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Was This A Thinly Veiled Shot At Jack Kirby?

In one of his Bullpen Bulletin columns, Jim Shooter was talking about how a friend told him he could have sued DC over the Legion stories he wrote as fourteen year old. He said he didn’t because it wouldn’t be right, as he agreed to the same deal as everyone else who worked for DC. As I read that, in an issue of Simonson’s Thor, I couldn’t help but wonder if this a thinly veiled response to the Kirby original art controversy. So, for those of you who were around at the time (or have read up on the story), was it? Am I off in my time line there? Was it a thinly veiled jab at another freelancer entirely? Or was it just a random, malice free musing from comics’ tallest former EIC?

36 Comments

FunkyGreenJerusalem

July 29, 2009 at 10:50 pm

It’s a re-telling of Dikto’s Spider-man story…

Also, it’s a bit hard to tell as we only have you’re paraphrasing, not his actual wording.

It was a “jab” at anyone and everyone who decided, despite everything they’d ever signed over the years, that they somehow “deserved” rights that their contracts either were silent on or outright denied them. The Kirby klaims were certainly of that variety, but it was also a critique of everyone from Siegel & Shuster all the way through the then-contemporary travails of Steve Gerber.

It’s worth noting that Shooter’s potential claims — even though he would deny them for philosophical reasons, much as Ditko would later ignore some of =his= more solid legal rights — had, even then, the added weight of sound and settled law behind them. Contracts signed by minors waiving legal claim to their intellectual properties are and have for generations been null and void. Whereas his contemporaries claimed moral standing to rights they’d been compensated for signing away, Shooter’s own claims (even though he didn’t, y’know, actually claim them) were airtight in his favor.

And =still= he said they were immoral. If he denied what was rightfully his, he certainly couldn’t be faulted for denying others what they’d given over freely. (Well, he couldn’t have been faulted, save for the fact that he was Jim Shooter, and every breath he took and continues to take was and is seized upon by his detractors as fodder for their shrill and usually-baseless assaults.)

I always liked Jim Shooter. Some great Marvel books came out during his tenure. Also, Shooter’s writing on the advert page tended to hold my interest more than that of other EiCs. Even watching a Youtube video of him and the Bullpen back in the 80s (my God, the hair!), he just seemed like a cool guy. It’s a shame he gets shit on so much now.

I’d want to see the original Bullpen Bulletin. That said, many of those came out during the late ’70s and early ’80s when everyone was yelling about getting the rights to “their” work. These claims ranged from the serious through the fanciful to the give-me-a-frickin’-break. You had people who had unquestionably been cheated; others who had clearly been screwed, but in a legal manner; and still others who were just whining about (for instance) perfectly legitimate work-for-hire in the hopes of getting some extra increment of cash or recognition. At the time it was rather hard to sort them all out.

As ykw points out, Shooter would have been close to the serious end of the scale; he was a minor, and contracts signed with a minor are never valid. He had a strong legal claim on everything he did before his 18th birthday. (Arguably, he still does.)

But to come back to your question: Shooter always seems to have been respectful of Kirby, even when he was screwing him over. He kinda sorta apologized for his actions on the artwork issue years later. One has the impression that Shooter considered himself a good soldier for Marvel at the time, trying to enforce rules on a bunch of whiny nerds and prima donnas, and is still reluctant to critique his former employer or second-guess his own actions… anyway, point is, it would have been very unlike Shooter to jab at Kirby personally. Steve Gerber, maybe. Kirby, no. Shooter was a respect-your-elders kinda guy.

Doug M.

anyway, point is, it would have been very unlike Shooter to jab at Kirby personally. Steve Gerber, maybe. Kirby, no. Shooter was a respect-your-elders kinda guy.

I think it is possible for Shooter to respect his elders and still write that column as a rebuttal to Kirby. Because part of that respect for elders may be what was causing him from calling out Kirby by name and addressing him directly. When I read the column Brad is talking about, it seemed like Shooter was trying to respond to a controversy that was raging at the time in the most nonconfrontational way he could. It’s been decades since I read the column but I don’t remember it being especially snarky, nasty or mean-spirited.

