Monday, August 1, 2011

The Sad Tale of Jack Kirby

Now, before we go anywhere with this, I have nothing but the highest respect for Jack Kirby, and the characters he created, or co-created, and how they changed the face of comic books. There are very, very few figures that stand as tall as "The King" in the medium.

That said, I understand why the recent ruling in his heirs bid to gain control of the Marvel characters he co-created (and some he didn't, but we'll get to that) fell against them. I also think that, likely, that ruling is fair. It's fair, in my mind, only because the family isn't just seeking compensation, but ownership of the Marvel stable of characters.

There can be no argument that Jack, along with Stan Lee, was at the heart of the eruption of creativity that put Marvel Comics, as we know it, into motion. From Jack's pencil came The Fantastic Four, Thor, Iron Man, etc... It's a noble and extensive legacy, and one that should be studied, honored, and heralded.

The legal question at the heart is, did Jack co-create this work under a "Work For Hire" contract with Marvel, wherein all creations would be the property of the company?

The answer is simple. Of course he did, that was the way the entire industry operated. Jack had to have known and understood that, as, in 1954, Jack and partner Joe Simon (With whom he'd created Captain America in 1945) created The Fighting American. The character was a pretty close shave to Captain America, but with a 50's setting, and Commie-smashing antics. Ultimately, they turned him into a bit of a parody of the Communist scare attitudes.

Simon and Kirby owned The Fighting American. In the face of industry convention, the two comic men held on to the ownership of this character. What does that mean? It means that, ten years prior to his groundbreaking work  at Marvel, Jack Kirby must've understood the difference between owning a character, and work for hire.

Now, of course it's not that simple. Marvel's policy at the time was, apparently, that every paycheck was stamped with a "contract" indicating that the work for which this payment was intended was work for hire, and the property of Marvel Comics. When you endorsed the check to cash it, you were also signing the contract. Now, that is a bit sketchy, but I wonder if other publishers used the same process? In an environment where work for hire was the norm, it would seem a rational way to eliminate a lot of paperwork, and the need for an additional contract for every, single job.

Again, not optimal, not cut-and-dried, but I tend to think far less insidious than the Kirby heirs would have us believe. It seems the "contract" on the checks just re-iterated the well-known industry policies. Maybe not, I don't know...I wasn't there, but I don't think there's anything here that indicate that Jack had any reason to expect anything other than "Standard Industry Practice." (If that's fair, or not, is a whole 'nother issue.)

Then there's the Stan Lee factor.

Stan is co-creator, with Jack, of Fantastic Four, The Hulk, Iron Man, etc, etc. Stan wrote, Jack drew. Jack also, and Stan's pretty upfront about it, did a lot of plotting. All the Marvel artists did, it was the "Marvel Method." Stan would give the artists a very short concept, sent them off to draw the thing, and then dialogue it when the pages came back. Stan's take on this is, as not only the writer, but also editor of the Marvel line, he didn't have time to plot out every issue, and left it to his collaborators.

Now Stan was one of the creative, but also management. He had a family connection to publisher Martin Goodman, and he was running the show. He was writing, and Editor-in-Chief, which isn't unusual for the industry, either.

Thing is, Stan has become the fulcrum for all the terrible things that Kirby had to endure. Stan got credit for creating the Marvel heroes, when Jack did not. Stan has a generous pension from Marvel, and receives a payment when the characters are exploited in other media.

Jack should get that. Jack should get exactly what Stan gets.

Stan, however, doesn't own the characters.

Stan also stayed with Marvel Comics until 1981, when he went to Hollywood, as a representative of Marvel, to try to sell TV and movie projects. Stan WAS Marvel, he was the face, the voice, the cheerleader, the figurehead, from 1961, when Fantastic Four #1 was published, until 2000, when he struck out with his own ill-fated Stan Lee Media. Stan was a company man, and I don't think anyone can say he wasn't dedicated, or didn't work hard to promote Marvel Comics.

Who doesn't get a pension after 39 years of service?

Jack left Marvel in 1971, and went to DC Comics. There he created the "Fourth World" books introducing Darkseid, the New Gods, and other material that DC exploits to this very day. These books are beloved by fans, but I'll go on record that, while they have the grandiosity that we expected from the Marvel days, they lack the wit and loose energy that Stan brought to the scripting.

Nor did Stan (outside of Spider-Man) ever reach the levels he did with Jack.

The short of it is, Stan and Jack complimented each other, and brought out the best in each other. It's a shame that relationship fractured. It's also a shame that Jack left Marvel, whereas, prior to that move, Jack was part of the "Marvel Bullpen" that Stan promoted incessantly. He wanted fans to know the people who created the books, and Jack had a central role in that.

I believe it was even Stan Lee that bestowed the moniker of "King" on Kirby. I may be wrong about that, and I'm sure someone will correct me if I am, but "King Kirby" just sounds like Stan Lee. Kirby was "The King of Comics" forevermore.

Yet, Jack left Marvel. Is any company going to promote a man now working at the "Distinguished Competition?" Lee was there, Lee was a company man, and so, he became the focal point. Yes, Jack's contribution was marginalized from that point on, but, even in 1975, when Kirby returned to Marvel, Stan was calling him the "co-creator" of the Marvel characters.

Now, over the years, there was a lot of ugly stuff that went down. Issues about the return of Jack's (now very valuable) original art, wrangling over credit, etc. I'm not here to say, in any way, that Jack wasn't jerked around by Marvel. It's clear he was, but that has little bearing on the issue of ownership of the characters. It seems, from the material in the judges decision, that much of the Kirby family's evidence consisted of people talking about what a rat bastard Stan Lee was. Maybe he was, but that's irrelevant to the core issue...Did Jack know what he was doing for Marvel was work-for-hire?

I think the answer is yes, and, unfortunately, Jack isn't with us anymore to ask.

Again, I think Jack should've gotten exactly what Stan did, the pension, payments when the characters are used, etc. Also again...Stan Lee doesn't own the characters. Stan made a deal, and continued to re-negotiate that deal, with the understanding that the characters were Marvel's. Stan is a huckster, a storyteller, and his memory is (admittedly) not the greatest, but I can't find any interview where he doesn't give personal credit to the artists he worked with, and especially Jack Kirby, for the Marvel books. This is why it's so disturbing to me that it seems much of the Kirby family's case was built around tearing down Stan Lee.

 Re-production of Kirby's "Spider-Man" in the middle
It's also infuriating to me that the family has the audacity to claim that Jack ought to own Spider-Man, too. Stan took his Spider-Man concept to Jack first, as he was the top artist, and didn't like what the King came up with. So, then he went to Steve Ditko, who co-created the Spider-Man we all know and love.

Kirby apparently came up with a guy that looked a lot like Captain America with a web gun. Not a nerdy high-school kid, not the weird, agile Spidey of Ditko's pencil, but another hulking Kirby muscleman.

Jack Kirby had nothing to do with Spider-Man, and, frankly, what the Kirby Family is trying to do to Steve Ditko is analogous to what they accuse Marvel of doing to Kirby. Steal the character, and it makes me question the validity of their motivations.

Yes, give Kirby, or his heirs, a monetary compensation for his work, and the money Marvel has made off it. That is fair and just, but to tear down the work of other creators, even Stan Lee, in the name of Jack Kirby seems not in the spirit of the man that I read about.

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