Monday, 11 February 2013

JACK KIRBY - SAINT OR SINNER?



Much has been made over the last twenty-odd years in certain quarters about JACK 'KING' KIRBY not receiving either the credit or remuneration he deserved for his undoubted contribution to the success of MARVEL COMICS.  In fact, Jack - along with JERRY SIEGEL and JOE SHUSTER - is almost a poster boy for the 'hard-done to creators' school of thought, and it would be all-too easy to believe that he indeed fell victim to the evil machinations of corporate big business.

I don't believe it's as simple as that, but on the matter of credit, Jack was every bit as shy as anyone else in sharing the glory of his accomplishments with those who fully deserved equal billing.  I'm struck by the fact that, when later relating his career in the comicbook biz, Jack usually neglected to mention his longtime collaborator JOE SIMON, instead preferring to airbrush him from the history of the many titles they both worked on when he could get away with it.

In Kirby's one-page essays in some of his 1970s DC mags, I can't remember Joe Simon being mentioned once, and the backup tales (reprints from the '40s) are labelled 'A Kirby Classic' on every page.  Also, in a summary of his comics career written in 1966 and printed in FOOM #8 in 1974, there is again no acknowl-edgement of his erstwhile art and business associate.  I guess it's human nature to believe that, in any partnership, we bring more to the table than the other guy, and it seems that Jack was as prone to this as anyone else you care to name.


Take SPIDER-MAN for example.  Jack claimed for years that he had created the idea of Spidey and even designed the costume - however, the facts (as I understand them) are different.  Apparently, Joe Simon, JACK OLECK and C.C. BECK were responsible for producing a strip called The SILVER SPIDER, which had developed from an earlier idea by Simon for a character called SPIDERMAN (no hyphen).  The idea languished in limbo until it was revised and appeared as The FLY for RED CIRCLE COMICS (ARCHIE) in 1959.

According to Jack's version of events, he showed a Spiderman logo (lettered by Joe when he first came up with the idea) to STAN LEE, and pitched to him Simon and Oleck's original concept before the character had been renamed and revised. However, Jack claimed the idea as his own and failed to mention his former partner's involvement, taking sole credit in the matter.  Jack later recanted his claim about the costume when it was pointed out to him that STEVE DITKO's unused cover for AMAZING FANTASY #15 was drawn before his own (published) version, but not before perpetuating his mistaken account of events in numerous fanzine and convention interviews over a period of time.

Don't get the wrong idea - this isn't meant as an attack on Jack's honesty or integrity, but his memory was every bit as bad as Stan Lee's is reputed to be.  And it seems that, on the matter of creators feeling deprived of credit or money, very often the determining factor seems to be "How rich did someone else get off an idea I worked on?"  To me, this is akin to someone freely selling a silver teapot for £100 (and believing they got a good deal), and then seeing it on television in The ANTIQUES ROADSHOW five or ten years later valued at £1,000.


You can bet your boots that the seller will be kicking himself and cursing the other guy's luck - but feelings of bitterness or frustration (however understandable) from missing out on something hardly entitles anyone to a share of an increased value from something they underestimated the potential worth of at the point of sale. Regardless of whether it's property or ideas, the principle is surely the same.

When it comes to the matter of credit for who did what, it seems that more creators than you'd realise are in the exact same boat as those they point the finger at.  Thus has it been, thus shall it ever be.  As I said - it's human nature.  So, to answer my own question - saint or sinner?  Neither.  Jack was just as human (though a lot more talented) as the rest of us.

Got any thoughts on the matter? Feel free to express them in the Comments Section.  Go on - you know you want to.

24 comments:

DeadSpiderEye said...

