Between A Man and His King
The case made in The Jack Kirby Trigger continues to ripple through the comics community. As expected, the California District Court decision to deny the Kirby Estate a trial is eliciting not only industry-wide indignation, but also gutter level fandom bickering between Stan Lee and Jack Kirby camps. Here are some highlights:
- Stephen R. Bissette has written two sequels to Honoring a Fallen King. Good reading in Part 2 and then also Part 3. He is meticulously dissecting the history and details of the creative process relative to Marvel, particularly regarding the Lee/Kirby collaborations. He’s also bringing outside sources and comparisons that reflect on this process relative to the court decision. From the momentum on his site, it seems he has a lot more on his mind and is determined to keep the debate on the front lines, at least in the periphery he reaches with his web site, which can be quite extensive given the volatility of talk in the comics community. His analysis is expressive of a fighting spirit that needs to become an epidemic. Part 2 delivers a condemnation of Stan Lee’s deposition testimony that continues to agitate many fans and professionals alike:
* If bile is being cast at Stan Lee, it’s because he hasn’t risen to the behavior of his heroic characters.
Look, I like Stan (I met him once during my second visit to the Marvel offices in 1977; he smiled at me and was very kind and supportive in about two minutes).
The worst I’ve said (I think; correct me if I’m wrong) is he “damned” himself with his deposition testimony. I stand by that perception and statement.
I have great respect for Stan, what he did, what he wrote, what he built, but his deposition is shameful.
- Heidi MacDonald’s coverage of Stephen’s first article at The Beat spurred a spirited but demonstrably civil debate in reader comments. Writer Kurt Busiek peppered the discussion with well researched analysis, as he’s prone to deliver, of the case history. We’ve straddled opposite sides of creator/publisher issues in the past, but it’s no small satisfaction to see Kurt’s position and sharp review applied in this way to the case. John Morrow, one of two witnesses, along with Mark Evanier, whose deposition testimony was stricken from the record in the proceedings, also makes an appearance in the comments thread, in support of Kurt’s effort.
- Michael Dean provides a little more perspective on the court documents at The Comics Journal. His summation becomes a reminder of how the intent of the 1976 copyright law has become near-castrated by Marvel and other entertainment media proponents:
Under pressure from entertainment companies, however, Congress has repeatedly extended the maximum limits of copyright terms, thereby adding value to intellectual property that it didn’t have at the time creators like Siegel and Kirby were turning their brainstorms over to publishers in exchange for modest pay checks. The Copyright Act of 1976 was meant to redress that to a degree, by giving the original authors a chance to benefit from the extended copyright terms. Arguably, the same principle ought to apply, whether you created something and then sold it as Siegel and Shuster did or simply accepted payment for your creative labors page by page as Kirby did.
- Arlen Schumer joined a heated debate on Bleeding Cool Forums, posting The Auteur Theory of Comics, based on French cinema culture, wherein he stands in defense of the Kirby Estate by comparing an artist in the visual comics medium to a director in film. Such an analogy, Schumer states, would entitle Kirby with co-creation of the Marvel Universe that he contributed to. Arlen will be presenting his thesis during a panel at New York Comic Con, this Oct 13-16, as a visual presentation, followed by a panel discussion on the Kirby ruling, conducted by moderator Peter Coogan, Director of The Institute for Comics Studies and the Comics Studies Conference, and Rand Hoppe, Director of the online Jack Kirby Museum. A must event to attend for Kirby lovers at NYCC this year.
- The Bleeding Cool Forum discussing Stephen Bisette’s first article and the Kirby/Marvel decision has mushroomed to a burgeoning 55 page thread with more than 650 posts as of this writing. I’ve been active in a lot of it and I can safely say it’s one of the more entertaining forays into discussing a legal battle that exists anywhere. It is also perhaps a more concise reflection of the spirit in fandom right now regarding the case. Though it may be winding down, it is a good read for tapping the pulse of fandom, which also carries quite a number of gems in single and multiple post exchanges.
Aside from trying to understand the legal issue of the 1976 copyright law addressing Work for Hire and reclamation of intellectual property rights by creators, upon which the Kirby/Marvel decision hinged, fandom appears to be locked in a sometimes furious battle of camps, each backing either the Lee or Kirby significance to Marvel, at the expense of the other. Indeed, many Kirby supporters are suggesting a sort of betrayal by Marvel, and de facto by Stan Lee, of the moral justice ideal, after which their superhero mythology is fashioned. It is not a small issue at all, which was also voiced by Tom Spurgeon in his report on Stephen Bissette’s first article calling for a boycott of Marvel.
