Thursday, 11 October 2018

Stan Lee in a Post-Fact World

IF YOU'VE NEVER READ THE JACK KIRBY INTERVIEW in The Comics Journal 134 (Feb 1990), you really should. It's the basis for most of the unfounded vitriol heaped on Marvel Editor and architect Stan Lee over the last 28 years, and many Kirby supporters view it as the literal truth. But is it the literal truth? I really don't think so ...

For over thirty years, fans have argued over who created what in the Marvel Universe
... but does it actually matter?
Yet, it takes only the most cursory search of the internet to find an abundance of comments from some of Kirby's more extreme followers who take every word of that interview as gospel ... this despite even interviewer Gary Groth admitting that "some of Jack's claims may have been exaggerated."

The further effect of that interview was to polarise Jack Kirby's and Stan Lee's camps, a rift which seems to have deepened right up to the present day. And neither side wants to shift their position an inch.

I really don't know why - after all this time - I should be surprised by that. There has been much talk in the Meejah about how we live in a post-fact world, as evidenced by those who cling to their beliefs - despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary - and the devaluation of the advice of experts. The blame for this has been laid squarely at the door of Steve Bannon and his "alt-facts" strategy that put Donald Trump in the White House.

Is Donald Trump the hapless victim of a manipulating Steve Bannon?
But I don't think that's true. I think the tendency of some folk to believe their emotions rather than their intellect has always been there. As far back as 1721, erudite satirist and thinker Jonathan Swift opined, "Reasoning will never make a Man correct an ill Opinion, which by Reasoning he never acquired" ... or as it's more often written, "You cannot reason people out of positions they didn’t reason themselves into."

So, the theory goes, once someone has an opinion in their head, it's nigh-on impossible to get them to change their mind. And facts be damned. Which, admittedly, we are seeing more and more of these days.

That probably means the rest of what I have to say here will mostly fall on deaf ears and is essentially a waste of my time. But I really do have to take issue with some of the comments Kirby made in that interview nearly thirty years ago, because some of the assertions just don't correlate with the known facts


THE JACK KIRBY INTERVIEW

When Gary Groth steers Jack Kirby towards the subject of the creation of the FF back in 1961, Kirby replies with "I came in [to the Marvel offices] and they were moving out the furniture, they were taking desks out — and I needed the work! I had a family and a house and all of a sudden Marvel is coming apart."

Now that probably makes for great copy from interviewer Gary Groth's point of view, but his responsibility as a journalist would have been to challenge every bit of that assertion. For example, Jack turned up at the Marvel Offices and they (who?) were taking the furniture out. Presumably, this was a weekday ... I've worked in office environments all my adult life, and never once have the facilities team ever moved or removed furniture while the staff were in the office. Risk of accident. You wrangle office furniture at weekends when there's no staff or visitors to have a desk dropped on their foot.

And Marvel was coming apart? Timely/Atlas/Marvel had indeed suffered earlier business setbacks. The first identifiable crisis was in 1954, when Wertham's shenannigans shut down several major comics companies - Fawcett and EC were the biggest - and damaged the sales of many more. Marvel Publisher Martin Goodman didn't blink. He streamlined the comics division company by firing staff - or actually making Stan do it - and cutting his page rates. The major part of his business, the magazines or "slicks", marched right on making way more money than the comics ever did. Stan commented in his memoir Excelsior!, "I remained in the office. I was like a human pilot light, left burning in the hope that we would reactivate our production at a future date. Martin needed someone who would be able to get things going again when the time came." And, of course, after a year or so the time did come.

The second time Goodman's comics line suffered a setback was when he closed his own distribution company and went with American News, a company that itself closed down a few months later, leaving Goodman without distribution on all his publications. But he didn't fold his business, he simply did a deal with Independent News Distribution. IND happily distributed all of Goodman's magazines, but limited his comics to eight titles a month, so as not to compete with their own DC Comics. And still the comics line soldiered on.

