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The Inquisition of Mr. Marvel
May 20, 2012 12:33 AM   Subscribe

On the (surprisingly complicated) legacy of Stan Lee (previously, previously)
posted by Joe in Australia (22 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
This came out in 2002, when Lee sued Marvel, claiming they'd failed to pay him his percentage of the profits from the first Spider-Man movie, a development the Comics Journal compared to Colonel Sanders suing Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Actually, I seem to recall hearing about something like that happening, or at least Colonel Sanders complaining about KFC. I so i checked Wikipedia and it turns out...
In 1973, [Colonel Sanders] sued Heublein Inc. — then parent company of Kentucky Fried Chicken — over alleged misuse of his image in promoting products he had not helped develop. In 1975, Heublein Inc. unsuccessfully sued Sanders for libel after he publicly referred to their gravy as "sludge" that tasted like "wallpaper paste".[10]
posted by delmoi at 12:53 AM on May 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


Lee is a scam artist. He created the "Marvel Method" which basically boiled down to giving someone a fraction of an idea, having them do the bulk of the work, and then slapping your name on it and claiming ownership. Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and several other creative geniuses were screwed over by this process.

Fuck Stan Lee.
posted by GavinR at 1:00 AM on May 20, 2012 [8 favorites]


There's this song by The Cure called "The Kiss." Now, your mileage may vary depending on how you feel about The Cure, but as an unapologetic fan, there's something awesome and something unfortunate about the song. The awesome thing is that it starts with this amazing, dramatic instrumental section that builds up to the unfortunate thing, which is the sung part of the song. I mean, the sung part of the song is all right, but it doesn't live up to the drama of the instrumental.

Similarly, this article has an excellent and gripping recap of how Marvel (with poster boy Stan Lee) screwed over Jack Kirby and how Lee is maybe not deserving of much of the credit he gets. Since he was only allowed ten minutes to talk to Lee, its no wonder that the author's actual portion on Lee is a singular let down after the build up.

None-the-less, if you're unfamiliar with the corporate machinations behind the rise of the Marvel brand and the part Lee claims in that rise, its worth reading. Its also worth reading how Lee characterizes how much money he's made off of his work at Marvel and tries to position himself as an abused creator (without ever taking his lips away from corporate ass).
posted by Joey Michaels at 1:13 AM on May 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


It was a weirdly galvanizing defeat. The day after the ruling, comics artist, historian, and lecturer Stephen Bissette suggested on his blog that fans loyal to the Kirby Kause stop spending money on Kirby-derived Marvel product, effective immediately. In February of this year, writer/artist James Sturm wrote a piece for Slate about his decision to boycott the Avengers movie in solidarity with Kirby.2 Marvel's shabby treatment of Kirby has been public knowledge among comics fans for decades, but the buildup to The Avengers — a huge, splashy entertainment product based on Kirby's work, from which many people who are not Jack Kirby stand to make truckloads of money — gave bloggers and pundits a high-value target to protest.3 A Howard Beale howl swept across the Internet.
Okay, this is a little ridiculous. When Kirby did that artwork, he could have had no expectation that the copyright would still even exist at this point, and his kids didn't have anything to do with it, they probably weren't even born yet. It seems absurd to argue that there is some kind of moral principle involved when the person who claimed ownership is dead and it would have been impossible to negotiate for rights (copyright into infinity) that no one even knew would exist at the time.

There was a change to copyright law with the last extension that copyrights should be returned to the heirs of the original author, rather then the current owner. I guess it would have just seemed to cynical to argue that you were doing something for the heirs of an author if the rights actually just went to whatever corporation owned it. This was actually used in a couple of cases, like the decedents of A. A. Milne suing Disney over the profits from Whinny the Pooh, or the descendants of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster engaged in legal battles with DC over superman.

The thing is, I've never heard of a clear cut victory, just endless legal jockeying between teams of lawyers. I'm guessing that the Kirby thing was part of the same type of thing. But unlike Siegel and Shuster, who clearly came up with their ideas independently, Kirby was clearly a Marvel employee.
Lee is a scam artist. He created the "Marvel Method" which basically boiled down to giving someone a fraction of an idea, having them do the bulk of the work, and then slapping your name on it and claiming ownership.
Yeah well, great painters of old all did the same thing: they would have apprentices create most of the work, and they'd just do the finishing touches and sign it. Kirby got full credit as the artist. But in terms of copyright, obviously if you hire someone work for you as a regular employee, and then work with them on ideas, why should they then be able to claim copyright on stuff that they did on the job?

