THE NEVERENDING BATTLE: Lee Vs. Kirby And The Creation Of Marvel

Copyright 1989 Scott Anderson. Via The Beat

You’ll hear a lot of heated debates in the comic shop. Normally, they are light-hearted discussions: Who is stronger–the Hulk or Superman? Who was the best Batman artist? What is the best era for the X-Men.

But if you walk into a comic shop and hear the fans inside arguing about Stan Lee versus Jack Kirby, turn around and immediately leave, because whenever that topic comes up, it is not a pleasant discussion, It is all-out war. And there is no quarter given, no middle ground to be had.

Expect an uptick in those types of Lee/Kirby arguments as a new documentary, Stan Lee, has kicked that proverbial hornet’s nest and started the debate anew.

What is the debate and why is it so contentious? Well, in a gross oversimplification, the debate is to who deserves the modern era of Marvel Comics–Stan Lee or Jack Kirby (and Steve Ditko as well, but he essentially placed himself on the sidelines of the credits controversy). Both men have claimed credit for the doing the lion’s share of the work creating the comics that changed the pop culture landscape forever. Fans have spent decades picking sides. And while each side thinks that their guy is the true creator of the Fantastic Four, X-Men and Spider-Man, the issue is far from settled.

The Documentary

If you are a long-time comic book fan, there is nothing new relayed in the Stan Lee documentary.  However, it is being housed on Disney+, where the movies that new generations of fans came to know Stan Lee as the adorable old man who called Robert Downey, Jr “Tony Stank” have a home. And since it provides only Stan’s view on his creation of Marvel Comics, it means that the contributions of his various artists are given the short shrift. Future generations will only know Stan Lee as the sole creative genius behind main characters of their favorite movies.

This is, of course, neither true nor fair. If all Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko did was draw the stories Stan wrote, they would be an undeniable and indelible part of the success of Marvel. But both men, and all Marvel artists, really, had a part in the plotting of the issues.

However, just having Kirby and Ditko be co-plotters on the classic Marvel books isn’t enough. If you are Team Kirby, you are of the mind that Kirby did all the work and Stan Lee was just a charlatan who took credit for something he had nothing to do with.

Enter Neal Kirby.

Neal Kirby’s Response

Neal Kirby is Jack Kirby’s son. Back in 2009, he and his siblings sued Marvel to wrestle his father’s creations from the company. The suit was settled out of court in 2014 after the family lost a number of appeals but before the case could be heard by the Supreme Court. The rights are still retained by Marvel and the settlement to the Kirby’s was rumored to be in the six-figures.

Neal Kirby released a statement about the documentary through his daughter’s Twitter, a three-page diatribe dripping with sarcasm and righteous anger. Here it is, in its entirety, courtesy of Bleeding Cool:

The 13th-century Islamic poet/scholar Rumi said, “The Ego is a veil between humans and God.” In the Disney+ documentary bio of Stan Lee, the veil is lifted. Presented in the first person with Lee’s voice providing a running narrative, it is Stan Lee’s greatest tribute to himself. The literary expression of ego is the personal pronoun “I.” Any decent English or Journalism teacher would admonish their students not to overuse it. So, the challenge is extended to anyone who wishes to count the number of “I’s” during the 86-minute running time of Stan Lee.

I (ooops!) understand that, as a “documentary about Stan Lee,” most of the narrative is in his voice, literally and figuratively. It’s not any big secret that there has always been controversy over the parts that were played in the creation and success of Marvel’s characters. Stan Lee had the fortunate circumstance to have access to the corporate megaphone and media, and he used these to create his own mythos as to the creation of the Marvel character pantheon. He made himself the voice of Marvel. So, for several decades he was the “only” man standing, and blessed with a long life, the last man standing (my father died in 1994). It should also be noted and is generally accepted that Stan Lee had a limited knowledge of history, mythology, or science.

On the other hand, my father’s knowledge of these subjects, to which I and many others can personally attest, was extensive. Einstein summed it up better; “More the knowledge, lesser the ego. Lesser the knowledge, more the ego.”

If you were to look at a list and timeline of Marvel’s characters from 1960 through 1966, the period in which the vast majority of Marvel’s major characters were created during Lee’s tenure, you will see Lee’s name as a co-creator on every character, with the exception of the Silver Surfer, solely created by my father. Are we to assume Lee had a hand in creating every Marvel character? Are we to assume that the other co-creator never walked into Lee’s office and said, “Stan, I have a great idea for a character!” According to Lee, it was always his idea. Lee spends a fair amount of time talking about how and why he created the Fantastic Four, with only one fleeting reference to my father. Indeed, most comics historians recognize that my father based the Fantastic Four on a 1957 comic he created for DC, “Challengers of the Unknown,” even naming Ben Grimm (The Thing) after his father Benjamin, and Sue Storm after my older sister Susan.

