So yesterday Scott Kurtz posted a typically Kurtzian post about how those who were arguing that:
1.) Jack Kirby’s estate is not getting the share of funds derived from the various properties Kirby helped create for Marvel, and
2.) this is wrong,
are, basically, self-important assholes. Of course, because this is Scott Kurtz, it’s not terribly well written or intelligent. But hey, let’s have at it.
You may not know it, but in many comic book industry circles, there’s a lot of hand-wringing going on about how all that money is being generated by Jack Kirby’s creations and none of it is going to his estate. And there’s a lot of slacktivism happening in the facetweets and twitsbooks trying to get people to boycott the movie or give to the Hero Initiative to counterbalance the karma-carbon footprint you left when you saw the movie three times and enjoyed it. You monster. Don’t you know that you’re just filling the coffers of an evil corporation while the estate of Jack Kirby goes unpaid. He created ALL THOSE GUYS!
It wouldn’t be a Scott Kurtz post if it didn’t start out with a gratituous amount of pre-emptive whining, would it? Also, note that he’s complaining about the Hero Initiative idea. This will be important a bit later on.
Even Thor (which was incidentally created by the Norse).
Also derived from ancient Norse myth: Jane Foster, the Warriors Three, the Destroyer armor, Sif as a warrior maiden (as opposed to the demure earth goddess she was in the Norse Eddas), only Thor (or someone worthy) being able to lift Mjolnir, the Odinsleep, the Bifrost being a wormhole… really, one could go on at length about all the things Stan and Jack lifted directly from Norse mythology!
Now some people are saying “hey, this isn’t about the money. It’s about proper credit. It’s about Jack Kirby’s legacy. About how he created the Marvel Universe and nobody cares. This is about creator rights.”
Except wait. Here’s a picture of the Avengers from Jack Kirby’s Avenger’s #1. And here’s a picture of The Ultimates from Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch. Which looks more like the movie you saw?
This isn’t terribly relevant – never mind that Movie Cap was much closer to being “classic” Captain America than Ultimate (a more “classic” costume, not a jingoistic asshole but instead a peaceful idealist forced into battle by ethics), ditto the Hulk (green and not grey, not a rape-obsessed killing machine when Hulked out), ditto Thor (Thor’s whole movie was a glowing paean to the Kirby vision of Asgard, right down to emphasizing that the Asgardians were super-science aliens rather than actual gods), with Black Widow and Iron Man splitting the difference and Hawkeye being the closest Ultimates analogue – because, wait for it, Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch did not create the characters in question. As I am sure they would be the first to admit.
Jack Kirby worked for Marvel until 1970, and then he returned for another three years in 1975. But since then. in the 30 some-odd years since he left Marvel, hundreds of creators have added to the mythos and stories of the characters that Marvel owns and Jack helped create. Hundreds. And many of them added integral aspects to these characters which are just as important to their legacy as Jack and Stan ever did Take a look at Walter Simonson’s run on Thor and tell me that he doesn’t deserve as much credit as Jack or Stan when it comes to the lasting mythos of that character as a modern day super-hero. Or how could you have the Tony Stark we saw on screen in Iron Man without David Michelinie and Bob Layton’s “Demon in a bottle” run on Iron Man in the late 70’s?
Certainly all the other creators who have added their own little touches to the characters since they were created are to be appreciated as well. But there is a difference between putting an awesome flame-job on your car, and building the car. It is easier to build on established work than to create something effectively from scratch – it just is. Any creator should know this in their bones. Scott Kurtz should know it better than most, as he created a whole lot of original characters (even though he relies on cheap pop culture references for many of his punchlines).
I don’t like that Jack Kirby got screwed over by Marvel back in the day. I don’t like it at all. It’s a sad story. It’s as tragic as the story of the men who created Superman. These guys got screwed over. But that was over 40 years go,guys. The men involved are dead and buried. The policies that screwed them over were changed decades ago. Things have changed for the better, even when it comes to doing work-for-hire with the big two.
