Stan Lee Was the Showman of Marvel Comics, but Jack Kirby Was the Soul

Stan Lee.

Stan Lee. Gerald Martineau/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The Fixture of the Attic

My brother is five years older than me. With that kind of age difference, you end up inheriting a lot of things, from hand-me-down clothes to old toys, as well as certain elements of culture. Their likes and interests instantly feed into your own. It’s like you are born into a pre-made reality. I was definitely born into his comic collection.

We kept it up in the attic, piled along the shelves of the southern wall. As it modestly grew, it became further stuffed into cardboard boxes, much like you see in comic stores. Even before I could really read, I was fascinated by them. But it’s not as if they were some forbidden thing that he hid up there to keep me from ruining—my brother was always excited to share them with me. He showed me his favorites and taught me how to take care of them. He was excited to bring me into his favorite worlds because he didn’t really have many other people to talk about them with. That’s because comics were forbidden in a different sense: I didn’t realize they were hidden in the attic because they were considered the opposite of cool.

The ‘80s were not exactly a kind time to these “dorky” properties. My brother was a budding young football player, as insecure and eager to fit in as any other kid. And so his love of comics (along with Dungeons and Dragons), was quartered off and compartmentalized. I even remember being expressly forbidden from talking about them with a few kids who had older brothers his age. But that paranoid fear was matched only by his utter excitement. It all became a part of some secret world—one full of stories and powers and adventures beyond measure. And if the comic collection was an inherent fixture of my dawning consciousness, so was Stan Lee.

Subscribe to Observer’s Entertainment Newsletter

He was the co-creator of, well, most of it. You already know the rundown, but we’re talking Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, Black Panther, The X-Men, Iron Man, Thor, The Incredible Hulk, Doctor Strange, Ant-Man, Daredevil (it’s safe to say there have been worse resumes). And I read and loved them all. Though I’ll say I had a particular affinity for the outsider/group dynamics of the X-Men (and will also admit my great love of the Hulk mostly comes from the Bill Bixby TV show).

Even back then, it seemed like Stan Lee was everywhere. From conventions to TV interviews, he was always quick to be the talking head for any project, the one visible face in a comics industry that didn’t have a lot of visibility. Heck, he even had a pivotal cameo in 1995’s Mallrats—a moment that would prophetically go on to be part of the enduring legacy of his ubiquitous cameos in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And just like the conventions of his own creation, like Comikaze, his celebrity became synonymous with comic-dom itself.

That was his talent.

Stan Lee always had a knack for making himself the figurehead of things. After all, he went from sharpening pencils to working as the interim editor at Timely Comics by the age of 19. After serving in the war, he worked steadily throughout the ‘50s before being entrusted with the company’s response to their arch-rivals over at DC Comics, who had a mega-success with the team-up of the Justice League. So when told to form his own team, Stan Lee partnered with the likes of Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Larry Lieber and other heavyweights to co-create the characters that gave birth not only to Marvel, but the entire silver age of comics. At the center of that universe was a philosophy that Lee talked about endlessly: their heroes would not be perfect, cookie-cutter souls. They would have human problems. They would fail. Their stories would be fantastic but grounded in the real world. In terms of the vision for what the world would become, it was a harbinger. And their creations would become rousing successes.

But Lee’s position and impact wouldn’t just be as the vision-holder. Even from the beginning, he had a talent for promotion and getting the joy of Marvel comics out in the world. This promotion, of course, went hand in hand with his own celebrity and association with the brand. This was a man who literally had a soapbox. Seriously—it was called “Stan’s Soapbox” and it ran for years on the back of the comics they printed. Often it announced contests or promotions, but at its best, it featured meaningful pleas for civil rights and tolerance. And after his long-time run as editor came to an end, it was almost as if Lee was now free to be the full-time showman, the ambassador of not only Marvel, but of comics themselves. He did this the job with vigor and passion, especially as the movies helped usher in a new era of enduring popularity. It is in this space that he somehow became the summer blockbuster’s endearing grandfather figure. And now, this is how he is most thought of. But my admiration of Stan Lee is a bit more complicated than that. Because you can’t talk about Stan Lee…

Without talking about the people he left in his wake.

The Soul and Strife

I will say it plainly: Jack Kirby is one of my heroes.

