Chronology of a Myth

There’s little reason to doubt Larry [Lieber]’s account, as he is explicit about how little he cares about his comics career and is never eager to claim credit for anything. I ask Larry whether Kirby came up with the initial stories without any input from Stan; he replies, “Maybe he did. See, I was never there when the two of them were there.” We simply don’t know conclusively how involved Kirby was, as a writer, in the sci-fi comics of 1958 to 1961.
—Abraham Riesman, True Believer

There was every reason.
—George Smiley to Peter Guillam

Roy Thomas is the custodian of what he calls the “received history,” an alternate timeline of early Marvel. In his recent “rebuttal” of True Believer, he took author Abraham Riesman to task for conducting his own research rather than parroting the received history. In the book, Riesman had failed to quote a 1999 interview by Thomas in which Larry Lieber claimed  to have always written full scripts for the “artists.” Instead, Riesman had interviewed Lieber himself, along with Thomas and many others. Among them, only Lieber was a primary source regarding the years 1958 to 1965—Thomas was not there.

Thomas’ “rebuttal” featured a list of several of the book’s Lieber quotes, each with a corresponding dismissal by Thomas insinuating Lieber was falsely represented. He needn’t have bothered: Riesman recorded his many hours of interviews. Thomas could have tried a more professional approach and simply requested the recordings, but the the litany of disputed quotes was meant to intimidate Lieber for breaking the Marvel NDA. The 90-year-old writer/artist, one of very few Marvel employees still living who were around at the time, is now involved in legal action with Marvel and unlikely to comment further.

Let’s take a look at the evolution of Lieber’s role in the alternate history.

In 1968, Perfect Film & Chemical purchased Marvel, and quickly realized that it would be necessary to conceal the fact that the intellectual property had all sprung from the mind of a freelancer. The company’s nominee to counter this, Stan Lee, often complained that he did not enjoy writing, but he was a salaried employee who couldn’t assert rights to the properties. A born salesman, he eagerly stepped into the role for which he’d prepared his entire life, the front man for the creation of the comic characters. Lee kicked off the campaign by showing Thomas, his future Chief Propagandist, a typewritten page of his own comments in response to part of Kirby’s submission for what would become Fantastic Four #1.

The following year in his Cartoonist Profiles #4 interview, Lee floated the tale that his wife Joan inspired him to create the FF. The same year, Kirby was interviewed by Mark Hebert.

TCJ: After Fighting American, you went to Marvel and did fantasy stories with monsters and predictable endings.

KIRBY: You still had an audience for that kind of thing.

In 1970, Stan Lee was considered by many to be the industry’s buffoon. Jack Kirby finally stopped allowing Lee to take his writing pay, and quit. Marvel and Lee seized on the opportunity to publicize the alternate, false history.

By 1974, the non-existent credits or signatures on the pre-hero monster stories gave Lee the opportunity to claim creative input on the work. That way his “writing” on Kirby’s FF would come as a smooth segue rather than highlighting the reality of the situation, that it was a thing he had never done before.

1974: Origins of Marvel Comics

Let me take you back to 1961. It’s been twenty-two years since I first started with Timely, and I’m still editor, art director, and head writer there. At the moment, the trend is monster stories, so we’re turning out a pandemonious plethora of BEMs and scaly-skinned scaries. Jack Kirby, he of Captain America fame when I first started at Timely, had long since left and then recently returned to the fold as out top artist. Jack and I were having a ball turning out monster stories… Yep, there we were blithely grinding out our merry little monster yarns.

To be accurate, 1961 was twenty years, not twenty-two, since Lee first started with Timely (although the extra two years does bestow a certain cachet). The fantasy/sf books were the realm of other editors, and he was not involved in the so-called superhero revival of 1953-54 (Human Torch, Sub-Mariner, Captain America), not having written a superhero story since 1942. He implicitly denied his involvement in Kirby’s monster stories at the time by omitting his signature. Just prior to the debut of the Fantastic Four, that signature signaled his participation (as “writer”) in Rawhide Kid, Kathy, Gunsmoke Western, Love Romances, Linda Carter Student Nurse, Patsy Walker, Life with Millie, Kid Colt Outlaw, and Millie the Model.

