Roy: 1 The story has often been told of this infamous, legendary golf game with Martin Goodman and [DC President] Jack Liebowitz in which Liebowitz bragged about the sales of Justice League of America, and Goodman came back and told you to start a super-hero book. Was that story really true?
Stan: That’s absolutely true. He came in to see me one day and said, “I’ve just been playing golf with Jack Liebowitz”—they were pretty friendly—and he said, “Jack was telling me the Justice League is selling very well, and why don’t we do a book about a group of super-heroes?” That’s how we happened to do Fantastic Four.
Mark Alexander: 2 That’s a great story. In any case, it’s entirely false. The legend of Martin Goodman hearing about JLA‘s impressive sales on a golf outing with Jack Liebowitz has been floating around since the mid-1970s. It’s impossible to determine who fabricated the anecdote. The best guess would be that Stan came up with it. In 2002, Lee was still repeating the story as gospel in his autobiography.
Mark Evanier: 3 Mr. Lee has told this story on many occasions. Mr. Leibowitz, when he was interviewed, said he never played golf with Goodman in his entire life.
“I just don’t know why they left”
Stan Lee has gotten tremendous mileage out of playing the injured party in his dealings with Ditko and Kirby. Evidence indicates, however, that he knew precisely how they felt about his treatment of them. Tom Crippen: 4
Meanwhile Stan was having fun, but having fun with other people’s work can be dangerous. He should have recognized that the Surfer was Kirby’s, since Kirby had drawn him up based on no suggestions whatsoever. But Stan was entranced by his own creativity and had to shanghai the Surfer idea for the sake of Norrin Radd. He was grabby, and I would bet he saw no reason not to be grabby. He never figured out why Kirby left. “I don’t know much of what Jack is talking about these days,” he says grimly in 1981, when the art and credit disputes were heating up. “I don’t know what his problem is.” The same for Ditko: “it was all on Steve’s part. I mean, I felt the same, but he got angry.” Yeah, go figure.
In the title of the seventh installment of “A Failure to Communicate,” Mike Gartland asks, “How could he not know?” 5 The answer is simple: Stan Lee couldn’t not know Kirby would leave, having had a role in driving him away. Lee was complicit with Perfect Film & Chemical in establishing himself as The Creator of The Properties, making Kirby’s continued presence an inconvenience at best, a threat at worst. According to Mark Evanier, after Kirby spent months trying to secure a contract (with nary a good word from his longtime collaborator), what was ultimately offered in the way of a contract was an insult. 6
Putting a spin on Kirby’s departure was on Lee and Thomas’s agenda for the Comic Book Artist interview. Lee: 7 “I think [the relationship] certainly could have been salvaged if I knew what was bothering him. He never really told me, nor did Steve Ditko when he left. You can’t salvage something if you don’t know the cause.”
The imminent event seemed to be common knowledge around the Marvel offices as early as 1968. In a story in Not Brand Echh #11, John Verpoorten drew a gag note pinned to the bulletin board next to Kirby’s drawing board. 8 It reads, “All is forgiven,” and is signed Carmine. Roy Thomas is listed as the writer.
Kirby became a casualty of Lee’s ambition, just as Chip Goodman would a couple of years later. Lee also maintains he knew nothing about Ditko’s reasons for leaving, yet according to Ditko, Lee stopped speaking to him when he demanded plotter credit, over a year before he actually left. From Ditko’s essay about why he quit: 9 “Why should I continue to do all these monthly issues, original story ideas, material, for a man who is too scared, too angry over something, to even see, talk to me?”
John Romita revealed that before Ditko quit, Lee intended to replace him on Spider-Man. 10 “Stan asked me to use Spider-Man as a guest star in Daredevil for two issues, number 16 and number 17, I believe, and I put Spider-Man in and drew him as well as I could and it turned out that he was feeling me out as a possible replacement.” Having already taken the plotting pay out of Lee’s pocket for Spider-Man, Ditko’s continued presence might have had a bearing on Kirby’s tolerance for the status quo. In the same way that Kirby would become a threat to the ownership of the properties, Ditko had become a threat to Lee’s arrangement to collect Kirby’s writing pay.
How could Lee not know? It was impossible, since he knowingly drove away Kirby and Ditko. His playing the wronged partner in both cases engendered much rage at the two “ungrateful artists” who abandoned Stan Lee and his Marvel Method.
