Jack Kirby’s contract was up for renewal in April 1978. At a convention in West Virginia, Stan Lee announced that Kirby had signed a long-term contract as an artist only; he said Kirby’s scripting was “imaginative but undisciplined,” but Lee was confident that the artwork would return to form once Kirby was paired with other writers. (Lee also characterized Kirby’s work on their just-completed Silver Surfer graphic novel, two years in the making, as “better than recent stuff, but not his best.”)
But there was no new contract. Kirby’s tour of duty was, in fact, coming to an end. His latest return had been a major disappointment, to him and to Marvel. None of his books had sold as well as hoped, the reaction from readers was less than enthusiastic, and even his supposed autonomy had been undermined. “The editorial staff up at Marvel had no respect for what he was doing,” said Jim Starlin. “All these editors had things on their walls making fun of Jack’s books. They’d cut out things saying ‘Stupidest Comic of the Year’… . [T]his entire editorial office was just littered with stuff disparaging the guy who founded the company these guys were working for. He created all the characters these guys were editing.”
Tensions were now worse than they’d ever been in the sixties. Kirby reportedly received hate mail on Marvel letterhead, and crank phone calls from the office. When Roy Thomas persuaded him to draw an issue of the imaginary-tale series What If? (it was a self-reflective story called “What if … The Fantastic Four were the Marvel Bullpen?” starring Lee, Kirby, Thomas, and Flo Steinberg), Kirby refused to allow Thomas to script it, and replaced the Thomas character with a Sol Brodsky one. Once the pages arrived at Marvel, an editor went through and changed all of Kirby’s references to “Stanley” to “Stan” and corrected all the grammar in the dialogue—except for that of the Jack Kirby character.