Happy Birthday, Jack Kirby?

jack_kirby__spanToday is the birthday of Jack “King” Kirby.

He was born on August 28, 1917, in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

And, if you don’t know who Jack Kirby was than you have no business reading comics, going to superhero movies or probably even reading this blog.  In fact, if you DON’T know Kirby, then I don’t want to know you.

Jack Kirby is the reason we have comic books today.  Jack Kirby is the reason we have blockbuster movies like CAPTAIN AMERICA, IRON MAN, THOR and THE AVENGERS that make corporations millions of dollars every year.  Jack Kirby didn’t just make ‘worlds’… he made UNIVERSES!

And if you think this is going to be yet another post about how badly Kirby has been treated, then you’re right.  Because as much as I’d love to sit here and praise the glory that is Jack Kirby’s work, it is tainted by the exploitation and greed of others.

Let’s get one thing straight before we go any further: I’m a Kirby ‘guy’.  When I was growing up, comic fans were divided into factions much like the street gangs of Kirby’s youth.  There were DC fans and Marvel fans and then there were Kirby fans and Ditko fans and Adams fans but, oddly, not too many Stan Lee fans.  You had your favorites and you wore them proudly.

But, for me, there was simply ‘Kirby’.

Kirby created comics as we know it.  He created the Marvel Universe which we see constantly now in video games, cartoons, movies and everywhere else.  Kirby made Marvel.

Now some may question this and state that Kirby and Stan Lee co-created the Marvel Universe.  Well, I’m not going to rise to that bait because, quite simply, Lee couldn’t have done it without Kirby or Ditko.  Both artists were geniuses of their form and created something amazing from the ground up but, make no mistake, Lee couldn’t have done it himself or with anyone else.

And Marvel crapped all over Kirby.

Not just once but several times.

And they continue to do so.

When you buy a ticket for that latest blockbuster movie based on Marvel’s characters (many of whom Jack created), not a penny goes to his heirs or estate.  When you buy that fancy hardcover reprint of FANTASTIC FOUR, Kirby gets nothing.

It all comes down to legal questions of ownership which have been argued back and forth in courtrooms for years.  I remember the 1980’s when Marvel, despite returning artwork to many other artists, refused to give Kirby back his pages.  The comic community back then stood up and would not allow this outrage to stand so Marvel eventually gave in and returned some of the pages.  Now, while the Kirby estate fights to regain copyrights, fans are strangely silent.  Or, even worse, call Kirby’s heirs ‘greedy’ and side with the corporations.

Hindsight is 20/20, of course, and if Kirby could have foreseen how profitable his work would become, he’d have fought for better rights.  But part of the reason he didn’t was the very medium itself.  Comics were thought to be worthless, disposable.  In 1963, 50 years ago, who would ever have thought comics would become this vast, money-making environment?

So, today, on Jack Kirby’s birthday, let us thank him for all the wonder and joy which he brought us and let us also remember how horribly he was treated (and continues to be) by an industry that he essentially created.  Let us exalt his work as we point to these executives and corporations and say, “See this?  This is genius.  No matter what you do, no matter what you say, you can never take away from the genius who created this.  You can never extinguish the creative fire that was Jack ‘KING’ Kirby!”

Don’t Get Me Started! #1

jjjI used to love comic books.

For a long time, they were really one of the most important parts of my life.  I practically LIVED for each week’s new shipment of comics.

I have two brothers who are older than me (10 and 9 years older, respectively) and they were into comics so, when annoying little brother came along, it was inevitable that I’d get into comics too.  And I was voracious!

I read everything!  I read Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, Thor, Flash, House of Mystery, Chamber of Chills even NIGHT NURSE!  If it was Marvel or DC, I read it.  And I read anything else I could get my hands on.  Comics from Charlton, Gold Key, Dell, Archie, Harvey, Tower, anything and everything.

Not only that, but I studied comics.  I wanted to know everything about them.  “Who was that character in Brave & the Bold last month?”  I could tell you.  Who created Superman and how and when?  I knew it.  I wanted to know everything about comics not just the stories and the characters but the people who created them.

That’s when, I think, things started to sour a bit.

For those who aren’t aware, comic books have an awful history.  I won’t even get into the allegations that the mob was behind much of the early days of comic books and their distribution.  Nor will I talk about the shady deals and the unfounded lawsuits.  I won’t even talk about the comic book censorship of the 1950s that essentially shut down EC comics and stripped comics of virtually all of their creativity and relevance.  But I could (and just might someday)!

In the 70s, there really wasn’t anything you could call a “comic news network”.  There were a few fanzines but nothing like it is today.  Most of what we did have was concentrated around the stories and characters with not a lot of creator background.

