SDCC12: CAC Session #7: Jack Kirby and the Auteur Theory of Comics

Comic Arts #7 from The Comics Journal on Vimeo.

Arlen Schumer and Randolph Hoppe theorize that comic-book artist Jack Kirby was a de facto co-creator and co-author, with the credited writer, of his work: with John Morrow and TCJ contributors Charles Hatfield and Craig Fischer. Filmed by Justin Bloch and David McCloud.

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32 Responses to SDCC12: CAC Session #7: Jack Kirby and the Auteur Theory of Comics

  1. James says:

    It is a fact that artists in comics initiate a substantial amount of storytelling narrative information, even if working from full script. This isn’t a “theory”, this is just the way it is. Arlen Schumer takes credit for this concept though and claims that every comics collaboration is a “de facto 50/50 split” even if done by the “Marvel Method”. But even full script collaborations were already always traditionally credited 50/50….at least they were until recently, when some writers started accepting a more prominent billing than the artists. And, artists were traditionally paid more than writers for the same amount of pages of work…because artists have the more difficult and time-consuming job. If anything, the point would be that in the Marvel method the artists plotted and largely wrote the work IN ADDITION to doing their already “50%” of work in the realization and drawing of the stories. The Marvel Method writers like Lee might have given artists a brief synopsis, but always left the bulk of the articulation of the stories to the artists to work out. Often, Lee’s artists made up the stories from whole cloth themselves. For the balloons and captions, Lee would elaborate and expand upon on notes that the artist made in the margins of the pages. Because Schumer admires Lee, as many “comics scholars” seem to, self-styled and academic alike, he is saying to give Lee “no more, no less than 50%,” the same credit Lee himself claimed back in the day, before his more recent court testimony that he invented everything on his own. Schumer’s “auteur theory” therefore adds no credit to Kirby’s case and actually takes away.

  2. James says:

    Anyway, Kirby’s name is on the movies, so credit isn’t really the issue—he’s dead, so it’s moot…..of course, 50% or an equal amount of money to what Stan Lee receives would be better than what Kirby’s family gets from Marvel/Disney now, which is zero, ziltch, nada.

  3. George Bush (not that one) says:

    Its kinda funny that over at the Marvel Masterworks Forum they are saying that Arlen’s piece is an attack on Stan, that its part of the constant re writing of history by the Kirby Kultists who believe that Stan stole all the credit..

  4. R. Maheras says:

    George — Not to get into any “Stan bashing,” but to pretend that there wasn’t a long stretch of time — decades, in fact — where Stan gave little or no credit to artists like Kirby of Ditko for their creative contributions is historical revisionism.

    For the record, I don’t think there would have been a Marvel Universe without the symbiotic relationship between Lee, Kirby, Ditko and a few others. Whether they later acknowledged it or not, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind they all needed each other to shore up each others’ creative weaknesses.

    But Stan went through a period where he wrongly said it was he who created everything, and as someone who has been a Marvel fan since 1967, that was never clearer than when I first read a six-page story (five if you don’t count the opening illustration) Lee himself wrote for the July-August issue of “Quest” magazine titled “How I created Spider-Man.”

    To the casual fan or outsider, upon reading that article, one woould come away with the belief that the second most important person involved with the creation of Spider-Man was Stan’s wife. Ditko was barely mentioned at all, and when he was, one got the impression that he was just another interchangeable artist who had worked on Spider-Man over the years. This, even though Ditko was given full “plotter” status for nearly the last two years of his artistic run on Spider-Man.

    I was aghast when I read that article and it has colored my view of Lee ever since. Lee eventually softened his stance in recent years, but he still slips back into his old stance on occasion.

    Another thing that I ran across during the late 1980 that gave me pause was Lee’s entry in “Who’s Who.” The information for those entries is usually provided by the individual or the individual’s authorized representative, and Lee’s entry stated that he was the “cartoonist” for the Hulk, Spider-Man and other characters. And while I’m always willing to give Lee the benefit of the doubt, that outrageous “Quest” article is always raising doubts in the back of my mind.

