Sunday, April 01, 2012

THE OTHER LESSON FROM THE SUPERMAN CHECK


Everyone knows the story of how two Cleveland boys, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, created the character of Superman and, short of money, signed all their rights away to a corporation for $130.  That corporation went on to reap hundreds of millions of dollars from their creation while Siegel and Shuster went hungry.

The infamous check which purchased the rights to Superman is now being auctioned.  As of today the bidding stands at $36,000.


The check is one of those wonderful avatars that remind us how artists will always be prey to accountants on the food chain, and that the largest share of the profits will always go to those with the cunning to exploit someone else's creativity.

(It also reminds us why corporations should not have the legal rights of a natural person.  In the words of  Lord Chancellor Thurlow,  a corporation is not a person because it "has no soul to be damned, and no body to be kicked.")

 Lots of people (and also lots of lawyers) have spent years debating the lesson of the check for Superman.  In long drawn out court battles and press campaigns, the corporations that prospered from Superman have been shamed or pestered into making supplemental payments and concessions to the families of Siegel and Shuster (who seemed to have the typical artist's penchant for mishandling their affairs).

But today I am interested in the other lesson of the check for Superman.

It is difficult to place a value on art because art has no inherent value aside from the value created by its context.  A few years before selling the rights to Superman, the creators themselves placed little value on it; artist Joe Shuster burned pages of superman artwork because he couldn't find a single publisher willing to touch it.  Then, a few years after buying the rights to Superman, the new owner had to sue those same publishers to keep them from infringing on the now valuable idea.   What created the "value" in the art?

John Chipman Gray noted, "Dirt is only matter out of place," and the same point could be made about art.  What is important and valuable art in one context may be worthless as dirt in another.

Much of the art we talk about here is art "out of place"-- it is located in ads for dish washing detergent,  in faded magazines of fiction for housewives, or scratched on the wall of a hermit's basement apartment rather than hanging in a gold frame on a gallery wall.  Art out of place-- unrecognized, misunderstood or unappreciated-- seems to have very little meaning or value.

Rather than being cause for despair, this should serve as a reminder to keep our eyes (and minds) open.

The next time two boys down the block tell you they have invented a really cool superhero, don't wait for some grandee of the art world to transport their creation into its "proper" place before you are capable of seeing it.

39 Comments:

Blogger etc, etc said...

David,
Could Siegel and Shuster have additionally negotiated for some type of royalty clause, say for instance that was dormant if their concept turned out to be only modestly successful for the corporation, but triggered if their concept proved to be successful?

4/01/2012 1:47 PM  
Anonymous AJA said...

They could have, if they wanted to never sell the character. They were desperate and comics' creators rights weren't well established back then.

4/01/2012 2:30 PM  
Blogger Donald Pittenger said...

I've always been envious of people who actually know their own worth and/or the worth of their creations.

In a field such as law, the large number of attorneys and firms as well as the several well-established legal fields (along with other factors such the level of experience of the lawyer in question) probably make it relatively easy to price the services rendered, thanks to the statistical law of large numbers; pricing rules of thumb exist. (Tell me if I got this wrong, David.)

On the other hand, I spent a number of years as a demographic/market segment forecaster, an extremely ill-defined service, and I had only the vaguest idea how to price things.

I suspect Siegel and Shuster suffered under the same kind of uncertainty as I did. As did the kindly (I jest!) folks at Detective Comics who also weren't conversant with the notion of smash-hit superheroes.

4/01/2012 8:25 PM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

4/01/2012 9:25 PM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

I'm not defending DC; I would like to think that if I were them by the time the return on investment reached several thousand percent I would have shared generously with S & S despite any legal agreements. But I doubt that the conversation at DC was, "Hey we know this is going to be a mega smash-hit so let's rip the faces off these muppets and give them the raw deal of the century." Who knows how many other similar concepts they had seen fall flat on its face?

