A Few Things You May Not Know About Jack Kirby

 

A Response to Stuf’ Said

For nearly sixty years until his death, Stan Lee represented himself as the driving creative force behind Marvel Comics, as well as its primary plotter and writer. For the last quarter of a century of his own life, Jack Kirby pushed back against Lee’s misappropriation of the credit due Kirby. With Stuf’ Said, John Morrow has done a great service by putting the two men’s claims in front of his target audience.

My issues with Stuf’ Said (and I must admit, I’m not a member of that target audience) stem from Morrow’s editorial interpretation of the material, coupled with a disproportionate representation of Lee’s point of view. I’m going to use these issues as a framework to introduce some of the material that was left out.

Morrow set the stage for Stuf’ Said in his editorial in The Jack Kirby Collector 73:

Are you a “Type A” kind of fan, who thinks Kirby deserves all the credit, Stan cheated Jack out of it, and this magazine doesn’t beat that drum loudly enough?

Or are you a “Type B” fan, who thinks Stan gets unfairly maligned by all the “Type A” fans, and this publication is unfairly skewed toward Jack?

Let me toss this out. How about we all be “Type C” fans—the kind that can put on our Big Boy (and Girl) Pants, consider others’ viewpoints, and admit that the reality might just lie somewhere between the two extremes?

Stan Lee will have turned 95 by the time you read this (on December 28, 2017), and TwoMorrows celebrated with a special 150th issue of Roy Thomas’ mag Alter Ego devoted to Stan. He toiled in the thankless business of comics for a lot of years, and God-willing, he’ll be with us many more. We gain nothing by denigrating The Man, and we don’t have to tear him down to build Jack up. Marvel Comics, through Disney, finally gets that. So should we. The battle’s over, folks, and we all won—both Kirby and Lee fans (not that those two groups are mutually exclusive)!

Just a few notes: no serious observer says Kirby deserves all the credit, or that Lee did nothing. These are imaginary arguments designed to be easily refuted. Lee had a massive impact on the work, through dialogue and forced redraws. There’s no compelling evidence, however, outside of his own account, that his contribution came before Kirby pencilled a given story.

Secondly, Lee did not toil unthanked in the thankless business of comics for a lot of years. The thanks and rewards he reaped far exceeded those afforded anyone else in comics (and many other fields), ever, in an industry infamous for its poor treatment of its contributors. His rewards were nominally for his own work, but were mostly for the work of others.

Thirdly, when the “battle” was over, no one told Lee or Roy Thomas: they both doubled down on their claims of the mythical Marvel creation saga. Never one to see straight where Kirby is concerned, Thomas is the custodian and often the author of the Lee version of events. He’s not required to participate in the Big Boy Pants exercise and look at things from the freelancers’ point of view, and indeed admits that the secret to being a Marvel historian is knowing that no one but Lee ever needed to be consulted. In Stuf’ Said, Morrow gives carte blanche to an individual intent on removing Kirby’s contribution from Marvel history.

We don’t have to tear down Lee to build up Kirby; we do need to tear down Lee’s false legacy. The discussion is decades old, and always begins with Stan Lee’s comments being taken as the truth; his Marvel narrative is treated as “common knowledge.” The alternate stories of Kirby or other Lee collaborators then appear to be challenging “the truth”: proof is demanded when it’s politely suggested that their accounts differed from Lee’s. Kirby’s own story is contested mercilessly, and requires a different degree of proof because Lee often preempted it with claims to the contrary. Lee put himself in the fan news from the beginning, and had a quarter of a century unanswered after Kirby’s death to press his advantage.

Stephen Bissette: 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? 1

tcj134

Morrow from the last chapter, “The Verdict”:

One thing that tripped me up previously was Jack’s 1989 Comics Journal #134 interview, since back in the day, Kirby came across to me as a little nutty-sounding with some of the bitter recollections he brought to light. The most egregious is when he said, “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.”

A few pages earlier, Morrow had provided a “but” to this statement, but it was wiped away in the conclusion. We’ll parse Kirby’s claim later, and I’ll be exploring the applicability of Morrow’s word egregious. For now I’ll just say that being “tripped up” by a 1989 Kirby interview suggests that Morrow hadn’t been paying attention to the previous 20 years of Kirby’s interviews, which all told the same story. TJKC is undoubtedly the best source of those interviews, obscure and otherwise, but they’re tossed out the window with this one concluding statement.