This is a classic “look, I’m not unreasonable, but…” paragraph right here. Kurtz concedes that Kirby got screwed over by Marvel and that this was tragic and wrong (after arguing for several paragraphs that it wasn’t because Kirby was no big deal really but, whatever, it’s not like expecting Kurtz to be internally consistent within a single blogpost is a good bet), but then goes for the “this is not a big deal, because it’s all in the past and things are better now.”
Of course, Alan Moore is still being screwed over by DC today, and Chris Roberson was booted off his titles post-haste when he said he wouldn’t re-up with DC because their actions were, you know, wrong and stuff, but I guess we have all learned since that happened a couple months ago and now it’s all in the past and DC isn’t going to release Before Watchmen after all. And of course Marvel isn’t going to attack sketchbook artists at conventions who draw Marvel characters, even though they’ve asserted that they have the right to do that if they ever chose to exercise it, because that’s all in the past and things are better now; I mean, just because Disney has a long track record of harassing absolutely anybody who uses their characters without permission (right down to unauthorized nursery school murals) doesn’t mean that they’re going to force Marvel to follow suit. Also, Alan Moore is (let’s be honest) kind of a dickbag, so it’s not really a big deal that DC is screwing him over.1
In fact, the comics industry has screwed so many people over that there is an entire charity dedicated to helping destitute comics creators. It is called the Hero Initiative. You may have heard of it because Kurtz mocked the idea of donating to it in tandem with going to see The Avengers – not boycotting the movie, simply donating to charity in recognition of creator’s rights.2 Because donating to a charity is, apparently, now a selfish thing to do somehow. I’m not sure how the moral math in Scott Kurtz’ head works here.
Bluntly: Kurtz’ argument here is so dense that it’s hard to imagine anybody seriously interested in actual argument making it. Corporate control over their IP is growing more grasping and tenacious, not less, and it is corporate IP that dominates comics even today, thirty years after the independent comics movement first began to pick up steam in the 1980s. That IP is so dominant that it reflects upon a good chunk of the “independent” comics scene – how much of said scene consists of reactions to or riffs upon those characters owned by DC and Marvel? Most indie superhero books (and there are so very many of them) read like DC/Marvel fanfic with the labels buffed off. (This isn’t to say that many of those books aren’t excellent. There are some true gems in there. But consider that Alan Moore’s run on Supreme, one of the most highly praised “indie” superhero comic book runs ever, is widely acknowledged as “Alan Moore’s never-going-to-happen extended run on Superman.”)
How many comic strips less would Kurtz have drawn, if he was forced to delete every single strip containing a reference to Marvel Comics? It would be a fair chunk of them.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t learn from this. I’m saying we’ve ALREADY learned from it. I have no doubt that we learned from it. The black and white creator-owned books of the 80s. The exodus of Marvel creators to form Image in the 90s. The indy comics movement now. Webcomics. Kickstarter. We’ve learned this lesson, folks. You’re getting angry over nothing. You’re suiting up for a battle we’ve already won.
Now, don’t get me wrong: it’s good that indie comics creators can use the internet to promote their work. Heck, I do it. But whenever people make this argument as a solution to the problem of corporate control of IP that has become part of the common ground of our culture, it’s inevitably someone who has already made it. The phrase we are looking for here is “confirmation bias,” and it becomes more and more obvious as fewer and fewer webcomics “make it” to the webcomicking big leagues. I’ve discussed Kickstarter here previously and that’s not an answer either – again, Kickstarter is fine for delivering product to an established fanbase, but by its very nature it isn’t great for trying out new stuff (and looking at Kickstarter funding lately, it seems the market has started figuring this out as funders get more selective).3
But even were indie comics to be flourishing – and let’s just say they are rather than diving into numbers to see if they in fact are flourishing or just scraping by, because that whole issue is a major derail – the issue here is that a significant part of our common cultural language (and as noted above, common cultural language Kurtz frequently uses himself) is private property, and how we choose to engage with that fact. Some of us think that the private-property nature of the beast is fine – these are the comics fans who bitched endlessly when the Siegel estate exercised its rights over the Superman copyrights. Some think that the public domain needs to be more aggressively pursued. Some want a middle ground. And some, like Kurtz, have chosen to bury their heads in the ground and assert that there is no problem.
