Jon B. Cooke, 2013 response to Roy Thomas

Printed in Comic Book Creator #3 (Fall 2013).
[Thanks, Roy, for the LOC about A/E’s newest sister mag in the TwoMorrows line-up.]

Of course I know of the Fantastic Four #1 synopsis, and you’re right to note its existence should have been mentioned in my piece, as well as Larry Lieber’s memories. But given the Kirby-Lee method of collaboration, its presence is an oddity, unusual for a pair who reportedly confabbed verbally in those early years, and it begs for context. Was it and the FF #8 plot written to clarify Lee-Kirby story conferences? Kirby has a paper trail, printed in four colors, of prototypes for many Marvel super-heroes (compare the striking similarities of the Green Arrow story “The War That Never Ended” [Adventure Comics #255, Dec. ’58] to the Iron Man origin, for instance, never mind the blatant Challengers of the Unknown connection to FF), and I think it is safe to question whether Kirby initially presented new characters and their origins to Lee, who then passed on the plots to his brother, Larry Lieber, to script. And the margin notes: Perhaps Kirby, producing an astonishing 3,324 pages of comic book art between 1961–63, was tired of losing time traveling to the Manhattan office for meetings or devising plots with his writer-editor via telephone, and switched to convey once-verbalized story points with handwritten instructions on the comic-page borders to better economize his time (and save for posterity solid evidence of his input).

Mark Evanier, former Kirby assistant and longtime friend (and biographer), who perhaps spent more time asking questions of the creator than any other comics historian, in his recent declaration for the court case Marvel Worldwide, Inc. et al. v. Kirby et al., wrote,“After Fantastic Four had been published and was a success, Lee produced a synopsis for the first story which he said was what he gave Kirby to work from. Kirby, however, consistently asserted that he never saw any kind of typed synopsis or treatment for the Fantastic Four. Given his other statements about putting his head together with Kirby to devise the comics, I find it highly unlikely that Lee acted alone in conceiving these characters.” Lee told Castle of Frankenstein in 1968, “[Kirby] may tell me [the plots]. 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.” Lee also shared in his 1974 Origins of Marvel Comics, “After kicking it around with Martin [Goodman] and Jack for a while, I decided to call our quaint quartet The Fantastic Four. I wrote a detailed first synopsis for Jack to follow, and the rest is history.” Well, murky history.

And let’s put those (ahem) “delusions of grandeur” in context, shall we? Jack Kirby, inarguably one of the three prime architects of the Marvel universe, was treated with contempt and disrespect in his twilight years by the company he helped thrive beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. As so too is his one-time creative partner perennially prone to hyperbole and spotty memory, perhaps we can forgive Kirby’s statements made in understandable anger. Can we agree to cut “The King” — and “The Man” — some slack?

But while likely none of us will fully know the truth given sparse memories and lack of smoking-gun evidence, your criticism does encourage further examination, which will be included in these pages soon. My point, however heated (and, yeah, a little over-zealous), was not designed to denigrate Lee’s contributions ­— whose universe-creating status is assuredly secure in American history — but to more accurately assess Kirby’s place in the context of storyteller, writing and otherwise, a status that has been chipped away at of late in legal depositions and such court proceedings.