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Parting Thought: The $130 Check That Bought Superman

This is the check that Detective Comics, Inc. co-owner Jack Liebowitz wrote young comic book creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1938 in exchange for the exclusive rights to a comic book superhero they’d recently created called Superman. The $130 amount, as specified in the memo portion of the check, was split between Siegel and Shuster, whose names were misspelled.In the years subsequent to cashing the check, Siegel and Shuster would attempt to regain via the courts some kind of ownership of Superman, creator credit and a more equitable share in the enormous profits generated by Superman comic books as well as DC’s exploitation of the character in the broader media marketplace. The pair were at first unsuccessful and found themselves fired and unrecognized for their creation, and consequently destitute (Shuster is alleged in comics historian Craig Yoe’s book, Secret Identity, to have illustrated a series of underground fetish comics just to make ends meet). Additional lawsuits, settlements and copyright extensions followed in the decades hence. Those proceedings were protracted and arcane, but with the help of some peers in the comic book industry, notably Neal Adams, Siegel and Shuster’s names were eventually restored to the credits pages of all Superman comics and media in the 1970s, and the pair secured a pension. Siegel’s heirs were briefly successful in recapturing half of the copyright to Superman in 2008, but that decision was reversed by a federal court of appeals which granted DC Comics parent Warner Bros. a decisive and presumably final victory in the Superman ownership saga, leaving the Siegel heirs with a multimillion dollar payout per the terms of an earlier agreement.

As of April 2013, the 75th anniversary of Superman’s first appearance in Action Comics #1, new DC Comics publications featuring Superman have come with the credit, “Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster by special arrangement with the Jerry Siegel family.”

In 2012 the cancelled $130 check sold at auction for $160,000.

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