Bad enough I’ve got a post dealing with a very controversial topic that drives comic fans into a frenzy, but I’m publishing it on a Friday the 13th? Well, at least no one can accuse me of being superstitious!
…What’s that you say? It’s also the 60th anniversary of the Fantastic Four? And here I am, about to get neck deep into the controversy between the creators of the FF—what am I, nuts? Ah, well… at least no one can accuse me of not publishing timely posts, either!
I always figured I’d have to get to this at some point, assuming I continued blogging about comics long enough, but I’ve always dreaded it, as today’s topic involves a matter that comics fans get irrational about; something that really brings out a lot of rage and vitriol. But then Abraham Riesman’s True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee got released and started getting a fair amount of publicity earlier this year, which led to this post getting put on the to-do list, and here we are. Time to rip the band-aid off.
Today I’m going to talk about Smilin’ Stan “The Man” Lee and the work he did with his co-creators, Jolly Jack “King” Kirby and Sturdy Steve Ditko. Now excuse me while put on my asbestos suit.
Where to Begin?
Let’s start from my own subjective beginning (as has become my habit in recent years). So… when I first started reading comics in the mid-70s, Marvels always had this “Stan Lee Presents” declaration on every opening page. The tradition began in 1972, and by 1974 they would also have this origin-recap box that went along with it. By intriguing coincidence, my very first issue of Amazing Spider-Man, #136 (Sept. 1974), was the first issue of ASM that had the origin box.
As I’ve recounted before, I could not yet read when I bought that issue of ASM down the Jersey Shore in the summer of ‘74. But as my comics hobby grew, I became very accustomed to seeing that “Stan Lee Presents” at the beginning of every Marvel comic I read. Over time I would learn that Stan Lee was the credited writer for all of Marvel’s earliest titles. My young self presumed, rather logically, that this meant Lee essentially created the Marvel Universe all by himself, figuring that the artist’s job was to draw whatever the writer told him to draw. Most other kids my age who read the comics made the same (false) presumption, I’m guessing.
As I got older, I began to learn more about the comics business. At some point I learned that DC writers (usually) would write full scripts while Marvel writers (usually) wrote via the “Marvel Method.” The Marvel Method meant that they would supply a plot to the artist and then fill in the dialogue and captions after the pages were drawn. Often times, working this way, the artist would modify the plot; add to it, subtract from it, or make other changes either big or small. And even when the artists didn’t make changes, they were still setting the pace of the story and choreographing the action.
Which begged the question: Doesn’t this sorta make the artist the writer? Or at least a co-writer? I also learned that the Marvel Method got its start with Stan Lee, which begged the more specific question: How much credit does Stan Lee truly deserve for the work done on his comics? At the very least, Lee’s work with his artists was far more collaborative than most of us were led to believe. But this debate was left almost entirely to the diehard fans; the casual fan knew virtually nothing about it. Not way back then, at least.
This brings us to the issue of original art.
Back in the earliest days of the industry, the original art produced for comics was largely destroyed after it was photostatted. I guess the thinking was that this prevented it from being re-used without permission of the publisher. It was also believed—almost universally, by all parties concerned—that the original art had no value anyway.
Sometime in the 1970s, publishers began giving artists their art back. It varied from publisher to publisher and even artist to artist, but at least some guys were getting some of their work back. Then we get to 1978, when the copyright law changed. Many of the brightest creative lights of the comic industry would leave as a result of the papers that publishers were requiring them to sign—papers that formally acknowledged that they were giving up nearly all the rights to their work. This type of working arrangement is known as “work for hire.”
By the 1980s, the comics business began to finally catch up to the rest of the modern publishing world by giving perks like royalties and/or other incentives, including formal policies requiring the return of the original art to artists. Still, with the copyright laws having changed in ‘78, many publishers (particularly in this case, Marvel) were requiring artists to sign releases before giving them their pages back. Which brings us to Jack Kirby.
No other artist had contributed to Marvel Comics to the extent that Kirby had. Kirby had illustrated many thousands of pages for Marvel over the course of his career; no other artist could really even come close to matching his output. (Plus, Kirby had stopped drawing comics for Marvel right around the same time the copyright law changed. If he never signed any up-to-date releases, this may have given him stronger legal footing to claim ownership of his work—though I’m just speculating here, I’m no lawyer.)
As a result of all this, when Marvel began offering up its backstock of pages to their artists in 1984, they had sent Kirby a release to sign that was four pages long. He was the only artist to receive such a release; the standard release that every other artist got was just one page. Naturally, Kirby refused to sign. Without the signed release, Marvel refused to return his art. It was a standoff, with Marvel essentially holding Kirby’s art hostage.
Damn near every comics fan then in existence (including myself, full disclosure), plus a similar ratio among creators, rallied behind Jack Kirby, with The Comics Journal leading the charge in the fight. It was a battle that would drag on for about three years, with near-universal public sympathy on the side of Kirby—and rightly so. The man deserved far better treatment from Marvel than this.
One side effect from these circumstances was that as the voices supporting Kirby grew louder and louder, so did the shouts that Kirby was the true genius behind all the great comics he had done with Stan Lee back in the sixties, and that Lee was little more than a con-man and a crook.
Smiley Chimes In
At a comic convention in the summer of ‘86, Lee finally responded to the growing controversy regarding himself and Kirby.
You know, it’s like when somebody says, “When did you stop beating your wife?” (Laughter.) I don’t really want to get into any hassle with Jack, because I gotta tell you I’m probably Jack’s biggest fan. I mean, I’ve worked with Jack for a million years. I don’t know of any finer talent in this business. I don’t know of any guy who’s more imaginative, more creative. He’s a decent guy, a hard-working guy. I’m a great admirer of Jack Kirby, and I’ve enjoyed working with him, and all he knew is that we worked together. I don’t really know what Jack means by creating a character. I guess maybe it’s a semantic discussion, and we have to decide what the word “creating” really means.
