The topic of original art at Marvel in the 60s and 70s is a contentious one. The one thing we know for sure is that the original artists didn’t get all of it back.
Whether they wanted it, or whether it was owed to them, or whether anyone cared about most of it is a big topic that deserves its own book.
There are issues with each of those things. You have to take things in context. That art was essentially worthless in the 60s — they were pages done to produce these magazines that sold dirt cheaply and provided a salary for the artists via the publisher. Value in original art didn’t really show up until the 70s, to a limited degree. It’s only been uphill since then, with a particular boom in the last decade or so.
Already, 25% of you listening are arguing with your computer screen over how grossly I’ve over-simplified this and how wrong it all is.
Stick with me. I don’t need to be more specific for the moment. Let’s get to what came out this week. And then I’ll give you my best guess for what might be happening, based on piecing together seemingly random bits.
The Podcast That Started This
I hope you listen to Felix Comic Art Podcast. It’s a monthly dive into the world of original comic book artwork, talking with fellow dealers, collectors, and the artists, themselves. Most months come with a short video where the guest shows off a few pages of art and talks over them.
It’s brilliant stuff.
In the most recent edition of the podcast, Felix brought up the mystery of Kirby’s Marvel art from the 1960s. He says it’s been disappearing from the internet recently. Here’s how he framed it, starting at about the 1:15:00 mark:
There’s something going on now that I have no idea what’s happening for certain. It’s just… observing from street level. Seems to be a lot of Kirby art just disappearing off from public view. Give you an example. And someone brought this to my attention cause it’s not something I would… normally jump out at me. But after several people talked about it, you know what, there may actually be something going on. For example, one of the major auction houses. They’re good for about a dozen examples every auction. Right now, there’s zero. Nothing.
As a result, I surveyed the major dealer websites, and all the 60s Kirby is gone. There’s still Kirby, but there’s 70s Kirby, which is the uncontested Kirby. And then you look at ComicArtFans. There’s some major collectors who have now removed the Kirby from being able to be see online.
There was just an article that was printed in “The Atlantic” about Kirby and about his plight as a comics artist and a comics creator. It’s a pretty typical article that you see. It’s pro-Kirby. […]
There was an unusually large amount of print devoted to the art issue. That he fought to get it back. That he wasn’t able to get it all back. And that, you know, there’s the insinuation that… a lot of it was stolen.
That Atlantic write-up provides a nice overview for the situation. It’s almost like the piece was planted at the magazine to set up some upcoming news or something. (Sorry, that’s more of my wild speculation. It’s borne of seeing seemingly unconnected things suddenly gel together in retrospect, plus how large companies use the news cycle to their advantage in certain ways.)
I looked at a couple of dealer websites. One, in particular, had 53 pieces up six months ago and seven now. The only 60s page left is one Kirby is only credited with “finishes” on.
I looked up Heritage, and they still have a single 60s Marvel Kirby page listed, with three more also there as having been sold for six figures each in the past. The most recent sold in May, though that was an unused cover drawing, so perhaps it would be exempt from this controversy.
ComicConnect.com has a couple of 60s pages. I don’t know what they’re usual stock in this stuff is, though. And maybe those pages came through the inker, for all I know.
I don’t know who the major Kirby collectors on CAF are, but I’m willing to take Felix’s word on this one.
The question then becomes, Why are so many people/companies taking their 60s Marvel Kirby art down?
I have a theory. Or a guess. Wild speculation? Follow along with me.
In October 2014, Disney settled with the estate of Jack Kirby. No details were given, other than that the case the Kirby family had brought all the way to the Supreme Court would be dropped. Jack Kirby’s name could appear in the movie credits. And everyone assumed a healthy chunk of dollars were contributed to the Kirby folks.
Here’s how the Hollywood Reporter announced it:
On Friday, Marvel ended a long and bitter feud with the estate of comic book legend Jack Kirby, announcing a settlement just days before the U.S. Supreme Court had scheduled a conference to discuss whether to take up a case with potentially billions on the line.
If the Supremes had ruled against Marvel, it would have been devastating not just for Marvel, but likely for other publishers of the era, as well.
Disney surely thought a payout to avoid a complete collapse was beneficial. Note that I’m not giving them credit for doing the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing here. Pardon my cynicism when it comes to lawyers and IP law.
Bleeding Cool took a stab at what it meant:
Possibly, worried he may have said too much, my very well-connected source defined the settlement as “eight figures. Mid eight figures.” Which leads me to believe we could be looking from anywhere between $30 million to $50 million, either way the largest single sum settlement that any comic book creator’s estate has ever received for such a legal settlement in history.
It’d be worth that price just to keep the Marvel Cinematic Universe intact.
The Comics Journal ran a long piece analyzing the case and what the settlement meant.
Feel free to read through all that. You won’t need to for the sake of my proposed settlement for original art owners, but it’s a fascinating and complex story.
The Provenance Problem
Why might auction houses and art dealers suddenly not want to peddle Kirby’s art, which is some of the most desirable and valuable art in the North American comics world? (“Tintin” still rules the European market.)
