Aside from those of its beloved characters, Marvel itself has an amazing origin story. In November of 1961 Stan Lee and Jack Kirby released the first issue of Fantastic Four. Soon the two had several more titles under their belts such as Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, The Avengers and The X-Men. All the while the two men worked together using the Marvel method of writing comics, which was born more out of necessity than anything else. The Marvel method consists of a writer giving a brief outline of the issue to the artist, the artist plotting out the story, and the writer coming back and adding in all the dialogue to match both the art and plot summary. In the 50’s Stan was Editor-in-Chief and writing nearly all of Marvel’s comics, which required him to cut corners, hence the plot summaries—some of which were only a paragraph or two long. This has unfortunately lead to a rather ugly fight between Stan and Jack (and now Jack’s estate).
The underlying problem is that the Marvel method leaves quite a bit of room when it comes to determining who really gave these characters their shape. On one hand it is possible that Stan provided Jack with fairly clear details and descriptions for these characters in his summaries and that while Jack certainly added something to them, it was mostly based on what Stan had provided him. It is also just as likely that Stan was somewhat vague on the details, as was often the case, and that it was Jack that filled in the missing parts in order to really flesh out the characters. With the exact details of events lost to history, it’s pure speculation at this point as to what actually happened.
Over the last few decades the tension between the two has led to a growing schism among fans of classic Marvel comics, with fans picking sides between Jack and Stan (Teams Edward and Jacob can suck it!). For a very long time there was a general public consensus that Stan was responsible for most of Marvel’s characters in large part because Stan was both the public face of Marvel and was much more personable than Jack. Newspaper interviews would go on and on about how wonderful Stan was while dedicating only a paragraph or so to Jack, often describing him in unflattering and sometimes insulting terms. It’s much easier to give credit to someone who is amiable and intentionally doesn’t correct people when credit is given erroneously. I can’t imagine that in the beginning Stan went out of his way to discredit Jack, though it is apparent that he made little, if no attempt to correct people.
Of course Jack is not wholly without blame in this circumstance. There is some evidence that makes me believe that Jack was never a big fan of Stan’s. This stems from years earlier when Jack was fired from Timely Comics (the predecessor of Marvel) because he and Joe Simon were going to a hotel during their lunch breaks to do work for DC. The publisher of Timely (Stan’s cousin) found out about their deal shortly after a very young Stan began tagging along for their lunch time sessions, and Jack and Joe both blamed Stan for this discovery. Years later, both Joe and Jack would be working for Stan, a position, I’m sure, in which neither was thrilled to be. Towards the end of his life Jack also made grandiose claims that he was solely responsible for the creation most of the Marvel characters created during the 60’s.
When it comes to actual ownership rights, I must admit I fall into the crowd that says Marvel has the rights. Certainly I am no legal expert, but given the circumstances under which the work was done, it seems that Jack was hired to do specific work for Marvel and that at the time Marvel had expectations that they would own the work. No one ever expected comics to become the industry they are today, with multi-million dollar blockbuster movies and these characters plastered on thousands of products. Even though they are masterfully crafted, these were still just stories for kids. It seems more than a little revisionist to look back from today and say that these men should have known better and that contacts should have been made clearer with rights explicitly delineated. There was just no way of knowing.
Although I believe Marvel owns the rights, there is still the matter of doing the right thing. There is no excuse for the way Marvel, as a corporation, treated Jack; and as the head of Marvel, Stan had an ethical responsibility to put a stop to it, and he didn’t. From the rejection of requests to return old original pages, to the blatant refusal to grant any credit to Kirby, Marvel did the wrong thing every chance they got.
This is too often the case when it comes to older creators who never expected their work to amount to anything other than an immediate paycheck. Both Marvel and DC have made considerable sums off the characters and have shown very little compassion and respect to the men who created them. The whole situation is made worse by the fact that Jack Kirby is not alone in this situation.
In the end, I think Stan began to believe his own hype and Jack became overly bitter. During a radio interview on his birthday, Jack Kirby received a phone call from Stan, calling to wish him a happy 70th birthday on the air. To me this shows that somewhere inside, Stan had an affection and respect for Jack and the work they did together and that maybe if Stan had stopped with the birthday greeting, it might have been the first step towards mending fences. But Stan, always the self-promoter, couldn’t stop there, and once again had to throw some barbs at Jack. It is a great shame that even by the time that Kirby died, these two men couldn’t come close to seeing eye to eye.
I believe that Stan and Jack are both right and both wrong. Given the unique method in which the Marvel method works, it had to have taken a collaborative effort to make these wonderful comics. Stan provided some great ideas which Jack improved upon with some of his own ideas and both men shaped the final product. While both men have had some level of success separately, neither has come close to the magic they achieved together.
Interview with Jack Kirdy on his 70th birthday – Stan enters the conversation at minute 19, and throws barbs at minute 33:30.
Marvel Comics: The Untold Story – Provides even more details about how Marvel worked behind the scenes. Highest possible recommendation.
Jack Kirby Museum – Working to create a permanent museum dedicated to the work of Jack Kirby.