Marvel Icon Stan Lee Leaves a Legacy as Complex as His Superheroes
Stan Lee supercharged Marvel Comics into one of the most important cultural forces on the planet. But how much credit does he really deserve?
He was born Stanley Martin Lieber in the Bronx. For nearly 22 years, beginning almost immediately after graduating from DeWitt Clinton High School, he labored in obscurity as a writer, editor, and art director in a publishing industry just one cultural rung above pornography: comic books. And then, in 1961, he became one of the pivotal 20th century figures who elevated comics into the first draft of American pop culture.
Stan Lee, who died Monday, November 12 at age 95, is synonymous with Marvel Comics. Nearly every movie released by Hollywood upstart-turned-juggernaut Marvel Studios can trace part of its creative origins to Lee. (The exceptions are the Captain America, Guardians of the Galaxy, and forthcoming Captain Marvel franchises.) Among people who shaped the legacy of the Disney company, which purchased Marvel in 2009 for $4 billion, Lee is probably second only to Walt Disney himself. George Lucas is third because of the debts Star Wars owes to the comics creations of Lee’s greatest creative partner and bitterest foe, Jack Kirby.
Lee’s legacy at Marvel is immortal. But so too is the debate and controversy over what that legacy specifically is. In some quarters in comics, and especially to devotees of Kirby, Stan Lee is a supervillain–a man who stole credit, and corresponding fortunes, from the people who truly shaped Marvel creatively in the '60s, relegating them to also-ran obscurity.
Aspects of that critique, uncomfortably, have merit. Lee had a maestro’s instincts for what we now call branding, and it cast a shadow long enough to keep his Marvel collaborators in darkness. In press interviews, his endless public appearances, and his own writing, Lee portrayed himself as the driver of the Marvel Universe, rendering artists like Kirby and Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko as afterthoughts. For all his self-deprecation, when press accounts focused on Lee exclusively, he rarely saw fit to correct the record. Accordingly, the movies always credit “Stan Lee And _.” It was never “_ And Stan Lee,” nor “_ With Stan Lee.”
But Lee did not build his career simply by stealing the work of others. He was a tremendous creative force in his own right. He pioneered the concept that all these various characters coexisted in the same shared ersatz-United States, the Marvel Universe, and could interact when circumstances–and sales–called for it. Initially, they populated a simulacrum of New York City, not Metropolis, Central City, or Gotham. That grounding provided both a verisimilitude previously unknown in the superhero medium and a wondrous sense that as Spider-Man swung through the canyons of Manhattan skyscrapers, he risked a mid-air collision with the Human Torch or Thor, off on their own adventures.
Few would care about that, however, were it not for another crucial creative innovation attributable to Lee. Through his dialogue and characterization, Lee made Marvel’s characters emotionally accessible.
Marvel’s hero teams were squabbling families made up of difficult people, at once needy and aloof, and all the while relatable. Its villain teams were even more fractious, but also at times more sophisticated–in Lee’s hands, revolutionary mutants like Magneto kept their teams aligned through both force of personality and a shared belief that their foes were epically, ideologically wrong about how to liberate their people. (Reader, those first ten issues of X-Men from 1963 are way more complex than the Claremont purists portray.) Solo heroes were teenagers emotionally unequipped to bear the burden of heroism and equally unprepared to forgive themselves for their failures. Shapeshifters, a classic comics narrative engine, were, like Fantastic Four antagonist the Impossible Man, ironically more confident in their identities than the dual-life heroes they faced. Thanks in large part to Stan Lee, a medium that began as wish fulfillment evolved into metaphor.
While nothing in pop culture looked like the Marvel Universe, nothing sounded like it, either. The pathos, the melodrama, the struggle–even if Lee, as his detractors would have it, was more editor than active creative partner, someone had to actually script those comics, and that someone was Lee. He gave comics irony, corniness and profundity. “With great power comes great responsibility” is an indelible line, immediately familiar–and familiar in its truth–to people who have never read an issue of Spider-Man.
If that was all there was to Stan Lee’s complex legacy, it would have been enough. But Lee was also comics’ foremost evangelist. Determined to break the boom/bust cycle that imperiled the small-margin comics industry, he gave comics a face and a voice–corny, embraceable, endearing. He wasn’t Stanley Lieber. He wasn’t even Stan Lee. To generations of readers, he was Stan The Man, or Smilin’ Stan, an ambassador for comics and a Marvel character in his own right.