That being said, I’m not sure if it was a case of responding specifically just to Kirby or to all ex-freelancers with gripes similar to Kirby’s. It may have been intended more as a blanket response.

Actually Doug now that I reread it seems like we’re kinda saying the same thing I think. My bad.

Funny, I just re-read that Bullpen Bulletins a couple of weeks ago when I was digging through a stash of old comics at my parents’ house. This was written in ’86, I think, less than a year before Shooter left. When I was 10 years old I had no concept of the creators’ rights issue and I remember coming away from that article thinking that that Jim Shooter sure is a great guy (just like Spider-Man he tells us!). Re-reading it now, knowing the context, he comes off as kind of a dick. Still, it’s an interesting little piece, and I can’t imagine Joe Quesada or Dan Didio being allowed to write anything that personal or controvesial on the preview page. I miss Bullpen Bulletins and Dick Giordano’s “Meanwhile” columns.

Nitpick: this will vary from state to state, but contracts signed by minors aren’t necessarily invalid. They can, however, be easily nullified on the basis of minority. That said, any claim that they should be nullified might disappear for several reasons: the minor reaches the age of minority (you’re an adult now; the protections a kid gets don’t apply to you anymore), a statute of limitations had passed (you’ve got, say, five years to bring a claim under contract law), or because of the legal principle of laches (you waited too long to have an enforceable claim).

I assume this would all turn on New York state law, given that’s where DC’s offices were. Not knowing the specifics of NY law, I can’t honestly say whether Shooter did or still does have a legal claim.

To answer your original question, I think it was as close as Shooter got to defending himself in the press at the time. It wasn’t just Kirby. There was also Gerber and the DESTROYER DUCK benefit book and the Journal lawsuit where Shooter testified against Fantagraphics in the Fleisher libel suit…. and so on. Shooter was seen as the Ultimate Company Man, the face of Corporate Comics Media. So this was his way of explaining that no, no, he was creative and cool, he had morals…. etc. To those in the know it seemed a little defensive and adolescent. But then, so does the whole comics industry, a great deal of the time.

Priest talks about Shooter in on of his web page articles as a somewhat tragic hero.
He came in and basically made Marvel grow up and despite the success he brought the company and the creators, he was hated for it.

I can’t give much insight into the bulletin there, but after meeting Shooter and BSing with him for an hour as he-at his own discretion-signed every gd book I’d brought with me (he was bored, and said he’d make a deal with me-he’d sign a mountain of books if I A) allowed him to stop and sign for other folks as they wandered up to the table and B) consented to talk comics with him for the duration. Who in their right mind would tell HIM “Naw, I don’t wanna talk with you about your life’s work”?), man, I’ve got nothing bad to say about the guy.
He told me about a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff, and made sure he pointed out where HE’D screwed things up rather than just bagging on guys he had bad blood with like Layton. He never came off as a rampaging egotist like a lot of other creators I’ve met, and he answered every question I had without a seconds hesitation, even when we were talking about Valiant.

Yeah, I also always liked Jim Shooter. Under his guidance, the whole of Marvel Comics improved a lot creatively. The best stories of Miller, Byrne, Claremont, Simonson, Michelinie, Stern, and Mantlo all happened under his watch. How can you not admire the guy? I don’t think Marvel has been nearly as good since he left. We have had some great stories post-Shooter, but also a lot of crap. Shooter seemed to impose a sort of standard.

And count me as another guy who doesn’t have a lot of sympathy for creators who complain about their rights decades after the fact, when the characters become a big success, when they knew full well that they were doing work for hire.

Without a direct quote, it’s hard to tell where Shooter saw potential for a lawsuit. But if he was emphasizing the fact that he had been a minor at the time of that first sale, the most obvious parallel was Bob Kane, creator of Batman.

In the late 1940s, Kane told DC that he had still been a minor at the time of his first contracts. Summary here. This claim was almost certainly untrue, but there were no birth records to prove that, so Kane negotiated a better contract for himself.

