Calling Marvel Out

Jack Kirby, Joe Sinnott, and Stan Lee, from Fantastic Four Annual #6 (1963)


Since the ruling in the Kirby vs. Marvel case last week, there’s been a fair amount of discussion in the comics blogosphere as to whether we, the readers, can take positive action to help get Marvel finally to start addressing its shameful history of exploitation, of Kirby, Ditko and the other founding fathers, but also of all the other artists whose underpaid work built the brand and has generated billions of dollars in revenue for their shareholders, especially those published before 1976 when the law and Marvel contracts were made clearer.

Steve Bissette has mounted a passionate call for a general boycott of any Marvel or Marvel-related product as one small thing each of us can contribute, and suggests further that fans get together to name and shame Marvel into action, on the internet and at public events such as Comicon.

It may seem utopian to get Marvel to change its ways, but its nearest competitor has made some progress on the issue, paying royalties to creators from films in which their characters or concepts appear. Their track record is far from perfect, but they’re doing a hell of a lot better than Marvel and its corporate overlords at Disney, who are raking in that box office moolah over assorted Kirby-derived superhero movies as we speak. And, as Tom Spurgeon has pointed out, Kirby’s collaborator at the inception of the Marvel Age in the early 60s, Stan Lee, won himself a lucrative deal with the publisher with just as little legal claim to his work for Marvel. Why can’t Marvel do something similar for Kirby’s family?

I think Bissette’s suggestion is worth taking seriously and have decided to join his boycott. I’ve been enjoying superhero comics from both Marvel, DC, and elsewhere for a number of years now and think there are a lot of talent in the business right now, and I shall be sorry to give up on some of my favorite creators, but thinking things through I just cannot bring myself further to support a company with policies as rotten as Marvel right now.

I went to my local comics store today, passed over the superhero comics I would usually consider and picked up the latest issue of The Jack Kirby Collector. It felt good. You should consider it.

23 Responses to “Calling Marvel Out”


  • While I’m all on board with the boycott (which really means nothing in my case, I haven’t bought a Marvel comic in quite a long time), I find it odd that a judge’s ruling on this case is what gets people riled up. It’s not like Marvel’s actions are now worse because a judge ruled for them.

  • You’re quite right, of course. It’s just that this ruling serves as a reminder, hopefully even a wake-up call.

  • Not defending Marvel, but would you blame a scorpion for stinging you? Kirby was the king, but he was also an adult who understood work for hire. It would be great if Marvel rewarded the Kirby family, but they are under no legal obligation to do so. Why would a company take money from their bottom line and shareholders and give it to a former employee’s family (not my argument, just a devil’s advocate thing)? It’s the nature of the beast. If anyone wants to boycott, fine. But what a bunch of unicorn and rainbow nonsense. Just my opinion.

  • It might be, but without “unicorn and rainbow nonsense” lots of things wouldn’t be set right in this world. Throwing up your hands at an unjust and problematic status quo seems to me a rather sad approach.

    I haven’t said Marvel is under legal obligation to compensate the Kirby family. We don’t yet know whether they are or not. What I’m saying is that they have a clear *moral responsibility to do so.

  • The outcome of the case might well have been changed by the testimony of one man, Stan Lee, who continued to insist (this time under oath) that he alone created all the basic characters and plots. While there were other considerations apart from Lee’s depositions, the judge said, “Marvel’s case stands or falls on Lee’s testimony.”
    Lee is paid one million dollars a year until the time of his death, and that contract says Lee may not assist any challenge to Marvel’s ownership of the characters.

  • Yeah, I kind of wanted to give the judge the benefit of the doubt here, but that aspect *is problematic.

    The way she framed it, however, Lee could just have been the editor, with almost no hand in the creation of the characters except his final say (which, come to think of it, was what he was most of the time), and it still wouldn’t have made a difference.