As far as I can remember these things happening, I was the editor and the head writer at Marvel, and Jack was an artist who worked for us. One day my publisher, Martin Goodman, said to me, “You know, Stan”—we didn’t have super-heroes at that time. Jack and I were doing a million horror stories, monster stories, Groo, the monster that devoured Newark, things like that—and one day Martin Goodman came to me and said, “Stan, I’ve just noticed DC’s magazine The Justice League (or Justice Society, I could never remember which it was) is selling very well and that’s a group of super-heroes. I think we ought to do a group of super-heroes.” I said, “Great, I’ll make one up,” and I wrote an outline for some characters called the Fantastic Four, consisting of the Thing; and Reed Richards, Mr. Fantastic; and Sue Storm, the Invisible Girl; and the Human Torch, Johnny Storm. I decided it would be fun to make it a little more realistic than the other super-heroes. Instead of Sue Storm just being a girlfriend who didn’t know the guy’s identity, I figured let’s make her his fiancée, and later on they’ll actually get married, and let’s make the teenager her kid brother, and he’ll become the brother-in-law. I thought instead of just four handsome heroes, I’ll make one of them kind of a monster, but I just knew he’d end up being the most popular one of all.
I wrote like a one-or-two-page outline of what it should be, and then I called the guy whom I thought was the best artist we had, Jack Kirby, and I said, “Jack, I’ve got this idea for a Fantastic Four, and I’d like you to draw it.” I showed him the outline, we discussed it, he went home, and brought back the story drawn up. I did not give Jack a script. The actual interpretation of the outline was Jack’s. Jack is really a good writer in the sense that you can tell Jack a few words of a plot, he’ll draw the whole thing up, and there’ll be a lot of ideas in the panels that you never even thought of. He comes with them as he’s drawing. But as far as him saying that he presented the whole thing—I mean, I told him, “Let’s do a Fantastic Four, and here’s what the Fantastic Four should be.” Now Jack certainly created the characters in the sense of the fact that he drew them. I didn’t draw them. I told him that I wanted the Thing to be a real powerful, big, monstrous-looking guy. Now the Thing could have been drawn a million different ways, and any other artist would have drawn it differently. Jack drew him the way he did, so Jack created the visual image of the Thing and of all the other characters.
In Hollywood, and let’s say in television, if Stephen Cannell says, “I want to do something called the A-Team, and I want it to be four characters named so and so,” and then he gives the idea to a scriptwriter, and then they hire actors and so forth, Stephen Cannell is considered the creator. The scriptwriter isn’t; the actors aren’t; and the director isn’t; and the cameraman isn’t. It seems to me that the person who says, “This is the idea that I want done,” is the person who created it. Now I did that with the Hulk, and with Spider-Man, and with the Fantastic Four, and with Thor, and with all the ones I did. I have never denied that they were drawn by the people who drew them. I have never denied that Jack, and Steve Ditko with Spider-Man, and John Buscema, when I worked with him on many scripts, had a lot to do with the actual plotting. Sometimes I was so busy I would say to Kirby or Ditko or Buscema or Gil Kane or Gene Colan or Don Heck or whoever it was, I’d say, “Look, let’s bring back Dr. Doom, and he kidnaps Sue Storm, and, I dunno, the Fantastic Four rescues her at the end and blab blah” and give him a couple of details and he’d go off and draw it. When the artwork came back there were five million things there that I’d never mentioned because the artist put them in. They were the artists’ own ideas. I never denied that, but what I would do is put the dialogue in and the captions, and I would try and do it in such a way to give the whole thing some cohesiveness, to give it the correct personality, the correct characterization, and let it all dovetail into the series so it seemed to belong. That’s really all I can say, and I don’t want to sound in any way as if I’m downplaying Jack’s contribution or any artist’s contribution. Those of you who have read the Origins of Marvel Comics or Son of Origins—and shame on you if you haven’t (Laughter)—I’m sure will remember reading in the books that I’ve said, I’ve spelled out in chapter and verse, what the artists’ contributions were.
I’ve always said that we all co-created these things. I think that I’ve been very generous ‘cause, as I say, anywhere except in the comic book business the artist would not be considered a co-creator, because it’s the guy who says, “Let there be a Hulk” and lo, there was a Hulk. The guy who says it, he’s the creator. The guy who drew it is just drawing it after the creator told him to draw it. I hope somebody was making notes ‘cause I think this is probably the last time I’ll be mentioning this again, and thank you for your attention.
“Newswatch,” The Comics Journal #111, Sept. 1986, pp. 12-13.
Most fans were not buying Lee’s version of history. At this point, anyone who wasn’t fully devoted to Team Kirby was demonized by comic fans. If you were actually crazy enough to speak up in defense of Lee at all, even slightly, you risked being lynched.
Finally, in 1987, nearly three years after this all started, Marvel finally gave in, tearing up the four-page release and sending Kirby an amended short form. Kirby signed it and received almost 1,900 pages of original art back from Marvel. While nowhere near the 8,000 (give or take) total pages he had drawn for the company in his career, it was more than Kirby had expected to get by that time. The original art controversy was now over. The party that took the biggest beating as a result of it all, however, was not Marvel—it was Stan Lee.
The Journal Interview
A couple of years after the return of those 1,900 pages from Marvel, Jack Kirby was interviewed by Gary Groth for The Comics Journal. Kirby’s wife, Roz, was also quoted many times in this interview. It was widely rumored after the interview was given that several close friends and allies of Kirby asked Groth not to print it—and if you take the time to read through the whole thing (which you can do here), you should readily understand why.
