Avengers Disassembled Ė Creativity And Ownership Ė How Money Consumes Art In America And The Creation of Marvel Comics Avengers
As the Avengers Movies rake in billions of dollars
breaking Box Office records worldwide, it seems a good
time to review the dichotomy created in America by the dueling concepts
of creativity and the need to acquire wealth.
The Avengers is a Marvel Comics, Marvel Entertainment product. And the word Product may be the most descriptive phrase applicable here. Unless youíve been living on the moon, you already know that The Avengers were created in 1963 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. But the tale of the Avengers existence is more complex and reflective of the struggle between artistry and capital than that simple fact. Marvel Comics began life as Timely Comics in the 1940s, evolving into Atlas in the 1950s before settling on the name Marvel in 1963. Their owner/publisher, Martin Goodman, had staked out his claim in the publishing world first with Pulp Magazines in the 1930s, then Comics in the forties with a sideline in Girly Magazines by the 1960s. Goodman had lived a hardscrabble life riding the rails during the Great Depression before chancing into the world of second rate, exploitative genre publishing. Stan Lee was a distant cousin by marriage to Goodman who went to work for Timely in 1941 at the age of seventeen and never left, rapidly moving up the ranks to Chief Editor and Writer. Jack Kirby was part of the seminal Golden Age of Comics creative team of Simon and Kirby. And therein lies the origin of the Avengers. Joe Simon, the senior partner in the team, created Captain America one fine day in 1940 bringing the sketch to Goodman. Work For Hire Until recent years all Comic Book Writes and Artists were employed as Work For Hire employees. That is, everything they created was owned by the company by this agreement. They were wage earners like you and I and everything they created was owned by their employer. It was and is a horribly exploitative arrangement that America Law has upheld time and again in the courts and will never overturn unless the unlikely event occurs of some form of Socialism suddenly taking root in what is essentially a highly Conservative country that legally, culturally and economically favors the Capital Class over the Working Class. We should note that writers and artists, with the exception of Stephen King and a few other Literary Lottery Winners, belong to the latter class of people, not the former. But Joe Simon had a head for business, though a shaky grasp of the details. He knew how the comics operated. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster had sold Superman outright to what would become DC Comics in 1938, which was standard for the business in those days. In fact, E.C. Segar did not own Popeye, King Features did. Even Charles Shulz did not own Charlie Brown and Snoopy, they were and are also property of King Features Syndicate. But Siegel and Shuster had a sweet deal with DC, earning the equivalent in 2012 dollars of over a million dollars a year in royalties throughout the early 1940s before losing their stake in Supes due to an ill advised lawsuit in an attempt to regain ownership of the mild mannered reporter with the blue underwear. Bob Kane, creator of Batman, smartly retained a percentage of ownership of Bruce Wayneís alter ego. The True, Secret Origin Of Captain America Knowing heíd come up with a character with great commercial potential, Simon aimed to cut himself in on a piece of the action. On a handshake deal before turning Captain America over to Goodman, Simon was promised 25% of the characterís merchandising. Jack Kirby, working from Simonís design sketch, breathed life into the character, drawing and co-writing the first ten issues of the comic with Simon. As Simonís partner, he was cut in for part of the profits. The Super Patriot, famously clad in the flag, was impossible for young boys to resist in 1941 and became an overnight hit selling millions of issues and rivaling Superman and Batman in short order.
When Simon was surreptitiously informed by Goodmanís
bookkeeper a few months later that Goodman was allegedly cooking the
books to cheat them of their 25%, rather than confronting their
publisher, Simon and Kirby chose to jump ship to DC Comics where they
became the second highest paid team in Comics next to Siegel and Shuster.
Stan Lee took over the writing of Captain America. And although he
became the most prolific Comics Writer of his era, during the next
twenty years of his career Lee did not create one character of
During this same time Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created some major
properties for DC including the Newsboy Legion and Boy Commandos, which
sold millions during the early 1940s but disappeared without a trace
once the Kid Gangs Comics genre died off. They next invented the Romance
Comic before falling on hard times and splitting up in the late 1950s.
