This week is the 41st anniversary of the San Diego Comic-Con. The world’s largest comic book convention has become an international media event for Hollywood these days but for me, the Comic Con was something else entirely.
Long before anyone outside a comic book store knew what the Comic-Con was, I was a very young artist begging my parents to take me to the convention. My parents were convinced that artists couldn’t make any money so I sold them on letting me go so I could show them that not only were comic book artists making money, but they were filthy rich. At the time, the comic book industry was going through a huge boom with rumors that Hollywood would be making movies left and right about my favorite superheroes. I dreamed of the day I would see Spider-Man, The Hulk, and Iron-Man on the big screen with big budgets and big name actors.
Honestly though, I just wanted to go so I could wait in line for an autograph from artists like Jim Lee, Dale Keown, Todd McFarlane, and Rob Liefeld. Okay, some were hacks but what Comic Con didn’t prepare me for was the harsh truth about the life many artists live.
I attended panels that had famous comic book artists available for a little Q&A. The questions from attendees came mostly from working artists about the problems many of them were facing such as temp work, long hours, and not being paid on time or at all.
When I wasn’t attending panels, I was waiting in line for autographs and a chance to talk to some artists. Some of these lines ended up being 3-4 hours long. So when I got tired of that I decided to try to find artists with shorter lines. One of these artists notably had no line at all. He was standing behind a table with a big sign that said “No Autographs.”
It was Jack Kirby.
He was the man who along with Stan Lee created almost every Marvel superhero you could think of: Spider-Man, Captain America, The Hulk, Fantastic Four, and X-Men to name a few. I figured the reason he didn’t need to give autographs was because the only thing he signed were contracts and checks. However, this was far from the truth.
The next year Jack Kirby died of heart failure and the reaction from the comic book industry was pronounced. Almost every comic I purchased that month had some dedication to him. One artist wrote an angry commentary about how Marvel screwed over Jack Kirby and I was shocked to realize that for all the things he did for Marvel, he didn’t really receive any royalties or residuals at all. Not even decent health benefits. In fact, while he has long been dead, his heirs are still fighting today to win those royalties.
Kirby’s biographer said it bluntly:
it bothers me to see Jack’s work making millions for people who had nothing to do with it. I went to see X-Men and didn’t care for the film. I would have walked out, but I was sitting next to Stan Lee.
So why does this all matter to VFX artists?
Here’s the thing. I don’t care how awesome of an animator you are. I don’t care how many shots you finaled as a lighter. I don’t care how many Oscars you win as a VFX Supervisor. No matter how successful you become, I’m willing to bet that you will never come close to accomplishing what Jack Kirby did. For all the success, for all the loyalty he gave to Marvel, he couldn’t even secure decent health insurance. No matter how great you are, you’re greatest asset is your ability to collectively and solidly stand together and make this industry right.