Jack Kirby and The Great Chain of Being (Screwed)

Posted by on Tuesday, May 15th, 2012 at 01:20:39 PM

So in just two weeks, Marvel’s The Avengers has made a billion dollars worldwide. Over the past fourteen years, films based on Marvel superheroes have grossed over nine and a half billion dollars at the box office, and with the upcoming Amazing Spider-Man, Iron Man 3, Wolverine, Thor 2 and others, you can expect to add a couple billion more to the ledger in the next year or so. As anyone reading this probably already knows, Jack Kirby — co-creator of the characters starring in Avengers and many of these other blockbuster films — does not receive credit in the films, nor does his family receive even the smallest scrap of this massive revenue stream.

CORRECTION: Apparently Jack Kirby’s name is listed in the credits of Marvel’s The Avengers, a film I have not seen. I was under the mistaken impression that he was not credited in two films I did see recently, Thor and Captain America.

In Thor, the credit “Based on The Marvel Comic Book by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby” is placed in the latter half of the end credits, in between those for Stand-Ins and Production Supervisor.

In Captain America, the credit “Based on The Marvel Comic by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby” is placed in the latter half of the end credits, in between those for Stand-Ins and Supervising Sound Editor.

In Marvel’s the Avengers I do not know the placement of the credit. It may also be easy to miss. A story circulated last month in which Stan Lee seemed to indicate Kirby’s name was not in the credits for the film. This was later confirmed to not be true. Having seen neither the film itself nor the corrections, I passed along this incorrect statement. Jack Kirby is credited in Marvel’s The Avengers. He just isn’t being paid for it.

Plenty of other pundits have remarked on this — Steve Bissette, Tom Spurgeon, David Brothers, our own Jamaal Thomas to name just a few — and recently Spurgeon provided a handy list of all the creators whose work led to the Avengers becoming a billion dollar movie.

That list reminded me of a comment from a few months back, in response to another good Kirby post from Brothers. RS David said:

The result of the Kirby trial changed the way I purchased comics too. Essentially, I cut out all Marvel comics focused on Kirby creations (unfortunately that included Parker’s Hulk, but still buying Thunderbolts).

On one hand, this is a perfectly rational response. Marvel’s lack of respect towards the Kirby estate is a massive, prominent thumb in the eye of treating comics creators like human beings. If you’re not prepared to go cold turkey, dropping the books most clearly built off Kirby’s unrewarded labor seems like the logical thing to do. But in practice, this is a tangled web.

Like both Davids, I’m a fan of Jeff Parker. I’ve enjoyed his creator owned work like Underground with Steve Lieber and Bucko with Erica Moen. But I also love his work at Marvel, particularly in light of our mutual affection for weird unexplored corners of Marvel’s shared palimpsest history. He (along with Kev Walker) brought back Doctor Dorcas, for goodness sake! As much as I look forward to Parker’s next wholly original project, I can’t deny that Parker dredging around in Marvel’s corporate-owned sandbox also pushes a lot of the right buttons for me as a reader.

Parker’s two primary books at presents are Hulk and Thunderbolts. The Hulk was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, so it’s clearly a “Kirby book”. Though it scarcely features Bruce Banner, its titular Hulk is Thunderbolt Ross, another Lee/Kirby creation. But the book’s primary hook — that Ross is now the Red Hulk, with his own unique set of circumstances — is an idea created by Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuinness. Or Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. One of the two, but definitely not Lee or Kirby. Granted, no one would be thinking about new version of the Hulk without the original Lee/Kirby version, but the specific Hulk book Parker is writing would not exist were it not for Loeb/McGuinness. The rest of the book’s regular cast features almost exclusively non Lee/Kirby characters, Kirby’s solo creation Machine Man excepted. Most remarkably for a 21st century superhero comic, Parker and his artistic partners have created a whole set of new characters for the book, including Red Hulk’s robotic confidante Annie and villains like Black Fog, Zero/One, Omegex, General Fortean, and Dagan Shah. Alongside Gabriel Hardmann, Patrick Zircher and the rest of the Hulk artists, Parker has created a whole rogue’s gallery in a couple dozen issues. Obviously any book called Hulk will owe a huge debt to Kirby (and Lee), but it’s hard to think of another Marvel book on the stands that owes as much to its current writer as Parker’s Hulk.

