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Spider-Man is, indeed, one of the Marvel characters listed in the 45 copyright-termination notices sent last week by the heirs of Jack Kirby.
With Sony Pictures among the list of recipients — along with Marvel, Disney, Fox, Universal and others — it seemed likely that Kirby’s four children were seeking a portion of the copyright to the wall-crawler (Sony holds the movie rights to the character in perpetuity). Now The Hollywood Reporter’s Heat Vision blog confirms that after reviewing termination notices for Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four.
Wait. Didn’t Stan Lee and Steve Ditko create Spider-Man? Well … yes. However, Kirby was clearly involved in the early stages. The nature, and extent, of that involvement isn’t quite so clear.
As Borys Kit and Matthew Belloni recount at Heat Vision, Lee initially approached Kirby to help develop the concept and draw the initial story in 1962’s Amazing Fantasy #15. For one reason or another — Lee has said he didn’t like Kirby’s muscular, or “too heroic,” take on Spider-Man — Ditko was tapped to draw the story, with Kirby providing the cover.
But some accounts assert that Kirby contributed elements from an unpublished character called Silver Spider that he developed in the 1950s with longtime collaborator Joe Simon. Others say Silver Spider became The Fly, a character created by Simon and Kirby for Archie Comics’ Red Circle imprint.
According to the Heat Vision report, Kirby’s heirs seek to recapture a share of the copyright to characters and story elements that appeared in Amazing Fantasy #15 — Aunt May, Uncle Ben, Flash Thompson, etc. — plus characters and concepts like J. Jonah Jameson, the Daily Bugle, Chameleon, the Tinkerer and the Lizard, most of which debuted months later in issues of The Amazing Spider-Man. (The Daily Bugle first appeared in Fantastic Four #2.)
If the Kirby children are successful, they would reclaim their father’s portion of the copyright to key characters and concepts from the Marvel Universe as early as 2017 for the Fantastic Four. In most cases, that would seem to mean co-ownership with Marvel, as Lee agreed to waive claim to any of the characters. With Spider-Man, one-third ownership could be possible if the Kirbys were to prevail yet the judge recognized Ditko’s interests.
Although Disney asserts it “fully considered” the potential copyright claims before it launched its $4-billion purchase of Marvel, this move by the Kirby children surely complicates matters. If nothing else, it provides additional fuel for those who already had criticized Disney for wading into a tangle of licensing agreements that could prevent the House of Mouse from making movies based on Spider-Man, the X-Men, Fantastic Four and other central Marvel properties for years (last link via Dirk Deppey).