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Robert Stanley Martin On Best Outcomes And The Shuster Family
posted October 29, 2012

You conclude your Shuster piece with, "I think it's okay to want best outcomes." I have to say I'm curious as to what you think these are, at least in this case. How could DC and Time-Warner deal with Shuster's heirs in a way that would comprise the best outcome? Please take your time with the answer. I especially ask that you read through the correspondence between DC's Paul Levitz and Shuster's sister Jean Peavy and others. Here's the URL:

How could DC have dealt with them in a way that was more equitable and fair that what you find in that correspondence?

Also, 25K in 1992 is the equivalent of over 41K now. I have to say I didn't think many 23-year-olds earn that much, but of course I assume you know what you're talking about. I certainly wouldn't want to lump you in with the fan-community demagogues who quote (allegedly piddling) dollar amounts from decades past without acknowledging the value after inflation.

Tom Spurgeon Responds: I told Robert I would reply to the above if I could do it on the web site, as I don't really have the time these days to engage in private correspondence about things I write publicly. I sure didn't the last two weeks.

He complied, for which I'm glad. He also asked me to take my time in responding. That admonition... was not so necessary. I don't see this kind of thing as something that takes a lot of time. I'm sorry to disappoint, but I'm going to bang something out first-draft style over the next several minutes. I'm not sure how doing this is generally worth anyone's time. When I suggest that the comics industry can spend more time pursuing best results, two hunched-over middle-aged nerds hashing out someone else's actions from 20 years ago and looking at original documents and the like is pretty much the opposite of what that entails.

But I did say I would respond.

It needs to be noted that for me the real best outcome here would have made deciding on how best to negotiate a series of small payments to the Shuster Family completely irrelevant, because there'd be no need to do so.

Let's be more sporting, though, and answer Robert's inquiry directly. For me, "equitable and fair" applied here and only right here would have been 1) a payment not tied into the renouncement of rights, 2) a retroactive deal with the family approved by a court-ordered mediator using the best existing industry deal as its standard (perhaps even used as promotion for The Death Of Superman), 3) a separate payment for renouncement of rights that allowed for an adjustment in that payment to match whatever a court-ordered mediator declared was fair market value for that renouncement, with a figure capped in the middle eight figures.

Or they could just give them the character back. They had it a long time.

I'm a little lost as to the nature of the question, though. It doesn't seem to engage my point. Going from "best outcome" to "equitable and fair" that quickly seems an almost willful renunciation of what I'm talking about.

What I intended when suggesting the comics industry needn't settle for anything other than best results isn't that we sit around concocting scenarios with which to beat on past actions and cast snotty aspersions on those involved. I meant it as a way of defeating thinking that we have to accept dire, unhappy outcomes as inevitable or even as things with moral force due to the inherent, throw-your-hands-up-in-the-air nature of corporations or greedy people. There are good deals out there that have been done. Good deals continue to be done. If matching those were more commonly the goal -- instead of negotiating some bare minimum of "realistic expectations" or whatever -- we'd be better off as a culture, as a creative community, as people.

I want to address the aside in Robert's letter, about the money involved, because I think it's a perfect example of the smallness of thinking we have on such issues. To put one assertion to rest rest, I wasn't actually practicing some sort of cheap rhetorical ploy by not adjusting for inflation as Robert thinks I should have -- no more than letters from DC pointing out they were only on the hook with the Shusters for a non-inflation adjusted figure of $5K were practicing the same sort of demagoguery. Sometimes figures are just figures.

Here's where I was coming from. I was a graduating college student in 1991. My memory is that none of my friends who went into the workforce -- I went to grad school -- did so for less than the amount in question, and most of those that were starting at salaries only $5K or so over that amount were completely bummed. I made $2K more than that amount of money at my first post-school job in 1993 working in a field for which I had no experience: a job where I didn't even have to wear a tie, and I didn't have my own office. My friends from high school that went to college and my friends from college all considered my 1993-1994 job kind of a crappy one. So me saying what the Shuster family members received was a college graduate's salary was simply me going by memory. There was nothing sneaky or loaded about it.

That being said, I'm perfectly happy to feel dismay over an inflation-adjusted figure and, crucially, the mechanism involved in paying that figure out. I think even adjusted upward that figure is pretty small potatoes. Granted, I'm not as comfortable as so many people seem to be putting what I feel is an acceptable price tag on someone else's family legacy. From either direction. But even if I were perfectly okay making that call, I'd have to think I wouldn't be floored by a $41K figure over a $25K figure. Someone would have to do the math, but I think that Joe Shuster's family members made significantly less in the 20 years following his death (a little over $600K) than DC cleared from a single comic book issue that came out in 1992. Granted, that was The Death Of Superman, but that comic was a publishing mini-phenomenon that had force and power in large part for the original act of creation.

I imagine, and I don't know for sure, and I apologize if I'm wrong, that I'm supposed to see the money going to Shuster family and the pains-in-the-ass they sometimes were about getting it and the fact that they sometimes asked for more and that they were indulged a bit in how they were paid the money and that that kind of money isn't small potatoes to everyone let alone some 2012 college graduate's salary if you do the math and not doing the math is mean, I'm supposed to see this all as something DC didn't have to do, and a pretty nice thing besides, and put into effect by well-meaning people at some cost in time and effort, and that this is proven in part by the fact it was something the Shusters were on the record as being grateful to receive. Forgive me that run-on sentence, but I sort of feel these ideas are all smushed together in a big "You think you're better than me" sandwich press.