So even if Marvel was in financial difficulties in 1961, Goodman - a veteran survivor of the publishing business - would have cut the page rates, or survived on inventory or just gone all-reprint ... anything to milk every last cent out of the comics until it was impossible to make any more profit. Then he'd have sold Captain America, Human Torch, Sub-Mariner and the cowboys to DC or Charlton and Millie the Model to Archie and carried on with his slick mags, Male, Stag and others.

It's well documented that during the late 1950s and early 1960s, Martin Goodman's "slick" magazines made considerably more money than the comic books ... yet Goodman doggedly continued to publish comics, sticking with the genre through thick and thin.
Yet, for all that, it didn't appear that Marvel was having any financial problems during 1961. A quick trawl around the internet will bring up sales figures for US comics during the early 1960s. These are the figures printed in the Statement of Ownership panels in the comics, required by federal law, so we can be sure they're accurate.

What these figures show was that during the first years of the 1960s, on either side of the time that the Fantastic Four was created, Marvel was doing about average to low sales figures. Not as good as Dell and some DC titles, but better than Charlton and other DC titles. Here's a sample:


Title
1960
1961
1962
Tales of the Unexpected (DC)
192,000
195,000
180,000
Star Spangled War Stories (DC)
169,000
205,000
195,000
Tales to Astonish (Marvel)
163,156
184,895
139,167
All Star Western (DC)
154,000
180,000
Cancelled
Tales of Suspense (Marvel)
148,929
184,635
126,140
Kid Colt Outlaw (Marvel)
144,746
No figures
No figures
Space Adventures (Charlton)
110,166
No figures
No figures
Unusual Tales (Charlton)
No figures
136,414
No figures
Strange Suspense Stories (Charlton)
No figures
No figures
127,740

So there's no evidence at all to suggest that Martin Goodman was on the point of shutting Marvel Comics down for business or for any other reasons. Certainly Stan's never mentioned it in any of his accounts of the period, and that's surprising. For it it were true, and Stan's efforts had brought Marvel Comics back from the brink, then you'd think – if he is as much of a credit-hog as Jack paints him – he'd be quick to point that out to anyone who'd listen. Yet, while he's described the troubles Atlas went through in 1954 and 1957, he's never mentioned the post-Atlas, pre-Marvel incarnation of the company having money problems.

At the end of Jack's claim about Marvel imminently going out of business he adds a very strange remark. He says, "Stan Lee is sitting on a chair crying. He didn’t know what to do."

It's pretty unlikely that Stan would have been that upset even if Martin Goodman was going to close down the "MC" (pre-Marvel) line. He had enough side projects on the go that he wouldn't have been unemployed. He'd published more than a few magazines and books on his own during the 1950s and had two syndicated newspaper strips - Willie Lumpkin with Dan DeCarlo (Dec 1959 to May 1961) and Mrs Lyon's' Cubs with Joe Maneely (Feb 1958 - Dec 1958).

After the tragic death of artist Joe Maneely in July 1958, Stan tried to carry on with Mrs Lyon's Cubs with Al Hartley, but the strip foundered and was discontinued towards the end of 1958.
To give Jack the benefit of the doubt, it's plausible that he could be speaking about 1957, when Goodman's unfortunate business decision resulted in his comics line being curtailed to eight titles a month. Conflate that with the death of Joe Maneely a few months later - a loss which is generally acknowledged to have hit Stan personally and very hard - and there may be some grains of truth in Jack's statement, but there's not necessarily any cause-and effect.

Of the monster comic stories Goodman was publishing in the MC era, Jack says, "I always enjoyed doing monster books. Monster books gave me the opportunity to draw things out of the ordinary." Yet in an earlier interview for the New York 1975 Comic Art Convention Handbook, Jack said, "I was given monsters, so I did them. I would much rather have been drawing Rawhide Kid. But I did the monsters… we had Grottu and Kurrgo and It… it was a challenge to try to do something – anything – with such ridiculous characters."

Aside from obvious the contradiction around whether Jack liked drawing monsters or not, I mostly include these two quotes to highlight Kirby's own admission that he was "given" monsters to do. Which supports Stan's claim that Goodman wanted monsters to capitalise on the success of Godzilla. On that basis, it's not implausible that when Goodman saw that the monsters had run their course, he instructed Stan to develop some superheroes, like DC's successful Justice League of America book.

