Tag: Jack Kirby

Kirbys and Marvel Settle

Today, Marvel and the Kirby Estate released a short joint statement:

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.

It's finally over.

I've revised my 2010 form post, The King's Ransom, for what I hope will be the last time.

A bit of context, since I wasn't updating the blog back in June (though I did tweak the aforementioned form post): the Kirby heirs were appealing the case to the Supreme Court, and a number of amicus briefs were filed in the case by prominent groups including the Artists' Rights Society and the International Intellectual Property Institute. Among others, Bruce Lehman, former director of the USPTO, argued that the instance and expense test that the previous judgement against the Kirby heirs hinged on violated Supreme Court precedent.

The Supreme Court was set to decide whether or not to take the case in just a few days.

Kurt Busiek says, in the comments section at The Beat:

Considering that the Kirby Estate didn’t seem to have anything to lose by going to the Supreme Court, but Marvel/Disney had a lot on the line, I’m thinking (or hoping, at least) that this was a decent settlement for the Estate. Given the timing — if the Supreme Court had chosen to hear the case, no settlement would then be possible — it virtually has to be a deal spurred on by the side that doesn’t want the case to go to the Court.

However unlikely onlookers think it might be that the Court would take up the case, and however corporate-friendly the Court may seem to be, the stakes are very high, and a settlement may have seemed a better plan than rolling the dice.

Busiek, of course, doesn't have any inside knowledge of the case, but I find he's been extremely knowledgeable about the facts and issues involved.

Mark Evanier -- who does have inside knowledge of the case -- started off this morning by joking that he can finally finish his Kirby biography, and then added, in a second blog post:

If you're coming to this page in search of details and commentary, you've come to the wrong place. I will be saying nothing about it other that I am real, real happy. And I'm sure Jack and his wife Roz, if they're watching this from wherever they are, are real, real, real happy.

I noted, back in a 2013 post about Archie v Penders, that the thing about settlements is that their terms are typically confidential. It's likely that we'll never know the precise details of the Kirby settlement. (If I were a betting man, I'd say Marvel probably agreed to give them the same profit-sharing deal that it gives current creators -- but that's just a guess, and it's worth what you paid for it.)

One thing we will know is whether the settlement involves more prominent creator credits for Kirby. Marvel's creator credits have been inconsistent up to this point -- the original 2002 Spider-Man movie has a "Created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko" credit right upfront, and Agents of SHIELD credits Lee and Kirby at the top of each episode, but other movies have buried creators' names at the bottom of the end credits under a nebulous "special thanks" section. I expect from here on in we'll be seeing much more prominent "Created by Jack Kirby" credits in comics, movies, and TV shows. Guess we'll know soon enough.

And speaking for myself -- I guess my boycott's finally over.

Which is good, because that Mike Allred Silver Surfer sure looks great.

Important Comics

Today's the anniversary of a couple of things.

It would have been Jack Kirby's 96th birthday.

And, more importantly -- as the King himself would surely have acknowledged --, it's the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington.

I was at a loss for precisely how I was going to tie these two events together in the same post -- and then I remembered Congressman John Lewis has a comic book out.

Stephen Colbert interviewed him a couple of weeks back:

Lewis discusses not only his new comic trilogy, March, but a comic that inspired him in 1957: Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story. An excellent summary by Andrew Aydin at Creative Loafing Atlanta says:

Richard Deats, [the Fellowship of Reconciliation]'s Director of Communications in the 1990s, laid out FOR's motivation and purpose behind the comic in a 1997 letter, saying, "The comic book was originally intended to convey to semiliterate persons the story of nonviolence and its effectiveness as seen in the Montgomery movement. The medium of the highly popular comic book was believed to be the best way to reach masses of exploited African-Americans."

And that's what comic books were: they were a way of reaching the masses. They were literature for the illiterate.

And as with all mass-media means of distributing information to the poor, this upset the elites.

When comics first appeared in American newspapers around the turn of the twentieth century, they were seen as gutter trash. In the decades that followed, they were scapegoated for society's ills, culminating in Senate hearings, the Comics Code Authority, and the devastation of an entire American art form.