It’s a child’s argument to say that Marvel is the bad guy and the Kirby estate is the good guy. It’s just infinitely more complicated than that.
It really isn’t. Marvel aggressively did their best to browbeat Kirby, during his lifetime, out of rights that were his by any reasonable moral standard.
Now, granted, there is an argument against Kirby-screwage. It demands that you take the position that we must all be eternally vigilant against others who might try to screw us over or exploit our weakness for their own advantage rather than believe that we should rightly expect some sense of community and fellowship even from corporate entities. It is Randian and it is cold and it is heartless, but it is intellectually consistent and had Kurtz made it, I could at least maintain some respect for him even if I thought making it made him, by default, kind of an asshole. But Kurtz hasn’t made that argument (I expect in part because he recognizes that it is cold and heartless and doesn’t want to be thought of that way) and has instead defaulted to the “come on, guys, can’t we all just get along?” whine of the enabler. Which also means he’s still kind of an asshole.
And to say that Jack Kirby is responsible for that Avengers movie is a ridiculous notion and insulting to the combined hard work of thousands, if not tens of thousands, of creators who have put their efforts into keeping our modern mythos of super-heroes alive and well.
I don’t think anybody is saying Kirby is solely responsible for the Avengers movie. Because that would be stupid. But Kirby created the characters, so maybe, just maybe it is worthwhile to argue that he (or his estate) should be justly compensated for creating the characters which have starred in a movie that has made one billion dollars in its first month of release, as opposed to the share of profits from the film the Kirby estate has currently received, which is… let me check my figures here… ah, yes, nothing.4
And these are men and women who are well aware of Jack Kirby. They’re doing this in the spirit of Jack Kirby, not to spite him.
Of course! Spiting Jack Kirby is apparently Scott Kurtz’ job.
Am I really expected to be angry at Joe Quesada for something that happened before he was even born? Just because he’s a big-wig at Marvel now?
Of course Joe Quesada bears no responsibility for Marvel screwing over Kirby back in the day. However, Quesada certainly bears responsibility for how Marvel chooses to conduct itself now. Addressing the issue of fans being upset that the Kirby estate is not being justly compensated for Marvel’s success is, when you get down to it, part of Joe’s job. It is not in any way a repugnant or inflammatory act to address the major executive of a company and say “your company is not behaving as I would like it to behave,” no matter how much Kurtz wants that to be the case.
Part of the change in comics culture over the last couple of decades has been the transformation of Marvel and DC from being relatively small-potatoes publishing concerns into massive corporate IP farms, and the con atmosphere where All Comic Creators Are Buddies often obscures the fact that Joe Quesada is the chief creative officer for a company worth billions of dollars rather than just another pencil-jockey. But Joe Quesada isn’t just another pencil-jockey. He’s a major player in a large entertainment conglomerate. It’s perfectly reasonable to request that he address concerns about the company’s behavior.
Am I really expected to be upset with Stan Lee for deciding to stop writing comics and get paid to be a tireless ambassador for Marvel? The man earns every penny he gets paid at that job. Ask anyone who knows him or spends any amount of time around him. Are YOU going to be traveling the globe at 89 with infinite patience and enthusiasm for every person that approaches you? Hell no you won’t. Nor will I. But Stan does. And that’s why he gets paid. And that’s why he get the cameos every movie. I’m sorry that I can’t muster the energy to be angry at Stan Lee for having some business sense and not dying.
In the words of Darrell Hammond playing Sean Connery in “Celebrity Jeopardy” sketches on Saturday Night Live: “Boy, I believe you may be functionally retarded.”
Seriously, what the fuck is this? I’ve read all of the major critical pieces arguing that Jack Kirby’s estate deserves greater compensation than what he and it received, and not in a single one of them has anybody ever attacked Stan Lee for starring in movies or argued that Lee had anything to do with Kirby getting screwed over. I’ve read more than a few articles and essays which argued that Stan Lee over-emphasized his role in creating all the great Marvel characters (which is probably true to some extent because Lee’s always been a self-promoter, although I’ve never bought the argument that some have made that Kirby/Ditko did all the work and Lee was just a glorified scripter), but I don’t think any of them ever said “and that’s why Jack Kirby got screwed.”
