|Edited by John Morrow||Jack Kirby Collector celebrates the life and career of the "King" of comics through interviews with Kirby and his contemporaries, feature articles, and rare & unseen Kirby artwork. Now in tabloid format, the magazine showcases Kirby's art at even larger size.|
The Story Behind Skymasters
by and © Jon B. CookeFrom Jack Kirby Collector #15
Mystifying to fans of Jack Kirby is the story behind his stay at National Periodical Publications (today's DC Comics) between 1957-59 - that is, why was his second visit with the publisher so brief? Getting back on his feet again after the near-death of the comics industry and closing Simon & Kirby's Mainline shop for good, Jack seemed to have found a home at National, kicking things off by creating the first superhero team of the Silver Age, the Challengers of the Unknown. He also redefined Green Arrow, and produced almost three dozen tales of mystery and imagination (plus one western!). But by 1959, after 30 months and over six hundred pages of art, Jack abruptly left the reigning publisher of adventure comics behind to work for the struggling Atlas Comics, a publisher with reputedly one of the lowest page rates in the business. Why?
To find the answer we have to look beyond the lowly comic book to that holy grail of art assignments, the syndicated comic strip, and to Jack's greatest achievement in the field, Sky Masters of the Space Force. Hailed as one of the finest serial action strips to appear after the heyday of the art form (coming twenty years after the "adventurous decade" of Dick Tracy, Flash Gordon, and Terry and the Pirates, and in the midst of the still-popular daily gag strip), the sci-fi series debuted while Jack was at National on September 8, 1958 before a country caught up in space race fever. Written by Challengers writers Dave and Dick Wood, penciled (and often plotted and written) by Jack, inked at the onset by the even-then legendary Wally Wood and later by Kirby mainstay Dick Ayers, the strip seemed a recipe for success. It lasted until February 25, 1961, with Jack producing 774 daily strips and 53 Sunday pages, the latter appearing between February 8, 1959 and February 7, 1960.
Scoring a lucrative comic strip gig was a high aspiration for many a lowly-paid comic book artist. In the fifties, not only was there the prestige of joining ranks with such personalities as Al Capp, Charles Schulz, and Walt Kelly (and the financial reward accompanying such an honor), but a cartoonist could peddle his talent before a national audience instead of the increasingly marginalized comic book readership. While Jack told Greg Theakston, "I don't like the newspaper strips because you were severely limited in the amount of space you had to tell a story," 1 he certainly pursued a syndicate job, putting great effort into pitching numerous ideas, including Inky, Starman Zero, Surf Hunter, Chip Hardy, etc., over the years, and even drawing the Black Hole strip as late as 1979.
Doing Sky Masters, Jack was now at a high point in his career: in the realm of idols Alex Raymond and Milton Caniff, getting a healthy cut of the profits, with an entire nation of not just kids, but grown-ups as his audience. But the opportunity turned sour almost from the onset.
On December 11, 1958 (three months into the strip's run), Jack Schiff, a managing editor for National Periodical Publications, filed a legal complaint against Jack Kirby for withholding 4% of the proceeds derived from Kirby's share of Sky Masters, as was agreed to in return for Schiff's securing the syndicate job for Kirby and the Woods. Kirby countersued in the following weeks, stating that the alleged agreement was actually a gratuity offered to Schiff, but the editor demanded excessive payments, and that the contract was made under duress. Depositions by both parties were made, and on March 10, 1959, the County Clerk of Westchester County granted index number 1798-59 to the New York Supreme Court case, Jack Schiff vs. Jack Kirby, David Wood, and Dick Wood. The following is derived from the surviving court documents, and reveals as much about the entirely different word of comic strip syndicates as it does about Jack's fall from grace at National, and the pitfalls of a freelance artist's experience making deals on the side.
In January 1958, the country was gripped in Sputnik Fever and Harry Elmlark was in his own space race. As general manager for the newspaper syndicate, the George Matthew Adams Service, Elmlark saw the events of the previous fall and caught scent of a trend. The Russian launching of the first artificial satellite into orbit on October 4, 1957 took the world by surprise. Now the Cold War abruptly moved to outer space, into the very skies above, and the U.S. government jumped into a frenzy of catch-up rocket building, with the American public braced for the fallout of this new Space Age. It was his job to exploit trends that make for successful comic strips, and Elmlark saw big capitalist bucks for his small syndicate in that 23-inch Soviet satellite. But where to find the right talent or property for a strip that could satisfy the growing national desire for true-to-life space adventure?