If you're a contractor, then the contract should stipulate who owns the resulting copyright.
posted by delmoi at 1:18 AM on May 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


like the decedents of A. A. Milne suing Disney over the profits from Whinny the Pooh

I trust that's an honest typo and not commentary on the Milne's descendents sounding like horses or being whiny, yes?

/snark
posted by Purposeful Grimace at 1:26 AM on May 20, 2012


If the idea has swung from Lee's version of being the onlie begetter to the opposite, that he just put his name and a bit of dialogue on what Kirby or Ditko or whoever had drawn, then that's equally unjust (although, Stan obviously has a load of money, so I expect he's not unhappy).

Yes, a tremendous chancer, blagger and all-round showman, but that's what made Marvel (and by implication everything that came after).

Compare the comics (origin issues in particular) that Lee and Kirby or Ditko made with the ones the illustrators did by themselves: The early issues of Fantastic Four or Spiderman or The Hulk were hugely compelling even when I first saw them in 1972 (republished in the UK in Mighty World of Marvel), competing in my household with contemporary DC comics; Kirby's writing, by comparison, is simplistic and perfunctory (although the pictures are stunning); Ditko's stilted and odd. I'm certainly impressed by Jack's cosmic madness and Steve's intense pamphleteering, but it's a mistake to overlook Stan's particular talents just because he exploited them to grab an egregiously unfair slice of the pie: good at stories and characterisation, middling (though not that bad, especially for the early 60s), at dialogue, his real talent was the ability to see what was working and boost it - whether the thing that was working was a character, a plot gimmick, an idea that Kirby wandered in with, the "flawed hero" concept or the mythologisation of Marvel itself.

What gave Marvel its momentum was this mythologisation, both within the stories (the creation of a "Marvel Universe", which respected the coherence of the characterisations - for an early example, Spiderman trying to join the Fantastic Four, which showed up both the snootiness of the FF and Parker's immaturity) and in the external (I hesitate to say "real") world, with the relentless, self-aggrandising (and at the same time very slightly self-deprecating, which was something I was struck by oh-my-god-it's-forty-years-ago) editorials that ran through each issue. In fact, more than any of the other Marvel films that have come out recently, The Avengers could be said to be a Stan Lee movie, as the central conceit - building a web of relationships between known characters with their own story worlds - is the achievement of 60s Marvel that can most solidly be attributed to him (unless there's another editor-in-chief at Marvel that I'm overlooking).

Those relationships gave characters a kind of solidity that wasn't as possible in a discrete series. Without that, I don't think we'd have comic books as we understand them today, for better or worse.

Posterity will hopefully attribute credit more fairly - and the illustrators deserve a huge amount of the credit - but even though it will diminish Lee's status from the godlike supremacy of the Official Version, I hope it doesn't dismiss him altogether, because that would be a huge mistake.
posted by Grangousier at 2:45 AM on May 20, 2012 [9 favorites]


Okay, this is a little ridiculous. When Kirby did that artwork, he could have had no expectation that the copyright would still even exist at this point, and his kids didn't have anything to do with it, they probably weren't even born yet. It seems absurd to argue that there is some kind of moral principle involved when the person who claimed ownership is dead and it would have been impossible to negotiate for rights (copyright into infinity) that no one even knew would exist at the time.

But why should Disney profit from this, when all the work was done by people like Kirby and Heck and Ditko and Lieber and Romita and so on and so on. Why shouldn't Marvel do the decent thing and actually give the people on who their multimedia empire ultimately is build a fair cut of the profits?
posted by MartinWisse at 3:20 AM on May 20, 2012


But why should Disney profit from this, when all the work was done by people like Kirby and Heck and Ditko and Lieber and Romita and so on and so on.
Why says they should? Maybe it should all be in the public domain. But the people were paid for their work at the time.

But people make movies out of stuff that's in the public domain all the time. The recent Sherlock Holmes movies that guy Richie did, the Tom Cruise War of the Worlds.

Look at the characters of Dracula and Frankenstein. They're fairly recent*. Why shouldn't Marry Shelly or Bram Stoker's decedents get a cut any time anyone references them?

In fact, if you look at the stuff Disney has done with works in the public domain, there's quite a bit. You could easily say that if Marvel Characters had passed into the public domain, then Disney, more then anyone else could probably make money off them. The only differences would be that other people could too, and that they wouldn't have had to pay Marvel shareholders billions of dollars.

Anyway, the value is in the "Brand", there are probably tons of people who know the characters and want to see the movie who have never read the original Kirby comics. I don't think I've ever seen them. Hell there are probably lots of comic fans out there today who's major introduction to the medium was Rob Liefeld.