I do know that we live in a world where lottery winners will sometimes give money to the people that did nothing other than print their tickets, where fans will give money to someone if they express a need and do so based on the fact they benefited not to the tune of billions of dollars and enduring wealth for generations of their families but based on a satisfying artistic experience or series of them, where people routinely share their good fortune with others without a court telling them to do so — and all without trafficking in some heroic ideal as their stock in trade. None of this makes sense. It needs to matter more than it does.
In support of Stan Lee, and as part of an effort to diminish from Kirby’s significance to Marvel, it’s been said that it was Lee himself who invented the title King Kirby as part of a branding gimmick that helped make Marvel a more attractive House of Ideas, and sell more comic books. It’s been further said that if Stan had not done so, no one would be calling Kirby a king today.
If it wasn’t for the cynicism in this charge, trying to further injure Kirby’s historical role at Marvel as crucial to its effective rise in the medium, then we might reflect on this historical tidbit with a certain musing, in that it is basically true as a launch pad for the nickname. However, the attempt to paint a distorted picture of the Lee/Kirby team, as if Kirby owes the perception of being king of comics art to Lee, well, that’s a very argumentative extrapolation that wouldn’t necessarily endure a test of simple logic.
For better or worse, the nicknames Stan Lee gave to creators were based on catchy rhymes, or complimentary sounds, with their names. Thus Kirby was dubbed ‘King’, while Stan, in ironic humility, settled for being merely ‘The Man’. That’s how it also was, for example, with ‘Jazzy’ John Romita, ‘Gentleman’ Gene Colan and ‘Nefarious’ Neal Adams. Even going by this result, it may be possible to conjecture that a ‘King’ could owe his kingship to ‘The Man’ who made him king. But such an allegorical reach also places a responsibility on a king to live up to his title in order for it to become embraced by the reading public. Indeed, such was the case with similar titles given to Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson, as examples, who would not have been remembered as such had they not risen to the occasion. Likewise, as far as most other such names Stan gave back in the days, few of them would have stuck if the creators could not live up to them. And it is ultimately one thing to try to live up to being ‘jazzy’, ‘gentlemanly’ or ‘nefarious’, but it’s an entirely different story to live up to and earn the title of being a King.
If Jack Kirby did not meet the expectations of professionals and fans with his work, as some have tried to suggest, then no one would remember him as a king today. More so, the title might become a source for scorn to the creator instead of reverence, if their work fell evidently short of the expectations that come with it.
This is clearly not a legal argument and is only raised in face of some rather disingenuous attempts to rewrite comics history and trivialize Jack Kirby’s role within it. Anyone suggesting that Kirby’s output after his collaborations with Stan, did not live up to his work at Marvel, which is an argumentative position in itself, well, it then becomes necessary to remind that the quality of Stan’s output also fell after the Lee/Kirby era. There is simply no way to make a reasonable case for Stan being the master writer without whom Kirby could not have risen to the heights he did. The very opposite of such a possibility, it would seem, is more likely.
At the heart of the litigation to reclaim the rights to Marvel properties by the Kirby Estate is an issue of a moral injustice and personal humiliation that Marvel, aided by Stan Lee, tried to inflict on Jack Kirby because he dared ask that their promises to reward him, should his work help the company succeed, be fulfilled. It is painfully human and humane to understand the combative mode Kirby entered into during his latter years, which ultimately brought upon him the bitterness of betrayal that caused him to lash out in all directions. It’s a natural reaction for someone who trusted the people he worked with, and reacted with resentful emotion upon having that trust become so horrendously shattered. It becomes a much more understood reaction when seen in light of how Marvel tried to destroy Jack Kirby morally and in spirit, by attempting to turn him into the villain, when he was in effect their victim.
It thus seems ludicrous to make any claims about Stan lee’s creative superiority to Jack Kirby in light of this sad history that Stan himself has lent a hand to the attempted revision thereof.
Stan Lee’s shared responsibility in the travesty rendered to the co-creator he’s most identified with, screams into the comics community these days and demands that moral justice be served between them. It may be that Stan Lee’s memory fails him in these later years, as some are saying. Or it may be that Stan Lee’s moral fiber is not made of the stuff that’s needed to make things right again between these two dearly beloved founders of the modern Superhero.
In either case, the result strengthens claims by Kirby historians who say it was the King himself who led the definition of the stories, plots and characterizations of the Marvel universe, and that Stan Lee’s part in it was, in essence, the more trivial. For how are we to believe that the wonderful mind who gave us all of this fabulous mythology is the same Stan Lee who tramples the notions of moral justice and responsibility that the stories themselves exude? And all seemingly for his exclusive benefit, while towing the company line, at the expense of the artist who most contributed to his own success?
A King who earns his title will always be a king in the eyes of the people. But The Man who first gave him the title and then betrayed him, will not be favorably remembered by the same people who’ve come to love and honor the king.