It all started when Bleeding Cool noticed that the Fantastic Four was missing from a bit of promotional art for Marvel’s 75th Anniversary, seen to the left. This was a noticeable omission because the FF were vital to the history of Marvel and should have been definitely included in the anniversary celebration.
This caused Bleeding Cool’s Rich Johnson to do some digging. His sources told him that the omission was deliberate and what’s more, Marvel would be putting its Fantastic Four comics on hiatus, relegating the characters to guest stars in other books. The reason? Marvel’s mercurial CEO Isaac Perlmutter issued an edict prohibiting the FF from being prominently featured or promoted by Marvel while Fox held the movie rights, because it meant promoting a movie franchise where the studio got the lion’s share of the profits and the comic book company got little.
Marvel, of course, denied this, which caused Johnston to come back with a letter an artist for Marvel’s line of trading cards received. The letter specifically states that the Fantastic Four members, villains and supporting characters are off-limits for inclusion in any set.
One major flaw to this is that the X-Men film license is still held by Fox and Marvel still hasn’t stopped publishing numerous comics featuring those characters. Johnston claims that the X-Books are safe because they are such good sellers. And after all, no mutant characters appear in that image either, and others have noticed supposed slights by Marvel towards the X-characters as well.
Of course, there might be another reason why the Fantastic Four, and only the Fantastic Four, are singled out for this type of hiatus.
On May 15 of this year, Marc Toberoff, lawyer for the Jack Kirby Estate, petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court, asking them to hear an appeal on the case of the Estate Vs. Marvel over rights to most of the Marvel Comics characters. I can’t find anything on the Internet on what the results of that petition were (The Supreme Court site currently only goes up to April), but what if the Supreme Court decided to hear the case? And what if Marvel’s lawyers informed them they had a very good chance of losing the Fantastic Four in the ruling?
The Kirby Family staked claim to a lot of Marvel characters, some that historians say Jack Kirby had little or no role in their creation. Most of the rest fall under typical “work-for-hire” agreements, but the Fantastic Four might not.
Kirby claimed in a 1990 interview with The Comics Journal that the Fantastic Four was created solely by him and not as a work-for-hire. Kirby claimed that he came up with the idea and brought it to Stan Lee. Of course, Stan Lee has a different story of the team’s creation, but Kirby’s version of the creation does have a bit of credence to it due to FF’s resemblance to another team Kirby created for DC 4 years earlier–the Challengers of the Unknown. Both teams were a quartet of adventurers who faced off against monsters, aliens and weird villains. And both teams featured a genius scientist, a slow-witted muscle man, and a reckless risk-taker.
And if you made that letter above a little larger, you’ll see that the majority of the characters on the list first appeared between Fantastic Four #1 and #21, the issue numbers specified by the Kirby Estate lawsuit. The only exceptions are Galactus and Silver Surfer, two characters whom even Lee himself admitted were Jack Kirby’s sole creations.
And there is a precedent for this scorched Earth policy regarding these ownership disputed characters. During the brief period when the rights to Superboy were reverted to the Jerry Siegel estate, DC Comics killed off its then-current incarnation of the Superboy character, changed the name of another character from Superboy-Prime to Superman-Prime, and scrubbed out just about all mention of Superboy in DC books.
This is all just a theory of mine. But my theory makes more sense than the one Johnston’s sources are putting out. Of course, a theory doesn’t have to make sense to be true.