Why Kirby v. Marvel mattered
In 2014, it’s quite common to know almost every detail behind the production of a superhero movie before the movie is even released. From the release date to the cast to the director to screenwriters, every detail is examined and disseminated across myriad blogs and social media sites, to the point where, if you’re even mildly interested, you could easily find out the names of those responsible for getting that film to your local cinema.
But how about the people who created the characters in the pages of comic books?
In the early days of comic books, the relationship between creators and publishers was often exploitative. Many of the people responsible for creating the heroes that would make publishers millions were freelancers, working from home, never making a regular salary outside of their normal page rates and often struggling to get back their original artwork, collect royalties, or even get the level of credit due to them. People create pop culture, not corporations.
Of all those people, few have gotten the short shrift like Jacob Kurtzberg, better known as Jack Kirby.
If you read comics, it’s almost impossible to not hear Kirby’s name at some point. Kirby is hands-down one of the most influential figures, if not the most influential figure, in comic book history. Much like Elvis or Michael Jackson, Kirby was dubbed the King of Comics by professionals and fans alike.
But unlike those other pop culture kings, his importance has to be explained to people—otherwise they might think everything Marvel leapt out of the brain of Stan Lee. Kirby died of heart failure in 1994, but Lee has continued appearing in movies and at conventions, and he served as the public face of Marvel for decades.
If your only exposure to comic book superheroes comes from what you saw in movies and on TV, it would be very hard to find out that Jack Kirby even existed—if he’s listed anywhere, it’s at the end of a long list of credits. But here’s a good way to get a sense of just how huge Kirby’s legacy is: Since 2009, his estate has been involved in a lengthy legal battle in an attempt to terminate Marvel’s copyright claim over characters that Kirby helped create. That’s all of the Avengers who have starred in a solo movie. That’s most of the recognizable X-Men. That’s pretty much the entirety of the Fantastic Four’s cast of characters. As of last summer, it looked like the case was going to reach a dramatic conclusion in the Supreme Court, as it gained momentum and powerful parties began showing support to Kirby’s heirs. The potential implications of a Supreme Court ruling went beyond whether or not there would be more Avengers movies—this was something the entire entertainment industry could be affected by.
But this weekend saw the whole affair reach a strange sort of anticlimax.
On Friday afternoon, Marvel and the Kirby estate issued a joint statement, announcing that the case had been settled. It was brief, only one sentence long:
“Marvel and the family of Jack Kirby have amicably resolved their legal disputes, and are looking forward to advancing their shared goal of honoring Mr. Kirby’s significant role in Marvel’s history.”
The statement came as a surprise, but in hindsight, it makes sense. The Court was set to consider whether or not they would take the case at its conference on Monday, Sept. 29. The settlement’s timing is probably not a coincidence. Details of the settlement weren’t made public, and unless they include something very obvious—like a sudden change in how Marvel handles creator credits from here on out—it’s quite likely that they never will be.
While the statement indicates that the settlement was amicable and includes language about acknowledging the contributions of Jack Kirby, it’s incredibly underwhelming for those interested in restitution for the unsung creators who helped create the superheroes that are now front and center on screens large and small.
One of the great things about modern pop culture isn’t just the wealth of content available, but the interest it has spurred in the creators behind it. Showrunners, once an invisible position in the broadcast era, are now at the forefront of fans’ minds when obsessing over TV. Similarly, the public perception of filmmakers has slowly evolved from the days of the monolithic studio system to accommodate directors and screenwriters and cinematographers and composers and VFX teams and crew. Comics have come a long way from the 60s, which saw Jack Kirby slowly become frustrated with the business that grew and endures to this day thanks in large part to his labors—now many comics are sold based on the strength of the people making them. But the way comics creators are credited in other media based on their work is often lacking.
It’s a topic worth examining now that comic book superheroes are front and center in movie theaters. Even if moviegoers see every single superhero film in theaters, as it stands, they’ll probably know very little about the people responsible for creating the books they come from. Like Bill Mantlo, the writer who, with artist Keith Giffen, co-created Rocket Raccoon—a character you may know from Guardians of the Galaxy. Mantlo was the victim of a hit-and-run accident in 1992 that left him brain-damaged and living in a care facility. Mantlo’s family—who have said that they’re on very good terms with the publisher, and that Mantlo has been compensated for his work—still need help paying for his care.
Like other sectors of the entertainment industry, the comics business thrives off the work of many but employs few—since the majority of creators are freelancers, publishers remain limited in their obligations to them. The Kirby case might have changed things, for better or for worse. But hopefully the industry will never again burn someone the way it burned Jack Kirby.
“Kid,” as the King once said, “comics will break your heart.”