Saturday, 23 April 2016

The Hulk on TV (and Jack vs Stan, again)

THE INCREDIBLE HULK was one of the first Marvel characters to make it to the small screen. Back in 1966, with the quite terrible Batman tv show inexplicably topping the ratings, others were looking around for comic book properties to option. A company called Grantray-Lawrence approached Marvel with a proposal for a syndicated cartoon tv show collectively called The Marvel Superheroes

Though the ads called the show "Marvel Super-heroes", the actual on-screen title was "The Marvel Superheroes". The featured characters were the stars of Journey into Mystery, Tales of Suspense and Tales to Astonish.
The show would be very cheaply produced and use artwork from the comics with very limited animation. Marvel publisher Martin Goodman probably looked at the massive sales boost DC's Batman titles had gained from the Adam West show and figured that with his characters on tv, he too would get a big increase in circulation.

I won't dwell long here on how well or badly the cartoon producers adapted the Hulk comic stories for tv. I covered that process pretty extensively when I wrote about the Captain America cartoons a couple of blogs back. I have to say, though, that the theme tune for The Hulk is way more annoying than the Captain America one ... here's the lyrics:

Doc Bruce Banner,
Belted by gamma rays,
Turned into the Hulk.

Ain’t he unglamor-ous!

Wreckin’ the town
With the power of a bull,

Ain’t no monster clown
Who is as lovable

As ever-lovin’ Hulk! HULK! HULK!

The animators reached back into the vaults and used the story and art from the entire run of the original 1962 run of Incredible Hulk comics, with varying degrees of success.

The DVD of The Incredible Hulk that I have includes a booklet with an episode guide and a breakdown of which comics the cartoons are adapted from.
The remaining cartoons adapted Tales to Astonish 60-62 (Episode 6), 63-65 (Episode 3) 65-68 (Episode 4), 68-71 (Episode 5), 73-74 (Episode 7), 75-77 (Episode 12), 81-83 (Episode 13) and Avengers 2 (Episode 8).

The first episode used the artwork from The Incredible Hulk 1 largely unchanged, though The Hulk is coloured green throughout rather than the grey of the original comic.
The first episode is a pretty straightforward adaptation of Incredible Hulk 1 (May 1962), though for some reason, the communist villain The Gargoyle appears here as "The Gorgon".

The second episode uses the startling Ditko-inked artwork from The Incredible Hulk 2 (Jul 1962). As noted last month, I thought this art looked like there was more Ditko in there than Kirby, and I've always liked this interpretation, though I could see how Stan might think it a bit too fearsome for his then-intended audience of ten-year olds.

Steve Ditko's version of The Hulk, despite working over Kirby pencils, was much more monsterish than seen in the issues on either side.
There was then a smattering of stories from Tales to Astonish before viewers would see an adaptation of one of my all-time favourite Steve Ditko art jobs, The Incredible Hulk 6 (Mar 1963).


The ninth episode of the Hulk cartoon adapts The Incredible Hulk 6, albeit in truncated form, to fit the 13 minute running time.
It's an okay adaptation, but there's the occasional shot where they've dropped in a Kirby Hulk face, then in the very next shot, it's back to the Ditko version again. It must have been a little disconcerting, especially for non-Marvel fans, seeing The Hulk changing in appearance from scene to scene.

The other really weird thing the animators did was to colour the old, clunky Iron Man armour from Avengers 2 (Nov 1963) in the style the newer red-and-yellow Iron Man Armour ... wouldn't it just have been easier to frame the whole episode as a flashback and leave the armour yellow?

The old style Iron Man coloured up to match the newer colour scheme. Is it me, or is that just plain wrong?
But as I don't want to spend an entire blog entry dwelling on the peculiarities of each cartoon, here's a scan of Ditko's original artwork for the for the story's splash page (not owned by me, unfortunately) from that classic Hulk issue ... and then we can move on to something I've been thinking a lot about since last time.

The incredible splash page from The Incredible Hulk 6, as pencilled and inked by Steve Ditko who would go on to revitalise the character during his Tales to Astonish run.

JACK KIRBY - A SLIGHT RETURN

If you're regular reader of this blog, you'll recall I mentioned I had doubts that Jack Kirby could fairly be called the sole creator of The Hulk, as he has claimed in interviews. My main area of concern was that many of the main "distinguishing characteristics" of The Hulk couldn't really be attributed to Jack Kirby, as they hadn't been present during old Greenskin's first appearances in the original run of The Incredible Hulk (1962). Just so we're clear, I think these are:
  • Banner changing to The Hulk while under stress (which is related to)
  • The angrier the Hulk gets, the stronger he gets
  • Hulk always talking about himself in the third person ("Hulk smash!")
  • The Hulk's distinctive green skin
Granted the last one is a little debatable, as Jack Kirby rarely was responsible for a character's colours. I only include it here because Hulk's green-ness is a major part of his Unique Selling Point.