During these years neither Simon nor Kirby created another costumed hero
that caught the publicís imagination.
Fast forward twenty years. Timely Comics had devolved into a second rate shop ready to close its doors when Jack Kirby returned to work for them in 1959. For the next two years Lee and Kirby churned out mostly forgettable monster epics in Goodmanís small surviving line of comics. Meanwhile DC Comics had begun reviving their nearly moribund hero line. As the rebirth of DC's hero line took place, Editor-Writer Julius Schwartz came up with the idea to revive DCís old Justice Society of America, the first Superhero team from the 1940s which was created by Sheldon Mayer and Gardner Fox, updating it to become the Justice League of America teaming Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Green Lantern and Martian Manhunter. The legend goes that one day while golfing with DCís publisher Jack Liebowitz, Goodman was told of the JLAís success. He immediately ordered Stan Lee to put out a team hero comic book. That book became the Fantastic Four. Though the FF would evolve into one of the most unique comics of all time, it began life as a hodgepodge of derivative ideas Lee and Kirby had either used before or deftly lifted from other writers and artists. Lee revived Timelyís Human Torch, reinvented from an android into a hip teenager, swiped Quality Comicsí Plastic Man morphing him into Mister Fantastic and added the lump rock monster Thing and the Invisible Girl. The entire story came terribly close to being a cop of Simon and Kirbyís Challengers of the Unknown which Kirby had taken to DC only a few years earlier. Who created the Fantastic Four Ė Stan Lee or Jack Kirby? Both. To what degree. Who knows. The truth is, you could as easily credit Martin Goodman because it was his IDEA to create a team book. As I once read, in Hollywood when somebody says, ďLetís do a movie or TV Show about a team of guys fighting villains, the guy who voiced that simple idea, if he happens to be a producer, usually gets billing as the Creator of the show. The discussion of how the creative lines were drawn between Lee and Kirby are so murky as to be impossible to penetrate. But letís consider this. Lee had never created a superhero worth talking about in twenty years in the comic business. And the fact is, Kirby hadnít either. What, sacrilege you say? Captain America was Joe Simonís baby and even he was so derivative of Archie Comics' The Shield, they had to make changes to Capsí costume and shield after the first issue to avoid being sued. All of Simon and Kirbyís other attempts at costumed heroes were either refurbishments of other peopleís work. The Sandman and Manhunter, or quickly forgotten, the Newsboy Legionís Guardian, Stuntman, Fighting America, (another Cap knockoff). You get the picture. Lee and Kirby were dynamite together, but except for a brief run at DC years later for Kirby, mediocre apart. So we shall lay to rest that Lee vs. Kirby argument by simply saying: Lee and Kirby, equal parts. Jack the dynamic original visualization, Stan the innovative dialog and humanizing of the characters in ways DC had never dreamed of. Now, back to our origin story. Martin Goodman, if nothing else, was always a shrewd businessman with an ability to capitalize on a trend. As the FF began to sell, Goodman told Lee to create more Super-Hero Comics.
How The Incredible Hulk Got His Green Mojo
Frankensteinís Monster with a Nuclear Age twist. When Doctor Bruce Banner is belted by Gamma Rays while trying to save an errant teenager whoís wandered onto the testing grounds, he becomes a Jekyll and Hyde green monster. Brilliant! The book failed after seven issues but you couldnít keep oleí Greenskin down. After his comic was revived and became a hit, Hollywood turned him into a silly Fugitive style TV series in the seventies starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno as the respectively green and non-green Hulk. Two movies of middling success followed in the 2000s. But who can forget that memorable theme song from the sixties cartoon. Tales Of Asgard Ė The Mighty Thor To get the credits straight, although conceptualized by Lee and Kirby, the first script for Thor and many others, were written by Stanís brother, Larry Lieber. Jack Kirby had also toyed around with the idea of the Norse God Thor for some years, using him in an old Sandman strip at DC in the 1940s. Letís face it. Since Superman first donned his blue tights, there hasnít been much that wasnít a knock off of somebody or something else that had come before. Jack was very much into mythology as he showed later with the New Gods and the Eternals, so his input in rapidly moving Thor beyond a simple soap opera/Cold Warrior as Stan and Larry first wrote him into the cosmic god we all know and love, has to be credited in great part to Jack. The 2011 movie was directed with equal parts mirth and grim severity by the critically acclaimed Shakespearean Kenneth Branagh, but the result was mixed at best, though a hit at the Box Office. .