4/01/2012 9:59 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Etc etc-- Yes, they certainly could if they'd had the clout to do it. Such arrangements were legal and common in licensing agreements when the seller had some bargaining power. Alas, Siegel and Shuster peddled Superman for 6 years before they found a publisher, so I'm sure they were delighted with the deal and did not want to jeopardize it with such a clause.

AJA-- Exactly. Things are a little better now in situations where art guilds have banded together or laws have been passed to protect artists, but individual free lancing artists still have little negotiating power.

Donald Pittenger-- I'm certain there are people who have a firm belief in "their own worth and/or the worth of their creations" but I'm not sure the word "know" can apply in a situation where the worth of something can only be determined by a compromise between two people, a buyer and seller, each working with partial information. How can anyone really "know" what their product is worth to a buyer?

Setting the price for legal services is not as straightforward as you would think. Because law is a hybrid business / profession, the market is not as efficient as the market for commodities. Besides, any time you are dealing with personal services, the sellers are never quite fungible. I don't know how the market works for demographic/market segment forecasts, but I am guessing that Detective Comics had enough experience buying half baked ideas from kids so that they felt they had a pretty good idea what Superman was worth. It turned out that everybody was completely wrong.

4/02/2012 10:19 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Etc, etc-- yes, I think that's exactly right. I'm sure the editor at Detective Comics felt comfortable that he had negotiated a good deal for his company, but had no idea he had purchased the world's greatest lottery ticket. Siegel and Shuster had sold him other characters (such as the action hero "Slam Bradley") that had gone nowhere.

4/02/2012 10:23 AM  
Anonymous MORAN said...

Do you really think there is no inherent value in art?

4/02/2012 10:25 AM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

Since the universe doesn't value anything, all "value" is determined by human context, not just the value of art. Gold and diamond are just different kinds of dirt, after all.

4/02/2012 12:00 PM  
Blogger Amarjeet Prasad said...

thank you for sharing to us.

oil paintings
artwork reproductions

4/02/2012 10:42 PM  
Blogger K said...


The check is one of those wonderful avatars that remind us how artists will always be prey to accountants on the food chain, and that the largest share of the profits will always go to those with the cunning to exploit someone else's creativity.


Speaking of AVATARS, James Cameron just pocketed 200 million bucks for his movie. Poor baby.

4/03/2012 3:53 AM  
Blogger SREERAM said...

This is a journey all of us have to travel. Even accountants go thru that career phase of getting acceptance.. The only difference maybe, we artists get confused at two extremes - totally dispassioante or extremly emotional.
Anyway David, its a brilliant piece on a subject which many of us cant articulate coherantly.

4/03/2012 1:08 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

MORAN-- That's kind of a "if a tree falls in a forest" question. Can you tell me how to calculate the value of unperceived art?

Kev Ferrara-- At another time, on a different blog, we should discuss whether the universe truly "values anything." Isn't it possible that the mere existence of something suggests that the universe's priorities favor that thing? I'm not suggesting that he universe will shed a tear when that thing is eliminated by something else, but for the moment, that thing has prevailed under the universe's priorities, or that the universe "values" it more than the alternatives. (I do generally agree with your point, but remember diamonds are dirt plus something else: "the weight that tortures diamonds out of coal." That weight is not to be overlooked.)

K-- I can't claim to have followed followed Cameron's career too closely, but if he actually writes and directs and fights with the studio about the choices in his movies, that would make him closer to the Siegel and Shuster role, rather than Detective Comics. Besides, isn't Cameron the one who drew Kate Winslet in the nude in Titanic? There you go, he's a draftsman too (kind of).

4/03/2012 8:16 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Sreeram-- Many thanks.

4/03/2012 8:17 PM  
Blogger Mellie said...

On things having value, Kev has it right. A diamond has no value for an animal or a rock. Value is a human concept. We take the natural stuff we find around us, work on it, and create things that wouldn't exist if it weren't for human action. That process gives our creations value for us.

