The Weekend I Met The King
Like many other baby boomer comics geeks of my generation, I “died” for a few minutes recently after reading about a U.S. District Judge reaffirming Marvel Entertainment’s exclusive IP rights to the Fantastic Four, Hulk, Spider-Man, Thor and countless other creations in a lawsuit filed, fought and, ultimately, lost by the kids of Jack Kirby over copyright ownership issues.
District Court Judge Colleen McMahon says her decision was based on the law, as imperfect as it is in dealing with half-century old work-for-hire disputes, and not about the way Jack and so many of his peers were treated by comics companies like disposable parts back in the day, the ongoing dispute between the heirs of Joe Siegel and DC Comics/Warner Bros. over ownership of Superman notwithstanding.
News of this latest setback in the Kirby saga was bad enough, but I’m feeling even worse about it now… Why?
Two of the comics industry’s go-to blogs — The Beat and my old stomping ground, Comics Alliance — featured posts detailing a grassroots effort by Steve Bissette (one of the first comics professionals to champion creators rights) to spur a boycott among comics consumers to give up their Marvels in all forms, including movies, t-shirts, lamp shades, refrigerator magnets, underwear and the like.
Only one problem: It’s about 25 years too late for comics fans to do anything to begin to rectify this obvious wrong. Let me explain why by telling you a story…
A quarter-century ago, I spent a late summer weekend attending my first out-of-town comics convention, the Dallas Fantasy Fair, one of a handful of very successful regional comics shows in the 80s and 90s that were very comparable to shows in Chicago and Atlanta.
I made the 250-mile trek from Houston to see two creative comics savants — Jack Kirby and Frank Miller — at diametrically different times in their creative lives. Miller’s journey up the funnybook food chain had already begun a few years before with Daredevil, but it was his The Dark Knight Returns (along with Watchmen and Maus), that did a 180 on the perception of comics in the pop culture zeitgeist, not to mention the direction of the industry, for all time in 1986.
Conversely, Jack’s career was on the back 9, but what a ride it had been, starting 50 years before at the Lincoln Newspaper Syndicate in 1936 to his partnership with Joe Simon on Captain America to a virtual slew of creations from Young Romance, Challengers of the Unknown and Sky Masters. And those were just the ones before Jack co-created the Marvel Universe with Stan Lee starting with Fantastic Four in the Fall of 1961, and the New Gods at DC a decade later.
Before travelling to Dallas, I just assumed I’d have more contact and better rapport with Miller, a creator very close in age to my own, than Jack, a 69-year-old man who had forgotten more about comics than I’d ever know. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Apart from the two or three panels where he was interviewed, Miller was literally MIA from the convention and fans. Even worse, it was plain to see Miller didn’t enjoy the attention from fans that his work on Dark Knight had created either. Looking back today with 55-year-old eyes, however, Miller’s discomfort in the limelight shouldn’t have been that surprising. How would you feel if your brief tenure in [name your industry] was being compared very favorably to men and women whose work you’d admired from afar not so very long ago particularly among rank-and-file fans? Feeling uncomfortable, a bit intimidated and gun shy is not how would’ve reacted to all the attention, but it’s a legitimate response.
Comparatively, Jack had seen it all and done it all in comics, plus he fought in World War 2 and had four kids to boot. Nevertheless, the care, kindness and appreciation Jack and his lovely wife Roz showed me and my buddy during our brief encounter in one of the dealer’s rooms made us feel as if we were the most important people in the world.
No, Jack wasn’t as loquacious or well-spoken as his Marvel House of Ideas cohort Stan Lee, but there was no mistaking his sincerity and kindness either.
Then again, I’ve discovered that gratitude is pretty universal among comics creatives who toiled in relative obscurity in the Golden and Silver Ages like Jack (and Joe Sinnott and Lew Sayer Schwartz and Mike Royer and Doug Wildey) I’ve met since, oh, day one.
I’d like to think, if the Internet and 24-hour news cycles had been around back in the day — or Jack had lived another decade — his kids wouldn’t have felt the need to fight Marvel in the courts. That is, the court of public opinion would’ve “ruled” long ago that Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and Dick Ayers were all just as responsible for creating this sprawling mythology called Marvel Comics back in the 60s in addition to, rather than instead of, Stan Lee, at nearly 89 the last man still standing. Maybe…
After that weekend, I saw Jack and Roz only once more, passing by a table where both were sitting and waving to fans at the first San Diego Comic-Con Ms. CEO and I attended in 1993, before they died.
Back to the present, I read these stories about boycotts and giving Jack his fair credit for what he did during the Marvel era, which make me feel as if someone besides me hasn’t forgotten him. That is, until I skim the comments pages sprinkled with “bon mots” about Jack not fighting hard enough — growing a pair — for his work.
And, we wonder why today’s mainstream comics are in a creative rut of their own making. Those who forget history…
Image of Jack and Roz Kirby: Thanks Mark Evanier!