Elmlark settled on National, publisher of the science fiction comics Strange Adventures and Mystery in Space (and home to the world's most famous alien, Superman) to voice his ideas with managing editor, Jack Schiff. Schiff was a busy man. Not only did he oversee all the supernatural titles, Tomahawk, and the Batman books, but he produced those monthly single-page public service announcements which appeared in every National comic published between 1950-67, in addition to pitching comics as educational tools to any organization that would listen. He served as company contact with the new Comics Code Authority, and as de facto managing editor, he coordinated production schedules, issued writing and art assignments, and acted as liaison between freelancers and the front office." 2
But Schiff made room in his hectic schedule to speak to Elmlark. Schiff understood Elmlark's quest, as he states in his deposition (extensively quoted hereafter): "It was only natural that aggressive syndicates and publishers would seek new entries in the cartoon strip and comic book field to exploit the heightened interest of their large readership in the world beyond our minute planetary system."
"Mr. Elmlark inquired whether National Comics had any science fiction space feature available that could be adapted for syndication," Schiff wrote. "He was pretty sure he could sell a good space strip. I showed him several features [we] had been running, but he said he wasn't sure it was quite what he wanted. Perhaps, he suggested, we might get something up for him, based on one of these. We discussed outer space types of stories taking place in the future, and 'those just around the corner,' that is more realistic, along the lines of the newest developments in the headlines. I told him that I had been contemplating a science fiction strip myself [possibly Space Ranger, a strip Julius Schwartz said was being discussed by Schiff 3 though not appearing in Showcase until summer '58], and he said that he would be very interested in my doing a strip, since I had quite a bit of experience both in the comics field and in handling and writing a syndicated strip [Schiff was the one who convinced McClure to syndicate Batman, beginning in 1943 4] for my firm. He did say, however, that he needed something quickly, because he was going on the road very shortly and he wanted to get a 'feeler' on a space strip. He made it clear that I could, if I didn't do it myself, get a writer and artist to prepare such a strip for submission by me."
Schiff says he immediately went to Executive Vice President and General Manager of National, Jack Leibowitz, and his boss told him, according to Leibowitz's sworn deposition, that the company "had no interest in such a venture and that [Schiff] could go into it on his own or handle it for himself anyway he wanted and use freelancers from whom the company was purchasing material."
Remembering that Dave Wood (who along with brother Dick, were among Schiff's regular freelance writers) had mentioned collaborating with Kirby on a "space science fiction feature" they tried to sell to a syndicate, Schiff called the writer. Wood suggested meeting the next day to show the editor the art samples, "to see if they had possibilities."
"At his apartment I looked at some samples of space art by Kirby and some other artist, without any definite continuity. Dave had some outlines for possible stories which I read, including one called Space Busters." But Schiff didn't think it was material Elmlark was interested in. "Dave and I then agreed to collaborate on a new story and we kicked around several possibilities, including the idea of a strip that dealt with space rocket launchings, moon shots and general story lines just a little ahead of current developments in the news. We decided that we should approach Kirby as artist for the strip. I then told Dave I would see Elmlark and show him Kirby's art, if Kirby was willing to go along with us on a new strip. Dave said he was sure Kirby would."
The next morning Schiff met with Kirby and Wood, and Kirby said "he would be willing to speculate on a strip with Dave Wood and myself." The editor later showed Elmlark the Kirby samples [quite probably the wordless Kirby/Marvin Stein piece seen in The Jack Kirby Treasury Vol. 2], and the agent found the art "satisfactory, but said a good storyline was needed with a week of continuity and pencil samples - he was looking at other artists' work, and he had to make his mind up quickly." Schiff suggested Wood as writer but Elmlark "didn't see the necessity - it would be better if I handled it alone. I said I might be too tied up to do it so quickly, and we left it at that."
Schiff then saw Kirby and Wood in the office, and Kirby "stated that he was very anxious to take a crack at such a strip. (At this point, I was in a position to package the deal, a practice that is not uncommon in the field)" The Wood brothers wrote an outline and delivered it to Schiff the following Monday, but "I didn't think it was quite the thing Elmlark wanted, but being tied up both in the office and with some outside activities, I told Dave that rather than hold things up, maybe it would be better if I sent him and Kirby to Elmlark and let them work it out directly."
