Sunday, March 19, 2006

Bounty hunters followup

After feedback on my previous post via e-mail and from the Jack Kirby mailing list, I'd like to clarify a couple of points on my objection to using the name and legacy of Jack Kirby.

First, I have no problem with people paying tribute to Kirby in their work. I didn't see anything wrong with Alan Moore or Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird creating characters in their own comics that were meant to be Kirby himself. (Click on those links: that second one is an absolute gem.) Joe Casey and Tom Scioli have had huge success with a series called GØDLAND, a tribute that works best for fans who recognize the allusions they're making to vintage Kirby comics. What Grant Morrison just did with the Kirby characters Klarion the Witchboy, Mister Miracle, and the Guardian in his Seven Soldiers series was quite lovely. And then there are the artists who can "do Kirby" and visually quote from his work in the process of doing their own thing. To me, these are all ways of saying "That guy was a giant! People like us who came later owe him a huge debt!"

(By way of full disclosure: I've also written the script for a Kirby tribute comic...and it occurred to me that I might be setting myself up for a "Hypocrite of the Decade" award somewhere down the line if it seemed like I was condemning the very thing I was doing myself.)

On the other hand, to have "Jack Kirby's" in the title of a new book by other people gives the impression that it represents his work or carries his informed blessing. If Jack's name wasn't in the title or on the cover, this objection wouldn't apply: it would simply be a comic by Lisa Kirby and Mike Thibodeaux, with a line on the credits page reading "based on an idea by Jack Kirby" and that would be entirely appropriate.

An excellent point was made on the Kirby mailing list regarding the "Kirbyverse" comics from Topps, a line of comics based on concepts and character sketches by Kirby. The actual comics all had Kirby's name on the covers but were largely or entirely the work of other people. And of course there were other times Jack had no problem with other people taking over characters he created -- we're talking about the guy who alone or in collaboration with others invented Captain America, the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, and several thousands of others. But the arrangement with Topps came at a very specific time in Kirby's life: a time when he was locked in a legal struggle with Marvel Comics over creative credit for his work and the ownership of his original artwork. There was an immediate pressing reason to raise his name recognition as a creator of characters at that particular moment. For me, the bottom line is that Jack decided the Topps arrangement was appropriate then, that one time, and was available to personally approve of having his name on the finished product. That isn't the case now, and there are a different set of concerns today.

Jack Kirby didn't need to think in terms of what his legacy would be years after his death; he was concerned with providing for his family. Now that he's gone, the family's concern should be preserving his legacy in the decades to come. They can do this through the Kirby Museum and by working with publishers to make sure Kirby's actual work is always available to those who want to read it. The Kirby Estate doesn't need to quickly elevate Kirby's name recognition in the short term. If anything, it needs to do the opposite of this, and be more protective and conservative about his reputation and keeping the use of his name away from things he did not participate in. In short, the family needs to take a long-range view. It's not a question of "does the Kirby family have the legal right to make any deal they want?" -- obviously they do -- but my personal feeling that this isn't in the best interests of the Kirby family or in the best interests of preserving Kirby's reputation.

I hope this clears up any potential misunderstanding...and I want to emphasize again that I mean no personal insult to anyone involved in this project. If my best friend in the world were working on this project, I would say the same thing.


  1. I dunno...I don't think people felt that Shelly's estate had anything to do with Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, did they?

    I honestly do not mind it as a matter of identification/attention-getting.

    You know, like, "Hey, look! Over here! These characters were created by the KING!"

  2. Sorry, Brian, but that counterexample doesn't really work.

    Mary Shelley of course did write the novel Frankenstein, and the Kenneth Branagh film was an attempt to be more faithful to that original work than previous cinematic versions had been -- the same logic that led to a film called Bram Stoker's Dracula. Personally, I don't think either film succeeded artistically in capturing the spirit of the original source material, but that wasn't for lack of good intentions. In both cases, the makers were using the title as a way of saying "don't be misled -- we're going back to the original source material here" rather than as a means of enhancing the box office receipts.

    The thing is, the names of Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker are not in and of themselves selling points with the general public. No one who wasn't already a fan would ever say "Wow, gotta go see that new film by Mary Shelley!" Those writers are each best known for those single creations, Frankenstein's creature and Dracula...and even then, the original novels are not so widely read; people know those characters from previous movie versions.

    (If the comic Y: The Last Man were being published under the title Mary Shelley's The Last Man it might be a closer analogy...but still not quite.)

    And too, there's the whole point that film versions of novels are translations from one medium to another, and we all understand this: no one would ever think that Mary Shelley had written a screenplay or directed the film. Not so with a Marvel comic book that expressly presents itself as being the creation of the most prolific creator in American comics! To have comic books that Jack Kirby did not write or draw bearing the words "Jack Kirby's" in the title while comic books he did write and draw do not have his name in the title can only cause confusion with the general public. All the worse if these misidentified works are poor in comparison to his actual work, because this could harm his professional reputation.

    Mary Shelley is one of my all-time favorite historical figures -- she was a genius who single-handedly invented the entire genre of science fiction in one stroke -- so in that sense I definitely rank her up there with Jack Kirby. Although, in this particular context, it might be more apt to compare her, or Bram Stoker, with Jerry Siegel, who had that one big successful creation better known to the public through later interpretations by other writers.

  3. M. Shelly's cool, no question there.

    You know what this is more like? Christopher Tolkien going and publishing his father's notes as The Silmarillion. Or Audrey Geisel producing Daisy-Head Mayzie from a script found in a drawer after Dr. Seuss' death.

    Maybe even (in a way) almost the entire output of Emily Dickenson, the great majority of which she had stuffed in various drawers, and never saw print until long after her demise. (Although those weren't elaborated upon.)

    Gimmie more time and I'm sure I could come up with more examples. All I know is, when it comes time to make out the will, I'm gonna have to put a "No monkey-business wit' da IP" clause in there. Solid.

  4. Further thought, on the no-monkey-business clause:

    Herge, creator, writer and artist of the wonderful Tintin books, had just such a statement in his own will. That's the reason you never see new Tintin stories these days, as he stated that no one else could write for him.


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