“When comics were just coming back from their lowest point in the 20th century, Stan Lee began writing stories that incorporated the contradictions and compromises of human life into larger-than-life heroes,” says Paul Levitz, himself a legendary writer, editor. and executive at rival DC Comics. “His interwoven universe set standards for how we build fictional worlds in comics, on television, and in film.”
Levitz is referring to the mid-'50s debacle in which comics came under the suspicion of a Senate subcommittee on juvenile delinquency, which led to a fearful industry-wide self-censorship regime that inhibited the medium’s creative potential. It was the nadir of a period where a dire business outlook and frantic unsuccessful genre experimentation converged to threaten the viability of comics.
By 1961, Lee was already a lifer, and as he told it, a frustrated one. His cousin-in-law, Martin Goodman, had long since elevated Lee from Jack Kirby’s office gofer to editor and artistic director. (“Stan Lee was a pest. He liked to irk people and it was one thing I couldn’t take,” Kirby would tell an interviewer in 1990.) It was a dubious blessing. The restless Lee wanted to write novels, not goofy monster comics that chased Hollywood trends. Then Goodman asked Lee to outcompete a top seller for DC: the superhero all-star team Justice League of America. But instead of recapitulating the JLA archetype, the result was the creation of a new one: Fantastic Four, an extended family of science adventurers from New York—and a premise versatile enough to accommodate all other genre fiction, from sci-fi to romance to horror. To top it off, the constantly feuding FF struggled to pay its mammoth bills.
“For just this once, I would do the type of story I myself would enjoy reading if I were a comic-book reader,” Lee wrote in his 1974 Origins of Marvel Comics, one of many instances in which Lee wrote his own history. “And the characters would be the kind of characters I could personally relate to; they’d be flesh and blood, they’d have their faults and foibles, they’d be fallible and feisty, and—most important of all—inside their colorful, costumed booties they’d still have feet of clay. The more I thought about it, the more the concept grabbed me.”
The attentive reader will notice that Lee made himself central to this origin story. But he was not the only creator of the Fantastic Four, and arguably not the most important.
Jack Kirby had already done everything in comics—from co-creating Captain America to all sorts of genre comics after the superhero boom busted. His Challengers of the Unknown, for DC in the '50s, looks a whole lot like the rough draft of Fantastic Four. Kirby, who used to boast to editors, “give me anything and I’ll make it sell,” distrusted Goodman and Lee from his first go-round with what was then known as Timely Comics, but needed work. It was a grueling compromise, Kirby would later say, “I didn’t want Martin to think all was forgiven on the profits we never got on Captain America.”
Kirby designed the Fantastic Four. For 100 issues widely considered among the medium’s finest, he gave them depth, texture, humanity and unparalleled action—portrayed with a grandeur that was lush, mechanical, visceral and conceptual all at once. Kirby’s daring abstractions—which at times included collage, a technique then unseen in superhero comics—pioneered pop art, distinguishing himself in a medium tied to stiff and ironically implausible photorealism. Nothing looked like the FF, because nothing could. Kirby, even in Lee’s telling, had the lion’s share of the responsibility for presenting and pacing the action on the page, akin to a movie director.
“I had only to give Jack the outline of a story and he would draw the entire strip, breaking down the outline into exactly the right number of panels replete with action and drama,” Lee wrote, describing what would become known as his signature “Marvel Method.” Lee’s technique permitted him to write and edit the entire early line of Marvel comics. Kirby, however, was even busier, drawing 22 pages each month of FF, X-Men, Avengers, Journey Into Mystery (Thor), Tales to Astonish (Ant-Man), The Incredible Hulk and even more—pretty much every early-’60s Marvel comic that wasn’t Ditko’s Spider-Man. Ever since, a segment of comic fandom has considered the Marvel Method a convenient alibi for Lee to get away with subcontracting the Marvel Universe to Kirby (and Ditko, Don Heck, Bill Everett, Gil Kane, John Romita, John Buscema and more) without due credit.
