Stan Lee Sucks: the Jack Kirby Story

Jack KirbyThis 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.

The X-MenAt 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.[1]

The AvengersThe 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.

KamandiWhere 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.

Afterword

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.”


[1] 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.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

5 thoughts on “Stan Lee Sucks: the Jack Kirby Story

  1. Sorry you didn’t enjoy the documentary. I recall it celebrating Lee’s overall approach (including his role as comic book ambassador) rather than focussing on what he co-created or specific stories. Ironically the commentary notes that it was approved by the Kirby family – and that this approval was important to the film makers.

    There is no question that Jack Kirby was, a creative dynamo…probably the greatest creator in comic book history. Stan (and many others) have acknowledged his character designs, creations, plots etc for decades. Stan was talking about Kirby’s contributions to plots in 1965 interviews (e.g. Castle of Frankenstein’) and it was clearly outlined in a mid-60s bullpen bulletins page for all Marvel readers of that era. This is why Stan was sometimes initially listed as ‘writer’ or ‘scripter’, while later credits simply read ‘produced by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’.

    However, to me and other readers of the time it was obvious the radically different Marvel style started in the early 1960s on the Fantastic Four. Similarly, whenever Stan wrote a post-1961 story with whatever artist – Kirby/Ditko/Colan/Ayers/Romita/Buscema etc it always had that same style. This element was simply never present in Kirby’s solo work after he left Marvel, nor in Ditko’s solo work…even though both continued to produce comics immediately after leaving the company.

    This wasn’t because Kirby ceased to be a creative dynamo. His characters/ideas were still unequalled…but his solo execution/approach was very different and simply didn’t achieve the ‘popularity’ test (it would left to other writers to make his characters/ideas ‘big’ at DC).

    Steve Ditko is on record as stating he produced the first Spider-Man story from Stan’s synopsis (which Ditko also noted was very different from an earlier Kirby version)…and that he worked from Stan’s plots prior to that story. As the Spidey issues went on, Ditko took over the plotting. Ditko’s article on the creation of Spider-Man can be found in various publications, including TwoMorrows’ ‘Comic Book Artist’ magazine. This first-hand testimony alone would assure Stan’s standing in popular culture.

    It is also important to recognize that Kirby, in his younger days, openly acknowledged Lee’s importance as writer/editor/co-plotter and the face of Marvel. Kirby is on record from the 1960s (see the Jack Kirby Collector magazine) as stating that ideas could come from either him, Lee or readers…noting that Lee was “very wise” in keeping track of whether readers wanted a change of pace from cosmic stories etc.

    Plotting sessions between Lee/Kirby were witnessed by many observers, including John Romita and a newspaper journalist for the New York Herald Tribune in 1966. On that particular occasion it was noted the plot ideas came from Lee…though of course Kirby took the overall plot and added many elements. The vitally important written word (final script, narrative etc) again came from Lee.

    It is true that Kirby later became bitter, even denying that story conferences had ever happened, etc. But most of this was said when he was quite old…and after he had been quite ill…coming out of a bitter dispute over returned artwork with Marvel.

    In a 1969 interview for the Nostalgia Journal (published in Nov/Dec 1976) Kirby described how Lee ‘humanized’ the Thor strip. When asked why DC, with such great characters, couldn’t compete with Marvel, Kirby noted “Stan will look at all the characteristics of a character”.

    If you wish to read more first-hand accounts of Lee’s importance at Marvel see ‘Romita and all that jazz’ (essentially a long interview with Romita) and ‘The Stan Lee Universe’ (lots of first hand accounts from artists/staff who worked with Stan…includes a Lee/Kirby interview). And, of course, read the Ditko article and the early Kirby or Lee/Kirby interviews. Once you’ve read the first-hand sources I’m sure you’ll agree that we’re lucky to have one of the giants of the comic book industry (and popular culture) still with us.

    PS You can see a Jack Kirby documentary on Youtube…not sure it is the same one that appeared on one of the FF DVDs.

  2. @Jane Morrison – Thanks for the comment and all the details! It wasn’t that I didn’t like the film. It seemed to do a rather good job of its subject. I just have problems with the subject. Clearly, my article is over the top. (It’s what I do.) Lee is very important and it is hardly surprising that there will be collisions when creative people work together. But the stories really are not critical to comic books regardless. It’s the iconography. That’s why the films get made.

    Lee is revered because of his economic success and his great abilities in promoting himself. It is sad that the one comic book legend who everyone can name isn’t even an illustrator.

    My analysis is more political than anything. The issue isn’t confined to Kirby. Illustrators were greatly abused throughout that time and Lee was a big part of that. I’m not up on the current state of things, but I believe that artists have much greater control of the economics of the industry.

    And part of my attitude has always been based on my low opinion of the superhero comics. When I was a kid, the EC reprints can out and I was blown away by them. And that led to Bernie Wrightson and underground comics. I still admire that. For more of my EC love:

    [url=http://franklycurious.com/index.php?itemid=1370]A Late Valentine[/url]

    But objectively, I’m sure you are right: I’m being too hard on Stan Lee. But given how everyone is lining up to lick his feet, I think it is helpful to provide some push back.

    Thanks for the head’s up about the Jack Kirby documentary. I can’t believe I missed that!

  3. I agree with you about lee he sells his brand name Stan Lee. his push to make everyone believe he did everything has won over all younger readers and movie fans, but us older fans know the truth.
    I will keep pushing for Stan to tell it like it was, not his version or fantasy
    of he was the creator of the universe.I believe Stan Lee created god just so he could take a day off to think of more ways to make us believe him.

  4. Great Article, I agree 100% on your view about Stan Lee, truly makes me sick how the young reader is so brain washed by the marketing genius that was Stan Lee, i’m not saying he didn’t have talent., what i’m saying is that he is not GOD of the comic world.

    • Thanks! My feelings about Stan Lee really come down to my childhood experience with comic books. I didn’t care about the stories. I naturally gravitated toward the titles that featured great artwork. That included Berni Wrightson, Barry Smith, Mike Ploog, Frank Brunner, and, of course, all those glorious EC artists (the reprints had just come out). I did actually enjoy reading the EC titles. But even still, comic books are a visual art. It’s ridiculous that a writer and editor would be held up as the titan of the artform. And I’m a writer/editor, so it’s not like I’m against that. I’m also not that big a fan of Kirby. I like his stuff — especially his later stuff. But there are tons of comic book artists I like more. But if we are going to hold up Marvel as this amazing company, the one we should credit is Kirby. He was revolutionary. And he deserved to be treated better. But in the end, he had a great effect by bringing attention to just how badly artists were treated by the industry. I’d rather have lived that life than Stan Lee’s. As it is, the last time I noticed Stan Lee, he was complaining that he wasn’t even richer. (I think I overstated his wealth in the article. He’s “only” worth tens of millions of dollars. Funny that he still charges people for access when he’s at comic cons. What a jerk!)

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