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Kirby heirs seeking bigger chunk of Marvel universe

SpidermancomicsThe children of Jack Kirby aren’t merely trying to wrest control of such iconic superheroes as Spider-Man, Hulk and X-Men from Marvel and its new (and possibly nervous) owners at the Walt Disney Co.

We got our hands on two of the 45 notices of termination served under the Copyright Act last week on Marvel, Disney, Sony, Universal, Fox, Paramount and others, and the demands are potentially much broader than has been reported.

The copyright termination notices pertaining to Spider-Man and Fantastic Four are written to recapture control of most of the well-known characters in each mythology, to the extent that Kirby contributed to them.

First, some backstory:

Comics fans know Kirby’s work as intimately as their Spidey Underoos. Even though the Webslinger’s origins are generally credited to Stan Lee and reclusive artist Steve Ditko, Kirby was key in the character’s early development in Marvel’s pages. Lee first approached Kirby, with whom he had already created Fantastic Four, X-Men and the Hulk, among others, to help flesh out the concept and initially draw the comic.

The reasons Kirby didn’t end up drawing the book are lost in the mists of comic history, with some claiming Lee didn’t like Kirby’s more muscular depiction and others believing Lee was just too busy. (Kirby did end up drawing the cover to Spider-Man’s first appearance, "Amazing Fantasy” #15.) According to several accounts, Kirby, with his Captain America co-creator Joe Simon, did create a character called the Silver Spider, whose alter ego was an orphaned boy living with two elderly people, and that character was morphed into Spider-Man. Other accounts have the Silver Spider becoming the Fly for another comic company.

Regardless, the Spider-Man copyright termination notice filed last week by Kirby’s four children lists Amazing Fantasy #15 as a work that belongs to Kirby. But included on the list of possible characters and story elements that could be recaptured by Kirby’s heirs are Aunt May, Uncle Ben, J. Jonah Jameson, Flash Thompson and the Daily Bugle, as well as villains the Chameleon, the Vulture, the Tinkerer and the Lizard. Many of those characters were not originally published until 9 to 12 months after Spider-Man’s first appearance and are considered to be Lee-Ditko creations.

The characters appear in a footnote of the termination notice and probably are included as a precautionary measure to make sure Kirby’s heirs don’t leave anything on the table. But their inclusion raises the stakes in what is likely going to be a heated back-and-forth between Kirby attorney Marc Toberoff and the legal firepower of five studios.

Under U.S. law, creators or their heirs can in certain situations "terminate” copyright grants and recapture rights. Last year Toberoff helped the heirs of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel successfully recapture many of the character’s original copyrights from Warner Bros. and DC Comics.

If successful, the Kirby family could claim copyright ownership starting at the 56 year mark--as early as 2018 for Spider-Man and 2017 for Fantastic Four, according to the notices of termination. With copyright currently extending to a 95-year term, the family would be free to license and exploit the Marvel characters for a long, long time.

Plus, with Kirby’s creations including villains and key supporting characters in Marvel comics, more termination notices are expected in the coming months.

Today Marvel issued only a brief statement on the matter: "Marvel received the termination notices and is reviewing the information and has no additional comment at this time.”