In a way, Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story was exactly what the elites feared: it upset the social structure. It gave teenagers like John Lewis ideas.

It's ironic that the comics medium's greatest foe, Fredric Wertham, was also an ardent progressive in the Civil Rights Movement -- if he had never written Seduction of the Innocent, he would instead be best remembered for the doll study used in Brown v Board. Wertham was right, in a way, about comics' potential as a disruptive force, as a powerful tool for influencing young people -- but he chose to fear the imagined impact of fictional crime and horror stories, rather than see the true potential of comics as a force for good, for education, for organization, for social justice.

Kirby, of course, saw boundless potential in comics, in a way few people ever have. He used comics to advocate for social change, too, though he preferred fiction and metaphor, and is best remembered as a superhero artist (though his work crossed all genres and invented some). He saw superheroes as modern mythological figures -- as New Gods -- as aspirational avatars.

In the 1940's, Kirby co-created Captain America, advocating for US intervention in WWII when that was still a controversial position. In the 1970's, his Forever People were technologically-advanced, alien hippies. In the 1960's, The Fantastic Four gave us The Hate-Monger, a supervillain in a Klan hood who turned out to be Adolf Hitler himself. It also gave us this guy:

The Black Panther

That image is courtesy of Brian Cronin's Comic Book Legends Revealed, which notes that the Black Panther didn't look like that in the final published comic -- his half-mask was replaced with a full mask, making it less immediately obvious that the Black Panther was, in fact, a black man -- indeed, possibly the first black superhero. (Inevitably when you refer to a comic book character as "the first" of anything, that's going to lead to debate -- sometimes that debate can miss the point entirely and turn into mere nitpicking over comic book trivia, though other times, as in Who Was the First Black Superhero? by JV Halliburton II, it can explore the richness of comic history and highlight all the important characters who have helped to build and shape it and make it more diverse.)

Today Mark Evanier wrote a lovely remembrance of his friend and mentor, and among many other things he had this to say:

Jack was all about something new, something exciting and something that took whatever he was doing to the next level. [...] Jack was first and foremost interested in producing something that would take comics to some new plateau, creating new opportunities and new possibilities.

Kirby believed in comics. So did Martin Luther King and Alfred Hassler. So does John Lewis.

And so does Jillian Kirby. I've written before about her Kirby4Heroes fundraiser for the Hero Initiative, a charity that helps struggling comic creators. As we celebrate her grandfather's birthday, don't forget about the less fortunate who have helped shape the comics medium over the years and decades.


Following up on last week's post about Jillian Kirby and her fundraiser for the Hero Initiative on behalf of her late grandfather: there's writeup in Monday's LA Times Hero Complex.

It's got some great photos of Jack and his family, and Jillian tells some stories about him too -- I'm partial to the one where he invites a homeless man in for a meal at his nephew's bar mitzvah.

Jillian's goal is to raise $10,000 for the Hero Initiative for Jack's birthday on the 28th. There are some auctions of original art that should help a lot toward that goal -- but even a few bucks helps.

Best of luck to Jillian and to the Hero Initiative. It's a great cause, and she seems to be a pretty great lady.

It's Marvel v Kirby, not Kirby v Marvel

I haven't had time to read the full judgement yet in the appellate court's recent decision in Marvel's favor in Marvel v Kirby.

What I have had time to read is multiple otherwise-reliable comics sites getting the basic facts of the case wrong -- indeed, the most basic fact of the case, which is who sued whom.

Matt D Wilson's article on the story at ComicsAlliance says,

Kirby’s heirs brought their suit over the characters in 2009, as the push to make huge-grossing movies featuring characters Kirby co-created (like The Avengers, which has made more than $1.5 billion) was really heating up. Marvel and parent company Disney countersued the next year.

(Wilson also incorrectly claims that the rights to the Silver Surfer were part of the dispute -- they weren't; the dispute concerns works created between 1958 and 1963, and the Surfer first appeared in 1966 -- and then misspells Gary Friedrich's name.)