The writer and artist saw Elmlark, "and Dave came back very enthusiastic and thanked me effusively." The Woods were writing continuity, and "Kirby would get right to work on it, and if Elmlark liked it, he would take it on the road with him. Dave Wood said that I would naturally be getting a percentage for arranging the deal. Kirby too said he was very grateful" and that Schiff would receive a cut.
The spec work completed, Elmlark took them on the road, and the team began discussing a contract. "They'd agreed on five percent for me and I said that was fine. Later I spoke to Kirby in my office, and he said that five percent was to be my interest."
France "Eddie" Herron, longtime Simon & Kirby collaborator and one of Schiff's mainstay writers, remembered in a deposition filed in support of Schiff's case, "[In January, 1958], I was present in Dave Wood's apartment, [where] Kirby and the two Woods wanted to discuss cartoon strips as I had had prior experience in the field. Kirby told me that Jack Schiff was responsible for making the contact with the syndicate for the Woods and himself and that, of course, Mr. Schiff was to have [5%] from the strip's sale. In fact, Kirby asked me if that seemed to be a fair amount in my opinion. I told them that I thought it was fair and that if Mr. Schiff was agreeable I would be willing to make the same deal with him for my own strip if he could get a syndicate to exploit it."
"When word from Elmlark came back that he thought he could definitely sell the strip, Wood and Kirby began to prepare the feature in earnest," Schiff deposed. "A temporary contract was entered into with the syndicate - a binder - and definite negotiations began between Dave and Dick Wood and Jack Kirby, at which point a dispute arose. Wood called me and said that Kirby was making excessive demands upon him. Instead of the 50/50 basis that they had agreed upon in their former collaborative ventures, Kirby was asking for 66-2/3%, because he said he had to give his inker a cut of 33-1/3%. (Several weeks of pencils and inks had been prepared at this time.) Wood said that he had refused, particularly since Kirby had been called in on this whole deal by Dave and me and hadn't initiated it. Kirby, he said, then told him that he would bow out of the picture altogether, that Wood would get another artist."
Kirby visited Schiff later that day and said he couldn't do an even split, "that Dave Wood was asking for that much because he had to share with his brother, Dick, and that [Kirby] was entitled to more because he had to pay the inker, to whom he was giving half his share. He said that he would rather not bother with the feature otherwise. I tried to smooth things over, and told him that it would be silly to give this up, at this point, since the inking expense was one he was incurring voluntarily. Dave called me that night to tell me he was going to arrange for another artist, if Kirby wouldn't be reasonable and wanted to bow out."
Wood called Schiff the following morning to say that "Kirby had come to see him very early that same morning and had agreed to compromise on a 60/40 basis, that is, Kirby to get 60% with the provision that Marvin Stein, the inker, would get a percentage (which Kirby later told me was 20%), and that Kirby would pay for the lettering and other art expenses. At this point Dave told me that Kirby had wanted to lower my percentage to 3%, but they had finally settled on 4%. I said that was all right and let's not have any more disputes when the strip is just beginning to be sold."
Herron concurs as, "sometime later, I learned that [Schiff] agreed to take four percent. I expressed surprise that Mr. Schiff had taken the cut and Kirby told me that Mr. Schiff had taken the percentage of four percent in order that the Woods and Kirby could work out their arrangements on a satisfactory basis."
Schiff, Kirby, and Wood then met and "I suggested," the editor said, "that it should be recorded in writing. Both said that I didn't have to worry, that I was set - but if I wanted, in the meantime they would sign a notation of my part of the deal. I drew up this note and both signed it in my office."
"Thus, the indisputable facts set forth above by me," Schiff declared, "demonstrate that I rendered services to Kirby and Wood, at their request, that through me they obtained their opportunity to put out a strip which had and has every chance of being a great success; that both recognized their obligation to me and that they each specifically agreed to pay me 4%. (And in recognition of this agreement, [the Woods] instructed the syndicate to pay my percentage directly to me.)"
