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HERO COMPLEX

Family of Marvel Comics' Jack Kirby is seeking more recognition, money for his work

The talented artist never grew rich and famous like others at Marvel. His children are trying to change that legacy.

September 27, 2009|Geoff Boucher

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. 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 looked down at the lithographs, which are being sold by the Santa Monica gallery called Every Picture Tells a Story. "As far as I'm concerned," Lee said with a salesman's 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 new attorneys.

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 share of the copyright in Superman for heirs of character 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.

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