Jack Kirby, THE AVENGERS, And The Issue of Fairness

Posted on 22 May 2012 by William Gatevackes

FACT!: The Avengers has just topped the box office charts for the third week in a row. It has made over $1 billion worldwide and almost half that ($457 million) in the U.S. alone. It currently stands as the fourth highest grossing film of all-time, and has a shot of overtaking Avatar for the top spot.

FACT!: Jack Kirby had a hand in creating many of the characters and concepts in the film–Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Loki, Hulk, the Tesseract/Cosmic Cube, Nick Fury, S.H.I.E.L.D., and The Avengers as a team.

FACT!: Many people who have seen The Avengers have no idea who Jack Kirby is, let alone how much he contributed to the original comics the film was based on.

These three facts have come together to shed new light on an old and very polarizing issue in the world of comics–Marvel Comics’ history of poor treatment of Jack Kirby. Longtime Kirby supporters are using the new found exposure Kirby’s co-creations are getting on the silver screen to press once again that their idol gets the respect that he deserves. Comic creators such as Steve Bissette and James Sturm have advocating boycotts of Marvel products. Journalist David Brothers has wrote eloquently about his decision to give up on Marvel over this matter (and DC for their treatment of Alan Moore as well). Fans have started a petition to try and convince Marvel to give Kirby the credit and royalties they think he deserves. And comic creator Roger Langridge has vowed never to work for Marvel again.

Does Kirby deserve more respect? In the world of comic books, no, only because he already has respect in droves.  He was given the title “King” for a reason. Outside of the world of comics is a different story, because many casual fans might not know the depth of the contributions Kirby has made to Marvel Comics.

So, what did Jack Kirby do for Marvel? Well, he defined its look. He would provide up to 130 pages of artwork a month during the early years of Marvel, artwork that would appear in around 80% of the titles Marvel published at the time. His art style became the Marvel house are style, as Kirby was called on to train new artists joining the company, such as John Buscema, how to draw as dynamically as him.

And his look was diametrically different than anything else on comic book stands. Even though by then he was a 20-year veteran in the industry, his work on the Marvel books were fresh and original. Unlike DC’s house style where the characters looked porcelain and static, Kirby’s figures almost leaped off the page. His characters had character.

And the amount of intellectual property he a hand in creating is legendary.  However, how big a hand he had in their creation is a contentious point in this controversy.

Jack Kirby and Stan Lee (with George Perez and Roy Thomas) in a fictionalized version of their working relationship from Fantastic Four #176

Stan Lee is listed as a writer/editor on all those early Marvel books Kirby worked on. As such, when Marvel Comics became a media sensation in the 60s and 70s, they came to Stan Lee as the creative force behind the books. They looked no farther than the credits box and ran with the idea that Stan Lee was the auteur behind the comics and Jack Kirby was some guy hired to draw Lee’s genius words.

A bitter Kirby later in his life, after decades living in Lee’s shadow, would continually diminish Lee’s role in the partnership, including a notorious 1990 interview with the Comics Journal where Kirby took complete credit for Marvel’s output during that era. “Stan Lee and I never collaborated on anything!” Kirby said in that interview. “I’ve never seen Stan Lee write anything. I used to write the stories just like I always did.”

While there are many that believe that Kirby was the sole creative influence behind the Marvel era of books, others believe a shared collaboration was closer to the truth. Lee has said in that he had a unique working relationship with Kirby in the sense that he didn’t have to write a full synopsis  of the plot for Kirby. All he had to do was call him on the phone, speak briefly about what he wanted–a sentence or a paragraph at most–and Kirby would run with it. Lee would come in later, add dialogue, and a masterpiece was born.

This is the version of the partnership that I subscribe to. It might not have been a 50/50 partnership between the two. It might have been 20% Lee/80% Kirby, with the scale sliding from issue to issue, story arc to story arc. But I believe it definitely wasn’t 100% Kirby or 100% Lee. That’s just not how the world of comic books usually work.