  5. R. Maheras says:

    The issue of “Quest” I refer to above was published in 1977.

  6. Allen Smith says:

    Does anyone have a link to the Quest article, or is it not available online? Not that I need to read it as there’s other examples of Stan’s credit hogging ways.

  7. Michael Hill says:

    Russ, Stan had a “softened stance” regarding plotting as it happened in the ’60s, but that came to an end when PF&C decided Kirby had a legitimate claim to the properties and wrote their own version. As though he would have us believe we collectively dreamed the last fifty years, any soft stance Lee displayed in interviews is superseded by his 2010 deposition wherein he laid claim to creation of the works.

  8. R. Maheras says:

    Yes, in part, that’s one of the things I was indirectly referring to. I found the deposition quite saddening.

  9. Jeet Heer says:

    I think it’s a mistake to look at any of Stan Lee’s statements on these issues as a reflection of what he really believes. Rather, Lee says what he does depending on the audience and also the legal ramifications. If he’s talking to a fan audience that knows the score and his statements won’t carry legal weight, he’ll give the artists some credit. But if he’s talking to a more general audience or give testimony, he reverts to the position of himself as sole creator. Lee has, to be blunt, an opportunistic relationship with the truth.

  10. R. Maheras says:

    Because my brain is old and feeble, I mis-remembered the title of the “Quest” magazine article. It is actually “How I Invented Spider-Man,” and you can read it here: http://kirbymuseum.org/blogs/dynamics/2011/08/27/how-stan-lee-invented-spider-man/

  11. Michael Hill says:

    Jeet, Stan’s version is so insidious that Amazon touts “Stan Lee’s new Masterworks volume” and Kirby and Ditko are referred to the way Stan labelled them, artists.

  12. Jack says:

    On the other hand, Lee obviously did come up with the Spider-Man superhero-with-problems schtick, seeing as how Ditko is obsessed with the idea that heroes need to be flawless. In one of his recent essays, Ditko says that Lee proposing a teenage-loser superhero to Martin Goodman is like a GM executive proposing an “Adult Kiddy Car” with intentional design flaws. Such a proposal would be, as Ditko might say, bad/non-good, anti-reason, A ≠ A. But the Peter Parker soap-opera stuff was a big part of the character’s appeal, wasn’t it? I have no idea whether it was as important as the costume and Ditko’s other contributions, though.

    Lee is Martin Goodman’s nephew, isn’t he? He didn’t mention that in the Quest article.

  13. R. Maheras says:

    Well, one can’t deny that Ditko’s influence on the strip was huge — far beyond just the nuts and bolts stuff like costume design. Ditko plotted what is aguably the greatest story arc in the history of Spider-Man franchise — issues #31, 32 and 33. And he did so at a time when he and Lee were not even on speaking terms. I think Ditko greatly influenced, and then cemented Spider-Man’s persona into something far more mature, independent, determined and heroic than might have occurred had some other artist initially worked on the strip. Not to diminish the contributions of Romita, Kane and later artists, but by the time Ditko left, the persona of Spider-Man was already a winning formula set in stone.

  14. R. Maheras says:

    One other point about Ditko’s unique and significant conribution to the development of Spider-Man and his alter-ego, Peter Parker. In his “Invented” essay (no pun intended), Lee goes to great lengths describing his thought process behind fleshing out the character. But if you look at any other teen characters Lee wrote dialogue for during that exact same time frame, not one had the ethical complexity and depth as did Spider-Man/Peter Parker. Such philosophical and intellectual explorations are Ditko’s hallmark, not Lee’s.