Martin Goodman was canceling the titles in Lee’s preferred dumb blonde genre (“teen humour” as it’s euphemized) and replacing them with superheroes. Outside of the FF, the Hulk, and Spider-Man, Lee resisted the transition, delegating the dialoguing of Thor, Iron Man, and Ant Man to brother Larry Lieber and others. Meanwhile he was happy to continue as the mastermind behind these titles until their demise or their delegation to another writer: Linda Carter (1963), Kathy (1964), Life With Millie/Modeling With Millie, Patsy Walker, Patsy and Hedy (all 1965). He continued with Millie the Model or its 1969 spin-off Mad About Millie until he retired from writing in 1972.

Kirby again mentions monster books in a 1982 interview with Will Eisner.

KIRBY: I began to do monster books. The kind of books Goodman wanted. I had to fight for the superheroes. In other words, I was at the stage now where I had to fight for those things and I did. I had to regenerate the entire line. I felt that there was nobody there that was qualified to do it. So I began to do it. Stan Lee was my vehicle to do it. He was my bridge to Martin [Goodman].

For Jack Kirby Collector 77 (Summer 2019), Will Murray updated an article from 1984. The rewrite was very different from the original.

1984: “I Remember… Vandoom, Master of Marvel Monsters”

Will Murray, Comics Collector #3, Spring 1984.

In truth, it wasn’t until 1959 that the real Marvel Monsters began appearing. Marvel at the time was on shaky ground, its super-heroes long gone, it was sustained by the likes of Kid Colt, Outlaw, Millie the Model, and a number of colorless supernatural titles written by Stan Lee and others and drawn by a train of forgotten artists. A company purge in the summer of 1957 killed off most of the supernatural titles, including the company’s first title, Marvel Tales.

Then Jack Kirby wandered over from DC, where he had created Challengers of the Unknown, and began doing some of the science-fiction stories for Strange Tales (which went back to 1951) and Tales to Astonish (launched January 1959)… Stan Lee never showed this kind of imagination in his pre-1959 script , so I would guess it was Kirby, whose mother was born near Transylvania and told him some pretty wild legends when he was a kid, on whose doorstep we can lay the credit–or blame.

The article mentions the names of Lee, Kirby, Ditko, Ayers, Heck, Sinnott, Reinman, Goodman, and thirty-six separate monsters. The name Larry Lieber does not appear once.

1989: The TCJ Kirby interview

GROTH: When you went to Marvel in ’58 and ’59, Stan was obviously there.
KIRBY: Yes, and he was the same way.
GROTH: And you two 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: 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.

Stan Lee wrote whatever he signed, because he signed everything he wrote!
—Will Murray

Groth was mistaken when he said, “On all the monster stories it says ‘Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.’” Stan Lee didn’t sign a single one of Kirby’s fantasy/science-fiction stories, ever (Kirby’s involvement in the genre lasted from 1958 to 1962). Lee didn’t “write” a monster book before 1961 when he signed one of Ditko’s, and he never signed one of Kirby’s.

Kirby’s death presented Lee with the opportunity to regain control of the narrative. Coincidentally, Will Murray stumbled into an interview with Larry Lieber that caused him to reconsider his beliefs.

1995: “Monster Master”

Will Murray, Comics Scene #52, September 1995.

The company was reeling under a distribution crisis that led to a severe implosion of titles in 1957. For months, Atlas tottered on the brink. Then in 1958, Jack Kirby returned to the bullpen and publisher Martin Goodman approved a modest expansion.

There was one problem: editor Stan Lee, having laid off his entire writing staff, could not handle the increased workload. He needed a new writer, someone trainable with a fresh approach.

This is false. Lee was at most writing the teen and western books, Kirby was his own writing crew, and pre-implosion inventory was exhausted at different times in each genre. Michael Vassallo details the sequence of events in his comprehensive Lee retrospective.

Enter Larry Lieber, just out of the Air Force and studying at the Art Student’s League while he sorted out his future. “I felt I had to learn a living,” Lieber recalls. “I wasn’t fast enough at drawing comics. I said, ‘I don’t know how to write them.’ He said, ‘You can write. I read your letters in the service.’ He taught me to write. That’s when I started writing Journey into Mystery, Tales of Suspense and Tales to Astonish.”

This is Lieber’s only comment regarding the timing, and it’s vague.

For years, it has been unclear how many of those [pre-superhero] stories Lee actually wrote. [Hint: it’s a round number.] The answer is deceptively simple: Stan Lee wrote whatever he signed, because he signed everything he wrote!

In the days before The Fantastic Four, it was Lieber’s job to keep Kirby in scripts. Because there were no credits at that time, readers didn’t know–and rarely realize today–that it was Lieber who wrote virtually all those giant monster stories. He remembers it as a very hectic period.

