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Remembering Stan Lee: Inside his creative process and fiery partnership with Jack Kirby

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Nov 12, 2018

If Stan Lee’s life story would have been a work of literature, it would no doubt be a sprawling, epic saga much like the ambitious novel that he himself always wanted to write.

Lee, who passed away at the age of 95 on Nov. 12, 2018, was a man with insurmountable optimism, grandiose ideas, and a tireless work ethic. But for all his accomplishments, Lee’s seven decades in comics and other media are inarguably defined by essentially a 10-year period in which he achieved his greatest triumphs. A big reason for that is his partnership with Jack Kirby.

The Lee-Kirby creative amalgam was at the center of one of the most bountiful creative periods in the history of pop culture. It belongs up there with Lennon & McCartney and Rodgers & Hammerstein as partnerships that had seismic impacts on entertainment. And like those other dynamic duos, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. What is interesting is that the first time they worked together, Lee was essentially Kirby’s gofer.

“In those days they dipped the pen in ink, I had to make sure the inkwells were filled,” Lee told the L.A. Times in 2009 about his early days as a teenager working at what was then known as Timely Comics. “I went down and got [Joe and Jack] their lunch, I did proofreading, I erased the pencils from the finished pages for them. Whatever had to be done. I remember Jack would always be sitting at a table puffing on his cigar, kind of talking to himself as he was doing those pages.”

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Courtesy of documentary "Jack Kirby: Story Teller"

At the time, Kirby and Joe Simon were the golden boys for publisher Martin Goodman. Their creation, Captain America, was a bona fide smash hit as America was entering World War II. Lee, who got the job because his cousin was married to Goodman, was eager to please and to learn. Eventually, both were enlisted and served their country in different ways — each matching up with how they were perceived. Kirby went to Europe and fought the Nazis on the front lines, the dutiful infantry soldier. Lee wound up staying stateside in the Army’s training film division, writing manuals, devising recruiting slogans, and even doing some cartoon work.

After the war, Lee returned to Timely. He was a prolific writer, churning out scripts in every comics genre imaginable: superheroes, romance, Westerns, humor, science fiction, and horror. Lee became indispensable to Goodman, a publisher known for his trend-chasing and frugality. Even during the comics industry’s dark period in the 1950s, when Dr. Fredric Wertham’s condemnation of comics led to mass burnings of comic books, Lee kept writing. As editor, he also helped keep many comic artists, inkers, and letterers working by constantly buying. By the end of that decade, he was again working with Kirby. This time, they were collaborators on various monster tales being published by what was now Marvel Comics. But Lee was not happy.

As he recounted in various interviews, and in often conflicting terms, Lee at this point in his career was feeling increasingly unsatisfied with the comic book field. As the story goes, Lee sat down with his wife, Joan, and told her he was ready to quit comics. She convinced him to try to do comics the way he really wanted to do them. Real characters with real problems and issues. That’s the story Stan Lee often told about the initial spark that led to the Big Bang that gave birth to the Marvel Universe, beginning with Fantastic Four #1.

What that version doesn’t take into account is the contributions of other creators, specifically those of Kirby. Kirby was the artist on nearly all of the major titles that launched the Marvel Age of Comics, and nearly all comics historians agree he was, at the very least, the co-creator of heroes such as the Fantastic Four, The Hulk, The Avengers, Thor, Nick Fury, and countless other unforgettable heroes and villains. This discrepancy over proper credit dogged Lee for decades, in particular as Kirby and his supporters challenged Lee’s claims to having been the primary creator. Steve Ditko also had issues with Lee claiming he had created Spider-Man. Eventually, Lee, again in his autobiography, credited Ditko as the co-creator of Marvel’s flagship character.

But it is the Kirby conflict that ultimately, in the eyes of a number of comics fans, tarnished Lee’s legacy. Much like John Lennon and Paul McCartney — whose specific songwriting contributions to dozens of Beatles songs are endlessly dissected — debates over the contributions of Lee and Kirby to those early Silver Age Marvels rage on in message boards across the internet to this day. Many fans sided with Kirby, partly due to the shabby treatment the legendary artist, while he was alive, received from Marvel regarding royalties and his original art pages. In many people’s eyes, Lee didn’t try hard enough to make things right for his old partner, as Kirby had to go to court simply to get Marvel to return his original art pages. For his part, Lee always maintained he wasn’t in a position to do much about Kirby’s situation.

Much of the animus toward Lee also sprung from the fact that, for all intents and purposes, he was the face of Marvel Comics.

As Marvel’s popularity exploded in the 1960s with its radical reinvention of comics stories, Lee became a media darling. Glowing profiles by journalists — such as one noteworthy piece by Nat Freedland for the Herald-Tribune in 1966 — lauded praise on the writer of these astonishing tales, and regarded the artist as a mere draftsman. Many had no idea that the “Marvel Method” of creating comics, which Lee pioneered to ease his growing workload, had redefined the roles for writers and artists.  That method involved artists penciling a full 22-page story off a basic written or verbal outline from Lee. Then he would get the pages back after the inker and add in the dialogue.

To be fair, Lee did heap praise on his cohorts in the Marvel Bullpen (in that Herald-Tribune profile, he even spells out how Ditko was plotting Amazing Spider-Man on his own, and Lee would just add the dialogue afterward). But he was also more than happy to play the role of company spokesperson, and his critics would say he didn’t exactly rush to correct media reports that dismissed the contributions of his artists. This created great tension with Kirby, who eventually left Marvel to go create his Fourth World saga for DC Comics. As a sign of how much Lee’s publicity-seeking style bothered him, Kirby even created a character called Funky Flashman in Mister Miracle #6, that is widely considered to be a caricature of Lee.

Eventually, the two would reunite when Kirby returned to Marvel in the late 1970s. Their last work together was 1978’s Silver Surfer graphic novel printed by Fireside books. It was a fitting way to cap their historic partnership, working on an original story featuring one of their most memorable creations. Where did Kirby’s contributions to the character end, and Lee’s begin? It’s next to impossible to determine. It is an argument that will likely go on as long as people read comics.

But this much is inarguable: Lee and Kirby brought out the best in each other. All one has to do is view each of their work without the other, and the missing pieces are evident. Lee’s snappy dialogue and wire-tight characterization needed Kirby’s kinetic artistry for maximum impact. Likewise, Kirby’s frenetic storytelling missed the wry wit and deft prose Lee provided to balance the outsize power of the art. Whatever credit he may or may not have unnecessarily claimed during his career, late in life Lee seemed well aware of the special partnership the two once had.

“Jack was the best partner you could ask for, dependable and imaginative,” Lee said in 2009. “And it was never dull. Nothing with us was ever dull.”

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