Writer. Creator. Large mammal.

The Jack Kirby Artwork Return Controversy

Before the mid-seventies, no one got artwork returned. Actually, few cared about it. As the collector market grew stronger, and the artwork became valuable, artists started caring.

By the time I became editor in chief at Marvel in 1978 (and therefore was in a position to have a voice in the Marvel management), both Marvel and DC had instituted art return policies. Marvel’s, set up by Roy Thomas, gave writers a share of the pages. Go figure. As soon as I could, I changed that — one reason why a few writers like Moench and Thomas didn’t like me. Tough. I did what I believed was right.

Kirby worked for Marvel during that period and had art returned to him just like everybody else. The dispute arose over the old art, from before the return plan was instituted, which was in a warehouse.

I was on the side of Kirby and all the other old artists. I tried at every opportunity to convince Marvel’s brass to return the old artwork. There were many reasons cited by the corporate counsel, financial officer, etc. why this was a problem — i.e., the art could be considered an asset, and couldn’t be disposed of with no benefit to the stockholders of a publicly traded company, tax issues and lots of other nonsense.

Over time, I successfully overcame those objections, and got approval from the board to return the old artwork. Kirby’s contract had expired at about that time, and he ‘d left. As soon as he left, he sued Marvel for ownership of the characters he’d created. The return of the artwork was one aspect of that case.

So then because he was suing Marvel, the lawyers felt that the artwork couldn’t be returned — it’s complicated, but doing so could tend to support his claims. In fact, they wouldn’t let me return artwork to anyone while the case was pending. Imagine the frustration of guys like Joe Sinnott and the Buscemas.

The legal sparring went on a long time. Starting, as most lawsuits do, with a period of threats and legal maneuvering, in 1978 the Kirby side began an aggressive legal and PR attack on Marvel that ended (or lessened somewhat) in mid-1986 when the matter was settled. Though it was a complex case about who owned the characters the way it was pitched to the public by their side was that Marvel — and in particular, I wouldn’t give Kirby his art back.

During this time, I’d run into Jack at conventions; he couldn’t have been nicer to me. If you look at what Jack said from the podium in those days, he’d acknowledge he had a dispute with Marvel, but he’d also say, “We’re trying to work it out.” He was very gracious about it. Some people around him would get pretty vicious. There was one time I was at a show; I’d sit in the back of the room if I ever went to a panel. Jack was on the panel so I went. There were some other people up there, some of the people who kind of gathered around him; some for genuinely noble reasons, some for self-serving reasons. I think it was Gary Groth who worked this crowd into a frenzy, shouting, “If you see anybody from Marvel, go after them with 2x4s!” I’m in the back of the room, and there’s 300 people between me and the door, and I thought, “Hmm, this is going to be interesting.”

This guy sitting next to me turns and says, “Why don’t you say something?” I said, “They’re not here to hear me talk!” I survived that incident obviously, but it was one more problem in my life than I needed. I was in a position as Marvel’s representative where I couldn’t very well get out in front of a crowd and say, “Hey, these guys upstairs at Marvel really are assholes. I keep trying to tell them to do the right thing, and they won’t.” As long as I was cashing their paychecks, my morals say I can’t do that. Now that doesn’t mean I can’t fight like a maniac behind closed doors, which I did — making a great number of enemies in the process.

Eventually, I convinced the lawyers that it wouldn’t compromise the case if other artists got their art back, and I was allowed to return everyone’s but Jack’s.

The Kirby case ended when Marvel, in discovery, produced a number of documents, including several signed with Cadence Industries’ predecessor proving that Kirby had specifically agreed more than once in exchange for compensation (beyond the original payment for the work) that Marvel owned the work (art, characters, everything). One specifically listed every story Kirby ever did — part of the proof Martin Goodman was required to provide that he owned what he was selling when he sold Marvel to Cadence, I believe. Kirby’s lawyers were apparently unaware of the existence of these documents, apologized, and dropped the suit.

Marvel’s lawyers would have shown them earlier, but never dreamed that the other side wasn’t aware of them.

The only remaining thing was returning the artwork. Kirby then demanded as a condition of  accepting the artwork that he must be given sole credit as creator on all the characters he co-created with Stan, and that Stan must specifically receive no credit. He framed his demands for the return of the artwork in such a way that to do so would be a tacit admission by Marvel that it was “his” art, i.e., he owned the underlying rights, and therefore the characters. Kirby also insisted that he created Spider-Man.

About a dozen times, I requested an audience with the upper management and/or lawyers to argue in favor of generosity toward Kirby. One thing I proposed was offering a settlement which would include Kirby (and all other founding fathers) in the character-creator incentive I’d established for current Marvel creators. This incentive was a profit sharing plan that paid a royalty for ALL uses of a character. It works like partial ownership. I asked for it to be retroactive to the date the plan had been installed. Retroactive payments of any kind beyond that date had been previously, adamantly ruled out by management. As it turned out, my more modest plan was ruled out too.

