Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The $130 check that bought Superman

It’s painful for many to learn that, in 1937, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster sold all rights to Superman for $130.

On another level, it's also painful to learn that the historic check from that deal is now up for auction…and bidding is currently north of $45,000 with almost a week more to go.

Yes, even the slip of paper that bought Superman is worth more than the original cost of Superman himself.



In any case, it’s astounding that this check has survived. Here’s an excerpt from the item description on the auction site:

Knowing that the check would have historical relevance, [a] D.C. employee salvaged it [in 1973, when it was among various documents to be discarded]. For the next 38 years it was kept safe in a dresser drawer...until now.

This March 1, 1938 Detective Comics check, signed by Jack Liebowitz, is made payable to Jerome Seigel and Joe Schuster. (You would think that DC would have spelled Siegel and Shuster's name correctly for a character as important as Superman!) The check, in the amount of $412, includes an account of items being paid for. At the very top is "Superman $130."

The year the check was nearly tossed, 1973, marked the start of a string of events that show that the era of bestowing comics cultural significance had not yet begun:

But this mainstream ignorance of the historic (not to mention artistic) value of comics was about to do an about-face.

  • In 1978, Superman: The Movie came out and did gangbusters, setting in motion the love affair with superhero movies that Hollywood engages in today more than ever.
  • Finger began to more “formally” receive the recognition he was tragically denied in his lifetime. This included long-overdue acknowledgment by Bob Kane (in his 1989 autobiography) and "partial credit" in books and comics published by DC Comics; it will culminate in my book Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman.
  • The site where Joe’s apartment building stood is now commemorated, though nothing, of course, can bring the historic structure back.
  • Thanks in large part to the Internet, fandom is now able to proclaim as more of a united front that Siegel, Shuster, Finger, and others of their era were mistreated. Whether such popular opinion will have any real-world effect is always a wild card, but a welcome one.

Put another way, 1973 was just shy of the enlightened era we are still in.

Transaction that launched both the comic book industry and the superhero genre nearly thrown out?
Co-creator of Batman dies with virtually no public notice? Apartment building in which Superman first drawn torn down? None of these travesties would happen today—at least not without big-time backlash among fans.

4/16/12 addendum: At 56 bids, the check sold for $160,000.

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