Marvel Worldwide, Inc. et al v. Kirby et al - Stan Lee's Million Dollar Contract

More on the Marvel vs Jack Kirby's estate court case.  If there is one underlying issues that has certainly emerged from this case it would have to be the question, why do the Kirby family despise Stan Lee so much?  I can give you several million reasons why the Kirby’s are (justifiably) angry with Marvel Comics and, in particular, Stan Lee.  Stan, by virtue of being a company man for more decades than most people have lived, now earns $1,000,000 a year just for being, well, Stan Lee.  As highly paid as Kirby was, and at the height of Marvel he was earning more than any other artist (a fact that's been overlooked in this case thus far) I'd be certain that he wasn't earning a million dollars per year for ten hours worth of work per week.  Far from it.  Kirby broke his back to earn what he did and he made good money for the time, but it was arduous work and the stories of Kirby working through the night to meet deadlines is now the stuff of legend.

Gil Kane, Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Jim Steranko, Will Eisner & Jerry Siegel - more talent there than you'll ever see

Since November 1998 Stan has been required to put in between 10 to 15 hours per week for Marvel.  The contract doesn’t specify exactly what Stan has to do, other than merely stand around and tell people how good Marvel Comics are, the kind of thing that people have seen him doing since 1998, when the contract first started.  Even better is the clause that allows him to engage in outside work, thus paving the way for the DC series, Stan Lee Presents, which, frankly, promised a lot more than it actually delivered.  It was a great such a shame as the artists involved were absolute powerhouses – John Buscema, Joe Kubert, Jim Lee, Dave Gibbons, Kevin Maguire, Walt Simonson, Adam Hughes, Gene Colan, John Cassaday, John Byrne – however when you read the stories it’s not that hard to see where things went wrong – Stan just doesn’t have in him to write that much anymore.  Some of the concepts weren’t that bad, but the execution just wasn’t there.  It’d not be that hard to imagine that if DC didn’t have the chance to use Stan Lee’s name then the series would never have appeared.  But appear it did and it put some more cabbage in Stan’s pot, not that it needs much more.  By my sums, Stan has made approximately $11,370,000 in total as a base wage, not counting perks and percentages, since the time he signed this contract through to now. And that’s not counting the $1,500,000 he’s made from writing the Spider-Man newspaper strip.  Come October that amount will be over $12,000,000, and that’s not counting money that Stan has received in his role as producer for the various Marvel movies, of which Stan was entitled to 10% of the gross, any money from royalties or from non-Marvel appearances or money that he’s made by being a large stockholder in Marvel (if he indeed retain the shares he was gifted).  Oh, and yes, the contract also includes a cause for expenses.  Clearly Stan Lee isn’t grasping for a dollar.

The contract was drafted because, in August 1998, Stan Lee, who had been with Marvel since the 1940s and was recognised (and still is) as the public face of Marvel Comics, had his employment terminated.  It wasn’t a case of Stan being sacked, it was more than the contract Stan was operating beneath had come due for renewal and Marvel saw the chance to both reward Stan for his loyalty and also to legally safeguard it’s assets – the characters and Stan Lee himself (and not in that order).  When Marvel Comics became Marvel Entertainment Group, Inc in 1989, a contract was drawn up which reportedly saw Lee paid approximately $1,000,000 per year both in salary and bonuses.  This meant that Stan was a wealthy man before this current contract was drawn up.  However by 1997 Marvel was on the brink of financial ruin and close to bankruptcy, which lead to the contract between Lee and Marvel being renegotiated and rewritten.

People have often wondered why Stan Lee just doesn’t give up and attack Marvel for treating Jack Kirby so poorly, and why they’ve all but ignored the estate since the deaths of both Jack and Ros Kirby.  I can give you 12,870,000 reasons why, but there’s another more important reason – by paying Stan a cool million per year, Marvel are buying his complicity.  Section 5, paragraph (d) states, “Subject to a breach of this agreement, you will never file with the U.S. Copyright Office or the U.S. Patent Office or any governmental or public agent throughout the world, and will never assert of assist on your behalf or cooperate with others in asserting or on your behalf or claiming rights through you, any claim of ownership (except to Non-Exclusive Rights, subject to Marvel’s licence) of the Rights in the Property, or in making any objection to Marvel’s complete and unrestricted right to use and exploit said Property of Rights throughout the world in any form, manner or medium Marvel may desire now or hereafter known or devised.”

Paragraph (e) goes on to state that, “Subject to a material breach of this agreement, you agree not to contest either directly or indirectly the full and complete ownership by Marvel, it’s affiliates, designees, or successors in interest, of all right, title and interest in and to the Property and Rights or the validity of Rights, which may be conferred on Marvel by this Agreement, or to assist others in so doing.  Examples of such prohibited contestation would be, without limitation, applying for copyright, renewal copyright, trademarks, service marks, patents, etc for the Property and/or Rights herein specified or the publication by you or your assigns or agents of literary property which would infringe upon, violate or be confusingly similar to such Property and/or Rights.”

Yes, the wind is long, but what those two important paragraphs state is that Stan Lee, by virtue of accepting $1,000,000 per year for ten hours of work a week, will not, and cannot, dispute Marvel’s complete and utter ownership of any character that anyone created, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko or otherwise.  This puts Stan in a very difficult position – does he do the right thing by a lot of people and say what they want to hear, or does he do the right thing by the employer?  No wonder his memory is so poor – with a dilemma like that, mine would be shot to little bits.  The $1,000,000 per year acts as Marvel’s built in insurance policy, there to safeguard them against the likes of the Kirby family, Steve Gerber and Gary Friedrich – those people wanting to file suit for characters.