By this point, Kirby was in his seventies and it is clear that his mental acuity was far from its sharpest. He’s all over the place, stating numerous and easily disproved falsehoods, as well as contradicting himself many times throughout. For example, when discussing Sky Masters, Kirby first states (rather emphatically) that Wally Wood had nothing to do with the project, then corrects himself (with help from Roz) several lines later. When discussing the Fantastic Four, he says that they were created from an atomic explosion, which is, of course, untrue. He says when he first met Stan at Timely circa 1940 that Stan was thirteen years old, which is also untrue (Lee was a teenager, yes, but not a child). When discussing his war service, Kirby is similarly all over the place—at one point he talks about convalescing in France, then says it was Britain, almost in the same breath.
But the worst of it was in the way he trashed pretty much everyone he ever worked with—Stan Lee especially, but really every writer ever credited as such in every story Kirby ever did. What follows could be considered the lowlights of the interview:
KIRBY: I wrote my own stories. Nobody ever wrote a story for me. I told in every story what was really inside my gut, and it came out that way. My stories began to get noticed because the average reader could associate with them…. I wrote everything I did. When I went back to Marvel, I began to create the new stuff.
GROTH: And you two [Kirby and Lee] collaborated on all the monster stories?
KIRBY: Stan Lee and I never collaborated on anything! I’ve never seen Stan Lee write anything. I used to write the stories just like I always did.
GROTH: On all the monster stories it says “Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.” What did he do to warrant his name being on them?
KIRBY: Nothing! OK?
GROTH: Did he dialogue them?
KIRBY: No, I dialogued them. If Stan Lee ever got a thing dialogued, he would get it from someone working in the office. I would write out the whole story on the back of every page. I would write the dialogue on the back or a description of what was going on. Then Stan Lee would hand them to some guy and he would write in the dialogue. In this way Stan Lee made more pay than he did as an editor. This is the way Stan Lee became the writer. Besides collecting the editor’s pay, he collected writer’s pay. I’m not saying Stan Lee had a bad business head on. I think he took advantage of whoever was working for him.
GROTH: But he was essentially serving in a capacity as an editorial liaison between you and the publisher?
KIRBY: Yes, he wasn’t exactly an editor, or anything like that. Even as a young boy, he’d be hopping around—I think he had a flute, and he was playing on his flute.
GROTH: The Pied Piper.
KIRBY: Yeah. He’d come up and annoy me, and I told Joe [Simon] to throw him out.
GROTH: Stan wrote, “Jack and I were having a ball turning out monster stories.’’ Were you having a ball, Jack?
KIRBY: Stan Lee was having the ball.
GROTH: You turned out monster stories for two or three years I think. Then the first comic that rejuvenated superheroes that you did was The Fantastic four. Can you explain how that came about?
KIRBY: I had to do something different. The monster stories have their limitations—you can just do so many of them. And then it becomes a monster book month after month, so there had to be a switch because the times weren’t exactly conducive to good sales. So I felt the idea was to come up with new stuff all the time—in other words there had to be a blitz. And I came up with this blitz. I came up with The Fantastic Four, I came up with Thor (I knew the Thor legends very well), and the Hulk, the X-Men, and The Avengers. I revived what I could and came up with what I could. I tried to blitz the stands with new stuff. The new stuff seemed to gain momentum.
GROTH: Let me ask you something that I think is an important point: Stan wrote the way you guys worked—and I think he’s referring to the monster stories specifically here—he wrote, “I had only to give Jack an outline of the story and he would draw the entire strip breaking down the outline into exactly the right number of panels. Then it remained for me to take Jack’s artwork and add the captions and dialogue which would hopefully add a dimension of reality to sharply delineated characterization.” So he’s saying that he gave you a plot, and you would draw it, and he would add the captions and dialogue.
ROZ KIRBY: I remember Jack would call him up and say it’s going to be this kind of story or that kind of story and just send him the story. And he’d write in everything on the side.
KIRBY: Remember this: Stan Lee was an editor. He worked from nine to five doing business for Martin Goodman. In other words, he didn’t do any writing in the office. He did Martin Goodman’s business. That was his function. There were people coming up to the office to talk all the time. They weren’t always artists, they were business people. Stan Lee was the first man they would see and Stan Lee would see if he could get them in to see Martin Goodman. That was Stan Lee’s function.
GROTH: Can you tell me give me your version of how The Fantastic Four came about? Did Stan go to you…?
KIRBY: No, Stan didn’t know what a mutation was. I was studying that kind of stuff all the time. I would spot it in the newspapers and science magazines. I still buy magazines that are fanciful. I don’t read as much science fiction as I did at that time. I was a student of science fiction and I began to make up my own story patterns, my own type of people. Stan Lee doesn’t think the way I do. Stan Lee doesn’t think of people when he thinks of [characters]. I think of [characters] as real people. If I drew a war story it would be two guys caught in the war. The Fantastic Four to me are people who were in a jam—suddenly you find yourself invisible, suddenly you find yourself flexible.
ROZ KIRBY: Gary wants to know how you created The Fantastic Four.
GROTH: Did you approach Marvel or—
KIRBY: It came about very simply. I came in [to the Marvel offices] and they were moving out the furniture, they were taking desks out — and I needed the work! I had a family and a house and all of a sudden Marvel is coming apart. Stan Lee is sitting on a chair crying. He didn’t know what to do, he’s sitting in a chair crying—he was just still out of his adolescence. I told him to stop crying. I says, “Go in to Martin and tell him to stop moving the furniture out, and I’ll see that the books make money.” And I came up with a raft of new books and all these books began to make money. Somehow they had faith in me. I knew I could do it, but I had to come up with fresh characters that nobody had seen before. I came up with The Fantastic Four. I came up with Thor. Whatever it took to sell a book I came up with. Stan Lee has never been editorial minded. It wasn’t possible for a man like Stan Lee to come up with new things—or old things for that matter. Stan Lee wasn’t a guy that read or that told stories. Stan Lee was a guy that knew where the papers were or who was coming to visit that day. Stan Lee is essentially an office worker, OK? I’m essentially something else: I’m a storyteller. My job is to sell my stories. When I saw this happening at Marvel, I stopped the whole damned bunch. I stopped them from moving the furniture! Stan Lee was sitting on some kind of a stool, and he was crying.
