We don’t know. We weren’t there.
No one was there to witness the inception of the Marvel Universe but Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Oh, and Roz, Susan, Neal, Barbara, and Lisa, since Kirby worked from his home. A quarter century after Kirby’s most famous telling of his version of events, the question that needs to be asked is how is it that Stan Lee’s version was awarded the status of historical fact? Charles Hatfield in Hand of Fire: 1
It would be an exaggeration to credit Kirby with full authorship of his work at Marvel… Lee’s presence was sustaining, generative, and overwhelming; his verbal swagger and editorial cunning were definitive to Marvel, and documentary evidence suggests he was, early on, both Kirby’s guide and active collaborator in envisioning such properties as The Fantastic Four.
Hatfield’s take is one variation on the nearly universally-accepted doctrine regarding the Kirby/Lee relationship during the late ’50s and early ’60s. Even Kirby-centric historical narratives begin with the assumption that Lee fed Kirby ideas and plots during the formative years, and that Kirby’s claims of authorship are not to be taken seriously. Hatfield: 2
…in a sometimes-volcanic interview given to The Comics Journal in 1989, Kirby… disputed Lee’s share of creative contribution to the early Marvels, claiming sole authorship… “I used to write the stories just like I always did,” he said.
Hatfield cites what he calls “documentary evidence,” the Fantastic Four plot synopses, to prove the Accepted Version. He disputes Kirby’s version by saying, “Lee explicitly denied all this,” and quotes Groth saying, “most observers and historians consider Kirby’s claims to be excessive.” Hatfield qualifies the proof using the words “seemingly,” “reportedly,” and “under what circumstances and at precisely what stage remains unclear.”
In a recent Kirby Collector, John Morrow endorsed Lee’s version of events: 3 “In the early days before Jack started adding heavy margin notes for Stan, Lee was presumably providing scripts to Jack, and Kirby would leave blank areas for Stan’s dialogue.”
The Accepted Version is so thoroughly supported that even a lauded work of Kirby scholarship and a long-running Kirby publication embrace Lee’s version and dispute Kirby’s. Jack Kirby spoke very clearly on all of these issues. When asked specifically about Lee’s first-issue synopsis, he said, “I’ve never seen it, and of course I would say that’s an outright lie.” 4 He denied ever working from a Lee script.
Today, Lee’s creator credit for anything and everything is ubiquitous. Stan Lee and Marvel are synonymous, and reference to his creation of the characters is automatic. The recent settlement between Marvel and the Kirby family calls Jack a co-creator, a condition under which the truth of the matter is unlikely to come to light. In 2015, Lee and Roy Thomas continue to spread the Accepted Version. 5 They might be required to call Kirby co-creator, but they don’t let that interfere with them sticking to their story, and Thomas calls dissenters “crazy.” (There are cracks in the dam, however: shortly after Lee and Thomas appeared in print together, Marvel Executive Editor Tom Brevoort revealed a character creation scenario that blatantly contradicted Lee’s sworn testimony.)
How did we get here?
After their 1968 purchase of Marvel, it would have been in the interests of Perfect Film & Chemical to minimize the contributions of a freelance creator. It was particularly important in Kirby’s case because Marvel had no contract, not even a paycheck, to document his working relationship with the company.
In 1974, Lee’s Origins of Marvel Comics 6 committed Marvel’s authorized version of events to book form.
On numerous occasions in the ’70s and ’80s, Kirby spoke frankly describing his creative contributions (see the “Interviews” post). Rather than being permitted to set the record straight, he was attacked. Special acrimony was reserved for his 1989 interview, despite the fact that Kirby had made the same claims in many interviews for over twenty years.