Heidi McDonald's piece at Comics Beat -- a site which is ordinarily one of the best for coverage of comic book copyright disputes, due to lawyer Jeff Trexler's contributions -- is titled "Marvel wins appeal in lawsuit brought by Jack Kirby’s heirs", and its first sentence also refers to "a lawsuit bought by Jack Kirby’s heirs". Which is fucking baffling considering that right there on the same page Ms. McDonald has embedded a PDF named marvel-v-kirby.pdf that starts out like this:

Marvel Characters, Inc. v. Kirby

August Term, 2012
(Argued: October 24, 2012 Decided: August 8, 2013)
Docket No. 11-3333-cv
- v -
Before: CABRANES, SACK, and CARNEY, Circuit Judges.

Again, I haven't had time to read the full judgement yet -- but Heidi McDonald apparently hasn't had time to read the first line, the list of parties, or the filename.

And look, I really like Heidi McDonald, and I really like Comics Beat. But I think this is terrible. It's one thing for somebody in the comments section to spout the common misconception that the Kirbys sued Marvel -- hell, it's pretty much a given! --, but it's another entirely to see it in the headline on a reputable site.

The Kirbys did not sue Marvel in 2009. They filed for termination of copyright transfer. Marvel sued them in 2010; only then did the Kirbys countersue.

I am sure that this is an honest mistake, on McDonald's part, on Wilson's part, probably on the part of some (but certainly not all) the people who repeat the same misinformation in various comments sections across the comics Internet.

But while it may be an honest mistake, it is not a trivial one.

Facts are important. Details are important. The question of who sued whom is important.

The claim that the Kirbys sued Marvel in 2009 is false. That is not a matter of opinion; it is not subject to dispute. The Kirbys did not sue Marvel in 2009 -- that is a fact.

Any narrative which maintains that the Kirbys sued first is, likewise, false, and presents an incorrect, misleading picture of the very nature of the suit.

And that even someone like Heidi McDonald, who is sympathetic to the Kirbys, has inadvertently bought into and repeated the false narrative that they sued first says a lot about how pervasive that narrative has become.


Last year on Jack Kirby's birthday, I covered Kirby4Heroes, his granddaughter Jillian's fundraiser for the Hero Initiative, a charity for down-on-their-luck comics creators.

Well, this year's Kirby Day is a few weeks off yet, but the young Ms. Kirby has just unveiled the Kirby4Heroes Facebook Page, and has more work coming up.

Readers of this site will know that I don't really do the Facebook thing, but statistically speaking you probably do, so go Like and Share and whatever it is you kids do. And even if you don't have a Facebook account, you can still take a gander at some great family photos on the site -- spanning Jack and Roz's entire lives.

And if you've got a few bucks to spare for the Hero Initiative, please do. Remember the sad stories of guys like Robert Washington -- it's a tough damn business, and its brightest stars seldom get the recognition or thanks they deserve -- and fair wages are rarer still.

Thanks, Jack. And thanks as well to Jillian.

Marvel's Statement of Purpose

I'm in the home stretch of Sean Howe's excellent Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, and this quote from the beginning of chapter 17, I think, sums up what's wrong with the company in a nutshell:

The Los Angeles Times, CNN, and USA Today all chimed in about Liefeld, Lee, McFarlane, and the other renegade artists who were standing up to big business. In response, Marvel president Terry Stewart made a statement that "the importance of the creative people is still secondary to the (comic book) characters," a stance that hardly discouraged Marvel's new image as a corporate overlord.

(Brackets in original.)

Howe comes back to this point in chapter 19:

In June 1994, Frank Miller paid tribute to Jack Kirby, delivering a keynote speech at an industry seminar in Baltimore. [...]

Marvel Comics is trying to sell you all on the notion that characters are the only important component of its comics. As if nobody had to create these characters, as if the audience is so brain-dead they can't tell a good job from a bad one. You can almost forgive them this, since their characters aren't leaving in droves like the talent is. For me it's a bit of a relief to finally see the old "work-made-for-hire talent don't matter" mentality put to the test. We've all seen the results, and they don't even seem to be rearranging the deck chairs.

