By Barbara Goldberg
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Decades after two young cartoonists from Cleveland sold the rights to Superman for $130, their 1938 paycheck fetched $160,000 on Monday in an online auction.
The winning bid landed the check that Detective Comics, later known as DC Comics, wrote to Jerome Siegel and Joe Shuster for the comic-book character with the "S" emblazoned on his chest.
"The concept of the superhero was born with Superman," said Vincent Zurzolo, co-owner of New York-based ComicConnect, which held the online auction.
"That $130 check essentially created a billion-dollar industry," he said, listing the super heroes who followed in the Man of Steel's footsteps, including Batman, Spider-Man and X-Men.
Like Superman, all of them today have their own blockbuster movie series and merchandise empires.
The check for the rights to the American icon who stands for truth, justice and the American way is "the holy grail" for comic book fans and collectors, Zurzolo said.
"Think about a world without Superman," Zurzolo said. "Without this check being written, we'd never have a Superman, we'd never have a comic-book industry."
Siegel and Shuster's agreement in 1938 to sell the rights for such a paltry sum came to haunt them and, later, their heirs, who sued DC Comics and its parent company Warner Bros.
Sons of Jewish immigrants, Siegel and Shuster were childhood friends from Cleveland. After creating Superman as young men in their 20s, they offered the character around before finally making the sale to DC Comics.
ComicConnect said that when the first Superman movie came out in 1978, Shuster was so broke he was working as an aging delivery man.
To add insult to injury, the $130 payment was included in a $402 check that incorrectly spelled the names of Siegel and Shuster, forcing them to endorse it both ways in order to get paid. Shuster died in 1992 and Siegel in 1996.
The check was sold on behalf of the heirs of a DC Comics employee, who stashed it for decades in a dresser drawer, the firm said. Zurzolo declined to reveal the identity of the buyer.
The auction of the check comes months after a record $2.16 million was paid in December for a first issue of Action Comics, the comic book that unveiled Superman to the world. It cost 10 cents when it was published in 1938.
(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Eric Walsh and David Brunnstrom)