  • Matthias, I think it would have made a difference. The key for the estate was to try and show Kirby worked on spec.
    If they had been able to show Kirby created characters in his basement, and then introduced them to Lee he would have been offering characters created on spec, very much the same way his many newspaper strip proposals (Surf Hunter, Chip Hardy, Oddball, Starman Zero, Inky, Red_hot Rowe, Montrose,King Masters, Master Jeremy, Kamandi of the Caves, Peter Parr.)from the 50′s were created first, and then pitched to syndicates. It would have made a huge difference if Lee had said, “Sure Kirby brought me some of the characters, and he was a thousand times better plotter than I am.” In fact Lee said in the 60′s just that, that KIrby was a thousand times better plotter than he was. In his deposition Lee said he had made statements like that in the 60′s, because he wanted Kirby to “feel good, like we were doing it together.”
    The judge reasoned if Lee (as he claims) had created every basic character and plot alone, before ever speaking to Kirby then anything Kirby might have added (and Lee credits Kirby with not one thing 1958-63, aside from the art)fit the work for hire definition, because Lee was the catalyst.

  • I haven’t read all the way through Lee’s deposition yet because, frankly, I find it too depressing.

    But: my understanding of the ruling is that as long as the work was *commissioned, edited, and paid for by Marvel, it will be considered work for hire, regardless of whether Kirby, or any other creator, came up with the characters and story.

    This means that when Kirby came up with Galactus and the Silver Surfer, for example, he did it as part of an already established commercial transaction by which he was expected to deliver sixty-odd pages of story for FF #48-50. Thus, it can be defined work for hire.

    It would have been a different matter if Kirby had dreamed up a new concept for a series or set of characters and pitched it to Marvel to publish, which I guess is what he did in 1970 or whenever it was that he first pitched the proto-4th World characters to Marvel. And I guess it was the same when he returned to Marvel a few years later to do the Eternals, but by then the wording of the contracts had changed, if I’m not mistaken.

    This may be a little inaccurate — I haven’t gone back and checked everything — but in any case this is the general idea I get from reading the ruling.

  • Matthias, Well, let’s wait and look for some legal minds to dissect the ruling, perhaps your reading is correct, I think the “on spec” issue is the keystone from which everything else follows.
    Since you haven’t read Lee’s deposition (which is really only a fourth of the whole since Disney asked for and was granted a provision to shield any portion of Lee’s deposition they didn’t want made public) I thought this quote from it might interest you?
    During his 2010 deposition Lee was directly confronted with prior statements from interviews, and the “Origins” books, and Lee now says:

    “So I tried to write these (The Origins books) — knowing Jack would read them, I tried to write them to make it look as if he and I were just doing everything together, to make him feel good. And we were doing it together.

    But with something like Galactus, it was me who said, “I want to do a demigod. I want to call him Galactus.”

    Jack said it was a great idea, and he drew a wonderful one and he did a great job on it. But in writing the book, I wanted to make it look as if we did it together. So I said we were both thinking about it, and we came up with Galactus.”

    BTW, I appreciate that you respect the content and intent of Kirby’s work. No “king” has ever been less respected.
    A week ago I tried to send you an outline called “Gods and Monsters” on Kirby covering the thematic touchstones of his work. If for some reason it didn’t get to you, and you are interested let me know, and I’ll post it. It mainly concerns things I’d like people to consider.

  • Legal commentary starting to come in.
    Here is one which would seem to agree with my reading.
    http://www.copyhype.com/2011/08/marvel-v-kirby-work-for-hire-and-copyright-termination/
    Quote:
    “The court found the evidence that Kirby’s works were made at Marvel’s instance “overwhelming” — it pointed to only one conclusion: “Kirby did not create the artwork … until [Stan] Lee told him to.”

  • Right, but as I said, in my understanding Lee “telling Kirby” to create his comics in the language of the court is merely giving him the assignment and doesn’t have much to do with who actually came up with Galactus, or whatever. Of course, this isn’t entirely clear, but it would seem that Marvel has a good case here.

    But you’re right, that statement about “Origins” is absurdly self-serving and quite clearly untrue. It’s very sad to witness.

  • The judge spends a great deal of time focusing on Lee’s contention that he alone created the characters before speaking to Kirby.
    The estate contends Kirby brought Lee pitch page character presentations which Lee accepted or rejected.
    It isn’t clear if the judge would extend her thinking to Lee telling Kirby something like, “Goodman wants a super team book have you any ideas?” The amount of time the judge and Lee spent on positioning Lee as the core creator is what impresses me.