Thinking about it over the last few weeks, I realised that what my assertion boils down to is that Jack Kirby's Hulk wasn't the successful one, and it took major intervention by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko to turn the character round from cancellation to a cornerstone of the Marvel Universe.

An angry - and very long - interview with Jack and Roz Kirby was published in this issue of The Comics Journal at the beginning of 1990. I still have my original copy somewhere.
A cursory search of the Internet will turn up many differences of opinion around who actually created the Marvel Universe. Mostly, those with a view line up either in the Stan Lee camp or with team Jack Kirby. What is surprising is just how polarised opinions are. And I think Stan Lee has come in for a lot of criticism that isn't actually deserved, based mostly on the assertions that Jack made in his now-notorious interview in The Comics Journal 134 (Feb 1990).

In it, Jack says that Stan made no contribution to the Marvel lineup and that Jack created just about all the Marvel characters alone and that he also wrote all the stories he drew. I found the anger and mean-spiritedness of the interview quite upsetting at the time, as I had always admired both Stan Lee - I'd met him a few times while I worked at Marvel UK during the 1980s - and Jack Kirby, whose work I had actively collected during the 1970s, including all those terrible Archie titles and the pre-hero Marvels.

Jack Kirby, pictured in 1970, and Stan Lee some time in the mid to late 1970s.
How could Jack said such terrible things about Stan Lee, who had always been so generous in giving credit to Jack in both the Bullpen Bulletins and Origins of Marvel Comics for doing most of the creating? Especially given that Jack Kirby had the reputation for being one of the kindest people in the business. For a long time I wondered if Journal editor Gary Groth was taking advantage of Kirby and egging him on to the level of bitterness we see in the interview. But I don't now think that's the case, either.

I do think that from Jack's point of view he actually did create much of the material during the early days of Marvel, but equally, I don't accept that Stan did nothing and just hogged all the glory. I think the issue is that Jack and Stan had very different ideas about what constitutes "creating" a character ... and as a writer and editor myself, I naturally have a little more sympathy for Stan's viewpoint.


BACK TO BASICS

Obviously, when we're talking about things that happened in 1961 and the couple of years that followed, you have to bear in mind that memories get hazy, and all us have a tendency to re-write history with ourselves as the hero. Just look at Future Shock: The 2000AD Story for an example of that. But what is certain is that Stan Lee was the editor at the fledgling Marvel Comics and a story or an idea would not have gone in the comics if Stan hadn't approved. Yes, publisher Martin Goodman had the power of veto, and decided whether titles lived or died, but while a series was running, Stan got to say what saw print and what didn't.

For that alone, even if you don't want to give Stan credit for anything else, you have to admit he had at least the good taste to publish Jack Kirby's (and Steve Ditko's) work. Just what the exact nature of that work was, I will try to ascertain in the paragraphs that follow.

The problem with being ("just") an editor is that when things go wrong, you get all the blame and when things are going swimmingly, you get none of the credit. I learned that hard lesson in the period immediately after my short tenure as editor of 2000AD. My friend Philip de Sausmarez calls it "having all of the accountability and none of the authority". It's also characterised by the phrase, "Success has a thousand fathers but failure is an orphan". And that's a phenomenon you'll see in just about any business that has a P&L sheet.

Superman was the first "superhero", as you might infer from his name. Immediately he appeared, others scrambled to put out their own versions. Wonder Man was created by Will Eisner and was quickly sued out of business. Captain Marvel on the other hand managed to survive for fifteen years before DC lawyers were finally able to close him down.
To begin to understand how the argument over "creatorship" brewed in the first place, you first have to consider how comics were made and consumed back at the dawn of the industry and how that changed once Marvel Comics evolved new audiences for illustrated storytelling. It's related to the old show business anecdote of the Whistling Dog, the idea behind it being that booking agents were so enthusiastic about the idea of a dog that could whistle that none of them stopped to ask whether the dog was any good at whistling. It was the same with comics. When Superman first appeared in 1938, there was such a scramble among publishers to get their hands on superhero characters that they didn't stop to consider whether the material they were buying was any good or not.

During 1973 and 1974, DC Comics published a number of 100-page editions of their comics. Most of these had just the regular twenty or so pages of new material and padded out the rest with reprints from the Golden Age.
This helps me to understand why it was that I didn't care much for Golden Age comics, while people whose opinions I respected - Roy Thomas and my friend, uber-collector Mike Hill - thought there was nothing better than a Golden Age comic and variously built their careers riffing off those old books or spent hundreds and thousands acquiring the original comics. When DC started publishing their 100-Page Super-Spectacular comics in the early 1970s I grabbed as many as I could to read the wealth of Golden Age material they reprinted. The sad fact was that I found most of those old tales pretty much unreadable. Badly written and crudely drawn, they just didn't have the entertainment value I could find in any Stan Lee comic I cared to pick up.