Kirby art is BIG MONEY. Once there’s big money in play, there’s always lawyers and contention and arguments. Let’s look at it from each angle to see what the problems are.
They all have one thing in common, though: Nobody knows who owned the art in the first place.
The dirty little open secret for the last few decades is that it’s very likely a lot of Kirby’s art in the open market was effectively stolen. There are stories of stacks of pages just disappearing from the office.
The problem is, there’s also stories of art being given away to people visiting the office, artists taking pages home for reference and never returning them, and pages being lost in shipping or damaged in floods. (See the comments section in that last link for such stories.)
But some pages were obtained legitimately, even directly from Jack and Roz in their later years.
I’d call the paper trail a nightmare, but since they didn’t give receipts with those gifts, it’s worse. It’s a vacuum.
How do you separate the good from the bad? This is the origin of the original art problem. It stems from Marvel’s practices in the 1960s and into the 1970s, when things were played faster and looser.
If you own a page of Kirby art from Marvel in the 60s, how sure are you that what you own was legitimately sourced? How do you know the dealer you bought it from — even if it was 30 years ago — got it through legitimate means?
Would you want to give that page up? Would you want to get served a letter from Disney/Marvel legal? Even if you have the paperwork from where you bought it, how do you know that guy you bought it from got it through legitimate means?
Might be a good idea to hide the fact from the public that you own it. Take it down off the internet, keep it in your portfolio or hung framed on your wall, and never boast about it again. Stay quiet and they might overlook you for now. All future trades and sales and deals can be handled quietly, creating a new black market for original art.
This is their livelihood. They don’t want to be peddling in stolen goods, but how many can afford to just give it all back, if it came to that? This is your whole business at stake. What does it do for your credibility to be effectively trafficking in stolen goods? And who wants to lose their business because of a lawsuit over something like this?
The Answer? Participant Original Art
I think a more reasonable deal would be something Neal Adams wrote about on Bleeding Cool last year. (Neal is also the one who led the charge to get Kirby his original art back 30 years ago.) It’s the idea that the original artist should always financially benefit from any sale of their art, even on the secondary or tertiary market. Adams makes an interesting case for it, saying that the artist’s support of a deal would add legitimacy and value to the piece. He did it with a cover of his, and liked the results:
It is my sincere hope that this singular event will encourage others, who wish to sell art that was not purchased “directly’ from its creator,..to get approval directly from the artist or his/her family for such an auction, for a reasonable percentage of the sale.
Idea being, a much HIGHER, price may result to the benefit of all parties!
In future,…it may come to pass, that Any continuing sales. of any piece of art will include a portion of the PROFIT,.. dedicated to the artist and his/her family!
I can imagine lots of dealers, in particular, not being thrilled with this idea. Besides cutting into their profit margins, it sounds like a paperwork hassle. Should Big Time Art Dealer be responsible for tracking down every artist who did one comic thirty years ago, so they can cut a check for $20 on a page’s sale?
Maybe not, but they wouldn’t have to do it with every artist. It’s not a law. It’s a contract they sign with the Kirby Estate, in this case, which has something to hold over their heads. What if the Kirby Estate gave the dealer “provenance” of the piece in return for a 20% cut of the final price. I’m making that number up, but with pages that routine sell in the five figures these days, everyone walks away with a good chunk of money. And in the case of Kirby original art, all those worries I enumerated before about the chain of ownership goes away. A small tip back to the estate restores the free market for Kirby original art.
That would be worth it to clear the air once and for all, I should think.
What if dealers and auction houses are taking Kirby pages down until these deals are made? Could the Kirby Estate and/or Marvel strong-arm — er, negotiate — them into such deals? (“You give us 20%, or our lawyers send you some other paperwork? Wouldn’t that be a shame?”)
It would solve lots of tricky problems with a way that settles the ownership question once and for all on both sides. It would also create a precedent that other artists could follow. For better or worse. I think artists would be happy with this — it’s found money for them, and even a recurring revenue. But will dealers find enough of a price bump to do it? Maybe for a certain category of artist, they would.
Neal Adams comes riding to the Kirby Estate’s rescue again? It would make a hell of a story.
One Other Vague Thing
On Jack Kirby’s birthday this year, Mark Evanier wrote:
At the moment, I’m revisiting a lot of his staggering output because I’m trying to finish a long-promised book that will tell the world everything I know about Jack. When you see it, which I hope will be some time next year for his centennial, you will understand why it took so long. Some of that is because I had to keep stopping work on it to wait out certain legal matters.
Emphasis mine. Maybe this refers back just to the 2014 settlement. Or maybe there’s more?
I also don’t know if some of the Kirby art that has disappeared from dealer’s sites was just sold in the last few months all to some secretive collector, or if there’s something else going on behind the scenes.
This is all wild speculation. I hope some of you journalist types out there will follow up on this and track something more solid down. Or, eventually, I’m sure we’ll all find out together when the pages start popping up again, or a press release comes out talking about a new “Marvel/Kirby Estate partnership that’s innovating the world of original comic book production artwork.”