I remember reading that Bulletin at the time, and I assumed he was talking about Kirby. The original art controversy was going strong at the time. What exactly was going on depends on who you believe: Shooter said that Kirby (or his lawyers) was threatening to sue for ownership of the characters, and that’s what delayed and complicated the return of his art. Kirby said that his only problem was the papers that Marvel wanted him to sign (more extensive than the release form that every other artist got), which would not only have denied him any rights to the work, but any *credit* as well. Eventually, a compromise was reached, Kirby signed an amended form, and got his art back (or rather, what little was left that hadn’t already been stolen out of Marvel’s offices).

i read it and ever at the time thought it was all about Kirby & his artwork. It struck me as kind of slimy of Shooter to compare himself to Spidey in always doing the right thing. Shooter may have wanted to respond to other issues going on as well, but this always left a bad taste in my mouth. It seemed the wrong way to get his viewpoint out there.
So, to answer the question, “Yes, it was a thinly veiled shot at Jack Kirby.”
DFTBA

I can’t believe I forgot that he compared himself to Spider-Man! I can believe I didn’t scan it so everyone could see, because I was pretty much waiting for people like Greg and J. Kevin Carrier to show up, knowing they’d know what I was talking about from memory. The rest of you commenting were just kind of taking up space, really.

Which is my douchey way of thanking the people who remember the bit for sorting me out after my half assed Google search didn’t turn up anything interesting but Jonathan Lethem’s review of the first Spider-Man movie:

http://www.randomhouse.com/features/jonathanlethem/essay3.html

How is this “thinly veiled”? It’s a topic that everyone was discussing at the time, so he’s offering his two cents. Where’s the veil?

Mike Loughlin

July 30, 2009 at 4:54 pm

According to several creators (including Gene Colan, Jim Mooney, Steve Gerber, Doug Moench, Steve Englehart, and Roy Thomas), Shooter was difficult to work with. He did a lot of good things at Marvel, sure, but was not always good to the talent (with notable exceptions, like Claremont and Miller). His policies and/or personality had a lot to do with the above talents moving to DC. He has a reputation as a tempermental person, as well. From his writing and editorial tendencies, he put the company first, the people second. Again, he was what Marvel needed in the late ’70s.

“Respecting his elders?” According to Gene Colan, Shooter treated him very poorly. I don’t think he was all that great to Kirby, who left comics for animation during Shooter’s tenure. I know there are two sides to every story, but the one side I’ve heard refutes that statement.

It wasn’t exactly “thinly veiled” but a direct shot, as DC was making a bit of promotional hay over the fact that they allowed Kirby to redesign the New Gods characters enough for him to get money from the toy and TV deals for the characters as well as the original art controversy. If you read his testimony in the Fleisher case, he was VERY much a company man at the time.

Afterward, I always had a nasty taste in my mouth when he talked about “honoring those who came before him” since he willfully took part in Marvel’s shameful and illegal use of Kirby’s original art to blackmail him into signing a retroactive contract.

I had never even heard of the whole Kirby controversy when I first read Shooter’s editorial, and even though I did hear a little about it years later, it never occured to me until now that Shooter may’ve been responding to that. I don’t know if it really matters that much; Shooter’s words can apply to all sorts of cases.
I think I have to back up the Tall Guy on this. All these people were offered standard contracts for the time, and they all agreed to them. If you don’t like the standard contract, the time to negotiate something else is beforehand. (I know new guys starting out can’t expect to do that, but the experienced veterans sign new contracts every few years. They can always try to negotiate a better deal if they like, but they can’t retroactively demand new terms for their past work. If that were permitted then contracts would become meaningless, and employers would live in eternal fear that their assets could be siezed at any time.)

And while Jim Shooter may have been a horrible boss to work under, I have to agree with all those others here that he vastly improved Marvel’s quality. The company has never been as good as it was under Shooter and DeFalco.

I remember reading the editorial when I was 13, and I connected it to the Kirby situation in the abstract. I didn’t read it as a shot at Kirby, but as the bleat of a man who had learned nothing from Kirby’s misfortune. Later when I learned the context, I retroactively felt like I’d eaten rat poison.

Kirby, it should be noted, wasn’t trying to be treated better than his fellow artists; he was trying to be treated the same. The return of Kirby’s artwork was an entirely separate issue from Kirby’s rights or lack of rights to the characters. Kirby was perfectly willing to sign the standard release. Marvel, and Shooter, were thugs for using the artwork as leverage to coerce Kirby’s complete acquiescence.