We weren’t worried about the credit…
The concept of creator/writer/plotter credit is typically given the same treatment as the original art issue. “It wasn’t important back then” may be true of original art, with notable exceptions, but where credit is concerned it doesn’t hold water.
John Romita: 11 Originally nobody thought about plotting credits, except Ditko.
Roy Thomas: 12 They’re really Ditko’s plots, not mine; it’s just the way we did it, and we didn’t question it at the time. Neither did Jack or Ditko. We weren’t worried about the credits, because there wasn’t any money involved. It’s only later you begin to say, “Hey, why didn’t I take credit for this or that? Why didn’t I put my name down as plotter?”
Romita and Thomas misapply the experience of their time at Marvel to earlier events. They profess knowledge regarding the motivations of the three principals, but produce only hearsay. Credit was vitally important to Kirby, Ditko and Lee in the early ’60s: one man went to extreme efforts to appropriate that which didn’t belong to him, and the other two ultimately left their jobs over it.
Thomas’s remark that “there wasn’t any money involved” suggests either that he was complicit in Lee’s system, or unaware of the way it really worked; for Stan Lee, credit was money. If Lee’s assistants, including Thomas, Romita and Goldberg, were fed a constant diet of misinformation, it would explain statements like, “I know Jack was getting detailed outlines even when they started doing The Fantastic Four” (Goldberg); “I figured with Jack as the artist—and maybe Ditko, too—in these minor stories that you mostly wrote, along with Larry Lieber, you must have been doing [the Marvel style] since the monster days” (Thomas); and “[Kirby and Lee’s plotting sessions] were the same as my plotting sessions and the same as Gene Colan’s and Herb Trimpe’s and John Buscema” (Romita).
The Great American Novel
In Origins, Stan Lee described the original motivation for his pseudonym: 13
Myself when born was christened Stanley Martin Lieber—truly an appellation to conjure with… So happy was I being S.M.L., and so certain that I would one day write the great American novel, or the great American motion picture, and so young and witless was I at the time I started writing comics, that I felt I couldn’t sully so proud a name on books for little kiddies.
Lee claims he always intended to leave comics and become a writer of serious literature, and he happened to rub shoulders at the office with a number of people who lived this reality. Bruce Jay Friedman edited fiction magazines for Martin Goodman, and wrote fiction in his spare time. Eventually he left his position at Magazine Management (Goodman gave him an elaborate going-away party), and became a highly successful author. Mickey Spillane, Mario Puzo and Martin Cruz Smith followed the same career path.
Lee himself didn’t make the transition. He continued to write for an audience he described as “drooling juveniles and semicretins.” 14 In 1961, it all changed, as the Lee version has it: Joan Lee told her husband to “write stories that you yourself would enjoy reading.” Lee, concluding that he was above the reading ability of his existing audience, says he then began writing to his own level. His assertion is belied by the fact that throughout the decade, he was editing the greater meaning out of Kirby’s stories, and turning the strong female characters into damsels in distress and submissive housewives. What really happened to change it all in 1961 was Lee hitching his wagon to Jack Kirby.
Lee fomented his own novel throughout the ’60s, What I Did (with help from some artists under my direction). It would never be published, but it was at his fingertips for interviews, and excerpts in the Origins books. He began by establishing a narrative in the Letters of Comment pages… fictitious letters at first (signed S. Brodsky and S. Goldberg), then fictitious responses to real letters. First he planted the germ of the idea that Marvel readers were a cut above average intellectually, a mantra that will be chanted by his acolytes into their sixties.
Fantastic Four #3 LOC page, March 1962 [cover date]
Are you the same one who also puts out STRANGE TALES, TALES TO ASTONISH, JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY, TALES OF SUSPENSE, AMAZING ADULT FANTASY, and a lot of Westerns like KID COLT, OUTLAW, and teen_age titles like, PATSY WALKER? If so, how do you do it?
S. Brodsky, Brooklyn, New York
With great difficulty!
P.S. – We’ve just noticed something… unlike many other collections of letters in different mags, our fans all seem to write well, and intelligently. We assume this denotes that our readers are a cut above average, and that’s the way we like ’em!
