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 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.