Kirby, who died in 1994, liked to say he wasn’t an artist, he was a storyteller. He did not see himself as sketching out Lee’s vision. He saw himself as centrally involved in creating Marvel characters and their tales. “If you’ll notice the way the Thing talks and acts, you’ll find that the Thing is Jack Kirby,” he said, according to Kirby: King of Comics, a coffee-table book by a Kirby assistant, Mark Evanier. In a 1990 interview, Kirby contended that he conceived of the FF after reflecting on the prospect of a nuclear detonation creating human mutations; and brought it to Marvel so as to save the company from going under as its assets were being repossessed: “I stopped them from moving the furniture! Stan Lee was sitting on some kind of a stool, and he was crying.”
Lee, however, portrayed himself as the architect and Kirby the contractor, often in a manner that on its face showered Kirby with praise. Lurking conspicuously underneath was a story about the directions he gave to the greatest ever artist in the history of–
“It was natural for me to choose Jack Kirby to draw [Fantastic Four]. Jack had probably drawn more superhero strips than any other artist and he was as good as they come… I wrote a detailed first synopsis for Jack to follow, and the rest is history,” Lee claimed in Origins. For the second major Marvel offering, the Hulk, Lee told a similar story, with himself at the center: “It would be my job to take a cliche concept and make it seem new and fresh, exciting and relevant. Once again I decided that Jack Kirby would be the artist to breathe life into our latest creation.”
Evanier is more judicious. His book describes a pattern formed in the early days of Marvel. “Among those who worked around them at the time,” Evanier wrote, “there was a unanimous view: that Fantastic Four was created by Stan and Jack. No further division of credit seemed appropriate. … Again, both Lee and Kirby would claim to have come up with the idea for The Incredible Hulk.” Same goes for the X-Men: “Again, the recollections of the two men would diverge as to how the strip came about, Stan claiming the concept originated with him, Kirby saying he had the idea. By now, that was the norm.”
Attributing authorship is tricky for comic books. As a hybrid visual-textual medium, comics resist the primacy reserved for writers in prose and directors in film. The closer you focus to disentangle authorship between writer and artist, the more maddening it can become.
Comics historian Arlen Schumer, an avowed Kirby loyalist, posits what he calls the “Auteur Theory” of comics. It privileges artists, considering them the equivalent of movie directors, controlling pace, tone and spectacle. To Schumer, artists are “the actual storytellers, not ‘just’ the artists” taking visual dictation from a writer. For the Lee-Kirby partnership in particular, Schumer proposes a 50-50 split in recognition, in which both men ought to be considered equal partners—in contrast to how Lee portrayed himself.
And in Schumer’s view, equal means equal. He does not dismiss Lee’s creative output. Nor does he consider Lee’s work to overshadow Kirby’s.
“Artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko created the ‘Comics’ —the power-packed visuals and dynamic storytelling that leapt off the page and into readers’ hearts and minds; but Stan Lee created the ‘Marvel’ —the voice, sounds, and self-aware, verbal joie de vivre that made Marvel Comics sing in the '60s,” Schumer told The Daily Beast.
Comics veterans emphasize that the medium is fundamentally collaborative. Attempting to split the baby creatively, to them, is a solomonic endeavor.
“What’s, I feel, indisputable, is that Stan created the atmosphere that permitted/encouraged/led the creativity of the Marvel Universe, and that neither Jack nor Steve [Ditko] reach equal heights collaborating with anyone else or going solo,” said Levitz, who has worked with all three men. “In the end, I don’t know that [specific creative attribution] either matters or can ever be factually resolved.”
It mattered to Kirby. He grew up in the Jewish ghetto of New York’s Lower East Side amid extreme poverty and violence. It did not escape his notice that Lee was a Marvel employee—the Marvel employee —while he was a freelancer. The company would take care of Lee in a way that it never would Kirby. This was before comics companies paid creators royalties, meaning that Kirby’s co-creations did not earn him money from the burgeoning and soon-to-be-ubiquitous licensing that Marvel pursued for everything from underwear to cartoons. All that wealth was not an option, back then, for Kirby to reap, no matter how responsible he was for its creation. Each time that Kirby collaborated with Lee, he was tacitly negotiating with his employer, with all the fundamental power imbalances that entails. (It would take until 2012, 18 years after Kirby’s death, for his heirs to come to an undisclosed settlement with Marvel.) At the least, Kirby felt, he was due his recognition.
