Jack Kirby Collector Edited by John Morrow Jack Kirby Collector celebrates the life and career of the "King" of comics through interviews with Kirby and his contemporaries, feature articles, and rare & unseen Kirby artwork. Now in tabloid format, the magazine showcases Kirby's art at even larger size.

The Stolen Art

by and © Glen Gold

From Jack Kirby Collector #19

First, imagine a locked and secured storage room. It could be someone's basement, a bank vault - it might even be a warehouse somewhere. In the room is a stack of art about 4' high. Perhaps it's moldering, perhaps it's fresh as the day it was drawn, but it hasn't seen the light of day for almost 35 years, and it has a potential street value of millions of dollars. The only question is: Does this room exist at all?

To get into that room, we need to start more broadly, on the ugly topic of art theft. The following is based on interviews with a dozen collectors and industry people. It should be read as an accumulation of opinions, not necessarily hard facts. There are few topics in the Kirby legend about which there are more bruised feelings than the ownership and distribution of his artwork. There are, as they say, heated differences of opinion. Though they might not have all the details at hand, most art collectors know that a good percentage of Jack's art was "stolen." I put quotations around that word not to be coy, but because even a small amount of research shows that the word's meaning rapidly becomes slippery.

In the Golden Age, comics were considered worthless. It's generally suspected that most of Jack's art circa World War II was thrown away or re-used for paper drives. But not all of it. For instance, two pages from Captain America popped up within the last year, and a cover is rumored to exist. Were these given away? Or did someone walk out of the offices with them on the sly? I've heard both versions of the story, and after fifty years, it's probably hard to prove one way or the other. If the art was given away, was it the right of the artist or the publisher to hand it over? Hard to say.

For years, DC relied on a legal decision that, for copyright protection, they needed to destroy all original art - the argument being that if an artist claimed ownership of the art, he might have a crack at owning the character. DC's policy meant that most of Jack's "Green Arrow" and Challengers of the Unknown artwork is lying in pieces in a landfill. However, some of the art that was supposed to be destroyed managed to survive, because staffers who were also art fans saved it. If they sold this art, was it stolen? Sure - but from whom? DC, who would have destroyed it? Or their artists, who legally had no clear rights to it at the time?

The story gets wilder when we turn to Atlas/Marvel work from the time of Jack's 1958-59 return until the end of the Silver Age. Most art before 1960 was thrown away to make room for the newer stuff, which sat in a warehouse or in the offices, until 1974 when Marvel started returning it to the pencilers and inkers. Jack, of course, went through an epic legal battle before his Silver Age art was returned in July, 1987. However, of the almost 10,000 pages he penciled through 1970, he was returned roughly 2100. So what happened to the rest of it?

The gut reaction most people have is "it was stolen!" To a large extent, this is correct. However, to better understand what happened, we need to think with the 1962 corporate mentality. They were selling products that cost 10¢, later 12¢. There was no back issue market, no organized fandom to answer to. The art, if it had any value at all, held only sentimental value. Marvel - and in the early days, Marvel was just a couple of guys in an office, not a conglomerate - gave out art for promotional pieces, or as thanks to messengers, or when kids wrote in asking for mementos.

The art that was given away was rarely Kirby. Some early collectors say that Don Heck Iron Man pages were the most likely things to be freebies - Kirby was different, even then. Mark Evanier says that Jack asked for his pages back in the 1960s, but couldn't get a clear response. Since Marvel kept being acquired, it sometimes counted art as an asset, sometimes not - depending on whether it was good for their net worth. Stan Lee thought about opening a gallery, or selling it, but since no one was sure of the legal status (remember DC's vision of copyright problems), and since no one valued the art, plotting a course wasn't a high priority.

In the meantime, the art was stored, sometimes in the offices, sometimes in a warehouse. Some was lost in transit, and some was quite blatantly stolen. In 1969 and 1970, two Marvel staffers (let's call them Irving and Forbush) showed up at a Saint Louis Convention with hundreds of pages of art for sale, including Kirby Fantastic Four pages from 1963. These sold for about $10-15 a page. I've heard a few explanations of their actions - mostly that this was 1970, and in a counter-culture sort of way, Irving and Forbush were pissed off about the corporation - but many people I talked to simply call what they did "stealing."

Around 1971-72, the Guy who ran Marvelmania had Marvel send him a stack of original art. The idea was that he would stat it to make posters and promotional materials. However, the Guy ended up using it in lieu of salary to pay the kids who worked for him. This art included pages from Journey into Mystery #83, Spider-Man #20 and #51 (not Kirby, but hey, Ditko and Romita are nice) and various Kirby/Sinnott Fantastic Four books. Then he took the balance of the art and sold it to a comic book shop in Hollywood. One collector I talked to remembers seeing Kirby pre-hero monster pages gathering dust there. I myself have seen a page from Tales of Suspense #92 that has the "Marvelmania" stamp on the back. Marvel never pursued the return of this art, so it's unclear whether they even considered it stolen. Jack, who was much more clear on the subject - sure it was stolen - managed to recover some of it for his own use.

The Comics Journal #105 has an excellent and lengthy article about how Marvel treated their art between the early '70s and 1986. In short, it was stored haphazardly for years, but then catalogued carefully on a master list. According to the list, almost all of Jack's work - save some of the origin issues and much of his prime FF work - was still in Marvel's hands as of 1980. But by 1987, when Jack's art was returned, thousands of pages were gone. What happened?