That began to change in the late 70s and really gained speed in the 80s.  The first time I remember really taking notice of the way comic companies treated their creators was during the Siegel & Shuster incident.  As Warner Brothers was making the first SUPERMAN movie in 1978 (with Chris Reeve) and preparing for a massive PR campaign, I started hearing little news items.  It seemed that the original creators of Superman (Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster) were living in virtual poverty as a movie that would make millions was preparing to come out.

I was only 15 at this time and didn’t really know a lot about the behind-the-scenes life at comic companies despite having a brother who, by that time, was actually working in comics.  Long story short, the fan community (led, in part, by Neal Adams who was then a creator with a lot of clout with fans) revolted against DC and eventually Siegel & Shuster were awarded lifetime pensions and credit for their creation. (You can read more about this case online and a brief overview here.)

That day made me proud to be a fan.

And when Marvel Comics tried to keep from returning Jack Kirby’s artwork and the fans were there to support Kirby, I was proud again.

We fans had the creators backs and they, and the comic companies, knew it.

I’m not proud to be a fan anymore.

The reason is because, when issues like Kirby and Shuster come up now, the fans take to the internet and social media to express their anger and outrage.  But not against the comic companies.  They’re angry at the heirs of Kirby and Shuster for daring to not only ask for credit or compensation but for daring to risk the end to their beloved comics.

The vitriol I have seen expressed online is truly depressing.  And it’s not even just against heirs of deceased creators either.  Example: Ken Penders recently filed suit against Archie Comics for rights to characters he created for the SONIC comic book.  (You can read about the newest update on that case here.) Many comments on this case again side with the publishers.

There are many other cases like this happening where many of the fans are not on the side of the creators.  They appear, for all intents and purposes, like junkies worried that someone might shut off their supply.  Somewhere, somehow, comic companies have managed to win fans over to their side and I just can’t figure out when that happened.

There are a couple of reasons why I don’t buy and/or read new comic books from Marvel & DC anymore.  This is one of them.  I’ll talk about the other one, and why I feel guilty looking at my bookcase of high quality hardcover reprints, next time.

(“Don’t Get Me Started” is an editorial by Sam Gafford.  All views expressed are simply my own and do not reflect any other staffers here at the L.O.D.G.E.)

Why I will NOT be going to see IRON MAN 3

iron-man-3-official-hd

IRON MAN 3 opened last Friday (May 3, 2013) and, by all reports, make a butt-wad of money.  Something like $175 million.

But my $12 wasn’t part of it.  Nor will it be part of the box office for THOR 2, AVENGERS 2, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, CAPTAIN AMERICA 2 or (just to show that I can cross company lines) the new SUPERMAN movie.  It’s very likely that I will never go to a comic-book based movie ever again.  Or, at least, not one based on Marvel or DC characters.

The reason is very simple: I do not wish to give either company any more of my money.

Let me explain.

I’m a comic book fan from way back.  I was born in 1962 and began reading comics just a few years after that.  (I’d say that my brothers put comics into my crib but I have no proof of that nor have they ever claimed to have done anything like that.)  So I grew up reading comics through the 70’s and 80’s and even kept reading during the 90’s although my taste for the genre was running thin.

Like many others, I watched the old Marvel cartoons in the 60’s and suffered through the painful Marvel movies of the 70s and 80s.  All that time we prayed for good movies to be made about our beloved characters.

Now, it seems, the movie companies are finally getting it right.  Big budgets.  Big stars.  Lots of special effects and characters we’ve been waiting decades to see.

And I can’t enjoy a bit of it.

Because in this orgy of big-time Hollywood excess of slick movies, there’s a group of people who have been forgotten.  You’d be hard pressed to find any articles or press releases about them and they’re certainly not benefiting financially from any of this.

That group is the creators.

The people whose imagination and creativity gave us characters like Spider-Man, Thor, Iron-Man, Captain America, Red Skull, Loki, S.H.I.E.L.D., Green Goblin and all the rest have been mistreated and defrauded by the very companies who reap MILLIONS every year from those creations.

If you are unfamiliar with how the comic book industry worked during the time most, if not all, of these characters were created, I will summarize it.  Comic books were created under a concept called “Work for Hire”.  This essentially means that the company is paying a creator (writer/artist/colorist/etc) a certain agreed-upon rate for their work.  After creation, the company now owns that work and can do with it as they see fit.

That’s pretty much it.  Work for Hire was the industry standard until the 80s when creator (and fan) outcry forced Marvel and DC to begin to offer different incentives to creators like royalties and percentages.  This was partly brought on because, in the 80s, other comic companies were enticing top talent by offering more lucrative contracts to creators.  Contracts that included (in some cases) profit sharing in copyrights.  Although modified, “Work for Hire” is still being used at the major comic companies.