GROTH: Who came up with the name “Fantastic Four”?
KIRBY: I did. All right? I came up with all those names. I came up with Thor because I’ve always been a history buff. I know all about Thor and Balder and Mjolnir, the hammer. Nobody ever bothered with that stuff except me. I loved it in high school and I loved it in my pre-high school days. It was the thing that kept my mind off the general poverty in the area. When I went to school that’s what kept me in school—it wasn’t mathematics and it wasn’t geography; it was history.
GROTH: Stan says he conceptualized virtually everything in The Fantastic Four—that he came up with all the characters. And then he said that he wrote a detailed synopsis for Jack to follow.
ROZ KIRBY: I’ve never seen anything.
KIRBY: I’ve never seen it, and of course I would say that’s an outright lie.
GROTH: Stan pretty much takes credit in an introduction to one of his books for creating all the characters in The Fantastic Four. He also said he created the name.
KIRBY: No, he didn’t….
GROTH: Can I ask what your involvement in Spider-Man was?
KIRBY: I created Spider-Man. We decided to give it to Steve Ditko. I drew the first Spider-Man cover. I created the character. I created the costume. I created all those books, but I couldn’t do them all. We decided to give the book to Steve Ditko who was the right man for the job. He did a wonderful job on that.
GROTH: Can you explain how you worked? I think according to Stan he would give you a plot, you would draw it, and he would write it. Now would you dispute—
ROZ KIRBY: [Stan] would say that he needs the story, and I think they talked two minutes on the phone, and then Jack would go off and write the story on the side of the art.
KIRBY: Stan didn’t know what the heck the stories were about.
GROTH; I’ve seen original art with words written on the sides of the pages.
KIRBY: That would be my dialogue….
GROTH: You would talk to Stan on the phone—what was a typical conversation like when you were plotting the Fantastic Four: what would he say and what would you say?
KIRBY: On the Fantastic Four, I’d tell him what I was going to do, what the story was going to be, and I’d bring it in—that’s all.
ROZ KIRBY: [Stan Lee] would always say “great.”
KIRBY: And that’s all Stan Lee would say, “great.” [Laughter.]
The above quotes were taken from The Comics Journal #134, Feb. 1990. Again, the interview can be read in full here. I’d like to note that when the Journal reprinted this interview in 2002 for The Comics Journal Library: Jack Kirby softcover book, they added this disclaimer at the beginning:
The single biggest matter of contention in the history of Marvel has always been the division of labor between Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Originally, the official Marvel line (as seen in countless interviews with and book introductions by Lee) was that Lee conceived and wrote the material while Kirby (and other artists) co- plotted and drew it. Lee has since conceded the magnitude of Kirby’s contribution to a somewhat greater degree, but as can be seen in this interview (conducted late in Kirby’s career), an embittered Kirby eventually came to dismiss all of Lee’s contributions to the work as literally nonexistent. Some of Kirby’s more extreme statements (e.g., “I’ve never seen Stan Lee write anything”) should be read with a grain of salt; the creation of Spider-Man, which Kirby takes full credit for here, has also been disputed by Steve Ditko in one of his extremely rare public statements. There is no doubt that Kirby’s contribution to the Marvel comics he worked on was enormous; Lee’s contribution is a matter for endless speculation, but most observers and historians consider Kirby’s claims here to be excessive.
Unfortunately, when this interview was first published in 1990, there was no such disclaimer that ran with it. Not that this would’ve made much difference, I’m afraid—by that point, everyone was on Kirby’s side, while Lee effectively had no allies at all. Because of this, most of Kirby’s distortions here became widely accepted as the truth.
Kirb Your Enthusiasm
One of the things that drives me nuts about this creatorship controversy is how a certain set of people of a certain age get so crazy over it, and how they are absolutely, dead determined that their position on the matter is correct. This despite the fact that many of them weren’t even alive when Kirby was still doing comics; the twenty-somethings and younger weren’t even born until after Jack Kirby died. In my own interactions with such fans, I tend to wonder how much of the comics they’ve actually read and/or how many primary sources they’ve consulted regarding this subject. Did they arrive at their position(s) based on such research? Or are they just mindlessly parroting the same distortions and falsehoods that have been repeated ad nauseam for the last three decades?
Look guys, I’m in my fifties now (God help me), and even I’m not old enough to have experienced the dawn of Marvel as it was happening—but I have since read almost everything Lee and Kirby ever worked on together (multiple times), and I have also read a whole lot of interviews with the people who worked in the Marvel offices at the time. If we want to get to something remotely resembling the truth here, it’s the recollections of the people who were actually there that we need to rely on first and foremost.
One such person was Roy Thomas, who offered a lengthy rebuttal to assertions made in Riesman’s book in an article he penned for The Hollywood Reporter, which can be read here. Anyone who reads this article will be hard pressed to refute it, as Thomas is himself a firsthand witness and also cites physical evidence (two outlines written by Lee, one for the first issue of Fantastic Four and one for a portion of the eighth issue) in making his case.
But Thomas is not the only ex-bullpenner to contradict Kirby’s view. In a 2002 interview for Comic Book Artist, Lee’s longtime secretary Flo Steinberg spoke of typing up many plots and outlines for him. In a 2003 interview with The Comics Journal, John Romita recalled carpooling into the city with Lee and Kirby and related how the two men would hash out plots together in the car. More personally, with my own ears, I heard Gene Colan on a panel at New York Comicon sometime circa 2005 talk about how he used to bring a tape recorder into his plot sessions with Lee, just to be sure that he “gave Stan everything he wanted.”