It’s Murray who backdates Lieber’s “writing” to the time of Kirby’s arrival and the very beginning of the monster stories. From Vassallo’s blog post: “Larry Lieber stated decades later he was writing scripts but I believe these were scripts based off Kirby’s already plotted stories. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever that Jack Kirby would need monster stories plotted for him.”

Lieber later confirmed in True Believer that the only reason he believed all the plots given him were Lee’s was that’s what Lee had told him.

Key take-away: Jack Kirby was so fast!

“Jack Kirby was so fast! He could draw about six pages a day, and I was very slow as a writer. So, I was always hurrying to feed Kirby stories. I remember, one Saturday night, running to the post office on 42nd Street, which was open on Saturday, and getting a story out to Jack. ‘Whew! Oh boy, now he’ll have a story!’ Jack would just turn that stuff out, and he was drawing all the monsters.”

Other key take-away: Lieber tips his hand

All rumors to the contrary, Lieber verifies that Lee does indeed script King Features’ Spider-Man. “Stan writes a very thorough script,” he says. “What he didn’t do with Kirby and the others, he’s doing with me. It’s almost the opposite. It’s filled with descriptions. You know–the guy is leaving the room and with his left hand he’s putting on his hat, and his right hand he’s putting down the telephone, and the girl looks up sadly, etc. He’s writing it like a movie script almost.”

The last bit is the giveaway. The Spider-Man newspaper strip was ghost-written for Lee by Jim Shooter from the start, and would be afterward for 17-plus years by Roy Thomas. “What he didn’t do with Kirby and the others, he’s doing with me” is Lieber telegraphing to Murray that the interview content is fabricated, or a cry for help from the coerced brother. Murray remains oblivious.

It would be interesting to hear from Murray how the Lieber scoop fell into his lap in 1995, but asking seems futile. A glance at the preview for the next Kirby Collector shows that he’s invested in the false narrative and John Morrow is letting him run with it. Examples from his two articles in that issue: “Kirby merely designed the [Iron Man] costume,” and “[Martin] Goodman instructed editor-writer Stan Lee to package a super-hero title…”

Lieber’s Wikipedia page (citing the Official Index to the Marvel Universe #14) says his first script was a Heck story in 1960 for Strange Tales, and his first script for Kirby ran in Amazing Adventures in 1961. With no credits or signatures, these claims bear the designation “attributed” or “confirmed” to disguise the fact that they’re pulled out of the air. The underlying motivation for Lee/Lieber credit creep is the false claim that Kirby wasn’t doing his own writing, an essential premise of the received history. More recently, lawyers have had their way in the latest Marvel reprints and IDW Artist’s Editions, which credit Lee and Lieber with all of Kirby’s writing.

Three years after Murray’s Lieber article, Thomas had a “conversation” with Stan Lee for Comic Book Artist.

1998: “Stan the Man & Roy the Boy”

A Conversation Between Stan Lee and Roy Thomas, Comic Book Artist #2, Summer 1998, online here.

Roy: That’s the period when Jack Kirby came back to Marvel. Jack mentioned in an interview [in The Comics Journal #136][sic] that he came to work offering his services when people were literally moving out the furniture. Do you recall that?

Stan: I never remember being there when people were moving out the furniture. [chuckles] If they ever moved the furniture, they did it during the weekend when everybody was home. Jack tended toward hyperbole, just like the time he was quoted as saying that he came in and I was crying and I said, “Please save the company!” I’m not a crier and I would never have said that. I was very happy that Jack was there and I loved working with him, but I never cried to him. [laughs]

In fact, Martin Goodman shut down his comics operation a number of times between 1958 and 1961, once coinciding with the death of Lee’s closest collaborator Joe Maneely and another time coinciding with the cancellation of Lee’s newspaper strip, Willie Lumpkin. Thomas twists the story, contending that Goodman repeatedly considered Lee worthy of another chance, rather than being convinced by Kirby and his ability to sell comics. If this were the case, Lee’s operation wouldn’t have been subject to multiple shutdowns in the first place.

With the hyperbole remark, Lee is projecting. He tones down his own propensity toward pathological lying in order to train the accusation on Kirby.

Roy: By Fantastic Four #1, you had developed what later came to be called “the Marvel style.” But you were doing this all along for some monster stories, some time before this. How far back does that go?

Stan: You mean just doing synopses for the artists? Was I doing them before Marvel?

Roy: I know that you did it for Fantastic Four. So 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 it since the monster days.