As defendant, Kirby remembered certain aspects differently. His deposition, prepared by attorney Hilton Soba (written in much more blunt legalese than Schiff's almost chatty submission), presents an opposing viewpoint, one in which the artist felt pressured into paying a kickback. "[Schiff] is employed as editor by Detective House, Inc. and in such capacity assigns cartoon work to [Kirby, the Woods, and Herron] who work for the said publisher on a 'free lance basis.' [Schiff] told [Kirby &] Wood, individually, of an inquiry by the George Matthews Adams Agency concerning an artist and writer team to create a scientific space flight comic strip to be syndicated to newspapers." Kirby and the Woods went to the syndicate without Schiff, but with his knowledge and consent, and entered into negotiations and conferences about a strip. Elmlark and the defendants discussed many proposed cartoon strips and stories. Kirby, "at great expenditure of time and money by himself, drew a series of cartoon strips which the agency accepted as a basis of the Sky Masters strip." Thereafter, an agreement was entered into between the syndicate, Kirby, and the Woods, but Schiff did not attend or enter into the negotiations relating to this contract, nor did he confer with the syndicate regarding the development of the strip.
Kirby and the Woods wrote up a joint contract, one that Schiff had no participation in nor was he consulted on. During these negotiations, the team agreed to offer Schiff a gratuity, but when the editor was told of the offering, he refused, "demanding instead various sums greatly in excess of the gratuity."
Meanwhile, Kirby alleges, Schiff threatened to reduce art assignments if the artist didn't give in to his demands, and subsequently, the deposition states, Kirby's average bi-monthly earnings dropped from $1800 down to $200. In a telling piece of pre-trial testimony (the only testimony that exists in the N.Y. Supreme Court archives, excerpted from Schiff's deposition), the following exchange took place between Kirby and Schiff's lawyer, Myron Shapiro:
Q: Did [Schiff] tell you in any words or substance that if you would not sign that note you would not get any more assignments? Yes or no.
KIRBY: I will give you his gestures.
Q: I want his words, not his gestures.
KIRBY: His gestures were very eloquent.
Q: You have to give me his words. You are now under oath, and I call on you to answer that question yes or no without any volunteering or characterization.
KIRBY: He said he would think ill of me.
Q: Did he say anything else besides that?
KIRBY: He said he would be unhappy.
Q: Did he say anything else besides that?
KIRBY: That he would misconstrue me as being the kind of man he thinks I am.
Q: Did he say anything else besides that?
KIRBY: "Sign it."
Q: Did he say anything else beside the words you have given me?
KIRBY: "Sign it." That's all he said.
Kirby charged that his signature was obtained by duress "in that [Schiff] did threaten to withhold the purchasing of [Kirby's] cartoons unless he agreed to pay to [Schiff] a commission, putting [Kirby] in fear and apprehension for his livelihood." Dated April 15, 1958, the note states, "This is to acknowledge that Jack Schiff, as agent, has a share in the comic strip, Sky ---- [indicating that the surname of "Cannon" or "Masters" was still being debated], to the extent of 4% of the total amount earned jointly by the undersigned creators of said strip." It was signed by Jack Kirby and David Wood.
Schiff denied threatening to reduce Kirby's workload in his answer to Kirby's deposition. "The circumstances of Kirby's employment from January 1958 to the end of that year show that his assignments held up throughout, even though he was busy with his new strip, his assignments from other publishers and his other business enterprises. Kirby's income from National Comics in 1957 and 1958 was $8,600 and $8,146 respectively. Thus, the difference in [his] earnings in 1958 from my firm is only $454, [a decrease so slight that it's] remarkable when it is considered he was busily engaged in the time-consuming job of researching and preparing a new cartoon strip for daily and Sunday syndication." (After reaching an all-time high in Feb. 1958 - around the time Schiff's percentage was first discussed-Kirby's DC output started a long downward trend, as shown by the chart on page 25.)
Schiff also said that in Oct.-Dec. 1958, Kirby came to National less and less in search of work. "Whether Kirby deliberately cut his requests for work and slowed down his completion of assignments, because he realized that his earnings in 1958 were matching 1957, or because he was so occupied with the strip and his other assignments, I do not know."
Kirby deposed that during August 1958, Schiff demanded 6% of all the earnings from Sky Masters, and was amended to a sliding scale running from 4% up to 10%. Subsequently the demand was reduced to 5%, but a disagreement again arose, and "although the attorney[s] exchanged proposed agreements, the parties could not and never did agree to the terms and percentages of the gratuity."