The specifics are hard to determine. Generally speaking, a lot of stuff was stolen. There are a couple of factors at play - first, several people inform me that the master list was wildly inaccurate. If it said, for instance, that an envelope contained 22 pages of X-Men #4, it might not really have that at all. Next, the art was beginning to be recognized as valuable. As the price of comics went up, so did interest in art. Frankly, there were some flat-out unscrupulous people working in the office who helped themselves when the opportunity presented itself.

Though accusations are rampant - if you were within a hundred yards of Marvel's offices before 1986, someone somewhere swears you have FF #1 pages on your living room wall - no bombs will be lobbed today. Instead, I'll tell you what many people have told me. During Kirby's negotiations, his art was ordered moved from its warehouse - located at 16 West 22nd Street, according to The Comics Journal - and into a storage area at Marvel's offices. Several people emphasize how close this area was to the elevator, meaning a clean getaway. Shortly thereafter, art by Kirby and Ditko that was previously on Marvel's master list began showing up at New York conventions for $40-60 a page. Though Marvel was asked to step in and get the art back, they claimed that they didn't have an accurate list of their holdings, and so couldn't prove the art was in fact stolen.

For the most part, the story of art theft ends here. But there is one niggling detail that I haven't yet covered: That four-foot stack of art, the one worth so many millions.

Few Atlas/Marvel covers from before Summer 1965 have turned up. The first published covers that have appeared on the market are for Journey into Mystery Annual #1, Avengers #16, FF #40 and Astonish #67 - all from Summer '65. It's as if someone grabbed a small pile, letting the rest go to mulch. There are two schools of thought on this: First, someone has the rest of the covers; second, that they were destroyed in the printing process. To refresh your memory, we're talking about Amazing Adventures #1-6, Amazing Fantasy #15, Avengers #1-15, Fantastic Four #1-39, Hulk #1-6, Journey into Mystery #52-115, Rawhide Kid #17-47, Sgt. Fury #1-20, Strange Tales #68-135, Tales of Suspense #4-67, Tales to Astonish #1-66 and X-Men #1-12. In other words, the most valuable pages that Jack drew in his life.

Since at least 95% of the interior pages to these books have survived (the earliest I know of being a complete story from Tales to Astonish #1), some people think the covers must have been destroyed. The few covers widely known to have survived are either unpublished (an alternate X-Men #10, for instance), or statted from the splash (Tales to Astonish #34). Furthermore, everyone who is known to have removed artwork from the Marvel offices has, at one time or another, let some greater or lesser piece of it go, to friends, at auction, in trade, etc. I've been doing historical research, looking into fanzines from the 1960s, and though some tempting artwork shows up, no pre '65 Kirby covers - not even Rawhide Kid covers - are advertised.

I called Eastern Color Printing, which handled Marvel's comics, and talked to the man who, for over thirty years - the entire Golden and Silver Ages - saw every issue get printed. He told me that all the art, covers and interiors, went back from the engravers to Marvel in the same envelope. So no, the covers weren't destroyed. Also, Atlas covers that immediately predate the Kirby run exist - such as the cover to Rawhide Kid #16. Why would that exist and Rawhide Kid #17, the first Kirby issue, not survive?

Long-time collectors all have "the-one-that-got-away" stories about earlier covers that they apparently saw: FF #8 and Annual #2 are frequently cited as having once been on someone's table at some con sometime. A well-respected historian tells me he once held a pre-'65 Ditko Spider-Man cover. Another high-roller makes no secret of having the covers to Journey Into Mystery #80 and #89, from 1962 and 1963. So, there are a few covers that might exist.

This leads us back to the "they're all in someone's basement" argument. Who exactly is that? You've got me. Every time I come up with a good answer, someone has indisputable proof that it's someone else. All we can do is wait and see if they turn up eventually. I for one hope they do, not just for posterity's sake, but because I'd like to own one or two of them. There are questions, however, about ownership rights that are somewhat ambiguous.

First, there's the moral side of it - thinking about not just the pre-'65 covers, but all of Jack's art - how do you feel about buying stuff he didn't get back from the company? I have to admit that because I'm a collector, I want very badly to come up with an answer that lets me buy the art. With that in mind, remember: By this time, it's hard to tell if some pieces came from Jack or not - most dealers can't provide an extensive provenance for the art they sell. Granted, about 75% of his Silver Age art seems to have been stolen, so unless you know for sure that Jack got it back, you have a 3 in 4 chance of buying something that is, on a moral level, shady.

When it came to pursuing much of this stuff, Jack and Roz were often far too generous in many ways. What does the estate say now? Co-trustee Robert Katz says that the lawyers tell him "the trust representing the Kirbys will take whatever steps it needs to to protect the family interests." What exactly does that mean? It sounds like they're leaving their options open. Having Jack's art sell publicly for high prices can help the family's interests... or maybe not, depending on the exact situation.

In any case, the situation is currently in flux, with no definitive legal answer - it's more of a personal issue. Most of the art I own came from the Kirbys, but I'm no saint - I can't rule out buying something from the darker side of the street. But not because I'm ethically vacuous. Let's give the last words on the subject to the man himself. I met Jack Kirby only once, at the 1993 San Diego Con. I asked him what he thought of his art going for such high prices when he was unable to participate in the profits. He said, in that James-Cagney-meets-the-Thing voice, "You ever hear of a guy named Peter Paul Reubens? He drew art for a sou, and he died a pauper. Now you can't touch a Reubens for less than two million. Me, I drew art and made enough to keep my family fed. And if it's selling for so much, that's flattery. They think of it as fine art, and that's enough for me."

And it's enough for me, too.

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