Well you can argue the toss over specific issues ie. who created what, when and what recognition they deserve but it's difficult to pin the truth down unless you have first hand knowledge or at least are close to reliable source. The other thing you have to take account of is that when under stress, the kind you experience under constant tight deadline, your recollection of events will suffer more than you realize. But on the general question of -the talent- being ripped off, yeah that will happen and it'll happen will frighting consistency. The culprits will exploit you, steal your property, pass your work off as their own, leave you destitute if need be and sleep easy at night as well, don't kid yourself otherwise. The other side of the coin is that you need expose yourself to this risk to develop a market for your work. An artist, writer or anyone working in a creative field needs a reputation, it's their most valuable asset. You can sell a Frazetta doodle for the price of a car, Joe Bloggs's creative efforts will languish on e-bay unsold no matter how good.

Anonymous said...

That's an oversimplification, and shows a false equivalence. Indeed, a raging, forgetful Kirby, in his later years, overstated (or invented) his role in the creation of a few characters. But from a historical point of view, Marvel as we know it would not exist without Kirby, just as it would not exist without Lee. It's not possible to declare attribution by percent, but Kirby's is certainly closer to 50% than Lee would have the world believe. From the late 60s through today, Lee promulgated that view that the characters sprung from his head as though he were Zeus. He has been able to live and thrive in this media bubble, but history will not record him as the sole creator. Indeed, the tide has turned against him. (And I don't just mean by one anonymous post.) The look, the feel, the pacing of comics for decades was Kirby's contribution. Would Ben Grimm's pathos have been as acutely felt by a reader were any other artist of his day rendering him? To put this in cinematic terms, without a script, Kirby directed the actors just as much as he directed photography'.

Kid said...

DSE - it was at Marvel that Jack got the chance to develop his reputation and have it recognised to the extent that it is today. (And Stan had a lot to do with that.) At the end of the day, however, if he was shortchanged, he not only allowed it to happen, he actually colluded in the process. If you sell the family silver for a price you think is fair at the time, there's no point moaning about it when what you've sold appreciates in value later on.

Kid said...

Anon, there is no 'false equivalence' as you put it (a handy-dandy, one size fits all phrase for dismissing whatever you're unwilling or unable to deal with), because you have completely ignored what I actually said. (As you did in our discussion on the same topic in another forum, if I'm not very much mistaken.) I clearly referred to statements made by Kirby in the early and mid-1970s, which were far from his 'later years'. His accounts of past work in some of his DC comics contain no mention of Joe Simon, and his comments printed in FOOM #8 (from an earlier source I believe) likewise neglect to name him. The point of my post was to illustrate that when it came to giving credit where it was due, Kirby was no more diligent than anyone else you care to name in ensuring that others were accorded their fair share.

Good as he was, Kirby's reputation was dependent on a succession of good inkers and Stan Lee's mastery with words. Plain and simple fact. And as for Ben Grimm's pathos, I doubt it would have been as acutely felt by the readers if Jack had been putting the words in his mouth instead of Stan. Jack may have been great, but Stan's contribution made him even greater.

As for the 'tide turning' against Stan Lee, it turned long ago, but unfairly in my opinion. Jack's art would've been of the same high quality whoever was scripting the stories, but as was all too apparent from his DC work, the stories were far less satisfying and nowhere near as entertaining without Stan's input. It was Stan's dialogue and direction that elevated Jack's Marvel work from competent and professional to a far greater category, imbuing them with a class and dignity that Kirby by himself often fell far short of. Stan created the mood and magic that was Marvel, and which allowed artists like Kirby and Ditko to thrive. Indeed, if it hadn't been for Stan, it's unlikely that Jack would have attained the cult status which his name enjoys today. And that last sentence works both ways of course.

One final point: Stan always admitted from day one that the Silver Surfer - Stan's favourite character and one he allegedly didn't allow anyone else to write for years - was down to Jack and not himself. I'm sure he could easily have claimed credit for ol' Norrin (as you claim he did with other characters) if he'd been of a mind to - but no. That hardly lends credence to your assertion that Stan fostered the view that 'characters sprung from his head as though he were Zeus'.

DeadSpiderEye said...