In 2010, Lee was deposed in the suit brought by Marvel against the Kirby family. He testified that the Origins creation stories were not truthful, that any representation of Kirby participating in the creation of copyrighted characters and plots was only included to make Kirby feel good when he read the Origins book. One by one, Lee explicitly claimed sole credit for the creation of Spider-Man, the Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, Daredevil, the X-Men, Nick Fury, the Avengers, Ant-Man/Giant Man, and the Rawhide Kid; even though he couldn’t claim he created the Silver Surfer, he had the seemingly more important “responsibility” of making him a “separate character.” He also revealed that he was paid by the page for writing Kirby’s stories. 7
|1963||Steve created Doctor Strange.|
|1966||Jack created the Surfer.|
|1968||Jack created Ego… he needed no plot at all.||I created the Inhumans.|
|1969||I created the Hulk, too, and saw him as a kind of handsome Frankenstein.|
|1970||I was faced with the frustration of having to come up with new ideas and then having them taken from me.|
|1971||I’d tell Stan Lee what the next story was going to be, and I’d go home and do it. I created the Silver Surfer, Galactus and an army of other characters, and now my connection with them is lost.|
|1974||I must have gone through a dozen pencils and a thousand sheets of paper in the days that followed… But I kept coming back to the same ludicrous idea: the only way to top the others would be with Super-God. I created the FF, the Hulk, Spider-Man, Thor, Doctor Strange.|
|1982||The ideas were cooked up by me!|
|1986||All the concepts were mine.||I wrote the script and I drew the story.|
|1987||The Marvel outfit will give credit to nobody except Stanley, see?|
|1989||I wrote everything I did. When I went back to Marvel, I began to create the new stuff.|
|1990||I wrote the complete story. I drew the complete story.|
|1998||Jack tended toward hyperbole.|
|2010||I tried to write them to make it look as if he and I were just doing everything together, to make him feel good. I created Spider-Man, the Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, Daredevil, the X-Men, Nick Fury, the Avengers, Ant-Man/Giant Man, and the Rawhide Kid.|
We’ve lost sight of what we once knew about Stan Lee. Mid- and late-1960s satirical swipes in Sick magazine and DC’s Angel and the Ape presaged Kirby’s own Funky Flashman, painting Lee as the guy who signed his name to other people’s work. In the early ’60s he confided to Jerry Bails that Doctor Strange was Ditko’s creation (he later recanted in Origins). In 1986, Bails was under no illusions when he said, “Kirby should be advised to sign on the biggest legal guns and fight for the characters he created.” 8 It’s Lee who has charmed us into believing that Jack Kirby is a liar, and we’re convinced of it even while trying to work out when Stan Lee last told the truth.
The TCJ interview still draws fire, much of it from people who haven’t read it. The condemnation is mystifying, since there are dozens of earlier Kirby interviews ready to rise up to take its place, dating back to 1968. Meeting with Gary Groth in the summer of 1989 was not the first time Jack Kirby had been given the opportunity to dispute Lee’s widely-believed creation story: Kirby had been telling the same version for twenty years (see the “Interviews” post).
When Stan Lee speaks, his “recollections” are treated as history. Many of Lee’s pronouncements have proven to be false with no obvious effect on his credibility; Kirby has been labeled a liar simply because his story is at odds with what Lee says. What would it look like if we treated Jack Kirby’s account with the same reverence and awe given Lee’s? What if we were to give more scrutiny to Lee’s version, along with the accounts and motivations of those who corroborate it?
In 1998, Roy Thomas cautioned against putting stock in “Stan’s memory or Jack’s memory.” 9 Since he was one of the advocates of Lee’s version, Thomas was referring specifically to the old man memories Jack Kirby had shared with Gary Groth. Three decades earlier, Kirby and Lee were both interviewed for print; only one of them told a story that wouldn’t change.
Lee had credited Steve Ditko with creating Doctor Strange in a 1963 letter to Jerry Bails: 10
Well, we have a new character in the works for STRANGE TALES (just a 5-page filler named DR. STRANGE–) Steve Ditko is gonna draw him. Sort of a black magic theme. The first story is nothing great, but perhaps we can make something of him– ’twas Steve’s idea, and I figgered we’d give it a chance, although again, we had to rush the first one too much. Little sidelight: Originally decided to call him MR. STRANGE, but thought the MR. bit too similar to MR. FANTASTIC– now however, I just remember we had a villain called DR. STRANGE just xxxxxx recently in one of our mags– hope it won’t be too confusing! Oh well…
In 1968, Kirby and Lee were in the midst of their professional relationship. Lee was hampered by his own credit boxes: he couldn’t say the “artists” were doing the plotting—it might come back to bite him in the wallet; he couldn’t reveal that, for more than a year, he’d had no inkling of what Steve Ditko was going to put in the next Spider-Man; he couldn’t admit that he never provided Jack Kirby with a plot. On the other hand, Kirby’s wording was only tempered by his employment situation.