    Lee’s forte was taking the complex ideas of Ditko and Kirby and distilling their essence into a simpler, hipper “everyman” language. It’s because of this, I would argue, that Johnny Storm is so very different than Peter Parker. Storm and the X-Men were Kirby-molded teenagers while Parker was shaped by Ditko. Kirby was an action-oriented guy who tossed in a smattering of emotional, ethical and intellectual conflict in his characters, while Ditko spent many pages, or even entire issues, exploring such things.

    It appears to me that Lee handed off the lion’s share of plotting to both Kirby and Ditko early on — perhaps after a year or so — which is why I think the plotting and character development of Spider-Man and Fantastic Four/Thor were so different as the books progressed and matured. Lee, being the ringmaster, then took whatever his plotters gave him and ran with it. Kirby no doubt should have eventually had plotter credit just like Ditko, but I suspect he never pushed the issue because he was a team player and didn’t want to rock the boat. Ditko, on the other hand, at a very different philosophy than did Kirby — a philosophy that revolved around not just ethics, but the individual.

  15. Bill says:

    Hmmm. Lee still works for Marvel/Disney. Kirby stopped working for them decades ago. Equal pay sounds logical to me.

  16. James says:

    Since Kirby was the person who actually created the characters and stories that formed the media empire and not just the editor, blurbwriter and braggart who claimed to, yeah.

  17. James said,

    the point would be that in the Marvel method the artists plotted and largely wrote the work IN ADDITION to doing their already “50%” of work in the realization and drawing of the stories. The Marvel Method writers like Lee might have given artists a brief synopsis, but always left the bulk of the articulation of the stories to the artists to work out. Often, Lee’s artists made up the stories from whole cloth themselves.

    I think this is the essential point. Arlen Schumer’s argument seeks to cover all sorts of collaborative (artist/writer) models, but the Marvel method as practiced by Kirby, Ditko, Lee et al. was a particular model, quite unlike some of the other models (e.g. Moore/Gibbons) that Arlen mentions.

    Arlen would make the auteurist argument for any comic book artist, whether that artist worked from no script or full script, whether that artist did the plotting himself or faithfully followed plots laid down by another scenarist, and whether that artist was the acknowledged “co-creator” of the property or not. His argument seeks to cover all bases, asserting that, whatever the nature of the collaborative process, the artist is always, or almost always, the auteur of the comic book reading experience.

    There’s a certain fuzziness in Arlen’s argument as presented here, I believe, in that he both acknowledges Moore et al. and Kurtzman et al. as exceptions to the argument yet also, near the end of his speech, likens Moore/Gibbons to Lee/Kirby–which in my view is a big stretch. What’s happening here, I think, is that two sides of, or rather two motivations for, Arlen’s argument are in conflict with one another. One side is the desire to acknowledge the complexity of comic book collaboration, i.e. to sensitize his listeners to the complex question of how comic book stories get made. I sympathize with that. The other side has to do with asserting the importance of comic book artists, full stop. I sympathize with that too, to a degree, but I believe Arlen tries too hard to make every case just like every other case.

    James is right to point out that the resultant argument actually undermines a bit the case for Kirby’s substantial authorial role at Marvel. Likening Stan Lee’s scripting and editorial role at Marvel to the work of Kurtzman with his many collaborators, or Moore with his, tends to aggrandize Lee’s role rather than place it in proper historical perspective. The various kinds of collaboration cited by Arlen are not equivalent.

    In short, I’m in the odd position of believing much of what Arlen says about Kirby, but of not believing that the larger “auteur theory” he poses sheds light on the important issues. If anything, I think treating Kirby/Lee along with Adams/Haney or whoever/Sprang tends to cloud the issue. And, not to flog a dead horse, but I think the Moore/Gibbons and Moore/Campbell examples are particularly ill-fitted to the larger argument.

    I absolutely agree that Kirby was “co-creator and co-author” of the Marvel comic books, indeed almost all the comics, he drew. But I don’t agree that every one of the instances of collaboration that Arlen cites ought to be regarded in the same way as the Marvel method. There are important differences between comics created full-script style and comics generated mainly through narrative cartooning. There are important differences between collaborations that are genuinely, intensively, collaborative, and those that are accomplished by editorial fiat à la Lee at Marvel.