Then he laid claim to the innovation of squabbling teammates (easy since none of his readers are old enough to have experienced the Newsboy Legion). Throw in the suggestion that it will take intelligent readers to appreciate it…
Fantastic Four #4 LOC page, May 1962
Are you kidding?? What kind of super-characters are these? They’re always fighting among themselves! They have the same jealousies and personality clashes as real people! Have you flipped your lids?? Do you think comic mag readers are intelligent enough to appreciate all that good writing jazz?? If you want my opinion – you’re darn right!
S. Goldberg, Forest Hills, New York
Too many letter writers seemed to wonder if maybe Kirby was doing the writing, so let’s institute those credits, not to be forthright regarding the breakdown of work, but to have Lee on record as writer.
Hulk #5 LOC page, January 1963
Regarding the art work, Lee, here’s what happened. Jack Kirby draws the strips in pencil and Dick Ayers usually inks them. But Dick was busy inking another strip at the same time as the second ish of the HULK came due, so Steve Ditko helped out by inking that one. To save any future confusion, you have probably noticed that we are starting to name the writer, the artist, and inker (when there IS a separate inker) of all our feature strips from now on. Hope you fans like the idea.
Fantastic Four #11 LOC page, February 1963
Dear Stan and Jack:
Do you mind telling us who wrote the story for FF #8? It was probably the greatest one we’ve ever seen.
James Barnhill & Larry Berry
Thanks, guys. But you must be the only two readers left who don’t know that Stan Lee writes the stories and Jack Kirby draws them.
The mastermind behind the Marvel Method, which he established to keep his stable of “artists” busy, hasn’t received the next issue’s pages yet from Kirby… Oops, I mean hasn’t thought up a plot for the next issue.
Fantastic Four #23 LOC page, February 1964
Can we level with you? We can’t tell you what the next FF will be because we haven’t decided on a plot yet. So we won’t say “Don’t miss the greatest, most thrilling, etc. etc.” All we’ll say is – we’ve got to dream up a story in the next couple of days, and have it drawn pronto if we wanna make out deadline! So to find out if we succeeded, and how well we succeeded, don’t miss FF #24, on sale around the beginning of December.
Avengers #5 LOC page, May 1964
That’s it for this ish! See you when we present AVENGERS #6! Can’t tell you what the plot is because it’s loaded with surprises, but with Stan writing it, and Jack drawing it, we sort of suspect it will be worth watching for!
Wood begins plotting Daredevil with #5, and Lee gives battle, attacking Wood on the letters page. First he lays the groundwork for explaining any confusion that arises because the copy writer doesn’t understand the plot…
Daredevil #6 LOC page, February 1965
Now before we close, one of the guys in the bullpen gave Stan an idea for a new D.D. story. The plot is so complicated, so off-beat, so utterly impossible to make any sense out of, that Stan immediately decided to adapt it for a script! So, if you want to see either the greatest magazine saga of the century, or the biggest fizzle Marvel’s ever come up with, don’t miss D.D. #7!
Wood quits writing for free, and Lee slags him to the readers. At the same time, he appeals to the audience for insight into understanding Wood’s plots.
Daredevil #10 LOC page, October 1965
Well, if you’ve ever seen a more complicated, mixed-up, madcap mystery yarn than this one, you’ve got US beat a mile! And now, here’s the payoff—Wonderful Wally decided he doesn’t have time to write the conclusion next ish, and he’s forgotten most of the answers we’ll be needing! So, Sorrowful Stan has inherited the job of tying the whole yarn together and finding a way to make it all come out in the wash! And you think you’ve got troubles!
Daredevil #11 LOC page, December 1965
Well, that finally wraps that up! If you understand what these last two ishes were all about, clue us in sometime!
His appeal is answered… a young reader comes to the rescue. Huh, the “writer” doesn’t even remember leaving that clue. To top it off, let’s get one last dig at Wood.
Daredevil #12 LOC page, January 1966
Dear Stan, [it had been “Dear Stan and Wally” up to #10]
If Mr. Jonas isn’t the Organizer, I’ll eat this issue of DAREDEVIL.
It’s a funny thing, Dave—literally hundreds of our fantastic fans discovered the Organizer’s identity—but you’re the only one so far who figured it out because Jonas introduced Deb! We didn’t even realize we had left that particular clue in the yarn! So, we’re printing your letter first, because you did it the hard way, lad!