Though the conflict between Lee and my father concerning creator credit gets glanced over with little mention, there is more attention paid to the strife between Lee and Steve Ditko, with Lee’s voice proclaiming, “It was my idea, therefore I created the character,” Ditko’s rebuttal being that his art and storyline is what brought life to Spiderman. In 1501, the Opera del Duomo commissioned a 26-year-old Michelangelo to sculpt a statue of David for the Cathedral of Florence – their idea, their money. The statue is called Michelangelo’s David – his genius, his vision, his creativity.

I was very fortunate. My father worked at home in his Long Island basement studio we referred to as “The Dungeon,” usually 14 – 16 hours a day, seven days a week. Most of the artists, writers, inkers, etc. worked at home, not in the Marvel offices as depicted in the program. Through middle and high school, I was able to stand at my father’s left shoulder, peer through a cloud of cigar smoke, and witness the Marvel Universe being created. I am by no means a comics historian, but there are few, if any, that have personally seen or experienced what I have, and know the truth with first-hand knowledge.

My father retired from comic books in the early 1980s and of course, passed away in 1994. Lee had over 35 years of uncontested publicity, much naturally, with the backing and blessing of Marvel as he boosted the Marvel brand as a side effect of boosting himself. The decades of Lee’s self-promotion culminated with his cameo appearances in over 35 Marvel films starting with “X-Men” in 2000, thus cementing his status as the creator of all things Marvel to an otherwise unknowing movie audience of millions, unfamiliar with the true history of Marvel comics. My father’s first screen credit didn’t appear until the closing crawl at the end of the film adaptation of Iron Man in 2008, after Stan Lee, Don Heck, and Larry Lieber. The battle for creator’s rights has been around since the first inscribed Babylonian tablet. It’s way past time to at least get this one chapter of literary/art history right. ‘Nuff said.

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby back in 1975, along with comic book legends Gil Kane, Jim Steranko, Wil Eisner and Jerry Siegel.

You would have to expect that Jack Kirby’s son would unabashedly be on Team Kirby. But his response above is a perfect example of the way this war has been fought over the decades. It is not enough to raise Jack Kirby up; you must tear Stan Lee down. It’s not enough to fight for the credit Kirby deserves, Kirby should get all the credit. Jack Kirby was an unmitigated genius; Stan Lee was an egotistical moron.

If Neal put out a simple statement saying how upset he was with the documentary and reiterating the contributions his father made, this statement would have sat better with me (It would have also been much shorter, but still).  But there are several points in Neal’s rebuttal that does not sit well with me.

  1. “Are we to assume Lee had a hand in creating every Marvel character?” Are we to assume that your father drew 80% of Marvel’s output at the same time, an average of 115-130 pages of artwork a month? That is how much Jack Kirby’s name appeared on Marvel’s titles around the time Fantastic Four #1 was released.
    For the record, I do believe that Kirby created all that artwork. His work ethic was out of this world. Jack Kirby was a child of the Great Depression. Like many of his generation, he started in comics young and became a breadwinner for his family. The more work he did, the more money came in and the more financially secure his family would become. This conditioning didn’t go away when the Depression was over.
    However, Stan Lee was also a child of the Great Depression. Couldn’t he not have a similar work ethic to Jack Kirby? Of course not. That would be ascribing a positive attribute to Lee, something Team Kirby would never do.
    What I am saying is that by using this question to argue his point, that Lee wasn’t good enough or a hard enough worker, to create the Marvel Universe by himself, it reflects badly on Neal and his argument. It works if you buy into the demonization of Stan Lee. But making Lee look bad to make Jack look good is not far away from what they are accusing Stan of doing,
  2. “Indeed, most comics historians recognize that my father based the Fantastic Four on a 1957 comic he created for DC, “Challengers of the Unknown,” even naming Ben Grimm (The Thing) after his father Benjamin, and Sue Storm after my older sister Susan.” Well, that settles that. Let’s hand all of Marvel over to the Kirbys and all get together to pee on Stan Lee’s grave.
    I was one of the comics historians that pointed out the similarities between Challengers of the Unknown and Fantastic Four. I also said that while there were similarities, the differences added to the FF made it a better property. The Challengers of the Unknown don’t have three films to their name. They’ve never starred in cartoons. Did Jack add those differences? Did Stan? No one really knows. But that isn’t important to Neal’s narrative. We are to assume Kirby made those updates all by himself.
    You can say that Jack Kirby ripping himself off is all the proof you need to know Jack Kirby created everything all by himself. The fact that the characters are named after Kirby’s family members only adds more fuel to the fire. The damming proof that Stan Lee did absolutely nothing at all in creating the characters. Or, Stan could have asked Jack if he had any ideas on what to name the characters. That is likely as well. All Neal offers is logical fallacies to prove that his father was the sole creator of the Marvel characters. Speaking of fallacies…
  3. “I am by no means a comics historian, but there are few, if any, that have personally seen or experienced what I have, and know the truth with first-hand knowledge.” Statements like these are why arguments on either side are not very effective. This is the classic logical fallacy, “Appeal to Authority.” “I know because I was there so you must believe me.”
    Neal Kirby was born in 1948. Meaning, he was 12 or 13 when the Fantastic Four were created. Is it possible that Jack Kirby opened up to his 12-year-old son that he and he alone was creating the FF? I guess it could be. But it is far more likely that he didn’t.