Castle of Frankenstein, 1968 11
STAN: Some artists, of course, need a more detailed plot than others. Some artists, such as Jack Kirby, need no plot at all. I mean I’ll just say to Jack, “Let’s let the next villain be Dr. Doom”… or I may not even say that. He may tell me. And then he goes home and does it. He’s so good at plots, I’m sure he’s a thousand times better than I. He just about makes up the plots for these stories. All I do is a little editing… I may tell him that he’s gone too far in one direction or another. Of course, occasionally I’ll give him a plot, but we’re practically both the writers on the things.
Excelsior No. 1, 1968 . 12
Q: Who created the Inhumans, you or Stan Lee?
JACK: I did.
Q: Do you plot the Fantastic Four stories by drawing the basic story and then having Stan write the dialogue?
JACK: This is Stanley’s editorial policy. As a Marvel artist, I carry it out
WBAI Radio with Neil Conan, 1968 13
NC: Well, I can remember trembling with anticipation waiting for the next Thor during the period when you had Id, the Living Planet, or Ego, the Living Planet I think that was it.
SL: Yeah. That was Jack’s idea too. I remember I said, “You’ve got to be kidding.” He said, “No, let’s get a living planet, a bioverse.” Well, I didn’t want him to think I was chicken. I said, “All right, you draw it, I’ll write it.” And, yeah, I think it turned out pretty good.
The year after the Excelsior interview, Kirby was still in Marvel’s employ when he told Mark Hebert what he was thinking when he created The Hulk. Roy Thomas should be pleased to learn that Kirby didn’t let his memories of uncredited work get old before getting them published, but did so while the memories were still fresh, still being made.
It was Lee’s story that changed over the years, and not because of a poor memory. He was aware that the claim often absolved him of criticism. “As you know, I have the worst memory in the world…” 14 One-time collaborator Ditko took Lee to task in a recent essay: 15 “Poor memory advocates — too often — want to be given a blank check for what comes out of their mouths. Can a man/mind with a claimed poor memory have any authentic, personal integrity? There are those who make reference to, justifications for, their poor memory but poor memory doesn’t stop them from still claiming facts, truth, credit.”
Thomas and the entire industry have been the enablers for Lee’s “bad memory” cover story. Thomas’s casual interview comment was meant to suggest both men were afflicted; Kirby denounced the idea in the Mark Borax interview: 16
MARK: Jack, even though each of you, in your own hearts, know who did what —
JACK: We know!
MARK: — do you think that time has obscured some of —
JACK: NO! It hasn’t obscured it. He knows it, I know it.
Six years after the Castle of Frankenstein and Excelsior interviews, Stan Lee published the first of his Official Versions, Origins of Marvel Comics. 17 Thomas told Jim Amash that any deviations from the truth in the tales told therein should be excused on account of Kirby working for the competition (Jack had left for DC in 1970): 18
ROY: I think once Jack left, there was a natural tendency to mentally downgrade his contributions… you don’t necessarily play up the guy who’s quit and gone to the competition.
TJKC: A lot of people were really upset about Origins of Marvel Comics, because it seemed like Stan had really downplayed Jack’s contributions a lot there.
ROY: The problem there may also have been the legalities…
Note that Lee later disowned his Origins tales, saying he had exaggerated when he credited Kirby. From his 2010 depositions: 19
So I tried to write these—knowing Jack would read them, I tried to write them to make it look as if he and I were just doing everything together, to make him feel good. And we were doing it together. But with something like Galactus, it was me who said, “I want to do a demigod. I want to call him Galactus.” Jack said it was a great idea, and he drew a wonderful one and he did a great job on it. But in writing the book, I wanted to make it look as if we did it together. So I said we were both thinking about it, and we came up with Galactus.
In a series of essays on Steve Ditko in 2012, 20 Stephen Bissette assessed the state of public perception regarding the company and its creators.
Let’s face it: Marvel and Stan Lee have controlled the mainstream dialogue about Marvel Comics since 1947 (and the article that year by Lee in Writer’s Digest). With the sole exception of [Dan Raviv’s] Comic Wars… every book about Marvel since Stan Lee’s Origins of Marvel Comics (1974) has been either a Marvel Comics and/or Stan Lee self-promotional confection. In fact, I’d date that love affair back to 1947, and the publication of Stan Lee’s chapbook The Secrets of Comics, which handily wrote Joe Simon and Jack Kirby out of the creation of Captain America (chalking it all up to publisher Martin Goodman).
