By now, you’ve no doubt all seen the news — yesterday, word was handed down from on high that the estate of Jack Kirby and Marvel Comics, more specifically its parent company, Disney, had reached an agreement to bury their long-standing legal disputes with each other, just as the Supreme Court was considering hearing the case. The details of the settlement haven’t been made public, and perhaps they never will be, but it’s fair to guess that in fairly short order we’ll be noticing some changes — and they’ll probably be changes for the better.
What sort of changes? Well, keep in mind, the very nature of this little article is highly speculative, but we might as well have a little fun while we can, right? But maybe before we go too far down that road, we should clarify a few common misconceptions with some incontrovertible facts — and then we’ll speculate away.
First off, and probably most importantly, let’s be clear about who was suing who here. The comics press is rife with article after article referring to “the Kirby suit against Marvel,” but in fact, the opposite is true — yes, the Kirbys ended up filing a countersuit against Disney and Marvel, but it was “The Mouse” who sued them first. The Kirby family, under the 1976 copyright act, had every right to file for what’s called a “right of return” on the characters their father created (or co-created, if you’re still buying the Stan Lee/Marvel company line), and that’s exactly what they did. Dis/Mar, not wanting to see the cash cow that Jack’s boundless imagination has become end up as the property of, ya know, folks he actually loved and cared about, quickly filed suit to prevent said “right of return” from going into effect. The countersuit just mentioned came about as a result of the lawsuit that Dis/Mar initiiated against the Kirby estate, but let’s not keep perpetuating this myth that “the Kirbys sued Marvel” when it was, in fact, the other way around.
Secondly, I’ve noticed a lot of folks in comics fandom, and even some pros in the field (we’ll get to them in a minute), saying that pressure from “us” helped this settlement come about. Nonsense. Much as I wish it were otherwise, the truth is that there aren’t enough ardent Kirby supporters to make much difference to Disney’s bottom line. Don’t think for a moment that I’m not tremendously glad that there have always been a number of us who have been willing to voice our displeasure at Jack’s treatment by the very company he essentially resurrected from the dead, but nothing we said factored into Dis/Mar’s thinking here (just as all our griping hasn’t hurt Marvel one bit at the box office) — they just did the math. Sure, maybe they figured the best odds were that SCOTUS was never going to hear the case, or that if they did, they’d simply let the lower court rulings that went in the company’s favor stand, but there was a chance — just a chance — that they might hear it, and that the Kirbys might win, and rather than risk losing pretty much everything, they settled out of court.
Besides, to fandom’s unending discredit, there are at least as many voices out there who were cheerleading for Marvel to “beat” the Kirby estate as there were on the right side, and some of these folks were pretty loud, as well.
Our last piece of “myth-busting” is saved for the comics pros out there who are hinting that there was enough belly-aching behind the scenes in the freelancers’ community to make this happen. Sorry, but we’ve gotta call bullshit on that, as well. Maybe if this settlement had been reached back in 1989 or something, when the top “A-list” talent was uniformly in support of Jack (and he was still alive), but not these days. When names like Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, Rick Veitch, Mark Evanier, and Frank Miller (back when he still made sense) were taking up the charge for Kirby, that was one thing, but most of those creators have a substantially lower profile in comics these days, or have walked away from the business altogether, and while a handful of newer first-tier creators like Kurt Busiek, James Romberger, and Grant Morrison have. at least to my knowledge, pretty much always been firmly in the “Kirby camp,” as it were, most everyone else has been silent. Not because they don’t have an opinion on the matter, but because they’ve probably never even been asked. This just isn’t the same burning issue for most creators that it was 20 years ago, even if, by all rights, it probably should be, since some of them might be in Jack’s shoes, at least to a certain extent, someday. I’ll never fully understand why this issue failed to remain “front and center” with the comics community at large, I guess, but the fact is that it really hasn’t been for some time. People are more concerned with what’s going to happen in the next issue of, say, Saga (no disrespect intended to that title, which I quite enjoy, I’m just trying to pick a “hot” series to use as an example and that came to mind) than in this actual, “real world” issue.
And, again, while there have been a number of creators who have been willing to speak out in favor of the Kirby family, there have also been some who have done quite the reverse. John Byrne, in particular, has been making an ass of himself on the internet ever since the settlement was reached with his spiteful railing against it, even though he pretty much built his entire career working on Kirby creations like the X-Men, Fantastic Four, OMAC, The Demon, etc. — except for that brief period when he went and screwed up Siegel and Shuster’s greatest character for a few years.
With all that out of the way, then, let’s get back to guessing about what this means for the future. First off, it’s a pretty safe assumption that Jack’s name will no longer be buried in the end credits of most Marvel Studios films. While I would personally be surprised if he were given an air-quote executive producer credit on the movies like Stan Lee gets — although, for the record, it wouldn’t be the first time a deceased individual was given such a credit — you can bet the words “created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby” will be front and center from now on in the opening credit scrolls. I’d love it if the order were reversed, of course, or better yet if Lee’s name were omitted altogether, but that just ain’t gonna happen.
Likewise, the printed page will probably see some evolution, as well., with Jack listed as a creator in the titles of most Marvel books. We may even see language along the lines of “Created By Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Used by Special Arrangement with the Jack Kirby Family “(or their legal entity, The Rosalind Kirby Family Trust) in the credit boxes of future issues of X-Men, Fantastic Four, Thor, Hulk, etc. books, as we see over at DC in any and every comic in which Superman makes an appearance and we’re told, quite rightly, that “Superman is Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Used by Special Arrangement with the Jerry Siegel Family.”
And, of course, some cash has obviously changed hands here. We don’t know how much, or how it’s been (or will be) distributed, but an initial lump-sum payment with sliding-scale royalties to follow for movies featuring Jack’s creations and reprint collections of his comics work is par for the course with settlements of this nature.
What does Dis/Mar get out of the deal, besides the continued ability to profit handsomely off the fruits of Kirby’s labor and genius? More than likely a complete cessation of future legal filings and some sort of written agreement that the company always owned these characters even though Jack created them. That”s probably why this has been characterized in some quarters, depressingly but accurately, as something of a “win” for the work for hire system — but WFH is dying on the vine, anyway, as evidenced by the fact that there are probably 50 or 60 creator-owned books out there that are better than even the best corporate-owned Marvel and DC comics right now.
In answer to the question I posed about “what does this mean?” at the outset, then, right now the most specific answer we can offer — lacking any real, ya know, specifics — is “who knows yet?” But the Kirby family seems happy, Marvel has stated that Jack’s contributions will be acknowledged more publicly, and all in all it seems the good guys won. It may be far from the complete and total victory many of us were hoping for, but it’s a step in the right direction, and does two things that are very important — provides financial security for future generations of the Kirby family , which was the number one thing most near and dear to Jack’s heart, and helps set a precedent for present and future creators so that, hopefully, they never find themselves in a situation where they do all the work, and their publishers make all the money. Time will tell, of course, as it always does.