  • Oh, sorry, I forgot — I didn’t get your email. Don’t know what may have gone wrong?

  • Matthias, You mean the thoughts on Kirby’s central themes (ones very much evident in Tezuka’s Ode to Kirihito).
    I used the contact g-mail address.
    It’s something I add to as I go along, really a rough outline, but I’d be happy to send it here.

  • That email address should work. I don’t know why it didn’t get through.

  • The e-mail was sent with no apparent problem. Maybe this would interest other people so I’ll go ahead and post it.
    I’ve tried to stay out of the way, most of this is Kirby speaking for himself.

    The direction here is the classic line from Bride of Frankenstein which Kirby mirrored in New Gods #9.

    “Gods and Monsters”

    Stan Lee: “He did his most important writing with his drawing.”

    Jack Kirby caustically summed up his own opinion of Stan Lee the wordsmith in TCJ:
    “I mean, he could barely spell.”

    Nat Freedland in New York magazine, 1966 described Kirby this way: “The King is a middle-aged man with baggy eyes and a baggy Robert Hall-ish suit. He is sucking a huge green cigar and if you stood next to him on the subway you would peg him for the assistant foreman in a girdle factory.”

    Jack Kirby: “I think that is part of life. It’s instinctive in the cop, as well as the crook. In time we become our own monster. There will be things you will be ashamed of, and yet you’ve done it. And it’s on you like a scab.
    You suffer a little, you get humiliated a little, you see people die, and I’ve seen plenty of people die. In seeing them die, you see yourself die.
    It’s a strange experience, seeing it, and participating in it is very strange.
    There were times when I felt just great. It was almost like having sex. You feel about ten feet tall, if you can live through it.”

    Examine the work of an artist and you can identify specific ideas which are foremost in their thoughts.
    Jack Kirby was interested in the suits of skin we all wear, and what is within.
    In Kirby’s work that theme is detailed. Kirby explored the the two faces of man. The Janus-like duality of psychological and physiological identity. The monster, which might hide a gentle heart. And the potential or realized monster, which lurks under the human skin.

    Kirby’s was born, and grew up in a ghetto on New York’s lower East side. Kirby was a short man, didn’t have a formal education (he never graduated from high school), spoke with a street accent, was Jewish, and as a comic book creator wasn’t respected by publishers or the public. In short Kirby was in position to see he was often judged, not based on the man he was, but because of his “Robert Hall birthday suit.”

    In an interview with Will Eisner Kirby recalled a shift in his work, which began to slowly emerge while he was still living in a lower East side tenement building on Suffolk Street:

    “I found myself intellectualizing. I was trying to get at the guy, who was trying to get at me.
    I began to remember people from my own background, and I began to subtly realize they were important, and that I wasn’t ashamed of them. I was no longer afraid of myself, and I began to see them as I should have seen them from the beginning
    This was a long way from Long Island. I was still trying to get to Brooklyn. I heard they had a tree there, and the tree was different.”

    In Kirby’s eyes the “soul” of man is that a man can be reflective, and self-aware. He should be able to recognize the instinctive urges that can overwhelm his rational judgment.
    Kirby described his own inner battle in “Street Code.” In the story the neighborhood boys engage in a primitive ritual (rubbing the hump of a Hunchback) to bring good luck in a street fight, it’s only part of a larger street code which the young Kirby is disgusted by, and wants badly to leave behind.

    “It was my turn. I stared at the terrible thing nature had done to Georgie’s back.
    Something inside me was spilling…Something the Street Code couldn’t touch…Something only god and my parents knew about.
    I bobbed and weaved among the backyard gravestones…But I was hurting–Hurting for Georgie and me–And the lousy things we had to do for the Street Code.”

    Bob Dylan:
    “All except for Cain and Abel
    And the hunchback of Notre Dame”

    Jack KIrby:
    “Well, we’ve made quite a jump.
    From Madison Avenue to Desolation Row.”

    Kirby mentioned Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame in several interviews. The Quasimodo theme (a misunderstood suit of skin) is found going back to even Kirby’s earliest work already populated by grotesque or impaired characters with exceptional intellect or other abilities.
    Kirby identified Frankenstein, a film about a misunderstood monster, as his favorite movie.