In the years since, I've thought on-and-off about why that might be. Was it a generational thing? No, because I love movies of the 1930s and 1940s. Okay, is it just that writers were just better thirty years later? Again, no ... movies produced inside the studio system both pre- and post-WWII were always at least competent - some positively shone, when they used writers of the calibre of Billy Wilder & Charles Brackett, Ben Hecht and William Faulkner. These days it doesn't take too much effort to uncover a contemporary movie stinker - just take a gander at SyFy or The Horror Channel ...

Though both Fighting Yank and The Red Bee were reasonably successful comics during the 1940s, hardly anyone remembers them today.
And when you look at the comics that surrounded Marvel on the newsstands during Marvel's formative and glory years, including the DC Comics, you could see that they were still being produced under the same mindset that gave us such long-forgotten characters as Fighting Yank and The Red Bee. And that mindset took the view that The Idea was enough.

In the mad scramble to publish long-underwear characters that vaguely resembled Superman, the publishers and editors didn't much care whether their characters were competently written and drawn, they were just looking to publish something that looked a bit like Superman. Then once the furore died down (and once National got done with suing those who sailed a little too close to the Man of Steel), more skilled creators like Will Eisner and, of course, Simon and Kirby were able to pitch new ideas to editors for characters that were more than just Superman clones.

Though the cover of Jumbo Comics 15 was drawn by Sheena-creator Will Eisner, the interior story was by Bob Powell. The cover and interior art for the Blackhawk story was by Chuck Cuidera, with Eisner supplying only the script.
But again, because this stuff was all so new, packagers like Eisner were able to create concepts, then turn them over to lesser talented journeymen and be confident that the concept was strong enough to carry the books forward, even without the original creator's input. So Eisner (and his partner Jerry Iger) created franchises like Sheena Queen of the Jungle and Blackhawk, and turned them over to competent craftsmen like Mort Meskin, Bob Powell and Chuck Cuidera to do the actual heavy lifting. And through the 1940s, that was enough.

Young Romance, created by Simon and Kirby in 1947, was the first of a boom in "love comics". A few years later, Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein started a deluge of horror comics with Crypt of Terror (later Tales from the Crypt).
As the Atomic Age rolled around, readers began to tire of superheroes and sales began to dip. Publishers panicked and began replacing the costumed characters with different ideas. Simon and Kirby invented the romance comic and everyone scrambled to get aboard the love boat. In 1950, Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein created the first ongoing horror comics and set off another gold rush. But all were still convinced that it was the concept that sold their books. And as far as their existing target audiences were concerned, they were more or less right.

Right at the beginning of the first entry in this blog, I quoted the famous saying, "the Golden Age of science fiction is twelve", which can easily be paraphrased as, "the Golden Age of comics is ten". The point is that the median age of comic readers was traditionally always ten. That held true on both sides of the Atlantic. And ten-year olds are not the most sophisticated of consumers. So while comics were catering to that age demographic, there was no pressure on the publishers to do any more than keep coming up with new concepts. If a book was well-written or drawn, that was all well and good, and would probably contribute to a title's longevity, but the quality of the delivered material was never a deal-breaker. 

I'll admit to reading the occasional Charton comic back in the 1960s. The strips drawn by Steve Ditko, like Gorgo and Captain Atom weren't too bad, but the rest of the company's output was for the most part below average.
Look at Charlton Comics ... the occasional Ditko story notwithstanding, most of their output was pretty terrible and regularly sold 100,000-plus copies per month per title. Heck, Martin Goodman's Atlas comics were routinely a couple of notches below adequate and they too were selling similar numbers. Not even DC (formerly National Periodicals) paid much heed to quality of the material they were publishing. The much-feared and reviled DC editor Mort Weisinger was famously quoted in Steranko's History of Comics as saying of Superman, "He's invulnerable, he's immortal; even bad scripts can't hurt him."

Much as I enjoyed the Julius Schwarz edited DC comics when I was eight, looking back now it's easy to see they had no real humanity about them. No one ever got angry or irritated or sad in a Schwarz book ...
And it was into that exact environment that Stan Lee thought he could launch his own take on superheroes, a view that tried to present super-heroes as real people and have them react to their situations as you or I (or Stan) might react. Now, of course, we take that approach for granted, but back in 1961, no one had thought of that before. Over at DC, Weisinger, and his colleague, editor Julius Schwarz, were still ploughing the furrows that had been marked out during the 1940s, using many of the same writers and artists. Yes, Schwartz's retoolings of The Flash and Green Lantern had a modernistic patina to them, courtesy of the sleek pencils of Carmine Infantino and Gil Kane - and, arguably more important, the glossy inking styles of Joe Giella and Murphy Anderson - but the editors were using the same old writers they'd always used. Gardner Fox and John Broome were still churning out the same old-school, plot-driven stories they had during the 1940s.