Anyway, there are two totally separate issues who deserves credit for making early marvel comics great, and who owns the "IP". If you're paid to create something for someone else - that's a work for hire. Just creating characters and stories doesn't do anything on it's own, especially in the pre-internet era. But even today, creating comic characters and putting them online won't change the world. Someone has to invest in your idea, produce it, hire even more artists and promote it.

The article slams Lee for being a "promoter", but that promotion work probably did a hell of a lot of good for the value of the "brand" and the "IP". The people who spent millions of dollars to bankroll the recent wave of Marvel movies (like Spider-Man and Iron Man in particular), and the actors, directors and other creatives who made them happen played as much in making driving up the financial value of that stuff.

Anyway, even if Kirby did write a lot of the actual stories, Lee is still the one who came up with the characters, edited them, and came up with the general story arcs.

I guess it's kind of unfair that Lee ended up getting a better financial reward, but the idea that Kirby is highhandedly responsible for all the success of Marvel over the past few decades, and that therefore his children deserve a cut of the recent movie is ridiculous.

If copyright law had stayed the same as it was in the 1960s, the characters would probably be in the public domain, and Disney could make the movie without paying anyone.

(*Something to think about: Dracula was published in 1897, Dracula was only 41 years old when Superman was first published, and 65 years old Spider-Man was first published, whereas Superman is actually 74 years old today, and Spider-man is 60)
posted by delmoi at 4:18 AM on May 20, 2012 [6 favorites]


I think the solution is that work-for-hire copyrights last 30 years; personal copyrights the life of the artist.

It's an insane pipe dream, but it would moot most of these arguments.
posted by Grimgrin at 4:44 AM on May 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Grangousier has it. Lee's contributions were historically overblown, and are now being underblown. (This is not about the work-for-hire issue or proper compensation to creators, because it's legally very clear one way and morally very clear the other, and thinking about it for too long angries up my blood something fierce.)

Looking back at the sixties Marvels as well as the seventies works of Kirby and Ditko apart from him, you can see what Lee brought. And, truth be told, the comics Lee wrote without Kirby and Ditko were often not that great. Kirby's bombast without Lee's leavening and humanizing influences was a very, very different thing. Which I love, don't get me wrong, but it didn't create the kind of work that would acquire audiences nearly as big as the Marvel stuff. Ditko's unsophisticated moralizing and blinkered worldview left his later storytelling weak and kind of ridiculous. Lee's work without either of the Big Two tended towards the silly and mannered.

(For additional proof of Lee's value, compare Fantastic Four to its immediate predecessor and prototype for DC, Challengers of the Unknown. FF is a classic that's still great; COTU is...not.)

A funny thing is that the classic Marvel runs improved as Lee's influence declined. Kirby and Ditko had more and more say in plotting the issues as time passed, to the point that even the notorious credit hog Lee had to give them co-plotter credits. But here's the thing...they were working from a framework set up in collaboration with Lee, and he was still writing the dialogue. So he was still a factor in their success.

Later claims by Kirby and Lee over who wrote what got wild. By the late eighties, Kirby claimed the only thing Lee ever wrote was his name on the paychecks, and Lee's "I thunk it all up" mythology was the official company line through the seventies. If you read outside journalistic accounts from the era -- there are a few "fly on the wall" articles about Marvel in the sixties -- the degree of collaboration was significant. Lee was crucial to Marvel's success. Not as much as the party line claimed for decades, but crucial nevertheless.

Now, the issue of creator's rights...ye gods.
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 5:00 AM on May 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


Now, the issue of creator's rights...ye gods.

Comic book lawsuits (self-link via Metafilter Projects): Previously .
posted by Paul Slade at 6:05 AM on May 20, 2012


Looking back at the sixties Marvels as well as the seventies works of Kirby and Ditko apart from him, you can see what Lee brought. And, truth be told, the comics Lee wrote without Kirby and Ditko were often not that great. Kirby's bombast without Lee's leavening and humanizing influences was a very, very different thing. Which I love, don't get me wrong, but it didn't create the kind of work that would acquire audiences nearly as big as the Marvel stuff. Ditko's unsophisticated moralizing and blinkered worldview left his later storytelling weak and kind of ridiculous. Lee's work without either of the Big Two tended towards the silly and mannered.