In return for signing the long release Marvel offered Kirby a total of 88 pages. 88. That rounds up to 0% of the ten thousand plus pages of artwork he drew for Marvel.

“ll these people were offered standard contracts for the time, and they all agreed to them. ”

Well, no. Not even a li’l bit close to correct. It’s a complicated issue, but

http://www.tcj.com/aa02ss/n_marvel.html

A point to add. In public, at least, Jim Shooter has always argued that he was WITH Kirby on the art contract issue. From the CBR interview linked at the bottom.

So during that time, conveniently, there was all this hassle with Jack Kirby and his artwork. I was the editor-in-chief; I wasn’t a lawyer. I wasn’t on the board of directors. I wasn’t in the legal department. OK, I was the EIC. I was the person all the people knew. No one knew Jim Galton.

So, you read in the fan press, “Jim Shooter won’t give Jack Kirby his artwork back.” Well, Jim Shooter had tried to give Jack Kirby and every other artist their artwork back since I started. If you think that’s wrong, then ask Joe Sinnott. The company was thrilled. “It’s being blamed on him. Great!” Same time, Gerber was suing. Every contention that came along became my fault.

http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=147

Dave Miller, Kirby ended up getting about 2,000 pages back. That’s still only a fraction of his total work for Marvel, sure.

Mike Loughlin, yeah, Gene Colan bitched endlessly about Shooter. Here’s Shooter’s take on it:

“Gene Colan, God bless him, a great artist… When he worked for me, there were some problems. Gene had to produce a certain amount of work a day for economic reasons and sometimes he’d cheat a little. He used to love it if there was an explosion in a story. No matter what, a tiny explosion would become a full page. Quick page, so he’d make some money.

“He did some brilliant work by the way in his career. Dracula. I think he was getting a little tired when I was there. I think we finally cancelled Dracula, it started to fade and he needed work. And the fact is, he worked on a couple different things, with a couple different writers, he just couldn’t…. he had to do everything really fast. He wasn’t good about doing the reference, he wouldn’t pay attention to the story.

“I remember Bill Mantlo came in and I had made him rewrite this plot three or four times. He comes in and says, ‘I have to rewrite this plot three or four times and [Gene] ignores it. That’s just not right.’ I said, ‘You’ve got a point, Bill. I put you through hell getting this plot right and here Gene just ignores whatever parts are hard to draw.’

“Got to the point where Bill wouldn’t work with him. Roger Stern wouldn’t work with him. Claremont wouldn’t… No one would work with him. So guess what he does, he works with me on he Avengers…

“That’s when Wolfman [who] had gone over to DC, thinking fondly of the Dracula days, got him to come over there. And that was better for everybody I think. Doing stuff that was more up his alley. He wasn’t really a superhero guy. That’s all we had at that point to offer him. He ended up at DC. Just one of those things that didn’t work out.”

Two things. First, Shooter’s consistently respectful towards Colan (‘a great artist’, ‘just one of those things that didn’t work out’) even while acknowledging that nobody else at Marvel would work with him any more. Two, Colan’s work from the 1970s was indeed awesome. From the 1980s… not so much. Night Force? Jemm, Son of Saturn? So I think the evidence tips towards Shooter’s version of events.

Doug M.

Secret Wars, Shooter’s version:

“The only goodies, the plum I ever took for myself, was Secret Wars. You know why? It had all the characters in it and I thought about getting someone else. But no matter who I picked, they would’ve screamed. Because they’d say, ‘You’re going to let John Byrne or Chris Claremont write my characters? Blah, blah, blah!’

“Basically, I needed a neutral party or someone they hated already. So I said, I have to do this. I’m the only one who had the authority to do this. ‘Chris [Claremont], you may think the X-Men are your babies, but the fact is, the owners of the company have given them to me. I respect you and I’ll do my best to ghost it. By definition, what I’m doing is proper and help me if you will or yell at me if you want, but at least this way, I won’t have another war between you and [David] Michelinie or you and Byrne. At least, it’ll be the decision-maker making the decisions.’