PLOT-DRIVEN vs CHARACTER-DRIVEN

It took me years to understand the difference between plot-driven and character-driven stories, though I'll happily admit I can be a bit slow on the uptake. Even though I worked extensively with gifted writers like Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and, most notably, Steve Parkhouse, I didn't think too closely about the mechanics of creating a story. I first heard the phrase "character-driven" uttered by Steve Parkhouse. And I had no idea what he meant. But after a while of trying - and for the most part, failing - to create workable fiction, it began to dawn on me that the best stories don't have characters manipulated like puppets to serve the necessities of the plot. You have to have the characters decide the plot turns, based on what the character would do in a given situation.

If you are ever reading a story or watching a tv show or movie and you think to yourself, "Why on earth would he do that?" ... that's an example of a plot-driven story. It means that the character is acting out-of-character in order to help the writer get where he wants to story to get to.

That's what those old Silver Age DC comics were doing, month after month after month. And that works just fine when you're in a marketplace where the customers are young and unsophisticated and are more interested in the novelty of the concepts than they are in the quality of the storytelling. To be fair, it worked just fine for DC pretty much from 1938 right through to about 1965. And as my old Fleetway publisher Jon Davidge was very fond of saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Comics was just about the only area of creative writing where you could get away with that stuff. Okay, there's a special place reserved in Poor Storytelling hell for writers of 1960s and 1970s tv shows ... and now I come to think of it, 1940s radio shows were pretty awful, too. But in the 1940s and 50s, the comic was the nadir of storytelling.

But the problem was that the comic book marketplace was changing thanks, in no small part, to the efforts of Stan Lee. Pretty soon, the old way of creating comics was not going to work. Audiences were becoming smarter, not necessarily good news for the comics industry. Perhaps Stan actually recognised that or perhaps his different approach to how characters were written was just a lucky coincidence. Either way, it lead to an elevation in the average age of Marvel Comics readers and ultimately, to the average age of all comic readers. And that wasn't necessarily good news for the comic industry, either.


WHAT JACK DID

So what exactly was Jack Kirby's contribution to the Marvel Universe and why did he say those terrible things about Stan Lee in that notorious interview in The Comics Journal 134?


After parting company with Martin Goodman over arguments about Captain America royalty payments, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby went over to National where they produced Manhunter and Sandman for Adventure Comics, Newsboy Legion for Star Spangled and Boy Commandos for Detective Comics.
The old school guys, who had come up through the 1940s, really did believe that the Concept was enough. So Simon and Kirby were able to produce Captain America and The Vision for Timely, then move over to National where they first revamped Sandman, then pumped out Boy Commandos and Newsboy Legion, while Captain America Comics continued as one of Timely's best-selling titles.

After the war, Simon and Kirby struck out on their own and published their own comics in partnership with established publishers, starting with Young Romance, Black Magic with Prize and Boys' Ranch with Harvey.
Even as late as the 1950s, Simon and Kirby were coming up with hit concepts, like Boys Ranch, Black Magic and Young Romance, and were well-respected in the industry for it. Towards the end of the 1950s, Kirby took over Green Arrow in 1958 for National after creating Challengers of the Unknown in 1956, neither of which would resemble the Marvel characters that would emerge just a couple of years later.

This was the strip that effectively finished Jack Kirby's relationship with National Comics. Challengers editor Jack Schiff claimed royalties from Jack and the Wood brothers for not very much work (it seems) and the creators fought him in court, resulting in Kirby being blacklisted at National.
Even though he claims not to remember the reasons for his departure from National at the end of 1958 in the Comics Journal Interview, the fact is that Jack Kirby got into a legal battle with National editor Jack Schiff over whether Schiff was entitled to a payment for his minimal involvement with Dick & Dave Wood and Jack Kirby's syndicated newspaper strip, "Sky Masters of the Space Force". And even though Kirby eventually lost and Schiff got his money, National closed ranks and by the beginning of 1959 Jack Kirby had no one else to sell his pencil to but Atlas.

At Atlas, Kirby was content to coast along on the monster books for almost three years before he or anyone else thought about doing superhero characters. It's fairly well-documented that Martin Goodman wanted something that would cash-in on the rising success of National's Justice League of America comic and instructed Stan to produce a team-up book with Captain America, Human Torch and Sub-Mariner. What happened next would change the course of Martin Goodman's, Stan Lee's and Jack Kirby's lives.

And this is where accounts vary.

Jack Kirby has always maintained that he and he alone came up with the concepts for The Fantastic Four. And let's allow for a moment that that's true. But if, as Jack claims, Stan did nothing, why is it that everything Kirby did both before and after Marvel doesn't read like his Marvel stuff?

