A colleague from work, Jemiah Jefferson, turned to me at a party on Thursday and said, “A friend of mine has a beef with you.” That was a new experience, as I’ve been fairly lucky that, despite having strong feelings about comics and being foolish enough to share them on the Internet, I don’t think I’ve ever had a negative interaction with anyone because of anything I’ve posted to the blog.
I like to think that, for the most part, I get along with everyone I know in comics, regardless of our differing opinions or my feelings about their work. It’s a small business, and one simply can’t afford to be a jerk. I nearly shut down the blog entirely when I started at Dark Horse, since I wasn’t sure how much of a conflict of interest it was to write about the work of people I might encounter through my new job. It wasn’t long before I was assigned to projects with people whose work I had reviewed. I got a few thanks from people whose work I wrote up positively, but thankfully I never received any hard feelings from people whose work I had reviewed negatively. Either they were unaware of the blog (the most likely answer), or they didn’t mind a little criticism backed up with reason and directed solely at a book and not at them personally (also possible, as they were all nice people).
Over time I got more comfortable, redirected my focus to broader comics topics, event reporting and interviews, with only occasional reviews mixed in. My bosses were also very helpful in pointing out which topics and people were completely off limits, and with only one exception never objected to anything I alerted them that I planned to post.
So, the party. I’ve been relatively vocal about my support for the Stephen Bissette–instigated Marvel boycott (“relatively” meaning that I’ve used my microphone as best I can, but it’s not a very loud one) over the company’s continued refusal of proper credit or compensation to Jack Kirby’s family. I skipped this summer’s Marvel movies, all three of which were based on Kirby cocreations, vowed to no longer buy any Marvel comics that featured Kirby-derived characters, wrote a lengthy post in this space about the boycott, and for a couple months made “Boycott Marvel” my Facebook icon. I gather that what happened is I commented on something on Jemiah’s page, where my icon was seen by her friend, a penciler at Marvel, who clicked through and found the blog post, taking it personally. So let me tell him, and the Internet, what I told Jemiah:
I am boycotting Marvel. I am not boycotting you. I do not begrudge you your work for the publisher. Because a) making a living penciling comic books was my dream when I was a kid, and you are awesome for accomplishing that, and b) you’re not exactly getting rich off of Jack Kirby. Like everything else in America, there is a class issue at play here, and I don’t have a right to tell you that you should ignore the fact that you gotta eat. You probably make about as much as I do, and I don’t need anyone to tell me how hard it is to get by on what I make.
It’s the people who have gotten rich from Kirby’s work while denying his contribution that I am angry at. The people who through ignorance or dishonestly initially put a title card crediting Stan Lee, rather than Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, with Captain America’s creation in the first Captain America film. The people who put Stan Lee but not Joe Simon in the new Captain America film. Who could afford to pay royalties to Kirby’s family for reprints of his work or the use of characters he created or cocreated in Marvel’s films but choose not to. The, as Tom Spurgeon put it, “random lawyer sitting on Marvel’s board in 2000s [who] probably made more in bonuses over a two-year period off of Kirby’s creations than Kirby made in his lifetime.” Those are the people this boycott is aimed at.
It’s a tough thing in any kind of action against a corporation: how do you get its attention and hopefully affect it financially without hurting the people who work for it? I confess that I’ve been able to sidestep this a bit, because I don’t actually buy many single-issue comics anymore, so for better or worse I’m not affecting the royalties of writers and artists currently working for Marvel. Where my money goes to Marvel is the movies and collections like the Essential and Omnibus editions, often of Jack Kirby’s actual work. The last one I bought, which until things change is the last one I will buy, was the $75 Captain America by Jack Kirby hardcover (what can I say; you can afford stuff like that when you save by skipping monthly comics). In retrospect, a book like that is among the biggest offenders, as it not only stars a Kirby-cocreated character, but was actually written and drawn by the King himself, sold in large part on the basis of his name and rereleased in an expensive edition in time to coincide with a blockbuster film, all without any royalties going to his family. I confess that Marvel is not losing my business on a weekly basis, but they have lost a reliable customer of several of these $75–$125 books a year.
However, were I a regular buyer of Marvel’s monthly comics, I would stop that as well (as I have done with DC’s Superman comics as a result of that company’s shabby treatment of the Siegels and Shusters, despite my love of Grant Morrison’s writing). Then I possibly would affect royalties, and all I can say to that is that I wouldn’t feel good about buying the comics, but I do not begrudge the people making a living by writing and drawing them. You, Marvel penciler, and all the working-class people like you who are trying to make a name in this business, are not the people who have done this moral wrong. And it’s not my place to tell you that you shouldn’t work for Marvel. If you didn’t work for Marvel, someone else would, and the people listed two paragraphs back wouldn’t notice. So why would I attack you? I’m not upset at the people who need the penciling paycheck to live, I’m upset at the people who can’t live without reading the next issue of Invincible Iron Man.
I do wish the people with louder voices than either yours or mine would use them. Imagine if Brian Bendis, Matt Fraction, Jeph Loeb or another writer or artist of their stature at Marvel spoke out. That’s what got much of Kirby’s artwork returned to him when Marvel was holding it hostage in the 1980s. The top people in the business, including those who had made their names at Marvel, publicly stood with him because it was right and because them doing so was impossible to ignore. Where are the 2011 equivalents of those creators, with their much better compensation and treatment that is the direct result of the kind of agitation that was more common in the ’80s? Why are they silent on this issue at the same time as they praise the filmmakers they work with for capturing the feel of Kirby’s work?
I’m usually the last guy to complain about the fragmentation of media, but I wonder if the small field of comics, which took to the Internet so early and so completely, simply no longer has an outlet with the kind of audience or authority to draw the attention this issue deserves. During the fight over Kirby’s artwork The Comics Journal was a central institution, reporting on each development, providing a soapbox for the writers and artists who backed Kirby, and publishing the names of those who had signed the petition. Who can do that today?
The answer, as best as I can tell, is that we all have to do what we think is right and what we can do. Ultimately I realize that I am doing very little, but I wouldn’t feel good about myself spending my money that way and so I choose not to. People I work with and respect feel differently, but that doesn’t make them bad people, and I engage with them about this but don’t vilify their choice. Other people need that paycheck from Marvel and if they want to make it in this business then the boycott is not feasible for them. I’m okay with that. Some people directly and hugely benefit from the ill treatment of Kirby’s heirs, and I don’t know what their motives are, but I hope that by many people continuing to talk about this, those who benefit come to decide that it might not be worth it.
And ultimately that’s all we’re talking about. Sorry to anyone I offended last time out. I’m on your side.