Thursday, April 12, 2012

A $412 Check Worth...?

Currently up for auction and attracting some media attention is the original check made out to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster for the first Superman story that appeared in Action Comics #1 back in 1938.

Some interesting things to note about this check:
* Both of their names are misspelled ("Seigel" and "Schuster") so both men had to sign the check twice, first with the misspelled names and then the correct ones.
* The check also includes payment for other work that Siegel and Shuster did for June-dated issues: A thirteen-page Slam Bradley story and an 8-page Bart Regan, Spy tale for Detective Comics #16; a 4-page Doctor Occult story for More Fun Comics #32; and a 4-page Federal Men tale for New Adventure Comics #27.
* Siegel and Shuster were paid $10 a page for Superman; their rate for the other stories was only $9 a page.

Much of the media coverage describes this check as payment for the rights and ownership to Superman. This is not precisely correct; it was payment for that specific 13-page story. Inherent in that sale, as with every other sale they (and everyone else working for DC) made was the rights to the characters, et al.  So Siegel and Shuster had signed away the rights to Federal Men, Spy, Doctor Occult, and Slam Bradley with the first stories they did of each of those characters.

* At the time of the sale of Superman, Siegel and Shuster had regular work at DC, producing those other features on a monthly basis. Slam Bradley and Spy had appeared in Detective Comics since the first issue, while Doctor Occult and Federal Men had both been running more than a year.

* Siegel and Shuster had originally tried to sell Superman as a newspaper strip. It was rejected again and again. It is likely that, when the DC bosses said they wanted to use it in Action Comics, Siegel and Shuster saw an opportunity to make some money off a project that they must have considered a failure. And if it promised more monthly work, all the better.

* I've never heard any accounting of how Siegel and Shuster split the money they were paid. Was it 50/50? Or did Joe get a larger percentage since the art took a lot more time and energy than the writing?

* The $130 they received in 1938 is worth $2100 in today's dollars. Similarly, their month's total of $412 would today be $6,650. Not exactly a fortune, especially when split between the two of them, but a decent amount considering it was during the Great Depression.

One other thing not mentioned in the coverage: Where did this check come from and who has put it up for sale? Presumably, it was in a file somewhere that contained all of DC's bank records. Or in a separate file that was used as evidence during the lawsuits filed by Siegel and Shuster as they tried to regain the rights to the character. In either case, it would be property of DC Comics.
Was it miraculously found in a box of trash somewhere? Or did some past or present employee spirit it away? It wouldn't be the first time that something valuable in DC's files has disappeared.

Lastly, with about four days left in the auction, the current bid is $46,500. That's a lot less than an actual copy of Action Comics #1 would cost. But is it worth it? Well, as I used to answer back when people would write to the Answer Man column asking the value of one comic or another: It's worth whatever someone else is willing to pay you for it!


UPDATE APRIL 17TH: The check sold for $160,000!

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