So Jack, with his lawyer’s help, sent us a letter refusing to accept the artwork back unless he were given credit as sole creator on all the old stuff he and Stan worked on together. He specifically insisted that Stan would get no credit, and that Jack must get credit, or Jack would not accept his artwork back. That just blew my mind. Shortly after that, I met with Jack in San Diego, and I talked with him. I said, “Doesn’t Stan deserve some credit?” Jack said, “Yeah, he does.” And I said, “So you’d be okay if we put ‘Stan and Jack’?” He said yes. I said, “And another thing, Jack, in your letter you insist you created Spider-Man, and I know you developed a version of Spider-Man, but it wasn’t the one that was actually used. The one that was actually used was the one Steve did.” He said, “Yeah, you’re right, that’s his.” Jack was fine with it; he had no problem. So we settled, and he got his artwork back.

Finally, Kirby got his art back. But to this day, no one has a clue who Jim Galton was or his role in this. Very few people know the people behind the scenes who were calling the shots in this thing. To the average fan, Marvel was Jim Shooter, and why did he do this? I was in a position where, unless I was willing to get out there and badmouth one of our founding fathers, or badmouth the people who were paying my checks, what could I do? I wasn’t willing to talk bad about Jack certainly, and I felt honor-bound to represent Marvel as best I could, even though I disagreed; not with the legality of their stance, but with the intelligence of it. It was just an idiotic position. I kept hoping I could work something out. From my point of view, no one on this planet fought harder for Jack and his interests than me, ever. I’m the most vilified human being in the world when the subject of Jack Kirby comes up, and it wearies me. It really does. Probably no one will believe me, and at this point, so be it. I’m not interested in proving my case. I’m not interested in getting into a debate over it. I’ve said my piece. They can take it or leave it.

During these years, my relationship with the corporate bosses had gone downhill. They were trying to sell Marvel, and I found some of their dealings injurious to the creators and damaging to the creators’ and company’s future. I fought every step the way.

I’m not good at political infighting. My fighting with top Marvel management went on behind closed doors. Because the board was increasingly at war with me, they were only too happy to let the blame for the Kirby mess stick to me, and they did everything else they could to damage me — because, years before, when this all began, they felt that if I were to leave, a lot of people would go with me. They did a good job undercutting me, though, and by the time I left, everything but the Challenger disaster was my fault. People at Marvel threw parties.



Reminiscing About Jack Kirby


Secrets of the Secret Wars


  1. I’m five years late to this conversation but happy to read a balanced account of the Kirby matter. Unfortunately, has it become fashionable (again?) to bash Stan, and even to deny, as even some people in the industry have done, Lee’s role in the creation of what became the Marvel Universe? I’ve even read some rather famous commentators who have claimed that Stan created *nothing* and that all the Marvel books of the 1960s were created by Jack whole cloth.

    Maybe I’m missing something but it’s easy to refute those claims. Read the books that everyone acknowledges that Jack wrote, especially his mid-70s output at Marvel, and then read the books credited to both Stan and Jack. The tone of the two bodies of work are utterly distinct. The style of the dialog, the pacing of the story, the vocabulary couldn’t be more different. Stan’s work had that blithe, winking, tongue-in-cheek tone that made Marvel Marvel. I assert that, as innovative as Jack’s 1960s work was, it was that self-referential, ironic approach — that today we’d call post-modern — that was the deal-maker in terms of bringing readers to Marvel and getting them hooked. That was an entirely original approach that, married with Kirby’s visuals, revolutionized “funny books.” It was a collaboration and that’s hard for some people to grasp. Observers of collaborative endeavors often tend to want to single out one collaborator and pin the credit on him or her, and deny the joint nature of the work.

    There was a letter printed in an issue of F.F. back in the 1970s that compared Jack and Stan to Lennon and McCartney. It’s an apt comparison. Like the Beatles main writers, the Lee/Kirby work depended on two talented and starkly different creators who each added their own personality, outlook and skill to a work that was (cliche alert!) greater than the sum of the parts. And like Lennon and McCartney, neither Stan nor Jack were able to equal separately what they wrought together. In his day, Jack was the King. But Stan was still the Man and both men deserve credit and admiration for their contributions to 20th c. pop culture.

  2. Dave

    Hi Jim. Ive understood for many years that you supported Artists like Kirby. In fact Ive always admired yours and N. Adams support of the same.
    As an editor of Marvel comics you restored published timelines and continuity to the monthly Marvel Universe…something sadly lacking in Roy Thomas ‘s time as editor. The creators of Marvel comics at the time certainly needed your firm conviction and direction. Thanks for making Marvel great again in the eighties.