Bissette goes on to ask why Stan Lee’s “account” is given credence, while Ditko‘s own account (“A Mini-History,” published in 16 parts in Robin Snyder’s The Comics), is ignored: 21
Why, oh why, continue to favor Stan Lee’s account, with so much self-evident conflict-of-interest as a benchmark of his entire comics and media career; so many conflicting self-accounts from Stan himself; and such a clear, public record of Stan’s profiting and profiteering for much of his life from sustaining and spinning his own self-aggrandizing accounts?
Ditko is still in the process of telling his story in new essays, and Jack Kirby left us with a wealth of his thoughts and experiences in dozens of interviews over the decades (see the “Interviews” post). When researching the events to which only the three men were party, is it too much to ask for the facts to be checked against the sayings or writings of the two the least likely to have misled us, the two who stuck to their story from the start?
Repetition for citations allows linking back to individual quotes.
back 1 Charles Hatfield, Hand of Fire: The Comics Art of Jack Kirby. University Press of Mississippi, 2012.
back 2 Charles Hatfield, Hand of Fire: The Comics Art of Jack Kirby. University Press of Mississippi, 2012.
back 3 John Morrow, “Ghost Writing,” The Jack Kirby Collector #62, Winter 2013.
back 4 Jack Kirby interviewed by Gary Groth, conducted in summer of 1989, The Comics Journal #134, February 1990.
back 5 Brian Hiatt, “Stan Lee on the Incredible Hulk’s Path to ‘Age of Ultron’: Marvel Comics legend and writer/Ultron creator Roy Thomas offer history lessons on heroes and villains,” rollingstone.com, April 29, 2015.
back 6 Stan Lee, Origins of Marvel Comics, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1974.
back 7 Stan Lee deposition, 13 May 2010, Justia, Dockets & Filings, Second Circuit, New York, New York Southern District Court, Marvel Worldwide, Inc. et al v. Kirby et al, Filing 102, Exhibit I, and 8 December 2010, Justia, Dockets & Filings, Second Circuit, New York, New York Southern District Court, Marvel Worldwide, Inc. et al v. Kirby et al, Filing 102, Exhibit J.
back 8 Jerry Bails, “We the Undersigned,” The Comics Journal #105, February 1986.
back 9 Roy Thomas interviewed by Jim Amash, conducted by phone in September 1997, published in The Jack Kirby Collector #18, January 1998.
back 10 Stan Lee, letter to Jerry Bails, 1/9/63, Justia, Dockets & Filings, Second Circuit, New York, New York Southern District Court, Marvel Worldwide, Inc. et al v. Kirby et al, Filing 65, Exhibit 27.
back 11 Castle of Frankenstein (Ted White, Bhob Stewart), 1968 [details]
back 12 Excelsior No. 1 (1968) [details]
back 13 Stan Lee interviewed by Neil Conan, WBAI radio, 12 August 1968.
back 14 “Stan the Man & Roy the Boy,” A Conversation Between Stan Lee and Roy Thomas, Comic Book Artist #2, Summer 1998.
back 15 Steve Ditko, “Essay #34: Memory,” The Four-Page Series #5, February 2014. Published and © by Robin Snyder and Steve Ditko.
back 16 Mark Borax interview, Comics Interview #41, 1986.
back 17 Stan Lee, Origins of Marvel Comics, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1974.
back 18 Roy Thomas interviewed by Jim Amash, conducted by phone in September 1997, published The Jack Kirby Collector #18, January 1998.
back 19 Stan Lee deposition, 13 May 2010, Justia, Dockets & Filings, Second Circuit, New York, New York Southern District Court, Marvel Worldwide, Inc. et al v. Kirby et al, Filing 102, Exhibit I, and 8 December 2010, Justia, Dockets & Filings, Second Circuit, New York, New York Southern District Court, Marvel Worldwide, Inc. et al v. Kirby et al, Filing 102, Exhibit J.
back 20 Stephen Bissette, “Digging Ditko, Part 3,” SRBissette.com, September 14th, 2012.
back 21 Stephen Bissette, “Digging Ditko, Part 3,” SRBissette.com, September 14th, 2012.
© 2015, Michael Hill