Creators who complained about defections to Image and other companies, he continued, were "like galley slaves complaining that the boat is leaking." The age of company-owned superhero universes -- the Jack Kirby age -- was over. "It's gone supernova and burned itself out, and begun a slow steady collapse into a black hole. We couldn't feed off the genius of Jack Kirby forever. The King is dead, and he has no successor. We will not see his like again. No single artist can replace him. No art form can be expected to be gifted with more than one talent as brilliant as his. It's a scary time because change is always scary. But all the pieces are in place for a new proud era, a new age of comics. Nothing's standing in our way, nothing too big and awful, nothing except some old bad habits and our own fears, and we won't let that stop us."

The crowd rose to its feet.

(Ellipsis mine.)

Miller was right in some ways and wrong in others.

The bottom fell out of the market soon after, for both Marvel and Image. Jim Lee is now one of the Editors in Chief at DC; McFarlane and Liefeld have become punchlines (and so, for that matter, has Miller). Post-bankruptcy Marvel has done a pretty damn good job feeding off the genius of Jack Kirby -- in films. As for the comics, well, they're selling decently enough but are, at this point, largely the R&D branch for upcoming Disney movies.

Marvel still believes the creative people are secondary (and that's giving them the benefit of the doubt). Marvel is wrong.

Yes, Iron Man is more popular now than he was during Jack Kirby or Don Heck's lifetime. That's not just because Iron Man's a great character -- though I happen to think he is --, it's because of Robert Downey Jr, and Jon Favreau, and Gwyneth Paltrow, and Jeff Bridges.

When you think the characters are primary and the creative people secondary, you get a film like Daredevil. Or, at best, Fantastic Four. Compare the numbers -- and you'll forgive me from switching over to DC for this, but they've got a much longer history of film franchises -- compare the numbers from Batman and Robin to the numbers from The Dark Knight, or the numbers from Superman Returns to the numbers from Man of Steel, and tell me that the characters are more important than the creative people.

And that, of course, is just looking at it from a mercenary standpoint -- because really, that's what Marvel as a company cares about. That's not even getting into quality. My unsurprising opinion is that you're a lot likelier to get a high-quality film or comic when you've got high-quality creative people working on it.

And Marvel's policy of treating its characters as primary and their creators as secondary has resulted in fewer and fewer original characters added to its stable. Sure, lots of creative people still love to play in Marvel's sandbox -- and then save their original ideas for creator-owned work.

Take a look at the characters who've starred in films or TV shows over the past couple of decades. Superman and Batman are from the 1930's. Green Arrow and Captain America are from the 1940's. The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Daredevil, and the Avengers are from the 1960's. The X-Men are also from the 1960's, though their most popular character, Wolverine, is from the 1970's. Blade, Ghost Rider, and Swamp Thing are from the 1970's too (and so is Howard the Duck, if you really want to bring that up). The New Teen Titans, Elektra, the Tick, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and the Mystery Men are from the 1980's. Static, Spawn, Hellboy, and the Men in Black are from the 1990's. The Walking Dead started in 2003, Kick-Ass in 2008.

It's not an exhaustive list (see Nat Gertler for that), but it's an eye-opening one. Marvel and DC have a strong library of characters -- from decades ago. Most of the successful new characters, though, are creator-owned.

But hey -- Disney's biggest franchises are already from the 1920's to the 1950's (and many of them are based on public-domain material that's a lot older than that). Disney doesn't need to create new product. When the copyrights to the first Mickey Mouse cartoons come close to expiring, Disney can bribe Congress to extend them. If Disney needs to add new material to its portfolio, it can buy a company like Pixar or Marvel.

And as Disney's purchase of Lucasfilm and, to a lesser extent, Viacom's purchase of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, shows, even the most successful creator-owners eventually want to retire and are willing to part with their works.

Star Wars -- hm. Maybe I have found an example where the characters are more important than the creator.

Course, that's just because he was ripping off Jack Kirby.

Gary Friedrich

There have been a lot of disheartening rulings, over the past few years, in cases where comic book creators or their heirs attempted to reclaim the rights to their work: the Siegels, the Shusters, the Kirbys. And Gary Friedrich.