Art is the same: it is a human creation valued only by humans. For an animal, a painting by Leonardo (or whatever) is just another object in its environment. When people attach monetary value to art objects they are, in part, attempting to concretise the immaterial, i.e. stick a price-tag on the spiritual impact of symbolic communication on human beings.

David, if a thing exists then fine, it's a product of the particular processes of the universe, but I don't think it's helpful to suggest the universe 'values' it in a way that relates meaningfully to a discussion of artistic value.

4/04/2012 8:18 AM  
Blogger djèphe said...

Let's not forget what $130 was worth back then. Why, it must have been worth at least $150 in today's economy! Michael Jackson once outbid Paul McCartney for ownership of something or other ...

Concerning the human value of art, my dog will regularly tread across a pencil drawing as if it were just another rug, whatever that is. Arf!

4/04/2012 5:09 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

David,

If one wants to equate existence with cosmic favor, the more something exists, the more valuable it must be to the universe. Logically, then, the rarer the element or material, the less favored it is by the universe.

So if indeed the universe demonstrates preferences, they show the exact opposite value sense at work as in we humans. Which puts consciousness pretty low on the totem pole of cosmic value. And the aesthetic products of consciousness at the very bottom, right near Profound Tweets, Ancient Scrolls, and Rhodium.

So I call nonsense on that. For a species that exists in a constant state of want, I don't think the universe could provide a better explanation for our intuition for valuation than the law of supply and demand. (To be more direct; I'll trade you all the dark matter you can eat for a thick porterhouse cooked over an open flame.)

I think it is far more interesting to contemplate (in a cosmic way) whether gold appears shiny because it is rare, or whether fruits appear colorful to us because they are nutritious.

4/05/2012 12:22 AM  
Blogger daviz said...

Dear David,
you have a fantastic blog, always a visual treat, thank you.

Daviz

4/05/2012 7:13 AM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

Since the universe doesn't value anything, all "value" is determined by human context, not just the value of art.......I don't think the universe could provide a better explanation for our intuition for valuation than the law of supply and demand.

Kev,
Since "all value is determined by human context", are you suggesting that the law of supply and demand is an artificial human construct? Because a key economic concept is that value is a function of scarcity, and scarcity goes far beyond human context.

4/05/2012 8:36 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

The law of supply and demand is no more artificial than a physics equation. It is abstracted from our experience of reality through considered intellection.

4/06/2012 1:11 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara and Mellie-- on the whole, I agree that we can't read too much "value" into the physical universe's selection of winners and losers, but let's not shut the door on the possibilities altogether.

Just as dark matter and vast lifeless fields of hydrogen physically dominate the universe, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst physically dominate the art world, regardless of their value to human life.

But even more important, there seem to be mountains of congruence between quality in art and the attributes of the physical universe. Where do you think our sense of design, harmony, balance come from, if not the natural world around us? How is the bower bird who selects brightly colored scraps and ribbons for his nest all that different from the way you paint a picture? Or why is the bright plumage of male birds that attracts female birds any different from what you do with art?

Think of art, and the artist's organization of a composition, as a tiny (futile) bit of resistance to the universe's path of entropy (and that endless cold future when the atomic structure of the universe will be too dissipated to sustain life).

Perhaps art makes us feel good because it enables us to warm our hands for a few moments against that entropy.

4/06/2012 7:35 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

djèphe-- It seems to me that you are making yourself vulnerable to your dog critic's editorial opinions by displaying your drawings on the floor. If you put them in a fancy gilt frame, your dog-- and the universe-- will assume they are worthy of respect.

Daviz-- Thanks very much, that's very kind of you.

4/06/2012 7:49 AM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

Interesting Hirst article recently on The Guardian website.

4/06/2012 10:45 AM  
Blogger Benjamin Raucher said...

Poor guys!!!

BENJAMIN RAUCHER

4/07/2012 3:22 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

Just as dark matter and vast lifeless fields of hydrogen physically dominate the universe, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst physically dominate the art world, regardless of their value to human life.