The earliest monster cover at MC was Strange Worlds 3 (Apr 1959). It would be a few months before the other pre-Marvel fantasy comics started ploughing that same Kaiju furrow, beginning with Strange Tales 70 (Aug 1959) four months later, then Journey into Mystery, Suspense and Astonish. My analysis would be that Martin Goodman noticed better sales on the first monster cover and instructed Stan to put monsters on all the fantasy books' covers.
When asked how Stan and he collaborated on the monster stories, Jack snaps "Stan Lee and I never collaborated on anything! I’ve never seen Stan Lee write anything. I used to write the stories just like I always did." Jack doesn't even allow that Stan wrote the dialogue. "I dialogued them. If Stan Lee ever got a thing dialogued, he would get it from someone working in the office."

Again this isn't corroborated by others who were working at MC at the time. Joe Sinnott described working with Stan Lee during this period. "I'd bring the story back on Friday and he'd give me another script. I never knew what kind of script I'd be getting. Stan had a big pile on his desk, and he used to write most of the stories himself in those days. You'd walk in, and he'd be banging away at his typewriter. He would finish a script and put it on the pile. Sometimes on his pile would be a western, then below it would be a science fiction, and a war story, and a romance."

If Stan did indeed get someone else to dialogue any of Kirby's stories, this would have been mostly likely during the 1964 (so, later) period when he tried to get first Larry Lieber, then Robert Bernstein and Ernie Hart, to write the scripts. And we know how that turned out.

Again, I want to give Jack the benefit of the doubt here and suggest that Kirby may well have written dialogue onto his artwork, but as he (by his own admission) never read the final published comics, he very likely didn't realise just how much of a contribution Stan was making to the stories.


Here's a random page of Stan Lee's dialogue from Fantastic Four 64 page 2 ... compare with a page of Jack Kirby's unedited dialogue from Forever People 1 page 6.
I would also question Jack Kirby's understanding of what writing actually is. I covered it in more depth in an earlier blog post, but essentially Jack seems to think that plotting the stories is the same as writing them. He says as much in numerous interviews through the decades from the 1970s to the 1990s. A typical example of that  was an answer Kirby gave to Will Eisner in a 1982 interview about how the Lee-Kirby stories were created. "Stan Lee wouldn’t let me fill in the balloons," said Jack. "Stan Lee wouldn’t let me put in the dialogue. But I wrote the entire story under the panels."

Except that the plot is definitely not the entire story. What makes a story work or not work is the way the characterisation is presented. And that is done through the dialogue. If Stan wasn't letting Jack add the dialogue, it was because Stan had very firm ideas about how the characters' personalities should be depicted. And in my view, that makes Stan's contribution a vital part of the writing process. And none of that is at odds with what Stan has always said in interviews. Kirby plotted and drew, and Stan dialogued. And that's what made the Marvel stories special.

If you want to understand the difference between Stan Lee dialogue and Jack Kirby dialogue, then simply place a copy of Fantastic Four alongside a copy of Forever People and see for yourself. 

And, of course, there's many examples of pages Jack drew during the Silver Age that Stan rejected or had done over because he didn't agree with the direction Jack had taken in a story. So I don't think there's any denying that Stan steered the course of the Marvel books.

A little bit further on in the interview, Jack describes how he created the Hulk. "The Hulk I created when I saw a woman lift a car. Her baby was caught under the running board of this car. The little child was playing in the gutter and he was crawling from the gutter onto the sidewalk under the running board of this car — he was playing in the gutter. His mother was horrified. She looked from the rear window of the car, and this woman in desperation lifted the rear end of the car. It suddenly came to me that in desperation we can all do that — we can knock down walls, we can go berserk, which we do. You know what happens when we’re in a rage — you can tear a house down. I created a character who did all that and called him the Hulk. I inserted him in a lot of the stories I was doing. Whatever the Hulk was at the beginning I got from that incident."