Even in that Kirby interview, near the end, Roz Kirby herself states: “It bothered me a lot when it said Stan Lee this and Stan Lee that. If they wanted to be fair, they could have said, ‘Produced by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.’ But he didn’t have to say, ‘Written by—.’ He didn’t have to take the entire credit. He’d put down drawn by Jack ‘King’ Kirby and all that stuff.”
After spending the whole interview prior to this trashing Stan Lee and insisting he did absolutely nothing, why would you think any kind of equal credit would be fair? Kirby’s name should be on there all by itself because he’s the only guy who actually did anything, right? Was all the conversation prior to this point spoken in jest or something? Oh wait, just a few lines later Roz does say, “Every so often he’d put down, ‘Produced by —.’” Before I noticed this, I was about to say that many later issues of Lee’s work with Kirby were credited as a “Lee-Kirby Production,” or something similar. We should also offer some kudos to Stan Lee for formally listing credits at all—at the time Marvel got its start, most comics didn’t have any.
The one absolute declaration I’m quite comfortable making is this: Lee was responsible for all of the text we read in the comics. Did Lee sometimes lift Kirby’s suggested dialogue or captions, as written in the margins on the original art, verbatim? Yes, sometimes. But far more often it would be edited or wholly new. If you’ve read any of Kirby’s own dialogue before, or even just going by how he speaks in this interview, you have to know that’s not his voice in the comics. Across every title with Lee’s name on it back then, the voice was consistent, and that voice was always Stan Lee’s.
For all the beating Stan Lee took in this interview, the worst part of it may have been Kirby’s assertion that he created Spider-Man. What makes it the worst is that in making such an assertion, Kirby is doing to Steve Ditko precisely what he’s accused Lee of doing to him: taking credit for something he had nothing to do with. And I know I just mentioned having one absolute declaration I was quite comfortable making, but now I’m going to make it two: Jack Kirby had virtually nothing to do with Spider-Man.
Yes, Kirby was the artist first approached to do Spider-Man. Yes, he penciled some pages. Lee has said that Kirby’s style didn’t fit with what he wanted for the character, which is why he turned to Steve Ditko. Kirby biographer Mark Evanier, on the other hand, has said that Kirby was probably too overloaded with other work to take the assignment. Personally, I don’t see any reason why both scenarios can’t be true.
By all accounts, Lee did pass those Kirby pages along to Ditko, but by Ditko’s recollection, along with the judgement of my own eyes, Ditko used none of Kirby’s material in what he ultimately produced. In my mind, Kirby’s contributions to Spider-Man consist solely of the following:
- He penciled the cover of the comic in which Spider-Man first appeared, Amazing Fantasy #15 (Sept. 1962), though it should be noted that this cover was based on a design by Ditko. Kirby changed the camera angle and took out some background material that (I’m guessing) Lee probably felt made the cover feel too busy. Ditko still inked, and no doubt corrected, Kirby’s pencils here.
- Kirby also penciled the cover to Amazing Spider-Man #1 (Mar. 1963), which, again, Ditko inked and no doubt corrected.
- Kirby penciled and co-plotted the six-page story “Spider-Man Tackles the Torch!” from Amazing Spider-Man #8 (Jan. 1964). This tale is notable for Spidey using his webs to do some wild things he had never done with them before or since, like make bat wings that allowed him to fly. Once again, inked and no doubt corrected by Ditko.
- Kirby penciled the Spidey figure on the cover of Amazing Spider-Man #10 (Mar. 1964), with Ditko penciling the figures of the villains (the Enforcers). A similar situation to the Amazing Fantasy cover, with Lee likely finding the original cover that Ditko had done for the issue too busy. Yet again, the Spidey figure was corrected and inked by Ditko, with Dick Ayers inking the Ditko figures.
- Kirby also did some figure work on the covers to ASM #’s 11 and 35.
The reason I have no doubt that Ditko corrected Kirby’s pencils in all of these instances is because I have never seen a Kirby Spider-Man figure drawn correctly. Every sketch of his that wasn’t fixed by Ditko (or, later, John Romita), you’ll see Kirby never gives Spidey’s mask the proper radial pattern that a spider web should have; it’s always a straight, vertical pattern, like a tic-tac-toe pattern. He could never seem to get the eyes in the mask quite right either, and many times even neglected to put the spider on his chest. Which is another reason why any claim Kirby makes to having created Spider-Man feels so ridiculous—how can you claim to have created the character when you can’t even draw the character?
Moreover, when you simply read the comics, you will quickly get a sense of the artistic styles of both Kirby and Ditko. Having done so myself (many times over), I know Kirby and I know Ditko when I see them. And Spider-Man, along with his supporting characters and his rogues gallery, are all 100% Ditko.
And while we’re on the subject of Sturdy Steve…
I don’t know if Riesman covered Lee’s work with Ditko as much as he did Kirby in his book, but regardless, as long as we’re here we may as well dive into it.
As noted before on this blog, Ditko was a bit of a recluse and a mystery man. For the longest time, he never said much (if anything) about his work with Lee, but he did offer some hints in the later years of his life. Did he feel as cheated by Lee/Marvel as Kirby did? I don’t know that there’s a definitive answer to this one, but what Ditko left behind might point us in certain directions. Circa 1990—possibly in response to the Kirby interview—Ditko drew and published this diagram:
At first glance, the left side (Lee’s side) looks pretty sparse, while the right (Ditko’s side) looks fairly packed, no? But let’s keep in mind that “a one- or two-page synopsis” constitutes a whole lot more than the six words, “a one- or two-page synopsis.” One page is probably around five hundred words of text/instruction, while two pages would likely be more than a thousand. That’s a hell of a lot more than Kirby’s “I’ve never seen Stan Lee write anything.”
