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Jack Kirby, the abandoned hero of Marvel’s grand Hollywood adventure, and his family’s quest

This article was originally on a blog post platform and may be missing photos, graphics or links. See About archive blog posts.

This is a longer version of my story that will run Sunday in the Los Angeles Times Calendar section...

You’d be hard-pressed to find a recent comic book that didn’t have the stylish scrawl of the artists somewhere on the cover, but that was not the case when Jack Kirby was making pop culture history back in the 1960s with his wildly kinetic drawings of the X-Men, Hulk and the Fantastic Four. “I think I have a highly unique and unusual style, and that’s the reason I never sign my drawings,” the proud Kirby told an interviewer in 1987, seven years before his death. “Everybody could tell any of my covers a mile away on the newsstand, and that satisfied me.” The satisfaction was fleeting. The artist may be reverently referred to as “King” Kirby by the pop scholars and younger artists who celebrate his genre-defining work but Kirby is, in some ways, an overlooked figure in the broader view of American culture. He didn’t live to see his creations fly across the movie screen over the last decade and his four children made nothing from those lucrative films, although they are now pursuing legal action to claim some of the future Hollywood wealth. “There is,” daughter Lisa Kirby says, “a bittersweet legacy to my father’s work.”

On a recent afternoon, in Beverly Hills, a different man was autographing a giant lithograph reproducing one of Kirby’s classic Fantastic Four covers. It was Stan Lee, the writer who was Kirby’s most famous collaborator until they became estranged over creative credit, artwork custody and money. An art dealer had brought stacks of limited-edition lithos, some to be priced at $850, to Lee’s Santa Monica Boulevard office along with a check in his pocket to pay the 86-year-old Lee for his autographs.

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Lee had written the stories for the classic comics, of course, but considering all the history, it was still odd to see his name etched on the cosmic Kirby tableau from 1966.

“Yes, there was a time when there was some hard feeling on his part ... but he got over that and we were friends,” Lee said. “It really is sad that he didn’t get to see all the big movies. None of us could predict that we would get to this point with the films. I don’t dwell on it too much because I’m always so busy doing what I am doing today. Unfortunately the guys back in the day did not make as much as they do today. Years ago also you had artists doing these comics who, well, there was nothing else they could have done. Their style wasn’t right for advertising or magazines like Saturday Evening Post or Collier’s. And as for us writers, well, we weren’t qualified to write for the New Yorker. Comic book writers were considered hacks, and artists weren’t really thought of as much beyond that.”

Lee studied one of the other art pieces, a dazzling revisiting of a Kirby cover for Captain America. ‘Wow, look at this one.’ The pieces are being sold by the Santa Monica gallery called Every Picture Tells a Story as part of a new licensing deal with Marvel to create high-end wall art from illustrations that were, in their day, the most gaudy and disposable entertainment imaginable. “As far as I’m concerned,” Lee said with his endless zeal, “it is fine art.’ The story of two “hacks,” as Lee would frame it, will be scrutinized much more considering recent events. Last month, the Walt Disney Co. paid $4 billion to scoop up Marvel Entertainment and its vault of florid characters who over the last decade have become Hollywood box-office heroes. Many of the most valuable properties in that vault were created by the wildly prolific tandem of Lee and Kirby in the 1960s; there are two big-budget movies now in the pipeline for Marvel Studios that are based on Lee-Kirby creations (“The Mighty Thor’ and “The Avengers”) and a third (“First Avenger: Captain America”) based on the work of Kirby and writer Joe Simon. The Kirby brood watched the Disney deal happen and within days were conferring with attorneys and accelerating their bid to reclaim copyright.

A day after Lee sat signing that artwork, attorneys representing the four children of Kirby sent out 45 notices of termination to Hollywood studios and players with an interest in assorted Marvel films; it was the opening salvo in a legal battle to gain copyright control of certain characters and the name on the legal letterhead was Toberoff & Associates, the same firm that last year won a intriguing victory by reclaiming a share of the copyright for the first Superman story for heirs of that character’s co-creator, Jerry Siegel.

Under copyright law, creators or their heirs can seek to regain copyrights they previously assigned to a company 56 years after first publication, so the Kirby family is starting that process now with hopes of gaining an interest or, perhaps, a settlement. Lee, meanwhile, struck assorted deals through the years with Marvel and has been an executive producer on every Marvel film made to date, movies with worldwide box office now in the billions of dollars, and has had prominent cameos in many of them. Lee is by far the most famous creator in comics history thanks to his longevity, success and aBarnum-like flair for self-promotion. He became a media figure in the 1960s when journalists jotted down his dizzying hyperbole about Marvel’s brightly hued, counterculture ethos. Kirby, laboring at home with far less credit, looked on and chafed about his status as a freelancer, essentially working for Lee, whose family connections by then had taken him to the top of the small and scruffy publishing venture. By 1970, Kirby had had enough and defected to rival DC Comics. Lee would go on to accumulate considerable wealth and fame, sometimes selling comics, sometimes selling his own persona with a long list of splashy but short-lived ventures. Kirby’s fortunes were not as grand; when he talked about his old creations he had the weary tone of a man who long ago watched the family coin collection scatter on a crowded street.