I think it was because in Jack Kirby's mind, The Concept was all that mattered. He didn't understand character-driven stories, and so provided concepts (and plots) along with his art, but didn't bother with stuff like motivation and characterisation.

The perfect example of why it matters how a comic is written is The X-Men. When the title began in the early 1960s, it sold well enough and after running for two years, was finally stable enough to go monthly. First Kirby stepped back, then Stan handed the reins to Roy Thomas ... and then the title began to founder. Three years later, it was cancelled. If the title was succeeding on the strength of its concept alone, it should have lasted longer. The problem was that it was a great idea, just not very well done - and by the mid-1960s, you just couldn't get away with that any more.

By the late 1960s, The X-Men was selling the lowest number of copies of all the Marvel super-hero titles. Even Sgt Fury was selling better than X-Men. The new X-Men revamp of the mid-1970s was a whole different story, though.
When The X-Men was revived in 1975, it was pretty much re-tooled from the ground up to be very much character-driven, with new X-Men members who were written much more in a Stan Lee than in a Jack Kirby style. And we all know how the title performed after that.


WHAT STAN DID

When Stan worked with Jack on those early comics, Stan brought something to the table that didn't appear in the mags of other publishers at that time - emotions. For the most part, Superman, Batman, Flash and Green Lantern were deadpan and emotionless in every adventure. If Superman experienced any emotion, it was because of Red Kryptonite. Certainly Kirby's Green Arrow or Challengers never expressed annoyance or fear. Jealously was something that only Lois Lane displayed.

These two DCs are cover-dated the same month as Fantastic Four 1 (Nov 1961). Seems that Superman's toughest day is because his robot's melting fingers might give away that Clark Kent is Superman. I'm not sure how Lois would get from A to B with that one, but never mind. Over in Lois's own title, her big problem is she's inexplicably acting like a ... umm ... hussy.
The Fantastic Four, however, were a big bundle of unrepressed emotions. The Torch was playful and irritating, and The Thing was irritated, morose and short-tempered. Mr Fantastic was boring, pompous and over-protective of Sue, and Invisible Girl was solicitous, caring and yes, even occasionally, jealous.

Not only that, but those elements of emotion appeared all the way through the Marvel line, whether Jack was drawing the comics or not.

And, most importantly, the effect was that it attracted readers older than that traditional ten-year-old demographic. So readers stayed with Marvel Comics past the age when boys normally gave up comics and got interested in sport or girls. And that's what shaped the comics industry right up until the present day.


HOW MARVEL CHANGED THE COMICS INDUSTRY

Today, the audience for comics is largely a nostalgic one. Very few young readers are coming in at the bottom end of the age-range. There have been many discussions about why that should be, though few have been able to offer a solid explanation. My own view is that it's a collision of several factors. 

The tv versions of Sheena, Superman and Flash Gordon. Comic sales began their long, slow decline in the late 1950s. Many kids of comic reading age were able to get their comics fix (and other similarly themed entertainment) on television ... for free.
Television was certainly a big one. In the late 1950s, kids could watch the dramatised adventures of Superman, Flash Gordon and Sheena Queen of the Jungle right there in their own living rooms. For free. And tv made audiences lazy. Why go to the bother of reading when you can lie on the floor and have the actors talk out of the television to you?

As the Sixties rolled into the Seventies, kids' toys got more sophisticated, then computer games came along, and by the end of the 1970s newstand comic sales had tanked. So the industry came up with a new plan ... and serviced the aging fans via comic shops and the direct market.

And all that time, with Marvel offering stories aimed at older readers, and DC trying to follow that trend, and with continuity becoming ever-more involved, it's no wonder that new readers in that 7-8 age range weren't getting into comics to replace the readers lost at the top of the age range.

So for the last forty odd years comics have come to rely more on retaining the readers they already had, catering to them past the teenage years and well into adulthood. 


... AND BACK TO THE MAIN POINT

All the time that the comic industry was changing, because of what Stan was doing with the stories in Marvel Comics, Jack Kirby seemed oblivious. He didn't realise that the audience demographic was changing and that the readers were buying Stan's stories because of the emotional connection they felt with the characters and their situations.

Much of the time, Kirby didn't even look at the finished comics, so maybe he was assuming that the stilted dialogue he was scribbling in the page margins of his pencils was being faithfully lettered by Sam Rosen. And even if he had read Stan's dialogue, I doubt he would have understood how Stan had made it better.

Of course, sometimes, Stan wanted the story to be slightly different to how Kirby, or Ditko, had drawn it, and would get other artists to make changes, so the art would conform to Stan's dialogue. But that's what most editors do. Some are more considerate about it than others, but essentially, editors regularly change stuff before it goes to print. Even book editors who are dealing with sole authors and actual copyright holders. I don't think that could have been a surprise to Kirby.