    In any case, auteur theory, as Craig Fischer points out in his remarks after Arlen’s speech, is now considered an imperfect and problematic approach in film studies (the field from which Arlen borrows the term and the comparison). Not that auteurism is considered entirely wrong or unrevealing, but, as an exclusive approach, it has been seriously questioned if not overturned in film scholarship. Social, economic, and historical context, “the genius of the system” (e.g. the Hollywood studio system), and other factors are now recognized as very important. My perspective on Kirby is frankly auteurist (indeed I worry the issue of authorship quite a bit in Hand of Fire), but what I have to say about Kirby hopefully does not ignore these other factors–and is not interchangeable with what I’d have to say about some of the other collaborations cited in Arlen’s talk.

    In any case, I prefer to think that one can posit different “auteurs” for collaborative comics based on the particular goals and needs of one’s work. After all, there is a sense in which mid-1960s Fantastic Four comics are Lee comics, though frankly they matter to me a great deal more as Kirby comics.

    My take on this is: we don’t need a one-size-fits-all theory; what we need is deep research and sensitivity to context. To the extent that Arlen’s argument asks for these things, I’m all for it. But I emphatically don’t think the case of Kirby at Marvel provides a generalizable rule we can apply to any artist/writer combo in collaborative comics.

  18. Allen Smith says:

    Jeet, if Lee tailored his comments according to his audience, why doesn’t that make him a two faced liar? Answer: it does.

  19. Bill says:

    Sounds like what diplomats do.

  20. Rob says:

    I don’t see vilifying Lee as a prerequisite to honoring Kirby.

  21. Vilification holds no interest for me, though I share Russ’s feeling that Lee’s deposition in the Marvel v. Kirby case is sad.

    I’m not into tearing down Lee, or building him up. I’m into a better historiography of the comic book, and a better appreciation of narrative cartooning: not as illustration or handmaiden to a set text, but as its own process. I resist the mythologizing of Lee to the extent that it interferes with those goals, but I’ve no stake in pillorying “Stan.”

  22. R. Maheras says:

    Being objective and honest is not vilification.

    Stan, Jack, Steve and the others were heroes and surrogate parents to me in the late 1960s and early 1970s. To this day, I greatly respect them and what they accomplished.

    Which is why I find it deeply ironic that I view and judge Stan’s historic words and actions through the very same ethical and philosophical filter that he himself helped instill and/or reinforce in me.

  23. Allen Smith says:

    That’s all well and good if Stan would follow the same idea. I don’t vilify Stan to uplift Kirby, Kirby’s work does that. I vilify Stan to counteract the past forty plus years of Stan Lee propaganda. I think Stan is winning in that sense but I don’t intend to stop.

  24. Robert Stanley Martin says:

    This is a shockingly poor presentation by Arlen Schumer. In addition to the numerous problems related to comics aesthetics (Charles Hatfield outlines several in his comment above), Schumer doesn’t understand what was at issue in the Kirby heirs’ lawsuit. He doesn’t understand the so-called “auteur theory” of film, either.

    With the Kirby suit, the question before the court was never whether Lee or Kirby deserved the most credit for the Marvel material. In her ruling, the judge went out of her way to make clear that was outside her concern. The issue was only whether Kirby produced his work for Marvel in “instance and expense” circumstances, and was therefore the equivalent of work-for-hire. Kirby’s son confirmed the most germane aspects of Lee’s testimony, which was that Kirby never produced material on spec, and only began work after Lee gave him the go-ahead. Both sides agreed that, regardless of the degree of his contribution, Kirby created the material at Marvel’s direction. Since there’s no disagreement about that, the Kirby heirs had no claim, and Marvel received a summary judgment in their favor. No amount of argument about aesthetic contribution was going to change that; it was beside the point.