By the mid-'60s, Lee was working relentlessly—not only on the comics but for the comics. The stories were bookended by Lee’s innovations at investing the reader in the brand. At the start, usually on the first page, a jocular credit would go to “Stan ‘The Man’ Lee” as the writer and “Jack ‘The King’ Kirby” as the artist. It was an appropriate nickname for Kirby that Lee coined in tribute, but conspicuously, The Man was always credited before The King. After the story had finished, the comics would feature a reader forum that shared the same informal, enthusiastic style. It did not take long for readers to abandon the “Sir” preface to their letters in favor of “Dear Stan and Jack.” For Marvel’s fan-focused publication FOOM (Friends of Ol’ Marvel) Lee would address readers: “Greetings, O Seeker of Truth!”
Lee didn’t just brand Marvel. He didn’t just brand Marvel’s creators. He branded Marvel’s creative process itself. Like many of his contemporaries, Kirby worked from his home studio, traveling to Marvel’s Madison Avenue offices to drop off pages, brainstorm with Lee, and collect his checks. But Lee spun the world to a tall tale called the Marvel Bullpen, something akin to a creative fraternity house—Marvel women like Flo Steinberg being the exception to the hyper-masculine rule—whose boundless vision as the House of Ideas was outmatched only by its camaraderie. Lee even had the writers and artists cram into a recording studio to lay down a flexidisc to give Marvel’s fan club, the Merry Marvel Marching Society.
The reality did not match the marketing. The Marvel bullpen was dingy, covered in inked and photocopied bristol-board pages, and, whatever the flexidisc proclaimed, empty. Not only was it desolate, it was tiny: with just four offices stacked in a row, not even taking up an entire floor of the building, the place looked even more austere than it was. Downtime was spent more with crossword puzzle books than with dynamic, alliterative discussions of Thor’s escape from the clutches of the Midgard Serpent. Madcap antics were typically reserved for the Thursday jaunts to Friar Tuck’s, a nearby bar.
“Stan tried to create the illusion of a bullpen, where we’d have a ball. It was a business, and most of the artists were freelancers,” recalls Denny O’Neill, a Marvel assistant editor in the '60s who went on to become one of the definitive Batman writers. “There was no point in Jack or anyone else spending time in midtown.” Kirby, in a 1987 interview, sounded similar notes about Lee’s portrayal of the Marvel Bullpen as a rollicking family playpen: “It wasn’t like that at all. It may have been like that after I shut the door and went home.”
Whatever the reality, the image was lucrative and infectious. Lee, in his 40s, was becoming a youth-culture bard and a mainstay of college lecture tours. Comics audiences were aging up, and Lee was out to ensure they kept reading—and especially reading Marvel. He flattered them in a November 1967 offering of his Stan’s Soapbox column while encouraging a tribal loyalty against DC Comics through effortless condescension: “You see, they obviously aim for a totally different type of reader than we do. We don’t cater to any special age group, but we do cater to a special intellectual level.”
But as much as Lee cultivated an unlikely alliance with youth culture—Doctor Strange, in the hands of Ayn Rand-devotee Ditko, turned out to be hugely popular with stoners—he drew the line at engaging with the youth culture’s politics. “Over the years we’ve received a zillion letters asking for the Bullpen’s opinion about such diverse subjects as Viet Nam, civil rights, the war on poverty, and the upcoming election,” Lee wrote in the September 1968 Stan’s Soapbox. “We’re phantasmagorically flattered that our opinion would matter to you, but here’s the hang-up: there isn’t any unanimous Bullpen opinion about anything, except possibly mother love and apple pie!” (By contrast, here is Jack Kirby, a combat veteran of Patton’s Army who abhorred tyranny and war: “I didn’t like that war. I thought it was crazy. And of course, that had an effect on a generation of young people who just couldn’t understand it.”)