Yeah I get your point about Kirby's reputation being founded, or at least enhanced through his time at Marvel. That's what I tried to allude, in a general way, when I mentioned the importance of reputation for an artist. I also agree that it's Stan Lee's contribution that is probably the key factor to the success at Marvel. I think he moved the medium forward in a new direction during time it was in crisis, that took extraordinary vision and commitment. It's impossible to overestimate his contribution in my estimation.

Whether Kirby's grievances are well founded is not really something I feel qualified to express an opinion about beyond the general points I mentioned previously, which on re-reading seem a little cynical Although I balk at the suggestion of collusion on Kirby's part, I do think that a creator needs take responsibility for their own welfare in regard to their property. It's sometimes very difficult to divide your attention though, between creative endeavour and more prosaic concerns, especially when you're committed to your work in the same was as Kirby. That's when you can be exploited, when you've got your attention divided and the people who're looking for an opportunity to do so will be keeping an eye out for just that. There goes the cynicism again, I really don't want to come across as a crotchety old nay sayer because I think it's important for people looking to develop a career to have a positive outlook.

Kid said...

DSE, you made some good points in both your comments and I got what you were alluding to - I was just expanding a little on them. It occurs to me that had Marvel just plodded on doing okay (instead of becoming a huge success), Kirby would've been content with his lot. I believe it was frustration at seeing others profiting from his contributions that eventually embittered him. As I said 'though - no point selling something for a price you're content to accept at the time, and then complaining about it later when it appreciates in value for the buyer.

Remember, Jack lived in a fair sized house with a swimming pool out in California, sent all his kids through school and did better than the average man in the street. Did others profit more from his contributions? Sure, but that's always the way. The big bosses with the big bank accounts go back to their big houses, and the little guys with the smaller bank accounts go back to their little houses. It's the same for almost everyone.

Anonymous said...

Boy, you really resent Kirby having a swimming pool don't you? That's not the first time you've brought it up on your posts. Lots of Americans had swimming pools.

Kid it comes down to this. Marvel may not owe Kirby (or now his heirs) anything legally, but they sure do morally.

Comicsfan said...

If you don't yet have it, there's a wonderful coffee table book that sits proudly on my shelf that I think you'd enjoy: The Comics Journal Library, Volume 1: Jack Kirby, a compilation of interviews with and essays about Kirby from the pages of The Comics Journal. As publisher Gary Groth writes in his introduction: "Kirby was surrounded by various friends, writers, historians and hangers-on who have since come to form a kind of protective circle around his name and legacy, some of whom expressed the opinion that leaving in Kirby's candid comments about [Stan] Lee and his slightly fanciful descriptions of his creative contributions to Marvel in the '60s did him a disservice. I do not. This is Kirby, unmediated by his handlers.

"He had just spent several years of his life fighting with Marvel Comics over the ownership of his original art. He was clearly bitter over the experience and over his experience with Marvel in general, and was in no mood to mince words. This is the only interview I'm aware of in which Kirby spoke honestly about his feelings toward Marvel and Lee; he was usually more discreet and politic. He is also somewhat uncharacteristically immodest when he claims to have written the Marvel books; in fact, he did write them in a very real sense, although Lee clearly dialogued them."

The 1990 interview that Groth speaks of is only the tip of the iceberg as far as the wealth of material on Kirby in this collection. It's another side--several more intriguing sides, really--of the complex story of Kirby's career in comics. Recommended highly.

Kid said...

Anon - Resent? Hardly. However, it's a relevant aspect in a discussion about someone claiming he wasn't adequately financially rewarded for his work. Lots of Americans have swimming pools? Yeah, lots of Americans who can afford luxury items - which was exactly my point. Kirby seems to have been paid quite well, just not as well as he later came to believe he thought he should've been. As for what Marvel may or may not owe Kirby 'morally' - that certainly wouldn't extend to his family. Daddy sold the family silver, remember?

Kid said...

