Thursday, June 9, 2011

The End of an Era

After the sale of Marvel Comics to Perfect Film Martin Goodman continued to run the company until 1974.
Stan Lee, Steve Ditko and Jack had all taken care of Martin Goodman, but when it was time to enjoy a fraction of the millions realized, hobo Marty didn’t want to share.
If you’d like to learn how to take advantage of people, learn to put your arm around them and promise that they’ll be taken care of, then leave them in the dust.
Perfect Film had contracted Goodman to stay on as publisher for two more years and at the end of 1970 he chopped line. From about 15% reprint titles to 25%.  Reprints in the humor division, SGT. FURY and RAWHIDE KID.
If Goodman didn’t care before, he cared even less now.
For the most part, Stan and Jack had been pals during their association. They worked well together and mutually respected each other’s talents. However, the smooth sailing was disrupted by an outside source and Stan took the heat.
It all began in January of 1966 when Stan was contacted by HERALD TRIBUNE for a piece to be published in their Sunday section. On a visit to Stan’s offices, he pulled me over to a newspaper article laminated to a board and remarked, “Here, I’ll tell you the worst thing.  Come here, I want to show you the thing that I think really made Jack and his wife so unhappy.  Now, because it was terrible.
“Years ago, this was the Herald-Tribune, before it was killed in New York City.  It was one of the big papers in New York.  They said they were going to do a big interview with me—it was a section of the Herald-Tribune.  Now what they did, they said,  “We’re going to give you a center spread in that, because we really want to write about Marvel and what you’ve done,” and I said, “You know, I work with a guy called Jack Kirby, who has done so much of this artwork and he deserves so much credit.  Would you mind if Jack was there and you interviewed the two of us?” and they said okay.  I don’t know who the guy–a guy named Matt Friedlander, I didn’t know him from Adam.  So I told Jack I’d like him to be there for the interview.  Jack got real excited and his wife–oh, they told all of their friends,  “Oh, you’ve got to buy it the next day,” and so forth.  They wrote glowingly about me.  “Stan Lee, a native New Yorker, an ultra-Madison Avenue rangy look-alike of Rex Harrison. He’s got that horsy jaw, thinning but tasteful grey hair–” It was really very glamorous.  Now, they don’t mention Kirby.  It’s all how wonderful I am.  At the end–uh,  “Lee arrives”--ah,  “Here he is in action at his Friday morning meeting with Jack “King” Kirby, a veteran comic book artist, the man who created many of the visions of your child and mine.  The “King” is a middle-aged man with baggy eyes and a baggy Robert Hall-ish suit.  He is sucking a huge green cigar and if you sat next to him on the subway, you’d peg him for the assistant foreman in a girdle factory.
“And it says Lee is talking and then, ‘Um,’ says Kirby. Lee starts pacing up, gesturing as he gets warmed up.  ‘I see,’ says Kirby.  He has kind of a high-pitched voice...” and it goes on and on.  It was so insulting to Kirby.
“Now, here’s the thing.  I’m sitting there, Kirby’s sitting there, the guy is interviewing us.  I don’t know what he’s going to write, Kirby doesn’t know.  Well, the next morning, the phone rang at about five in the morning and it’s Jack’s wife Roz and she’s crying.  I said,  “Hello?”–maybe the house was on fire, maybe my daughter was in trouble, I couldn’t imagine.  Who phones at five in the morning on Sunday?  [Choked voice]  “This is Roz Kirby.”  “What’s the matter?”  “How could you have done this to us?”  Done what?
  “Our whole family, I told them, all our friends--how could you?”  I didn’t know what she was talking about!  She says, “Read the paper!”  I went down and got the paper.  It was done.  I called back and said,  “Roz, I was trying to do Jack a favor!”  Well, you can say what you want about Roz and Jack--they are not a sophisticated couple.  I think to this day they think I had something to do with that, you know?  I finally calmed them down, I think we made up, but I think deep down there has always been a tremendous resentment on Jack’s part: “Stan gets all the glory, Stan’s name is in the book he produced...”  “I’m the guy who did it and I’m just another–” you know and it’s just terrible!”
ANOTHER guy who wants to give me lumps, resonated. Kirby knew how to deal with that: the face to face was his specialty. Martin Goodman was faceless and he allowed Martin Goodman to screw him twice because he needed to keep the family eating. And it didn’t matter if you had Joe Simon on your side, or Stan Lee in the middle, Goodman was gonna screw you every time he could.
And he was rich: a multi-millionaire.
What the hell was $50,000 to him? To the Kirbys it would have made a world of difference. Not so much to pay the bills, but to finally have the top guy admit that you’d lined his pockets in a very green manner returned percentage, in a Timely fashion.
The only thing making him any real money at the time was Marvel Comics and it was all on the backs of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee.
Goodman screwed Steve “Spider-Man” Ditko too.