As an aside, in 2007 Stan Lee Entertainment, not to be confused with Stan Lee who had left the company, decided to sue Marvel Comics in much the same way that the Kirby family are suing now.  The case went nowhere, but one of the better chuckles to come out of it was this paragraph, “In return for Stan Lee's assignment of his Creations, Stan Lee Entertainment, Inc. and/or its successors in interest conveyed to Stan Lee shares in the companies, agreed to pay and did, in fact, pay to Stan Lee approximately $250,000.00 per year in salary, bonuses and other compensation, and also provided certain other items of consideration as set forth therein, including over 3.5 million shares in Stan Lee Entertainment stock, which had a market value of over $100 million in February of 2000.”  $100,000,000!!!  That’s a lot of do-re-me, but once the company went belly up that stock became utterly worthless.  Stan would do better than to sign it and sell it on eBay – he’d make a few quid that way.  Having said that it’s no secret that Stan got a fair bit of money from Stan Lee Entertainment before it all fell apart.  As interesting, and amusing, as it was to see Stan Lee’s name in a court case against Marvel and then the ultimate court docket - Stan Lee Entertainment vs Stan Lee, it wasn’t to be – by the time the suit was filed Stan was well on his way to earning over a million per year, so he wasn’t going to rock any boats.  As it stands that case fell apart due to a series of incredible incompetent acts by both the owners of Stan Lee Entertainment and, it would appear, the lawyers acting for the case.

The Stan Lee Entertainment case was eventually dismissed out of hand; in the words of the presiding judge, “At the conference on August 27, 2008, the Court noted that it had granted a number of adjournments to accommodate counsel’s request to demonstrate that he was authorized to appear on behalf of plaintiff Stan Lee Media Inc. The current affirmation does not establish that counsel has been authorized by the corporate plaintiff to appear on its behalf. Accordingly the matter is dismissed without prejudice to its renewal should a properly constituted corporate entity decide to retain counsel and presume whatever requests it may have. The Clerk is directed to enter judgment [dismissing the action] and close this case without prejudice to its renewal.”  This didn’t stop the owners of Stan Lee Media though.  A mere five months later, on January 26, 2009, the company, now rebadged Stan Lee Media, Inc, filed suit once more, this time against Marvel Comics and Stan Lee himself.  In a series of moves that would have made Benny Hill proud the lawyers acting for Stan Lee Media kept asking for extensions, with the promise that they would, “finally get this case moving.”  Three weeks turned into four and then turned into months and eventually the threat of the action being dismissed.  The plaintiffs, Jose Abadin and Christopher Belland, then sacked their legal representatives and petitioned the court for yet more time.  It didn’t work.  Amongst other things the court noted that the company was no bankrupt, that, “…one of the principle instigators of litigation involving SLMI is a convicted felon who manipulated Stan Lee Media Inc.’s stock. Finally, the proposed amended pleading is the fourth such pleading dealing with SLMI’s allegations against Marvel and Lee here in the Southern District,” and that there were three similar cases, all involving the same people and claims, running concurrently in three districts.  These, amongst many other reasons stated, resulted in the case being dismissed out of hand, but it is worth noting that the decision was appealed.  I doubt it’ll get anywhere.  I may post the full judgement of that case as it’s one of the more amusing court documents I’ve read lately.

So here we have Stan Lee’s contract with Marvel, and with that contract are all the reasons anyone will ever need to know as to why the Kirby family loathe Lee and why Lee insists that the classic Marvel characters were co-created by himself and Kirby and that they were all work for hire.  The figures in this contract would certainly make the Kirby family weep as they read them.  (As usual, if you click on the images they'll enlarge so you can really enjoy 'em)


Ben Herman said…
What I do not get, and maybe I am missing something here, is this: if the owners of Marvel Comics are willing to dish out a cool million a year to keep Stan Lee toeing the company line, then why don't they try to come to some sort of similar financial arrangement with the Kirby family? It has got to be a whole lot less work, and a heck of a lot expensive, for Marvel than continuing with their drawn-out, seemingly endless fight against the Kirby family's litigation. Why not just close the book on an shameful period in the company's history, and score a major public relations win in the process, by offering the Kirby family a huge chunk of change and a cut in profits & merchandising. In the long run, it makes much more sense.

Oh, wait, I forgot: this is Corporate America we are talking about, which only thinks in the short term. Never mind then.
Anonymous said…
Kirby was not making more money than any other artist at Marvel on a per page basis. His page rate was identical to John Romita's and John Buscema's.
Anonymous said…
"Well, let me ask you one question.
Is the money that good?"
Daniel Best said…
At the time period in question - 1958 to 1963 - neither John Buscema or John Romita were working at Marvel. Kirby was the highest paid artist at Marvel for quite a number of years, certainly throughout the 1960s. More than one person has noted that his wage was the benchmark.
Anonymous said…
Kirby's page rate during the years 1958-1963 is said to have been about one half what many artists at DC were making during that period.
It's my understanding Ditko made the same page rate as Kirby. Ditko was also compensated for plotting Spider-Man.
The source for this is Mark Evanier at the Marvel Masterworks board.
Apparently there is no documentation of any of this since Marvel was unable to produce anything from the 60's in way of documentation, not even a canceled pay check.
Romita once described Kirby's page rate as "astronomical" but when questioned during his deposition he said he had no knowledge of what Kirby and other artists were paid.
As a matter of fact what Kirby was paid seems to be something everyone "knows" but I'm not sure I've ever seen anything solid on Kirby's page rate in print.
Of course you can question Evanier's comments about page rates, but what are the other print sources claiming Kirby was the best paid artist at Marvel?
My feeling is Kirby's supposed high page rates could easily be a comic book "urban legend" very much like the Leibowitz/Goodman golf game.

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