But as soon as fans expressed dissatisfaction with Lee’s fence-sitting on the moral issues of the day, he jumped down to establish first principles. “Let’s lay it right on the line. Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today,” Lee wrote two months—two issues of any Marvel comic—later. “But, unlike a team of supervillains, they can’t be halted with a punch in the snoot, or a zap from a ray gun. The only way to destroy them is to expose them—to reveal them for the insidious evils they really are.” Stan signed off his column, “Pax et Justitia.”
A man this intensely quotable at the helm of an ascendant creative force attracting legions of loyal young readers was irresistible to reporters. That drove a major wedge between Marvel’s greatest creative team.
Those who write about comic books are, well, writers—people inclined, intentionally or subconsciously, toward treating the writer of a comic, not its artist, as its primary author. As self-deprecating as Lee was in his endless newspaper interviews, he conspicuously declined to correct journalists who saw his name in the comics credits next to “writer” and jumped to the conclusion that Lee authored the Marvel Universe. The most egregious such example appeared in the magazine of the New York Herald-Tribune, forerunner of New York magazine.
In late 1965, reporter Nat Freedland hung around the Marvel offices and observed a Fantastic Four brainstorming session. He ended up, on January 6, 1966, establishing a narrative that would define Marvel to the public forever. Stan Lee was Marvel and Marvel was Stan Lee.
There was Lee in the first paragraph, correcting art and sound effects on a Fantastic Four issue. There was Lee, speaking at Bard College, to an audience larger than Dwight Eisenhower commanded at the the school. There was Lee, “dream[ing] up the ‘Marvel Age of Comics’ in 1961,” an “ultra-Madison Avenue, rangy lookalike of Rex Harrison.” There was Lee, who “hasn’t lost the touch that won him three first prizes in the Herald Tribune’s ‘Biggest News of the Week’ teen contest back at [the Bronx’s] DeWitt Clinton HS.” Even as Freedland quoted Lee saying that he didn’t plot Amazing Spider-Man anymore, essentially outsourcing it to Ditko, Freedland seemed not to absorb the implications, instead floridly praising “Lee’s vision” of injecting “human reality into comic books.” Lee didn’t collaborate with his artists, Freedland wrote, so much as he “arrives at his plots in sort of ESP sessions” with them.
And then Freedland turned to Jack Kirby. He didn’t just marginalize Kirby. He humiliated the King of Comics. He seemed almost disappointed by Kirby, “a man who created many of the visions of your childhood and mine.” His description of Kirby bordered on vicious, referring to his “crumpled” manner of sitting and twice to his “high-pitched” voice. Kirby’s “saggy eyes” only came to life after watching Lee performatively narrate, seemingly freestyle, an FF story.
“The King,” Freedland wrote, “is a middle-aged man with baggy eyes and a baggy Robert Hall-ish suit. He is sucking a huge green cigar and if you stood next to him on the subway you would peg him for the assistant foreman in a girdle factory.” The first quote Freedland attributed to Kirby was, “Ummh.”
Jack Kirby’s most fervent advocate was his wife, Roz. Roz Kirby, upon seeing the Herald-Tribune story the morning it appeared, called Lee and gave him the business. “How could you do this? How could you have done this to Jack?” she practically screamed into the phone.
It would be years before Lee expressed regret. “About four-fifths of the article was about me,” Lee later said, “and made me out to be the most glamorous, wonderful human being that ever lived, and the very last few paragraphs were about Jack and made him sound like a jerk.”
Kirby was a devoted family man whose memories of childhood poverty and the lean years of the comic book business made him able to endure what he considered insults. During one contract renegotiation, shortly after Goodman sold Marvel in 1968, Kirby heard from the new owners that “Stan created everything and the artists just drew what he told them to draw,” his former assistant Evanier paraphrased. It wouldn’t be until 1970, and several more perceived slights, that Kirby defected to DC Comics. When Kirby left, he got revenge on Stan Lee.
On the first page of the sixth issue of Kirby’s Mister Miracle, readers met a character with an astonishing facial similarity to Stan Lee. The name Kirby gave his new creation, who sported a toupee and false beard, was Funky Flashman, and the portrayal grew more vicious from there. “In the shadow world between success and failure, there lives the driven little man who dreams of having it all!!!” Kirby’s narrator intoned. “The opportunistic spoiler without character or values, who preys on all things like a cannibal!— including you!!!” Kirby presented his former creative partner as a predatory charlatan, his attempts at cultivating a young audience no more than exploitation. Funky Flashman is shown running out of money, living in “the decaying antebellum grandeur of the Mockingbird estates”—in other words, a plantation. In Kirby’s pen, Lee’s assistant at Marvel and successor as editor-in-chief, Roy Thomas, cruelly became a sniveling sycophant named Houseroy.