I've already looked at this claim in an earlier post and I don't think there's anything to be gained from rehashing that here. But my main issues with this statement are:
  • The "mother lifts car" story is a popular urban myth. I heard it from my mum back in the early 1960s.
  • The science is shaky. Most scientists agree that adrenaline doesn't deliver a boost large enough or quickly enough to allow feats of superhuman strength.
  • Jack didn't bring the rage element to The Hulk, Steve Ditko did in the Tales to Astonish run, though there's a mention of rage triggering the Hulk's strength in Astonish 59, a story scripted by Stan Lee and pencilled by Dick Ayers.
Kirby's next claim is more contentious. Talking to Groth about Spider-Man, Jack says, "I created Spider-Man. We decided to give it to Steve Ditko. I drew the first Spider-Man cover. I created the character. I created the costume. I created all those books, but I couldn’t do them all. We decided to give the book to Steve Ditko who was the right man for the job. He did a wonderful job on that."

I've also covered the creation of Spider-Man in an earlier entry in this blog, and concluded that Jack had little to do with the version of Spider-Man that eventually was published. There is a story about Joe Simon and CC Beck coming up with an unsuccessful character pitch title "The Silver Spider" that later morphed into The Fly (aka, Flyman) for Archie Comics, and Kirby mentions that he pitched Joe Simon's Silver Spider to Stan, in a 1982 interview with Will Eisner:

"It was the last thing Joe and I had discussed. We had a strip called, or a script called, The Silver Spider. The Silver Spider was going into a magazine called Black Magic. Black Magic folded with Crestwood and we were left with the script. I believe I said this could become a thing called Spider-Man, see, a superhero character. I had a lot of faith in the superhero character, that they could be brought back, very, very vigorously. They weren’t being done at the time. I felt they could regenerate and I said Spider-Man would be a fine character to start with. But Joe had already moved on. So the idea was already there when I talked to Stan."


If Jack did pitch a version of Joe Simon's concept - which eventually became The Fly - to Stan then wasn't he just representing the work of others as his own?
Steve Ditko refutes Jack's claim telling Alter Ego magazine in 2000, "One of the first things I did was to work up a costume. A vital, visual part of the character. I had to know how he looked ... before I did any breakdowns. For example: A clinging power so he wouldn't have hard shoes or boots, a hidden wrist-shooter versus a web gun and holster, etc. ... I wasn't sure Stan would like the idea of covering the character's face but I did it because it hid an obviously boyish face. It would also add mystery to the character."

Now that doesn't make Stan's claim to have had the idea for Spider-Man himself true, but Ditko's assertion doesn't contradict Stan's, nor does it support Jack's claims. And certainly, the known facts about Joe Simon, C.C. Beck and Jack Oleck creating The Silver Spider for Harvey Comics pretty much discredit Kirby's claims to have actually created any part of Spider-Man.

But as I said at the beginning of this piece, we seem to live in a world where facts count for nothing and only opinions matter, at least to those who hold them.

Mark Twain once said, "It's easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled", or words to that effect. And that seems more true today than ever. But I do think it's a shame that many who believe Kirby's statements in The Comics Journal interview to be the literal truth seem also compelled to try to destroy Stan Lee. I'm not sure why. I'm pretty certain Stan never did anything to them.

I get that Jack was angry at the way he felt he'd been treated by Marvel during the 1960s and 1970s, but his anger towards Stan Lee was simply misdirected.

It wasn't Stan Lee's actions that caused Joe Simon and Jack Kirby to quit Timely Comics back in 1942. It was a dispute with publisher Martin Goodman after Goodman's accountant Maurice Coyne told Joe Simon that Goodman's was loading all the company expenses against Captain America Comics. Furious at being cheated out of their royalties, Simon and Kirby made plans to exit Timely to go over the National (DC). They started working on material for National publisher Harry Donenfeld while finishing Captain America 10. Joe's then editorial assistant Stan Lee figured out that the pair were working on material for National. Shortly after, Simon and Kirby were confronted by Martin, and his brothers Abe and David, and were fired for disloyalty. Kirby always suspected Lee of informing on him, though Joe Simon never did.