“I managed to get through that without anybody getting too angry with me. And pretty soon, they saw the sales of their books go up and more money in their pockets. And they said, Hmmm.” [By the early 1980s Shooter had implemented a bonus system that gave creators more money if their books sold well.]

One possible reason the art on SW wasn’t all that:

“When I took the job [as Editor-in-Chief] I had been writing Ghost Rider, Daredevil and the Avengers. The editors in chiefs before me saw themselves as more like head writers. Generally speaking, they had the pick of the crop as far as the letterers, the colorists, the artists … so they were going to have Joe Rosen letter their damn books.

“Denise Wohl lettered everything I wrote because no one else wanted Denise. She lettered kinda big. Since I wrote less copy than most guys, I thought, well, I’ll use Denise. I wasn’t going to fire her. I thought she was a reasonable letterer, she just lettered a little big. Artists, I took whoever there was. If somebody needs work, then they’d do my book.”

Doug M.

Before Shooter started pulling hard on the reins, it seemed every other Marvel book I bought was a reprint, often heavily edited to squeeze in a two-page framing story and to account for more ads in the book than when the story first appeared, or with an editorial caption JOKING about having caught the “DDD” (Dreaded Deadline Doom”). In “Invaders” it was sometimes okay, because we would get a Golden Age Cap story, even the very first Sub-Mariner story. But the rest of the time was a confusing mish-mash. Ready for an old Avengers story with Don heck art again? Here we go! I believe Shooter also ended the Writer-Editor arrangement and moved all the editorial work back in-house so the books would get back on schedule.

Still, yah, I think Shooter was trying to preserve the company line in his comments about not exercising his moral authority to sue DC over the Legion characters he created starting at the age of 13. I remember reading similar comments from him in a Comics Journal interview.

It just made him sound like an ungrateful little sh*t to me, seeing as how the LOSH started his career.

Of course Shooter’s comments were a “shot” a Kirby. This was a huge issue in the industry at the time. And it’s a great comparison isn’t it? Certainly Matter Eater Lad has made as much money for DC as Captain America, the Fantastic Four and the Hulk combined.

A big part of the issue wasn’t so much whether or not Marvel owned the characters created by Kirby/Lee it was how they went about securing those rights. When Marvel discovered they were on unsteady legal grounds as far as ownership of the characters they were publishing (in the sixties?) they started stamping the back of freelancer’s and employee’s checks with language giving all rights (physical, intellectual, reprint, copyright, etc.) to Marvel/Cadence. If the recipient of said check did not sign over those rights the would not be endorsing the check and therefore would not be paid. Some would call this coertion if not extortion. Some did.

The arguement was (is): if the company had such “rock-solid” ownership, what was the need for this additional recision of ownership rights? It’s a question that hasn’t been answered yet.

As far as Shooter’s revisionist history as to what took place with Gene Colan et.al.: Has Shooter in any interview since that time taken any responisibility for any of the controversies, mistakes or failures that have typified his career other than “I trusted the wrong people”?

I just found this little bit of irony in a post script to an interview with Shooter regarding the demise of Valiant at http://www.valiantcomics.com/Valiant/joe/shooter/ :

“The last time Jim Shooter went to his office was the day before he was fired. He was forced into an arbitration, the purpose of which was to recover his stock for the company (Triumph and Massarsky – so the entire company could be sold) The arbitration cost him literally hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, more, in fact, than the net settlement amount. The arbitrator, unfamiliar with entertainment and intellectual property cases, based his decision on the value of the company on Jim’s last day there, rather than on the continuing value of his creations. ”

and this:

“Jim never received a dime from any properties he created which continued to publish for 5+ more years, or reprints, hard or soft cover trade paperbacks, international editions, ancillary items like the X-O and Ninjak rings, once he left VALIANT.”

But the good news is – he knew the deal going in.

Mike Loughlin

July 31, 2009 at 1:32 pm

Doug M.- Thank you for the Shooter interview regarding Gene Colan It’s good to hear both sides of the story, even if I still favor Colan’s view (I freely admit to being biased in favor of one of my favorite artists :). I resent Shooter’s insinuation that Colan wouldn’t draw anything “hard” or that he would “cheat.” That’s not showing respect.

