Monday, January 27, 2020

Kirby Collaborators: John Berendt

John Berendt, the writer of the Esquire piece Kirby illo'd about Jack Ruby, one of my favourite Kirby art jobs, was later the bestselling author of "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil". At the time of the Kennedy Assassination described in the comic, Berendt, a junior editor at Esquire, was doing a six-month hitch in the U.S. Army, stationed at Fort Polk, Louisiana.You can read Berendt's account of his time in the army, including how he heard about Kennedy and Ruby, here

(Kirby gives credit to Berendt as writer in the famous 1969 Mark Herbert interview, published in the Nostalgia Journal in 1976, reprinted below as well.) 

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Kirby and Unions: Captain America Comics #4, 1941


Here's an interesting sequence from a very early issue of Captain America where Jack Kirby posits a union leader as a bastion of democracy. I've noted before some of Kirby's post-War quotes on unions and the idea of a comics creator Guild, where he seems lukewarm on the subject, to say the least. But here we have an instance of the pre-War Kirby pointing to unionized labor as an important pillar of the anti-fascist fight against Nazis. The story is a great one, wherein Cap and Bucky uncover a Nazi spy and saboteur ring that disguise themselves as beggars. The very atmospheric discovery scene, where the two heroes witness a legless beggar on a dark street suddenly get up and walk in answer to a bell ringing inside the old city hall where the spies gather to unveil themselves in a secret ceremony, is brilliantly grotesque. I wonder if the politics here are entirely Kirby's or influenced partly by Joe Simon? 1941 was a record year for strikes in the U.S. and the left was divided on Roosevelt's efforts to keep a lid on labour troubles. We can see here that not only were the early Caps advocating for what Howard Chaykin's Blackhawk referred to as "premature antifascism" in reference to advocating for American intervention or aid in the war against Germany, but in this instance at least we see Simon and Kirby creating propaganda of a sort for the idea of a post-Depression "labour truce" in the name of the soon-to-come war effort.

The image up top is Kirby's reimagining of the Unholy Legion for the 1960s Captain America #112, a quarter century later.

"In a nearby state tragedy strikes John L. Green, nationally known labor leader. 'And I say again, Labor must unite to advance our defense program.'"

Thursday, January 09, 2020

Article on the 1973 DC Original Art Heist

Great investigative article from a 1974 fanzine about the massive theft of (never recovered) original art work from the DC comics offices that took place during the move to the new Warner Bros offices in 1973. Tons of Jack Kirby and Neal Adams art went missing and was dumped into the collectors market during a period when the publisher's legal department was very concerned about keeping original art for copyright reasons, and long before DC changed its policy and started returning art to creators in 1978. (Thanks to Patrick Ford for posting the transcription on Facebook.)

The Great Comic Book Rip-Off

By Joe Brancatelli

(Inside Comics #1 - 1974)

My first visit to a comic book house came when I was about 10 years old. When National produced comics from their 575 Lexington Avenue offices, they'd hold organized tours of their operations every Wednesday afternoon. As a dutiful comic book fan, I gathered several friends and traveled all the way to manhattan. There we were, four gawky kids from Brooklyn - smack in the middle of the country's largest comic book house.

A balding man (who I now believe was a harassed-looking Julie Schwartz) took us all on a grand tour. We passed writers and colorists and artists and letterers. Kids asked silly questions - about go-go checks or Johnny DC or something. I remember one kid asking why someone had penciled a bra on the nude girl in the Playboy calendar. During the tour, National gave things away. Color slides of comic book covers, Batman and Penguin posters, comic books, and dozens of other trinkets. And they even gave away original art work. Everybody got a free page.
Everyone except my friend, Kevin Cadger. He got ten pages because he didn't get any Batman posters.
That's why it came as no surprise when word leaked out that over 1900 pages of original art had disappeared from national's files. After all the years of giving it away, or throwing it out, or shredding it up, someone's finally lifted 1900 pages and no one was the wiser. At least for a while.
Original comic art pages have always been treated trashily. Companies never bothered to return them. newspaper syndicates did horrendous things to originals before returning them. But mostly no one cared, especially since comic art wasn't particularly valuable.
Then Jerry Bails started the whole fandom thing. the conventions, the fanzines, the newsletters, trading, selling, buying, and the whole spiel. All of a sudden, comic originals were worth something. And that's when the hassles started. Artists wanted their originals back. Knowing they could supplement their income by selling them, many artists resorted to stealing their originals back. In fact, most of the originals on the market in the early 1960's were stolen.
"One thing I can always remember," one now retired artist said,"was how we always had to sneak into Marvel or DC or Charlton or Warren and steal our own stuff back. After a while, it became a game. Everyone knew we were doing it, but they just said, 'Well, that's the way it is' and laughed a little."

A Pocketful of Art

But things changed. In 1970, National stopped general distribution of original artwork, shocking artists and inflating the collectors market.
"We had long discussions with our legal department on the matter." said Sol Harrison, National's vice president and production manager. "They seemed to feel that we should hold on to all our artwork. They were really frightened that if someone had the originals to a complete story, they would run to South America and print it. We had copyrights to protect, and the legal department felt holding the artwork was the best procedure."
National's policy went generally unchallenged and stock accumulated. "We have had thousands of pages around after a years or two," said harrison. "Eventually, we had to get a storage space, but there was still plenty of art around the offices."
And therein lay the danger. Thousands of pages were just sitting around at National's 909 Third Avenue set-up, waiting for some sharp entrepreneur to make his collection. And being part of the vast Warner Communications conglomerate, which also owned Warner Brothers, Seven Arts, Paperback Library, Warner Books, Atlantic, Electra Asylum, and Atco records, among others, National offices were being moved to the warner Communications Building at 75 Rockefeller Center. After several years of planning, the crosstown move was finally begun in the summer of 1973.
"It was just one giant, f***ing madhouse," one national editor said at the time. There were drawing boards, and desks, and stuff all over the place. And artwork was scattered everywhere."
No one at National was Particularly concerned with the art. it was stacked on skids and tied down with bailing wire. No one thought of taking inventory and thousands of pages, worth several thousand dollars on the fan market was unaccounted for. It was being moved from office to office, waiting to be picked up and moved to the new building.
"In retrospect, of course, it was a dumb move." a national production staffer said. "Had Sol known any better, maybe there would have been an in and out inventory. But nobody gave a sh*t. The art went in and out and no one looked twice."
Except for several sharp eyed young staff members. most of them, lower echelon employees, came up through the fan ranks and knew the value of the unattended artwork. They also,apparently, knew which skids contained the best material.
Another collector who bought some of the purloined material agreed. "The plan was simple," he said. Have a friend on the moving crew 'misplace' a flat of artwork. Later, if it was discovered missing, it could easily be found without getting in trouble. If no one noticed it was missing, it was just taken away later."
"Certain staff members had decided to rip-off some of the pages," the collector said. "And it was an inside job."
Naturally, no one ever missed the 'misplaced' skid and it simply disappeared.
Harrison pleaded total ignorance about the circumstances surrounding the theft. "I'm sure this happened during the move of course. We had breakage and different things. So many hands were touching, but these things can happen." he claimed National knew nothing else.
Yet, the question of whether the theft was an inside job was a sore point. "I don't know. I can't say anything." snapped Harrison. "I don't think it's an inside job, so i don't want to say anything at all." But Harrison wasn't interested in saying too much about any facet of the theft.
A national staffer we spoke to assured us that an inventory had been taken. "Right after Sol found out, he had a complete inventory taken. At first we thought thousands of pages were missing. We finally found out that only 1928 pages were gone." Harrison vehemently denied that he had taken an inventory. "We're in the process of taking inventory right now. But we haven't done anything yet. We don't know how many pages were taken yet."
Harrison's reluctance to address himself to the facts of the theft even extended to a description of what was stolen. "We don't know yet what was taken. We've left that up in the air at the moment. We'll know after inventory comes in."
Harrison's production people disagreed, however. According to one staff member, an exact listing of what was stolen has been in circulation for several months. They think that the material will never surface, however. "It's fantastic stuff," one artist said. "I'd like to have some of the material for my own collection. People who buy it may never sell it." Additionally, much of the stolen material was romance pages which are not big sellers and never appear at conventions anyway. [Inside Comics has uncovered a partial listing of the stolen material. See inset elsewhere.]

Wanna Buy Some Hot Pictures?