Yes, commercial parties may distort market information enough to successfully influence or control the value of some commodity. But I don’t think this kind of self-interested cultural manipulation resembles cosmic selection.

But even more important, there seem to be mountains of congruence between quality in art and the attributes of the physical universe. Where do you think our sense of design, harmony, balance come from, if not the natural world around us?

There is a good argument to be made that we find more order in the universe than there is because our minds have a capacity or tendency towards idealization. We are even apt to think of our faces and bodies as symmetrical. But as Harvey Dunn wisely noted, “We’re all out of drawing.” I would posit that it is very difficult to be sure that the universe is as mathematical as the blackboards tell us. At the miniscule and cosmic, we must rely on science’s view without the check of our common senses... and nothing is so ideal, so alluring, as a beautiful equation.

How is the bower bird who selects brightly colored scraps and ribbons for his nest all that different from the way you paint a picture? Or why is the bright plumage of male birds that attracts female birds any different from what you do with art?

The surest way to paint a bad picture is to use brightly colored scraps of anything, David. And ultimately good art is a service as well as a strut. It can’t be just a strut, or else it won’t be any good.

Perhaps art makes us feel good because it enables us to warm our hands for a few moments against that entropy.

I would say that the products of a beautiful consciousness make good company; in comparison to both the aggravating plenum and the boring vacuum of existence. In most cases, I would think, the timescale of heat death keeps it too abstract to be of real concern.

4/07/2012 9:03 PM  
Anonymous Chris said...

Hi, David! Sorry to interrupt the post but I thought you and some of the followers of your blog would be interested in this The Art of Bill Sanchez. He studied and taught with Barbara Bradley and worked in commercial illustration and storyboarding throughout the 70's and 80's. A book is in the works but until it comes out he has a tumblr so people outside the Academy of Art get to see some of this stuff! I'm a huge fan of your blog and it has supplied my with endless amounts of inspiration! I hope you guys enjoy the link.

4/09/2012 3:43 PM  
Blogger अर्जुन said...

Just sign the contract… once you're a star you'll be well taken care of.

4/10/2012 3:16 AM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

Just sign the contract

Gotta light?

4/10/2012 10:57 AM  
Blogger अर्जुन said...

Ah, Roy Harper, indeed a One Man Rock and Roll Band.

or: Hats off to him!

4/10/2012 12:27 PM  
Anonymous Soluto said...

Quelles formidables pages! c'est toujours un plaisir de passer par votre blog... Vous savez rassembler et montrer le meilleur...

4/12/2012 4:38 AM  
Blogger StimmeDesHerzens said...

RE: The check is one of those wonderful avatars
avatar-1. Hindu myth- The descent of a deity to earth, and his incarnation as a man or an animal
2.Incarnation, embodiment; epiphany

RE:Lots of people (and also lots of lawyers) have spent years debating the lesson of the check for Superman.
wow. you are simply a fountain of life as told in stories and illustrations!

DA for the Supreme Court!
g B

4/13/2012 4:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fascinating post. You might want to tie this in at some point with Thomas Kinkade's passing, perhaps he drank himself to death, over what exactly, the failure to please the critics or himself? It seems both are related to value--he pleased many ordinary people became rich and was hated by the intellectual critics of "art". Did they hurt his feelings by thinking his art was in bad taste and why wasn't the money and fame enough? Did he doubt his ability? Where is the value here in terms of "art"? I don't find his paintings appealing though they seem technically well done. I tend to like pictures that tell a story or suggest meaning or morals over abstract art that isn't based in a narrative of some sort but attempts to challenge our understanding of perception itself by toying with what we see. So Kinkade should appeal to me but the subject matter of his paintings are cliches, pretty but boring.

4/15/2012 2:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jack Kirby is another failure or loser in this game, America forgets or hates losers and losing, for various possible reasons: the Depression built into his system a fear of poverty and when times got hard he gave into that fear to protect his family, he sacrificed his art and integrity to survive. In one interview, perhaps because of ill health and age, he seems to denigrate himself as a coward for not standing up to Stan Lee. I’m not sure I buy Kirby’s late explanations of his actions as result of being intimated, of being afraid to fight the system at Marvel, at least not in his second return to Marvel comics.

