October 25, 2011

Superman’s Super Small Pay Day!

jbrown @ 12:40 pm

There’s a fascinating write-up from Robot 6 at www.comicbookresources.com regarding the impending auction of the original check Detective Comics Publisher Jack Liebowitz wrote to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the two young men who invented Superman in exchange for all rights to their character (note: $130, even in 1938, is still a rip off). This is the ultimate cautionary tale for the collision of art and commerce.

Take a quick look HERE.

Within the realms of pop culture, comic book lore and freelance art, this is a fairly well known event, the fallout of which is still tied up in lawsuits to this day. I know I’ve read or heard the tale many times, however, seeing a photograph of the actual check this morning was somehow mesmerizing. On March 1st, 1938, a pair of struggling 23-year-old kids from Ohio sold sold a chunk of spec writing and artwork, including an original character they had been building and refining since they were kids in high school.

Being young, desperate freelance artists armed (from time served in the Great Depression) with a healthy respect for the value of the dollar and feeling as though they had their whole creative lives still ahead of them, I’m sure the staggering sum of $412.00 ($130 of which was whole-sale payment for the rights to Superman) and the promise of a steady gig and regularly published work must have seemed like a qolden goose at the time.  And though I’ve always had the “what were they thinking?” response to hearing about this tragic lack of forethought, I’ve got to say that, looking at that check, I can definitely see why those kids would have leaped for that money.

As a freelance/spec artist, I constantly have to weigh the concerns of the long term value of my art and body of work vs. the value of say, paying for things like food and rent in the here and now. It is a tough choice and one must always follow their gut and move forward all the while resisting the urge to rehash the past and fantasize about “what if.” Now, I’m certainly not comparing my work and ideas directly to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, but it does put things into perspective.

Sometimes you have the divine inspiration to create a cartoon mouse who goes on to become a global icon and you end up the founding mogul of a multi-billion dollar corporation whose legacy extends well beyond your lifetime. But other times, you have the divine inspiration to dream up an all-powerful champion, the world’s first comic book super hero who goes on to conquer the worlds of print, radio, television, film and more, whose very image has become a cultural touchstone and you end up with $130 split two-ways, a steady but often hostile job bound by a 10-year contract and an eventual legal dispute with a different multi-billion dollar corporation that has out-lived you and landed in the lap of your descendents. It’s partially a roll of the dice.

For my part, I feel I owe a debt to these kids from Ohio and the inspiration they’ve given me since my childhood. Superman has been a part of my life since as far back as I can remember. A large part of my interest in art, illustration, comics, filmmaking and storytelling stem from my fascination with Siegel and Shuster’s red caped wonder.I know I am certainly not alone in this sentiment. Superman has become an inspiration and a part of the right of passage for so many generations of not only artists but anybody to whom his image, tale and ideas speak.

It is amazing that 73 years after appearing on the cover of Action Comics #1 in 1938 and sparking America’s fascination with the Superhero, Superman is alive and thriving on the cover of DC Comic’s recently launched new Action Comics #1 which has sold out at least two complete press runs in the course of the last month as well a readying himself for a silver-screen appearance in the currently filming motion picture, Man Of Steel. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I’m sure that, in another 73 years, no matter what the medium, millions will still be pondering the adventures Superman and that is quite an inspiration. Cheers!

ACTION COMICS #1's - 1938 and 2011



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