Compared to “locating the apple core somewhere deep in the Garden of Eden” by Tom Spurgeon, the original check that bought the rights to Superman for $130 has been located, possibly as part of a Comics Connect auction of memorabilia from the Jerry Siegel estate.
The 1938 check, signed by National’s Jack Liebowitz, shows payments of $282 for various stories contributed to Detective Comics, Adventure Comics and More Fun Comics, and $130 for Superman. By signing the check — which didn’t even spell their names right — Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel sold off the rights to their one great creation and initiated a legal battle that lasts until this day.
Scans of the check first emerged yesterday in a tweet by writer Gerry Duggan.
Comic Connect wrote more about the check:
On May 24 1626, Peter Minuet bought an island for $24 worth of goods. That island later became known as Manhattan.
On December 19, 1919, the New York Yankees bought a baseball player from the cash-strapped Boston Red Sox. That player was Babe Ruth.
On March 1 1938, DC Comics gave two young men from Cleveland $130 for the rights to a comic character named Superman. That $130 check essentially created a billion dollar industry and set in motion nearly 70 years of legal battles that continue to this day.
Much has been made of the original 1938 $130 payment to Jerome Siegel and Joe Shuster. Did DC Comics take advantage of two eager young men looking for their big break in the comic business or was this unequivocally fair business practice between comic book writers and publishers in a 1938 America? Whatever you believe, the $130 check is the quintessential symbol of this debate for the ages.
But whatever happened to the check? The consensus has always been that this 1938 check had been simply lost to time. Thrown out by some DC employee without a second thought. Or so it had been thought. . . .
The check exists!
This March 1, 1938 Detective Comics check, signed by Jack Liebowitz is made payable to Jerome Seigel and Joe Schuster. (You would think that the payment for a character as important as Superman, DC would have spelled Siegel and Shuster’s name correctly!) The check, in the amount of $412, includes an accounting of the items being paid for. At the very top is “Superman $130,” Next is the payment for the June 1938 Detective Comics at $210. Following that are payments of $36 each for Adventure Comics and More Fun. It would also appear that DC Comics used this check as evidence in their 1939 lawsuit against Victor Fox, given the fact that the evidence stamp from this case is clearly visible on the reverse of the check, as are the actual endorsement signatures of Siegel and Shuster themselves.
The final clincher is that the check exactly matches the signed agreement between DC and Siegel and Shuster, which transfers to DC “exclusive right to the use of Superman “in consideration of $130.” The date of this agreement is March 1, 1938. The same date as the check.
While none of the materials that have come to light yet explain where the check came from, it would be logical to expect it had been found in Siegel’s estate. Siegel’s widow, Joanne, died earlier this year, so the rest of the Siegel items — including a typewriter a script, clothing, and locks of his hair — probably stem from the dissolution of her estate.
Looking upon the images of this check inspires both awe and revulsion. Awe that such a key part of American cultural history has been found. Revulsion that the American comic book industry was birthed in exploitation of the creators. And before anybody gets up in the comments to complain about “the greedy family,” know that buying all rights in perpetuity was not necessarily the standard even in 1938. Bob Kane’s family made sure he held on to a piece of Batman a few years later, for instance. Jack Liebowitz was a hard nosed businessman by any account, and the US Copyright Office is thought to have taken the Superman case into account when they revised the work for hire law in 1976 to prevent further abuses.
Among the announced items in the auction, Siegel’s favorite suit:
The bell-bottomed styling betrays a ’70s origin for this, and one can picture Siegel — in his favorite shirt and tie, also in the auction — as he appeared at many ’70s comics events, when the battle for even credit on Superman was being fought. As anyone who has ever done so can attest, going through the belongings of a dead person is the most depressing activity on earth.
You can’t take it with you.
But you can leave some ideas behind.
Even if all you sold them for was $130.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.