In July of 1982, just before a New York City comics convention, the grapevines lit up again, but this time it wasn’t a rumor. One art dealer offered me a dozen complete issues by Kirby from 1962 and ’63 and he was one of bunch of dealers offering similar material. I found out on a Tuesday and immediately called Jim Shooter to advise him to check the doors of the warehouse. His secretary said he’d get back to me. I tried again on Wednesday and no answer, so I called Richard Reen, chief of security for Cadence Corporation (Marvel owners,) and left a message there as well. Thursday afternoon I was tanning on tar-beach at my studio on Lexington Avenue and 45th St. The phone rang and when I answered the caller quizzed, “I understand that you have Marvel original art for sale.” I replied, “This must be Richard Reen. Apparently you didn’t get the whole message.”
I explained what had happened and he promised to get on it. Now, if there seems to be some urgency here it’s because there was a Comics convention scheduled for Saturday and Sunday and most of the material would be there for sale.
On Friday I called Reen again and was informed that Cadence wasn’t interested in pursuing it and that he’d been instructed to drop the matter. In an effort to get to the bottom of things, I called my long-time friend Alan Milgrom, who was editing at Marvel at the time. He explained that Shooter had recalled from the warehouse most of the artwork from the company’s first few years shortly before their move to Park Avenue. Once the move had been completed Shooter wanted them out of his office and the thigh-high stack was moved to the break room, adjacent to the freight elevators. This shocked me somewhat, because I’d seen those boxes and had no idea what they’d held.
Late on Friday I finally reached Shooter who said he was aware of the theft and would be doing whatever he could, though no explanation like from Milgrom. I suggested the police and he said he’d see what he could do. We planned to meet at the registration tables as the show opened. Saturday at ten in the morning I was there, Shooter wasn’t. I went in and walked around the deal’s room and seeing dozens of classic Marvel art by the King and the dealers mentioned an ex-editor as the source. It was the horrible rape of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and I was helpless to stop it.
Depressed, I waited for Shooter at the registration tale and for the next three hours watched Kirby’s stolen children being led out of the door.
Shooter showed up at about one and I asked him what the plan was. “No plan.” He remarked, “We lost the paperwork in the move and we can’t prove that it’s legally ours.”
Why were Marvel and Cadence so disinterested in protecting their property, which actually belonged to Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko?
A lot of what follows is speculation so please indulge me. There is no proof or evidence I can offer, only conjecture. Seems that the week of the theft, one of Marvels editors had been fired and decided he wanted an unannounced severance package and moved it out on the weekend. His name was uttered by more than one dealer as the root source for the pages.
The editor was rehired shortly thereafter.
There has been some rumor that the editor was in league with Marvel and Cadence in an effort to keep Kirby from ever getting those pages back. Ensuring that he would have no leverage in that department: they wouldn’t have to return what they no longer had.
And, as the copyrights to the characters were about to come up for renewal this was a good thing for management. The return of the pages might have been misconstrued in court as an admission that Kirby owned a part of the characters. Stuck between a rock and a hard legal place, the lawyers might well have conceived a plan to avert this.
But this is all just speculation.
What is not is that Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko got raped.
In another effort to forestall copyright claims, Marvel began to alter its characters and their costumes. THOR becomes BETA-RAY BILL in THE MIGHTY THOR #337 (Nov. 1983), SPIDEY dons his black outfit for the first time in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #353 (May 1984), FF changes (GET DATA), THE HULK reverts to his gray hue in THE INCREDIBLE HULK #333 (July 1987). In Feb. 1987, they cancelled DOCTOR STRANGE rather than bother the wardrobe department.
As renewal time rolled nearer, most of their main characters hardly resembled their predecessors, another good thing for management.
But, as indicated, all of the above is just speculation. What is not speculation is that many of the stolen pages are still being traded on the open market, many commanding tens of thousands of dollars. Seven figures, in the future.
And, one way or another, Marvel had royally screwed Jack again.
You know, assaulting the weak.
In THE VILLAGE VOICE (Dec.12, 1987,) Jack surveyed the situation.