There’s also one other thing of note on Lee’s side: the name “Spider-Man.” This would suggest that the name came from Lee; that the project started with him.
And finally, you’ll see at the bottom Ditko poses the question, “Is Marvel’s Spider-Man comic book character a one-man creation? Or a co-creation?” It doesn’t sound like Ditko is seeking sole credit for creating Spider-Man; what he’s seeking is to be acknowledged as the co-creator of the character with equal billing to Stan Lee. This strikes me as perfectly reasonable.
At one point in that Journal interview, Groth says, “At the risk of sounding partisan, let me ask you this: every time I read something by Stan or see Stan speak publicly, I’m struck by how obvious a bullshit artist he is. Was he always that way?”
Yeah, this comes off as just a tad partisan.
Was Lee a hype man? Yes. But his reputation as some kind of a bullshit-artist glory hound is undeserved. If you go back and read those old Soapbox columns, you’ll find that while he does hype Marvel’s wares incessantly, he does not hype himself at all—in fact, he’s usually self-deprecating. And the people he does hype up the most are the artists.
There are also several examples of Lee giving the artists plotting credit. In addition to the times he credited the Kirby books as a “Lee-Kirby Production,” there was also a stretch where Ditko got the plotting credit on ASM. As recounted in my Gwen Stacy novella, Lee told The New York Herald Tribune in 1966 that, “I don’t plot Spider-Man any more. Steve Ditko, the artist, has been doing the stories…. We were arguing so much over plot lines, I told him to start making up his own stories.”
Wally Wood, the artist on some early, classic issues of Daredevil, also disliked working under the Marvel Method and began coming up with plots on his own. When he did this, he received the appropriate plotting credit.
Then there’s the Silver Surfer, who was created solely by Jack Kirby and came as a surprise to Stan Lee when Kirby turned in the art for Fantastic Four #48 (Mar. 1966). How do we know this? Because Stan Lee said so—on numerous occasions. Now if his artists were really doing all the writing and Lee was stealing all the credit, why not steal credit for the Silver Surfer too? Maybe because Lee wasn’t the credit-stealing, bullshitting glory hound he’s so often made out to be?
I feel compelled to note here that Gary Groth himself appeared to have changed his tune regarding Stan Lee as time went on. About twenty years after the Kirby interview, for the 300th issue of The Comics Journal, “A Cartoon Interview with Gary Groth” was published, wherein Groth was asked, “Could you give me the name of one writer in the superhero genre whom you admire?” After some hemming and hawing about how he doesn’t read superhero comics, Groth would ultimately confess, “you know, he may have been a non-entity before and an embarrassing carnival barker after, but Stan Lee, to give the silly son of a bitch his due, injected just the right combination of pathos and ersatz hipness to the comics he collaborated on with Kirby, Ditko et al. between 1964 and 1968, or so.” (The Comics Journal #300, November 2009, p. 20.)
My own biggest problem with Lee was this semantic issue of what the word “creator” meant to him. In that Hollywood Reporter article linked above, Roy Thomas discussed the debate he had with Lee during a lunch they shared sometime in the early 1980s, when Lee argued the same point as he did in that large block of text I quoted above, that the guy who comes up with the idea is the creator. Thomas politely disagreed with this notion and so do I.
I believe Lee’s comparison of film and comics as creative endeavors is fatally flawed. TV and film are recorded mediums, while comics are an illustrated medium. Television and movies all use similar camera equipment (if not the exact same equipment), thus the basic nature and quality of the images are the same. The illustrations in comics are a much bigger—and certainly a far more distinctive—part of the presentation than the video in TV and films. (And if the success of those Image comics of the 1990s is any barometer, the illustrations may be even more important than the writing, at least in commercial terms.)
Even if the two mediums weren’t so different, I would still feel that anytime the “Marvel Method” was being used that the artist get a co-plotting credit. The nature of the process would seem to demand it, at least in my judgment. To Lee’s credit, he did start referring to his artists as his co-creators in the wake of the Kirby art controversy (as we can see in that aforementioned quoted block of text above), and he would continue to do so throughout the rest of his life—at least in every interview I’ve read and seen.
One thing I do firmly believe (that many will disagree with, no doubt) is that the ideas for the comics did indeed start with Lee. I don’t believe that when Marvel first started that Kirby and/or Ditko were pitching features; I believe Lee would be the sole person making such pitches to Martin Goodman. I’m sure Kirby and Ditko discussed new characters and stories with Lee for existing features (nearly all of which were anthologies pre-Marvel), but I don’t see them pitching feature titles. Approval for such things could only come from Goodman and, based on everything I’ve read, the power structure in place was such that Goodman only dealt with Lee regarding such matters.
Now I can already hear the devout members of the Kirby Cult screaming out there, “HOW DO YOU KNOW LEE DIDN’T JUST TAKE KIRBY’S IDEAS TO GOODMAN AND PASS THEM OFF AS HIS OWN? HUH?? HUH???” Well, there’s one rather specific reason that I believe the concepts started with Lee. And it goes all the way back to the very beginning of modern Marvel.
True Origins of the Fantastic Four
Let’s start with a quick and seemingly simple question: Who created the Fantastic Four?
Some would say Jack Kirby. This would be wrong.
Some would say Stan Lee. Also wrong.
Some would say a combination of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby together. Now this has got to be the correct response, right?
Sorry, no. The only correct and true and proper answer to this question is: The Fantastic Four were created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby… and Carl Burgos. Because Carl Burgos is the creator of the Human Torch. Even the most diehard comic fans have a habit of forgetting this fact.