Here's an extract from the New York Herald-Tribune article by Ned Freedland. The full article was reprinted in The Collected Jack Kirby Collector 4.
I think Jack Kirby's bitterness towards Marvel, and especially Stan, in the late Sixties was a combination of Jack simply not understanding that the audience for comics had moved on since the 1940s and 1950s and a Big Idea was no longer enough, plus Jack not appreciating the enormous contribution Stan's humanistic dialogue was making to the finished product. What finally tipped Jack over the edge was that 1966 article in the New York Herald-Tribune by Ned Freedland that made Stan out to be the driving force behind Marvel and Jack to be like the "assistant foreman in a girdle factory". Jack - somewhat unreasonably - blamed Stan for the tone of the article and their relationship was never the same again.


WHAT A SHAME

It's a real pity that Jack Kirby reached the end of his life believing that Stan Lee screwed him over. Because when you look at the evidence and listen to what others, who were there at the time, say ... well, that just doesn't hold water.

Stan pretty much invented credits on comic books. At the time, no one else did it. Occasionally, artists would sign their work - and more often than not the production department would white the signatures out - but it wasn't common. If Stan really was the egotistical maniac Kirby made him out to be, Lee would have credited just himself or left the artist's name off. In fact, Stan went all out to create a star system at Marvel and freely talked about how the Marvel Method worked in his Bullpen Bulletins.

John Romita told the Comic Book Artist, "I had heard all of the inside stuff, like from the Herald-Tribune article that insulted Jack, that he thought Stan was a part of. Stan could not convince him of that, and certainly could not convince Roz that Stan hadn’t encouraged the writer to make fun of Jack. I know for a fact that Stan would rather bite his tongue than say such a thing, because Jack’s success would've been his success. There’s no reason to run Jack down. Stan had the position; he didn’t have to fight Jack for it. I don’t think Jack ever wanted the editorial position; if he wanted credit, he deserved credit. Stan used to give him credit all the time; he used to say most of these ideas are more than half Jack's."

If anyone screwed Jack, it was Martin Goodman. But even then, Marty was just following industry practice. Original artwork was never returned. In fact, the companies went as far as supplying pre-printed art boards to the artists so the pencillers couldn't claim they owned the physical bristol boards. And Marty thought credits were a courtesy, one he'd never have extended without Stan's urging.

Should Marvel have paid Kirby and his family when the characters made millions in other media? Well, yes ... it would have been the decent thing to do. But when have you ever heard of a big company paying anyone unless it absolutely has to? And Stan had asked Jack many times to join the Marvel staff as Art Director, but he always refused. Perhaps if Jack had taken the company shilling, he too might have end up with a million-dollar pension for doing the occasional promotional appearance.

But it wasn't to be, and Jack Kirby went to his grave believing that Stan Lee had betrayed him, which doesn't seem to be the case at all. And that is the real tragedy here.

Next: Some Astonishing Tales

17 comments:

  1. That's pretty much what I've always thought and said on my blog, but not in as much depth as you have, Al. And Kirby was certainly big on concepts, but he never originated them - merely regurgitated them from what he'd read in SF books and mags (and TV). And even then, the concepts weren't necessarily what grabbed the readers (at least, not in all cases), it was How Stan scripted them that gave them their magic. I don't think it helped Jack that he had people around him in the late '60s and early '70s who were filling his head with notions that he was being ripped off and exploited - he eventually came to believe it, although he was doing far better than the average wage earner in America at the time. He certainly wasn't poor.

    Incidentally, in regards to Boys' Ranch, I've always found it odd that it (and Fighting American) were touted as examples of Simon & Kirby's success when they only lasted around half a dozen issues or so.

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  2. I never read Boy's Ranch, though I do have the Fighting American hardcover, and found it quite a slog. I don't think "satire" was S&K's forte. Incidentally, after I'd completed the above entry, I came across a 1997 interview with George Roussos, who worked with Simon and Kirby during their 1940s DC days. He said, "Joe was the writer - he never trusted Jack with the writing - and Jack would do the pencilling, which Joe would ink. Sometimes both of them pitched in to ink."

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    1. I've got both volumes, Al, but to be honest, I wondered what all the fuss was about. The reason, I believe, is that most old strips work better in comics form (the paper, the Ben-Day colouring, etc.), and are best read between the ages of around 8 and 16. Then, in later years, they represent a magical time in your youth. If the first time you read them is as an adult, in deluxe hardcover volumes with shiny paper, then it's just not the same, is it? (Unless they really ARE masterpieces of course.)

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    2. Yes ... that's exactly right, Kid.

