Later this week, probably on Thursday at midnight, Laura Siegel Larson and her two sons will take in a showing of the new Superman film Man of Steel at their local cineplex in Marina del Rey, California.
The group are excited to see the latest in the Superman series with its promise of a darker, more serious tone and state-of-the-art special effects.
But for Siegel Larson, the movie will have far more poignancy than it will for millions of other cinema patrons lining up to see the year's most anticipated film. Her father, Jerry Siegel, and his school friend, Joe Shuster, invented the character; her mother Joanne was the model for Lois Lane, Clark Kent's fellow reporter on The Daily Planet and the love of Superman's life.
Henry Cavill (center) as Superman and Christopher Meloni (far right) as Colonel Hardy in Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures action adventure Man of Steel. Photo: Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. P
Seventy-five years ago, Siegel Larson's father Jerry and his childhood pal Shuster conceived the superhuman crime fighter from Krypton who wore a cape and could jump between buildings. They signed away the rights to DC Comics and for much of the past seven decades they, or their heirs, have been locked in what Siegel Larson calls a ''David and Goliath'' struggle to regain the copyright from Warner Bros-owned DC.
But earlier this year, when Judge Otis Wright ruled the case in Warner Bros' favour, saying the Siegels had received ''substantial advances and royalties'' and that ''this litigation of superhero proportions now draws to a close'', the epic story of Superman's copyright appeared to be over.
''The bottom line is Warner Bros has legally been granted full rights to the Siegel part of the Superman property,'' explains Dominic Patten, legal affairs columnist at online magazine Deadline Hollywood. ''The studio is freed to fully exploit the Superman franchise to its maximum advantage.''
The New 52. Written by Grant Morrison and illustrated by Rags Morales Photo: Supplied
But despite a series of rulings that have fairly consistently gone against the Siegel and Shuster heirs, the struggle continues. ''It's tragic that my father didn't get to truly enjoy the fruits of something so wonderful,'' Siegel Larson tells me, sitting in her lawyer's office overlooking the ocean in Malibu. ''He had really strong convictions. My mother did, too. I really believe this legacy is important. I cherish it. I have two sons in their 20s and they cherish it, too. It's important for people to stand up for what they believe in.''
In other words, Laura Siegel Larson, now in her 50s and suffering from MS, has no intention of abandoning a cause that, like the superhero's fight against wrongdoing and injustice, appears without end.
Jerry was the writer, and Joe the illustrator. Despite Superman's all-American, apple-pie image, his origins are surprisingly dark. Siegel was a teenager when his haberdasher father, Mitchell, died in his shop; he'd suffered a heart attack after being held at gunpoint. Little wonder that the hero who came to Jerry in a dream one night would be impervious to bullets. Superman's look and muscle-bound physique were modelled on Errol Flynn; Clark Kent, bespectacled and bumbling, was based on the silent star Harold Lloyd. Theirs was essentially the Superman still loved by modern audiences. Yet in 1975, Jerry was working as a courier, for which he was reportedly paid $7500 a year; Joe was blind, and living with his brother in a New York apartment.
To many it might seem ludicrous that the creators of a property such as Superman - which over the years has generated billions of dollars in revenue - should end up in such dire straits. But under US law there are certain windows in the duration of a copyright when a creator or their heirs can take advantage of ''termination provisions'' to reclaim ownership - something the Superman creators or their heirs have been trying to do, off and on, since 1947. A decade before that, Siegel and Shuster had sold 13 pages of comic containing the classic Superman elements - cape, logo and Clark Kent alter-ego - to Detective (later DC) Comics. The company sent Siegel a cheque for $130, and received in return a release from both creators granting the company rights to Superman ''to have and hold forever''.
Superman became a near-instant, worldwide success. But Siegel and Shuster, after they dared challenge DC for greater compensation, had their names taken off their creation and were effectively blacklisted from the publishing industry.
So began a long and sometimes quixotic quest to reclaim the copy-right - one carried on by Siegel until his death in 1996, then by his wife Joanne until her death in 2011, and now by their daughter. ''It has to do with my family - no question - but it's bigger than that,'' she says. ''What happens with this case sets a legal precedent for creative people in this country.''
But each time the fight - now with Warner Bros, the owner of DC Comics - to reclaim the copyright comes to court, the case goes against them. This has created a suspicion among the family's supporters that in a company town like Los Angeles no court will ever challenge copyrights that secure employment for tens of thousands of people.
Discussing Superman 40 years after creating him, Siegel recalled that he'd suffered romantic setbacks as a scrawny, bespectacled student. ''I had crushes on several girls who either didn't know I existed or didn't care,'' he said. ''It occurred to me: what if I had something going on for me, like jumping over buildings or throwing cars around or something like that?''