Several things make me doubt Shooter: He had problems with several well-regarded writers and artists. Additionally, Claremont worked with Colan on Dr. Strange for several issues. Byrne used to ignore his plots, and Shooter kept them together for several issues. I find it funny that Shooter gave Vince Coletta so much work, when he’d ignore entire characters and settings in order to get things done quickly, but had a problem with Colan allegedly doing the same thing.

I’ll give Shooter a couple of points: Mantlo complaining about someone ignoring his plot is valid. All I can say is Colan was used to working Marvel-method. Hell, he ignored Stan Lee’s plots at times. While Colan can do super-heroes (just look at his Daredevils), I would not have put him on Avengers. That book does not play to his strengths. I’d love to hear Roger Stern’s take on the situation.

As for Colan’s ’80s work, I can’t say it was all, or even mostly, bad. Sure, Nightforce wasn’t great, and the Spectre sucked. On the other hand, Nathaniel Dusk, Batman, Stewart the Rat, Silverblade, and Jemm (which I really liked, although it’s not for everyone) looked great. I think his work dipped in quality from about ’87 to ’95 or so, but he came roaring back after that (excepting a mostly-subpar stint on Daredevil).

I seem to remember that after Kirby’s death, Shooter came out and said he was just playing the company man. It’s probably true for the most part, but using the Bulletin to take a shot at Kirby wasn’t very professional. Nor was it an effective comparison. Though they were great, his Legion stories are a tad less valuable and significant than the CO-CREATION of the X-Men, Hulk, Fantastic Four, Captain America, etc.

Rene, I hope you examine your conscience on this one. Kirby was screwed not only out of financial gains, but at that time he got very little credit for his part in the creation of the Marvel universe. And you’re saying that’s fair? Stan Lee was work-for-hire as well, and he got his name above the credits and plenty of financial compensation for the ’60s work he did with Jack.

P.S. I enjoyed reading the Lethem and Priest links.

Oh, it was certainly a shot at Jack, trying to win fans over to Marvel’s side. I think Shooter’s version of events is about 85-90% accurate. Marvel Corporate trotted him out to be the Villain. Who DIDN’T side with Jack? Especially when Funky Flashm- I mean Stan Lee was going around talking about how gee-whiz! Great Marvel was, and how they were all one big kooky fam-damily (except for that short guy smoking a Roy-Tan cigar and scowling outside, never mind him).

Anyone remember the infamous Eclipse ad for Marvel’s 25 anniversary ? (which was ’86, the same year this Bullpen Bulletin came out. I remember reading it and saying, “Poor show!”) For those who don’t (and I lack sufficient web-fu to find it and import it. Plus, no scanner. But enough about me), it had all of Marvel’s characters at the time (or the Big Ones, anyway. The FF, Hulk, Iron Man, Spidey, Cap, Thor. I seem to remember Monica Rambeau being in there too, as she was the Sensational Character Find of the time) and the words “Happy 25th Anniversary, Marvel!” and underneath, “What About Jack?”

Jack got screwed. Ditko got screwed. Stan got rich, lost his money, got rich again and is now a walking joke. Name ONE character Stan created solo, after Jack left. I dare you. I double-dog dare you with sugar on top. When Stan Lee finally dies and is lauded as the Creator of All Those Superheroes, I shall need a new television set, as I will have thrown it out the nearest window like the opening sequence from SCTV.

Comics Should Be Good But Nobody Ever Said Comics Should Be Pretty.

“Has Shooter in any interview since that time taken any responisibility for any of the controversies, mistakes or failures that have typified his career other than “I trusted the wrong people”?”

Well, yes. Numerous times, actually.

“MDT: Is there anything that you would have done differently at Marvel?

“JS: I would have done a lot of things differently. I made some incredibly stupid judgements and some incredibly pathetic mistakes… You’d get these bad situations where I should have been more of a support to [the other editors]. I should have been approving more things, taken more of the heat for them. Maybe things might have gone smoother.”

(Shooter thinks his problem is that he didn’t take /enough/ heat? Yikes.)

Doug M.

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