The Tragic, Infuriating, And Ongoing Tale Of How DC Screwed Superman's Creators For Decades

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster are now widely recognized as the creators of Superman, one of the best comic book superheroes of all time. However, it wasn’t always so certain that the duo would get their due as comic book luminaries. Despite coming up with the concept of a hero who was faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, Siegel and Shuster gave up the rights to Clark Kent and his alter ego early on in their careers. It would take decades of legal wrangling and courtroom battling before the two would get any semblance of fair compensation or recognition for creating Superman.

Since the first signs of fame, DC Comics and other large corporations have profited off everyone’s favorite Kryptonian - that is, everyone but Siegel and Shuster. In fact, the duo didn't receive any of the Superman profit for a long time. Even when they were given some compensation decades later, it was pennies compared to the networth of Superman, which is in the billions. After all, the Man of Steel is one of the most recognizable and lucrative fictional characters ever conceived. Read on below to find out more about how DC seriously screwed the masterminds behind Superman. 

  • Siegel And Shuster Sold The Rights To Superman For $130

    Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster began working for National Allied Publications (NAP) in 1935 when they were 21. Siegel and Shuster had established a creative partnership a few years before that, and had been working on a character named “Superman” since 1933. After their failed attempts to sell Superman as a newspaper comic strip, the two pitched the idea in 1938 to NAP, which at the time had become Detective Comics (eventually shortened to "DC"). An agreement was reached where Siegel and Shuster gave up exclusive rights to the character in exchange for the princely sum of $130.

    That's split between two people and, Fun Fact, both of their names were misspelled on the check.

    Wait, hang on, that fact wasn't fun at all. Sad Fact. We should've said "Sad Fact."

  • They Were (Practically) Forced To Sign A 10-Year Exclusive Contract With DC

    After the initial success of Action Comics #1 and subsequent Superman stories, all of which were penned by Siegel and Shuster, the pair decided to exert their ownership of the character by attempting to re-negotiate with DC. They were told in September of 1938 that, in no uncertain terms, they had already signed over ownership of the character to Detective Comics, and that the company was free to replace Siegel and Shuster with a new team if they felt like it. Nothing like the threat of termination to inspire creativity!

    Feeling the pressure and wanting to keep their jobs, the duo signed a 10-year contract that included the right of first refusal to all the stories they wrote for the next five years, whether they included Superman or not.

  • DC Rejected Siegel’s Repeated Pitches For Superboy Comics, Then Published Them While He Was Serving In WWII

    DC Rejected Siegel’s Repeated Pitches For Superboy Comics, Then Published Them While He Was Serving In WWII
    Photo: DC Comics

    Now that Siegel and Shuster were firmly established at DC, they sought to expand the Superman family. Siegel came up with the idea of centering some stories around Superman as a child, and even decided on a name for such tales - Superboy. The company turned him down on several occasions. 

    Then, while Siegel was serving in Hawaii under the US Army during World War II, DC went ahead and published the first Superboy story without his consent. Shuster drew the issue, which was heavily based on Siegel’s originally proposed script, angering the author.

  • A 1947 Legal Suit Reiterated DC’s Ownership Of Superman

    In 1947, with their 10-year contract nearing its end, Siegel and Shuster decided to make a move to solidify their ownership of the character they had created. The two launched a lawsuit against their employer, who by then was known as National Comics Publication due to a merger.

    In this suit, Siegel and Shuster asked for the rights to both Superman and Superboy, along with what they described as a “just share” of the profits derived from the characters. They made their argument in front of the Supreme Court of New York, but the judge ruled that their paltry $130 sale of the rights to Superman, along with a previous employment contract they had each signed, was more than enough to give National Comics ownership over the rights of Superman.

    But, Siegel and Shuster did get a win out of the 1947 lawsuit, which concluded in 1948, and it came in the form of the rights to Superboy. National Comics had alleged that Superboy fell under the auspices of “work for hire,” meaning they would retain the rights, but the judge disagreed, and it was due to the whole “right of first refusal” clause written into their 10-year contract.

    Since Siegel had pitched Superboy on multiple occasions, and the publisher had let six weeks pass each time without taking him up on his offer, Superboy did not fall under “work for hire.” Thus, Siegel and Shuster retained the rights to the child hero. National Comics chose to settle the entire case out of court, paying the creative duo $94,000 for the rights to Superman and his younger self. Still a paltry sum, even in olde-tyme money. 

  • An Attempt To Regain The Superman Rights In The '60s Proved Disastrous

    In 1965, Siegel and Shuster had attempted to renew the copyright on Superman, which would have shunted his rights back into their hands. This request was denied, leading to yet another lawsuit, launched in 1969. This time, it was Siegel and Shuster vs National Periodical Publications, with the company having undergone yet another restructuring.

    In a case that lasted five years and several appeals, Siegel and Shuster took a huge loss, as the courts determined that the pair had transferred all of their rights to the character when they settled the 1947 lawsuit, and thus had no right to renew any copyrights. Even worse, the first judge ruled that Superman’s creation was actually work for hire, although the appeal overturned that specific decision. 

  • A 1975 PR Campaign Finally Won Siegel And Shuster Recognition And Compensation, In Exchange For Their Silence

    A 1975 PR Campaign Finally Won Siegel And Shuster Recognition And Compensation, In Exchange For Their Silence
    Photo: DC Comics

    In 1975, production was beginning on Superman: The Movie, and Jerry Siegel took the opportunity to pen an open letter lambasting DC Comics and their treatment of Joe Shuster and himself. This grabbed the attention of several individuals in the industry, like artists Neal Adams and Jerry Robinson. They even began a PR campaign to get Siegel and Shuster more recognition.

    The campaign attracted some big names like Kurt Vonnegut and Will Eisner, and a ton of pressure was put on Warner Brothers, the new owner of DC, to make amends. Eventually, Warner agreed to a deal that gave Siegel and Shuster a yearly payout, proper medical benefits, and future credits in all Superman stories. In exchange, the two were to never again contest the ownership of the character. With Shuster slowly going blind and struggling with failing health, the pair agreed, and the deal was made.

    So, all it took was millions of dollars, a movie, and Shuster gradually going blind for DC to pick up on the "truth" and "justice" parts of Superman's mantra.