“With a $150 an hour meter running I could only push the lawyer so hard.”
With millions at stake, Kirby was typically worrying about small change. If he’d been offered a $100,000 buy-out Jack might have bit.
In the same article published in THE VILLAGE VOICE, reporter Janet Bode writes, “‘Marvel has a brutal management style, always taking that extra kick,’ says Irene Vartanoff, the Marvel employee assigned to inventory all the warehoused art in 1975.
“‘Some, especially the covers and splash pages, were given away to curry favor with clients,’ says Vartanoff. ‘Still, the conditions in the warehouse were worse, a chaos of broken shelving, shipping crates, lots of manila wrapped packages, stacks of bundles with string around them.’ During the eleven months it took to catalogue the 35,530 pages, which didn’t include the 934 covers she found.”
Roz didn’t want to sue Marvel fearing if would be bad for their wallet and worse, for Jack’s health. In all of the time I knew him Kirby never expressed any desire to own his Marvel characters, but he wanted his originals back. Marvel’s lawyers had no way of knowing that and dug-in their heels.
Things took a turn in August of 1984, when Marvel’s lawyers sent Jack a four-page contract that contained fourteen conditions. All of the other artists had been sent a simple one-page agreement that most signed instantly.
Marvel had held onto the art for so long that it had finally become valuable to Comics fans. Frank Giacoia was working as a short-order cook when he got his pages back and the thousands he made from his cut was a Godsend. All of his collaborators now had stacks of Kirby art, but the King hadn’t seen a page.
In fact, the contract only promised eighty-eight pages of art if he signed.
THE VILLAGE VOICE article reports Kirby’s take on the situation: “Because I’m not a guy who likes to sue people, we tried other things. We called Marvel’s Jim Shooter and told him I couldn’t sign unless I knew that I’d get back more pages. Shooter talked about ‘good faith’ and giving ‘his word’ I’d receive everything that was mine.
“I legally appointed Greg Theakston as my agent,” he says, “and he volunteered to do the job. Marvel, by way of Shooter, said no. My wife and I said we’d come do it at our own expense. Again, no.”
At a London Comics convention, Marvel executive Tom DeFalco stood up in front of 400 people and accused Kirby of demanding and getting a huge financial settlement from Marvel when the company was sold in 1970. Tom wasn’t working in the business at the time, nor was I, but I was in close contact with Jack and never heard anything about it from him.
To complicate matters, late in 1986, New World Pictures acquired Marvel Comics and a whole new team of lawyers took the place of the originals. It was back to square one, with the company refusing comment.
Almost all of the Comics community stood behind Jack in his plight and Milton Caniff and Carl Barks called to offer their support.
Publisher James Galton had the pomposity to make this statement to THE VILLAGE VOICE: “The fan press,” he said from his Manhattan skyscraper office, “has taken it up as sort of a vendetta against Marvel, because, you know, when you’re the biggest and the best you’re always the target.”
Stan also had some words in the same piece.
“I really don’t want to say anything against Jack,” Lee says in an interview that begins in a massive, high-tech conference room at Marvel’s Van Nuys, California, animation studio and ends in his sculpture-filled office at the other end of the complex. “I love and respect him very much. He’s one of the most talented, hard-working guys I know, but I think he thinks he created these characters because he drew them. But, I would suggest how I wanted them drawn: ‘Make him a little bigger.’ ‘The head is too wide.’ And, of course, the characters’ concepts were mine, too. I would give Jack an outline or tell him the plot I wanted and let him break it down to determine what each drawing would be. When I got them back, I would put in the dialogue to inject whatever personality I wanted. Kirby was doing what he’d always done,” says Lee, “‘ ‘drawing beautiful pictures.’ While they were not as sophisticated and polished as some artists, they had a raw power. But what brought about the renaissance of comics was the style change in the writing, my writing. I’ve been in Hollywood since 1981, long enough to know that if Stephen Cannel says ‘I want to do a show called THE A-TEAM and it’ll consist of these four people,’ if he says nothing more than that, he’s created it.”
