Saturday, January 12, 2013

On the possible end to a very long story.

I was announced late on Friday (so late that few of the comics websites have addressed it yet) that DC and  Warner Brothers retains control of Superman as a result of the latest ruling in the protracted case between the Jerry Siegel estate and DC/Warners
 
Thank God.
 
I'm no fool, I know this isn't over.  There will be endless appeals and retrials, if for no reason other than increasingly tarnished lawyer Marc Tobleroff won't see a penny unless he wins the case.  And it's clear (to me, anyway) that he's more keen on his payday then the heirs.
 
Let me make a few points first off:
 
Nobody knew exactly how big Superman would get when Jerry and Joe took that check - That's something you can do to get a contract invalidated.  If a company gets a secret deal to re-sell your invention for an outrageous profit BEFORE you sign it away, and they don't tell you about it, and low-ball you, you can challenge that contract on those grounds.  But the folks at National could not have DREAMED what a property they had bought.  And neither could Jerry and Joe.  If either party, or better, both, had gone into those negotiations with definitive evidence of the billions of dollars  the property would eventually generate, suffice to say the outcome would have been different.
 
Now, this is not the same as the deal as when Jerry came up with the idea for Superboy, DC said "no", and then when Jerry came back from the war, DC was doing Superboy comics, but claiming "No, this was OUR idea".  That was (and is) an entirely different set of suits, and likewise another story.
 
That doesn't make National/DC/Time Warner any less a pack of dicks. Once everybody DID know how well the character was doing, Jerry and Joe had to SUE for more money. Numerous times. And National did not take this well.  The pair had been given a ten-year contract to produce Superman material at the time they signed over the characters, a contract that did earn them a good living for the time.  That relationship stopped dead when lawyers became involved.  The stories about how National treated Jerry and Joe are legendary, culminating in the "delivery boy" incident, which Rick Veitch adapted in his "tribute" to comics The Maximortal.  I'll tell the story some time if you don't know it, or can't look it up.
 
Now here's the thing - National had NO legal obligation to pay the pair any more money than what their contracts specified.  They made the best deal since the sale of Manhattan.  There's an absolutely staggering scene from The Spanish Prisoner that applies here (and to comics in general) that I love to bring up:
 

 
This is the case of any business, but the comics industry in particular.  Companies make amazing amounts of money off the works of their characters, but it's only been in recent history have the original creators gotten much if any respect, let alone fat paychecks.  And in a lot of those cases, they come not from the comic companies, but the MOVIE companies, who seem more aware that it makes more sense to write a "thank you" check for a (more sizable) fraction of the total profits than to take the "adversarial position" as mentioned in the clip above.
 
Paul Levitz, when he was head of DC, did everything he could to keep the relationship with Jerry Siegel amenable.  Even after Jerry started ANOTHER suit with the company, Paul insisted the company's payments to Jerry continue, regardless of the fact that their last agreement specified that they would cease if Jerry chose to enact further action.  
 
DC was eventually pressured into making nice with the pair in the seventies, tied to the release of the film, and with the help of some big name creators i the industry like Neal Adams.  And yet, while the amount paid the pair was better than they were getting, and not an unsizable amount for the seventies, it was still paltry in comparison to the profits made.  And when requests were made for increases, and the eventual agreement made that was deemed binding in this case, DC/Warners seemed to take to the negotiations as if they were being asked for a dollar by a panhandler.
The heirs made their biggest mistake (IMHO) here when Tobleroff came along and told them they should go for the whole pie.  If they had gone for a few more million, enough to put them in clover in perpetuity, Warner may well have gone for it yet again, especially since they were still trying to get a successful Superman film off the ground.  But by going for the whole pie (Or at least Jerry's half, with Joe's half to follow if the plan came together), Warner was forced to take the path of digging in and giving nothing.
 
They made the right PR move as well - they never said a negative thing about the heirs, but made Tobleroff the bad guy.  They brought up evidence (questionably obtained, yes) that showed that he had come to an agreement with the Siegel and Shuster families that would make himself the manager for the Superman property, and effectively give HIM controlling interest in the character, not the families.  
 
This whole mess has been, in short, a rats' nest that could very well have been solved years, even DECADES ago if both sides had negotiated in good faith and tried to come up with a deal that would allow both to benefit.  But that's VERY rarely how companies work in America, and that is a tragedy and a shame.  
 
People have been railing and wailing about the faults of the work-for-hire system in comics for decades, pretty much as a result of Jerry and Joe's situation.  And there are absolutely points in favor of this argument.  But it all comes down to the point that the system only comes into question when staggering success is involved.  For every case of a creation in comics becoming a juggernaut, there's dozens of ones that came and went.  J&J created many characters that went nowhere - Jerry's family isn't trying to get the rights back to Slam Bradley, or even The Spectre.
 
So, why am I glad this situation is ended?
 
While the families were not assailed by DC, some of their statements didn't quite ring true with me.  They went on in interviews about wanting to be sure that Jerry and Joe got "proper credit" for their creation.  But they HAVE proper credit - their names have been legally required to appear in all works featuring Superman since the agreement in the Seventies.  They just want the money.
 
Now there's nothing WRONG with that, as I've stated.  But the situation that would have resulted if this case had gone the other way, with the Siegel family having to approve every move made with Superman, is too rife for...well let's not call it virtual extortion, but certainly a way to put the brakes on any deal if one side decides the other isn't treating them fairly, or one side decides they need more money, or just if they were insulted by something the other side said at dinner last Christmas, and wants to be pissy.  Especially after a relationship like this, I could easily see a divorce-like "money as punishment" scenario. 
 
Of course when DC was in danger of losing a portion of the rights to Superboy, they didn't start negotiations to get permission to use him, they just stopped.  They re-wrote history so that version of Superboy never existed.  They owned the trademarks to the name, so tehy just created a new version that Jerry had no hand in.  Only after that decision was overturned did they go back and re-un-create him again.  A scenario where two parties controlled the rights and had to cooperate in all things would not go smoothly for wrong.  Totally one of those "each of us will hold half the map" deals.
 
The best deal for everyone would have been a sizable "silent partnership" for the families, where they receive a larger royalty and participation percentage, but no direct say in the use of the character, save perhaps for some specific ability to voice a complaint if they feel the property isn't being used in the most beneficial way.  They'd have to keep a very close eye on DC and make sure they get checks for everything (just ask Tony Isabella), but it'd be the best way for everyone to benefit.
 
But now they're going to get nothing.  Maybe, MAYBE, if the families jettison Tobleroff and start anew with more modest goals, might they get something.  Because believe me, there's nothing Warner would like more than a brand new, unquestionably binding agreement with them.  But I'll lay odds that if they do, Tobleroff will find a way to sue the families, accusing them of dealing behind HIS back or something. 
 
To Be Continued, I'm sure.

2 comments:

  1. As Paul Sand said in CAN'T STOP THE MUSIC, "Greed, GREED! Let me tell you about greed...." Excellent reporting on this maddening tale!

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  2. Naive as I am I was under the impression that this issue had been settled years ago.

    But reading over the column I was reminded of a rule of thumb a friend once handed to me: "When money's involved there is no resolved".

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