Mister Miracle was part of an epic space opera often called Kirby’s Fourth World. DC cancelled it, uncompleted, in 1972, despite it later gaining recognition among comics fandom as Kirby’s masterpiece. While the company would revive the Fourth World characters and integrate them into DC’s own shared superhero universe—Kirby creations Steppenwolf and Darkseid are the antagonists of the current line of DC movies – no subsequent creator dared revive Funky Flashman until the soon-to-be completed Mister Miracle miniseries by Tom King and Mitch Gerads last year.
Yet Kirby’s legacy and Lee’s proved to be inextricable. Marvel fans noticed a creative malaise after Kirby defected, a period that coincided with Lee stepping back from Marvel’s creative fare and moving to California to establish what would eventually become, after many fits, starts, and incarnations, Marvel Studios. Kirby fans reading the Fourth World noticed that despite Kirby’s unparalleled visuals and creations, his dialogue and characterization just weren’t up to par with Kirby’s Lee-scripted Marvel work. Kirby ended up returning to Marvel in 1975 for a half-hearted reunion.
But it wouldn’t be until an impromptu radio encounter that the two men broached a kind of reconciliation.
In August 1987, New York radio station WBAI conducted an interview with Kirby spanning his entire five-decade career. Kirby didn’t take shots at Lee. But instead took issue with Lee mythologizing the early days of Marvel—“I didn’t consider it merry”—and asserting that he was the architect of the company’s comics. “I created the situation and I panelized him, I did him panel by panel and I did everything but put the words in the balloons. But all of it was mine except the words in the balloons,” Kirby told the radio hosts.
Then, unexpectedly, Stan Lee called in.
Lee said he happened to be in New York from California and flipping radio channels when he heard Kirby’s voice. He wished his old collaborator a happy birthday. “Well, Stanley, I want to thank you for calling and I hope you’re in good health and I hope you stay in good health,” Kirby replied.
Lee, true to form, praised Kirby’s work to the heavens (“nobody could convey emotion and drama the way you could”) before broaching the unresolved argument about authorship in a graceful way.
“We certainly got the sales but whatever we did together and no matter who did what, and I guess that’s something that’ll be argued forever, but I think that the product that was produced was really even more than a sum of its parts. I think there was some slight magic that came into effect when we worked together, and I am very happy that we’ve had that experience,” Lee said.
Decades of frustration at Lee seemed to melt away.
“Well, I was never sorry for it, Stanley,” Kirby replied. “It was a great experience for me and certainly if the product was good, that was my satisfaction, and I’ve, I’ve felt like that and I, I think it’s the feeling of every good professional. And it’s one of the reasons I respect you is the fact that, you know, you’re certainly a good professional and, and you’re certainly fond of a good product, and I feel that’s the, that’s the mark of all of us.”
It wasn’t exactly a lasting reconciliation. (Nearly three years later, Kirby would tell The Comics Journal, “Stan never created anything new after [Kirby left Marvel]. If he says he created things all that easily, what did he create after I left?”) But for fans whose childhoods were shaped by what Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created together, it was like hearing two divorced parents tenderly acknowledge that they would always be part of each other’s lives.
That is Stan Lee’s legacy. Alongside another titan of comics, Lee forged and bottled the lightning known as the Marvel Universe. American culture—and now global pop culture—would never be the same. With his passing, nearly 25 years after Kirby, the original Marvel era has come to a close.
“If he would never again write something with the electrifying power of the decade when, as he once said, ‘we just couldn’t do anything wrong,’ Stan Lee would not stop for the rest of his very long life,” reflected Paul Levitz, who was one of the first comic fans turned professionals.
“Writing, reaching out to people, celebrating comics and his own wonderful journey with an energy that those a quarter of his age would envy. Of the thousands of characters he helped create as a writer and editor, perhaps his best namesake is the joyous and ever-energized Impossible Man.”