Let me be clear. I'm sure the payments were all of these good things, too. It's only our collective lack of imagination and defeated nature as comics people that we insist on presenting things as flat-out, drag-behind-a-motorcycle, shoot-your-loved-ones-in-front-of-you evil in order to criticize them.

I don't have that problem. I wish these nice things were done more generously and earlier. I don't think it would have hurt the company's bottom line and I think Siegel and Shuster deserved more -- not by a reading of the legalities involved, but by a simple appraisal of what the finest result would be for all parties and the resources available to easily accomplish this. I also wish there hadn't been strings attached. I think it's pretty clear from the paperwork in support that the company executives were not just giving money away solely because they loved Joe Shuster's line work or whatever but that they were buying a legal renouncement in return for that money, something that's paid off spectacularly well for them according to the recent legal decision. Would that all of our acts of generosity had that kind of return.

I will continue to think there were better options with the Siegels, with the Shusters, with the Kirbys, with a lot of families and creators. I think there continue to be better options, no matter what perceived lines are crossed. I believe in a future defined by the better options. I have to. There are too many positive examples out there for us to see the negative ones as acceptable. I won't abandon the idea that people's decisions count. We get to the better by scrambling after the best. If we try for a best outcome instead of entering into these things trying to scratch out a satisfactory result, or a defensible one, or try to match up with what's standard, or by casting whatever gets done as better than what should be expected because, you know, that's just the way things/people/corporations/deals are, if we avoid all of that: I think over time we make a better world.

An Addendum: You can read Robert Stanley Martin on Siegel and Shuster and the copyright situation around Superman here. It's sort of a response to the above, I guess, although he seems frustrated that I won't demonize the efforts on DC's part to settle, as a lot of the response seems to be extrapolating what I've said into a more extreme version that can then be whacked like a pinata. But that could be a misread on my part, and that's the way arguing on the Internet seems to go.

A few notes.

I'll certainly cop to not making the most cogent initial analysis post on the Shuster family decision, and that it was infused with emotion. I didn't really present it as anything other than that kind of reaction.

I disagree that my characterization of the Shuster family deal was fundamentally misinformed -- I'd read all of that stuff, too, and stand by my characterization that a renouncement was on the table and there really wasn't any way for the Shuster family to have that modest amount of money without that renouncement.

I do very much doubt that that my suggested best outcomes -- not tying a payment into a renouncement, more money by tying a settlement into the best industry deal, a separate payment for renouncements -- would have triggered class-action lawsuits. That seems silly to me.

I did mention that a best outcome would have taken place in a completely different context than deciding specifically on this matter according to best outcomes, so dragging in a bunch of contextual stuff to assail that formulation seems unsporting, but okay. I assume someone at HU will declare in the comments that what really needed to happen was that the copyright really needed to return this material to the public by now, and I'm strongly sympathetic to that position. Wasn't the exercise placed in front of me, though.

I'm deeply uncomfortable with any kind of analysis that talks about whether or not Siegel and Shuster spent money wisely or not. This seems more of an emotional point than a substantive one.

I don't have an exalted view of creators, although I do think that some creations are different than others and I cringe a bit when Superman is compared to a specific automobile. I think there's a difference in type and in impact.

I do have an exalted view of people. I spent the last two weeks in Scottsdale over at the hospital. I signed a contract with a local car rental agency to get there. I wasn't in a position to negotiate a really good deal. He cut me one anyway, upon my return. I would have been less happy if I had been held to the perfectly ethical deal I signed, sure. But I would have understood. As it is, I hope I can buy my next car from this guy just like I bought the last one. When I go to Las Vegas I'm much more comfortable when my friends tip the dealer than when they don't, despite no binding ethical expectation they do so. I think it's admirable when companies pay long-time employees more than their contracts call for, particularly when there's a windfall. I've benefited from this, practically. When I did a strip for King Features, the syndicate wanted to have a contract with Dan, the original concept's creator, instead of both of us, as Dan wanted. We went with what they wanted, and while this could have led over the years for me to be treated in a way holding me to the letter of the contract, it hasn't been, and the work was better for it, and everyone seemed to benefit for that during the time we worked on that together.

I also know there are contracts out there where these kinds of things are never an issue. There are good options out there. We don't have to criticize the poorer outcomes and then have those criticisms worried away until it's assumed that's all there is.

So while I wouldn't necessarily think Warner Brothers should have someone's box of various Golden Age comics, I would be touched by someone that would sell one to donate to the Hero Initiative. I'd be similarly impressed if DC did this with copies from their library, or a warehouse find, instead of maximizing the profit. If Drawn and Quarterly were to hit a financial rough spot, I'd be happy to sell my D+Q books on their behalf. I don't think that way lies madness. I think that way lies humanity. If expressing that desire leads to a few rash tweets and subsequent howls of being unfair, no matter how many hoops you have to jump through to get there, I think that's a small price to pay. I think abandoning that idea brings with it the danger of assigning moral force to the unencumbered agency of things that aren't people. I'll choose a different way. If I'm wrong, I'll live with it. I'll live better.