The King and The Man

Jack Kirby & Stan Lee

Recently my son Michael had to write a high school essay, choosing from a list of subjects considered to be the most influential Americans. Surprisingly, or not, Stan Lee was on the list for his significant role in the cultural impact that Marvel Comics has had on our society.

Mike’s decision to pick Lee as his essay subject was a simple one, knowing that he would have access to plenty of reference material in my personal library including Stan Lee’s interviews in David Anthony Kraft’s COMICS INTERVIEW the Complete Collection Volume One published right here at CO2 Comics.

My son’s approach to his essay was standard fare, family bio, life experiences, significant achievements, and cultural impact all of which focused, of course, on Stan Lee’s involvement in the creation of the iconic characters at the center of the Marvel Universe. His twist was to point out that, though Lee’s creations do have a significantly positive cultural influence,  these characters and Marvel have so heavily dominated the comic book market for so long that they have oppressed the creative growth of of the comics industry for decades. What a kid!

No sooner did Mike hand in his paper, I found myself being directed by The Comics Beat to the infamous 1990 Gary Groth interview with Jack Kirby that is now posted in its entirety in the archives of The Comics Journal website. Kirby boldly takes credit for having created all of the major Marvel characters single-handedly and accuses Lee of having only ever written the single word “Excelsior!” This interview is a truly mind-blowing read that flies in the face of the history that Stan Lee has recounted repeatedly over the years. If you have not read it, make sure you do!

What a different paper my son would have written!

Of course there are two sides to every story, and my experience in this field of comics has taught me that the creative ego can absolutely convolute one’s memory, especially when it comes to ownership of an idea or a concept. Haggling over the notion of Lee and Kirby’s roles in the creation and success of Marvel and its characters may go on forever just for this reason.

Demonstrating this point are two contradicting excerpts, one from each of their individual interviews, that focus on the conception of the FANTASTIC FOUR.

Jack Kirby from the 1990 The Comics Journal #134 interview with Gary Groth:

I came in [to the Marvel offices] and they were moving out the furniture, they were taking desks out — and I needed the work! I had a family and a house and all of a sudden Marvel is coming apart. Stan Lee is sitting on a chair crying. He didn’t know what to do, he’s sitting in a chair crying —he was just still out of his adolescence. I told him to stop crying. I says. “Go into Martin and tell him to stop moving the furniture out, and I’ll see that the books make money.” And I came up with a raft of new books and all these books began to make money. Somehow they had faith in me. I knew I could do it, but I had to come up with fresh characters that nobody had seen before. I came up with The Fantastic Four. I came up with Thor. Whatever it took to sell a book I came up with. Stan Lee has never been editorial minded. It wasn’t possible for a man like Stan Lee to come up with new things — or old things for that matter. Stan Lee wasn’t a guy that read or that told stories. Stan Lee was a guy that knew where the papers were or who was coming to visit that day. Stan Lee is essentially an office worker, OK? I’m essentially something else: I’m a storyteller. My job is to sell my stories. When I saw this happening at Marvel I stopped the whole damned bunch. I stopped them from moving the furniture! Stan Lee was sitting on some kind of a stool, and he was crying.”

Stan Lee’s version from his 1983 interview in Comics Interview #5 conducted by David Anthony Kraft and Jim Salicrup:

Jack never pushed me to do superheroes. What happened was, one day, Martin Goodman called me into the office –– this is when Jack and I were doing all of those monster stories –– and Martin, who was the publisher at the time, said: “You know, Stan, I’ve just seen some sales figures for this DC magazine” –– it may have been JUSTICE LEAGUE, but I no longer remember -– “it is doing pretty well. Maybe we ought to do some superheroes.” And I said, “Fine.” And he said, “Let’s do a team like the JUSTICE LEAGUE.” And I said, “Fine.” I went home and wrote an outline, a synopsis for the FANTASTIC FOUR. And I called Jack, handed him the outline, and said: “Read this. This is something I want to do. And you should draw a team.” Jack , of course contributed many, many ideas to it. And I would venture to say that Jack and I co-created  THE FANTASTIC FOUR, in a way –– although the name was mine, the characters were mine, the concept was mine, originally. But he never pushed me to do superheroes. Jack was at home drawing those monster stories, until the day I called him and said: “Let’s do the FANTASTIC FOUR.”  I think Jack is really –– I don’t know what to say, I don’t want to say anything against him. I think he is beginning to imagine things.”