Friedrich -- co-creator of Ghost Rider with Roy Thomas and Mike Ploog -- has fallen on hard times. Like far too many creators in comics, he's gotten old and poor and sick while the company he used to freelance for has made millions off his work. Like far too many creators in comics, he tells a story of the company promising far more than what it delivered.

Friedrich sued Marvel in an attempt to reclaim the rights to Ghost Rider. Marvel countersued -- Friedrich had been selling signed Ghost Rider prints without giving them a taste -- and, because Friedrich is not an artist, he was signing other people's Ghost Rider art.

Friedrich lost. And not only did he lose, but Marvel made an example of him. They sought not only $17,000 from a man who was too broke to pay his medical bills; they also demanded that he stop publicly referring to himself as the creator of Ghost Rider. I've seen lots of creators lose cases like this -- but never seen terms that seemed so punitive and downright mean-spirited.

Friedrich appealed. And today, a three-judge panel unanimously vacated last year's ruling.

Via Reuters:

On Tuesday, a unanimous three-judge panel of the appeals court deemed that Friedrich's 1978 agreement with Marvel was ambiguous.

"First, the critical sentence defining the 'Work' covered by the Agreement is ungrammatical and awkwardly phrased," Circuit Judge Denny Chin wrote in the 48-page opinion. "Second, the language is ambiguous as to whether it covered a work published six years earlier."

The appeals court found that Marvel was not entitled to a judgment based on its argument that a statute of limitations has expired. The court also found that there is a genuine dispute of facts regarding the authorship of the character.

And The Hollywood Reporter quotes Chin further:

Spotlight 5 had been published six years earlier by a different corporate entity (Magazine Mgmt.) and had grown so popular that Marvel had already reprinted it once and had launched a separate Ghost Rider comic book series. Given that context, it is doubtful the parties intended to convey rights in the valuable Ghost Rider copyright without explicitly referencing it. It is more likely that the Agreement only covered ongoing or future work. Hence, there is a genuine dispute regarding the parties' intent for this form contract to cover Ghost Rider.

There are several points at issue. First, like in the Kirby case, the question of whether the work was created for-hire, in which case Marvel would be the legal author, or whether Friedrich and Ploog created that story independently and therefore co-authored it and sold it to Marvel. Thomas, unlike Friedrich and Ploog, was an employee of Marvel, and the extent of his role is disputed -- was the book authored by Marvel? Co-authored by Marvel?

And, like in the Siegel and Shuster cases, there is a question as to whether (if Friedrich was a legal co-author of the work) he gave up the right to reclaim the copyright. Chin's quote above is instructive: put frankly, it requires quite a stretch to believe that Friedrich would have knowingly given up his right to termination for such a small amount of money.

I believe that legal point is also at the root of the Siegel, and especially the Shuster, cases. That the Siegel and Shuster heirs would have deliberately given up their rights to reclaim Superman for the small amount of money DC offered them -- especially the Shusters, whose payout was reportedly only tens of thousands of dollars -- defies common sense.

All that said, while this gives Friedrich another chance, it doesn't give him any guarantees -- indeed, the appellate court has already noted several facts in Marvel's favor. Jeff Trexler runs down the facts, and compares the case to Siegel's 1974 case against DC.

I don't know what Friedrich's chances are -- I wish him the best but fear that recent trends aren't on his side -- but this case has repercussions beyond his case. Even if he loses again, this case raises more questions about Marvel's 1970's-era contracts -- and that could have some serious repercussions throughout the industry.

Kirby on Work-for-Hire

One of the most common facts Kirby critics cite -- well, the ones who actually have a basic understanding of the facts of the case, anyway -- is that he sided with Marvel when Joe Simon attempted to recapture the rights to Captain America in 1966.

I'm reading Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, by Sean Howe. It's an excellent book, and recommended.

And I just came across the exact wording of Kirby's statement on the subject. It appears on page 77 of Howe's book, and he cites a post on 20th Century Danny Boy, which has a scan of the statement.

It reads, in part:

I felt that whatever I did for Timely belonged to Timely as was the practice in those days. When I left Timely, all of my work was left with them.

