Stan Lee talks Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and the question of credit

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Mar 20, 2014, 3:32 PM EDT (Updated)

The controversy might never go away, but Stan Lee is at least trying to put questions about his work with two legendary comics creators to rest.

For decades, Lee's been the most visible personality in American comic books. Thanks to numerous movie and TV cameos and other appearances, his fame has transcended the medium. Even people who've never read a comic book know who he is and why he's important. Even if we merely look at him as a figurehead, spokesperson and advocate for the medium, it's hard to measure Lee's contribution to comics.

For many familiar with the history of Marvel Comics, though, Lee's contributions to the books themselves is much murkier. Lee's always been a very public figure to fans of all stripes, and as a result he's often considered the driving force of the early Marvel Universe, while artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko are often thought of as simply the men who drew Lee's ideas into being. To say that view of things is disputed is putting it lightly. These days, historians and many fans agree that Kirby and Ditko often actually did a great deal more. In a now-legendary interview with Gary Groth, Kirby went so far as to claim that he created everything about the Fantastic Four and other heroes by himself. Just how much of the work came from Lee, and how responsible he is for Marvel's success, is still up for debate (if you'd like a primer or refresher on the issues at hand, having a look at this column by ComicsAlliance's Chris Sims is a good idea), and the debate's likely not dying down anytime soon.

Many fans are still pushing for figures like Kirby and Ditko to get more credit, and Kirby's family fought a long legal battle with Marvel in an attempt to reclaim the copyrights for characters Kirby created or co-created. It's a big issue for many, and one that Lee doesn't often speak about, even as fans, journalists and historians argue about how much his perceived overshadowing of figures like Kirby and Ditko affects his legacy. In a new interview with Playboy, though, he opened up a bit about credit for Ditko and Kirby.

"I always tried to show them in the most favorable light, even in the credits. There was never a time when it just said 'by Stan Lee.' It was always 'by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko' or 'by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.' I made sure their names were always as big as mine," Lee said.

"As far as what they were paid, I had nothing to do with that. They were hired as freelance artists, and they worked as freelance artists. At some point they apparently felt they should be getting more money. Fine, it was up to them to talk to the publisher. It had nothing to do with me. I would have liked to have gotten more money too. I never made an issue of it."

Lee added that he offered Kirby a staff position at Marvel as art director, in an effort to give his collaborator more stable employment, but that Kirby (who said in interviews that he enjoyed working from home as a freelancer) turned it down.

"And twice, not once, I offered a job to Jack Kirby. I said to him, 'Jack, why don’t you work for Marvel with me?' I was the art director at the time. I said, 'You be the art director. I’ll just be the editor and head writer, and you’ll have that security.' He wouldn’t do it. He didn’t want to," Lee said. "I would have loved him to work side by side with me. I used to marvel at the way Jack drew. He would draw something as if it had appeared in his mind and he was just tracing what he had thought of already. I never saw a man draw as quickly as Jack did. 'Come work with me, Jack,' I said. But he said no. He didn’t want a staff job. With him, as with Ditko, I don’t see where they were unfairly treated.

"I’m sorry anybody feels there’s any acrimony. I loved them both.”

In his later years (see the aforementioned Groth interview for numerous examples of this), Kirby did speak openly about feeling minimized and underappreciated by Lee and Marvel. Lee's recollection of his last encounter with Kirby, though, paints a somewhat different picture.

"I’ll tell you, the last thing Jack Kirby said to me was very strange. I met him at a comic-book convention right before the end," Lee said. "He wasn’t that well. He walked over and said, 'Stan, you have nothing to reproach yourself about.' He knew people were saying things about me, and he wanted to let me know I hadn’t done anything wrong in his eyes. I think he realized it. Then he walked away."

Kirby died in 1994 at the age of 76. Ditko is still alive and still producing independent comics at the age of 86, but has been out of the public eye for decades. For Lee, the question of credit for both of them seems to have a simple, very direct answer, but of course, that doesn't put an end to the controversy.

You can read the full Playboy interview with Lee -- which also features talk about how much he's really worth, what his current role at Marvel is, and more -- under relatively safe-for-work (by which I mean suggestive photos, but no nudity) conditions here.

(Via ComicsAlliance)