I’ve always talked about him any chance I could get. Luckily, you can’t talk about Stan Lee’s life without talking about Jack Kirby. It would be like writing about Paul McCartney without mentioning John Lennon (and if we’re going to round out the metaphor, that probably makes comics contributors Ditko and Lieber the George and Ringo). Kirby was a force of personality. Gruff. Hilarious. Forthright, but oddly sweet. Much has been made of his tough-guy sensibilities. Kirby didn’t just serve in the war, he was in the infantry and on the ground at Omaha Beach weeks after D-Day. He engaged in incredibly dangerous recon missions and made maps for the Allies. He even liberated concentration camps.

Kirby carried the pain and weight of those experiences forward, often with righteous vigor. When conversations about Nazi-punching came up recently in the news, Kirby’s name kept getting mentioned mostly for his quotes like, “The only real politics I knew was that if a guy liked Hitler, I’d beat the stuffing out of him and that would be it.” This was something that was actually put to the test in the famous story of actual Nazis showing up to the offices to challenge Kirby to fight for all that mean stuff he said about them in his books. An accomplished boxer, Kirby rolled up his sleeves and went down to find that they had already dispersed. It’s almost too fitting for the man who created Captain America. But it’s also only half the story.

Jack Kirby. Suzy Skaar/Kirby Museum

Because Kirby’s soulfulness was just as much a part of the equation. He was the man who believed that, “life at best is bittersweet.” The man worked tirelessly on the stories that fueled the Marvel empire, often in a way that chained him to his desk. He was an incredible artist who didn’t just create the look of everything we have come to know and love, but was also a masterful storyteller, gifted at writing characters with deep loneliness and melancholy. While Stan Lee could at times seem like Reed Richards, the idealist with his head in the clouds, Kirby was likened to Ben Grimm, The Thing. The gruff, isolated, rough figure whose tenderness was only surprising to people who couldn’t look past the surface. His arcs gave rise to some of the most important stories of comics, most notably, the Galactus storyline in Fantastic Four, one of the better meditations on humanity’s worth and the core of empathy. If Lee was the showman of Marvel comics, Jack Kirby was the soul. The engine. The fire. Pick your metaphor. He was everything really.

And he never really got the credit he deserved.

There are long-running debates about who really created all those incredible characters, and I’m not here to argue one way or the other. Often in situations of creative collaboration, it’s a process of back and forth. Most of the time you can’t even remember who did what, you’re just trying to evolve endless ideas into coherent good ones. If you engage in that kind of creative process long enough, you develop certain working dynamics. And sometimes within those dynamics you feel like you don’t get enough credit or appreciation, financial or otherwise.

We know this is true of Kirby’s working relationship with Lee because Kirby said so himself…constantly. They also knew they worked well together, but this issue couldn’t help but keep spilling out. Kirby’s frequent contract disputes weren’t just about salary, but whether or not he had the right to sue over characters/creation/ownership. His epic battle of trying to get the rights to Captain America speak volumes of the difficulties he was trying to negotiate. And at the center of so much of it was the automatic policy of Stan Lee being the editor but listing himself as the writer and Kirby as the artist no matter what actually happened in the process.

It’s not that anyone wanted to upset Kirby. He didn’t earn the nickname “The King of Comics” by accident. But when Kirby pushed back for consistently not getting what he was promised, and expressed frustration for constantly having to play second fiddle and do all the work as Stan Lee was off gallivanting as a promotional machine, being viewed by the public as the brains, it ate at Kirby—to the point that Kirby said enough was enough, and jumped ship to DC in the ‘70s (though there would be short-lived attempts at reconciliation). What did this shed light on exactly? Well, Kirby’s writing on New Gods, which he was now credited for, was pretty fantastic. And Lee’s work without geniuses like Kirby and Ditko (who also left Marvel after a rift with Lee in 1966)? Well…it was less so.

That’s not a knock on Lee’s writing. He was always witty and particularly good at dialogue. It’s just that it’s not hard to see that Kirby was bringing a kind of substance, along with a spectacular, exploratory vision for the cosmos. When I talk about the Lee and Kirby feuds, there are Marvel fans who don’t like hearing it, because it feels like mom and dad are fighting. Just as there are Kirby fans who can only view Lee with a venomous glare. But of course it’s more complicated than that. And probably less dramatic. I simply have to talk about Jack Kirby because he is the shadow of Stan Lee’s legacy.

I talk about him because I don’t want us to forget.

I talk about him because stories get rewritten, especially when those who survived told the stories about themselves. I do it because we live in a world where people genuinely think Stan Lee did it all himself and maybe Kirby was just “The Artist.” But meanwhile, there’s a reason that in Marvel comics, when characters have a vision of or interaction with God, it is designed after Jack Kirby.

