Taking credit (Part 1)

Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk: cultural icons or corporate brands?

Watchmen: graphic literary masterpiece or cynical sellout?

Ghost Rider: spirit of vengeance or weapon of spite?

Each of these characters or works, although created and often made famous by the imagination and talents of individual artists, are owned, wholly and completely, by multibillion dollar corporations: TimeWarner/DC Comics in the case of Watchmen, and Disney/Marvel Comics in the case of all the rest. And both DC and Marvel are denying the men responsible for providing them with these still profit-making properties public credit, profit sharing or any control over their creations. This under-recognition of writers and artists has been the policy of publishers since the inception of the comic book industry, but some recent high profile cases have creators, their families, and their fans crying out for justice.

Avenging the King
I doubt anyone was anticipating the release of The Avengers, the world’s, first multi-franchise crossover movie, more than I was. Then graphic novelist James Sturm had to ruin it for me. He wrote a post in Slate Magazine announcing his intention to boycott The Avengers unless Disney/Marvel gives Jack Kirby’s family a share in the profits from the movie and its associated merchandise.

Jack Kirby

Jack Kirby self portrait with Marvel Comics characters, most of which he helped create.

Jack Kirby is one of the most significant and influential artists in the history of comics—so much so that he earned the nickname, “King of Comics.” Not only did his dynamic style of drawing come to be the standard by which all other superhero artists were judged for many years, he also helped create some of the world’s most famous superhero characters. With partner Joe Simon, Kirby created Captain America in 1941, and in the early Sixties, collaborating with Marvel Comics editor/writer Stan Lee, he created the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Thor, the X-Men and, of course, the Avengers (although he didn’t illustrate the origin story of founding Avenger Iron Man, he did help design his armor and draw the cover of the comic book in which it first appeared). Virtually everyone who’s familiar with comic book history agrees that without Kirby’s contributions to the earliest exploits of these characters, they—and Marvel Comics—would not have achieved the popularity and success that has sustained them for the last 50 years.

Everyone agrees that is, except Marvel Comics. The publisher has a long history of withholding not only profits from artists, but their own original artwork. In Kirby’s case, as a condition for returning thousands of pages of his artwork, Marvel asked him to sign a four-page legal agreement renouncing all rights of ownership to it. This meant he wouldn’t be allowed to sell or publicly display any of the pages. He didn’t sign that agreement, but did eventually come to an arrangement with Marvel through which 1,900 pages—of the 8,000 he drew for the company from 1960-70—were returned to him.

Jack Kirby died in 1994, without Marvel ever giving him the public recognition, respect or monetary compensation he deserved as co-creator of the company’s superhero universe. When Disney bought Marvel for $4 billion in 2009, Kirby’s heirs sued for the King’s rightful share in the sale of Marvel’s kingdom. Although federal judge Colleen McMahon ruled last July, as reported by Sturm, “that all of Kirby’s work for Marvel was created as work-for-hire under the Copyright Act of 1909 and cannot be reclaimed,” she also made it clear what she thought of the corporate entity’s behavior:

“This case is not about whether Kirby (and other freelance artists who created culturally iconic comic book characters for Marvel and other publishers) were treated ‘fairly’ by companies that grew rich off the fruits of their labor. It is about whether Kirby’s work qualifies as work-for-hire. …”

In response to this decision, Stephen Bissette, former freelance artist for Marvel and DC, is calling for a boycott not just of The Avengers, but of all comics, merchandise and movies based on characters Kirby co-created for Marvel. A fan has created an online petition asking Marvel and Disney not only “to pay Kirby’s family royalties or other just compensation for the use of [his] characters and stories,” but “to acknowledge Jack Kirby’s authorship and primary role in the creation of these characters.”

Prior to the 1978 release of the first Superman movie, it was a campaign championed by fellow comics professionals Jerry Robinson and Neal Adams that led to Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster  receiving not only a relatively modest lifetime stipend from Warner Communications/DC Comics, but credit for their creation in all broadcast and published works in which the Man of Steel appears. Stan Lee’s name already appears in the opening credits of every Marvel Comics-based movie as “Executive Producer.” It’s long past time that credit is also given to Jack Kirby, whose influence is just as present in these films—from the cover of Captain America #1 briefly seen in Captain America: The First Avenger, to the otherworldly majesty of Asgard in Thor.

And if having fanboys and girls help make this happen by forgoing entirely the experience of seeing The Avengers is too much to ask or expect, there is a less drastic alternative. What if these millions of fans publicly made a solemn pledge not to go see the movie on its opening weekend when it’s released in the U.S. May 4? Even such a relatively painless gesture by those of us who owe Jack Kirby for years of entertainment—not to mention this film’s existence—would likely pose a threat to Marvel’s/Disney’s bottom line that the media giants couldn’t ignore.

