Thursday, May 27, 2010

Comic Observations: The King vs. the Mouse

The legal battle between the heirs of Jack Kirby and Marvel Entertainment is heating up like crazy, as Marvel's new parent corporation, the Walt Disney Company, has recently filed a memo supporting Marvel's attempts to have the suit filed by the Kirby heirs dismissed.

For anyone not following comics or this legal fight in particular, Jack Kirby is perhaps the most influential illustrator in the history of the medium. He began working in the industry during its infancy, working alongside writer Joe Simon to create numerous classic characters such as Captain America, Manhunter and others.

the 1950's, he began working as a freelancer pretty much full-time for Marvel Comics. Along with editor and writer Stan Lee, Kirby helped set the house style and co-created such legendary characters and concepts as The Fantastic Four, The Mighty Thor, The X-Men, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Ant-Man, The Avengers, and more. His relationship with Lee and Marvel, like more than a few artists, grew fractious over time due to disputes about proper credit given, the return of original artwork, and royalty payments. He left Marvel in the late 1960s and would work notably for DC during this period. However, he returned to Marvel in the early 1970s, during which time he negotiated a better deal than he had worked under during his first stint.

However, a condition of his improved deal involved selling his rights, which he did. But under the agreement, any and all characters affected by the agreement would go into public domain by 2014. But the US Congress changed that law in 1978, and offered an escape clause to anyone who signed an agreement based on the old law. Basically the clause said that the original copyright holder, or their heirs, could terminate the rights transfer on the date of the original expiration, which in this case is 2014.

So, this is where we stand. The Kirby heirs claim that they are entitled to their father's fair percentage of ownership to the characters he created. They also name Spider-Man in the suit, but Kirby's claim to authorship there is pretty shaky and it's probably more a legal tactic than legitimate claim. Marvel (and by extension, Disney) quite understandably doesn't want to see any of these properties go into the public domain, but they don't want to lose any control either. The Kirby heirs have probably heard all their lives how Marvel screwed over their dad and many other artists (and Kirby and others have a very solid point there), and are probably justified in asking for fair compensation and recognition.

But there are a lot of comic book fans out there who side with Marvel on this. Presumably it's because they don't understand the law surrounding the case, and also because they see the outcome of this case as threatening the existence of beloved icons of the genre.

Well, first of all, it's important to note a couple of things. Jack Kirby was not on staff at Marvel. He has always insisted that he was not an employee, and that he never worked under a work-for-hire contract. According to Kirby, he was always a freelancer. Being a freelancer means that, even though you may be creating work for another company, you still retain your rights as a creator unless you willingly transfer them. As noted above, the law exists to allow his heirs to reclaim the rights. so, in the absence of an employment contract or a work-for-hire agreement, I don't see Marvel/Disney winning this.

As for the other concern by fans, namely that winning this case would allow the Kirby heirs to create another version of, say, The Fantastic Four over at DC, or that they could somehow bar publication or force changes, I don't see it happening. First of all, Stan Lee permanently transferred his rights to all of these characters to Marvel ages ago (and probably got a much sweeter deal for it than Kirby did), so Marvel will always own 50% of these characters forever. Also, the value of these characters lies in their legacies, so I can't see them jeopardizing that. No, this is about money and credit.

I can't say that Jack Kirby, a man who defined the style of an entire generation of comics, a man who co-created some of the most memorable characters in pop culture, a man so revered they called him "The King", doesn't deserve it. And if they couldn't give him what was fair while he was alive, there's still time to give his family what is fair today.

Here's a link to the original complaint, for those who enjoy reading legal documents!


Brenton said...

For an excellent look at early Marvel work, check out Marvel Genesis:

It's an issue-by-issue examination of the early days, from FF to Ant-Man, The Hulk, Thor, etc...

Nerdlinger said...

Yeah, I've really enjoyed reading that blog actually.