The story of Jerry Siegel and and Joe Shuster is one that is well know, two kids from Cleveland create the most well known comic book character in history, only to have sold the rights to the character to the company that would become DC Comics for a paltry $130.00.
It has become a cautionary tale for anyone who has a hand in creating “work for hire”. Artists create intellectually property, and languish in poverty, while the company reaps all the profits exploited from their labors. It has led to a legal battle between the Superman heirs, and Warner Brothers/DC that lasted a decade, only to uphold DC and Warner Brothers ownership of the character. It is pretty easy to see this as a case of poetic injustice, the corporation winning over the individual.
But could there be more to this story? That’s what Holding Kryptonite explores, going back to very creation of the character, and in the words of all those involved. I talked with author, A.L. Newberg, about the book and found out more about the truth. Editorial note – Mr. Newberg and I have known each other for 20 years, having been classmates at the University of Michigan. Go Blue!
Right away I wanted to know how this story came to him, and it’s all explained in the book’s first chapter. His co-author, Lauren Agostino, was the one to discover a trove of legal documents in 1997, including correspondence between Siegel & Shuster and with editors and publishers from the companies that would go on to be known as DC Comics. They were being thrown out, part and parcel along with all the files of a lawyer who had recently passed away. Not sure exactly what she found, she nevertheless kept them, only to put them in a box under the bed. It was only a decade later, when watching a documentary about the creation of Superman, did she realized that the names sounded familiar to her, but the story she saw on TV didn’t match what she had remember reading in her cache of letters.
She knew she had something there, a story that needed to be told, if only to show that there was a side to the story not being told. That imperative eventually brought her to meet A.L. Newberg, and together they began to put together the narrative told by these letters, using the very words penned by the people involved. Neither Agostino, or Newberg are particular huge fans of comics. “She just wanted to put it out there.” Newberg told me. “She told me, ‘People can say what they want, but I don’t like it when only side of the story is told.’”
The story told shows that, yeah, maybe DC should have done more, that they were taking advantage of the duo. But it’s often forgotten that Superman was not the first character they created for DC. There were other characters that they were paid more for, and other less, some before Superman, and some after the Man of Steel became a success. If the creators had any misgivings about the deal they made over Superman, why would they do it again? It can also hardly be said that DC treated Siegel and Shuster poorly. The duo were paid just over $400,000 dollars between 1937 and 1947, well above the rate of many of their contemporaries. This despite the fact they they were often slow to produce the material they were contracted for, and many times, submitting work that could be considered just acceptable, if not substandard. It was only a combined effort of all parties involved that made Superman the success that he was, and is to this day. As they say in the book’s final chapter
“Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster should be recognized for bringing into the world the first superhero and assisting to catapult their creation into what has become an industry. DC, and all who are referenced in these letters, and the very many who were not, should be equally recognized.”
The authors recognize that this discovery is still only a part of the story, and that there are great chunks to the history that we will never know.