This is not a review, but I do want to talk about the documentary With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story. It is, of course, about Stan Lee, the “great man” behind Marvel Comics. It isn’t a review because I wasn’t even able to finish watching the film. This isn’t because it is a bad documentary. I thought the filmmakers did a decent job of telling the story. The problem is that I can’t stand the glorification of Stan Lee. I recognize that he’s a good businessman with a knack for marketing. But he isn’t much of a creative person, and the things Marvel is known for are really due to Jack Kirby, not Stan Lee.
Interestingly, With Great Power does deal with the Jack Kirby issue. And even though the film is a total whitewash, if you are paying attention, you can tell Kirby was screwed by Lee. The basic story is that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the most famous of the Marvel franchises: The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, and The X-Men. Plus many others. But it is very clear that Kirby was the primary creative force. And in 1970, because of unhappiness with his contract, Kirby quit.
At that time, Kirby was still just a freelance artist for Marvel, making $35,000 per year. Now that was a good amount of money, but not when you consider what he had done for the company. At that time, Marvel was publishing 60 million issues of its various titles every year. And Kirby got absolutely nothing for having created so many of the Marvel titles. At that time, comic book artists were treated very much like baseball players before they unionized. Stan Lee, of course, wants to portray Kirby’s leaving as just a matter of his ego and that he wasn’t getting the attention that even Lee (now, 20 years after Kirby’s death) admits he deserves. He notes how happy he was when Kirby came back to Marvel in 1976 as though all was forgiven. That was not what happened.
Kirby only stayed with Marvel for three more years. And when he left, it was for the same reason. Marvel still treated him like a hired gun. They had a final falling out over the fact that Marvel would not make him a regular employee. Kirby wanted health insurance and other employee benefits but Marvel would not provide it. For the rest of his life, Kirby battled with Marvel over rights. And it is largely due to Kirby that comic book artists got the rightful benefits of their work.
The issue isn’t just that Kirby created all these comic book characters. Jack Kirby revolutionized comic book art. He added unheard of dynamicism to the art form. Part of that was his use of extreme perspective. A typical example of this is where a character will be drawn running with a fist out in front and a leg way in back, almost in a crouching position. Before Kirby, you just didn’t see this kind of thing and after Kirby you saw little else.
Of course, in the film, it made out as though Stan Lee created that. Younger artists talk about how Lee would make these exaggerated poses in explaining what he wanted to see. Well, that was just Lee showing them how to draw like Kirby. But Stan Lee would rather hop around the office than just tell them to do what Kirby had been doing.
I don’t begrudge Stan Lee his hundreds of millions of dollars. But I have a big problem with people making Stan Lee out to be some creative genius when he isn’t. Now lots of movie stars have decided that Stan Lee is “it” because he “created” the comics all these films are based upon. All Stan Lee did was make a lot of money and live a long time. And that should be reward enough. As for the films, they are pretty much without exception pathetic. In 2007, The New York Times wrote, “Even at rest, a Kirby character pulsed with tension and energy in a way that makes movie versions of the same characters seem static by comparison.” That’s still true. The art of comic books is the art. And even if Stan Lee did everything he claims (which he didn’t), his contributions would be minor.
Where is Jack Kirby’s biography? Where is Jack Kirby’s documentary? His is a far more interesting story. But Jack Kirby was just a great creative artist and writer. He never had a PR film to push his own myth. And that’s all that With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story is: a myth.
When I was a kid, the only current comic book I enjoyed was Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth. It was a post-apocalyptic narrative that was created, drawn, and written by Kirby for DC Comics. Kirby continued to do interesting work throughout his life. The later stuff is much more interesting—much less old fashioned super hero stuff. Lee has never gotten past that stuff, but then Lee’s greatest talent is no doubt least common denominator “art.”
 It’s interesting that conservatives always claim that the market works out everything fairly. But the truth is that the people who are actually responsible for creative work are generally treated like garbage by the business community. And it is only someone of the stature of Jack Kirby who can even begin to push back against that. This is why we need unions and this is why conservatives hate unions.