jack kirby

Comic Book Artists and Rights to Their Work

A recent interview with Stan Lee with Playboy (NSFW link) brings up the discussion of how rights have been negotiated between comics artists and major publishers such as DC and Marvel.  Michael Dean at the Comics Journal reported on how comics’ art, upon return by publishers, was treated as “gifts”–the artists’ own works returned not as their creations only.

When Marvel decided in 1984 to offer the return of its backstock of original art to creators, its offer to Kirby was able to account for only 88 pages of Kirby art out of a total of more than 8,000 pages that the artist had done for Marvel between 1960 and 1970 — approximately one percent.


As Marvel had returned new original art from 1976 on, artists had been required to sign brief release statements, about four lines long, and the 1984 offer to return the stored original art was also accompanied by the requirement that a one-page release form be signed. The form described the art return as “a gift” from Marvel to the creators. By signing the form, the creators agreed that the art had been work for hire and that Marvel was “the exclusive worldwide owner of all copyright” related to the art. Creators were required to grant Marvel the right to use the artists’ name and likeness in promotions.


The form’s language was reminiscent of the contracts that had been instituted in 1979, and some creators objected to both the wording and the coercive tactic of tying it to the return of original art. Neal Adams told the Journal at the time, “Anybody who signs that form is crazy…. You dangle a carrot in front of the artists’ faces, saying, ‘If you want your art sign this form.’ It’s not true; you don’t have to sign it.”


Most artists signed the form and received their art, and even Kirby said he would’ve been willing to sign it, but that was not the option that Marvel offered him. If some artists had found the one-page release objectionable, Kirby was outraged to find that he and he alone had been sent a four-page document that multiplied the obligations of the creator and the rights claimed by the publisher. Even the nature of the “gift” was qualified in the form sent to Kirby. Where the one-page form offered creators “the original physical artwork,” Kirby’s form offered “physical custody of the specific portion of the original artwork.”


Always careful not to acknowledge that the artists had any right to the art, the one-page forms made clear at least that the artists would be the owners of the art once the “gift” had been accepted. The gift to Kirby, however, was nothing more than the right to store the art on behalf of Marvel. Though it would be in his possession, there was nothing that Kirby would be allowed to do with it: “The Artist agrees that it will make no copies or reproductions of the Artwork, or any portion thereof, in any manner, that it will prepare no other artwork or material based upon, derived from or utilizing the Artwork, that it will not publicly exhibit or display any portion of the Artwork without Marvel’s advance written permission, and that it will not commercially exploit or attempt to exploit the Artwork or any material based upon, derived from or utilizing the Artwork in any manner or media, and that it will not permit, license or assist anyone else in doing any of the foregoing.”


While Kirby was forbidden from so much as displaying the art in public, Marvel was to have ready access to it for whatever purpose it deemed desirable: “Upon Marvel’s request, with reasonable advance notice, the Artist will grant access to Marvel or to Marvel’s designated representatives to make copies of the portion of the Artwork in the custody of the Artist, if Marvel so needs or desires such copies in connection with its business or the business of its licensees.” The artwork was also subject to “revision” and “modification” at Marvel’s discretion.

(Links H/T Comics Alliance)