All parties met again, this time in Wood's attorney's office, and Kirby offered a flat $500 to Schiff in return for a "general release since [Schiff] had placed the claim for payment on a contractual rather than a gratuity basis." Schiff refused and here the matter was brought to the courts, in late 1958, as Sky Masters was starting out strong in a reported 300+ papers across the country.
Schiff charged breach of contract, Kirby accused the editor of past consideration, and the litigation was off and running. Kirby asked for a dismissal but the court denied the request and set a trial date. Trial was held on October 16, and on December 3, 1959, in the New York Supreme Court in White Plains, the final judgement of presiding Justice George M. Fanelli was announced. "Jack Liebowitz appeared as a witness for Jack Schiff," Joe Simon remembers. "Jack Kirby was the defiant defendant. Jack Oleck and I attended the proceedings that day. The courtroom was full of Jacks." 5
No testimony, if there was any, remains, but Justice Fanelli's final decrees were among the existing documents. The court ruled in favor of Schiff. "[Schiff's] making the contact possible and his bringing such business opportunity to the attention of Kirby and Wood was not in the nature of a favor or gratuity but rather was something for which all the parties intended he was to receive compensation despite the fact that [Schiff] might not in the future be called upon to render any further services," Fanelli concluded. "The fact that the bargain may be a hard one will not deprive it of validity and, under the circumstances of this case, it cannot be said that the bargain provided for is grossly unreasonable or unconscionable. It is quite apparent that defendant Kirby was the best judge of the worth of [Schiff's] contact and of the business opportunity afforded him, and the price he wished to pay for them. It is not for this court to decide whether 4% of [Kirby's] earnings is excessive or inadequate or whether [he] made a good or bad bargain."
On December 21, Kirby was ordered by the court "to account for and pay to [Schiff] 4% of any and all proceeds" of the Sky Masters strip, and was to file and serve "a verified account for the period from February 1, 1958 to date all the details of the proceeds." Kirby was also decreed to "execute and deliver to the [syndicate] instructions in writing" to pay Schiff 4% of the proceeds in the future, and to pay for all court costs and Schiff's legal fees.
While Kirby continued on Sky Masters for more than a year after the court's decision, he apparently had his fill of syndicate life. "Because of the hard feelings caused by the Sky Masters incident," Joe Simon remembers, "Kirby wouldn't or couldn't return to DC Comics. He was working at Marvel when I met him on Columbus Circle, at the entrance to Central Park. In a brown derby hat, twirling a cane-handled umbrella, he looked quite dapper, like an English horseman off to the foxes.
"'Is that a dress code for syndicated artists?' I asked.
"'I'll never do another newspaper strip again,' he vowed." 5
Whether Jack Kirby tired of the format constraints of strip work, regardless of financial reward, or of the distaste of having Schiff continue to profit off of the artist's work, is lost to history, but Sky Masters was cancelled just as the drama of space exploration was unfolding live on national television-adventure that comic strips just couldn't compete with. Kirby was understandably never anxious to discuss this period when asked, opting instead to dismiss the events as "editorial problems." But what is known is that he did return exclusively to comics after the strip's demise in February 1961, and did no work for National until after Schiff's 1967 retirement. But the mark he left on comic strips is still vibrant today, and his all-too-brief teaming with Wally Wood is a classic of great comic strip work.
2 -Pg. 26, The Comic Book Heroes, Gerard Jones and Will Jacobs, Rocklin, California: Prima Publishing, 1996.
3 -Schwartz quoted on pg. 69, Science Fiction Comics: The Illustrated History, Michael Benton, Dallas, Texas: Taylor Publishing Company, 1992.
4 -Schiff quoted on pg. 70, DC Comics: Sixty Years of the World's Favorite Comic Book Heroes, Les Daniels, New York: Bullfinch Press, 1995.
5 -Pg. 195, The Comic Book Makers, Joe Simon with Jim Simon, New York: Crestwood/II Publications, 1990.
Enormous gratitude goes to Andrew D. Cooke and A. John Rath for help in obtaining the legal documents used in this article, and to the N.Y. Supreme Court clerk's office for their assistance. Sincere appreciation also goes to Greg Theakston, Mark Evanier, Rick Norwood, and Les Daniels for their sometimes unwitting help. Special kudos to Joe and Jim Simon for giving the date and location of the court case which made this article possible.
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