CONCLUSION

Because I began this as an email to John Morrow addressing the issues point-by-point as I read through the book, the volume of supplemental information below is daunting. With that I’ll come to the point and give my verdict. Please grab a copy of the book (available from Amazon or in PDF from twomorrows.com) and follow along to see the references in context.

Stuf’ Said puts an unprecedented amount of little-known Kirby material in front of a wider audience than it’s had before, an admirable achievement. The benefit, however, is outweighed by an uncritical treatment of the Stan Lee mythology, putting it on par with Kirby’s version, and further entrenching it by giving it the TwoMorrows stamp of approval. Morrow also rehashes a number of discredited myths about Kirby: the art directorship myth, the Kirby needed reining-in myth, the Kirby should have stood up for himself myth. In the name of appearing impartial, Kirby’s account is treated overly critically.

Despite a verifiable record of untruths dating back to the advent of his new career as “creator,” Lee is accepted as a reliable witness to the events of history. Morrow has taken a position that’s similar to the mainstream media stance: the Lee version, the accepted wisdom, is part of what goes uncontested in Stuf’ Said. The sheer volume of Lee material, first-hand and from the supplemental witnesses, overwhelms Kirby’s.

The witness list is hierarchical: Roy Thomas is at the top of this hierarchy, as is Joe Simon. With a few notable exceptions, their words are passed along uncontested, despite that in both cases they’re advancing agendas that can’t allow Kirby to be taken seriously. Lee comes next: Morrow directly challenges a number of Lee’s statements and even dismisses some outright, but many of Lee’s abundant myths (and stories from others that could only have originated with Lee) are simply read into the record.

With the exception of Steve Ditko and Wallace Wood, both of whom quit Lee over the same grievances voiced by Kirby, most of the other witnesses quoted in the book tell a variation of Lee’s false history; they’re not testifying to what happened, they’re testifying to what they were told by Lee. This is a difficult situation arising from the fact that for the most part there were two eyewitnesses (and Thomas wasn’t one of them).

At the bottom of the hierarchy is Kirby, and Stuf’ Said actually bolsters the case against him. Thomas and the rest of Lee’s attestors, plus Simon, grace the pages of this issue of The Jack Kirby Collector for the express purpose of discrediting Kirby’s words so we can wear our Big Boy Pants and agree the truth was somewhere in the middle. Kirby’s quotes (like the one where he called the idea of working from Lee’s FF #1 plot “an outright lie”), go unremarked, do not factor into “The Verdict,” or are absent altogether.

Big Boy Pants aside, intellectual honesty requires a decision at this point. The accounts of the two men provide no option for both to be telling the truth, even truth according to their own definition of the word “writing.” Lee did not simply seek to be credited as the writer: he declared, “the characters’ concepts were mine.” 2 As Steve Ditko wrote, “someone is lying.” 3

The correct approach in Stuf’ Said would be to let Kirby and Lee speak for themselves without any analysis. Alternatively, after assembling this impressive collection of information, Morrow simply should have endeavored to indiscriminately QUESTION EVERYTHING.

CONTENTS

Good things: what Stuf’ Said gets right

Assumes facts not in evidence

Just Plain Wrong

Kirby was rarely, if ever, late with the FF pages

Lee was not a plotter

Simon says

Lee misrepresents

Thomas explains

Lieber comes into his own

Morrow waffles

Further Information

Quotes that follow from Stuf’ Said are specified by page number, with the name of the speaker in square brackets. A second page number in square brackets refers to Stuf’ Said: The Expanded Second Edition. Quotes from the book not explicitly identified are John Morrow’s.

NEXT: Good things: what Stuf’ Said gets right

Footnotes

back 1 Stephen Bissette, “Digging Ditko, Part 3,” SRBissette.com, September 14th, 2012.

back 2 Janet Bode, A Comic Book Artist KO’d: Jack Kirby’s Six-Year Slugfest with Marvel, The Village Voice, December 8, 1987.

back 3 Steve Ditko, A Mini-History: “Wind-up,” The Comics v14 n11, © 2003 S. Ditko.

A Few Things You May Not Know About Jack Kirby