Ditko didn’t need Goodman. His passive-aggressive chopping of any communication to the top was a clear signal that something had to be addressed. And, when it didn’t, Ditko bolted. He even invited Kirby to join him, but Jack, unlike Steve, had a family to take care of.
With every heartbeat, Goodman seems more and more like Motown’s Barry Gordy and his sad belief that the cogs below him were just machine parts and not human beings with needs and expectations based on promises. And reward for effort.
Goodman rode the rails during the Great Depression and lived a “What I’ve got, you’ve got” existence, yet not so much, years later at his company. It was like Joel McRea riding the chain gang in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS and turning out to be a rat in the end.
Maybe Goodman’s bum days reminded him of having to share and poverty. And it was somehow the same with Kirby. Odd, or telling, that the men rarely spoke. Haunted men who recognized each other’s past and avoided each other’s present.
Kirby once related, “I know one of the publishers who had plenty of money and died under splendid circumstances. Who used to wake up at night in a cold sweat because some memory of the Ghetto had come back to him.”
Previously, Joe Simon did all of the suing in Jack’s interest: at the very least he’d double your salary with a move to a new company. But, Stan Lee wasn’t about to sue Uncle Martin Goodman and it didn’t take long for Kirby to figure out that his pal didn’t have his best interests at heart and Jack broke the partnership.
Kirby had so gotten into the routine of having Simon act as his surrogate father and Lee picked up the slack that had developed. It certainly seemed like the same kind of association: Lee acted out stories with him; always let him draw stories all day; make sure it gets lettered, inked, colored and sent out on time; and give him a big fat paycheck on Friday. Their names were always on the comics together and they were partners and doesn’t a partner take care of you?
His partner had always let him do what he wanted to do. If Jack only wanted to write, so be it. If Jack wanted to do a western, that was a done deal. If it was a horror job, nobody was going to muck with it.
Or was it that the whole thing had been a sham and in the end Stan was only interested in himself and the company? And the man who had replaced the man who had replaced his father was letting him down and a teen-age rebellion began to set in. Kirby was itching to move out of the House of Ideas and into his own place.
Occasionally, Jack would remark, “If you want to understand Stan Lee, read WHAT MAKES SAMMY RUN?”
The 1941 novel by Bud Schulberg which details the rise of Sammy Glick, poor kid from the Lower East Side of Manhattan’s pre-Depression years. Sammy screws-over everybody he knows to get to the top. Once there he finds himself alone.
The SILVER SURFER debacle really was the final straw, Kirby was making a fortune at Marvel, but the price didn’t include his soul and Jack screwed off the faucet tight, like “that.” And Roz certainly got the vibe. She’d come into his studio late at night and say, “Don’t turn in that page. It’s too good for Mah-vl.”
And Jack started over, post-haste, consciously not doing his best work.
Marvel’s cash cow dried up in a heartbeat. Jack decided that he wasn’t going to try so hard anymore. He’d poured heart and brain into that thing for years and the best that he could get was the companies’ top rate, but no script/plot credits, no promised residuals, health benefits, nor vacations. Or, cash for constructing stories Stan was taking a check for. Jack liked the freedom Marvel allowed, but there came a realization that he was getting screwed and his partner had no intention of covering his back.
In an article in THE VILLAGE VOICE (Dec. 8, 1987), Jack remarked “This has to get you angry, ‘take it or get out’ was the wall I faced. Where could I go with a mortgage and a family to feed? In advertising that I didn’t understand? To the pulps that were gone?”
Worse, the new owners of the company wanted a final say in how THOR and THE FANTASTIC FOUR were handled.
The $250,000 (adjusted for inflation) per-year paycheck at Marvel was going to be hard to replace, but Kirby knew it was time for a change.
During most of the 1960s Kirby didn’t think much one way or the other about the writing credit, but with the advent of fandom and a place to finally meet his readers, a realization came over him: “The fans think Stan makes up the story and then I draw it!” Lots of kids were shocked when Kirby explained his involvement with the story, but many of us already knew it. The simple fact was that few of the non-Ditko and Kirby books from the decade don’t offer much more than mediocre stories.
Once Jack understood the misunderstanding he began fending for himself, for the first time in a long time.
Jack Kirby’s back was against the wall, once again, this time heading for the door.
These guys had betrayed him, all of them, in one way or another, intentional or not and it was not going to happen again. Next time he’d cut a proper deal, all by himself and it would be a good one, see?

1 comment:

  1. Great stuff. I love reading about those times.