Part of what prevents that image from being so mainstream is that the great Jack Kirby died in 1994. It’s not so much that he never got to make his obligatory cameos. It’s that he never got to see his creations completely take over the pop culture landscape. He didn’t get to see armies of kids trick-or-treating in the costumes he designed. He never got to see the way his comics became more diverse, the way he always wanted. He never got to see the way his stories would be told and strike a chord. He only lived long enough to see the time that kids hid their comic books in the attic out of fear. He deserved better, but, as he said: life at best is bittersweet.

The Enduring Legacy

The last time I saw Stan Lee in person was at 2017’s D23 celebration, when he received the Disney Legends award. He got on stage and I was taken aback when the very first thing he did was mention how happy he was that there was a tribute to Jack Kirby in the video (even though Kirby was only mentioned briefly) before loudly proclaiming how it was “so well deserved!”

His words hit with a bit of a hushed silence. Maybe people didn’t even catch the mention. Or maybe everyone was thinking about it, as I was. Because for as much as Stan Lee talks, and he talks quite a great deal, he almost never mentions the work of his old partner. So as that loud proclamation rang in my ear, I remembered instantly thinking about Lee’s tone of voice. It is as if sometimes you can hear a person trying to convince themselves of the statement they’re making in the moment they’re making it—statements you know are laced with tones of regret, guilt, and also trying sell itself on the very idea. All in order to hang onto the belief that such brief moments of reverence are enough, before moving on to tell a story of yourself.

The truth is that when I think of Stan Lee, I don’t think of Stan Lee. I think of the whole story. I think of comics themselves. Maybe that’s what he inevitably wanted, to have his very name be synonymous with the whole industry, but that also means I’m going to think about that industry in turn. I’ll think first of Kirby and Ditko and the collaborators who helped make his career. Just as I’ll think about Bob Kane and the other godfathers from that other publisher. Just as I’ll think about Marjane Satrapi, Brian K. Vaughan and Kate Beaton, who still inspire me today. Sure, Stan Lee might be the showman who everyone knows and remembers, but in that dusty old attic he really was just someone who helped me discover endless more names that I love dearly. That was his inherent power.

Whatever debate can be raised, Lee was still the co-creator of some of the most important pop culture icons of all time (and as of right now, the most profitable). But in considering his totality, I’m also left to wonder why so many of his obits failed to include the sexual misconduct reports (which occurred as recently as 2017), just as they don’t mention the elder abuse he suffered from a handler trying to manipulate him during the last few years. These things may complicate legacies, but talking about such complications are part and parcel of the honest characters he sought to create. And even within all my reservations, I simply want the man to be understood as he was. For all my misgivings, Stan Lee was not just a grand showman, but a man of purpose. And I think this particular “Stan’s Soapbox” gets at the heart of his ethos (and maybe art itself) perhaps better than anything else:

From time to time we receive letters from readers who wonder why there’s so much moralizing in our mags. They take great pains to point out that comics are supposed to be escapist reading and nothing more. But somehow, I can’t see it that way. It seems to me that a story without a message, however subliminal, is like a man without a soul. In fact, even the most escapist literature of all—old-time fairy tales and heroic legends—contained moral and philosophical points of view. At every college campus where I may speak, there’s as much discussion of war and peace, civil rights, and the so-called youth rebellion as there is of our Marvel mags per se. None us lives in a vacuum—none of us is untouched by the everyday events around us—events which shape our stories just as they shape our lives. Sure our tales can be called escapist—but something’s for fun, doesn’t mean we have to our brains while we read it!” 

Excelsior!

Stan Lee.

It’s a passage as clear as it is stalwart. And it reminds me that for all the showmanship, Stan Lee was first and foremost a communicator, a darn good one. He represented comics with a passionate zeal, with a sense of humor and a sparkle in his eye. But most of all? Stan Lee was never cynical. Even his trademark sign-off, “excelsior,” means, “upward and onward to greater glory!” Like Stan Lee himself, it’s a saying that makes me feel two conflicting things. It is at once a call to be better, for humanity and individuals to grow and excel. But it also plays into the false belief that things can only go up, a notion that can’t help but feel ignorant of the hard-won cynicism of his partners like Jack Kirby. But in the end, what made Marvel special is that both men were aligned to the same purpose and fought for a better, more diverse America. And neither was ever hopeless in that regard. The spirit of Marvel comics is all part of that. There’s the good and the bad in any life, but in terms of his enduring legacy, Stan Lee will continue being what he has been the whole time…

A fixture.

< 3 HULK

Stan Lee Was the Showman of Marvel Comics, but Jack Kirby Was the Soul