One family's superhuman effort to reclaim its comic creation
Laura Siegel Larson and her two sons are planning to take in the new Superman film, Man of Steel, at their local cineplex in Marina del Rey, California. They are excited to see the latest in the Superman series, which promises a darker, more serious tone and state-of-the-art special effects.
But it's likely the movie will be more poignant for Siegel Larson than it will for millions of other cinemagoers. Her father, Jerry Siegel, and his school friend, Joe Shuster, invented the character, and her mother, Joanne, was the model for Lois Lane, Clark Kent's fellow reporter on The Daily Planet and the love of Superman's life. Whatever director Zack Snyder conjures up with a cast that includes Henry Cavill as Superman, Amy Adams as Lane, and Russell Crowe as Superman's father Jor-El, it's likely to be a bittersweet expedition to the movies for the Siegel Larson family.
Seventy-five years ago, Siegel Larson's father Jerry and his childhood pal Shuster conceived the superhuman crime fighter from Krypton who wore a cape and could jump between buildings.
They signed away the rights to DC Comics and for much of the past seven decades they or their heirs have been struggling to regain the copyright from Warner Bros-owned DC.
Earlier this year, when Judge Otis Wright ruled in Warner Bros' favour, saying the Siegels had received "substantial advances and royalties" and that "this litigation of superhero proportions now draws to a close", the epic story of Superman's copyright appeared to be over.
But while it was the latest in a series of rulings that have fairly consistently gone against the Siegel and Shuster heirs, the struggle continues. "It's tragic that my father didn't get to truly enjoy the fruits of something so wonderful," Siegel Larson says, sitting in her lawyer's office overlooking the ocean in Malibu. "He had really strong convictions. My mother did too. I really believe this legacy is important."
Laura Siegel Larson, now in her 50s and suffering from multiple sclerosis, has no intention of abandoning a cause that, like the superhero's fight against wrongdoing and injustice, appears without end.
Jerry was the writer, and Joe the illustrator. Despite Superman's all-American, apple-pie image, his origins are surprisingly dark. Siegel was a teenager when his haberdasher father Mitchell died in his shop; he'd suffered a heart attack after being held at gunpoint. Little wonder that the hero who came to Jerry in a dream one night would be impervious to bullets. Superman's look and muscle-bound physique were modelled on Errol Flynn; Clark Kent, bespectacled and bumbling, was based on the silent star Harold Lloyd.
Their 1930s creation is essentially the Superman still loved by modern audiences. Yet in 1975, Jerry was working as a courier, for which he was reportedly paid $US7500 a year; Joe was blind and living with his brother in a New York apartment.
It might seem ludicrous that the creators of a property such as Superman, which over the years has generated billions of dollars, should end up in such dire straits. But under United States law there are certain windows in the duration of a copyright when a creator or their heirs can take advantage of "termination provisions" to reclaim ownership - something the Superman creators or their heirs have been trying to do, off and on, since 1947.
A decade before that, Siegel and Shuster had sold 13 pages of comic containing the classic Superman elements - cape, logo and Clark Kent alter-ego - to Detective (later DC) Comics. The company sent Siegel a cheque for $US130, and received in return a release from both creators granting the company rights to Superman "to have and hold for ever". (The cheque, which misspelt both names as "Jerome Seigel and Joe Schuster", sold for $US160,000 at auction in 2012.)
Superman became a near-instant, worldwide success. But Siegel and Shuster, after they dared challenge DC for greater compensation, had their names taken off their creation and were effectively blacklisted from the publishing industry.
So began a long and sometimes quixotic quest to reclaim the copyright - one carried on by Siegel until his death in 1996, then by his wife Joanne until her death in 2011, and now by their daughter.
Each time, the fight - now with Warner Bros, the owner of DC Comics - goes against them, creating suspicion among the family's supporters that in a company town such as Los Angeles, no court will ever challenge copyrights that secure employment for tens of thousands of people. "When it comes down to it, it's a business deal," says Siegel Larson. "We've followed the copyright law as it is written ... But we've had to go through close to two decades of legal wrangling."
After a career in television journalism, Siegel Larson sees her effort to reclaim the copyright as an extension of her father's quest - an issue of injustice, perhaps, that Superman himself would have joined. It's no great coincidence, she says, that she became a journalist. "My parents used to introduce me as 'the real Lois Lane'," she says proudly.
For the duration of her career, Siegel Larson kept the conflict over Superman separate from her work. But after her mother's death, she thought back to the dark years when her father's and Shuster's names had been taken off Superman and there was no money coming in. When The Adventures of Superman series came on television, the family avoided watching it. "I loved the idea that my father had created it, but it was so painful we couldn't watch it in the house," she recalls.