Lee's work without Kirby and Ditko tended toward the Stripperella, to be real about it. It's true that Kirby's Fourth World (or Kirby's Demon...or Kamandi...or, hell, even Devil Dinosaur...or hey, what about The Eternals?...man, it seems like Kirby just kept right on keeping on in terms of creating new concepts! you would think losing Lee's guidance would have come as a greater blow, of course, but [hamburger]) is not as popular as Kirby's creations for Marvel, but these things have certainly been popular and enduring in a way that not one thing Stan Lee created without Kirby or Ditko has been. I'm sorry, but anything else is bullshit -- plain and simple. You can look, and nothing is there. Nothing.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 7:07 AM on May 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


(PS: Before anyone's pedant!rage acts up, I will amend the previous post and say that yeah, Kirby created Devil Dinosaur working for Marvel, but -- and this is the point -- without Lee.)
posted by kittens for breakfast at 7:09 AM on May 20, 2012


(And The Eternals, too, with the same caveat applying. My rage over this whole thing combined with the earliness of the hour and my coffee deficiency is making me wish for the edit button that will never ever be a reality, not ever.)
posted by kittens for breakfast at 7:13 AM on May 20, 2012


If you want to read some terrible comics, pick up Stan Lee's "Just Imagine" series where he recreates major DC characters. It is just plain horrible and shows what limitations and short-comings he has when working on his own. His value was as a showman and a huckster....nothing more and nothing less.
posted by GavinR at 8:07 AM on May 20, 2012


I was at a comic book convention many years ago when I was still heavily into the comic book scene. I was also at my nadir of cynicism and obnoxiousness. My early twenties, in other words.

Of course by this time I detested anything and everything Marvel but especially anything attached to Stan Lee. Oh the righteous contempt I felt.

So anyways, there I was walking the floor of the vendors area when who should we spot working the floor but Stan himself. I looked at my friend, he sneered, I sneered and then the old goat headed straight for us.

He held out his hand and said "Hey true believers!"

I put on a big sincere smile and said "Hello Mr. Lee, it's an honor to meet you." Then he shook my buddies hand and he said basically the same thing.

We never spoke of it again.
posted by Bonzai at 9:07 AM on May 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


What, no stinkpalm?
posted by Spatch at 11:43 AM on May 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Kirby's writing, by comparison, is simplistic and perfunctory

I prefer it to Lee's (although I didn't at the time). It's less lubricated, less-sugar-coated, and more densely packed with meaning, and with fireworks. And I can't resist a sentence that ends with four exclamation points.
posted by Superfrankenstein at 11:47 AM on May 20, 2012


I ran into this:

Marvel's shabby treatment of Kirby has been public knowledge among comics fans for decades, but the buildup to The Avengers — a huge, splashy entertainment product based on Kirby's work, from which many people who are not Jack Kirby stand to make truckloads of money — gave bloggers and pundits a high-value target to protest. A Howard Beale howl swept across the Internet.

And, yes, OK, a Howard Beale howl swept across the Internet when Hasbro changed the name of a My Little Pony, too. The Internet makes protest effortless, and therefore weightless. But the outcry around The Avengers feels like more than the knee-jerk carping of an improperly serviced fan base.


Yeah, this guy understands none of the back story behind the Derpy Hooves thing, or what the fanbase's real opinion of it is. (His link is to Gawker, natch.) It's a throwaway joke from the "har har pony fandom" position, and along the way dismissing everyone who's ever been mad about something on the Internet a priori, regardless of circumstance.

But anyway, speaking as someone who watched the Derpy thing happen from the front lines -- I'm much angrier about how Marvel treated Kirby, the greatest comic creator of all time, than how Hasbro treated Derpy, a fictional cartoon horse with cross-eyes.
posted by JHarris at 12:52 PM on May 21, 2012


Gawker's a little derpy itself.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 3:13 PM on May 21, 2012



Anyway, even if Kirby did write a lot of the actual stories, Lee is still the one who came up with the characters, edited them, and came up with the general story arcs.


I have no idea where you're getting that from, aside from the Origins of Marvel Comics books that were written by... wait for it... Stan Lee. (And even in those, he gives Kirby credit for the Silver Surfer.) As kittens for breakfast notes above, Kirby created at least two major comics mythologies, complete with their own major and minor characters, after the main Marvel superheroes--the Fourth World/New Gods for DC and the Eternals for Marvel--plus plenty of others, such as OMAC and Machine Man, which are still in use. Stan, not so much once Kirby and Ditko stopped working for him.
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:14 PM on May 21, 2012


Following up on the above, if you compared Lee and Kirby to Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, another favorite example of the marketing/management guy who made out much better than the creative genius, you could argue (as I did here) that Kirby wouldn't have been Kirby without Lee... which is probably true, up to a point... but Kirby had had a significant career in comics well before Lee did and well after Lee had become a figurehead. Put another way, if Marvel Comics had had the same sort of arc as Apple did, then Kirby would have gotten a substantial portion of the company's stock (although not as much as Lee) simply for producing the Fantastic Four.
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:30 PM on May 21, 2012


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