CF - I read that Gary Groth interview and it's embarrassing. Groth is clearly goading Kirby, and both Jack and his wife later regretted what they said. Apparently Roz told Greg Theakston (I think) when he spoke to her about it at the time, "If Stan can lie, so can we!" - hardly a recommendation for its veracity. Jack had walked away from Marvel in 1970, probably thinking it would crumble without him. It didn't - and I believe the fact that Marvel not only survived but thrived irritated Jack beyond measure. It's like someone buying two lottery tickets and giving one to someone else - only to later discover that it had the winning numbers on it. How maddening would that be? Even if the winner gave the buyer a cut, there's always going to be the sense that it's not enough, especially when he thinks that he could've - should've - had it all.

Comicsfan said...

Interviews are odd animals, to be sure--they can always be backpedaled on at a later point, if need be--just ask any politician. Whether or not Roz Kirby is seeking to do just that, with that very off-hand comment, is anyone's guess. She may wish to nullify parts of the interview, understandably--but being present during the interview herself, she certainly had every opportunity to chime in, making sure the story was recounted reliably and thereby avoiding "lies" altogether.

I think the only point I would make here is that a reader has to put aside preconceptions and regard an interview as something on record, yet not the final word on a subject and certainly not the complete picture. Hell, if I was willing to swear by past interviews with Lance Armstrong, I'd be wearing egg all over my face by now. :) This particular interview with Kirby is fascinating to me--not simply for what the man says on record, but because of what this information adds to the picture we have of Kirby's dealings with Marvel (and vice versa) as a whole. And I think The Journal's compilation of material holds a great deal of validity in that respect.

Anonymous said...

Kirby didn't sell the family silver. It wasn't exactly "silver" at that point. Yes, he was paid to do his job, but he contributed a hell of a lot to that which made Marvel a success. As opposed to John Buscema for instance. Buscema was a great artist but he didn't create any new characters. Kirby's input into Marvel's success was above any beyond anything other artists contributed.

In the 1960S Kirby had no idea how popular his creations would become. No one did. Today those characters appear in blockbuster movies, games, toys, you name it. Don't you think Marvel have a moral obligation to compensate Kirby's family for Jack's hard graft in putting the company where it is today?

Kid said...

Interesting comments, CF, and yes, these interviews do add something to the picture. Whether it's an accurate picture is still open to question 'though. Jim Shooter has made some interesting observations about the Kirby situation on his blog, if you haven't already read them.

Kid said...

Anon, that's exactly my point - the 'silver' didn't become valuable until after Kirby had sold it.

As for moral obligations, if I sold you an item for a specific price that I was happy with (or prepared to accept) at the time, and years later it became worth millions - after I died, would you seek out my family because you felt you had a 'moral obligation' to give them a portion of something that wasn't particularly worth anything when I sold it?

It's the real world I live in, mate - not cloud-cuckoo land.

Anonymous said...

Yet you're going by Jim Shooter's word? Bwah-ha-ha-ha!

Anonymous said...

Following your analogy to its logical extreme, Kirby would have had to hand craft the silver items (just as he did with his comics). So yeh, let's say Kirby created one of his wonderful characters as a silver statue, sold it on a market stall for a few quid, and 40 years later that statue had directly inspired movies and other merchandise, raking in millions for the guy who bought it way back when.

Yeh, I think that guy WOULD be morally obliged to pay Kirby and his estate more, don't you?

Kid said...

Jim Shooter's account of things seems entirely reasonable, whereas Roz Kirby admitted that she and Jack were lying in regard to their comments in the Groth interview. Why do I get the impression I'm dealing with an immature child?

As for stretching an analogy - not to it logical extreme, but an absurd one - does that mean you think that if someone buys a house for £10,000 in 1975 and sells it in 1985 for £20,000, then the guy who bought it - if he sells it in 2005 for 100,000 - should give some of the profit he's made on it to the guy he bought it from? Or how about the original builder?

There's no logic or even sense in your position. Of course there's no moral, legal or ethical obligation for a seller to share any profit from something which has appreciated in value over time with the previous owner/originator/creator/seller who willingly sold it for the going rate back in the day.

Now, if you're through talking absolute nonsense and wasting everybody's time, why don't you find something useful to do on Planet Loony?

Anonymous said...