After a dispute over promised royalties on Captain America Comics, Simon and Kirby quit Martin Goodman's Timely Comics and went over to Harry Donenfeld's National Publications (DC). Their last Timely work appeared in Jan 1942, their first DC work was cover-dated Apr 1942. Kirby wouldn't return to Marvel for 15 years.
And it wasn't Stan Lee who wrote that profile for the New York Herald Tribune that made Stan out to be the driving force behind Marvel and Jack to be like the "assistant foreman in a girdle factory". It was reporter Ned Freedland. No newspaper ever gives the subject of an interview the opportunity to edit the text before publication, yet Jack believed that Stan had manufactured the whole thing to make Jack look bad. And that's pretty unreasonable. John Romita later said in an interview in the Comic Book Artist fanzine that there was "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."

It wasn't Stan that denied Jack his rightful credits. Far from it. Stan pioneered credits in comics and always was effusive in his praise of how much Jack (and others) contributed to the stories, while other companies expected their writers and artists to labour in anonymity.

I'm saddened that Jack Kirby reached the end of his life feeling such bitterness towards Stan Lee, when it seems to me he was angry at the wrong person. There's a long list of people who could bear more of the blame for robbing Kirby of his due than Stan.

I love Stan's work and I believe that without Stan, Marvel would never had enjoyed its massive success during the 1960s and overtaken DC in sales. It wasn't just the characters and the stories, it was the whole package - the tone of the editorial, the "club" feel to Marvel that Stan created (all by himself!), the melodramatic hype. I've written about that extensively elsewhere in this blog.

Most tellingly - and this can't be stated often enough - the dialogue in the Fantastic Fours of the period is identical in style to the scripting in both the Steve Ditko and the John Romita Spider-Mans. For me that's more than enough evidence that Stan scripted the books and was responsible for crafting the personalities of the characters, a far more important aspect than either the designs of the characters' costumes or the plots of the stories.

But I also loved the works of both Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. Both contributed enormously to the success of Marvel Comics during the company's Silver Age. But they didn't do it alone.

It's also important to remember that Jack Kirby wasn't the only artist working at Marvel during those formative years. Don Heck was the first artist on Iron Man and a hugely important contributor to the other early Marvels, along with Dick Ayers, Gene Colan and John Romita.
For me it really doesn't matter who did what in the creation of these marvellous comics characters that were so much part of my childhood. I didn't care then and I don't much care now.

The fact is that Stan and Jack created the Fantastic Four. Stan and Steve created Spider-Man. Stan, Larry and Jack created Thor ... well, you get the idea. It's impossible to understand, and irrelevant to focus on, the minutia of what aspects of which character were created by which writer or artist 57 years later.

What I loved about Marvel Comics as I was growing up in the 1960s was the way the characters talked, as well as the friendly tone of the letters columns and the Bullpen pages. I liked the artwork too, but it was that tone, the voice of Stan Lee, that separated Marvels from all the other comics.

Contemporary fans might think that the editorial swagger Stan brought to the books sounds corny and overblown now, but it wasn't in 1965. It was magical.

And that was all the work of Stan Lee.

Next: Something less controversial



6 comments:

  1. And if there's anyone who could tell it like it actually was any better than you've done, Al, I'd be surprised. Well done.

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    1. Regarding the mother lifting the car bit, I could be wrong here, but I seem to remember a similar scene in The Hulk TV pilot episode. If so, maybe Jack unconsciously got the idea from there. Can anyone confirm if such a scene is in the episode?

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    2. Thank you, Gordie ... I spent a great deal of time on this post, carefully sifting through every interview I could get my hands on, then pondering long and hard to be sure I was being as fair as possible to all sides, based only on the evidence. I hope the next post is easier to write than this one ...

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    3. It seems that the anti-Stan brigade on another site realise that they can't address the reasoned argument you've presented here, Al, and are instead content to post links to the same tired, Lee-bashing articles (like the Groth interview) that has 'informed' their opinion for years. That suggests to me that your logic here is pretty much irrefutable.

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    1. Thank you ... that's good to hear. I worked very hard on it.

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