Friday, August 08, 2008

The Straws That Broke Jerry Siegel's Back

So let me get this straight...

According to unearthed correspondence between DC Comics and Jerry Siegel dating back to the 1940s, Siegel & Shuster were repeatedly told that their work was (I'm paraphrasing here) shitty.

...that the duo's work often bordered on the "unacceptable"

...that Superman was drawn "too gay"

...that Lois was drawn "too fat" -- asking Shuster to give Lois "an abortion" to lose all the "weight" around her middle.

...that the company questioned the popularity of Superman in relation to, say, a real crowd-pleaser like Zatara.

Reading this correspondence, it strikes me how much DC deserved to be left with just Zatara. I think there are levels of bad karma, and I'm sure most companies -- comics or not -- have incurred them. But to build a company (and a company identity) around one character that had been so utterly bitterly contested by its creators, and have that bad energy follow it around for almost 70 years...

I really have to wonder, in that early stage of the comic book industry, if Siegel & Shuster saw their work in a very personal way -- as indy comic creators who own the rights to their own work today feel -- or was it just a business thing? Did they want to grow as creators, did they want to take Superman to new places creatively & content-wise? When they saw completely different teams handle their work, did they feel outraged, or heartsick, like it was "their baby?" When they read letters where their work was summarily dismissed -- and dissed -- did they take it personally?

And did resentment over these letters -- some of which were pretty harsh, even for standard editorial criticism -- help fuel Siegel's many decades of fighting over the character he helped create? Did these documents, in some of which he was talked down to as if he was a hick or a child, make everything more personal?

That said, it should be reiterated that these documents are pretty old -- and shouldn't be construed as indicative of the company's current methodology of handling talent. I'm sure if they they had another talent today with the sort of groundbreaking vision that Siegel and Schuster had at the dawn of Golden Age, they wouldn't be so pedantic, shortsighted, and alienating. At least, I would like to think so.

(read Jeff Trexler's excellent analysis of the documents here, and read the documents themselves here.)


  1. I was just dumbfounded reading through that stuff. Unbeleivable.

  2. i'm not surprised. I don't recall much good company policy from either Marvel or DC. But it seems Marvel evolved and DC is in some unknown state between good and evil Mary Marvel. (Though I personally think what Morrison was going for and what happened in Countdown were different things. Mary's corruption seemed more a commentary about fans in FC #3 but perhaps the credit I give is too much.)

  3. Anonymous1:50 PM

    I'm not going to say these weren't insulting or degrading, and I'm not going to say the folks at National Comics were swell guys, but I do want to say a few things about context.

    So, this is 1938. Views are a lot different.

    Kiddie stuff is just that: kiddie stuff. And adults who make kiddie stuff are shysters...low talent people who can't hack it in the big leagues.

    I'm not saying this is reality, but perception.

    Superman's proposed in 1933 and sits for five years before it makes it into a funny book.

    Nobody's made any real money off a concept like this. It'd be, today, like proposing someone create a regularly updating children's cartoon delivered by cell phone.

    There's no model for it.

    So these two kids...both of them about 24...they come in and propose this idea that's new, and someone bites.

    This is a time when kids aren't empowered. There are no "teenagers." No "brash young cool guys."

    The cool guys are the adults. The guys who smoke pipes. They do the things that really matter in the world. Kids just dance and read the funny papers.

    So, these kids stumble onto an idea that makes money. That's what they do. They stumble into it. As far as the adults are concerned, they aren't visionaries, they're just lucky. The adults know what sells. They've got experience. They know the business. What do these kids know?

  4. Reading through the documents themselves was fascinating. That guy's obnoxious micromanaging is an example in what NOT to do as an editor. Ugh. I think your guesses about these exchanges fueling the "personal factor" in the legal battles are right on.

    I hope DC has changed, really. I still love these characters to bits. But it's hard to see any corporation as doing anything good in the world. We at least know they hadn't changed much by the 80s when they were pissing off Alan Moore, whose work for them then is still the carrion-picked concept fuel for new series and major events at both of the Big Two.