Cartoon taken from the blog of the Kirby Museum (http://kirbymuseum.org/blogs/dynamics/)

But Lee has often times become the focus of rage from Kirby supporters, a practice that becomes more and more unctuous as the years go by. Lee is an easy target, mainly due to genetics–first in the fact that he was the cousin of Marvel’s original publisher Martin Goodman, therefore allowing him an entry into the company and a meteoric rise to Editor-in-Chief during the 40s, second due to him outliving Kirby, meaning he is allowed to reap in the success of the partnership with cameos and media interviews and such. Lee has become the ipso facto face of Marvel Comics. If you are one that believes Kirby did everything and Lee contributed nothing, this would incense you. And you might feel justified in venting your animosity in Lee’s direction.

But Lee wasn’t the one at Marvel who promised Kirby (and Amazing Spider-Man artist Steve Ditko) that he would get a percentage of merchandise then never follow through. That was Martin Goodman. It wasn’t Lee that threatened to slash Kirby’s pay rate when he was doing the lion’s share of the work at Marvel. That was Goodman too. And Stan was in Hollywood by the time Marvel held Kirby’s artwork hostage in the late 1970′s to mid 1980s.

But even if you think Stan Lee willingly and maliciously lied about his involvement in the creation of the Marvel Universe just to keep Jack Kirby down, there has to be some point when the noble quest to gain a sense of justice for Jack by calling out your idol’s enemy turns into you bullying a frail 89-year-old man. Take for instance this snippet from an interview of Lee by Erik Larnick of Moviefone during a press junket for a documentary on Lee called With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story:

Fans of Jack Kirby are concerned that his name appears nowhere on the credits of “The Avengers.”  What’s your take on their concern? I don’t know how to answer that because in what way would his name appear?

His name isn’t mentioned anywhere in the film production as a co-creator. Well it’s mentioned in every comic book; it says “By Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.”

But it doesn’t appear for the film itself; and his fans feel he should get that recognition, with the movie exposing his work to a whole new audience.  I know, but you’re talking to the wrong guy because I have nothing to do with the credits on the movies. I’m credited as one of the executive producers because that’s in my contract. But Jack was not an executive producer. So I don’t know what he’d be credited as. Again I know nothing about that, I have nothing to do with the movie’s credits. You’d have to talk to whoever is the producer of the movie. Is there anything you want to ask me about the documentary because I thought that’s what I was supposed to be talking about.

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby back in 1975, along with comic book legends Gil Kane, Jim Steranko, Wil Eisner and Jerry Siegel.

This exchange compelled Heidi MacDonald over at The Beat, a journalist I admire and respect, to ask “Has the fan press suddenly GROWN a pair? Or have they just figured out that controversy sells?” I’d say the later. While it’s arguable that Moviefone, an offshoot of AOL, can be considered “fan press,” asking these questions is not an act of bravery, it’s an act of chicanery. This is not rightfully calling Lee on the carpet for supposed mistreatment of Kirby. This is ambushing an octogenarian with something specific he has no control over, and passing off his reply as him evading the question. And not to right any sort of wrongs either, but to gain site hits (which is why the snippet was released a week  before the actual article). The real kicker is that Kirby’s name is in the credits for The Avengers, something Larnick would have found out if he asked a studio flack or someone with more more than a ceremonial connection to the film.

If you are looking for an article that asks the questions Larnick was trying to ask, but does it in a more journalistic way–with a juicer pull quote–I recommend Alex Pappademas’ interview, most likely taken on the same press junket, over at Grantland.

Once again, I’m not saying that Jack Kirby deserves less credit than Stan Lee or vice versa. I’m saying that attacking the person the general public sees as “that cute old man with the funny cameos”  is no way to gain the mainstream respect Jack Kirby should rightfully have. If you are looking for fairness, you have to be fair first.

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