I know, the characters are not exactly the same—the original Human Torch, created by Burgos for Marvel Comics #1 in 1939, was an “android” named Jim Hammond, while the FF’s Torch was a teenager named Johnny Storm who was mutated by cosmic rays. But they were both depicted as young, handsome, blonde-haired guys, and when using their powers, they were drawn as blank male figures of red, with vertical, black hatching lines, surrounded by crackling, yellow flame. Their powers were identical and both were called “the Human Torch.” So the two characters weren’t absolutely the same, but they were mostly the same, with the later Torch clearly derived from the original.
In Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, Sean Howe provided some insight into how Burgos felt about this:
Burgos was also at that time pursuing legal action against Marvel Comics over the Human Torch copyright. Then, one day in the summer of 1966, his daughter, Susan, watched as he destroyed every trace of his Marvel Comics career—which had to that point been hidden away from her. “I never saw his collection until the day he threw it all out. I just happened to be in the backyard this summer day and there was a whole pile of stuff in the yard. I took as many of the comics as I could carry back to my room, like they were some treasure. He came in and demanded that I give him my comics…. I got the impression that he either lost the case or something else had happened pertaining to it.”
Again Burgos withheld details from his daughter, but over the years she learned the source of his ire. “I grew up believing that he came up with this fabulous idea,” she said, “and that Stan Lee took it from him.”
…Allow me to interject for a moment here and point out yet another fact that even the most diehard comic fans (particularly members of the Kirby Cult) have a habit of forgetting: Stan Lee wasn’t taking anything from anyone. Martin Goodman and the later corporate inheritors of Marvel were the ones doing the taking. Stan Lee never enjoyed ownership of anyone else’s work, nor his own work, for that matter.
Howe’s book would go on to reveal:
Burgos quietly registered some copyright claims in 1967 that went nowhere, and then disappeared from Marvel’s radar entirely. In the early 1970s, artist Batton Lash tracked down Burgos and asked the veteran for advice. But Burgos had left comics behind for good, and advised Lash to stay away from that “terrible field” as well, citing his own disappointment over the Human Torch. “If I’d known how much trouble and heartbreak the Torch would bring me,” he told the young artist, “I would never have created him.”
Sean Howe, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2012) pp. 75-76.
The inclusion of the Human Torch (again, a creation of Carl Burgos) in the Fantastic Four also serves as irrefutable proof that the group was not created by Jack Kirby. How can I say this with such confidence? Because there is literally ZERO doubt in my mind that if Kirby had created the team all by himself, there’s no way he’d poach someone else’s character for it. Why would he even need to? He’s Jack-f*cking-Kirby, possessor of the most fertile imagination in the history of the medium; he could spit out a dozen new character ideas and concepts in any given minute of his life. If the FF were strictly his idea, it would have featured all-new characters. Adding the Human Torch to the group was an idea that likely came to Lee after Goodman invoked the Justice League, which itself included several reconfigured heroes from the Golden Age.
The Final Tally
For anyone out there who doesn’t want to take my word for it, the best way to find your own answer to the question of “who did what” is to read the comics. Stan Lee worked on a whole lot of comics in his career, as did Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. Read the ones they did together and read the ones they did separately, then compare them. When you do this, I think you’ll readily recognize what each party brought to the table in their collaborations.
The feet-of-clay characterizations, the real-world problems and difficulties, the continuity, the serial storytelling and soap opera, the humanism and optimism, the humor and snappy patter, these things all came from Stan Lee. We know this because these elements are in every Lee collaboration that took place during these years, whether it was with Kirby, Ditko, Don Heck, Dick Ayers, Larry Lieber, John Romita, Gene Colan, John Buscema, or whomever else. Said elements are also largely missing from the work of Kirby and Ditko without Lee.
Kirby’s work always features his boundless imagination, along with a never-ending parade of fresh and new characters, designs, and concepts. Ditko’s contributions to his work with Lee were very similar. Though Ditko produced far less work (I can’t imagine anyone else matching Kirby’s pace of production), it may have been even more idiosyncratic and unique than Kirby’s—which is really saying something. While I’m sure Kirby would have done a great job on Dr. Strange, for example, I don’t believe anyone could do a wilder, trippier Doc tale than Ditko.
This inventiveness and imagination that Kirby and Ditko both brought to the table are also largely missing from Lee’s work without either of them. With the departure of Kirby and Ditko, there were far less new villains, in particular, popping up in the features they left behind. And what new villains there were did not seem as exciting or captivating. Now was Thor still Thor after Kirby left? The comic wasn’t quite as thrilling or inventive, but the character of Thor himself was still Thor. The same held for Spider-Man when Ditko left—John Romita’s villains weren’t as colorful as Ditko’s, but the characterization of Spidey/Peter Parker did not suffer at all—if anything, the characterization vastly improved.
So once more: who created the Fantastic Four? Again, everything I’ve read and/or seen tells me that the original idea was Stan Lee’s, with Jack Kirby designing and drawing the group and probably adding a few plot elements to that first issue (and adding much more to the plots of later issues). Thus Lee and Kirby are the co-creators of the team, along with Carl Burgos, who deserves the credit for creating the Human Torch.
Who created the Avengers? Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
Who created the X-Men? Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
Who created Thor? Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. (With an assist from Larry Lieber in the first few appearances.)
Who created the Hulk? Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
Who created Captain America? Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.
Who created the Spider-Man? Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.
Who created Dr. Strange? Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. (And you can switch the billing here if you think Ditko came up with the idea for Dr. Strange first, as some evidence would seem to suggest.)
Who created the Silver Surfer? Jack Kirby.