But let’s look at Thunderbolts. It’s true, it’s not a “Kirby” title in the same way Hulk is — the title wasn’t even developed by Kurt Busiek and Mark Bagely until three years after Kirby’s passing. But at the same time, in the same way that Red Hulk is a reimagining of a Lee/Kirby creation (General Ross/The Hulk), Thunderbolts was born as reimagining of the Masters of Evil, a team that debuted in Avengers #6 by… Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

The original Thunderbolts team consisted of Busiek/Bagley created new identities for pre-existing characters:

  • Atlas (Goliath/Power Man, created by Lee/Kirby)
  • Citizen V (Baron Zemo, the son of the first Baron Zemo created by Lee/Kirby, the son was introduced by Tony Isabella, Roy Thomas, and Sal Buscema)
  • Mach-1 (The Beetle, created by Lee and Carl Burgos)
  • Meteorite (Moonstone, created by Marv Wolfman and Frank Robbins)
  • Songbird (Screaming Mimi, created by Mark Gruenwald and John Byrne)
  • Techno (The Fixer, created by Lee/Kirby)

So from the outset, the Thunderbolts were a reskinned version of a team co-created by Jack Kirby, featuring half a roster of characters co-created by Jack Kirby. They also spent their first year squatting in the home of the Fantastic Four, and their first major storyline culminated in a battle with the Avengers. Like Hulk, or really nearly any Marvel superhero comic without Spider or X in the title, it’s hard to avoid having Kirby’s fingerprints everywhere.

Fifteen years later, Parker’s run of Thunderbolts alongside Kev Walker, Declan Shalvey and others does not feature as heavily a Kirby-created roster. Alongside Fixer, Songbird, Mach-V and Moonstone the cast includes:

  • Luke Cage (created by Archie Goodwin and John Romita)
  • Man-Thing (created by Lee/Thomas/Conway and Gray Morrow)
  • Satana (created by Roy Thomas and John Romita)
  • Centurius (created by Jim Steranko)
  • Boomerang (created by Lee and Kirby)
  • Mister Hyde (created by Lee and Don Heck)
  • Ghost (created by David Micheline and Bob Layton)
  • Crossbones (created by Mark Gruenwald and Kieron Dwyer)
  • Troll (created by Parker and Walker)

Of course, all this splitting hairs about “how many Thunderbolts members have to be created by Kirby before it becomes a Kirby book” is moot in a month or so, when the book is renamed Dark Avengers.

None of this is to diminish the contributions of Jack Kirby. When Marvel boasts of its “library of over 8,000 characters featured in a variety of media over seventy years“, every one of those eight thousand characters has parents. Most of them have some aunts and uncles who have shepherded them to profitable adulthood. Some of them are still waiting for the right Big Brother or Sister. And while Lee and Kirby are the most prolific patriarchs, there are hundreds more. And none of them are reaping the benefit of their “children” making it to the big screen (or any of the other countless uses across all media) either. Jack Kirby is a potent lightning rod to call attention to this, both due to his unmatchable output and the depths of depravity of his treatment by Marvel. But it’s worth remembering everyone else, too.

Which brings us to Stan Lee. There’s no question that Lee has benefitted greatly by his position as Editor-in-Chief, Chairman Emeritus, and the namesake of “Stan Lee Presents”. He plays a definite role in the continued lack of credit given to Kirby and for all we know countless other creators. But at the end of the day, he’s still a creator who hasn’t received what he is likely owed in a just world. When David Uzumeri linked me to last week’s Grantland article on the topic of Lee, Kirby, and The Avengers, he highlighted the following Lee quote with scorn:

I’ve never been one of these people who worries about [creator ownership/profit-sharing]. I should have been. I’d be wealthy now, if I had been.

It’s a ridiculous statement from a man who has an Executive Producer credit on all of those Marvel movies that are closing in on making ten billion dollars. Lee is unquestionably wealthier — and has accrued more wealth from Marvel’s movie boom — than Kirby or Ditko or Heck or Wolfman or Colan or Wein or Friedrich or Claremont or anyone else who molded these superheroes into multimedia icons. I’m certainly not lining up to console Stan Lee about his finances. But at the same time, Lee has to live in a world where characters he co-created making billions of dollars for someone else. In a world after the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, after Spawn, after Hellboy, after Sin City, after The Walking Dead, that has to nag at him. People rightly lament that Marvel has profited immensely from the work of Jack Kirby, yet they refuse to even given his estate a few meager scraps of that windfall. Lee has gotten a sweeter deal than Kirby, but it’s important to remember he’s still only gotten scraps. In his own muddled, sometimes infuriating way, Lee should be a sympathetic figure just like Kirby. Just like Siegel and Shuster. Just like almost every creator who has contributed to the Marvel and DC “Universes”.

I still support agitating for better treatment of the Kirby, Siegel, and Shuster families. I try to remain optimistic that one day they’ll get at least a tiny fraction of what they deserve. But I hope when that happens, Kirby shifts from lightning rod to the first domino that starts a chain of better treatment for everyone else as well.

200-125  ,
100-105  ,

Posted in Articles ·

11 Responses