Lee knows that fans like to set up the partners as rivals. Kirby is portrayed as the irascible purist with staggering imagination and Lee reduced to the tireless huckster -- the pop-culture prophet versus the corporate profiteer. From Lee’s present vantage point, though, he prefers to look back on their shared tale as the unexpected odyssey of two kids who grew up in a business of cruel deadlines and lowbrow aspirations and found in each other a go-to guy.

“My favorite thing about Kirby’s artwork was his storytelling,” Lee said. “He was really a film director doing comics.” In that, Kirby was certainly ahead of his time. Comics are a huge part of Hollywood now, thanks to the modern era of computer-generated special effects that, finally, can match the galactic visions and super-powered mayhem that Kirby put to paper in the 1960s. Kirby’s influence is nothing less than massive on several generations of artists and filmmakers.

“There was power in the work of Jack Kirby that changed the way I looked at things,” said Guillermo del Toro, writer-director of “Pan’s Labyrinth.” 'There was no one else like him and there never will be.’

Nevertheless, Kirby remains a distant second to Lee in name recognition, which Lisa Kirby said rankles. “A lot more people know the name Stan Lee than the name Jack Kirby,” she said. “I’m not putting down Stan Lee’s talents but it’s difficult for us to see that he does dominate the credit. That doesn’t reflect the work or the reality. To see Jack Kirby in small letters and Stan Lee in big letters, that’s hard for us.”

Mike Richardson grew up under the thrall of Kirby’s drawings and was inspired to found his own comic-book company, Dark Horse, which has grown into a Hollywood player after seeing titles such as ‘The Mask,’ ‘Hellboy’ and ‘300’ jump to the screen. Through the years, he reached out to the Kirby family to help them find some sort of compensation.

‘There was a lot of anger in the Kirby family with the way that Jack was treated, more than they will express in public,’ Richardson said. ‘There’s no way you can say enough about the impact of those Marvel comics in the 1960s. They changed the rules. Lee and Kirby were the Lennon and McCartney of comics and Stan Lee became a well-known figure in popular culture and Jack did not. Neither were as great on their own, it’s true, but Jack had decades of work that was really special. To me, there’s no doubt that Jack Kirby was the truly brilliant creative genius behind the success of Marvel.’ If there’s a battle to come, it’s one Kirby never took on in life.

“Jack didn’t have the resources or the stomach lining to fight Marvel over copyrights, character ownership or past contractual sleights that he believed he suffered,” says Mark Evanier, who was Kirby’s assistant in the early 1970s and later his biographer. “He fought to get back his pages of original art. That was the fight he believed he could win.”

Evanier, now a comics historian and creator, testified in the Siegel suit and it seems certain that he would be in the deposition seat for any Kirby legal case. A longtime friend to Kirby and respectful acquaintance of Lee, he spoke glowingly of the partnership as lightning in a bottle, the zenith of each man’s career.

Kirby contributed mightily to the plots and character creation; the workload at Marvel was so intense in the 1960s that there were no “scripts” handed to Kirby, he would just draw the story and Lee would go back and craft dialogue that fit the action. Still, Evanier said, while it’s now fashionable to view Lee as the lesser figure, he also had the separate success of Spider-Man (with artist Steve Ditko) and set the singular tone and culture of Marvel. The pair had met in the Roosevelt years. In late 1940, Jacob Kurtzberg, 23, drawing under the name Kirby, had his first taste of real success in the young comics industry, which soared after the debut of Superman in 1938. Kirby and writer Simon’s Captain America was a hit for Timely Comics, which would later morph into Marvel. There was an eager assistant in the office named Stanley Lieber, just 18, who had gotten the job through a family connection (and would later shorten his name).

“In those days they dipped the pen in ink, I had to make sure the inkwells were filled,” said Lee. “I went down and got them their lunch, I did proofreading, I erased the pencils from the finished pages for them.

Whatever had to be done. I remember Jack would always be sitting at a table puffing on his cigar, kind of talking to himself as he was doing those pages.” Lee’s first credited work was a 1941 Captain America story where the hero threw his shield for the first time. That would become a trademark for decades, suggesting an instant flair for the medium. Kirby left Timely not long after. Years later, with comics in the doldrums, Lee and Kirby would reunite and create a new sort of comic book, with frenetic energy, mutant outsiders and misunderstood monsters. Superman and DC Comics instantly seemed like boring old Pat Boone; Marvel felt like the Beatles and the British Invasion. It was Kirby’s artwork with its tension and psychedelia that made it perfect for the times — or was it Lee’s bravado and melodrama, which was somehow insecure and brash at the same time?

“Jack was the best partner you could ask for, dependable and imaginative,” Lee said, sitting in an office cluttered with all those old heroes and villains. “And it was never dull. Nothing with us was ever dull.”

-- Geoff Boucher

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Jack Kirby Museum. Stan Lee in his office in 2009; Barbara Davidson/Los Angeles Times. Stan Lee in 2006 with Marvel characters; Robin Beck\Getty Images. All artwork: Marvel

UPDATE: An earlier version of this post had the word ‘narrow’ in the description of the Siegel copyright victory but in delving further into that victory I decided to delete the misleading adjective. It also will not appear in the abridged print version of this story.


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