In 2008, the Siegel family won a historic courtroom victory. So why did they risk it all on an appeal? An encounter between Jerry Siegel’s widow, Joanne, and Super Boys author Brad Ricca provides a telling clue.On his must-read blog covering material connected to his forthcoming Siegel and Shuster biography, Ricca tells the following story as part of his reflections on the Siegel case:
Personally, I am thinking of Joanne Siegel, who I once somehow had the younger guts to ask point-blank: “So how is the thing going?” and I saw fire in her eyes.
Her response should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the case. The fire in Joanne’s eyes had been burning hot for decades. Not even the famous 1975 non-settlement was enough to extinguish it–the annual stipend and bonuses were nice, but they never compensated for all that Siegel and Shuster had endured.
The personal nature of the Siegel and Shuster lawsuits was evident in an act that the courts so far have discussed merely for its legal implications: Joanne’s decision to revoke her acceptance of the 2001 settlement. The Ninth Circuit treats her action as irrational–DC’s final long-form agreement differed from the term sheet only in minimal or anticipated ways, and Joanne’s objections were unfounded or vague. Yet just as a divorcing couple’s fight over a family dog can involve much more than just love for a pet, Joanne’s change of heart reflects how money was not enough to satisfy a more fundamental sense of justice.
The Siegel case didn’t start with the filing of the copyright termination form–it smoldered through decades of perceived unfairness and disrespect. Jerry Siegel and his family saw the creators of other major characters receive evident guarantees of attribution, payment, and creative freedom far greater than their own. Termination of the 1938 agreement provided an occasion for setting things right.
In a situation such as this going to court is rarely just a way of settling a financial dispute over contracts and property. A verdict has a powerful rhetorical force in American culture–it’s like the voice of God pronouncing judgment from on high.
In the Siegel case, attorney Marc Toberoff was able to persuade the Siegel heirs to jettison the 2001 settlement precisely because he knew that a payout alone would not fully satisfy the family’s desire for justice. DC’s millions were not enough to get past decades of mistreatment and mistrust, nor was Siegel’s being recognized merely as a contributor to a long superseded old comic book. The Siegels needed something more.
However, the symbolic value of a final courtroom victory masks the practical difficulties of living through a lawsuit. What most people don’t understand is the system often doesn’t work with the efficiency and authority that we see in courtroom fiction. The litigation process is long, expensive and enervating. A case can also turn on a principle or fact that seems irrelevant to the fundamental principles at stake.
Given the harsh realities of the American legal system, many lawyers feel an ethical responsibility to explain to a client that justice and lawsuits are not necessarily synonymous. Even a widely celebrated favorable verdict can be vulnerable, as we have seen.
Does this mean that the Siegel and Shuster heirs should simply have resigned themselves to their respective unsatisfying settlements? Not at all. There are ways that the various attorneys on both sides in the Siegel and Shuster cases could have fostered a sense of justice without a vicious courtroom struggle or a massive payout that wouldn’t have passed approval from the corporate board.
- endow a Hero Initiative fund named for Siegel and Shuster,
- sponsor a Siegel and Shuster copyright education program,
- sponsor a Siegel and Shuster exhibit at a major museum,
- hold Siegel and Shuster celebrations, featuring the families, at major comic conventions,
- back a Siegel and Shuster book or film, which was in fact something that the Shuster family had sought, and even
- commit to maintaining an iron-clad royalty program and naming it after the medium’s most influential creators.
The biggest concession, though, would have been for DC to apologize.
That’s not as out there as one might think. Apology is actually a cutting-edge practice in contemporary negotiation, and the Superman case provided DC an occasion to make one without creating a costly precedent for other lawsuits. The Superman situation is truly unique, the first and only instance of its kind. Moreover, thanks to the 1975 stipend agreement, the parties could have even negotiated a public statement that focused on the unfortunate treatment of Siegel and Shuster before Time Warner bought DC.
By all rights, Joanne Siegel should have spent the last years of her life as the grande dame of American popular culture. Instead, she had to endure years of brutal litigation with precious little hope of seeing a final resolution, let alone one that would work in the family’s favor. She and her daughter Laura Siegel Larson had to suffer through hearing DC characterize the 1975 agreement as an undeserved gift, and now the historic 2008 ruling for co-ownership is set to disappear. In the end, she and Laura–as well as Siegel and Shuster–became marginal characters in their own story, as the Toberoff-Time Warner clash of the titans became the driving force of the case.
Still, her fire continues to burn. Now that that the company has won its central legal points, DC and Warner Brothers once again have an opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to the deeper principles of justice that Superman represents.