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.”
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