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  3. Thank you for a reasonable discussion on the Lee-Kirby issue. I've been studying the early Marvel era for decades and I've concluded that Stan Lee was more hands-on, particularly in the 1961-64 period, in plotting stories. From 1965 on less so, although that does not mean Lee never came up with ideas. Kirby was absolutely an essential part of the equation and we may never know who brought what to the table in discussions of character creation. I don't believe Kirby was totally oblivious to Lee's achievements, though. If you read early Kirby interviews you'll notice a distinct difference in his comments on Lee. Kirby admitted they worked together and Lee had a hand in ideas, pointing out that Lee would want Thor to return to earth after an extended period in Asgard in order to have human conflicts as Don Blake, so at one point Kirby was definitely keeping that in mind. Kirby was more concept that character oriented, although he brought personality to his characters, the Thing being one of the best instances. Other elements that went into Marvel were a combination of the two. Lee apparently began trying out continued stories, but Kirby clearly latched onto the concept and flew with it, creating epic tales.

    The bottom line is - in my estimation - that both Lee and Kirby created something unique with their combined talents. Kirby was an overwhelming part of Marvel's success, but Lee was also instrumental in bringing personality to often stale characters as well as promoting them incessantly.

    Both men are human and have made statements that made me cringe at times, but a study of the work they produced in that era, independent of favoritism, emotional outbursts, blanket statements and vitriol is of greater importance to the history of comics.

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    1. That's an interesting point you make, Nick. I had always had the impression that Stan was doing much of the plotting up until about 1965, when things started to get busier around the Bullpen, with the addition of second strips in Astonish and Suspense. So thanks for confirming that. Just like Lennon and McCartney, Lee and Kirby were much better together than they were apart ...

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    2. Bad analogy as McCartney and Lennon seldom wrote together post 1963, yet their best work came in 1965-1968.

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  4. In that early (1961-64) period its worth noting that Lee was fully scripting or co-plotting only FF, Spider-Man and The Hulk while only supplying the story plots to Larry Lieber, Robert Bernstein, Ernie Hart and a few others. It would make sense that he was more involved in plotting out those stories with Kirby and Ditko. When he took over scripting the Thor, Torch, Iron-Man and Giant-Man strips he began providing plots for artists such as Heck and Ayers for the first time. In addition he was scripting much of the westerns and teen-romance titles. It wasn't until Roy Thomas arrived that Lee began to cut down, and by that point he began promoting Marvel in newspaper, magazine, radio, TV and on college campuses, so it would follow that Kirby, Ditko and Wood (three of his most inventive storytellers)were given more autonomy to plot out stories.

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  5. Wonderful writing here on the early Marvel period. This is bound book quality writing, not just for a blog. I was there as the 10 year old kid buying the first FF and followed comics since. We will never return to those days of kids getting their superhero fix along with maybe a Richie Rich comic at the local drug store. Stan made the comics industry grow up, for better or worse.

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    1. Thank you ... you're very kind. Funny, I'd forgotten that I used to pick up the occasional Harvey Comic when I was about ten, as well. Just around the time I was still reading DCs. I quite liked Spooky ...

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  6. I'd argue that the Boy's Ranch and Romance comics were often very character-driven (always thought the moody young gunhawk named Angel was comparable to James Dean) but tastes will differ. A lot of the Golden Age material was written and drawn by kids in their teens and twenties and seemed to come unmediated directly from their ids until more editorial structure was imposed (framed mostly around WW II). Those pre-war comics appeal to me as hallucinogenic fantasies that are very different from the more formal structures in place by 1945 or so. I love the primitive art in those early dreamlike Dr. Fate and Spectre Comics. The recently exhumed Fletcher Hanks comics seem wonderfully insane. It sort of depends on what you're looking for in your comics.
    Some of the writing on early Timely Comics is just plain awful, but I find the Simon-Kirby stuff energetic and entertaining. There were some writers of quality Like Alfred Bester and Otto Binder who also wrote SF books that fans still value.

    As comics became more and more a formalized enterprise, the editors got more involved in the production and formulas were arrived at for what sold. In the Silver Age, the creative process became so upturned at DC that the editors would come up with cover ideas that the stories were then written around, comparable to how the film studio AIP would come up with a schlocky poster for films that were only made after the poster had sold it to theaters.

    There was a real tyranny of editors at DC for quite a while. Guys like Julie Schwartz would heavily rewrite scripts until they all sounded alike. Weisinger and Kanigher were known as control freaks. But an editor has been a great asset as part of the creative process, when they value their creators. Look at Bill Gaines at EC, who was obviously having a blast and encouraged stylistic differences in his artists. Stan Lee was, I think a fan of Kirby (remember he was first hired to assist Simon and Kirby) and Ditko and understood the power of visually driven comics. For DC and others the comics grew from the script. At Marvel, the script emerged from the art. Stan may have had a strong plot in mind at least in the early days, but he knew the pages could be more powerful if staged by an artist.

