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Superman’s Origins and Why You Should Supercharge Those Who Do Superwork

As your company soars to new heights thanks to the creativity and ingenuity of your team members, the organization should let the workers come along for the ride.

November 4, 2013

In many companies, there are unsung heroes who leap tall tasks in a single bound. They create things behind the scenes; they innovate; they help build the brand. These superworkers do what they do and deserve their due.

Yet some do amazing work for their company in anonymity a la Clark Kent.

Speaking of Superman’s alter ego, I just finished reading the incredible tale about the origins of Superman via a biography about his creators — Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster — in “Super Boys,” written by Brad Ricca. What a fascinating story it is about two high school classmates from Cleveland: Siegel, the writer, and Shuster, the artist, whose dream was to create comic books.

And they did. Scores of them, including the first true appearance of “the Superman” in Science Fiction #3 in 1933, albeit in this case the Superman was a criminal who does nefarious things like rob a drugstore.Super Boys Book

It wasn’t until later that they decided Superman should be a champion of justice, and it was an idea that grew organically from their own experiences. But it wasn’t until Vin Sullivan took over Detective Comics, now known as DC, in 1937 that they finally sold the idea. For the princely sum of $130. The co-creators split the “windfall,” which is the equivalent of $2,113.85 today. And history was made when Detective Comics published Action Comics No. 1 in June 1938, which is considered the first appearance of Superman.  

Yes, they were young, yes they anticipated making lots of money in syndication, but yes these caped crusaders of comic book creativity were taken advantage of — although not bullied into the agreement.

In the throes of the Great Depression, when the average salary was $1,780 a year, $130 must have sounded like a fortune for two up-and-coming superstars, even though Shuster resisted at first.

Ten years later, Siegel and Shuster would sue for $5 million and the rights to two of their creations, Superman and Superboy. But the co-creators, who were in debt, settled the case for $100,000 and relinquished the rights to both titles.

They also were fired from their jobs after the settlement, and their names would be removed from the comic book for decades. Over the next 70-plus years, various lawsuits were filed by them and later their families, and for years the two creators struggled to make ends meet while Superman became a billion-dollar franchise.

At one point, Siegel was rehired to be a writer for Superman, but when he filed another lawsuit to reapply for the rights to the Superman copyright, he was fired again.

No supervillain forced Siegel and Shuster to give away the rights to Superman. They did it because they were young and they probably couldn’t make it on their own. More than making money though, they wanted to make comic books that people would read. They loved what they did.

Within your organization, perhaps there’s someone or some people who have done an outstanding job creating something for the company or the brand, but they are omitted from recognition like the vowels in Mr. Mxyzptlk’s name. Some workers do their work because it is their job, but others do it because it is their passion. And those are the most valuable workers to have.

With the end of the year approaching, why not empower those so-called high-potential employees with a bonus or recognition?

If retaining your best workers is your goal — and why shouldn’t it be? — the time is now to start rewarding them and recognizing their contributions internally and externally. The economy will eventually pick up and jobs will open. As your company soars to new heights thanks to the creativity and ingenuity of your team members, the organization should let the workers come along for the ride.

It’s unfortunate that Siegel and Shuster died in the shadow of the success of their greatest creation. But it doesn’t have to be that way for the Clark Kents in your organization.

James Tehrani is Workforce’s assistant managing editor. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com. Follow Tehrani on Twitter at @WorkforceJames and like his blog on Facebook at "Whatever Works" blog.