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Roy Thomas he was hired by Stan Lee in 1965 and succeeded him as editor-in-chief of Marvel in 1972, when Lee became the editor. Here, Thomas examines Stan Leethe new Disney+ documentary that has sparked the debate on who deserves the primary credit for the success of the Marvel Universe and its heroes: Lee or close collaborators like artist Jack Kirby, whose son has Neil expressed disappointment in the documentary marginalization of his father’s contributions.
“Stan Lee was his greatest creation.”
That’s a joke that gets thrown around a lot these days — more so since Stan passed away in late 2018 and isn’t around to answer it himself — and there’s an argument to be made, as anyone watching David’s new documentary Gelb Stan Lee, now streaming on Disney+, she can testify.
After all, a young Stanley Martin Lieber (though around 18, not 16 as he misremembers at the beginning of the documentary) coined the name “Stan Lee” as a pseudonym with his very first story, written for Captain America comics No. 3 in the late 1940s.
Then, starting in the 1960s, as the new “Marvel Comics Group” and its heroes burst onto the scene and gained traction in pop culture, it increasingly turned “Stan Lee” into a spokesperson for comics in general, Marvel in particular, and probably for itself even more particularly. Stan Lee, as I knew him from mid-1965 to the end of his long life, was not a man with a fragile ego. Or, if he was frail, he was far better protected behind that winning smile and glib tongue than Tony Stark’s heart is behind Iron Man’s armor.
The real question, I suppose, is whether he deserved his status as the main creator of the so-called Marvel Universe.
Gelb’s documentary wisely allows Stan himself to tell his story from beginning to end. Virtually the only voice we hear during its hour-and-a-half run that speaks more than a sentence or two in a row is Stan’s, in long sound bites culled from a series of TV appearances, question-and-answer sessions at comic conventions, award ceremonies, past documentaries, and radio guest snaps — enlivened by the occasional immortal line of dialogue from one of his many late-movie cameos.
This is a refreshing way to meet Stan the Man, and Gelb and his producers (which include Marvel Studios) are to be congratulated for allowing him to tell his story his way. Overall, the effort is successful and enjoyable…and, as far as I can tell from my long association with him (which includes writing a massive “career biography” of him for Taschen Books in the 2010s), presents a reasonably accurate portrayal of the man as he saw himself, and as the world came to see him:
As arguably the most important comic book writer since Jerry Siegel wrote his first ‘Superman’ story in the 1930s…
As the creator (or at least the co-creator) of a myriad of colorful superheroes and related comic book characters…
…And as the creator (or at least the main supervisor and guiding light) of a four-color phenomenon that became known as the Marvel Universe, and which formed the underlying bulwark of the now even more famous Marvel Cinematic Universe, the most successful interconnected film series in the history of that medium.
But of course he didn’t do it alone… and that’s where all the mostly ill-advised criticisms of Stan Lee’s life and work begin to bite.
As recorded in the film, simply because he often (not always, but often) fails to give credit to the artists he’s worked with, Stan often seems to claim full credit for milestones, be they the mighty yarn Hate Monger in Fantastic Four No. 21 or concepts like Hulk and the X-Men. This is partly just a verbal shorthand, but it is also in accordance with his expressed belief that “the person who has the idea is the creator”, and that the artist he then chooses to illustrate that concept is Not. In Los Angeles in the 1980s (admittedly, at a time when I wasn’t working for him), I argued with him one day at lunch on this very point, arguing that an artist who made and inevitably expanded on that original idea was surely a co-creator. I have not made progress with my past and future employers. And clearly, when he wrote his celebrated letter, cited in the document, that he had “always regarded Steve Ditko as the co-creator of Spider-Man,” he was doing so only to try to appease Steve and those who might agree with him. he. Later, he admitted it.
(Funny thing is, taken to its logical conclusion, Stan’s argument could be marveled at making Marvel editor Martin Goodman, not himself, let alone himself along with Jack Kirby, the “creator” of Fantastic Four. After all, it was Goodman who directed Stan to come up with a team of superheroes to compete with DC American Justice League.)
But surely Steve Ditko, as faithfully paraphrased by Stan in Gelb’s film, is Also off the mark when he states that “an idea is just an idea” and that it was his drawing that made Spider-Man real. Because, without the idea in the first place, the character and the events of the story wouldn’t exist. It certainly took Both men, but they’re just too short-sighted to see it.
It’s certainly true that Stan doesn’t give his most talented collaborator, Jack Kirby, extensive credit in any case for his contributions to Marvel’s early days, from Fantastic Four after you. In a way, though, that’s just human nature: Stan could remember things better He brought to the table in 1961, just as Jack could best remember what He He had done. Neither was an omniscient observer of the other’s mind or actions.
One thing is clear almost beyond discussion: Lee often credited Kirby, both in writing and when speaking, for much of what was positive Fantastic Four and related co-creations. The documentary records this as saying that Jack often drew a story after a story conference that only covered essential plot elements; printed in the comics themselves, Stan often went even further. You can search for it.
One seems to seek in vain, alas, any acknowledgment from Jack Kirby of Stan’s value or contribution to their partnerships. And we can be pretty sure that if Jack had credited Stan like that, David Gelb and his researchers would have tracked them down and included them in the film’s soundtrack, if only to bolster their case for Stan’s talents. Instead, the most we get is that Jack says, speaking of Thor, that Stan gave him the opportunity to make such a film and that he gave it his all. Where is his admission or even suggestion that Stan’s dialogue and captions (not to mention his editorial guidance and story contributions) added value to the film?
Nowhere, that’s where.
Now, Jack Kirby was entitled to his point: he himself was the greatest, if not the only, genius behind the success of the Fantastic Four, Thor and everything in between. But that doesn’t mean we have to accept that point of view.
What is really needed, of course, is first a documentary about Jack Kirby and his contributions to Marvel Comics, and then another about Steve Ditko’s career. Both of these features would be potentially welcome additions to Marvel’s cinematic exam. I would look forward to waiting in line (and online) to see one or both.
But if/when we have full Kirby and Ditko records, I hope they are at least as fair to Stan Lee’s talents, contributions and legacy as Stan’s words were to Stan Lee’s talents, contributions and legacy. Jack Kirby and Steve Ditto.
My own voice is only heard towards the end of Gelb’s documentary, but I modestly suggest that I said what might be considered the last word on the controversy, when I said (referring mainly to Stan and Jack, though it could also refer to Stan and Steve) that “neither of them could have done it without the other”.
But I also believe, sincerely, that Stan Lee was the one who had a vision of a Marvel Universe (though he didn’t invent that phrase himself) of overlapping characters with all-too-human emotions that defined and limited their super-powers. After all, he was not only the writer but also the editor, the man who was put in charge of story and art to handle sales for the company that became Marvel Comics. No one else had that responsibility; almost certainly, no one but Stan was looking at the big picture, first to last, day after day.
Without Stan Lee, there would have been some good stories… some beautiful art… but that’s very different than there would have been a general Marvel Universe.
And David Gelb’s skillful collection of auditory evidence underscores this point.
In the end, then, I guess I disagree with the quote that started this piece with.
In my mind, Stan Lee was Not Stan Lee’s greatest creation.
THE Marvel Universe era.
Roy Thomas is represented by manager John Cimino.