    As someone who was buying comics at the time, I felt the early X-Men was a terrific concept that tended to get hung up early on repeating the same plot over and over with essentially the same villains. They were pretty cool villains, though. I think what really made the comic stall out was Kirby being replaced by really bland art. I feel if the book had been given the same sort of attention the FF was receiving, it would've been a blockbuster. Stan and Jack were both stretched too thin and so it seemed to be a book adrift until near the end when Thomas had Adams to play off of. Writing is very important, but a significant part of the language of comics and the story of comics is the art.

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    1. A lot of the early X-Men comics not drawn by Kirby were laid out by him 'though, and his influence is apparent. I suppose it could be argued that the X-Men failed because Stan stopped scripting it more than because Jack stopped drawing it. Of course, it could be nothing to do with either and was merely down to a fickle public.

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  7. Very interesting. On Stan's contribution I guess you should add humour. You talked about previous super hero stories being 'dead pan'. To add to your theory, younger people tend like their humour quite obvious and even slapstick. I am not sure of my ground here but I wold it be Stan that came up with the little one liners from crowd scenes? I just bought Spiderman 7 (as you know) and the scene where JJJ argues frantically with the Vulture that he can't steal the payroll is hilarious and so characterful...(the old skinflint). Would Jack have come up with that?
    I wonder why it mattered so much. Money obviously, to be able to claim sole authorship, I suppose, might leave you in a stronger position to argue. Pure vanity? I doubt it. That sense of betrayal - this can be very irrational in my experience. But perhaps American culture makes it harder to say 'we' did it - the individualism that made super heroes of the time work perhaps starts to pervade reality.
    I really don't know the facts well enough but Jack clearly didn't recognise that sometimes small things can have a big impact. I remember Prof Steve Jones making this point in genetics (chimps share 98% of genes in common with us - but 2% can make a big difference!).
    I may be mistaken, but I seem to see someone in Stan who was able to add the magic ingredient, at the right time, in the right place and have a huge impact. Bloody annoying for those who are very talented and who have slogged hard for years. The latter are less likely to get God's little joke. Hey ho.
    Thanks for a great blog.
    Excelsior!

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  8. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. For years now the Kitbyites have demonized Stan to the point where there was recently a play produced, depicting Jack as having been cheated by Stan.

    I still am irritated every time I see the guy who instituted the Krazy Kredits, thereby raising everyone who worked on the books to superstar status, reduced to merely a "self-promoter".

    As you pointed out, Stan was always effusive in his praise of both Ditko and Kirby. He was always up front and quite frankly proud of his "Marvel Method".

    The apocryphal story, which, as far as I know, Jack Kirby never disputed of Stan getting the storyboards from Jack on the FF/Galactus Trilogy and being surprised by and asking Jack "who's the Silver guy on the surfboard", is revealing. Jack, according to legend, explains that a guy like Galactus ought to have a herald. If, as Jack later claims, he did all of the work and wrote everything, why would Stan be surprised by any story element that Jack produced? The surprise suggests expectations being changed. Where you are not involved in any way in writing or creating the story, there can't be any changed expectations. Stan would only be surprised by the inclusion of the Surfer if he'd had some discussion with Jack, and therefore some expectations on what the storyboards would depict.

    I've come to despise the Hipster Contrarion demo nixing of Stan as a phony, when a reading of the Bullpen Bulletins contemporaneous to the stories pretty much has Stan telling the world that his artists were "story men in their own right".

    Thank you, once again for adding some balance to what has become a one sided discussion.

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    1. You make a very compelling point about the creation of the Silver Surfer. The story has been repeated many times, not least of all by Stan, and has never been disputed that I know of. It gives overt credit to Jack for creating the character, but the underlying subtext had never occurred to me until you pointed it out. Stan's surprise does indeed indicate he was expecting one thing (his own plot) and got another (Jack's enhanced version with The Surfer).

      I also reject the idea that Stan "cheated" Jack. Stan wasn't the owner of the company, Martin Goodman was. Stan never owned the rights to any of the characters he created any more than Jack did. And Stan has also said he offered Jack a staff position as Art Director more than once, always turned down, and the story never disputed.

      Should Marvel have paid the artists more for the "plotting" they were doing? Probably, but again, that was never Stan's call. Goodman decided how much the artists (and writers) were paid ... if the critics want to demonise anyone, perhaps they should look more closely at Martin Goodman. Though to be fair, Goodman wasn't doing anything the other publishers weren't ... he was just a bit cheaper.

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  9. Obviously Stan did nothing, that's why Jack went on to such stellar success without him. I mean, Kamandi and Machine Man are household names, aren't they? And who could forget OMAC and Captain Victory, those long-running million-sellers? Aren't they making billions of dollars at the cinema now?

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  10. I don't think I've read a better post about Stan Lee.Your thoughts are really exactly the same as mine about him.After reading so many posts and UTube videos "demonizing" him,it was pleasing to read your fair and balanced overview.

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