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Marvel Tries To Vaccuum Up Kirby

I'm a fan of the late, great Steve Gerber, who got royally shafted on Howard The Duck by Marvel, simply because he could't bring in lawyer funds like they could.  Whenever I contemplate what career exits I might have in comics, the ghost of Gerber accompanies me, reminding me of his work but how a company's desire of ownership denied him what was rightfully his and they got away with it because they financially outlasted him, even with the contributions to Destroyer Duck and the money he made elsewhere (fun fact:  Gerber created Thundarr The Barbarian).

Overlooked in the little tour is another ghost who I don't notice, but really should -- Jack "King" Kirby.  Kirby, unfortunately, became the crash test dummy of the entire comic industry.  When comic books started attaining cultural icon status, Stan Lee marginalized Kirby's contributions, becoming one of comic's icons.  Kirby couldn't get his original artwork back, and he didn't see one thin dime for co-creating the X-Men and the Fantastic Four  or his contributions to other comic characters like Spider-Man.  He left Marvel and went to DC, where his pencils on Jimmy Olsen were altered whenever Superman was on panel because Supes had to be drawn a certain way.  Basically, Kirby ran into all of the industry's obstacles set up for the convenience of the parent company at the expense of the individual doing the work.  He taught people how important it was to read those contracts and keep your eyes open.

Kirby's contributions to Destroy Duck were not a surprise to me, as he has long complained and tried legal means to get his artwork back.  No doubt, he saw Gerber as his brother in arms and worked on Destroyer Duck (for free) as a show of solidarity and in hopes that Gerber could succeed where he had failed.  Kirby died in 1994, but his heirs have kept up the fight.  It's always tempting to dismiss such lawsuits as people trying to cash in, but if you can read about everything Kirby went through, what he was denied, and still think this is just a cash and carry lawsuit, you have no heart beating within you.

The lawsuits continue to this day, and something I hadn't considered just came down the pipe.  One of the lessons I learned when I was trying to be a screenwriter was "You don't screw with the Mouse."  If you do something for Disney, you take what they give you and move on.  Try and get more or haul them into court and they will fuck you up.  (This is why I loved Pixar's deal with Disney.  Disney thought they held all the cards.  They learned otherwise, and Pixar dictated their terms.  Officially, Pixar is a subsidiary of Disney.  Unofficially, everyone knows who is REALLY calling the shots in the animation department now.)

Marvel got a buyout offer from Disney.  The stockholders approved the deal a little over a week ago.

On Friday, Marvel showed the Disney influence.  They have countersued Kirby's heirs.  When copyright law was being reworked to deprive the public domain of things it was legally entitled to, a number of changes were made to allow people to hold on a little tighter.  Among them was a change that made it easier to re-acquire rights you may have lost.  Kirby's heirs were using this angle to recapture the rights, and had sent notices to several companies that the rights to certain characters would revert from Marvel to Kirby's estate, beginning in 2014.  Marvel is trotting out the whole "work for hire" and is asking a federal judge to invalidate the 45 notices sent.  After all, we're talking millions of dollars from Spider-Man, X-Men, Hulk, etc.  This could jeopardize a lot of big deals with a lot of big money shooting around.  So Marvel is taking the initiative and trying to cut it off.

And on the other side of life, Gerber and Kirby are reliving old times.  And crying that the old times haven't ended yet.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 9th, 2010 08:03 pm (UTC)
Just curious, but where does 'Work for Hire' being and end where you are concerned? Is there any such thing?
Jan. 9th, 2010 11:05 pm (UTC)
Well, that's kind of a case-by-case basis thing. I don't have a real hard and fast rule. But in the case of Kirby, Siegel and Shuster, and others from that era, the contracts were totally lopsided. The companies may be following the letter of the contracts (yes, it was work for hire), but I don't see why they can't be a little decent. (In 1975, DC Comics agreed to give Siegel and Shuster $20,000 a year pension plus benefits. Considering how big Superman is and how much money he generates, that's not a whole lot, especially when they had created the character 1938.)

Contracts in the comic industry now have all kinds of provisions covering work for hire and what angle creator rights play in things. Marvel even has a form to fill out before any new character is introduced to help cover all of this. But that was after the indie boom and comic creators became aware of the pitfalls out there -- the industry changed because competition from people offering compensation was syphoning away talent, and if they wanted those people, they had to give what they were asking for. The people before that point got a raw deal, and that's the part I don't like.
Jan. 10th, 2010 12:48 am (UTC)
From what I understand in the case of Marvel, they pay royalties for reprint product to the Kirby Estate. That qualifies as decent to me. Legally, they don't have to.

I don't like the idea of retro-actively redoing agreements decades later because the initial contract was 'lopsided' especially because there is a lot of money involved. Particularly when the Rights Holders are forced to do so.

Did you know that in Academia when a Research Professor invents something that he's researching on the University nickel, the University owns the invention? This goes on in Pharmaceuticals as well. The company owns the product, not the individual. That's what 'Work for Hire' is.

Much of this argument, especially where Kirby is concerned, seems to me to be a chance to stick it to the man, and is an emotional issue and not a legal issue.

Thanks for answering my question. I do appreciate it!
Jan. 10th, 2010 12:51 am (UTC)
You asked a fair and legitimate question, the least I could do was try to answer it to the best of my ability. Hey, if I didn't want people questioning my conclusions, I shouldn't be stating them in the first place!
Jan. 10th, 2010 12:53 am (UTC)
What a breath of fresh air. There are those who utter their words and expect them to either be accepted as revealed truth or 'Don't come on MY journal and start doo-doo!'

FWIW, I enjoy your Tech pieces even if I don't respond to them.
Jan. 10th, 2010 01:41 pm (UTC)
The way I see it, you made valid points, we both had our say, we're allowing each other to have our say, what's to get upset about? If anything, closing myself off from people who don't see things the same way as me is intellectual suicide...how am I supposed to learn new things if I only accept pre-defined notions of what I consider right?

Opinions can change. Long time ago, one of my buddies decided to sit down with me and discuss banning guns (I was for it, he was against it). There was no hyperbole, we voiced reasons, opinions, fears, everything. Since then, I've flipped, and he understands why people think that way. I'm still evolving, so keeping an open mind is crucial.

In short, if you were a troll, it'd be different. But you ain't. And I pride myself that people can discuss almost anything with me and I'm not going to flip out and try to brainwash them into following my beliefs.

This journal is basically a peek into my mind. Interesting place, no?
Jan. 10th, 2010 02:11 pm (UTC)
By the way, my understanding is that Marvel hasn't paid a dime of royalties for anything after the first print and still hasn't given the artwork back. If they ARE paying royalties, then my immediate feelings are moot, since Marvel is doing something and it just becomes a matter of opinion about whether or not they are doing enough.

Just saying that I don't have an immediate answer, so I can only take a stance in the most general terms at the moment.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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