  5. Produced merchandise without paying royalties because it was "promotional". Refused to renegotiate a contract when the industry status quo changed. When the creator left, bought the company he signed a new deal with. Pulped an issue because of a reproduced Victorian advert. Refused another story for legal reasons despite happy to keep a similar one in print. Refused to accept legal departments advice and restricted distribution to the author's home country. Now dumped athe record he spent months crafting for the same reasons.

    Mad shit still goes on.

  6. I said this on newsarama and I think I'm going to reiterate it here. I read the letters and frankly didn't find anything outrageous about the changes that Ellsworth asked for or the methodology in which he wanted them to conform to. WHat i say from the letters was Seigel and Shuster after being asked to send their scripts in ahead of time so that he would have a chance to edit them before any of the art work was drawn, not being happy with artwork and asking for improvement and changes, asking them not to have stories fully drawn with out any of the sripting being approved and then having pages changed after the fact. All of these things would be firing offense at most publishers now, let alone in the 1940's. I think one of the things that probably would have worked things out differently is if They had actually moved to New york (which was a requirement back then to work in comics and would continue to be that way until the 70's) and been more available to Ellsworth.
    You think that they were being micro managed< try working for Les Humanoids Associe. I had to have every page I ddi approved by the publisher and sometimes it would take weeks for him to get back to me.
    That's the job, that's what the job was then and it hasn't changed. I once had an editor have me take two pages of a story that i had already drawn and had seen print, and re draw them for practice to see if i could improve the story telling.

  7. Wow. Jack Liebowitz was a DICK.

  8. ---But it seems Marvel evolved---



  9. Half that criticism doesn't even make sense. That supposed "correct" drawing of Lois- the guy's apologies aside- is pathetic. Her head's about twice the size it should be, he asked them to lengthen her legs and his version has stumps that would make Danny DeVito look short... and this is the guy constantly ordering Joe and Jerry to tell Wayne Boring how to draw?

    And this supposed defense of "that's what the job entailed?" Ridiculous. Just because one job is dictatorial and sucky doesn't mean it's okay or right for every other job to be dictatorial and sucky. I've worked for newspapers and they treat you like garbage- worse than this stuff even- but that doesn't make it right.

    Nor does someone else's willingness to put up with dehumanizing treatment. There's always a sucker or a sycophant willing to humiliate themselves and grovel, for less money even. But that doesn't mean the rest of us have to.

    I've seen people called idiots to their faces, with management scurrying to hide so they wouldn't have to intervene. I've had a sports editor threaten me over a caricature of him I did for an ad campaign. So I know what it's like to be crapped on, and Siegel and Shuster were getting crapped on.

    Putting "being crapped on" in the job description doesn't make it right. Anytime management treats you like this and threatens you, you have a right to stand up for yourself. You should want to. Human dignity and all that. They can't buy that from you with a paycheck, no matter how large.

    If you're willing to put up with it, that's your problem.

  10. Another stupid thing is the way they tried to get leverage over Siegel and Shuster with this "Just because 50% of readers say Superman is their favorite feature doesn't mean he's the most popular" jazz.

    "And we just today opened all the other letters and here's the way it actually turned out." Oh, bullshit.

    15% like Zatara, 10% like this other guy... I mean, jesus, of course if 50% of respondants like Superman the other characters combined will total 50% as well.

    But none of them individually will draw as many readers as Superman. Lose Zatara and lose 10 readers out of a hundred, lose Superman and lose 50. You can't tell me these guys didn't understand this and were just doing any kind of circular logic they could come up with to belittle Siegel and Shuster.

  11. And one last thing- the above corporate apologist reasoning ignores that it doesn't have to be this way. A company can respect its employee's worth as humans and STILL make a ton of profit.

    Look at Siegel and Shuster's work. Despite all the complaints that it was "subpar" and that they needed to vet it... it was still hugely successful. Kids were lapping it up. National/DC was making a mint off of it despite its "weaknesses" and despite the apparent lack of lead time to make it "right."

    And that was because of the work Siegel,Shuster and Boring were doing. Not these demeaning complaint letters. DC/National could've offered more support and less threats and treated Siegel, Shuster and Boring with respect and none of this negative publicity would've come about.