For the duration of her career, Siegel Larson kept the conflict over Superman separate from her work. But after her mother's death, she thought carefully about taking on the fight. She thought back to the dark years when her father's and Shuster's names had been taken off Superman and there was no money coming in. When The Adventures of Superman series came on television the family even avoided watching it. ''I loved the idea that my father had created it, but, it was so painful we couldn't watch it in the house,'' she recalls. ''It was only later when the show was in reruns that we watched it.''
Even afflicted by money troubles and ailing vision, Shuster remained good-natured about Superman; he'd gladly sketch on napkins for children. But Siegel found the sight of his creation unbearable. ''It makes me physically ill,'' he said in 1975. ''I love Superman, and yet to me he has become this alien thing.''
The two creators could hardly have predicted the extent to which Hollywood now relies on comic-derived superheroes - an industry that they effectively invented - for its box office pay days. Last month, Disney released Iron Man 3, the latest in its Marvel series. It made $170 million in its opening weekend in the US ($200 million in the rest of the world) and passed the billion-dollar milestone after just 23 days. That puts Iron Man 3 on track to beat last year's The Avengers Assemble, which became the third highest-grossing film ever in the US and pulled in $1.5 billion worldwide.
Given the values of the copyrights at stake, it's understandable why the heirs would still be fighting even after decades of defeats. ''When you do the right thing, you expect a predictable result. We didn't get the result specified in law, and that's partly why this has been so painful.''
There have, however, been incremental victories in the general pattern of disappointment. In the late 1940s, a referee in a New York court upheld Detective Comics' copyright; Siegel and Shuster agreed to drop their claim in exchange for $94,000 ($1 million in today's money). In 1975, when he was 61 and earning next to nothing as a courier, Siegel was driven into a rage by the news that Warner Bros was preparing to make the film that would become Richard Donner's Superman: the Movie. He fired off a nine-page press release placing a ''curse'' on the film.
''I hope the whole world, becoming aware of the stench that surrounds SUPERMAN, will avoid the movie like the plague,'' he wrote. Under public pressure, DC not only restored the creators' credits for Superman but gave them each a $20,000-a-year annuity that was later increased to $30,000. As Jay Emmett, then executive vice-president of Warner Bros, said at the time, ''There is no legal obligation, but I sure feel there is a moral obligation on our part.''
But Siegel and Shuster's experience none the less became a contemporary parable for the rapaciousness of corporate America, even inspiring a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. And the comic strip creators who followed, such as Batman's Bob Kane, learnt from the pair's mistakes, ensuring they owned all rights to their characters.
And so the case, or cases, rumbled on. In 2008, a Los Angeles court ruled that the Siegel heirs were entitled to a share of the US copyright to the character, a decision that allowed the Siegels and Shusters to make their own film, but with one major caveat: they would only have rights to the Superman characteristics set out in the first 13 pages. So no flying through the air, no Lex Luthor, no kryptonite - they came later. Mercifully, perhaps, Judge Otis Wright looked to the precedent established in a lawsuit against Facebook by the Winklevoss twins; he overturned the 2008 decision, citing a disputed 2001 agreement (Siegel's attorney Marc Toberoff dismisses it as a ''letter'') in which the Siegel heirs agreed to a $1-million payout plus three-tenths of one per cent of the gross in any new Superman films.
Warner Bros, for its part, insists it has been prepared to pay the family under the 2001 terms for more than a decade and welcomed the decision, saying ''we are extremely pleased that Superman's adventures can continue to be enjoyed for generations to come.''
All of which leaves the question, how much is Superman really worth? US courts have looked at that too. The Siegel heirs claim the box-office success of X-Men and Iron Man has increased the value of the caped crusader. Not so fast, argued Warner Bros' president Alan Horn. In court he described the Superman property as ''challenged''. Superman Returns in 2006 had taken 10 years and cost $60 million to develop before production had even begun. It took only $200 million at the box office.
Can Superman be brought up-to-date? Warner Bros's plan is to make Superman a darker, deconstructed character, perhaps more like Siegel and Shuster's original (a mind-reading tramp called ''the Super-Man''). It worked for director Chris Nolan - who serves as a producer on Man of Steel - with Batman's Dark Knight trilogy. ''We're hoping it's a good film but we know nothing about it. They certainly have a wonderful cast,'' Siegel Larson says.
Reports suggest the new Superman may be closer to her father's original vision. ''He was a vigilante, going after wife-beaters and crooked politicians. It was a troubled time and people recognised the evils he fought. We're back in troubled times today, and there are similar feelings of angst.''
A few years ago, Siegel Larson visited her father's childhood home in Cleveland, Ohio, which Superman fans had renovated using donations from an online auction: ''I went up and saw my father's bedroom and where the whole family - he was one of six children - had lived.'' The house has become a shrine. ''People want to go see the house where Superman was created,'' she says fondly.
The Sunday Telegraph