FF plot

Stan Lee’s interview happened about seven years prior to the Jack Kirby interview but it was obvious that Lee was responding to the same allegations which Kirby continually made and stood by until his death in 1994.

Regardless of who you believe or which side you defend, when it comes to cultural impact, it is impossible to imagine Marvel Comics or their characters without the influence of either Jack Kirby or Stan Lee. Kirby’s dynamic images and visual storytelling not only established the standard idioms of the comics medium and superhero genre, they defined the graphic footprint that became Marvel’s trademark. Stan Lee brought an infectious enthusiasm to Marvel that was difficult to ignore. Stan Lee’s Soap Box bristled with the same hip banter that was present in the dialog espoused by the characters he is credited with scripting. He built a relationship that brought together the readers, the characters and the Bullpen that formed bonds with fandom that were much deeper than ink on paper.

Listen to this audio file of a recording called “The Voices of Marvel” made available  through the fan club  Merry Marvel Marching Society and you will understand why Stan Lee’s influence goes beyond what he may or may not have created or scripted. He was the cheerleader.

The reality is that Jack Kirby and Stan Lee simply represent two different types of men. Jack Kirby was an amiable, creative genius who’s imagination knew no boundaries. He created for two primary reasons, to comfortably support his family and to express his ideas. Any reward beyond that was secondary to his nature, by the time he realized his loss it was too late.

Stan Lee had his eye on the prize his whole career. He continues to live for the fame and the fortune. He believed in the Marvel product and aggressively sold it with a huckster’s gleam in his eye that exists to this very day.

The irony is that Stan Lee himself clearly defined their roles with flashy nicknames, Jack “King” Kirby and Stan “The Man” Lee.

There was a chemistry that brought these two, very different, gentlemen together at the perfect time in history to create a magic that ushered in Marvel and the Silver Age of comics. Had they not united, what would have become of either man? What would have become of the comics industry?

All differences and injustices aside, the important thing is that both of these men need to be remembered for the joy and energy that they brought to comics, our culture and each and every one of us that were inspired by their careers. Generations from now, they will both continue to be revered for their creative contributions to comics, a medium which is just beginning  to realize its potential. I think both men would be satisfied with that reward of creative immortality.

Making Comics Because I Want To

Gerry Giovinco

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16 Responses to “The King and The Man”

  1. The King and The Man « CO2 COMICS BLOG

  2. The King and The Man « CO2 COMICS BLOG

  3. Mark Hills says:

    I fondly remember on Saturday mornings when I was young and I would ride my bike to a little grocery store called Werley’s in the next town where the new comic books would be on sale. I devoured anything that had Kirby’s name on it! I loved his monster books and was really into Jack’s double page spreads. I can remember one time that I had to purchase two copies of one title so I could lay out a four page spread of an ‘epic battle of good versus evil.” Those were the days! LOVE YOU JACK!

  4. Joe Williams says:

    Publish your son’s paper. I’m curious about what he has to say.

    My take is that I think we grew up with limited choices and, as consumers, we were always easily corralled into brand choices. ABC, NBC or CBS. Coke or Pepsi. Chevy or Ford. Marvel or DC. Budweiser or Schlitz. We would recoil in horror if somebody tried to pass off RC Cola or jeans that weren’t Levi’s on us.

    I think the monolithic brand loyalty started to come apart when cable television became more ubiquitous, and, after that, home video became widespread. Now we have the internet and there still are some common events that catches everybody’s attention, but it’s all really niche markets now. Print comics are shrinking but the licenses for these decades old characters are gold.

    I’m curious to see how your son’s theory plays out in his paper.

  5. DOuG pRATt says:

    Jack Kirby’s greatness is undeniable! The strength of his art and the force of his ideas aren’t in question. Ditko of course has his own dispute over creator status for Marvel characters. At some point Kirby claimed Spider-Man to be his too, and that’s just sad.