That's how you deal with a counter argument? With insults?

It's quite simple. We're not talking about something Kirby bought that he sold on. We're talking about things he CREATED. Can't you see the difference?

Perhaps if you'd created something of worth and longevity you'd understand.

Kid said...

You have no counter argument - you're just talking nonsense. You have completely failed to make a case for your point of view. As for insults, you're whole tone is insulting, particularly your response to mention of Jim Shooter's name. And stop acting the virgin - when we had this discussion on another forum your facetious contempt was all too apparent.

As for bought or created - I've been quite careful in indicating that I do indeed know the difference, as you'd have noticed if you paid more attention to what I said. However, the same principle applies in either case. Make the first seller also the builder in the house comparison and you'll see that your distinction makes no difference to my point.

As for creating something of worth and longevity, my name still appears in books featuring work I did a quarter of a century ago. What's your claim to fame? Apart from being hard of thinking that is? Toodle pip.

Anonymous said...

You've lost me. I can't follow this any more. Toodle pip yourself.

Geeko said...

Really? What characters did Kid Robson create that have become multi-million dollar movie properties?

Kid said...

Anon - I lost you some time back - you seem incapable of addressing - or even understanding - the pertinent points of my case.

Don't bother with any more of your tedious, ill-thought out replies. I won't even read them.

Geeko - I wasn't claiming to have created characters that have become multi-million dollar movie properties - but I've worked on a few, if only in a minor way. Maybe you've heard of Thor, Fantastic Four, Hulk, Spider-Man, etc.?

Anonymous said...

Come on now Kid. Keep it in proportion. You were only one of the restoration artists on those strips for the Masterworks reprints, touching up some photocopies, and you only did a few books.

Your attitude to Kirby's value might be different if you'd actually created something of lasting worth perhaps. Or created something at all, come to that. Other fans understand Kirby's worth, why can't you?

Kid said...

Okay, I'll make an exception in this one instance, but any more of your intellectually bereft comments will be consigned to oblivion unread. After all, they're clearly intended just to wind-me up in the mistaken belief that you're demonstrating a cleverness which you may aspire to, but have so far singularly failed to achieve.

First of all, as you well know, I did more than merely retouch photocopies - in some instances I re-created art by pencilling and inking missing portions. The series was cancelled with volume 27 for about 6 or 7 years, volume 26 being the last one to which I contributed. When they restarted, a whole new team was responsible for commissioning them.

Kirby sold his contribution under a work for hire agreement (whether the actual term was in use at the time or not) and was fully aware of the conditions under which he laboured. Property is property, whether material or intellectual, whether created or acquired, and no amount of tenuous intellectual gyrations on your part can ever alter the fact that if you sell something which belongs to you, you have no claim on it should it happen to appreciate in value at a later date.

As for my attitude to Kirby's value being different if I'd 'actually created anything of lasting worth' myself, why would it? Your own spectacular lack of achievement doesn't seem to be a factor in your case.

I fully understand Kirby's worth; unlike you, however, I also understand that if you put a price on your work (or accept the going rate), there is no renegotiating that price years after the fact when you suddenly realise that what you sold has appreciated in value beyond what anyone expected or anticipated.

That way lies madness. Then the guy who built your house in 1965 for 10 grand would be chapping your door when you sell it for 100 grand today and demanding a share of the dosh. "I never imagined it would be worth so much when I built it," he'd say. And then the guys he employed at the time would be doing the same to him. It doesn't and shouldn't work that way - in whatever field of endeavour you care to name. The same principle applies in all cases.

Now, I've graciously allowed you to demonstrate your utter inability to grasp the finer points of logic, so I'm about to bestow a great kindness upon you. Rather than let you continue to display your obtuseness for everyone to see, all your future repetitive, missed-the-point responses will be deleted unread from now on. Having to continually reiterate my argument due to your failure to comprehend it is tedious in the extreme - for everyone.

(I'm convinced you must at least suspect you're on shaky ground - otherwise you'd have the guts to put your name to your comments.)



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