    Kirby: I created the Hulk, and saw him as a handsome Frankenstein.
    Mark Herbert: That’s the first impression I got, but most people saw him as a monster.
    Kirby: I never felt the Hulk was a monster. Because I felt the Hulk was me. Being a monster is just a surface thing.

    An article on Kirby’s unpublished novel THE HORDE was featured in The Jack Kirby Collector #50. A major player in the novel is a black man, Hardy Jackson. In Kirby’s synopsis Kirby describes Jackson as having such a degree of self-loathing that he describes his own flesh as a “Gorilla suit.” Jackson’s expressed desire is for a suit of “shining golden armor,”

    A self-described “student of science fiction,” Kirby was also a student of human nature.
    There are any number of stories by Kirby where he explores the theme of A.I. a common theme in science fiction since Karl Capek’s R.U.R introduced the term Robot.
    Capek explores that theme in his play so it was there from the start.
    In Machine Man Kirby uses X-51 to again explore his fascination with the suit of skin we all wear which has such an influence on how we are perceived.
    At one point X-51 has a nervous breakdown when his artificial “human” face is taken from him.

    Kirby felt that violence was the foundation of a predatory architecture; to recognize and suppress that impulsive infrastructure required a conscious, contemplative effort.
    That instinctive nature is rooted in man being descended from as author Jared Diamond puts it, “The Third Chimpanzee,” or as Kirby put it “Killer Baboons. Film director Stanley Kubrick listed the five common explanations for man’s predisposition towards violence. Notice #5, which Kubrick identified as his prime suspect. Kubrick felt the computer HAL in 2001 had developed a protective/predatory nature by way of being programmed by humans.

    1. Original sin: the religious view.
    2. Unjust economic exploitation: the Marxist view.
    3. Emotional and psychological frustration: the psychological view.
    4. Genetic factors based on the ‘Y’ chromosome theory: the biological view.
    5. Man, the killer ape: the evolutionary view.

    Kirby felt it was in a predator’s instinctual programming to mark territory, protect it, and if possible to expand it’s domination. He wrote of the “road-map” to our galactic doorstep included on the Pioneer Plaque:
    “I would have included no information other than a rough image of the Earth and its Moon. I see no wisdom in the eagerness to be found and approached by any intelligence with the ability to accomplish it from any sector of space. In the meetings between “discoverers” and “discoverees” history has always given the advantage to the finders. In the case of the Jupiter plaque, I feel that a tremendous issue was thoughtlessly taken out of the world forum by a few individuals who have marked a clear path to our door. My point is: who will come knocking — the trader or the tiger?”

    Kirby also spoke of blood rituals on a grand scale.

    Kirby: “I quoted Hitler in the Forever People. Glorious Godfrey’s looking at a crowd and says,’ the entire crowd while I was talking to them had the same expression, it never wavered.
    If you watch baboons you’ll find the leader jumping up and down pounding on a rock shrieking, and the tribe gathers around him, they won’t move a muscle, like Hitler at the Nuremberg rallies, at his signal they will go out and kill.”

    It wasn’t only primitive ritual where Kirby saw man’s instinct for violence, he saw violence as such an elemental component of man’s nature that it was equally present in places of supposed sophistication, like the world of business,

    TJKC #52:
    “I wouldn’t want to be in a position of leadership where I could hurt somebody, because I feel that I’m capable of it. A lot of people in my generation are capable of it. It’s done all the time in business… That’s what competition means: One man symbolically killing another.”

    In issue number three of The Forever People Kirby’s creation Darkseid says:

    “I am the revelation. The tiger-force at the core of all things.”

    Kirby: “Orion is a hunter. A hunter, and a killer. He’s trapped in an environment he never made.
    Can you imagine a guy with that kind of frustration? A guy who’s his own monster. He can’t go against his environment, but inside him is something basic and primitive.
    Orion was so ashamed he used a mother box to build a good face.
    We always try to fix our faces. Don’t we look great today? Do we look like the people who built Dachau? No we look as if it never happened. Do we look like the people who committed atrocities in WWII and all the wars before that? No we don’t look like those kinds of people.
    I think we are living in medieval times. It’s only 40 years ago we cooked people in ovens. How sophisticated is that? We can pat ourselves on the back, and say we’re living in a high tech age, but I think we’re still medieval.