Kirby certainly seems to be suggesting that the work he and Simon did for Timely in the 1940's was work-for-hire and not spec work. As such, that does seem to undercut any later claims he or his family might make that he believed he and Simon created Captain America independently and had a right to terminate the transfer of copyright.

Critics of the Kirby Estate's legal maneuverings over the past few years cite that this shows that Jack knew his work in the 1960's was work-for-hire, too.

But does it?

Because from where I'm sitting, it seems to indicate exactly the opposite.

Kirby says, "I felt that whatever I did for Timely belonged to Timely as was the practice in those days." Why the past tense? If Kirby believed that the work he was doing in the 1960's was work-for-hire, that it was owned by Marvel, and that he had no stake in it -- why would he refer to that arrangement as what "was the practice in those days", decades earlier? Why wouldn't he use the present tense? Why wouldn't he indicate that this was still the practice at the time he was writing that statement, if he believed that to be the case?

Kirby's words in this document clearly imply that he believes the work-for-hire arrangement is a thing of the past, and not a standard agreement at the time he wrote the statement in 1966.

Concerning Tolkiens

A few weeks back, Tom Spurgeon had this to say:

[F]or some reason I ended up with this Christopher Tolkien Le Monde interview in my bookmarks folder. It's instructive to read something about a family wanting certain rights returned or better rewarded when most people really like what's been done with those rights as opposed to their either not caring or actively hating the result. One of the reasons a lot of our comics-related issue discussions remain unsophisticated is that we frequently choose to fight our battles along fundamental "I like it"/"I hate it" lines and then kind of furiously stare at the other issues involved until we can find a way to make them comply to our initial impression. It's no way to move forward.

He's not wrong. Given my established stance on creators' rights -- and creators' heirs' rights -- I'd be remiss in not confronting this conundrum.

Now, I like the movies. They're not perfect (The Two Towers, in particular, completely botches the narrative arc, overemphasizing the importance of Helm's Deep and an inexplicable new Osgiliath subplot while shunting the two actual climaxes of the book to the first act of the third movie -- and in one case, removing it from the theatrical cut entirely), but on the whole they're really pretty good. But yeah, there are some uncomfortable facts surrounding them.

To reiterate: my stance is that copyright law lasts far too long; in my opinion The Hobbit should have been public domain by now. But given that it isn't, we should respect the rights of the creators -- and given that, in this case, JRR Tolkien is no longer with us, we should respect the rights of his heirs. For legal purposes, the Tolkien Estate is JRR Tolkien.

But there are a couple of other factors at work here, too.

It was JRR himself who sold the film rights. Willingly, and with the intent to make sure his heirs were cared for financially.

That said, he was taken advantage of. Ever hear of the first ever Hobbit movie? It was made in a month, ran 12 minutes, and was only screened once -- because Tolkien's lawyers were incompetent, and left a loophole allowing the studio to retain the rights to Lord of the Rings as long as they produced a full-color film by a given deadline. Length and distribution were not specified; a 12-minute movie screened once satisfied the contract.

It wouldn't be the last time lawyers worked to game the system. Forty years later, Warner would produce the blockbuster Lord of the Rings film trilogy, and, through the usual Hollywood creative bookkeeping tactics, claim that it had not turned any profit and therefore they didn't owe any money to the Tolkien Estate. It took a lawsuit for the Estate to receive any money from the films.

(This is the point in any creators' rights debate where some corporate apologist inevitably explains to me that publicly-traded companies are beholden to their shareholders and therefore obligated to hoard as much money as humanly possible and do everything they can to avoid paying a single cent more than they have to. Why, it would be unethical for them not to try and get out of paying the Tolkien Estate! I welcome any such apologist to explain to me precisely how it was in Time Warner shareholders' best interest to expose the company to multiple lawsuits -- not just from the Tolkiens but from Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, who New Line also tried to stiff -- and trap The Hobbit in development hell for the better part of a decade, to the point where it appeared for quite some time that it wouldn't get made at all.)

And there's one more sad old saw that the apologists like to trot out: "Well, what did the heirs ever do?" That's one I see a lot in the conversations about the heirs of Jack Kirby, or Jerry Siegel, or Joe Shuster, et al.