The Tin Man Gets A Heart Ė Iron Man
Jack Kirbyís hand in creating Iron Man was limited to drawing the cover of the first comic. As to the design of the armor that he drew, who knows, Stan, Jack, maybe even Don Heck who drew the first comic and origin story. Larry Leiber again pitched in with the script with a story by Stan. But Iron Man's invention was certainly innovative. Like most of DCís heroes, Tony Stark was a multi-millionaire, but with a twist. Stark had a piece of shrapnel lodged near his heart who needed his armor chest plate to stay alive. Wild man, really wild. The comic was nearly cancelled in the early seventies and was always Marvelís stepchild, receiving second tier artists and writers for much of its run. But the character was definitely intriguing. A modern knight, literally in shining armor. The Wizard of Ozí Tin Man updated. Basically it was just cool to see bullets bounce off him. Hollywoodís reformed bad boy Robert Downey Jr. easily made the role of playboy Tony Stark his own in two movies, effortlessly blending his own public persona into Starkís.
Ant-Man, The Wasp, Hawkeye And A Cast of Lots
Virtually every Marvel Hero has passed through the Avengers at some point in their career or the other, but Scientist Henry Pym, a.k.a. Ant-Man, Giant-Man, Goliath and Yellow Jacket and his girlfriend/wife Jan Pym, the Wasp, were significantly on board for those first adventures back in 1963. Other notables include the onetime Iron man villain Hawkeye, Thorís nemesis Hercules, former X-Men villains Quicksilver and his sister the Scarlet Witch, the android Vision, the first African-American superhero the Black Panther and others too numerous to mention. The Real Origin Of The Avengers So whose idea was this anyway? Martin Goodmanís. Once Stan and Jack had created their pantheon of heroes, Goodman told Stan, ďNow put them together in a book.Ē Or words to that effect. Thus was born the Justice League of Marvel, err, something like that anyway. There is a tendency to vilify Martin Goodman because he didnít share any of the money he made from Stan and Jackís creations with Stan and Jack beyond their regular wages, but letís look at the facts. Goodman kept the doors open at Marvel in the late fifties and early sixties when he could have just as well closed up shop and stuck to his girly magazines, which were Iím sure more profitable. But the guy must have liked something about the comics beyond just the nickels and dimes or he wouldnít have persevered. He even tried to start another comics line, Atlas, in 1975 after heíd sold Marvel, a venture in which he lost a ton of money.g to give a couple of over the hill has beens and never was types like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby one more chance to make comics for nickels and dimes. And you never know, the magic just might happen again.