Stan: You know something, Roy? Now that you say it, that’s probably true; but I had never thought of that. I thought that I started it with the Fantastic Four, but you’re probably right.

At its heart, the Marvel Method is the kickback scheme by which Lee took the writing rate of his “artists” in exchange for continued assignments. The need to backdate it is driven by the fact that Jack Kirby was being paid for writing and pencilling his pre-hero work, something Lee decided he needed to tap into.

Roy Thomas makes a false entry in the historical record

Roy: You probably didn’t write full scripts for Jack for “Fin Fang Foom.”

Stan: I did full scripts in the beginning, but then I found out how good he was just creating his own little sequence of pictures—and I did it in the beginning with Ditko, too—but when I found out how good they were, I realized that, “Gee, I don’t have to do it—I get a better story by just letting them run free.”

Although he admitted he never did after 1961, there is little evidence Lee wrote full scripts for anyone at any time during the 1950s. Story editors who reported to him, Al Sulman and particularly Daniel Keyes, painted Lee as someone who trafficked in the scripts of others. When he says, “I did full scripts in the beginning,” perhaps he’s referring to just after the departure of Simon and Kirby in 1941.

Here’s how Michael Vassallo describes the period in his Stan Lee retrospective: “About a dozen years ago I picked Stan Lee’s memory about his earliest years at Timely. His notoriously bad memory was not in fact a reality. I learned that if you asked him about particular things like stories, credits, etc, he didn’t really have any definite answers mainly because he was supervising up to 50 titles a month, doing some writing on the side, assigning work, dictating one-line plots to writers under him, and overall producing a product that he didn’t give more than a passing thought about. But if you nailed him down to particular people and events, he recalled a lot in full clarity.”

In the “conversation,” Thomas had an agenda, while Lee showed all the signs of just playing along.

Thomas’ interview agenda
  1. Kirby’s TCJ interview
  2. The FF synopsis/the Marvel Method
  3. The golf story
  4. It’s “well known”: Lieber wrote dialogue from Lee plots
Lee’s interview agenda
  1. Overcoming things Martin hates to get Spider-Man published
  2. (At length): working from home three days a week is not all fun and games as people suppose, but hard work when you hate writing
  3. Lee finds writing comics the easiest thing in the world (contradicting #2) while Mario Puzo tries and fails
  4. (At length): union-busting the Academy of Comic Book Arts before it gets started

The agenda would become the talking points of Thomas’ subsequent career as valet to Lee’s legacy.

Key take-away: Lieber was “never the fastest” writer

Roy: …In the early days, it’s now well known that Larry Lieber, your brother, wrote the dialogue for a number of stories, after they were plotted by you and drawn by Jack or whoever, on some series like “Thor” and “Iron Man.”

Stan: Well, it’s in the credits and I always put his name in. If not, I’d say, “Plot by Stan Lee.” Larry definitely did the first “Thor,” and he may have written the copy for “Iron Man.” What I did was give him the plot and he wrote it.

Roy: Was it that you were just too busy, or did you just think that it wasn’t that important that you do the dialogue?

Stan: Both. And you know that both “Thor” and “Iron Man” were only 10-, 11-page stories and not a feature book. I was very busy and I liked the way that Larry wrote, and so I thought I’d give him a shot at it.

Roy: The mere fact that people assumed for years afterward that you did the dialogue shows that he imitated your style pretty well. The thing with Larry is that he was just a little slow.

Stan: He was like Romita; he was never the fastest one.

Other take-away: “Now that you say it, that’s probably true”

Roy: I know that you did it [i.e. wrote “Marvel style”] for Fantastic Four. So 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 it since the monster days.

Stan: You know something, Roy? Now that you say it, that’s probably true; but I had never thought of that. I thought that I started it with the Fantastic Four, but you’re probably right.

Taken in context, this staged interview shows a disconnect from the previous staged interview. Now that Thomas is in charge of the narrative, Lee’s previous gambit (Lieber wrote all of the full scripts for everyone) goes out the window. Larry Lieber is mentioned once in the context of the monster stories “writing” by synopsis for Kirby and Ditko, the kind of writing that Lieber denied doing at all. Lee has no recollection of calling it the Marvel Method before FF #1: Thomas is the only one here suggesting anyone wrote Kirby’s pre-hero stories.

Next, the Alter Ego interview cited by Thomas, wherein Thomas adds Lieber back into the narrative.

1999: “A Conversation with Artist-Writer Larry Lieber”

Alter Ego Vol 3 No 2, Autumn 1999, excerpted here.