I think it's a hollow argument. Creators do their work expecting to leave something for their families, and dismissing heirs outright effectively means giving luck-of-the-draw based on the age at which a person dies. (Do you believe Jack Kirby should have received money from The Avengers if he had lived to 95, and would have left that money to his children? If so, why do you believe his children don't deserve that money just because he died at 76? If not, then what the hell does it matter whether his heirs did the work or not, if you don't think the guy who did do the work shouldn't have been compensated for the adaptation?)

But even if you don't buy that line of reasoning, well, this is one case where "What did the heirs ever do?" is a pretty piss-poor rhetorical question. Because in this case the answer is "Assemble, edit, and publish about 30 of his books." Make no mistake -- Christopher Tolkien hasn't simply sat back and waited for checks to roll in; he has made it his life's work to get as much of his father's work into print as humanly possible. And it's not so simple as just finding old pages and retyping them -- many of the writings are fragmentary, and many would be incomprehensible without Christopher's extensive annotations. Without his work, Tolkien's body of published work would be far poorer.

Actually, that brings up another point entirely: the Hobbit movie isn't simply an adaptation of The Hobbit. It includes material from Unfinished Tales -- a book which I'm fairly confident Warner, MGM, et al do not have the movie rights to.

Now, I'm sure Warner's got very expensive lawyers on this. And maybe I'm misremembering -- it's been years since I read Unfinished Tales, longer since I read Lord of the Rings, longer still since I read The Hobbit. Maybe the LotR appendices have enough information about the Fall of Erebor, how Thorin earned the name Oakenshield, Gandalf's meeting with Thráin, and the White Council that Jackson, Walsh, Boyens, and del Toro can plausibly claim that they only adapted material from The Hobbit and LotR -- but if I were the Tolkien Estate's lawyers, I'd be poring over the movie right now looking for material from Unfinished Tales and any other posthumously-published Tolkien work that the studios never bought the rights for.

All that said? I like the LotR films and the Hobbit film. I'm sorry that Christopher Tolkien wishes they didn't exist, and I feel a little bad about that. I feel worse still about how the studios have treated the Tolkien Estate, and I believe it's genuinely unconscionable that they tried to stiff them out of compensation for the films. And yes, I suspect that the latest movie does adapt material from books it's not legally allowed to. (I'm also none too happy about the reports of union-busting and animal mistreatment, come to that.)

Stuff like this is personal. I believe that, for example, The Avengers hit a point where I couldn't in good conscience pay to see the movie; I believe that The Hobbit, despite the caveats above, did not. I believe the point that Tolkien's heirs do get a substantial amount of money from their father's work -- even if they had to go to court for some of it -- while Kirby's and Heck's heirs don't is a major reason for that. Spurgeon's point is intriguing -- but I really do like to think I've formed my opinions based on the circumstances of the dispute, and not simply looked for facts that made me feel good about seeing a movie I already wanted to see.

tl;dr I think The Hobbit was pretty great. There are some uncomfortable things going on behind the scenes and we should think about those. Personally I don't think they justify a boycott -- but everyone should be aware of them, consider them, and come to their own conclusions.

Best/Worst of Times, etc.

Yesterday I talked about Karen Berger's imminent departure from Vertigo, the disappointment I feel as a Vertigo fan, and the excitement I feel wondering what she'll do next.

And you know, that's kind of the perfect metaphor for what it feels like to be a comics fan in general right now. There's just so much bullshit -- but there's so much gold, too.

Since the 1940's, the American comics industry has gone through a regular, 20-year boom-bust cycle. We're in an odd-numbered decade, so if the pattern continues that means we've got another bust coming. And while I think Marvel and especially DC are full-speed-ahead on stupid management decisions to cause the next one, this one's not going to be like the others -- it's going to be smaller, it's going to be confined to those two major publishers, and it's going to happen even as their characters and brands increase in popularity.

Now, both companies seem dead-set on repeating most of the worst excesses of the 1990's -- variant covers, new #1's, big summer crossovers, increasingly muddled continuity reboots, Jim Lee -- and don't seem to get the idea that this is going to go much like it did in the '90's, with a brief boost to sales followed by a crash as everybody gets sick of this crap. DC, in particular, is currently being run by bean counters at Warner who think their best shot at relevance is pushing the Reset button on their universe again and putting out prequels to Watchmen.

