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February 7, 2012

Go, Read: James Sturm On Why He’s Boycotting The Avengers


James Sturm has written a longish piece for Slate on why he's boycotting Marvel's forthcoming Avengers movie, how Marvel wouldn't exist without the contributions of Jack Kirby, and even why a boycott probably won't take hold in a way that causes the company damage. Sturm is writing for a general audience but chooses to employ specifics and various well-known, related cultural signifiers, which is the major reason why the piece is as long as it is.

One thing that's interesting about this is that Sturm won an award for his Fantastic Four work not ten years ago. To my mind this makes him a Marvel author who's reoriented his position on this matter. At the time of the release of Fantastic Four: Unstable Molecules, Sturm didn't have a lot of moral qualms about doing that work. Here's an exchange from our 2004 interview:
TOM SPURGEON: Is there any queasiness working with characters that were part of a dispute? Maybe Stan's recent lawsuit is a contractual dispute rather than a work-for-hire dispute, but it's driven by rhetoric that claims these characters have been exploited unfairly and he's been exploited unfairly. Is it the fact that these specific characters don't hold any extra queasiness for you at all?

JAMES STURM: Like in what sense?

SPURGEON: You have $10,000 in the bank, but Marvel doesn't send Jack Kirby's children trade paperbacks of their father's work when it's re-released.

STURM: Boy. But if you extend that argument to your day-to-day existence, on how you shop and how you spend money and how you interface with the world, you couldn't touch anything. You know what I mean? It's like, we live in a tainted fucking universe. Every pair of shoes you buy was probably stitched together by someone being paid ten cents an hour under ungodly conditions. And that's not to excuse myself, but are you getting at that maybe I shouldn't do this out of concern for...?

SPURGEON: It's one thing to get work-for-hire from an artist who is ceding control of his characters to you, but you're signing a work-for-hire agreement with a corporation that may have, or may not have, unfairly taken these characters from the artist to begin with.

STURM: What the fuck have I done, Tom? What the fuck have I done? Holy shit. Black mark on my soul.

I don't know. Obviously everyone's ethical standards vary, but I just don't feel I've made an egregious ethical breach. I think the question is valid and I'm glad you raised it. But for me, a few things play into it. First, Kirby himself returned to work for Marvel. Second, Marvel has changed owners several times since Kirby's stints there. Finally, I have never heard of any boycott by Kirby's heirs -- or anyone else for that matter -- calling for writers or artists to refrain from using characters he created.

Kirby created something 40 years ago that has so influenced and shaped comics history and I look to honor it. I hope that comes across in the book. Kirby's imprint is all over Unstable Molecules, his art adorns each cover (and several interior pages). My position at Marvel is no different than Kirby's was: work-for-hire.

I'm sure every character that was created some writer feels propriety for. I shouldn't do that Stingray graphic novel because somebody who developed him feels cheated? Remember that stupid character called Stingray from Marvel?

SPURGEON: Red and white costume and a fencing mask.

STURM: The Fantastic Four are characters, due to the role they played in my childhood, I feel connected to. When I'm reading this stuff as a kid, I don't know any of this stuff. These characters don't have owners. They exist. They're like cultural icons. Same with Peanuts. They belong to the public in a sense. This could just be me trying to rationalize my actions... Money wise, when you look at all the time I put into this project, it's obvious that it wasn't done for the money. If anything, I'm trying to restore a certain dignity to the character. The Fantastic Four was about this family who were superheroes. But they were a family first, right? That's what made the book tick. That's what I was trying to get at, this dysfunctional family that love/hate relationship they all have with each other. I think that's what Lee and Kirby were trying to do, right?"
I think this is stuff always worth talking about. None of the positions worth having are easy, and it's always possible to string together some series of details that shift the argument one way or the other until we feel better about what we've done or chosen not to do. That's what we do now. The Internet has turned us all into moral Perry Masons, worrying testimony from ourselves on a series of imaginary witness stands, never quite getting that slam-dunk, tear-filled confession that makes everything click into place.

In the end, I think the broader principles and meanings should guide us. Marvel should have treated Kirby better when he was alive, and making up for it by treating his legacy better now would be a wonderful, just thing to do. Any executive that makes this happen would be doing a great and honorable and potentially rewarding thing. Restoring Kirby's legacy in a way that matches what outside actors have done on that artist's behalf should include some sort of financial arrangement with the family. Jack Kirby isn't a comics sob story; in the context of all the popular arts his story stands out as one with a particularly ungenerous ending to match the contributions made. He was shoved to the side of the official narrative until he pushed back a bit, something for which a certain kind of angry fan has never forgiven him. Kirby had to fight to get some small amount of original art back, even.

Comics should be better than that. Comics can be better than that. The number of people that have received more money and more credit for less inspired, sometimes flatly derivative, sometimes just caretaker-style and paper-shuffling work with what Kirby made, up to and including people with the power to do something, is significant and slightly heartbreaking. With great power comes great responsibility, and I'm not sure how you define great power in our culture better than four billion dollars.
posted 1:20 am PST | Permalink

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