This is main problem with picking sides. The argument always boils down to a he said/he said argument, Neal Kirby thinks that him saying he was there when his father created all of these characters adds an air of believability to Team Kirby’s claims. But it is another “he said” added to the pile.

The Straw That Broke Jack Kirby’s Back

Sunday, January 9, 1966. That’s the day Nat Freeland’s article on Marvel Comics ran in the New York Herald Tribune. If I had to pick the inciting incident in the war between Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the moment where the partnership broke down and fell irreparably apart it is that.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the article, this is the story. Freeland wanted to do an article on Marvel Comics. During this period, the company was experiencing a weird sort of popularity. Their comics were becoming popular on colleges. Italian film director Federico Fellini visited the Marvel offices the year before. Marvel Comics had become hip, a small part of the Pop Art Movement of the time (for a brief period in 1965, Marvel placed a “Pop Art Productions” logo on the covers of its books.

Marvel Comics became a trendy topic for feature articles at the time. Esquire would do a feature on them later on in 1966, Rolling Stone did one in 1971, and articles on Marvel appeared in various magazines and newspapers of the time period. So, Freeland was on to something about wanting to do an article on Marvel. And Stan Lee, never one to let a publicity opportunity get away, gave Freeland free access to Marvel’s offices.

Jack Kirby by Dylan Horrocks

More than that, Lee arranged a special treat for Freeland. He’d allow him to sit in on a creative session between him and Jack Kirby. Supposedly it was for an upcoming issue of Fantastic Four, but Kirby claimed it was staged for Freeland. Regardless, the scene was set. Stan Lee acted out all the parts of the story with his usual brio, leaping around, throwing phantom punches. Jack Kirby on the other hand sat quietly and took notes, his only contribution was the occasional “Great” or “Uh-huh.”

Freeland reported what he thought he saw. To his eyes, Lee was the creative genius, the well where all the Marvel magic sprung. Kirby was the rather lackluster worker bee who tried the best he could to translate Lee brilliance into pictures. Freeland compared Kirby to an “assistant foreman in a girdle factory.” Freeland didn’t know it, but he was providing ammunition that would inspire fans to have to pick sides for decades to come. He created the myth of Stan Lee as brilliant sole creator of the Marvel Universe. Jack Kirby was the boring employee who had nothing to offer that translating Stan’s genius into art.

Kirby was understandably hurt and upset by the article. So much so that he called Lee the morning that the newspaper was published. The only thing it appears Lee did in response is not crow about the article to his readers in his “Stan’s Soapbox” column which ran in all Marvel comics.

This provides us with a What If? moment. Unlike the animated Disney+ show, the comic book version show what would happen if one tiny decision or action was different and how history would be changed because of it. It’s an interesting exercise to think about here.

What if Stan Lee wrote a sternly worded letter to the Herald Tribune, singing Jack Kirby’s praises and laying out all his contributions to the Marvel Universe. Barring that, what if Stan used “Stan’s Soapbox” for the same purpose? Or what if Jack decided to be more animated and help Stan act out the scenarios. Or, since that wasn’t really his nature, provide a calm contrast to Stan’s exuberance. Instead of just offering monosyllabic comments he made real suggestions. He could have been seen as the yin to Lee’s yang and be recognized for having more input into the creative process.

Maybe then Kirby wouldn’t have left for DC in 1970. Maybe when Lee was moved up to publisher, he would have made Kirby editor-in-chief instead of Roy Thomas. Maybe the years and years of acrimony would have never happened and both men would have shared in Marvel’s success.

But that didn’t happen. What happened, happened. And that article started the war that we are still talking about today.

What Really Happened?