After the skid of artwork was misplaced, the thief was forced to unload the material quickly. And since there is no known comic fence, he had to take his material to a convention. His first opportunity to sell the artwork was at New York's August Comic Book marketplace. Unfortunately, most of the city's biggest dealers were missing from this particular fanclave. Scheduled only a week before the larger San Diego convention, larger dealers like Phil Seuling, Al Schuster and Bill Morse weren't in attendance.

"That was really a rough break for the seller," said a collector who now owns some of the stolen material. "He was sitting there with 50-60 thousand dollars worth of stuff and the big guys were out of town."

What the thief eventually did was to unload the artwork at any price. Carrying a few sample pages around the Hotel McAlpin's dealer's room (one collector said two Adams detective coves and a Green lantern Green Arrow page was among the batch), he struck a deal with a small time comic art dealer working out of New Jersey.

Another collector who eventually bought several dozen pages of the stolen art claimed that the dealer "Lacked the wherewithal to swing the deal by himself and worked out a deal with a bigger new York dealer." the New Jersey - New York combine bought the 1900 page stack for about $5000. "A value that I would have loved any day." said one New York City collector who heard the price. "Especially since the stuff had to be worth ten or fifteen times what he got."

The dealer who subsequently bought the artwork may have been small, but he was smart. Knowing National would probably try to trace the art, he limited his sales. According to one purchaser, "this dealer wouldn't sell to anyone for speculation purposes. he sold it only to top-notch, highly reputable collectors. He knew that going to big collectors meant the stuff would stand in the closet - in someone's collection."
About a half dozen well known, highly respected collectors eventually purchased the bulk of the choice material for about $20 a page. The seller dumped the pages at this low price to minimize his risk. With dozens of high quality, much desired Neal Adams and Jack Kirby pages in his possession, the dealer sold the pages at a lower-than-normal price in exchange for a relitive measure of security.

"Before he would even let me look at the stuff," a New Jersey collector said, "I had to promise him that I'd keep the stuff for my own collection. Then he brought out the Adams and Kirby and Wrightson and Kaluta stuff. It was unbelievable the stuff he had. His prices were really cheap. So I shut my mouth and bought about 30 pages."

And while he did sell a goodly amount of the pages, had he not brought the material to san Diego, national might have never discovered the theft.

Better Late Than Never
One of the other guests at the San Diego convention was none other than Sol Harrison. Even though several weeks had passed since the material was purloined, harrison was still unaware of the theft.
"Everything was incredibly hectic during the move," Harrison said. "I was mainly concerned with the orderly transition of the office. Who thought we would have such a chunk stolen?"
Harrison didn't find out about the theft until he happened to drop by the convention's auction. On display for bidding was a Neal Adams drawing for a House of Mystery cover.
Sol told me it was the first time he realized something was fishy," one of his assistance said later. "He just knew that page should have been in the office. That's when Sol finally realized stuff was missing."
returning to his office the next week, Harrison initiated an inventory. he also called in a professional security team to investigate the theft. "It just so happens that Warner Communications now owns a security outfit," said Harrison, "and I had no qualms about going to them. I told them, 'Listen, this stuff is missing, and we want it all back'."
Unfortunately for Harrison and National, the security outfit turned up very little. the dealer had been so careful in selling the material, most of it was buried in private collections.
"The only way i am going to give up my stuff," said one collector, "is if i die. And I am 27, so they've got a long wait."
Besides disclosing that 1928 pages were missing, the only other fact the investigation turned up was a rough idea of the thefts date. While almost everyone concerned agreed it came during the National move, no one could do more than speculate. Luckily, one of the stolen stories had been previously taken.
A Neal Adams story, "Snowbirds Don't Fly," had been lifted by one of National's production people several months before. After publisher Infantino discovered the theft, the staffer returned the material one or two weeks before the National move. When the inventory was taken after the 1900 page theft, however, the story was again missing, and that set the theft right around the time of National's move.
One collector, a close friend of neal Adams, said the story was stolen with the intention of returning it to Adams. It never reached Neal - and he would have returned it if it did - and when it was returned to National, "the collector said it was being held in special care."

