I participate in various discussion forums (not nearly as many as I used to) and sometimes I like to respond to comments I read about Kirby. The discussion was about memory, and how people like Stan Lee genuinely don’t remember every irrelevant detail from their career as a creator. One of the comments in the discussion mentioned (and I’m paraphrasing) how artists in music also don’t remember every piece of minutiae from something like a recording session because they don’t obsess over the material like fans do, or they just don’t have photographic memories.
Here’s my reply:
Yes, Stan Lee may be a very sweet and well-meaning man with an awful memory. The fact that Lee is considered the creator of all the major 60s Marvel properties may well indeed simply be an accident: a combination of Lee’s poor memory and our universal human tendency to “paint ourselves in a more positive light,” which resulted in a false history (a myth), that has been picked up on and promoted by a lazy media as fact. I’ve said a million times: Lee may be a truly wonderful, sweet person, who is just a victim of circumstance. We’ve all heard the theory: maybe he even believes his story after all these years.
But, instead of comparing Lee to a musician who can’t remember doing a solo on take-25 of a b-side, I think the better analogy here when discussing Jack Kirby’s relationship to Lee/Marvel is to consider someone like guitarist Hank Garland’s claim that he wrote “Jingle Bell Rock.” Maybe Garland didn’t write it all by himself (heck, aliens from the planet Pluto could have written it in outer space, and electronically transferred their brainwaves to Garland), we’ll never know 100% for sure what took place.
But certainly I could argue that based on my reading: Hank Garland probably played a huge role in composing that tune with Bobby Helms, and Garland understandably wished his name was on the song (he died in 2004), and he wished he received some of the royalties from that song.
It’s not necessarily greed or ego, people just like to get credit for things that they do. Plus, some creators are very, very passionate about their art — it’s the result of a lifetime of hard work and dedication, and when they don’t receive the credit (or compensation) they feel they rightfully deserve, they can get upset or even angry.
I think that’s what happened to Jack Kirby. Jack felt that he helped Stan Lee create the 1960s Marvel characters, and I think Jack was understandably hurt and upset that his former collaborator Stan Lee claimed all the credit for creating all of the major 60s Marvel intellectual properties in his various “origins” books and later interviews. It has nothing to do with Stan’s bad memory, it has to do with Lee making a conscious decision to claim 100% of the credit for all of Jack’s 60s characters (except Silver Surfer which Lee admits Jack came up with).
I don’t have the source, so it could be hearsay, but I’ve heard that Jack was so upset by the claims Lee made in this book, that Jack actually took a pair of scissors and cut out the parts he knew were false.
Using Stan Lee’s so-called bad memory to excuse his false self-mythology is just the old business vs. labor debate again. Those who side with Stan Lee tend to be pro-business, they say:
“Stan Lee is just trying to make a buck which is ‘the American way,’ and so anything he says is excusable; poor ol’ lovable Stan — he can’t remember what happened in the 1960s because he was so busy, so he made up a story, but it’s harmless tale, and entertaining, so why do evil people pick on poor Stan? And good for Stan, he made a fortune out of it. That’s capitalism. Stan followed the money trail and did what he needed to do to get very, very rich. That’s AMERICA! If Jack had played the money game better he could have cashed in too. Kirby was just bitter because he was a bad businessman so he made up helping Lee create those comics.” etc.
On the other hand, the labor argument is that Jack does deserve credit for what he did, and although Marvel has no legal obligation to give his estate a single penny, maybe from a moral or ethical standpoint, Jack does deserve something more, in the same way maybe Hank Garland at least deserves his name on “Jingle Bell Rock.”
And of course, another thing we can learn from the Kirby/Helms analogy is that like most collaborators I’m aware of, Bobby Helms is honest about what happened. He doesn’t pretend he did it all alone. Why on earth can’t Stan Lee do that when it comes to discussing Jack? Here is an excerpt from a typical article on the topic:
Excerpt from: “No Jingle in his Pockets – Legendary Guitarist Hank Garland,” by Devan Stuart.
Whitacre believes much of Garland’s trouble may have resulted from mishandled paperwork. Session guitarists often composed music on the fly, neglecting to write notes.
“Elvis would just look at him for the break and he had to come up with something cool,” Whitacre said of Garland’s knack for quick composing. “The law is that if you create something, it belongs to you. There’s something that has fallen through the cracks with Hank Garland.”
Whitacre points to a possible paperwork snafu as the crux of the “Jingle Bell Rock” issue. Garland recalls a midnight Decca recording session in 1957 when Producer Owen Bradley came to him with “Jingle Bell Hop.”
“I let it hop back to where it came from,” Garland recalled. “It wasn’t any good.” Hank and Helms came up with the “Jingle Bell Rock” America hears every holiday season, he said.
“Absolutely,” Helms’ manager Dave Davis said when asked if he believes Garland and Helms wrote “Jingle Bell Rock.” “Bobby and I discussed it many times. He said, `We did it. We threw a bridge in, added a couple of verses, changed the words.’ Basically, it was a whole new song.”
Davis now is a Fort Meyers-based publisher and co-author of Helms’ biography, titled “Jingle Bell Rock.”
Garland and Helms recorded “Jingle Bell Rock” the same night, Davis said.
“What I believe happened is that they [Decca] treated this as a session where they owned it and controlled it,” Whitacre said. “If you judge it as a derivative of the original work, then Hank’s claim may not be as strong. If, as I believe, he and Bobby Helms created a new work, then he has a copyright interest and he has an entitlement to publishing royalties.”
“Bobby never tried to get royalties. He said, `David, it’d be a joke. You know how the music business is.’ And I do,” Davis said.
Garland has received a handful of royalty checks over the years from, among others, the Schwartzenegger film “Jingle all the Way” and TV’s “PJ’s Holiday Special.”
Garland’s name may be listed somewhere in the paper trail, Whitacre said. Whitacre contacted Sony ATV Songs, Warner-Chappell Music and eight other publishing entities with Garland’s songs on their roster, requesting updated royalty statements.
Sony claims it didn’t have Garland’s current address, Whitacre said. He expects Warner-Chappell, publisher of “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Sugarfoot Rag, ” to respond this month.
One letter has produced results. Ocala-based Ashna Music offered to return rights to Garland’s “Love Hangover.”
“Jingle Bell Rock” is licensed by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), which lists Joseph Carleton Beal and James Ross Boothe as writers. Garland’s name is not listed in connection with “Jingle Bell Rock” on ASCAP’s site and the U.S. Copyright Office of the Library of Congress could not respond to The Business Journal’s inquiries before press time. Beal and Booth also are listed as writers of “Jingle Bell Hop,” but no performances are listed.