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Marvel Ends its Bitter Feud With Jack Kirby’s Heirs

One of comics’ most contentious rights cases just drew to an unexpected close as Marvel and the estate of legendary comics artist Jack Kirby announced a settlement to the ongoing legal battle. At issue were the rights and profits of Kirby’s creations he produced while working for Marvel, which includes much of the original Avengers lineup, along with wonderful cosmic oddities like The Eternals.

Jack Kirby died in 1994, but his surviving relatives have argued that – like Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster before him – the often Draconian contracts governing creators rights in the ’50s and ’60s were often predatory, paying actual creators a pittance and allowing publishers to rake in billions from subsequent works like film, television, and toys.

Marvel (and parent company Disney) have been doing their best in the courts to assert that Kirby’s creations were simply work-for-hire during his time at the publisher, and that the prolific artist wasn’t owed either his original artwork or the billions which Marvel Comics and Marvel Studios have generated off of the backs of his creations. There’s actually a lot of complicated feelings and bad blood about the relationship between Kirby, Marvel, and then-Editor-in-Chief Stan Lee and who exactly created what.

Kirby was, in fact, working under a work-for-hire contract while at Marvel (creator-owned comics weren’t really a thing back then), with the 2nd Court of Appeals abiding by the strict guidelines of that contract and finding that Marvel and not Kirby should be the creator (and therefore benefactor) of Kirby’s work. He would leave Marvel in the early ’70s for DC, where he created the New Gods and didn’t get to draw Superman (which would have been great).

With briefs from intellectual property veterans adding some weight to the Kirby case, the dispute was headed to the Supreme Court, which made the settlement between the two parties kind of a big surprise. A finding for the Kirby family could have had huge ramifications on intellectual property rights in the past and going forward, calling into question the validity of work-for-hire contracts. That doesn’t feel like the kind of case that a massive company like Disney would want to risk losing.

In a joint statement from the Kirby estate and Marvel, both sides are making nice (for now): “Marvel and the family of Jack Kirby have amicably resolved their legal disputes, and are looking forward to advancing their shared goal of honoring Mr. Kirby’s significant role in Marvel’s history.”

The Hollywood Reporter brings up a good point about what will happen with Kirby’s original art which the publisher has been holding on to for decades. Whether this means the Kirbys will be getting a cut of past or future profits remains to be seen.

What do you make of this settlement? Let us know in the comments below.

[HT: The Hollywood Reporter]



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  1. Don’t know what to think. I don’t see any figures, that’s when you know someone is getting screwed, and it ain’t Disney.

  2. Richard says:

    I’m happy for the estate, but honestly, I’ve felt for years that the company owed Jack big time.  He is the primary creator of most of the core characters.  Stan Lee was just a glorified editor who was related to the owner of the company and was used as the hook to ensure that the company kept control of all the creations.

    As to creator owned comics, a number of artists actually did create independent books over the years, with varying levels of success.  Will Eisner being on of the more famous successes with The Spirit.

  3. mick says:

    At Salt Lake Comic Con, Stan Lee briefly talked about his characters and how he doesn’t own them either. I wonder if this will be something he or his future estate will use to get him some payment.

    • mick says:

      I guess Stan Lee was an employee and that will make all the difference.  He did say it was one of his few regrets that he did not create something in his own name and not as an employee.

  4. ChiChi says:

    I think if you create something, YOU create it. Not the company you’re working under. I also think Jack Kirby would be entitled to those profits, NOT his family because they didn’t create any characters. Either way, I don’t think the family should be getting any money.

  5. RicD says:

    If you listen to podcasts, go find Kevin Smith’s Fatman on Batman episodes 71 and 72 featuring Neal Adams. Neal breaks it down to the core exactly how the industry worked back then and all the steps it took to get it to where it is today. It’s VERY interesting stuff.

  6. deejf says:

    Stupid interface. Let me try again. Two problems with the information you present: ” (creator-owned comics weren’t really a thing back then) “In fact, at the major publishers, they basically *couldn’t* be a thing, because it wasn’t until the 1976 copyright law went into effect that rights could be separated, legally. It’s a complicated issue, but basically, it was all but impossible for a publisher to admit, legally, that its creators created characters.  “He would leave Marvel in the early ’70s for DC, where he created the New Gods and didn’t get to draw Superman (which would have been great).” Except that he DID draw Superman in both Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen and the premiere issue of The Forever People. Superman’s face was re-drawn to spec but another artist, granted, but Kirby definitely drew the Big Blue Boy Scout.

    • that’s absolute mock- legalese b.s. There is not one damn reason that comic book publishers couldn’t have treated cartoonists with the same respect mainstream book publishers showed to novelists…. except that they’d already rigged the game in their own favor, and weren’t going to relinquish a single bit of that unfair balance until they absolutely didn’t have a choice… and that’s STILL their policy TODAY.  Sure, Kirby wouldn’t have inherited a bunch of Superman characters… but Kirby didn’t WANT to inherit them. He wanted to create his OWN characters, and that’s exactly what he DID do at the first opportunity. (and the more “reboots”, “revivals” and “re-imaginings” I see of decades old characters who’ve been kept running LONG past their creator’s departure, the less sympathy I have for the idea of keeping them on corporate life support)

  7. deejf says:

    Tw(creator-owned comics weren’t really a thing back then)o problems with information you present here.<<

  8. Storm says:

    Contracts a contract. Kirby did what he had to do at the time and I understand that, but he’s not entitled to one dime more than he agreed (In Writing!) to. And there’s A Lesson to be learned from that.

    • Mitch says:

      And the lesson is, “Be a psychic”, when it comes to contracts, especially in burgeoning mediums, who’s future riches you couldn’t possibly comprehend. 
      As has been pointed out, the contracts were often predatory back then. 
      Allow me to use the Internet tool of  TAKING THINGS TO THE EXTREME!
      I’m sure a lot of plantation owners had contacts, that the pesky ol’ civil war nullified. 
      Contracts are not iron-clad. That can be called into question and sometimes they are found wanting. 

    • John Smith says:

      So large companies should be able to push artists into unfavorable contracts, and then when they rake in billions, the artist shouldn’t be able to collect anything for their amazing work and talent? I think we should encourage artists to create amazing things, and reward them for doing so.

      • CJ says:

        Just because the company you work for rakes in billions does that entitle you to their profits?

      • DecemberGuy says:

        I agree, but it’s important to note that Jack was not the sole artist involved in the creation of these characters. For every dollar he deserved, Stan also deserved, as well as the various inkers and colorists. As much as I admire Kirby’s art, he was playing a team game…

        • Richard says:

          Stan Lee is give far too much credit, mainly because he was related to the owner of the company and was the face of it.  He was mostly just an editor.  He did some minor tweaks, but all you have to do is compare his “output” when Kirby was there and when he was not.

          Kirby kept producing, but Lee did squat.  Lee is just a glorified editor who is great at tooting his own horn now that the majority of the real creators are in the grave and can’t easily call him a liar.

          Even when he admitted in the past that things like the Silver Surfer were Jack’s sole creation, he recanted in court. see: Son of Marvels for the text.

    • Caliban says:

      “Agreed?” It’s not like these guys had a lot of leverage where they could negotiate these contracts. It was take it or leave it.
      I doubt there was a creators union back then to represent their interests.

    • Richard says:

      Except you need to consider the nature of copyright over time.  People got paid based on the original length and value of the work, but not on the extended works. 

      Things like reprinting stories were not originally envisioned, but decades later became large sources of revenue in the same way DVDs have for movies.

      Some of the original contracts were printed on the back of the checks.  These were considered illegal by the courts.