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Superheroes in Court: continued

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Murder Ballads
Secret London

That same issue of the Journal contained an open letter from three of DC's top executives, asserting Kirby's moral right to have his art returned and chiding Marvel for singling him out for such punitive treatment. Referring to the period since its own change of policy in 1973, DC said: “There has never been a time in those twelve years when we have singled out any artist and attached different conditions to the return of his art. We cannot imagine a circumstance in which it would be appropriate or ethical. Ownership of artwork is absolute, and therefore cannot be subject to negotiations.”
Kirby himself, speaking in a fresh interview with Groth, added: “All I know is that I own my drawings, but they've got them. And they know that I own them. They know, and they're holding them arbitrarily. In other words, they're grabbers. They'll grab a copyright, they'll grab a drawing, they'll grab a script. [...] They can act like businessmen. But, to me, they're acting like thugs.” (29)
In April 1986, Marvel's lawyers produced some releases Kirby had already signed disavowing any claim to Marvel characters' copyrights. These included the 1969 one he'd signed as part of the Captain America deal, and another from 1972. This prompted Kirby to begin backing away from his copyright claims, which he later said he'd made only to ensure his artwork campaign was taken seriously.

Kirby's revised agreement from Marvel offered him 1,900 pages instead of just 88

Things finally came to a head that Summer. In July, Marvel's vice president of publishing Michael Hobson issued a statement. “Marvel returned hundreds of pages to Mr Kirby under its artwork return policy during his last period of employment between 1976 and 1978, and Mr Kirby signed all release forms submitted to him at that time,” Hobson said. “Marvel nonetheless received a series of letters from Mr Kirby's lawyers over the past four years asserting claims of copyright ownership. As a result of this correspondence, Marvel insisted that, in order for Mr Kirby to receive the artwork ear-marked for him, Mr Kirby would have to sign a longer, more detailed release than the release given to other artists.” (27)
The Journal continued its campaign by publishing a petition supporting Kirby, signed by 150 of comics' biggest names. These included Carl Barks, CC Beck, Robert Crumb, Jules Feiffer, Burne Hogarth, Harvey Kurtzman, Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Jerry Siegel, Art Spiegelman and Gary Trudeau. Marvel's treatment of Kirby, the petition said, was “an onerous breach of personal and professional ethics, reflects poorly on the comics industry generally, and stands in opposition to accepted and rightful practice in the publishing profession”. (29)
In October 1986, Kirby received a redrafted agreement from Marvel, now down to just two pages and offering 1,900 pages instead of the original 88. We don't know exactly what the revised agreement says or whether it insisted that Kirby rule out any copyrights claim again, but this time he was prepared to sign it. “Jack got just about everything he wanted,” said Kirby lawyer Greg Victoroff. (27)
Stan Lee, who'd moved to California to work on Marvel's movie prospects in 1980, had kept his head down throughout the whole artwork row, and this seemed to leave a bitter taste in Kirby's mouth. Interviewed again for the Journal in 1990, he utterly dismissed Lee's contribution to those early Marvel comics, and claimed all the credit for himself.
“Stan Lee and I never collaborated on anything!” he told Groth. “I came up with the Fantastic Four, I came up with Thor, and The Hulk, the X-Men and the Avengers. [...] I came up with a raft of new books, and all those books began to make money. Somehow they had faith in me. I knew I could do it, but I had to come up with fresh characters nobody had seen before. I came up with the Fantastic Four. I came up with Thor. Whatever it took to sell a book, I came up with it.” Later in the interview, he adds: “I created Spider-Man. We decided to give it to Steve Ditko. I created the character. I created the costume.” (20)
Groth had always been one of Kirby's greatest champions. Even so, he cautioned in his introduction to this interview that the remarks about Lee and Ditko should be “read with a grain of salt” as “most observers and historians consider Kirby's claims here to be excessive”. Kirby was over 70 when this interview was conducted, and it's perhaps best viewed as a measure of just how angry and disappointed his Marvel years had left him. “I wish Marvel hadn't treated Jack so poorly,” says the Jack Kirby Collector's John Morrow. “It's a shame that a Kirby or a Ditko or any of these guys, who worked so hard for so little money in the sixties and seventies should have to go to their graves feeling the kind of resentment they did for that company.” (30)
Kirby's relationship with Lee certainly never recovered. When Kirby died in February 1994, Lee was nervous about even attending the funeral, fearing a confrontation with Kirby's fiercely-loyal widow, Roz. “I stayed at the back,” Lee told Raphael and Spurgeon. “I didn't want anyone to see me and make a fuss and start talking about Jack and me and our relationship.”
The legacy of the whole artwork row may surface again as the Kirby family's case is fought out. Glancing through the account above, it's striking how many copyright release forms Kirby seems to have signed during his Marvel career. There's the 1969 form, the additional 1972 one, several forms Hobson says he signed between 1976 and 1978 and, quite possibly, another release signed in 1987 to get his art back. Marvel's confidentiality agreements mean we don't know exactly what any of those forms contain, but they can only make the family's task in court harder.

Film fun: Stan Lee & Marvel's movies (2002)

In January 2005, Marvel Comics chairman emeritus Stan Lee won a court verdict backing his claim that the company owed him 10% of its gross profits from every Marvel film since 1998. By that time, the first two Spider-Man movies alone had grossed over $1.6bn between them, leading to press speculation that Lee could pocket well over $10m.
      Lee had been so closely linked with Marvel over the previous 40 years that comics experts struggled to find a comparison big enough to do his rebellion justice. One said it was like Mickey Mouse suing Disney. No, said another, it was more like Colonel Sanders suing Kentucky Fried Chicken.
      Lee's secret herbs and spices lay in his 1998 employment contract with Marvel, which gave him not only the 10% profit share, but also a $1m-a-year salary for life and a hefty package of perks. In return, he agreed to work up to 15 hours a week for Marvel, and to allow the company to continue using his name and likeness in its promotions.
      As we've seen, Lee's 1960s career gave him a hand in creating all the characters who went on to provide Marvel's most valuable movie franchises. By 1998, though, he was in his seventies, and his glory days were far behind him.
      Lee's own stint selling Marvel's properties in Hollywood had been nothing to shout about. He managed to get just four Marvel movies made during his watch, and the least embarrassing of these was 1986's Howard The Duck. The others either went straight to video or - in the case of Roger Corman's 1994 Fantastic Four cheapie - were never released at all. Why had Marvel been prepared to offer this man such a generous deal?
      The answer came in Jordan Raphael and Tom Spurgeon's 2003 biography of Lee. Marvel had been forced to void all its employment contracts - including Lee's - when it went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1996. After that episode, the company offered him a new contract at sharply reduced pay, and Lee called in his lawyers to negotiate. It soon became clear that Marvel couldn't afford to see him walk away.

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