    The dichotomy that it's either suck it up for a paycheck or don't work is a false one created by corporations and their apologists to take power away from the employees and further their own selfish goals. There's no reason it HAS to be that way. No reason at all, other than simple human weakness and collective greed.

    Management and workers could and should be able to come together in a mutually beneficial environment. No one HAS to be an asshole to get work done. That's something they bring to the office from inside themselves and then pretend it's the corporate culture or some kind of motivational necessity.

    And if you don't like it, you can work somewhere else. Bullshit again.

  12. Before forming a final opinion of this information, you should read "Men of Tomorrow" by Gerard Jones. That book will blow your comicbook-addled brain out your ears.

  13. I'm going to disagree with any sentiment that says that comments like that are just a part of editorial feedback and that they're at all appropriate in any circumstance.

    I'm an editor. I've worked at DC. And there are many, many, many ways in which you can convey artistic criticism that do not resort to what these letters do. Sure, it's one sided, I can't say what the artist was doing/responding.

    But the point of editing is getting the best work out of your artists, and the technique being used there is beyond insulting. And it doesn't work. You can use it, of course, and many people do. That doesn't make it right or even remotely helpful.

    So excusing those notes because other people use that technique is dodgy at best. Whatever your personal feelings on style or art are, it's always possible to frame a critique in a way that gets the results you want without insulting the artist. Or women or homosexuals. I don't care if that was more "acceptable" back then, it's still wrong. And it's wrong no matter what you're getting from the artist by way of attitude.

    And really, a lot of defending I'm seeing of all this falls back on a kind of "put out or get out" attitude I find worrying. When did it become "bad" to question corporate motivations and the rights of creators? That feels like something we should always be analyzing and trying to improve.

  14. Okay Joel, since your comments seem to be directed at me(corporate apologist? You really don't know me do you?) You're applying modern thinking to a situation that took place 70 years ago. Where the culture, the thinking, how business was conducted was way different than it is now. Everyone wants to talk about how Seigel and Shuster were crapped on, however, they weren't children. They also were not new to the business, nor to working for National or Whitney Ellsworth. They worked for them for almost four years before they did Action #1. There was no naivety on their part... there have been a bit of desperation to get Superman out on the stands.

    That being said, you talk about putting a price of human dignity. Again you're making statements based on half the facts.
    Neither of these men were poor either.
    They earned over 400 thousand dollars in the 1940's when the average yearly income was 2000 a year per family. When they sued National and lost, they recieved a settlement of 400 thousand for the rights to Superman and another 100 thousand for the rights to Superboy.
    As far as National was concerned they had paid them three times for the same character. So in their thinking, that's all Seigel and Shuster were employees, well compensated employees at that.
    So try to keep all that in mind before you begin lashing out at the evil corporations.

  15. Anonymous3:36 PM


    Agreed. No one has to be an asshole, but some people are. In a working environment, you aren't guaranteed anything.

    While it is arguably more beneficial to work with others in a communal environment, that doesn't always happen: particularly in the alpha-male world of 1930's publishing.

    I agree with jamal on his points. Siegel and Shuster were young guys who created a character of a value no one could estimate at the time. As such, they weren't paid enough for it.

    They sued, and got money. Then they sued again and got more money.

    But, realistically, if I could sue a company just because a boss was a dick to me, I'd be a millionaire.

    We're not talking about an ideal situation, here. We're talking about reality in context. The context is publisher of funny books in 1938 and two freelance creators who were working on a contract to make comic strips.

    They were paid $130 each in 1938 for the rights, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Adjusted for inflation, that's about $2000...not bad for something that might not have made any money in a year.

    They sued in 1947 and were eventually awarded $94,000 for the rights to Superboy. In 1974, they sued Warner, and were paid $20,000/year for life, along with full pension benefits (health care).

    Honestly, what do you think they deserve? I don't think I'd turn my nose up at $20k/year, plus health insurance for doing nothing.

    Besides, to expect that National/DC/Warner would just give Siegel and Shuster money out of the kindess of their hearts is...well, it's assuming that a corporation has a heart.