Even The Sistine Chapel Was A Work For Hire
So Goodman didnít share the profits. What is this already, a communist country? Yeah, it would have been nice if he had, but thatís not how the business worked. DC didnít give anything away either and as we said before, even Charlie Brown didnít belong to Charles Shulz once it was published. Should Martin Goodman have shared the money? Yeah. But hereís a good question. Simon and Kirby were in business as publishers for a while in the 1950s. Did they share any of their ownerís profits with their stable of artists and writers? Is that a deafening silence I hear out there? In the late fifties Jack was drawing a syndicated comic strip, Sky Masters. He got into a nasty fight with Jack Schiff over royalties. Schiff, an editor at DC, had been involved in helping get Masters into syndication and felt he was entitled to a share in the profits. Jack fought him every step of way, refusing to hand over 5% of the strip, leading to a court battle which Schiff won and led to Kirby losing lucrative work at DC because of the acrimony. The strip ultimately failed, but within that episode, Jack showed himself to be as proprietary as Martin Goodman when he was in the driverís seat. And hereís another fact. Outside of Stan Lee, by the late 1960s and through the 1970s, Jack Kirby was likely the highest paid person working in comics. From statements by Mike Thibodeaux in his book and a rough estimate of Kirbyís page rate as has been hinted at here and there, Jack was probably making between $50,000 and $60,000 dollars a year, the equivalent in 2012 dollars of $250,000. Not bad. Certainly he worked hard for that money and had to buy his own insurance out of it, an issue Jack raised many times in later years. But health insurance was dirt cheap in those days compared to what it is now. At most Jack would have been paying two, maybe three thousand a year for insurance back then. No pension plan? Well, he had enough left over to invest in his own, which Iím sure he did. And Stan made a helluva lot more. Both of those guys made a lot more money than I ever will in my lifetime or my Dad, who worked like a dog all his life or my kids or grandkids are likely to. I donít begrudge them that. They earned it. They gave us an incredible gift. But letís put this stuff in perspective shall we? Should they both have made millions? Yeah. And Stan probably did. Jack made a good living, but should have earned more. But Stan was the promoter, the guy who ceaselessly hawked Marvel for 40 years, helping sell it to Hollywood and make it a household name. He was a master at it. Sorry kids, but there is more to this than just great artwork. Though it's hard to admit, we need salesman and business people to create something like Marvel as well as the guys who invent the heroes. If not for Stan's relentless salesmanship, there might not be an Avengers movie. And again, it was Goodman who paid the printers, engravers, distributors, drummed up advertising and put up the capital to fund Marvel when it wasn't worth a dime to anyone else. A good analogy, as we said at the top of this blurb, even the Sistine Chapel was a Work For Hire. It was commissioned by the Pope and when it was done, it was property of the Roman Catholic Church, not Michelangeloís. It was then and it continues to be a major draw for both True Believers (now thereís a term Avengersí fans from the sixties will remember) and tourists, no doubt funding the Vatican in ad infinitum. By the reasoning of most of todayís fanboys, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee should own all of Marvelís creations. Well, it would be nice, but thatís not the way it works. Kirbyís family recently sued Marvel in an attempt to gain control of the characters. The suit was thrown out before it ever came to trial, summary judgment. It was inevitable. Jack knew he was doing Work For Hire. He signed such agreements over and over again with both Marvel and DC. He stated during his lifetime that he understood that, but wanted only to be recognized for the work he had done, which he now is. Work For Hire is a Lousy Concept It does cheat creative people. It should be struck down. But it never will. We live in a nation whose motto is ďIn God We TrustĒ, but in reality should be ďIn Capital We TrustĒ. Because ultimately, the ones with the bank accounts win in the end. Iím not advocating overreaching socialism. But some middle ground would be nice. I also recognize that if the capital bearing class doesnít look to profit, they wonít be as likely to invest, i.e. Goodman keeping the doors open at Marvel in 1959 so Jack had a place to come and work after heíd pissed everyone off at DC. The Epic Aftermath (To Coin A Stan Lee-esque Bombastic Title) These days the comics are almost dead. They serve only as a springboard for bloated, lame, CGI, 3D Hollywood epics such as the new Avengers movie. And the elite few who work in the comics do share in the royalties if they create something new, which is unlikely because the comics havenít produced much of significance since the halcyon days of Lee and Kirby. And you know what? I wish chiseling old Martin Goodman was still in business. Because if he was, heíd likely be willing to give a couple of over the hill has beens and never was types like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby one more chance to make comics for nickels and dimes. And you never know, the magic just might happen again.