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CAPTAIN COMICS: Reprints keep superhero creator in the news

by Andrew A. Smith McClatchy-Tribune News Service on July 06, 2014 2:00 AM

Comics writer/artist Jack Kirby is often, and justly, referred to as “The King.” And even though he died in 1994, he’s still making news.

For the uninitiated, Kirby’s claims to fame are many, and stretch across decades. In 1941, for example, he and then-partner Joe Simon created a fella named Captain America. In the late 1940s, he and Simon created the entire genre of romance comics. In the early 1960s, he and Stan Lee created the bulk of Marvel’s superhero line, starting with Fantastic Four and continuing with Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, the X-Men, Black Panther, the Inhumans, Silver Surfer and many more. Kirby’s art style — dynamic, exaggerated and action-packed — became the Marvel house style for all incoming artists, and eventually influenced most of the industry.

Yet, like many creators in comic books, Kirby was poorly recompensed for much of his career. While alive he fought for the return of his original artwork and for recognition of his hand in co-creating most of the Marvel line. After his death, his heirs took up the fight — and right now that legal battle is on the cusp of something that could change the entire entertainment industry.

What happened is changes in the copyright law in 1976 and 1998 that extended copyrights, but included a provision for creators potentially to regain rights they might have signed away when they were young and had no bargaining power. And Kirby did indeed sign away rights, many times in various contracts, but also pretty continuously under the comic industry’s ubiquitous “work for hire” provision that made publishers the creator of record for all properties. The current laws don’t make any exception for “work for hire,” though, so Kirby and his heirs still have no rights, as several lower courts have ruled.

Kirby’s heirs argue that this is unfair, putting too high a burden on creators to reclaim rights. And they have petitioned the Supreme Court to hear their case. As of this writing, the high court hasn’t decided whether it’s going to grant certiorari, as it’s called. But if it does, and if they rule in favor of the Kirby heirs, well, that could change everything. Suddenly companies that were accustomed to claiming the lion’s share of profits from the creations of their employees, contractors and freelancers would have to share the wealth. Marvel Comics and DC Comics, in particular, would suddenly be on shaky ground for their entire catalogs of characters, from Batman to Spider-Man. It would also affect record companies regarding back catalogs of famous musicians, or TV/movie production companies’ ownership of their product, and so forth.

Of course, nothing at all might happen. Stay tuned.

Speaking of Kirby, some of his vast oeuvre has been resurrected by three recent reprint books.

And believe it or not, the best of the three is “Young Romance 2: The Early Simon & Kirby Romance Comics” (Fantagraphics, $29.99).

Yes, romance comics of the late 1940s and ’50s are often pretty laughable by today’s standards.

They depicted a world in which women had virtually no power, in which whom they married was their most vital interest and avoiding a bad reputation was paramount. Men are usually the active agents, and women weep a lot.

The Simon & Kirby romance stories, however, were often a notch above. Their women were often the decision-makers in their own love lives, or were uninterested in romance completely (only to learn better, of course). With feistier gals, the stories could cover more territory and take more dramatic chances.

And besides, who can resist stories with titles like “I Was a Pick-Up!” or “I Stole for Love!”? Or how about “War Bride!” or “Gold Digger!”? Better still, what about “Mama’s Boy!” “Love or Pity?” and “The Man I Loved Was a Woman-Hater!”? Honestly, this is some pretty wacked-out stuff sometimes, but it never fails to entertain — Simon & Kirby knew their business.

And they didn’t skip a beat when they changed genres, as demonstrated by “The Simon & Kirby Library: Horror!” (Titan Books, $49.95).

As with their romance books, Simon & Kirby often ignored the usual approach of the horror genre, going for a more psychological or internal terror.

Characters are forever wondering if they’re going mad (and sometimes they are).

Of course, there are also monsters, ghosts and other things that go bump in the night, but even there the emphasis is on the reaction of the ordinary guy in extraordinary circumstances, not gore and blood (although there is some of that as well).

The bulk of the book is the material S&K created from 1950 to 1954 for a book they edited called “Black Magic,” and almost all of that is a hoot. The quality falls off a bit at the end, which reprints some stories from a short-lived book named “The Strange World of Your Dreams” that ran 1951-52.

Oh, the art is still dynamic and exciting. And the interest Simon & Kirby had in dreams was genuine, and they did research on dream interpretation.

The premise was of a dream interpreter named Richard Temple who helped people figure out their dreams.

That allowed for every story to be different, as Temple would investigate different people in different circumstances. Sometimes they came to his office (dream interpreters have offices?), but almost as often he’d just happen to bump into someone being tormented by a dream.

Which this reader found preposterous. The idea that this guy — who was not a trained psychiatrist or psychologist — could interpret everyone’s dreams on the fly, without any ongoing analysis or a thorough background examination, and would always, always, always be right, seemed not only ridiculous, but kinda dangerous. Temple was essentially playing psychiatrist without a license, and generally we call that quackery — or fraud.

Now, S&K did take care to have Temple remind people in every story that he wasn’t a doctor and he couldn’t guarantee results.

But does that really make what he was doing any less fraudulent — or any less dangerous for the “patient”? And the fact that he was always correct in his interpretations 100 percent of the time is just a little too convenient to swallow.

Now, this is comics, where one must accept 10 impossible things before cracking the cover. But, weirdly, I find Superman more plausible than Richard Temple. At least Kal-El can explain his fantastic abilities with pseudo-science.

Temple, on the other hand, is supposed to be an ordinary guy — one who probably ought to be prosecuted.

Which is why, of all the Kirby reprint books — and they are legion — the only one I can’t recommend is the one that collects the entire run of the Richard Temple series.

“The Strange World of Your Dreams” (IDW, $29.99) was a chore to wade through.

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