In the earliest days of Marvel that idea might have been true, but as time progressed the creations of the characters was a team effort. One has to wonder if Lee believed that he is the creator of the Marvel Universe, of whether he was under orders from above. He was making a fortune from his affiliation with the corporate monolith that Marvel had become, so why rock the boat?
In 1986 the story caught the attention of HOUR 25, a nighttime talk show broadcasting from KPFK 90.7, LA..
Jack Kirby: What happened was that Marvel decided to return the pages to the artists and they sent the releases out to the various artists that did work for them over the years. My release was quite different than the others. It was a release I couldn’t sign and that created a controversy. It mystified me: I don’t know why I got this kind of a release. It was a four-page release: it was almost like a contract, whereas the average release was something I could sign. I would’ve signed it and there would have been an ordinary exchange of release and pages. They created a situation in which I was stuck: it became a legal thing and I’m sorry about the circumstance itself - but it was they who sent the release out and it was I who can’t sign it. So they kept my pages.
Hour 25: Fans come up to you with original pages of your own art: where do they get them?
Kirby: I never ask because it embarrasses them. I tell them that the art is stolen: I have my own ideas on how it’s passed around and I’ve investigated it. It’s not a complete picture, but I have a hazy picture of what really happens. If they’re young people... I had a very young boy come up to me with a page of my artwork. I don’t have the heart not to sign it. I’m not going to embarrass that child, or a female, or a very sincere fan, so I sign it. I have a high respect for the people in comics. I know the average comic fan is a heckuva guy.
Steve Gerber: So when you talk about suing a company like Marvel, Jack is absolutely correct. You’re sitting there with one, perhaps two lawyers, facing a battery of lawyers which include, in this case, an outside firm, retained locally in California to deal with the suit: Marvel’s own in-house lawyers; Cadence Industries’ in-house lawyers; and a firm back in New York which is under retainer to Cadence. That’s what you’re up against when you go into something like this. Jack has never signed that work-for-hire contract.
Kirby’s lawyer warned him that if the case were to go to trial it would end up costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, would last a decade and probably end up in the Supreme Court.
Marvel eventually drafted a shorter version of the contract that Jack was still unhappy about, but one that he felt he could live with. Four years of strain and worry was about all the Kirby’s could take and Jack signed on June 16, 1987.
I wasn’t there to witness it, but I suspect that those close to the Kirby’s were relieved as well. I know I was. The entire experience was one of the most terrible of their lives and both had been deeply wounded. The sooner the whole thing is forgotten the better, starting now.
Marvel had screwed Kirby for years, used him and the best he ever got from them was a page rate. A billion dollar corporation has been erected in large part because of the ideas Jack had brought to the company and Marvel lawyers were doing their best to minimize that credit.
Still, this would be where Jack Kirby and his prodigy parted company and Marvel could never hurt him again
When the art arrived it was C.O.D. for $800.
I’ve mailed a lot of stuff and when I saw the stack knew that it shouldn’t have cost that much, unless they mailed it overnight.
Vartinoff’s February 1980 count of Kirby pages was 3,973, but when they arrived the total was 2,058 pieces: 1,915 pages were missing. Those included the first thirteen issues of X-MEN, the first two issues of THE FANTASTIC FOUR, the first two issues of THE HULK and the origin story for THOR. Discounting the 1,326 pages distributed to the inkers, that leaves 589 pages missing: approximately twenty five full issues.
The stack of boxes three-feet high were moved into Jack’s original art room and Kirby got to revisit some old friends, one-sixth of his output for the company. Of the xxx covers produced for Marvel, only xx were returned.
Mike Thibodeaux took on the job of acting as Kirby’s art agent because he had been collecting art for some time and had many connections in that business and lived close by. Because the market had been so saturated with the inkers pages, prime pages of Kirbys Marvel art could be had for two or three hundred dollars. Today, men who have made great fortunes for themselves since their Marvel-infused childhoods think nothing of spending tens of thousands of dollars on their personal Rosebuds.