So, what has that to do with IRON MAN 3?  Well, Marvel & DC not only have not financially compensated the creators for the many works that these movies are based on but, in many cases, do not even give them credit for their work.

Much has been written (and deservedly so) about the horrible treatment that Jack Kirby received from Marvel (a company that, by and large, he helped create) and which Superman’s creators, Siegel & Shuster, received from DC Comics.  Kirby went through a long, painfully protracted lawsuit with Marvel regarding the return of his original art (after other artists had received their art back) because, before they would return it, Marvel wanted Kirby to sign away all rights to his work.  Fans stood up and refused to accept this.

Siegel & Shuster were rewarded lifetime pensions in the late 70s by DC Comics.  Not because the folks at DC were such sweethearts (because they weren’t) but because a fan based campaign, begun by artist Neal Adams, shamed them into doing it.  This occurred right before the opening of the first Christopher Reeves SUPERMAN movie at a time when DC  wanted to avoid bad publicity.

These are the two most widely known cases and even these have not been resolved.  Kirby’s heirs continue to fight for credit and financial compensation while Siegel’s heirs have fought a long (and vicious) fight to regain parts of the Superman copyrights.  And there are still others happening right now.

Comic creator Bob Layton took to Facebook this weekend to state:

“I have no plans to see it [IRON MAN 3] anytime soon. Maybe when it comes to cable? I can’t, in all good conscience, shell out money for a movie ticket to the very company that keeps exploiting my work without compensation. It just seems wrong to me.”

There are many apologists for Marvel and DC out there right now.  They regurgitate the oft-heard responses of “they knew what they were signing” and “the companies took the risk, why shouldn’t they profit?”  Both arguments create a sadness within me.

In the first place, in many cases, they had no choice but to sign.  The comic industry in the 60s and 70s was much different than today in that creators did not have a wide choice of who to work for.  If you wanted to make a liveable wage in comics, you worked for Marvel or DC.  If you disagreed about their policies, there was a very good chance you’d never work for them again.  They were ‘closed shops’ where, if you dared to even mention the word ‘union’, you’d be blackballed.  Sure you could work for Charlton (widely known as the worst paying comic company around) but not everybody could work for different markets.  Can you imagine Jack Kirby writing/drawing HOT STUFF for Harvey comics?  You took the work not because you choose to but because you didn’t have any other choice.

Obviously, no one in the 60s ever dreamed that these characters would one day star in multi-million dollar movies.  If they had, they wouldn’t have agreed to those terms and would’ve protected their rights.  Hindsight is, after all, 20/20.  But, in order to protect future profits, Marvel & DC are still, for the most part, “Work for Hire” shops.

The point being that these companies exploited their workers then and exploit them now.  Do they legally owe these creators anything?  Probably not.  Legally, these companies are probably well within their rights not to pay anybody anything beyond the originally contracted amounts.

But ethically is a different story.

Marvel & DC have made fortunes for companies and many executives on the backs of stories about superheroes who did the “right thing”.  They were heroic and protected the little guy and stood up for ‘fair play’ and honesty and integrity.  How sad to find that the companies who published those stories don’t really know what any of those things mean and it makes me wonder if they’ve ever read their own comics.

Did these companies take a financial risk?  Sure, but early on.  They certainly aren’t taking any risks now but continue to reap benefits that they refuse to share in terms of compensation or even recognition.  Would it really hurt these mega-corporations in the long run if they turned around and said, “Thanks, we appreciate what you’ve done for us.  Let us show you how much.”  Think of all the good will that would generate and, more importantly to these companies, the level of talent that they would attract to work for them.

Many comic creators of the 70s and 80s cannot find work today.  They’re still good writers and artists but they’re not getting hired.  The companies will say that their work is “out of style” and not in demand today.  They took the work of these creators and, when no longer needed, shut the door in their face.  Ask Jerry Ordway.  Ask Herb Trimpe.  Men with decades of dependable work who can no longer find assignments.

Obviously, Marvel’s not going to care that they didn’t get my $12 this weekend or that I’m not buying their latest crossover crap or the advertising flyers that pass for Marvel Comics these days.  I don’t even expect anyone reading this to care all that much that Sam Gafford is not going to IRON MAN 3.  But it’s something that I can choose to do and the reason I choose to do it is because of all those lessons I learned while reading Superman comics and Spider-Man comics and Fantastic Four comics and all the others.  Comics that were created by PEOPLE and not a corporation.

I want to go and enjoy IRON MAN 3.  I want to go to the next CAPTAIN AMERICA movie.  But I can’t because Kirby will be sitting next to me along with all the other forgotten creators and so I will respect them and their works by staying home and reading my old comics.

I hope you will do the same.

%d bloggers like this: