Happy Birthday, Stan Lee! Can We Stop Being Dicks To Him Now?

Today, Wednesday, December 28th, is Stan Lee’s 94th birthday. And he’s still going strong.

So why is that so many people want to use the occasion of his birthday to shit on the guy?

For the last few years, I’ve been writing for BACK ISSUE magazine from TwoMorrows. I also moderate the group’s Facebook page. And seriously, EVERY time Stan Lee’s name comes up, in ANY context, some Stan-hater crawls out of the woodwork to bash him. Every. Damn. Time.

Today, on a thread about celebrating his birthday, someone posted “FUCK STAN LEE” and started ranting about how he never created anything and guys like Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and Wally Wood deserve ALL the credit for Marvel Comics.

I never get what these people are trying to accomplish. Seriously, what is the endgame here? Are you sincerely expecting to change anyone’s opinion about Stan Lee at this late date? In a group with over 7000 members, do you really think that you’re the ONLY one who’s ever thought about this and come to their own conclusions on this? And did you really think that the BIRTHDAY THREAD of a 94-year-old man was the place to present your oh-so-well-reasoned arguments? Do you think that posting “FUCK STAN LEE” is going to suddenly turn us all into Stan-haters? The only thing you’re changing our minds about is whether or not you’re an asshole.

Let me just say a few things here.

1) No One In Comics, Or In Life, Is 100% Good Or Bad.

Comic book fans have this odd compulsion to put everyone into “Good Guy” or “Bad Guy” categories, I think because superhero comics have trained them to think that way. So a lot of Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko partisans subscribe to a narrative where these poor ‘ol artists were constantly exploited and overruled by the evil Stan “The Man” Lee, like he was Doctor Doom to their Mister Fantastics. But real life isn’t as simple as that.

The guy on the BI thread was trying to make his case by constantly linking to and quoting from an interview Kirby gave to The Comics Journal in 1990, as if that was the end-all be-all of the argument. In it, Kirby said some hurtful things about Stan Lee. But you have to consider this stuff in the context of its time and situation. When Kirby gave that interview, he was at the end of a long battle with Marvel about proper credit and the return of his original artwork. He was bitter, and he was pissed off. And, as Mark Evanier has told us time and again, neither Jack nor Stan have a great memory.

Stan Lee had this to say in a 2014 Playboy interview about the last time he saw Kirby before his death in 1994:

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. 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.

So apparently Stan and Jack made amends and at least came to an understanding towards the end. It would be nice if their fans could do the same.

2) The Argument That Stan Lee Had NOTHING To Do With Marvel’s Success Is Absurd.

C’mon. Even if all he did was dialogue the stories that Kirby, Ditko, and others plotted all by their lonesomes, that’s HUGE. Dialogue alone can utterly transform a story. If you don’t believe me. watch Woody Allen’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily? sometime.

If Stan Lee wasn’t contributing anything to the Marvel Comics produced under his watch, why does The Fantastic Four read so different from The New Gods? I mean, Jack Kirby was the creative force behind them both, so the dialogue should read the same in both books, right?

And that’s to say nothing of all he did in terms of hiring the creators at Marvel, promoting the books, giving interviews, and building a community with the readers. Do you think stuff like the Merry Marvel Marching Society just happened? Stan Lee was, and is, a big part of why Marvel is so successful to this day.

3) Stan Lee Has Given TONS Of Credit To His Collaborators.

As Jim MacQuarrie pointed out in my Facebook rant that prompted this column, Stan Lee has pretty much always given Jack Kirby credit for the Silver Surfer and Steve Ditko credit for Dr. Strange.

Here’s what he wrote in 1975’s Son of Origins about the creation of the Silver Surfer in 1966:

After we discussed the plot for (are you ready for this?) “The Galactus Trilogy,” Jack spent the next few weeks drawing the first 20-page installment. When he brought it to me so that I could add the dialogue and the captions, I was surprised to find a brand-new character floating around the artwork — a silver-skinned, smooth-domed, sky-riding surfer atop a speedy flying surfboard. When I asked ‘ol Jackson who he was, Jack replied something to the effect that a supremely powerful gent like Galactus, a godlike giant who roamed the galaxies, would surely require the services of a herald who could serve him as an advance guard.

I liked the idea. More than that, I was wild about the new character. It didn’t take long for us to christen him with the only logical appellation for a silver-skinned surfboarder — namely, The Silver Surfer.

In 1963’s The Comic Reader #16, here’s what Lee wrote about Dr. Strange:

Well, we have a new character in the works for Strange Tales, just a 5-page filler named Dr. Strange. Steve Ditko is gonna draw him. It has sort of a black magic theme. The first story is nothing great, but perhaps we can make something of him. ‘Twas Steve’s idea.

I figured we’d give it a chance, although again, we had to rush the first one too much.

In both of these cases, Lee gives full credit to Kirby and Ditko for the initial ideas, but Stan still brought something to the party with Strange and the Surfer’s distinctive speech patterns. Whenever Dr. Strange talks about “The Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth” or “The All-Seeing Eye of Agamotto,” that’s Stan Lee’s contribution. And with the Surfer, Stan was so taken with him that he came up with an entire origin for him with John Buscema, one that was at odds with what Kirby originally imagined.

And don’t forget that in 1999, Stan Lee wrote this open letter about Steve Ditko’s contribution to the creation of Spider-Man:

Do you know who first called Jack Kirby “The King”? It was Stan Lee. Most any artist who worked for Marvel Comics back in the day has said that Stan would constantly point to Kirby’s work as an example of how to do the Marvel way of comics right. Stan also constantly promoted the artists as well as himself in the Bullpen Bulletins pages and the Marvel letter columns. And when Kirby and Ditko both objected to Stan Lee being credited solely as “writer” and them being credited solely as “artists,” Stan adjusted the credits to match their wishes.

Could he have done more? Well, yeah, probably. Kirby, Ditko, and Wood all felt that they deserved more credit than they got at various times. But was Stan Lee solely responsible for that? Nope. But he did more than he had to a lot of the time, and I think that should be recognized and appreciated.

4) Stan Was COLLABORATING With His Artists

In the quote I posted above, Stan’s pretty upfront about the fact that he thought that Dr. Strange, as originally conceived, needed work. And the character changed because of what Stan lee brought to it. That’s the essence of collaboration.

In most collaborations, you’re not going to be able to break down everyone’s contributions concretely. After all, no one’s taking notes. They’re too busy turning out the actual product. It gets especially tricky with something like comics produced in the Marvel style, where the artists had a substantial say in the plots. Don’t forget that in addition to writing the dialogue and captions, Stan Lee was also the editor who had the final say, and the art director who could request changes to the artwork. So who is fully responsible for the plot in that situation? Is a cover 100% Jack Kirby’s creation if Stan rejected the original version and directed Jack how to redraw it? How about if he told the inker to make changes? What if Jack censored himself while drawing the story, because he knew that Stan hated a certain thing that Jack wanted to include?

You can’t boil it down to something as simple as Stan Lee did THIS, and Jack Kirby did THAT. They worked on this stuff TOGETHER, and really, that should be good enough for everybody.

Look, in the careers of Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Wally Wood, and others, pretty much ALL of their best-beloved stuff was done in the 1960s at Marvel Comics. And all of it was done in collaboration with Stan Lee. I don’t think that’s a coincidence, do you?

5) None Of Us Were There

You wouldn’t think that this needs pointing out, but no one reading this was at Marvel Comics in the 1960s. So anything that we have to say on the topic is nothing more than speculation or personal opinion. At the end of the day, YOU DON’T KNOW what happened between Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, or Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, or even Stan Lee and Flo Steinberg. Hell, when the participants themselves have different recollections about it, how can we presume to say with any authority what went down behind the scenes at Marvel Comics?

One thing that comic fans love to do is show off our knowledge. I see it all the time, and I fall prey to it myself. “Oh, well, the TV show changed a LOT of things about the comics. In the original comics, it was like THIS…” “Well, this character first appeared in issue #97, but there was a prototype version that first showed up HERE…” “You see, the REAL reason the artist left the book was…” We all love to show that our knowledge is deeper or more extensive than the other guy’s. It’s this weird sort of dick-measuring impulse that comes out in any sort of fandom. You want to prove that you love this thing more than anyone else. And one of those ways is in showing off behind-the-scenes knowledge.

But none of us really knows as much as we like to think we do. At the end of the day, unless you’re working in comics yourself, all we really know about the behind-the-scenes stuff is what the creators and staffers choose to share with us. And that’s just a fraction of the full picture. It’s not the worst thing in the world to admit that there’s stuff you don’t know about. Really. That’s how most education begins.

Bottom line, without Stan Lee, the Marvel Universe doesn’t happen. Can we just give him the credit he deserves and appreciate him while he’s still with us, please?

25 Comments

  1. frasersherman

    It’s hardly just comics. I’ve seen articles by academics who explain that obviously the people disagreeing with them don’t have the professional background and years of research to be taken seriously (whether or not that’s true).

    That said, excellent article. No arguments here.

    Question: I’ve read that Spider-Man actually began with Kirby reviving an old Archie Comics proposal, the Silver Spider (which became the Fly). Stan rejected it, but liked the Spider idea and put his own spin on it, which Ditko then put a further spin on (obviously). Accurate? Oh, and Lee tried drawing Spidey, but couldn’t get Peter wimpy enough (which I have no trouble believing).

    1. Alaric

      There are at least three different, and contradictory, stories about how Spider-Man was created out there, at least, that I’ve seen- the Stan Lee version, the Steve Ditko version, and the Jack Kirby version. I don’t think we’ll ever know how it actually happened.

  2. Le Messor

    Another column that makes me sad that it needs to be written. 🙁

    “I never get what these people are trying to accomplish. Seriously, what is the endgame here?”

    I seriously doubt there’s an endgame. I suspect it’s more compulsion than thought.

    “Comic book fans have this odd compulsion to put everyone into “Good Guy” or “Bad Guy” categories, I think because superhero comics have trained them to think that way.”

    Disagree. I think EVERYBODY does that. It’s called binary thinking – the idea that, if somebody is good, they’re completely good. If they’re bad, they’re completely bad. (In this case, though it goes beyond people being good or bad)

    “One thing that comic fans love to do is show off our knowledge… “Oh, well, the TV show changed a LOT of things about the comics. In the original comics, it was like THIS…””

    Also something everybody does. “He made so many mistakes… Elvis was a great singer but a terrible helicopter pilot.” (Fictional example from The Simpsons, but the point remains.)

    “You wouldn’t think that this needs pointing out, but no one reading this was at Marvel Comics in the 1960s.”

    You don’t actually know that. For all you know, Stan Lee will read this at some point! 🙂

    1. Yeah, I suppose everybody does do the binary thinking thing or the showing off their knowledge thing, but I find those tendencies to be particularly pronounced with comic fans.

      You don’t actually know that. For all you know, Stan Lee will read this at some point!

      Well, it’s certainly possible, but I’m not holding my breath. 🙂

    2. M-Wolverine

      Yeah, sports fans vs. other sports fans, the political landscape, and so on. Everyone is either a god or the devil. And sometimes they’ll even turn on their own, flip flopping. It’s the worst turn society has taken, the removal of all gray.

      I’m sure that Interviewer of Kirby would justify it as doing him a favor, but it comes off as he should be ashamed of taking advantage of a feeble old man. It doesn’t make Lee look bad, it makes Kirby look as bad or worse than Lee’s biggest detractors claim of him. Because his claims are so outlandish.*

      It’s best not to learn too much about the people behind the things you like. They’re not heroes, just people. And how many people in general do you really want to spend a lot of time around? A lot of assholes out there. Add whatever drive and personality it took to get famous enough for you to know about them, and just enjoy their work and hope they shut up as much as possible.

      *My favorite from that page- he developed the Hulk by seeing a story about a woman saving her child under a car; an incident I believe came much later, and was making the rounds of how the TELEVISION show was developed. Which is actually what the origin episode depicted. The original Hulk he “did all on his own” didn’t even turn when he got angry, but at night. So, uhhhh….

  3. mike loughlin

    It’s the friggin’ Internet. What’s great about is how everyone can express any thought or opinion they want. What’s awful about it is how everyone can express any thought or opinion they want.

    I get the anti-Stan feelings, but I wish a lot more people on the Internet (and in real life) realized everything is not about them.

  4. Edo Bosnar

    Yep, agree with every single word of this column.
    One thing that still baffles me about these Lee/Kirby debates, or flamewars, that can be found online is just how worked up the 2 sides get: not only do they act like they know *exactly* what happened back in the ’60s, but they also act like they have a personal stake in the outcome of the argument (this was particularly true during that time when the lawsuit between the Kirby heirs and Marvel/Disney was going on).

    By the way, given the news of the past few days (but also weeks, months and the entire damn year) it’s so nice to see a post about a well-loved figure in popular culture that’s not an obituary…

  5. Alaric

    I agree completely with this column. Every time I hear someone claim that Stan Lee never gave Jack Kirby the credit he deserved, I remember the glowing, worshipful way Lee described Kirby in ORIGINS OF MARVEL COMICS and SON OF ORIGINS, and the way Lee gave Kirby full credit in SON OF ORIGINS for creating the Silver Surfer, one of Lee’s personal favorite characters of all time. Every time someone claims that Stan Lee had nothing to do with creating the Marvel Universe, I think about the way all the Lee-scripted early Marvel stuff feels like it’s the same universe, regardless of who the artist was, while Kirby’s ’70s Marvel work, which he scripted himself, always seems like a separate universe, somehow. None of us were there, no one involved has or had a very good memory- Lee, Kirby, and Ditko all had very different stories about how Spider-Man was created, for example- none of us will ever know for sure who was more responsible for creating what. There’s no question that Marvel, as a company, treated Kirby, Ditko, and others (and, yes, Flo Steinberg) poorly at times, but to pin that all on Lee, who wasn’t actually running the company, seems absurd. These people created the characters we all know and love together, as a collaboration. We should respect them all for it.

  6. Jazzbo

    Couldn’t agree more with this column. Jack Kirby is my favorite comic creator of all time, yet I don’t get all the hate for Stan, or why it seems you have to like one or the other, but not both.

    “Look, in the careers of Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Wally Wood, and others, pretty much ALL of their best-beloved stuff was done in the 1960s at Marvel Comics. And all of it was done in collaboration with Stan Lee. I don’t think that’s a coincidence, do you?”

    This is the argument that I think ends the whole debate. It’s not like Stan just co-created a bunch of iconic characters with one other artist, and you could therefore try to argue that the other artist actual did all the work. Stan created iconic characters with MULTIPLE artists. Artists who, while great in their own right, never came close to creating the same level of iconic characters without Stan.

  7. Sam Millar

    Yes, as we grew older, we discovered his faults. We discovered he was actually human and not a god afterall. I love Kirby and the entire gang, including Stan, warts and all. But for this ‘kid’ growing up in war-torn Belfast, he saved me from committing suicide and helped me become the writer I always dreamed about. I even dedicated my memoir to him and Kirby! Happy Big Day, Stan The Man!

  8. Slam Bradley

    I left the Back Issue page on Facebook at least in part because of the constant ragging on Lee. I had particular problems with an incredibly pompous individual, who will remain nameless, who took every conceivable opportunity to denigrate Lee, deify Kirby and promote his “auteur theory” of comics.

    Thanks for the great article.

    1. Sorry you felt that was necessary, Slam. If it’s any consolation, I know exactly who you’re talking about, and he doesn’t really post or comment on the BI page much any more. I myself got sick of him and defriended him on FB last year.

      If you want, send me a PM on FB. Let me know that you’re the one who left this comment, and I can add you back to the group.

  9. Great article. People are dicks to Stan Lee (and dicks in general) all over the internet, but I suspect that any Twomorrows Facebook group is going to have strong voices that feel that way – many readers of (and certainly some contributors to) Jack Kirby Collector tend to be at the Kirby extreme of the good-guy-bad-guy mindset.

  10. Rob Allen

    Stan isn’t known as a science fiction writer, but in the 60s he had a real knack for plausible pseudo-science. His stuff was a lot more believable than most of what Julius Schwartz and Gardner Fox were doing at DC, and they were the ones with experience in prose SF. Stan doesn’t get enough credit for this aspect of Marvel’s success.

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