RT: When the comics were just getting started up again.

Lieber: Well, they were putting out… let’s see… Journey into Mystery… Tales to Astonish…. At the time I had a room in Tudor City, and I was writing stories for Jack to draw. Jack was so fast, and I was learning to write. You can appreciate this, I’m sure: I didn’t really know how, and Stan was giving me a writing course!

…I remember that Kirby was so fast he could draw faster than I was writing! Stan would say to me, “Jack needs another script!” I was on 41st, and I used to sit there Saturday and Sunday, and there was the Grand Central Post Office that was open all the time.

RT: You mentioned earlier that Stan would say to you, “Jack needs a story now.” Did you plot some of those lead monster stories, as well?

Lieber: No. Stan made up the plot, and then he’d give it to me, and I’d write the script. Tudor City had a park; and when it was nice, I’d sit there and break the story down picture by picture. I was unsure of myself just sitting down to write a script. Since I knew how to draw, I’d think, “Oh, this shot will have a guy coming this way… this shot we’ll have a guy looking down on him,” and later I’d sit at the typewriter and type it up. After a while, I’d just go to the typewriter. I would follow from Stan’s plots.

RT: Would Jack have already penciled the story?

Lieber: No. These were all scripts in advance.

RT: So this wasn’t “Marvel style” yet? I asked Stan recently just how that style started. He felt maybe Fantastic Four #1 was the start of it, but I wondered if, by 1961 and before, he was already doing some things plots-in-advance for Jack and others.

Lieber: No, I think it started with Fantastic Four, or around the time he did the super-heroes.

RT: So you’d turn Stan’s plots into a full script for Jack or whoever?

Lieber: Or for Don Heck, or someone. Stan liked writing his own stories for Ditko. Jack I always had to send a full script to.

What’s notable about the interview?

In his True Believer “rebuttal,” Thomas cites Lieber’s claim that he always wrote full scripts. During the original interview, Lieber himself could scarcely believe the claims he was being asked to make because “Jack was so fast…” Someone else present for the interview doesn’t believe him either: Roy Thomas. Here’s one of Thomas’ captions from the interview…

Note that every caption is carefully worded to restrict Lieber’s contribution to dialogue, even on panels from stories where Lieber claimed he wrote full scripts.

Roy Thomas makes another false entry in the historical record

There are no credits or signatures. Thomas suggests it’s anybody’s guess who wrote the dialogue, therefore it was probably Lieber.

Lieber sets Thomas straight on the fact that the Marvel Method began with FF #1. Were there assigned plots before that? Undoubtedly, but what distinguishes the Marvel Method is its key innovation, the theft of the writing pay.

2011: Larry Lieber’s deposition

Let’s give Larry Lieber the last word. Not the nice guy with no dog in the fight, but as he described in his deposition in the Kirby case, the bullied little brother who agreed to be deposed under threat of losing his livelihood. Lieber actually seemed to be under the impression that he was testifying under oath.

Larry Lieber had no contact with a script’s prospective recipient. His sole point of contact, his only source of information about office business, was Stan Lee. Like Thomas and his one-sided history of Marvel, Lieber got his version of events from Lee, and only from Lee.

The Vandoom article appeared in 1984. Ten years before that, there was Stan Lee claiming he had a ball with Kirby doing the monster stories. Before that there was nothing, because it was uncontroversial: no one had a reason to question the authorship of the stories. The original art pages have Kirby’s pencilled lettering in the balloons and captions, with an occasional in-office edit on later stories by Lee who was nominally the editor. There is no physical evidence for Lieber scripts.

In response to the TCJ interview where Kirby claimed, “I created; I wrote,” Lee said Kirby “either lost his mind or he’s a very evil person.” Once Kirby was dead, Lee could control the narrative, and he re-mobilized his propaganda machine.

By all accounts Larry Lieber is a nice guy, and for those invested in the false narrative it’s a sufficient reason for taking his word over Kirby’s. True Believer gives us a very different picture of Lieber than the one we had. He’s a timid man treated like a stranger by his brother (who himself owed everything to nepotism), and susceptible to his brother’s coercion. Seen in context, the 1995 interview with Will Murray could only be the result of that coercion.

KIRBY: Stan was a very rigid type. At least, he is to me. That’s how I sized him up. He’s a very rigid type, and he gets what he wants when the advantage is his. He’s the kind of a guy who will play the advantages. When the advantage isn’t his at all, he’ll lose. He’ll lose with any creative guy. And I could never see Stan Lee as being creative.

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