But even if Lee somehow was to blame for it, how would his actions as an “ambassador for Marvel” (which is a formless fictional entity designed to hold intellectual property to provide value to shareholders) mean anything? Jesus, Kurtz can’t even win the arguments he’s making up in his head.
I’m not a lawyer, so I’m not going to argue the merits of the Kirby estate’s case against Marvel. I’m not a theologist, so I’m not going to debate whether it’s a moral imperative for Marvel to just GIVE the estate a couple million dollars cause they can afford it.
“Look, this entire debate functions on two basic levels, but I don’t want to engage on either of those levels because… I don’t want to, okay?”
(Only theologists can discuss morality, you see.)
But I am a grown ass man, and I can tell you this: the real world does not operate like the morality plays we see acted out on the silver screen in movies like “The Avengers.” Life can not be summed up by “that’s not fair.” It’s not as simple as “Give Jack’s estate some money, Marvel. You can afford it.” That’s not pragmatic thinking. That’s cynicism. And I’m so tired of the cynicism.
I have read this half a dozen times and, putting aside the fact that Kurtz has argued a moral position right after saying he wasn’t going to argue a moral position, it still doesn’t make any sense. Seriously, what is he blathering about here? How is one position or the other “pragmatic thinking” or “cynicism”? Which of the two applies to people encouraging other people to donate to charity or put pressure on corporate officials? How are these even applicable terms? Scott Kurtz writes shit for a living! How can he write a sentence this meaningless?
Guys, learn from the Avengers movie. The real villains here are the cynics. They are our Loki. The people looking to pit fandom and an entire industry against itself to make themselves feel powerful. The worms who never had the courage to create anything themselves looking to forge an identity on the internet by getting in a good dig. By being the guy who got the awesome last word in. These are the real bad guys of our world. Not Marvel executives. Not movie studios. Not the hundreds and thousands of creatives who make movies. Don’t fall for it.
This paragraph strongly makes me suspect that Kurtz got in an internet slapfight with some nerd somewhere who said he was a shitty comicker and who, at some other point, also said Kirby got screwed, because this last paragraph is positively Kevin-Smithian in its levels of pre-emptive defensiveness. It’s the fans who are at fault here, because the fans are pointing out the entirely reasonable argument that Kirby got screwed and that’s making it harder for all of us (and especially Scott Kurtz) to enjoy watching The Avengers.
Chris Roberson, on Twitter, responded to this by saying “Standing up for fairness makes you a cynic and “bad guy,” but accepting inequity with a shrug makes you an “adult”? Do I have that right?” And that is basically accurate and much more concise than what I have written here, not least because Kurtz’ post is mostly empty wind and on its own merits isn’t really worth addressing. But a lot of people will read his stupid bullshit and think “well, he’s got some good points,” because if someone writes enough paragraphs about anything, there will be people who decide that he has written something of substance based on the number of words produced.
But Kurtz doesn’t have any substance. He’s just got attitude. And that’s not enough.
UPDATE: In comments, Pete notes that Scott Kurtz, in 2010, said this:
“If you’re a member of an industry that let Dave Cockrum die in a VA hospital after helping give us most of the X-Men characters that comprised three blockbuster films and you get pissy about what Mark Waid said, then you deserve to remain on this sinking ship.”
That Scott Kurtz! He’s so cynical.
- I have honestly lost count of the number of times I have heard variations on this in the last few months. If DC was doing to Neil Gaiman a tenth of what they’re doing to Alan Moore, the nerdrage would measure on the upper end of the Richter scale. [↩]
- Full disclosure: I donated the cost of my Avengers ticket to the Hero Initiative. [↩]
- And besides, it’s not even good confirmation bias because when a Scott Kurtz or whoever “makes it,” they’re at best finding their own survivable little niche. There is not gonna be a PVP movie anytime soon. [↩]
- The combined worldwide box-office revenue for the “Avengers universe” films is over $3.3 billion dollars. That doesn’t count the Fantastic Four films, which would take you to the $4 billion mark. Or any of the DVD/merchandise sales. [↩]