We Want Our Material Back
After definitely establishing that the original art work was indeed stolen, National's legal department drafted a letter Harrison said was sent to any place "where art had touched base." The notice first appeared in the sixth issue of Comicscene and later in the Comic Reader #101. Captioned "An Important Notice From National Periodicals." The letter read: "It has come to the Publisher's attention that valuable original artwork representing fictional characters of which Publisher is the copyright owner has been stolen from the Publisher's archives and is currently being offered for sale. PLEASE TAKE NOTICE that any person, firm or corporation who is found to possess this artwork or is found selling or attempting to distribute this artwork will be prosecuted to the full extent of the Federal Copyright Act and all other applicable federal and state statutes. Anyone with the knowledge of the whereabouts of this artwork or the events leading to it's theft from the Publisher is urged to contact Publisher immediately."
The letter was the first public notice about the theft of the artwork, and Harrison was particularly disturbed by the cavalier attitude toward the material. he constantly mentioned that National owned the material and that they were "determined to secure it's return." National was finished playing games.
"This is stolen merchandise," he said, his voice raising to a falsetto. "I thin the industry has become very lax in their conception of what a piece of artwork is. If you don't think of it in terms of a piece of artwork, and think of it in terms of a piece of property, you'll know it's a felony. I's stolen property."
He was insistent in his claim that National would take the case to court. "If anyone peddles stolen property, he becomes accessory to that felony. All I want people to understand is that we're going to prosecute these people. We want to find out who did this. Someone stole our property. " Harrison said again. "We want it back and we're going to prosecute to get it."
There was never any doubt that the theft was a felony, but some lawyers who've seen National's statement disagreed with it's thrust.
Alan M. Carson, consulting partner in the california law firm of helmut, Kline and Stone, is copyright specialist and questioned the letter's legal foundation. "it's certainly conceivable that the owner could sign a complaint against the defendant for larceny and other charges," Carson said, "But I really doubt they can prosecute under the Federal Copyright Act."
Seymore C. Kline, also a copyright specialist in helmut, Kline and Stone, attacked the statement's validity from another legal standpoint.
"It's rare - in fact, I can't cite an example - where one can prosecute under the copyright law unless the copyright has truly been infringed upon. Unless the defendant put the material into print, I doubt the owner can sue under the federal Copyright Act."
Kline said that National had a strong case under larceny and theft statutes, however. "The best line of prosecution, it seems to me, is to try to prove that the defendant sold this material over the state lines. Then it becomes a Federal offense - transporting stolen merchandise over state borders."
Carson said that copyright laws are primarily "civil" statutes in most states and rarely entail anything more than lawsuits. "You can sue on federal copyright laws, but I doubt they could try to hang a theft on him under copyright laws."
Harrison, on the other hand, said that the letter was a document prepared by the company's lawyers. "That letter is a legal document. Our legal department framed that letter and they know what it refers to. They feel it's a violation of copyright. I'm not going to question them on that."
The theft also brought to a boil a question that had already been simmering for some time. Some freelane artists were claiming that national never owned the artwork in the first place. in the 22nd-23rd issue of the ACBA Newsletter, the academy of Comic Book Arts took a rare snipe at National: "If, as the Academy argues, the physical artwork belongs to it's creators, then many artists have suffered a grave injustice at the hands of [National] ... Return the artwork to it's creators. Put aside storage charges, security systems, lack of confidence in employees."
Neal Adams, much of whose work was among the stolen, and Howard Chaykin have stated they will no longer work for national due to the theft.
But Nationals main concern will remain with the artwork itself. they have pressed their efforts to regain the stolen material. And they are serious about prosecuting. According to one National staffer, "All you hear is Sol and carmine talk about how they'd like to get the bastards who stole the stuff."
But, as several collectors who purchased pieces of the stolen material have said, National has to find them first. And that's shaping up as a task even Warner Communications vast network cannot handle.
You might even say that finding the thieves is a job for Superman.

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Jim Starlin on the Comics Guild, circa 1979

A great old interview with cartoonist Jim Starlin wherein he speaks directly about his involvement with organizing comic creators in the 1970s and his attitude towards Marvel at that time. The interview is from the program for the London Comicon. The full pdf of the program is here. I think the interview was conducted by one or more of the con organizers: Ian Starling, New (Blue) Ferris, and Ian Knox.