The big news in the comics world this week is that the US courts have (in a summary judgement) awarded Jerry Siegel’s heirs his share of the copyright to Action Comics #1 – a little comic that features the first appearance of a fairly well-known character called Superman. DC comics, and their parent-company, Time-Warner, won’t have been celebrating this weekend.
As with any judgement of this kind, trying to figure out so soon exactly what this means to the man on the street is a total minefield of legalese and rampant speculation. Everyone’s got their own opinion, and everyone’s got a different interpretation of the facts. In that regard, I’m no different.
What I’m going to say in this column is based on my understanding of the ruling, but we should be well aware that I’m neither a lawyer nor a copyright expert. If you’re looking for someone to talk about the legal side, I can’t offer that. Instead, I’m going to focus on the bit that interests the real geeks among us – if the judgement survives and it ends up that Jerry Siegel’s estate can license out the character of Superman – what does that mean for the character?
While the most likely probability is that Time-Warner will simply pay monstrous amounts of cash for the exclusive rights, the possibility remains that Siegel’s estate could license the character to other companies. On his blog, popular author and comics writer Neil Gaiman suggests that there’s now the possibility – if not probability – of a Marvel Comics-published Superman.
Still, consider what Siegel’s rights now are. The current image of Superman, after all, is a long way from what you’d find in that first, 1938 edition of Action Comics #1. DC will certainly retain the ability to publish their own version of the character (though they’ll likely have to pay to do so) but if Siegel’s estate can do the same, we could see a very different version of the character – one created solely from the elements of the Superman story in Action Comics #1. If that happens, here are some of the more radical differences you’d see:
1. No flying.That’s right, folks. In his first appearance, Superman didn’t fly. He jumped. Really high, admittedly, but that’s all. Hence “leap tall buildings in a single bound” – hardly a feat worth mentioning if you can fly, is it? In addition, certain other abilities are well off the table. Both super-breath and heat-vision aren’t shown in Action Comics #1, and as for Grant Morrison’s much-championed shooting-a-miniature-Superman-out-of-his-hands power, you can frankly forget it. Speed, strength and invulnerability get to stay, but compared to the iconic image of Superman in flight, those are small fry. When Kevin Smith famously related a story in which John Peters suggested that, in his new film, Superman didn’t fly, the geeks of the world collectively slapped their foreheads. Looks like he gets the last laugh, though. Just imagine the tagline for a Siegel-licensed Superman film – You’ll believe a man can jump! Doesn’t have quite the same ring, does it?
2. No Lex Luthor. First appearing in 1940’s Action Comics #23, Superman’s traditional arch-nemesis isn’t covered by this ruling – after all, it largely hinges on the fact that the contents of Action Comics #1 were created prior to Siegel and Schuster being hired by DC, which isn’t the case for subsequent issues. Once you get to the big leagues of comicbook heroes, Luthor is perhaps the only villain who can stand alongside characters like the Joker and Catwoman in being as instantly recognisable as the hero they’re associated with.
3. No Kryptonite.While an unpublished Siegel story from 1940 story contains the concept of “K-Metal” – a substance from Krypton that robs Superman of his powers – Kryptonite was first introduced in the Superman radio series in 1943, and very definitely belongs to DC. A new Superman would need a new weakness. (Beer?)
4. No logo. Naomi Klein might be pleased about this one (that’s a joke for all the anti-capitalists among you) but to the rest of us, what’s Superman without his S-shield? Okay, yes, a Siegel Superman could use an S-shield, as seen in Action Comics #1, but that’s vastly different from the familiar version you see plastered over everything from pink girlie-tees in Top Shop to the rap video for Soulja Boy’s recent magnum opus, Crank That. Think Coca Cola without the bottle. McDonalds without the arches.
5. No Metropolis. Batman has Gotham. Spider-Man has New York. Superman has Metropolis – but not in Action Comics #1, he didn’t. Nor did he work for the Daily Planet. In his first appearance, Clark Kent worked for the Daily Star.
Take away all that, and are you really still left with Superman? Based on Action Comics #1, you get Clark Kent, Lois Lane and a fairly truncated power set for your version of Superman. Action Comics #1 is certainly a formative piece of work in the Superman mythos, but it’s no Amazing Fantasy #15, which provided not only the first Spider-Man story, but the definitive one. There’s still a lot left to be added to the character before he becomes the Superman we’re familiar with. The essence of the character can remain, but without the mythology will the concept still interest people?
So what does this mean? Well, any Siegel-licensed Superman would be much, much different to the one that the general public knows, and (more importantly) the one they’re willing to pay money to own, display and otherwise endorse. It’s a big judgement, certainly for the Seigels, but it’s not quite the bombshell for DC or the character, that it might initially seem. Anyone trying to create a Superman comic, for instance, will likely have to avoid a multitude of the most recognisable elements – and face up against 70 years’ worth of DC Comics Superman material that IS fully owned by them. It’d be virtually impossible.
The fact is, almost no-one, Marvel or otherwise, is going to have a stab at a Siegel-licensed Superman comic. If you marry that Superman to Lois Lane, if you kill him, or even if, for some godless reason, you give him electric powers then split him into red and blue halves, you could very well face the wrath of Time-Warner, who are probably well within their rights to sue you for creating derivative works based on THEIR material. It’d take a brave person to try. Despite all the noise upstairs, it’s fairly unlikely that Superman’s going to be changing any time soon.
James Hunt’s Alternate Cover will be back next Monday; read last week’s column here.