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.