    KIRBY: Well, I don’t know. I’m usually in a room about this size, but I feel I see a lot because I analyze a lot. I see the same things you do but maybe I get more time to analyze it whereas you might not. So I sit and think and it’s as simple as that. If you can sit and think for 20 years, you can come up with quite a bit.

  • Great survey of themes and motifs! You should write an article.

  • Matthias, Someone should write a good book about Kirby. Not that it could erase the stain of his association with super suits. Still, Herriman wrote a funny animal strip with “one joke,” and he’s managed to get a little of the respect due him.

  • If I remember correctly, there are four or five books on Kirby being written at the moment. It’s like an idea that has met its time.

    I don’t know how good they will be, but I’m holding out for Charles Hatfield’s monograph and Mark Evanier’s biography will of course be indispensable, if it ever comes out (though it won’t have much of what you’re talking about above, of course).

  • Matthias, Charles has unfortunately based his book on the idea Kirby wrote through his drawing, not to say I don’t look forward to his book, or that it won’t be well worth reading.
    The common view of comic book fans is Kirby as a pure word-smith was an inferior writer. That is a view which doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.
    While it’s true Kirby dialogue and other text are very different from typical comic book writing, that should be seen as a very positive thing. Even more curious is the kind of comic book writing which Kirby is most often compared to is uniformly weak, uninteresting hackwork.
    I don’t buy the idea Kirby’s dialogue is operatic either, if the implication is that it’s all bombastic aria. Kirby is exceptionally good at quite thoughtful dialogue, the quite moments are where the real meat of his stories often is revealed.
    Take this bit from New Gods #9 which is related to the suits of skin/Gods and Monsters theme.

    Orion speaks with hard cynicism, then softens his words.

    Lightray: “Behold Orion. The dawn rises, and as always the stirrings of hope.”
    Orion: “All hail to the eternal virtues and optimisms of New Genesis. The dogs of war beware.
    Forgive me if I speak from rancor, it is because my wounds still smart.”

    and the wonderful “Gods and Monsters” nod to Bride of Frankenstein.

    Eve: “I write plays which pay the high rent on this terrace apartment.”
    Orion: “You pay to breathe this sullied air?
    Lightray: “Our situation eases. Orion dwells on other issues.”
    Eve: “Your friend is positively Earthly. And I was so intrigued by the incredible rumors. The bulletins are still flashing about last night. Stories of super-beings, and monsters.”
    Orion (turning to show his true face): “Oh yes Madame. There were monsters.”

    Later while Orion sleeps.

    Eve (gently touching Orion’s cheek): “There is something in that fierce and mangled face
    beyond anything I’ve ever written about. The sleeping monster. The raging heart. A vessel of fire—which consumes—even love.” (Eve starts as Orion’s eye opens, focused on her hand) OH!”
    Orion: “You’ve withdrawn your soothing touch madam. A pity—all that flowery crud ripped off—by untimely fright.
    Eve (shrinking away): “Oh…you…You.”
    Orion: “Enough. Sleep is the practice of lizards, and idiots. As for love madam. I find love in battle hotly fought. In vengeance fulfilled.”

    The manner and matter of those lines is exceptional.

  • I agree. It’s bumpy and uneven, but greater than the sum of its parts. And very original.

    What makes you think Charles doesn’t recognize this? My impression is that he admires Kirby’s prose.

  • Matthias, As I understand it the theory Charles is building on is that Kirby’s writing was based on visuals. And the main subject of his book is Kirby’s artwork.

    Nice to see Seth comment. The boycott idea might catch on a bit, but many people who might support a boycott probably have nothing to boycott. Like Seth I haven’t bought a Marvel publication in years; and haven’t seen a super hero movie since the first Tim Burton Batman film. This isn’t because of any boycott, I simply have no interest or curiosity connected to superheroes. Unlike Seth I was never a fan of Marvel comics, and have no affection for them aside from their value as picture books.

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