Posts Tagged ‘Disney’

Jack-Kirby

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Here’s a piece I wrote earlier today for Geeky Universe marking the occasion of Jack Kirby’s 96th birthday that I thought I’d share here —

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It strikes me as being both strange and sad how disconnected today’s comics “culture” is from its roots. Case in point : today would have been Jack Kirby’s 96th birthday, and here at Geeky Universe there hasn’t been one mention of it yet (it’s nearly the end of the day). Now, maybe I’m just the old guy (42 at last count) in the room, but for a site ostensibly devoted, in large part, to comic books, you’d think Jack’s birthday would be big news. After all, there would be no “Marvel Universe” without him. I’m not criticizing anybody else for not marking this momentous occasion sooner, mind you, just remarking on the irony inherent in the fact that if the lead role in a new movie based on one of Jack’s characters had been announced today, you can bet it would have been the top story, while the birthday of the man who created the character Hugh Jackman/Ben Affleck/whoever it might be would ostensibly be playing in this hypothetical scenario doesn’t get a mention until the tail end of the evening.

Roll call of Kirby creations : the Fantastic Four. The Inhumans. Thor. Iron Man. The Incredible Hulk. The X-Men. The Avengers. The Silver Surfer. Captain America. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, and for only one publisher : over at DC, Jack created the Challengers Of The Unknown; Kamandi; OMAC; The Demon; Darkseid, Orion, and the rest of the Fourth World characters — you get the picture.

No other creator in any medium — film, television, novels, video games, you name it — has left a creative footprint in his or her chosen field as large as Kirby’s. It’s no exaggeration to say that comics as we know them today would simply not exist without this man’s boundless creativity and singular imagination. The word “visionary” gets thrown around much too freely these days, and the reason I say “too freely” is entirely because of Jack Kirby. He  was the very definition of a visionary, and left behind a body of work that will never be equaled because it can never be equaled.  His legacy well and truly is the comic book as we know it. We wouldn’t have ’em without him.

I know the ever-evolving Marvel line has gone something like this over the years : first Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (along with Steve Ditko, Bill Everett, Wally Wood, Carl Burgos, and Don Heck) all created the “Marvel Universe” together, working in tandem as one big, happy bullpen. Now, however, we’re told — both in Lee’s public statements and in court transcripts obtained from the lawsuit Jack Kirby’s heirs recently brought against Marvel and its parent company, Disney — that the entire Marvel Universe sprung whole-cloth from the incredible imagination of Stan Lee, and that Jack, Steve, Bill, Wally, Carl, and Don were just the guys the company hired to illustrate all these wonderful concept that literally poured out of the fertile and creative mind of “Stan The Man.”

Don’t buy it for a second. Stan Lee got in at Marvel (them Timely) because his uncle owned the company, and he had a dismal, two-decade-long track record of failure after failure until the services of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko fell into his lap after they found themselves on the outs with their former publishers. Of all the folks there at the beginning stages of the “Marvel Revolution,” it should be noted that it was Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and Wally Wood, in particular, who had an established track record as creators of successful characters and series well before they ever met Stan Lee, and they went on to create memorable and lasting work without him. Lee, for his part, never had one idea that worked in 20 years in comics before teaming up with them, and when they both left Marvel, he soon got out of Dodge, as well. Quick — name me one memorable, or even good, single issue written by Stan after those two gentlemen left.

You can’t because there isn’t one.

But the point of this piece isn’t to “bash” Stan Lee so much as to show just how integral the contributions of Jack Kirby and the other artists there at the time were to making what we think of today as some of the greatest super-hero comics ever made. I humbly submit that somebody else could have written these books and the only difference would have been a more toned-down, less-self-congratulatory and sensationalist tone. No “Face Front, True Believers!” or any of that. But if somebody else had drawn  them, then Marvel wouldn’t be around today, dominating both the comic shop racks and the box office.