  3. Every time I read something Jim Shooter writes about his time at Marvel it's truly a fascinating read. This also explains why there's so much animosity toward him even now. For my two cents, some of the best Marvel comics ever done were under his watch.

  4. Kirby even commented on the handshake with Stan in an interview with Mark Borax.
    Jack Kirby (interview with Mark Borax): "I can't understand why there's a struggle over who did what, cause Stan and I know. Nobody else knows. If Stan would only come out of his hiding place and tell the world everything would go great. It isn't obscure. He knows it, and I know it.
    There won't be a resolution. People don't change. They can't change. Sometimes it's too late. You just go on being what you are. Human beings go on being human beings. I can predict everything that Stan will do. I know I can't change Stan. He says his piece, and I say mine. I could shake hands with Stan till doomsday and it would resolve nothing, the dance goes on."

  5. Kirby never sued Marvel. He was communicating with Marvel though his attorney, but a suit was never filed.

    Kirby made a number of public statements to the effect that he had no interest in suing Marvel. Litigation would have taken years, and he and his wife did not want to make the situation the be-all end-all of their twilight days.

    The decision not to pursue a lawsuit directly led to the public campaign spearheaded by The Comics Journal, Frank Miller, and others. Kirby wasn't going to litigate, Marvel was unyielding, and publicly embarrassing the company was the only real option left. Groth, Miller, et al., acted with Kirby's blessing.

    If I'm wrong, then I ask Mr. Shooter to say where and when the suit was filed. If he can provide information as to when he, James Galton, and/or Stan Lee were deposed–as they all certainly would have been–then I ask he provide that as well.

    Incidentally, as near as I can tell, if Kirby and Stan Lee ever "reconciled," it was very short-lived. Lee made no secret of how much he resented Kirby minimizing his contributions to their collaborations in the aftermath of the art-return controversy. And Kirby angrily insisted that Lee never created or contributed a damn thing until the day he died.

    Kirby never much cared for Lee in the first place. He only worked for Marvel in the '60s because a conflict with DC editor Jack Schiff made him unemployable at DC until after Schiff retired. Gil Kane has testified that he regularly saw Kirby when the latter came into Manhattan to meet with Lee, and Kirby would invariably come out of those meetings ranting about wanting to break Lee on the rack. Kirby viciously parodied Lee with the Funky Flashman character in Mister Miracle, including taking cheap shots at Lee's use of a toupee. And one doesn't have to look very far to find vituperative statements about Lee in the last decade of his life.

  6. Where was the Kirby vs Marvel lawsuit Jim mentions filed? It's incredible that the case was never noticed by the media, and has never been previously mentioned.
    Since lawsuits are a matter of public record I'd like a bit more information so I can research the case.

  7. Jim…

    awesome to find this blog: Jay Jay introduced it to me. i met Jay Jay years ago, as I am in the rock and roll poster art field and she too joined our 'fraternity'. though our genres are different 'spokes', we definitely are on the same wheel of on-the-street pop culture. i've admired your work (and Janet's!) for some time. stand firm against the fools! one day distant, their grandchildren will read about you and wonder how their ancestors couldn't 'see'.

    excuse my grandiose introductions. BTW, did Ditko accept his artwork back with no objections?

  8. Thank you for such an informative, thought-provoking blog, Jim. It seems that being the face of Marvel at the time made you the unfortunate target in cases such as this. You really were stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place. I'm only glad that you and Jack were able to have those conversations that you mentioned above.

    While it seems many have painted you as a bigger villain than Dr. Doom, I honestly look up to you as the man who led Marvel during my formative years. I have so many fond memories of Marvel during your era, and I'll always be grateful to you and the creators involved on the books for that. THANK YOU :o)

  9. One of my first jobs at Marvel was returning the artwork. I remember this drama well.

  10. One of the best blogs out there. Keep Sharing! And Yes I Miss 80's Marvel.

  11. i love reading these stories! You are a fantastic writer, Mr Shooter!


  12. I'm really enjoying this blog of yours and take great pleasure in the fact that the readers are accepting your posts as honest remembrances of the way things were/are. I met you at a Capital City retailers con in 1993 when you were starting Defiant and I will never forget your kindness and generousity. You stopped the show to comment on my inking samples and then proceeded to invite me to a private party at the hotel you were staying at later that evening. I'll never forget you telling me to go to the Continuity booth and see Neal Adams for the 15 minutes of advice you said I'd need from him to break into the industry. Unfortunately, he had to leave due to an illness in his family, so I never got that advice. No matter. Kind, giving, generous, and encouraging are among the words I would use to describe you. In my world, you are a hero, not the villain so many of your contemporaries have made you out to be. Thank You for being You, and keep entertaining us for as long as you can or are able to.

