Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A pointless boycott?

Early on in our run at the Gillette-Torvik blog we did a couple of posts about how comic book publishers sometimes try to steal from comic book creators. This is a problem as old as Superman.

Today on Slate, comic book artist James Strum suggests that people should boycott the new "Avengers" movie. The Avengers, for those who don't read comics books, is the name given to a superhero team composed of characters owned by Marvel Comics. The most notable members of the Avengers are Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, and the Hulk. One reason that these are the most notable members is that each has been the subject of at least one major movie release in the last couple of years.

Mr. Strum is unhappy with the way that Jack Kirby was treated by Marvel. Mr. Kirby was the main artist at Marvel when its various superhero comics really took off in the early 1960s. Among other things, Mr. Kirby helped create Captain America, the Fantastic Four, and many others. Mr. Kirby had a very distinct artistic style and Marvel undoubtedly owes a lot of its success with those characters to Mr. Kirby.

Unfortunately for Mr. Kirby, he signed a contract acknowledging that his artwork was done as works for hire. This meant that he didn't own any part of the copyright to the characters he created. This meant that while Stan Lee, the publisher of Marvel and Mr. Kirby's co-creator on many characters, was earning a fortune on licensing the characters, Mr. Kirby wasn't earning anything other than his fee per page of artwork. Mr. Strum, perhaps understandably, thinks this is unfair.

As a result of this unfairness, Mr. Strum has decided to boycott "The Avengers" (a movie he wants to see). According to the article, Mr. Strum is not the only person boycotting the movie for this reason.

Frankly, I don't get the point. As Mr. Strum notes, Mr. Lee--the guy who arguably did Mr. Kirby wrong--no longer owns Marvel Comics. Mr. Lee sold Marvel to Disney. Disney didn't do anything to Mr. Kirby. The reason that Mr. Strum thinks that Disney should be punished because it defended the agreement that Mr. Kirby made with Marvel comics that his works were works for hire. Mr. Strum suggests that Disney should feel shame for defending the agreement (an agreement that was undoubtedly part of the reason Disney paid $4 billion dollars for Marvel). What is the larger principle that Mr. Strum is arguing for? That Mr. Kirby owns part of the copyright? Well, that was true until Mr. Kirby signed the agreement with Marvel that his work was a work for hire. The article notes that Mr. Kirby apparently refused to sign an initial agreement that Marvel wanted him to sign. Instead, Mr. Kirby signed a different agreement. This suggests that Mr. Kirby knew what he was negotiating and this wasn't some sort of coercive contract. Is the principle that corporations shouldn't honor contracts? That can't be the larger principle as without contracts organized society ceases to function. Mr. Strum certainly would have sued if Slate breached its contract with him and not paid him for his work. Is the principle that corporations like Disney that make a lot of money off of a work for hire should give some of that money back to the creators? What happens if the movie tanks? Would we say that some of the risk was Mr. Kirby's (or more accurately, his estate's)? Moreover, why is Disney, who wasn't involved in the contract, on the hook for any injustice done long before it purchased the company? Help me out, Mr. Torvik, why isn't Stan Lee (who presumably got the money on the sale to Disney) the appropriate target of these protests?

Finally, given the subject matter, I found it somewhat amusing that the picture that Mr. Strum drew of people protesting Marvel's treatment of Mr. Kirby.

I am not sure if Mr. Strum is spoofing the stereotype that only young men care about comics or reinforcing it.


  1. According to the byline, it's Sturm, not Strumm.

  2. According to my dyslexia its Strumm. Nevertheless, I will make the change. Thanks Anon.

  3. A little bit of research would really help here. Stan Lee does not, and did not, ever own Marvel Comics and has had very little to do, if anything, with the business negotiations with Jack Kirby. Stan Lee was briefly the president of Marvel, but when Kirby was working he was merely an editor, he had little to nothing to do with the business side of comics. Additionally Stan didn't sell Marvel to Disney, Marvel is/was a publicly traded company, so its shareholders, and now Disney and its shareholders own Marvel. I agree with your general premise that a boycott is ineffective and realize none of your errors affect that premise, but it really detracts from the piece as a whole when so many basic facts are misstated.


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