will have to pay for the privilege of using someone else’s character.

What’s been disappointing in all this is that WB could have easily done more to help the Siegels and the Shusters — and could have done so while Jerry and Joe were still alive — not to mention avoided this hugely expensive legal dispute. WB bought DC in the late 1960s and was therefore free of the long history between DC founder Harry Donenfeld and the artists. Would it have been so hard to share with Siegel and Shuster a meaningful portion of the billions — yes, billions — Superman has brought in for the company? Yes, WB did in 1975 restore their credit, provide medical insurance and pay a small annual stipend to Siegel and Shuster, but the amounts involved were less than a pittance for so large a company.

The few fans who have been railing on message boards against the ruling out of fear it might affect the comics they buy should be ashamed of themselves for excusing the greed of a corporation that has done everything in its power to avoid compensating in any meaningful financial way the Siegels and Shusters. That the copyright act under which the Siegels were able to reclaim their copyright — as well as all subsequent revisions to said laws — was written to protect large companies’ interests in long-standing copyrights is a welcome irony in an otherwise tragic tale.

What this means for other characters has yet to be seen, but it’s certainly not a doom and gloom situation. The circumstances of the creation of the Action Comics #1 tale separate it from those of most other classic superheroes — particularly the Marvel ones, which appear to have been mostly created under conditions that qualify under the law as work for hire and are generally exempt from this kind of legal action.

This ruling also should serve as a cautionary tale for both creators and publishers: for creators to protect their rights to avoid losing control of their stories and characters, and for publishers to remember to treat fairly the creative talents that make your success possible.