4/15/2012 2:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe he was afraid during the late 50s after losing the Skymaster case during the industry down turn. I just can’t accept, however, that a man who saw combat in world war two would be that easily frightened by a corrupt industry he participated in and understood and helped create. In any case, it’s a black comic irony given the superheroes he created that he was so afraid to stand up for himself. He was much older and much tougher than the creators of Superman. But was it fear or was something else? He had considerable gifts as an artist and maybe using more references and changing his styles he could’ve moved into other areas of publishing.

He could’ve turned to book illustration, say, or tried to break into storyboarding sooner. It might be a combination of things. He seemed to have disliked editorial control over his work.

4/15/2012 2:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think he was artistically ambitious and chose to write and edit his own books rather than accept what was given him, do the jobs offered without protest, sort of the fate of Gene Golan. He could’ve stayed at DC and did just that. But the deal with Marvel would allow him to continue writing and editing his own books, the very things his was losing at DC. Yet working on the scripts of others would’ve certainly made everyone happy and kept him employed. So it wasn’t just keeping his job that mattered to him at that point and that is why he put up with the theft of his rights.

He wanted creative control of what he created over making some other deal? He asked for or was given editorial freedom to write and draw his own comics and that was more important than making a deal to get royalties or the full copyright on his art. In a sense Kirby valued creative freedom more than he valued money per se which is admirable but in hindsight seems foolhardy. The money he was paid must’ve been good enough to allow him to meet his responsibilities as a father and create freely. I suspect he could’ve gotten more money if he offered to draw the scripts of other writers.

4/15/2012 3:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This would’ve avoided the claims of sabotage and nock letters. So when he signed away his rights, he signed it away for this freedom? Of course he should’ve never had to sign those rights away at all but that was how it worked. Now his return to Marvel seemed like a desperate act, it seemed Marvel had more to gain by pressuring him to return without editorial control since he was losing it at DC, for the scripts of other writers were being forced on Kamandi, for example. It was quite public. Marvel must’ve have known this yet they welcomed him back with open arms. But it seemed he also had some leverage over them because of his prestige as the King. Perhaps they banked on his conceptualizing to produce new characters and they needed him to have that freedom to prevent him from holding back valuable ideas and designs. Knowing that they valued his prestige among fans and the history of comics, he could've, should've used that to bargain for more royalties on toys, films or a Bob Kane type deal where his name would show up on the credits. He wanted that creative freedom for a reason beyond money?

Maybe it is a good thing I can't remember my password and so must post anonymously since I don’t see Kirby as a pure victim of the system for the reasons stated above. I get a lot of flack for it. He bargained with the devil and he knew or should’ve known the odds. The Comics Journal caught up with him when he saw his mistake when old, losing his powers, and Marvel was on the verge of its Hollywood explosion, and he realized he should’ve fought more for his rights than his creative freedom, thus his statements claiming cowardice etc.

4/15/2012 3:20 AM  
Blogger Regina said...

I just want to add a couple of warm words on behalf of our universe. It looks like that there are good chances that the entropy will not bring the heat death on us.
The hypothesis of the heat death came out as a result of applying simple thermodynamic model to the universe in general. Very typical situation in the history of human knowledge! Never confuse similar with equal!
We still do not know the dynamics of the universe as a whole, the nature of the vacuum, black holes and more.

4/18/2012 2:10 PM  
Blogger Benjamin Raucher said...

Fantastic article

BENJAMIN RAUCHER

5/26/2012 7:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

An artist must look after himself because nobody else will. Fucking an artist over is a time honoured tradition by most businessmen, accountants, publishers, ad agencies, design shops and none artists in general. They all know they need good artists, but think of them as gifted idiots.

6/03/2012 1:44 AM  

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