Returning to our Melville comparison one last time, it’s like someone churning out a series of cheap paperback thrillers called The Moby Dick Adventures. Detailing all of Ahab’s previous encounters with that devilish whale. While Melville was still alive. And protesting vigorously the bastardization of his masterpiece. While the bean counters of the world not-so-gently implied that he might very well be insane. Which I suppose explains why I reacted with such apathy last week: much like that hypothetical series of Moby Dick adventure novels, apathy is really the only reaction Before Watchmen deserves.
Of course, that brings me back to how excited I should be over a new Darwyn Cooke comic. And that makes me angry all over again. Because now I’m left in the position of feeling apathy toward the work of one of my favorite cartoonists. So, gah!
These were the conflicting emotions I was dealing with as I left the funnybook store last week. Then I got home, picked up my mail, and found that damn red envelope with Thor lurking inside. GAH! My apathy and anger turned to disgust. I shoved the disc back in the envelope, sealed it, and dropped it right back in the mail. Because if I think Alan Moore got screwed over… That’s nothing compared to what happened to Jack Kirby.
Generally considered to be the greatest funnybook artist of all time…
…Jack Kirby came into the comics industry in its infancy, and toiled ceaselessly in its work-for-hire trenches for more than 40 years. He was endlessly innovative, defining the storytelling language for both super hero and romance comics, and (more pertinent to our discussion today) co-created about 90% of the Marvel Comics stable of characters. Including, yes, the Mighty Thor.
(Yes, yes. I know that Thor was a pagan god worshiped by vikings. But the things that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby did with that mythological figure are pretty specific to them. And as long as we’re talking about creating things… There has been, and continues to be, much debate over who created what at Marvel. From everything I know of the situation, Kirby was the creative powerhouse, and Stan was the one with the dramatic flair and ear for dialogue. So Kirby shaped the raw ideas, but Stan made them sing. Both contributions are vital, and both made those characters what they are. That makes the joint-but-vague “by Lee and Kirby” credit that appeared in the back half of the 60s seem the most accurate to me.)
Now, Kirby was never promised any sort of ownership in any of the dozens of characters he helped create for Marvel. There are loopholes and technicalities in some cases, and gross negligence on the part of the company in actually locking down the rights in others, but for the most part, Kirby understood that he was doing work-for-hire. He accepted those contracts because he had a family to feed, and (if we’re going to be bluntly honest here) because he wasn’t much of a businessman. So while I don’t like the way Marvel conducted those contracts, and while I think it would have been only right for them to have at least offered him some sort of compensation beyond his initial page rate (ala what DC was shamed into doing for Siegel and Shuster), I don’t begrudge them their ownership of the characters Stan and Jack created.
What I do begrudge, however, is the way they treated Kirby after the fact. Specifically, the way they held his artwork hostage. It had become standard practice at the company to return artwork in the late 1970s. Marvel had no actual legal right to the original art used to print their comics, but they’d held on to it for years anyway, storing it in an old warehouse in a part of New York so bad that the attendant reportedly wouldn’t open the door unless she had a butcher knife in her hand. The artists couldn’t reprint the pages, of course, but they could sell the pages on the fan market to supplement their income. This was money that Kirby, in semi-retirement by the mid-80s, could really use, so he asked for his art back.
Marvel dragged their feet. They dragged their feet, then offered Kirby a deal: if he would sign a contract giving Marvel all rights to everything he ever created for them over the years, they’d return 86 pages of art to him (art that was, in all likelihood, legally his). This was less an offer than a slap in the face. Eighty-six pages was only the tiniest fraction of Kirby’s work for Marvel over the years. And moreover, if Kirby ever violated the terms of the agreement, Marvel had the right to take the artwork back, thus negating the whole reason for the request in the first place.
To make matters worse, this was the second time they’d asked him to sign a contract like this. The first time, in 1972, it was to settle Kirby’s half of a lawsuit originating with Joe Simon over ownership of Captain America. Simon had won the case, but agreed to sell Cap back to Marvel, and Kirby was supposed to be paid the same amount as his co-creator. Two years had passed, and Marvel still hadn’t paid up, so Kirby (always a horrible businessman) agreed to sign a further contract giving Marvel full rights to all his co-creations, in return for which they paid him what they already owed him on the Captain America deal. That’s right. They asked him to sign away further rights, and all they had to give him in return was MONEY THEY ALREADY LEGALLY OWED HIM. Criminal. But that’s the way Marvel rolls.
So why did they want him to sign the rights over a second time? Well… It seems that they’d gotten a bit sloppy in their management of the work-for-hire contracts Marvel freelancers worked under in the 60s. Rather than having a contract signed beforehand, Marvel simply stamped it on the back of their paychecks. So to endorse and cash the check, the artists had to also sign the work-for-hire agreement. But that was after the work had been produced, and work-for-hire had, in 1976, been officially defined as something agreed to before the work was done. They probably still would have been able to win if Kirby had challenged their ownership on those grounds, but they wanted to make sure. So it was time to hold the artwork hostage with that insulting 86-pages-for-everything-you-ever-did contract.
Kirby refused, and thus began a two-year battle to get the artwork back. Marvel didn’t really have a leg to stand on, but still they resisted. They wanted that contract signed. But there was another problem, as well: an awful lot of the artwork… just wasn’t there anymore. Marvel staffers had been routinely stealing pages for years. Some would give them away as gifts to people they wanted to ingratiate themselves to, while others evidently had pretty lucrative secondary careers as black market art dealers. Unbelievable. I can only assume that’s why they offered him a mere 86 pages: somebody didn’t want the gravy train to stop running. And, hey: he’d been dumb enough to sign that first deal for the Captain America money, so why not try to fleece him again? Bastards.
At any rate. Kirby finally went public with his troubles, and shamed Marvel into returning his property. But in the end, he still only got 1900 pages back, about a fifth of his total prodigious output for the company. Did I already call them bastards? I did? Well, let me say it again.
The good news is that Kirby’s struggles (along with those of so many other Golden and Silver Age guys) educated the industry. Younger talent was more wary of being taken advantage of, and the publishers finally had to start offering better deals. It’s unlikely that Alan Moore would have gotten the Watchmen deal, in fact, if it hadn’t been for what Kirby went through.
Of course, we’ve already seen how that one turned out. Same shit, different decade.
So what’s my point, here? I’m not sure, really. I’m certainly not calling for a boycott of all corporate comics and their big-screen sideshows. I’m not even saying that everyone should burn their copies of Before Watchmen and not buy any more. It would make me deliriously happy if that happened, of course, but I’m not urging anyone to do so. That’s a choice everybody’s got to make for themselves. But for me, it’s come down to a simple formula. If the entertainment value I expect to receive from a work-for-hire corporate property is greater than my disgust at what was done to its creators in the name of maintaining corporate control… I’m in. If not… It can kiss my ass.