    The point I can’t get away from, having started reading Marvel comics in ’66, when Ditko was leaving, is that very single artist who worked for Stan did their best work, or a significant percentage of it, with him. Stan’s influence as art director was obvious the moment he stopped being the art director. Kirby saying that Lee was just an office worker is sad.

    Jack’s quote about Stan being full of self-doubt and crying doesn’t ring true. Jack made it seem as though the FF saved Marvel immediately after its near demise in 1957. As Stan said, in ’61 they were doing the monster books, and it was neither him nor Jack who suggested taking a new direction, it was Goodman, and the timing for Stan and Jack was perfect.

  6. Bottom line is that Stan Lee was not much more than an editor. Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko were creating, writing, and illustrating the stories. They were creating the characters and the settings. Stan Lee “scripted” the stories after the fact. After the art was done and the stories were turned in. Yes, his dialog was hip and cool. Stan Lee has always been a hip guy–his job depended on having his fingers on the pulse of the kids buying comics. And, yes, he’s the single greatest huckster the comic book industry has ever had. But did he create Ben Grimm and Peter Parker and The Might Thor and The Hulk and Iron Man, etc? Hell, no. Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby created the bulk of Marvel’s characters and they and their heirs have been robbed of their intellectual property.

    What was Stan Lee’s track record for creating anything before Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko were handed the responsibility of creating a superhero line?

  7. Neal Kirby says:

    Though my opinion may be viewed by some as non-objective, I can say that my father spoke the truth in this (Gary Groth) interview. Stan Lee has had the advantage since my father’s death in 1993 of being the last man standing.

    He has been able to say, claim, invent whatever he wants without any fear of rebuttal! Is it conceivable that Stan Lee, with little knowledge of mythology, much less Norse mythology, could come up with the premise of Thor as a super hero? Isn’t it much more likely that my father, whose studio on Long Island was filled with books on history and mythology, of which his favorite was Norse mythology, would be much more likely to have created such a character? I could go on as such concerning almost all the Marvel characters. What bothers me most, however, is that Stan Lee is rewriting history in his favor, and youngsters such as your son Michael, view him as the lone creator of the Marvel characters. There have been many injustices in the 80+ years of comich book history; this, without question, is one of the greatest. Neal Kirby

  8. Neal, I was trying to be as objective as possible when I wrote this especially since many people have strong positions on both sides.

    I had the pleasure of meeting your parents in the 80’s and I know that they were both wonderful and genuine people. Your father’s talent and his ensuing battle for creators’ rights was a huge influence to us when we built Comico and why we continue to champion creators rights with CO2 Comics.

    The work that we are doing, collecting and publishing David Anthony Kraft’s COMICS INTERVIEW, teaches us daily how important it is for us to preserve the history of comics, not just the works but the history of how they were created and by who.

    You are right, the greatest injustice is that someone like your father would not get the credit he deserves in the annals of history. I’m sure that the Thor movie has made this an extra sensitive issue at this time.

    Stan Lee does have the advantage you described at this moment. It is up to the investigative expertise of the comics historians to objectively get this straight and make sure that comic history is accurately depicted. There are enough people still around, like yourself, with first hand experience watching this history unfold. It is important that we get this right so that future generations will properly sing the praises of the true masters of the comics medium.

    Your comments are always welcome here and if you would ever care to have a personal guest forum on our site we’d be happy to work with you.

  9. […] weeks ago we ran a blog post here at CO2 Comics titled The King and The Man that compared excerpts of interviews with Stan Lee and the late Jack Kirby who recollected their […]

  10. M. Senft says:

    Sadly, neither man was completely right. Nor does Neal Kirby, to this minute, comprehend the legal ramifications of the estate’s case. For that matter, he absolutely destroyed their position at his deposition.

  11. Jeff Albertson says:

    “both of these men need to be remembered for the joy and energy that they brought to comics, our culture and each and every one of us that were inspired by their careers. Generations from now, they will both continue to be revered for their creative contributions to comics, a medium which is just beginning to realize its potential.”


    Jack Kirby and Stan Lee have entertained and touched more people thatn they will ever know. Thank you, Gentlemen!

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  14. […] we have been so focused on the legacy of the late Jack Kirby as can be seen on these two posts: The King and The Man and Father’s Day Tribute To Jack Kirby From His Son, we are a bit sensitive to the continued […]

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