Glad you liked Wally’s story, but we’ll let you in on a little secret—Stan the Man couldn’t keep his hands off the script, and when Our Leader got through editing it, about the only thing left that Wally himself had written was his name!
It’s not about the credit, it’s about the money.
Daredevil #8 LOC page, June 1965
Credit! Credit! Everyone’s always giving us credit! When’s someone going to ante up a little cash around here?
When Perfect Film & Chemical needed Lee to provide a narrative minimizing Kirby’s involvement in property creation, the elaborate groundwork was already in place. He had prepped the “witnesses,” Bails, Goldberg, Lieber, Thomas and Romita among others: they thought they were attesting to the accuracy of his accounts with their second-hand knowledge, but the great American novel they were endorsing was What Stan Said. Lee’s original motivation for building a parallel history had been his need to rationalize the writing credit and accompanying pay, but in the end, just a single critical detail needed to be added for it to perfectly suit the company’s purposes: the claim of “my idea.”
The artist who created…
From books on how to draw “the Marvel way” to court documents sporting shoddy research by judges to a CNN blog trumpeting a book by his daughter, Stan Lee is known as “the artist who created…” followed by a list of Marvel’s most precious properties. In “Digging Ditko, Part 3,” 15 Stephen Bissette drew a comparison between Marvel and the Disney of Richard Schickel’s The Disney Version. Here’s a bit from page 33 of Schickel’s book: 16
Among unsophisticated people there was a common misapprehension that Disney continued to draw at least the important sequences in his animated films, his comic strips, his illustrated books. Although his studio often stressed in its publicity the numbers of people it employed and the beauties of their teamwork, some very unsophisticated people thought he did everything himself—an interesting example of the persistence of a particularly treasured illusion and of the corporation’s ability to keep it alive even while denying it.
These days, Disney similarly keeps the Tale of Stan Lee alive. In Lee’s case they don’t take the trouble to deny it.
Repetition of citations allows linking back to individual quotes.
back 1 “Stan the Man & Roy the Boy,” A Conversation Between Stan Lee and Roy Thomas, Comic Book Artist #2, Summer 1998.
back 2 Mark Alexander, “The Wonder Years,” The Jack Kirby Collector 58, December 2011.
back 3 Mark Evanier deposition, 9 November 2010, Justia, Dockets & Filings, Second Circuit, New York, New York Southern District Court, Marvel Worldwide, Inc. et al v. Kirby et al, Filing 65, Exhibit 8.
back 4 Tom Crippen, “Stan,” The Hooded Utilitarian, 30 September 2008 (originally ran in The Comics Journal, February 2008).
back 5 Mike Gartland, “A Failure to Communicate: Part 7, How could he not know?” The Jack Kirby Collector #36, Summer 2002. Posted on The Kirby Effect: The Journal of the Jack Kirby Museum & Research Center.
back 6 Mark Evanier, Kirby: King of Comics, Harry N. Abrams, Inc. New York, NY, 2008.
back 7 “Stan the Man & Roy the Boy,” A Conversation Between Stan Lee and Roy Thomas, Comic Book Artist #2, Summer 1998.
back 8 “Auntie Goose Rhymes,” written by Roy Thomas, drawn by John Verpoorten, Not Brand Ecch #11, December 1968.
back 9 Steve Ditko, “Essay #45: Why I Quit S-M, Marvel,” The Four-Page Series #9, September 2015. Published and © by Robin Snyder and Steve Ditko.
back 10 John Romita deposition, 21 October 2010, Justia, Dockets & Filings, Second Circuit, New York, New York Southern District Court, Marvel Worldwide, Inc. et al v. Kirby et al, Filing 65, Exhibit 2, and Filing 102, Exhibit F.
back 11 John Romita interviewed by Jon Cooke, Comic Book Artist #6, Fall 1999.
back 12 Roy Thomas interviewed by Jim Amash, conducted by phone in September 1997, published The Jack Kirby Collector #18, January 1998.
back 13 Stan Lee, Origins of Marvel Comics, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1974.
back 14 Stan Lee, “How I Invented Spider-Man,” Quest Magazine, July/August 1977.
back 15 Stephen Bissette, “Digging Ditko, Part 3,” SRBissette.com, September 14th, 2012.
back 16 Richard Schickel, The Disney Version, Elephant Paperbacks, © 1968, 1985, 1997.
© 2015, Michael Hill