Those who follow these things will know that Marvel’s way of “thanking” the man to whom they owe their entire existence as a company was to freeze him out at the end of his career, refuse to give him back his own original art pages (like they started doing for everybody else in 1978),  and to deny, with the assistance of a veritable army of high-priced lawyers at their beck and call,  any and all claims of intellectual propriety and ownership brought forth both by Jack himself, while he was living, and his children, since he passed away.

So far, sadly, it’s worked. Jack barely got a mention as a “co”-creator at the end of the credits for Marvel’s The Avengers, a movie that raked in over a billion dollars worldwide based on concepts and stories that came right from the limitless Kirby imagination. Classy move there, guys. And they continue, in the press and in courts of law (aided and abetted by their most famous stooge, Stan Lee) to promulgate the idea that all Jack amounted to was a talented draftsman who was able to put down on paper ideas that were in Stan ‘s head — even though the very concept of having writers knock out a one-page synopsis and then turn it over to the artist to plot, pace, and illustrate  the entire story (you know, the so-called “Marvel Method”), a practice that continues at the “House of (stolen) Ideas” to this day — came about as a direct result of the Kirby-Lee partnership. How does it even logically follow that a creative process that leaves that much of the storytelling responsibility to the artist was the brainchild of a writer  who thought up everything we see on the page himself?

Of course, literally billions of dollars are at stake now — Jack’s four-color creations are all one color now, green, and Disney/Marvel are going to keep fighting tooth and claw to make sure that for every billion-dollar movie they base on a Kirby concept, his kids don’t get so much as one thin dime. And as the years go by, they will belittle Jack’s contribution more and more until they whittle it down to almost nothing — but only if we let them get away with it.

I humbly suggest, in honor of the birthday of the man who is rightly called “The King,” that we redouble our efforts within the fan community to make sure that his legacy is never minimized and that his posthumous legal battle can continue. Go to heroinitiative.org and donate to the “Kirby 4 Heroes” campaign to help  destitute former artists and writers  who were also screwed over by the so-called “work for hire” system. “Like” the Jack Kirby Museum facebook page and help spread the word about their efforts to get an actual, brick-and-mortar building to house and showcase Kirby’s work for future generations. And if you really want to go the extra mile, even consider skipping any future Marvel movies and stop buying their comics until they finally treat Jack’s memory with dignity and respect rather than issuing nothing but sunny — and ultimately hollow — platitudes when it’s convenient for them to do so. I know that’s a tough thing to ask of many fans, but if we hit ’em in the pocketbook in large enough numbers maybe they’ll finally listen. No sound is louder to a corporation’s ears than empty cash registers.

And while we’re going on about this serious business, please — let’s remember to have some fun. Dig out your old Kirby books or your collected reprint editions (it’s worth noting here that at least DC pays sliding-scale royalties based on sales of their Kirby books ; it ain’t much, but Marvel doesn’t cough up a penny) and soak that stuff in. This is work that still has just as much  power to “wow” you  the 1,000th time you’ve seen it as it did the first. Know that as long as we keep our our own awe and wonder of Jack’s awesome and wonderful work alive, it can never really die no matter how badly Marvel wishes it would. Celebrate the life, legacy, and work of Jack Kirby every chance you get, by all means. Blog about about how much you love Jack’s work and why. Show your Kirby books to your friends. Tell new comic fans all about him. Read Kirby comics on the bus or train and strike up conversation with the guy who (and it will happen, trust me) tells you “hey, ya know, I think I used to have that one.” Jack created this stuff to be enjoyed forever, so make sure you do just that — and promote that enjoyment to others, as well, while you’re at it.

But please, always remember — that’s only half the story. The fun part. The easy part. The part we all want to do. But if you care about Jack’s legacy in any kind of “real-world” sense, beyond the printed page, then never give up the fight, either. He wouldn’t have, and those of us who owe so many of our fondest childhood memories to his work owe him at least that much.

Jack Kirby’s body of work is the comic book industry’s greatest triumph, and the treatment he received — and continues to receive — its greatest shame. Let’s all work together to see what we can do to correct that, shall we?