No one will ever truly know what the truth was. Both Jack Kirby and Stan Lee are dead. The statements they made while alive are not reliable. Whether through ego, an obligation to promote the comic book medium, or loyalty to his employer, Stan Lee sold the narrative that he was the sole creator of all of Marvel’s characters. He created entertaining stories about how he came up with each hero or team. He was both telling people what they wanted to hear and what made him look the best. And since he was the one doing the interviews and college lectures his story was the one that got the most weight. His version became the truth to a lot of people in the real world.

Kirby made his claim of being the sole creator of all the Marvel Comics as early as the 1970s, but it was an incendiary 1990 interview with Gary Groth of The Comics Journal that lit a fire underneath that controversy.  “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.”

Image via Marvel Comics

This is strong and emphatic language. Taken at face value, you couldn’t be faulted for believing Kirby hook line and sinker. However, Kirby’s word in the interview should be taken in context. At the time, Jack Kirby had just come off a long 10-year battle to get his 1960s artwork from Marvel. He tried to tie getting full credit of being creator of the Marvel characters into getting his artwork back but that ploy failed. He got his artwork back but had to admit Stan Lee deserved credit as well. So, it was a bitter, tired Jack Kirby who gave that interview to a ramble rousing anti-Marvel comics journalist. That should be taken into consideration with the claims made in the interview.

Too many people on either side of the argument take what Lee or Kirby said at face value and base their position on that. As always, the truth most likely lies somewhere between.

Lee worked it what became known as the “Marvel Method.” This method involved him giving a bare boned plot to his artists for them to illustrate anyway they saw fit.

The problem lies in the fact there is no paper trail on how Lee worked in this method. The plots were usually given verbally. Nothing written down, nothing recorded. Could he have given Kirby only one sentence of a plot to work with? A paragraph? Just tell him to make up something on his own? Yes, yes and yes. All these variants are possible, and much more.

As a matter of fact, it is likely all of those examples happened. One story arc might have had Stan give Jack detailed instructions on what to draw. Another story he might have told Jack to come up with aliens for the FF to fight and Jack came up with Galactus and Silver Surfer. Or he might have been too busy write anything that month and let Jack run on his own.

However, Lee also provided the dialogue for all the books, which helped form the personalities of the Marvel characters. Lee’s dialogue is what helped make the characters great and different from the rest of the market. Mirroring what I said earlier about Kirby, if the dialogue was the only thing Lee added to the creative process, he deserves a whole lot of credit for Marvel’s success. But Stan Lee, in his role as editor, would also make Jack make corrections to the artwork when he saw fit and change the plot Jack came up with if he thought it wasn’t right.

This is the version of the partnership I subscribe to. I believe who did what might vary from story to story, but I believe that while Jack did a majority of the work, Stan made valuable contributions as well. Because collaboration is how I think the Marvel Universe was born.

The idea that Stan Lee or Jack Kirby deserves the sole credit for creating the Marvel Universe just doesn’t make sense. The idea that Stan Lee created every character in every book without help is nigh impossible. The claim Jack Kirby came is as Atlas/Marvel were selling of its office furniture, was given the reigns of every title published, and turned the company’s fortunes around all by himself is absurd. Marvel’s success being the product of the collaboration of both men (and others) is far more believable.

Closing

I don’t want to come off as a Stan Lee apologist. He took advantage of being Marvel’s figurehead to paint himself as the creative genius behind Marvel at the expense of the contributions of Kirby and others. Team Kirby wants us to demonize for this while Kirby does the same thing himself.

Kirby has taken credit for creating Spider-Man back when he was alive, and his heirs have continued to make that claim. However, many of those “comics historians” Neal Kirby mentioned know that while Kirby came up with a concept for Spider-Man that was a hybrid of Shazam! and Archie’s The Fly, it was rejected and nothing of note survived into the final version. Kirby and his airs continual claims to Spider-Man might be worse than what Lee did to Kirby. Lee at least had something to do with the final product. Kirby didn’t. And it is an insult to Steve Ditko that they keep insisting that Kirby should get credit for Spider-Man. It also makes it hard to buy into Kirby as the victim who is taken advantage of when they are so quick to take credit away from Ditko.

I’m just pointing this out to show that the matter is far more complex than either side makes it out to be. Logically, it is very likely that both men played a role in creating these heroes.  But since each side is entrenched in promoting their hero above the other, they aren’t willing to open their minds to that possibility. And that means the battle will never end.

Avatar für Bill Gatevackes
About Bill Gatevackes 2040 Articles
William is cursed with the shared love of comic books and of films. Luckily, this is a great time for him to be alive. His writing has been featured on Broken Frontier.com, PopMatters.com and in Comics Foundry magazine.
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments