In 1938, after being unable to sell their Superman story for newspaper syndication, Jerome Siegel and Joe Shuster sold their first Superman story for $10 per page, and all rights to their character to DC Comics for $130.
In 2004, Frank Miller received a seven-figure upfront payment to bring "Sin City" to the big screen from Dimension Films, as well as a share of profits from the film. He wrote the screenplay and co-directed the movie, which took in more than $160 million in worldwide box office and was a DVD hit. Then he signed to do two more installments of the series for Dimension. He's conservatively estimated to have made more than $10 million for the package.
The anti-heroes at the center of today's graphics novels like "Hellboy" and "Sin City" are far more complex and nuanced than classic characters like Superman and Batman. The same could be said of deals for the rights signed by their creators. And the deals are far more lucrative for the creators, as well.
The deal cut by Miller, a comic book icon, was an exception. But savvy modern comics writers, enlightened in part by the financial struggles of their predecessors, have cut broad and creative rights deals covering not only film and TV, but video games and DVDs, as well as emerging platforms like wireless and broadband.
In addition, they're going through independent publishers, rather than working with the majors.
Siegel and Shuster, who worked in the Great Depression, never thought about television rights, much less iPod broadcasts.
"When Siegel and Shuster created Superman, they didn't think it was going to become an icon and part of the nation's mythology," said comic book creator Marc Andreyko, 35. "It's like saying John Wayne didn't know his movies would be out on DVDs. The opportunities created by technology and how small the world has become and the output for entertainment are so much more vast than they were 60 years ago, even 20 years ago."
While the creators never cashed in, the Man of Steel nonetheless changed the contract landscape for comics creators.
"It really wasn't until the first 'Superman' movie (in 1978) that people started looking at comic books in a whole other way," said Steven M. Weinberg, a partner at Greenberg Traurig LLP, who has represented Marvel Comics founder Stan Lee. "'Superman' was a blockbuster (the three films grossed more than $300 million for Warner Bros.). I don't think that had been seen before."
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