Even afflicted by money troubles and ailing vision, Shuster remained good-natured about Superman; he'd gladly sketch on napkins for children. But Siegel found the sight of his creation unbearable. "It makes me physically ill," he said in 1975. "I love Superman, and yet to me he has become this alien thing."
The two creators could hardly have predicted the extent to which Hollywood now relies on comic-derived superheroes - an industry that they helped to invent - for its box-office pay days. Last month, for example, Disney released Iron Man 3, the latest in its Marvel series. It made $US170 million over its opening weekend in the US and passed the billion-dollar milestone after just 23 days.
Given the values of the copyrights at stake, it's understandable why the heirs would still be fighting even after decades of defeats.
There have been incremental victories. In the late '40s, a referee in a New York court upheld Detective Comics' copyright; Siegel and Shuster agreed to drop their claim in exchange for $US94,000 ($US1 million in today's money). In 1975, when he was 61 and earning next to nothing as a courier, Siegel was driven into a rage by the news that Warner Bros was preparing to make the film that would become Richard Donner's Superman: The Movie. He fired off a nine-page press release placing a "curse" on the film.
"I hope the whole world, becoming aware of the stench that surrounds SUPERMAN, will avoid the movie like the plague," he wrote. Under public pressure, DC not only restored the creators' credits for Superman but gave them each a $US20,000-a-year annuity that was later increased to $US30,000. As Jay Emmett, then executive vice-president of Warner Bros, said at the time, "There is no legal obligation, but I sure feel there is a moral obligation on our part."
But Siegel and Shuster's experience nonetheless became a contemporary parable for the rapaciousness of corporate America, even inspiring a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. And the comic strip creators who followed, such as Batman's Bob Kane, learnt from the pair's mistakes, ensuring they owned all rights to their characters.
Joe Shuster died in 1992, four years before Siegel, leaving no direct heirs. Siegel's widow and daughter served copyright termination notices under provisions of a 1976 law that permits heirs, under certain circumstances, to recover rights to creations. They started the whole process anew.
And so the case, or cases, rumbled on. In 2008, a Los Angeles court ruled that the Siegel heirs were entitled to a share of the US copyright to the character, a decision that meant the Siegels and Shusters could make their own film, but with one major caveat: they would only have rights to the Superman characteristics set out in the first 13 pages. So no flying through the air, no Lex Luther, no kryptonite - they came later. Judge Otis Wright, looking to the precedent established in a lawsuit against Facebook by the Winklevoss twins, overturned the 2008 decision, citing a disputed 2001 agreement in which the Siegel heirs agreed to a $1 million payout plus three-tenths of 1 per cent of the gross in any new Superman films.
"I don't think a fair settlement would be three-tenths of one per cent. It should be more like 5 per cent," says Siegel attorney Marc Toberoff. "Warners would rather spend money on lawyers than the families of the men who invented Superman. They're trying to set an example: if you exercise these rights you'd better be prepared to litigate for years."
Warner Bros insists it has been prepared to pay the family under the 2001 terms for more than a decade and welcomed the decision, saying: "We are extremely pleased that Superman's adventures can continue to be enjoyed for generations to come."
So how much is Superman really worth? US courts have looked at that too. The Siegel heirs claim the box-office success of X-Men and Iron Man has increased the value of the caped crusader. Not so fast, argued Warner Bros' president Alan Horn, describing in court the Superman property as "challenged". Superman Returns in 2006 had taken 10 years and cost $US60 million to develop before production had even begun. It took only $US200 million at the box office.
Can Superman be brought up-to-date? Warner Bros' plan is to make Superman a darker character, perhaps more like Siegel and Shuster's original (a mind-reading tramp called "the Super-Man"). It worked for director Chris Nolan - a producer on Man of Steel - with the Batman's Dark Knight trilogy.
Reports suggest the new Superman may be closer to her father's original vision. "He was a vigilante, going after wife beaters and crooked politicians," says Siegel Larson. "It was a troubled time and people recognised the evils he fought. We're back in troubled times today, and there are similar feelings of angst."
She and her attorney continue to fight. "I believe we are right and we should prevail. If you look at the law and the legal precedents on the books, we should be winning."
A few years ago, Siegel Larson visited her father's childhood home in Cleveland, Ohio, which Superman fans had renovated using donations from an online auction. "I went up and saw my father's bedroom and where the whole family - he was one of six children - had lived."
The house has become a shrine. "People want to go see the house where Superman was created," she says fondly.
Man of Steel opens on Thursday.
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