In Part 2 of this three-part series, I share the latest battle in the ongoing war between Alan Moore and DC Comics.

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9 Responses to Taking credit (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Taking credit (Part 2) |

  2. I will not be attending any more Cinema releases of characters created or co-created by the King until the Kirby family receives due entitlement and recognition for what Jack gave us. Jack Kirby is the corner stone of the entire comic book genre and should be properly recompensed and lauded for that. On top of that, they couldn’t even give them man his lousy drawings back.
    Glenn B Fleming

    • Good for you! I’m sure Kirby’s family–not to mention the King himself–would appreciate it. I’ll share my final thoughts on publisher exploitation of comics creators in my soon-to-be-posted Part 3.

  3. Pingback: Taking credit (Part 3) |

  4. I’ve created a Facebook page for people who want to take the pledge not to see The Avengers until a week after it opens out of respect for Jack Kirby and solidarity with his family.

  5. Gregory McNeill says:

    I am disgusted by Marvel’s treatment of Jack Kirby even after his death. Marvel should do the right thing and acknowledge Kirby’s contribution to comics.

  6. Pingback: Dynamic Duo (Part 2) |

  7. “although he didn’t illustrate the origin story of founding Avenger Iron Man, he did help design his armor and draw the cover of the comic book in which it first appeared”

    I once read that Iron Man took “longer than usual” to make his debut, as if there were some developmental problems (of the sort usually associated with movies).

    Re-reading the early episodes, it struck me that the 3rd episode published spent an unusual amount of time describing Tony Stark’s background, Iron Man’s powers and abilities, and, introducing a would-be world-conquering villain clearly designed to be his arch-enemy. It was also written & illustrated by Jack Kirby (Stan Lee only wrote the dialogue) and inked by Dick Ayers, who at the time was the go-to guy for inking Kirby, especially when he started new series (like the “Johnny Storm” Human Torch spin-off series, of “The Astonishing Ant-Man”, or “Sgt. Fury”).

    Many have dismissed the story’s villain, as “Dr. Strange” never appeared again (Steve Ditko’s hero of the same name debuted only a few months later). Yet reading the story, it hit me that with a world-conquering villain who had (allegedly) been around for years already, who had a German ex-Nazi sidekick, and a daughter begging him to give up his evil schemes, that Jack Kirby was reviving “The Yellow Claw”, a villain based on Fu Manchu who Kirby had worked on in the late 1950s. Editor Lee seemed to have an aversion to most of the work Marvel published before FANTASTIC FOUR #1 (Nov’61) and no doubt ordered the change.

    Take all this together and what becomes clear is that “The Stronghold Of Dr. Strange” was quite probably the 1st Iron Man story written & drawn, though “held back” and published 3rd. I would further suggest that all 3 Iron Man episodes written & illustrated by Jack Kirby were done BEFORE Don Heck was brought in to take over. As with Ditko Dr. Strange, the “origin” was NOT done first, but probably done purely on the insistence of the editor.

    As it turns out, Kirby later came up with a different Asdian super-villain, “The Mandarin”, who did become Iron Man’s #1 arch-enemy. But the idea of Iron Man having an Asian arch-foe was there right at the character’s inception, even if readers didn’t know it.

    As a further tip to those unaware, anytime you see “Plot by Stan Lee” in the credits, it’s a LIE. Tied in with this, almost every time you see a Jack Kirby cover back then, especially if it’s introducing a new character or a new villain, you can bet Jack Kirby was supplying the story idea. He’d pass it on to his editor, who would then pass it on to the artist, while stealing credit & pay for it, thereby filling his bank account and ensuring the corporation ownership at the same time. Yerars earlier, when Kirby worked with Joe Simon, Kirby would often supply artists who worked with them with story ideas.

    The biggest crime has to be that thanks to one greedy, deceitful man, who spent a decade hiding the fact that Jack Kirby was creating so many characters and writing so many stories, and supplying further story ideas for other artists to write themselves, most people out there have NO IDEA who “Jack Kirby” is.

  8. UPDATE: Marvel/Disney Settles With Kirby Estate

    Posted By Cliff Galbraith on Sep 26, 2014

    “We may never know the details of the out of court settlement between Marvel / Disney and the family of Jack “King” Kirby, but it seems like a good day for comic creators and fans of the the world’s greatest comic creator.”

    For more details on how the settlement was likely reached-the day before the U.S. Supreme Court was going to decide whether to hear the case-read comics author Kurt Busiek’s post.

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