Even still, DC's still managing to put out some great books. Dial H is fantastic, Demon Knights is a joy, and Animal Man and Frankenstein were both pretty great until they muddled into an unnecessary crossover. I really don't think it's a coincidence that the best books coming out of DC are the ones that are subject to the least corporate interference and are the least subject to the whims of shared-universe continuity.

And that's just DC proper. Take the the industry as a whole and there's a stunning variety of wild, beautiful, original books -- Saga, Chew, Manhattan Projects, The Massive, to name just a few. There are even some wonderful licensed books -- Adventure Time, Popeye, Godzilla: The Half-Century War. Prophet shows that even a 1990's Liefeld property can turn into a brilliant, offbeat science fiction series worthy of classic Heavy Metal. Dark Horse Presents demonstrates the depth and breadth of modern comics at its greatest, at 80 pages for $8 a month.

And that's just the new stuff. As far as classic comics, there's an embarrassment of riches. When I gave my cousin a copy of The Completely Mad Don Martin -- a collection of the cartoonist's entire Mad output, in two oversized hardcover books in a slipcase, weighing in at about 25 pounds -- my uncle looked at it and said "Did you ever think you'd see anything like this?" The mere idea that, in two generations, Mad has gone from being dismissed as trash to being given reverential treatment.

There's so much in print -- Floyd Gottfredson's Mickey Mouse, Carl Barks's Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge, exhaustive collections of Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes, Bloom County, Terry and the Pirates, Dick Tracy, Prince Valiant, Mary Perkins On Stage, Pogo, Tintin. You can get the complete Bone in a single black-and-white volume or a dozen color trades from Scholastic. Love and Rockets is collected in paperbacks or hardcovers, pick your Poison River. The other day I was at the library and saw a huge hardback collection of Walter Simonson's entire Thor run (only the worthy may lift it). There are glorious hardcover collections highlighting the work of Kirby, Ditko, Wood, Davis, Kurtzman, Wolverton, Eisner -- the choices are staggering.

And that's just the stuff that's in print.

You wanna talk about digital? You can buy the entirety of Quantum and Woody right the fuck now (and there's a rumor of two finished-but-never-published issues on the way too). Sure, digital comics has its issues -- DRM and the inevitable platform fragmentation and compatibility problems that DRM causes -- but it's still early days and that stuff'll get ironed out.

And that's just the stuff you have to pay for. Head on over to a site like Digital Comic Museum and you can gaze upon thousands of public-domain comics, completely free of charge.

And that's just the stuff that's available legally.

You want a comic that, for various rights reasons, will never be reprinted? Jack Kirby's 2001? Moore, Bissette, Veitch, et al's 1963? The infamous Air Pirates Funnies? Can't stop the signal; they're easier to find now than they were when they were in print.

So, all in all? It's plenty easy to get frustrated with the direction DC and Marvel are going in. It's easy to foresee their readership tanking and bringing on another crash and panic. But Avengers and Dark Knight Rises are still Hollywood blockbusters; their publishers aren't going away -- and even if they vanished overnight, there would be so much good stuff left to fill the vacuum that I, for one, wouldn't miss them...much.

Truth is, for all the bullshit, I don't think there's ever been a better time to be a comics fan -- not even the 1940's.

And I shouldn't have to say this, but just to be perfectly clear: I am absolutely not advocating illegally downloading comics that are commercially available. Support publishers you like. Support creators you like. Support your local comic shop.

And if you download a work that's out-of-print, or otherwise acquire a book that doesn't benefit the creators or their families, it's a good idea to buy something that does. You like 2001 (or, for that matter, any of Kirby's Marvel work)? Buy Kirby: Genesis and send some money his family's way. Like 1963? Pick up some Swamp Thing trades, and keep an eye out for Bissette's Tales of the Uncanny.

Or whatever it is you're into. Bottom line? Find something you love, support the people who make it happen, and tell your friends.