    George E Warner

  13. It depresses me to see how much you had to fight for Jack. It also sounds incredibly ridiculous that his lawyer was the one to fight for Jack's "stance" of ownership of his and Stan's creations.

    If I gathered anything from this blog, it really shows me that despite all odds – you have to stick through and prevail.

    What you did against Marvel's headhonchos – sticking your neck out for others – you're absolutely selfless. You're clearly an honorable man with golden intentions. This just shows me that with persistence, you really can make a difference. Even if the difference is with one person – that's all that matters.

    Thank you, Jim.

  14. Hey Jim,
    Love your stuff from Legion of Super-Heroes. Awesome, and inspirational youthful work.
    I guess the biggest dig against you was that you were the one who decided that Jean Grey must die in X-Men #137, which funnily enough, got me interested in X-Men.
    I also had the chance to meet Jack Kirby, in 1991 (may have been '90, but I'd have to double-check that).
    I've never held a grudge against you, and always believed there was integrity in your work, especially knowing the difficulty of working with creative people.

    Thanks for sharing your story. It means a lot.

    Keep writing great stuff. Don't let the B******* get you down, and know you will always have fans.


    P.S. Actually, killing off Ferro Lad, One of the Damsels, and Invisible Kid were also astutely dramatic. For a young kid growing up, those stories touched the heart, and kept me interested.
    Jim, you made it real. I know everything with Jack didn't work out perfectly, but I hope you're not beating yourself up over it.
    Really, I should pay attention to the work you've done over the past 20 years. I bet there's some gems.

  15. I always wondered why there was so much hatred towards you from a lot of Marvel fans and some creators. From the authors I could recognize that, to be able to achieve the level of quality that Marvel had under your tenure, you'd had to resort to some sort of hard attitude, and that was my theory. But from the fans I never understood; your years in Marvel where the really formative years of the Marvel Universe! Now I know a little more. Guess we all love a good villain. Nice to know your point of veiw, sir. Good luck.

  16. Love the blog Mr. Shooter. You did your job as best as you knew how and no one can fault you for it. The fact that you lasted as long as you did in such a turbulent time shows how good you were at being Editor in Chief. You are one of the most influential people in comics and a inspiration to all.

  17. I agree, very interesting to read about your side of the story. You were vilified in publications like the Comics Journal during this period of time. It is terrible that Kirby didn't get his due, but good to know that you argued in his favor.

  18. Dear Mr. Shooter,

    I believe you when you say you fought for the rights of Jack Kirby. I feel that an artistic creator, like yoursef, could do no less.

    Furthermore, I think your tenure as Marvel's Editor-In-Chief was one of the finest periods in all of comics publishing history.

    Thank you for everything.


  19. One thing that has become very clear over the years is that you have far more integrity than your critics do.

  20. Jim, it's good to finally hear your side of the story! You were obviously in a very difficult position at the time and it's a shame that things got so messy between yourself, Marvel and the Kirbys. Keep up the great work on this blog – it really is fascinating!

  21. Well, as a reader I felt a lot when you left Marvel, even if for me, reading translated comics in Brazil, the effects happened much later. And it was really sad that no brazilian company ever published the VALIANT stuff…

  22. I had never heard any accusations that you were a villain toward Jack. I can understand what a tremendously difficult situation that must have been for you, and admirable that you fought in your way for creators rights. I have always heard and believe that you did care and implement many pro-creator policies at Marvel. Epic is proof enough of that.
    Those were tremendously difficult times in relation to creators rights. There was a lot of people stirring the pot, like Gary Groth, and rather than helping things, they seemed to make things worse.

  23. Years back, when I read the Gerard Jones/ Wil Jacobs book The Comic Book Heroes, I thought the situation at hand was over-simplified to the point of parody. So glad to see this side of the story – I hope more people do. I know Mark Evanier's book is admittedly-biased towards Kirby's position, but even he says Jack's memory wasn't so good in the later years. Everyone loved him, sure, but few have ever argued the case as you have done here. Kudos, sir.

    And please keep these blogs coming – they are essential reading for my day-to-day!

  24. I think anyone who is unbiased and looks at your track record would believe you in regards to the Kirby situation. Your commitment to loyalty and integrity are quite visible.

    Not that anyone really cares, but I believe you.

    Now, about that Challenger incident…

  25. Thanks for writing up all this interesting historical info, Jim. It's heartwarming, actually, to read that you and Kirby were still on amiable personal terms during all these sad legal wrangles: it proves Kirby's mettle as a Man. And yours.

  26. Correction: I might have heard that in earlier interviews of yours, but certainly not at the level of detail on your blog.

  27. Thank you for telling your side of the story.

    Until I read these last two posts of yours, I never heard that Kirby got along with you even during his lawsuit. It sounds as if he was able to distinguish between you and Marvel.

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