Comic book artist Neal Adams talks about the fight to right the wrongs against Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.
Q: In the episode, you talk about how you routinely asked what had happened to Siegel and Shuster well before you got involved with them. Why was their story so important to you?
A: Because they had created Superman, probably the most iconic character in American literature. He’s more iconic, he’s more well-known by people in the world than Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan. He is the number one iconic fantasy literature hero. He is the number one guy, so of course I was curious, and I also grew up reading comic books just like everybody else. I remember seeing Jerry Siegel. I saw their names, and then they suddenly disappeared and I didn’t understand. So when I worked at DC Comics and I made friends with guys in the production room, I would casually ask, “What happened with these guys that created Superman?” And I would get the cold shoulder. And the more I would ask, the more of a cold shoulder I got. I’m like, “Really, is this some big deal? Are they dead? What the hell’s going on?”
Q: After asking this question for so long, what was it like having the answers literally delivered to you in the form of Siegel’s letter?
A: Stunning. It was stunning. It was almost as if I had cast the question out into the cosmos and it came to me in this letter… It was a staggering moment. I mean, I stood in my studio, and after I read it, I was quiet. I got myself a cup of coffee and I walked out to the front of my studio, and I kind of announced: “Guys, anybody in the studio who wants to read this letter can read this letter. But I am going to see to it that this gets fixed, and I am not going to stop until it does. So if any of you want to help me, I’d appreciate the help. If you don’t want to help me, there’s no obligation. But we are going to see that this gets taken care of or I will know why. I’m not going to stop until it gets done, so it’s going to get taken care of.”
Q: How did you decide to get involved?
A: One of the things that [Siegel] talked about in the letter was that they were promised by their lawyers that 15 years after they started this process, when they were 60 years old, that their lawyers would be able to go to court, even if it went to the Supreme Court, and recover their rights for them and they would then own Superman. And now, when they were approaching that time and they had been silent for 15 years, their lawyers weren’t answering their phones. I mean, if the people you depend on are not going to do it, who is there to do it? Who? Somebody who is, first of all, sufficiently independent, to be not easily hurt. Somebody who is intelligent enough to know the issue. Somebody who gets it. Somebody who had some well awareness of the media. I had the weapons. I had the cartridge belt. I knew what to do. I didn’t know that I could follow through and do the whole thing, but I resolved that I would. So it wasn’t a question for me.
Q: What went into the process of returning Siegel and Shuster’s creative rights?
A: Jerry agreed to come to New York and stayed at a hotel for awhile; we helped him pay the rent at the hotel. And we would call the news media and say — since this thing got started, the media was interested — and so I would talk to the media almost on a daily basis. So we took him around and did television shows and we did interviews and all kinds of stuff, kept the thing going, until later on we had a whole big news conference and we had the National Cartoonists Society to help us. But it took quite awhile. It was a little rough on the boys because Joe, for example, was legally blind, so, anytime I would take him anywhere, I had to put my arm on the edge of the cab door so that he wouldn’t bash his head on the frame of the door. I saw him do it one time — it was like oh my God, this is insane, so I just put my arm up there so he could bash his head on my arm, which was a lot easier than the door. Jerry had a heart condition, so I couldn’t get him too excited. He did have a tendency to get excited, so I had to make sure that was mollified. I’d take him to dinner, a nice quiet dinner, a nice quiet place, and make sure that they were good, feeling good, make sure they got enough sleep at the hotel and basically took them to as many places as I could, to do interviews, to get the word out there so that people would recognize them on an ongoing basis, so the ball wouldn’t get dropped.
Q: How would you say the case won in the court of public opinion?
A: Warner Brothers was a public company. This was a public thing. This was part of America. It needed to be spoken about in the media, and it needed to be spoken about among people so they would talk about it and make up their own minds as to whether the creators of Superman were going to be taken care of for the rest of their lives. So it definitely was a media thing, and people needed to talk about it. It needed to get out there so the conversation would take place. I was trying to create a conversation where people would say, yes, they need to be taken care of, these are the creators of Superman. To what extent, that’s really not my business. My business was, do you take care of the guys who created Superman, does Joe continue to live in his brother’s apartment sleeping on a cot every night in front of a window that was taped up to keep the cold of the winter out? Would Joe ever have to go back to being a messenger boy, given that he was legally blind? No, he couldn’t do that, so he had to be taken care of by his brother. It was a terrible situation. This was Superman, for God’s sake.It needed to be done, and the only I could do it is in the court of public opinion, as you say. The people had to kind of vote and the news media had to vote too, and the news media was very, very much in favor of this getting taken care of.
Q: In what ways has the comic book industry changed to protect creators? And what improvements could there be?
A: We don’t do this kind of crap anymore. We try to watch out for our own. I protected a lot of guys and helped a lot of guys since then, since Jerry and Joe… But now there’s a thing in the industry called the Hero Initiative, when there are people [in the comic book industry] who have difficulty, they step in, and it’s a group — you raise money and support them and take care of them. And if somebody needs a wheelchair, we get it, or if their rent needs to be taken care of, we take care of that, or if somebody needs to be moved into a place that’ll be easier for them to live at, we do that. The Hero Initiative is basically instituted in comic books to do the job that I used to do, and so I can kind of sit back and relax and then fight other fights.
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