    With the auteur theory of film–more aptly called the auteur aesthetic of film–it was never about claiming that “a film’s director, and not the screenwriter, as was previously thought, was a film’s true author.” François Truffaut (and Andrew Sarris after him) were more or less arguing the opposite. In their view, only some films deserved to be called directors’ films. Others were more appropriately considered writers’ films–in Truffaut’s view, films directed by René Clément or Marcel Carné; in Sarris’s, those helmed by Billy Wilder or Ingmar Bergman. Others still could be considered actors’ films (Sarris’s infamous example was John Huston’s better films), and so on among the various collaborators on a production. With directors’ films and writers’ films, the difference was that, with the former, the director uses the screenplay as a springboard. With the latter, the director uses it as a foundation. Directors who use the script as a taking-off point for their cinematic artistry are the true directors–the auteurs. Directors who subordinate themselves to the script–including, as can be seen above, many writer-directors–are cinematic mediocrities. Truffaut’s term for this kind of filmmaker was metteur en scène. Auteurism was never about claiming that the director was always the author of the film. Auteurism was about lionizing the kind of director who made him- or herself the author of the film regardless–and often in spite of–the script.

    If one wants to apply these terms to comics in the way Truffaut and Sarris meant them, an example of an auteur would be Alex Toth, who invariably transformed every script he worked on. An example of a metteur en scène would be Dave Gibbons in Watchmen, who aesthetically was all but completely subordinate to scriptwriter Alan Moore.

  25. Robert Stanley Martin says:

    Let me add that screenwriters have never enjoyed the author status Schumer claims they once held. Not among filmmakers, critics, or anyone else.

  26. James says:

    RSM, some good points, I take issue only with your dismissal of Dave Gibbons, who was the best of all possible collaborators for Alan Moore and who added a great deal to Watchmen, which was certainly tailored for his strengths. And, I can’t agree with your description of the Kirbys “agreeing” about Jack never creating anything “on spec” or without Lee’s go-ahead. On the contrary, their case hinged on the idea that Kirby worked at home, not in the imaginary “bullpen” , with his own materials and not under directions from Lee most of the time. Kirby created most of his stories from whole cloth himself, with Lee coming in only after the fact to lay the “gloss of his persona” on top. Kirby created many characters and concepts completely on his own (the Silver Surfer being a famous example); at a certain point, as it became clear that Lee was taking credit and pay for and often ruining his ideas, Kirby began witholding his ideas. First, he did complete pages that he decided not to turn in…Roz would say “that’s too good for them” and he would keep particularly nice full-pagers….then he did the drawings which became the Gods portfolio as a revamp of Thor and he did the watercolored New Gods concepts, but he decided not to show them to Lee.

  27. Michael Hill says:

    To say Lee is vilified by the suggestion that he’s played fast and loose with the truth over the decades is to vilify Kirby.

  28. Robert is right, I think, about the evaluative function of auteur criticism, which was less about making a one-size-fits-all argument than about elevating certain favored directors over others. I don’t find that inheritance from auteur criticism particularly helpful.

    Robert says:

    the Kirby heirs had no claim, and Marvel received a summary judgment in their favor. No amount of argument about aesthetic contribution was going to change that; it was beside the point.

    This to me is a sticky wicket. If one accepts the legalistic framework of work-for-hire as currently understood, then it’s possible to understand the judge’s summary judgment in Marvel’s favor. However, stepping outside of that framework to see the issue in broader moral terms, I’d argue that Kirby’s exceptional case renders said framework incoherent. In any case, my feelings about the case don’t rest on a legalistic assessment, nor do I take the judge’s preemptive delimiting of the case at face value; despite the judge’s rather precise framing of the matter, I still maintain that the substance of her decision is wrong. It’s wrong because the case of Kirby at Marvel is unique (not because of the broader argument about auteurism that Arlen makes).