Now don’t get me wrong—if you stacked up those first 101 issues of Fantastic Four, plus the first six annuals, into a pile and asked me who deserves the majority of the credit for producing those comics, I’d say Kirby. How much credit? Well, we’re getting into a rather subjective area here, one where your answer depends on how much you value plotting and art as opposed to characterization and the more general flavor and tone of the stories (along with the dialogue). Personally, I’d give Kirby somewhere between two-thirds to three-quarters of the credit, because he was the guy doing the heavy lifting, the day-to-day grunt work of producing those comics, while Lee was providing more general oversight and direction. And as time went on and the line expanded, I’m sure Lee leaned more and more on Kirby and let him take more of the lead as far as the plots went. And in certain instances, Kirby does deserve 100% of the credit—the Silver Surfer is all his, the Inhumans likely are as well, along with some others.
I would apply the same ratios of credit to all of Lee’s other collaborations with Kirby, along with all of Lee’s collaborations with Ditko as well. As far as the other artists that worked with Lee, the proper credit ratio may be a bit closer to 50/50; I don’t know.
The Wrap Up
I hate that I’ve been put in a position where it might sound like I’m knocking Kirby and/or Ditko, as such is certainly not my intent. It’s just the idea Stan Lee did nothing that really angers me, as this is so clearly untrue to anyone that’s bothered to read the actual comics. No one should ever try to paint it like Lee contributed nothing and just signed his name on someone else’s work—Stan Lee is not Bob Kane, okay?
You can’t do justice to one party by screwing over another party. It is completely unnecessary to take credit away from anyone else in order to do right by Kirby. If we simply give Kirby credit for all the things that we indisputably know that he did, he’s one of the most impactful and influential creators in the history of comics. The only guys who might rank above him would be Siegel and Shuster, since they were the ones that started the genre that would dominate the entire field when they created Superman.
In my view, based on having read the comics, as well piles of interviews and articles and books, I believe things happened pretty much how Lee described it in those old Origins books—but you need to pay attention to exactly what Lee said. As he pointed out in that quote from The Comics Journal, “I have never denied that [the comics] were drawn by the people who drew them.” He also said that his artists added “five million things” (figuratively speaking) to the story when they drew the pages.
In other words, using Spider-Man as an example, Lee never claimed to design Spidey’s costume, nor did he claim to come up with any of Spidey’s other accoutrements. The web shooters, the cartridges on the wrist and belt, that spotlight on the belt, the design feature of half of Peter Parker’s face turning into his Spidey mask when his Spider Sense goes off—these things were all created by Steve Ditko (just as Ditko’s diagram tells us). What Stan Lee came up with was a hero called Spider-Man that would be able to walk on walls; he’d be a teenager in his secret identity, and the kid would be a bit of a shlub and a loser and have all kinds of problems. The iconic line, “with great power there must also come great responsibility,” is also 100% Lee. These things are certainly essential elements of Spider-Man, if not the essential elements of Spider-Man.
Similarly with Thor, just for a Kirby example, Lee came up with the idea of using the ultra-powerful, mythological thunder god as a superhero and juxtaposing this with a mortal identity for the character that would be lame and weak. Kirby then likely added the details of the cane turning into a hammer, how the hammer could create a storm, and Thor whipping the hammer around like an Olympic athlete doing a hammer throw. And naturally, all the visual design was Kirby as well. Which elements were most important? We can all answer this question for ourselves, subjectively, but I think the one point we can all agree upon is that all of these elements mattered to some degree or other.
I think there can also be near-universal agreement that for the first twenty-five years of Marvel’s history, Lee received too much credit for creating the Marvel Universe, while Kirby and Ditko didn’t get enough. Then, for the last thirty years or so, the pendulum has completely swung in the opposite direction, with Kirby and Ditko getting virtually all the credit, while Lee’s contributions have been dismissed almost entirely. Further, for more than three decades now, Lee has been utterly vilified for supposedly doing wrong by Kirby, Ditko, and others. Tony Isabella had a note-perfect response to this in an interview conducted in 2015, so I’m just going to repeat it here verbatim: “It would be terrific if Kirby and Ditko were as well known and had done as well from their Marvel work. But Stan Lee isn’t the reason that hasn’t happened.”
Stan Lee was no villain. On the contrary, he was a very good man. His writing is bursting with humanity, tolerance, hope, and progressive ideals. He made the world a better place through his work. Hopefully the day will soon come when that pendulum stops swinging to such extremes, settles somewhere in the middle, and we can rightly celebrate all three men—Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko—as they each deserve.
3 thoughts on “Who’s the Man?”
Great analysis and very well thought out and presented. Wouldn’t be surprised if that wasn’t almost exactly the way it happened.
Thanks for the kind words, Don. Just recently I came across this article, which was published shortly after “Who’s the Man?”: https://comicbookhistorians.com/stan-lee-co-creator-of-the-marvel-universe-by-alex-grand/
After reading it, I’m beginning to think Stan might deserve even more credit than I gave him here.
Very balanced overview of the “who did what?” controversy. Plenty of details will never be known for sure but there are still plenty of details that can be pieced together. I got Lee’s Origins of Marvel Comics for Christmas the year it was first published and at the time had no reason to doubt Lee’s explanations of how the characters were created. Of course, in later years plenty of reasons to doubt came to light. I wish Lee had been more honest in that book, but he was engaged in mythmaking, including building up his own myth. But then, Lee also helped build the myth of Kirby, and while Kirby wasn’t nearly as eloquent or as canny a huckster as Lee, he built up his own epic image of himself that went beyond reality. The shame is that they both did great work, even on their own, but their best work, IMO, was when they collaborated, and the same with Lee & Ditko. Akin to Lennon & McCartney, they had unique talents that when they came together often brought out their best. I don’t think Marvel would have long survived or become as successful as it became without Lee, Kirby & Ditko all bringing their unique talents and very differing sensibilities to the comics they co-created in Marvel’s early years. That they would ultimately clash and fracture was likely all too inevitable, but they hung together just long enough to build a solid foundation for other creators to take inspiration from and continue building on. At least that’s my take!