  29. Bill says:

    So it is impossible to support one without vilifying the other. I love semantics.

  30. Michael Hill says:

    Any Master of Semantics worth their salt knows there’s a lot of ground between “supporting” someone and “not vilifying” them. It’s possible to “support” Stan Lee while not taking everything he says at face value and not vilifying him at the same time, in the same way that it’s possible to “support” Jack Kirby without having to be accused of “vilifying” Lee.

  31. Jeet Heer says:

    @ Robert Stanley Martin. You wrote: “Kirby’s son confirmed the most germane aspects of Lee’s testimony, which was that Kirby never produced material on spec, and only began work after Lee gave him the go-ahead. Both sides agreed that, regardless of the degree of his contribution, Kirby created the material at Marvel’s direction.” I think your conflating a single, off-the-cuff statement from Neal Kirby with the position of the Kirby estate as a whole. I don’t think it’s the position of the Kirby estate that Kirby created the material at Marvel’s direction. And in point of fact there is considerable historical evidence (statements made by Kirby, other artists and indeed Lee himself prior to 1968) to show that Kirby didn’t create many or even most of the characters in the 1960s at Marvel’s direction. The judge disallowed most of the evidence and accepted Lee’s testimony (despite the fact that it contradicted at several points with statements he’s made over the years, albeit not under oath). But there is no reason why historians should accept the special rules of evidence used by the courts.

  32. Robert Stanley Martin says:


    You’re interpreting the word “direction” in a way that means much more than I gather the legal authorities define it. The term means as little as, “You have an idea for a story? Go ahead.” If that was the full extent of the communication between Lee and Kirby, Kirby was working at Marvel’s instance and expense. If he creates characters, such as the Silver Surfer, while working on material that was previously done at Marvel’s instance and expense, Marvel owns that, too. Just ask Marv Wolfman what the courts said about Blade.

    After going through all the court materials that are online for the case, as well as those for a few others, such as the Wolfman suit, I don’t think the Kirbys had a chance of prevailing in this. They had to show unambiguously that Kirby created the material in the 40-odd comics in question outside the context of his freelancer relationship with Marvel. They had to meet the standard that Siegel and Shuster met with Superman, in which case there was documented proof that the material was created independently of the pair’s freelancer relationship with DC.

    The characters and stories have been Marvel’s property since they were published. The courts are not going to cavalierly strip them of ownership under any circumstances. If there is any doubt, Marvel is going to get the benefit of it. And there’s a lot of doubt. Kirby worked for Marvel week-in and week-out for years. Lee stated all the material in question was done in the context of Kirby’s freelancer relationship with the company. There’s no direct testimony that contradicts him on the relevant issues, and there’s no documentation that does, either. And Lee has never said Kirby created this material independently of the assignments Lee gave him, so he’s not contradicting himself on the main point of contention. Personally, I think Lee is full of crap more often than not, but it’s not enough to impeach his credibility. You have to contradict him on the substance of what he said. The only means of doing that is direct testimony from Kirby himself, or correspondence between Kirby and Marvel, and the Kirby family didn’t have either. All of Kirby’s work was modified by Lee as a matter of course, and Kirby made revisions when Lee insisted. It was an instance-and-expense/work-for-hire relationship, the same as with Marv Wolfman, Steve Gerber, and just about every other creator for whose pre-1978 work Marvel’s ownership was legally disputed. Thankfully, the law was changed, and for work created since 1978 this kind of relationship has to be agreed to in writing.

    And no, there is no reason why historians (or critics, for that matter) should use the rules of evidence courts do. They don’t have the same concerns. All the courts care about are the business issues, and ensuring those are resolved according to the law.

    As for my personal feelings, I think Marvel has a moral obligation to provide Kirby (and now his estate) with a royalty for any use or derivation of his work for as long as the copyright is in effect. My comments about the case are only intended to provide clarity about what happened. I absolutely do not want to see tall tales about this case or anything else reinforced.

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