The Never-Ending “Who Created Spider-man” Debate

Amazing Spider-man # 70, cover by John Romita

Over on the Ditko/Kirby Yahoo forum a few people were discussing the never-ending “Who Created Spider-man” debate. Below is one of my comments in response to a posting yesterday where one of the members suggested Stan Lee came up with the Spider-man character in 1962 without Kirby’s input. I didn’t list the poster’s name here or add his theory because I didn’t have time to get permission. I’ll post the info here later if I do.

As far as the “Who Created Spider-man?” debate is concerned, sure, maybe your theory is correct: there were lot’s of bug characters in fiction, so in all likelihood Stan Lee created a bug character because everybody back then doing fiction created bug characters. If I understand your theory correctly: in 1962, Stan Lee came up with the idea for a Spider-man bug creation without consulting Jack Kirby; Lee gave his solo Spider-man bug character script to Jack; then Jack screwed it up — Jack failed to deliver a skinny non-heroic bug character as Lee had ordered him to do. Plus Kirby added a bunch of garbage to Stan’s story ripped-off from the Simon/Kirby bug — the Fly.

Lee was understandably furious when he saw his revolutionary insect vision ruined by Kirby; Lee was determined to do an “adult” insect comic book and “reinvent the superhero genre” (as he said in his article “How I Invented Spider-man”) so Lee gave his solo-Spider-man insect story to an artist who could follow his commands and draw skinny non-heroic bug characters – Steve Ditko. Ditko accurately penciled Lee’s bug vision and Ditko was not fired off the bug project ala Kirby. Sure! That might have happened. Anything is possible. Here’s what I think:

(1) The pre-existence of the 1950s Simon/Kirby shop “Spiderman” logo and 1950s Simon/Kirby unused spider-character concepts in the Simon/Kirby files suggests to me that Jack might have pitched the original Spider-man concept to Stan Lee. It’s a tantalizing clue. You think it’s a coincidence? You think that Jack and Lee both independently had ideas for bug characters? Maybe. Or maybe that logo is one piece of evidence suggesting that Jack was one rung on the ladder leading to the final published Marvel Spider-man. Maybe Jack passed the “Spider-man” baton from Joe Simon to Stan Lee.That’s my contention: that it’s possible Jack was the catalyst — that’s why I emphasized “might” in boldface.

(2) The fact that, according to Ditko, Jack’s origin issue of the Spider-man story was very, very, very (did I say very) similar to the Simon/Kirby Fly also suggests Jack might have pitched the original Spider-man story and design to Lee. If no one had pointed out this Spider-man/Fly similarity out to Stan, we probably would have gotten a swashbuckling spider-character who was a combination of Captain America and the Fly. I’m sure if given 100 issues Jack could have made that Spider-man character compelling.

(3) The fact that historically Lee tended to either give Jack a loose plot or no plot at all suggests to me Jack might have pitched the original Spider-man plot to Lee. That’s how those two worked together. Jack wrote the story with visuals; Lee added captions afterwards. They worked like that for 10 years — EXCEPT when Lee created his spider-bug alone? Why would those 5 pages of Spider-man story/art be any different than the other 10,000 or so pages of story/art Kirby produced for Lee?

Obviously Jack also might have contributed major story elements to the first Marvel Spider-man story, and he might have rebooted the Fly concept since that was something Jack tended to do throughout his career (reuse his old ideas he liked or felt had potential). Many artists do this, they have certain concepts, motifs, or themes they think work so they use them over-and-over. My point is that the basic plot of the first appearance of Spider-man in Amazing Fantasy # 15 may have come from Jack’s story — his pitch and his artwork. In other words, all of these bits and pieces of information suggest to me that it’s possible Stan Lee’s “How I Invented Spider-man” article is not true, and in reality, Jack Kirby might have played an integral role in the creation of the Marvel Spider-man in 1962.

(4) The fact that Lee rejected the Fly elements in Jack’s initial Marvel Spider-man origin story suggests Jack might have written that origin story. You disagree? If I understand you correctly, you seem to be saying you think:

(a) Lee created Spider-man by himself, and gave a Spider-man script to Kirby, then (b) Kirby made the character like the Fly, then (c) Lee didn’t like the Fly elements so got rid of them, keeping only his own ideas.

In my opinion this is what took place: (a) Kirby created the Marvel Spider-man — designing him to be a combination of the Simon/Kirby Fly and Captain America, then (b) Lee had Ditko get rid of the Fly elements because of possible copyright problems, then (c) Ditko got rid of the Captain America elements because he had his own vision for the character. That’s my guess, but again, I could be wrong.

At the very least, Ditko’s report of what he saw in Jack’s initial Marvel Spider-man origin story certainly suggests Kirby had tremendous “Leeway” (if you’ll excuse the pun) when working from a Lee plot (if Lee even gave him a plot). Jack not only had to design the Spider-man book’s costumes, come up with the powers, the gimmicks and gadgets, the relationships, the supporting characters, and villains, and design the world they lived in… but Jack also had to contribute major plot elements to keep the story going, plus Lee probably encouraged Jack to be creative. Any number of story/plot elements (if not all) from the published issue of Amazing Fantasy # 15 could have been Kirby contributions and creations.

(5) If I recall (I don’t have Ditko’s article in front of me, and obviously Ditko might not have a perfect memory) according to Ditko, Jack’s original 5-page Spider-man story was this: a science geek kid is living with his aunt, and uncle (who’s a cop); the kid’s a loser; he goes to some scientist’s house, gets a magic ring and is transformed into a superhero who shoots webs and climbs walls like a spider and fights crime.

The fact that several of these concepts made it into the final story suggests to me that you have to admit some of Kirby’s initial ideas made it into the final story. Several ideas in Jack’s origin story made it into Amazing Fantasy # 15. You have to at least concede they MIGHT have. Maybe a few of Jack’s concepts made it into the Spider-man origin? Or did Lee and Ditko eradicate 100% of Kirby contributions? Why must Jack be completely wiped away from the origin of the Marvel Spider? Why must Lee’s apologists try and erase Jack from the story? Can’t Jack have a little dust particle of credit for helping give birth to the Marvel Spider-man?

The fact that Ditko also had tremendous “Leeway” to make revisions (for example, Ditko changing the gruff cop-uncle into sweet Ben, changing the gun to writst shooters, changing the mask) suggests to me that in the 1960s Stan Lee’s artists had tremendous input into the stories. Lee did not have time to provide full scripts to all the artists, so guys like Kirby and Ditko took care of the plotting during the illustration process. In this case, the artists — Jack Kirby, then Steve Ditko — both contributed several important story/plot elements to the finished origin of the Marvel Spider-man. 

(6) The fact that Ditko would go on to write and draw the Spider-man stories on his own — with Lee consulting a Ditko synopsis and adding text after the fact — suggests to me that this is how Stan Lee worked. As you know, Lee called it “Marvel method.” Lee described the division of labor here (from the Kirby Museum site, Kirby Biography, by Mark Evanier):

Lee: “Some artists, of course, need a more detailed plot than others. Some artists, such as Jack Kirby, need no plot at all. I mean, I’ll just say to Jack, “Let’s let the next villain be Dr. Doom’… or I may not even say that. He may tell me… he just about makes up the plots for these stories. All I do is a little editing.”

I bet this was the method used to create Spider-man. Lee gave Jack an assignment: “Give me a new hero character.” Jack did so — he gave Lee Spider-man. That’s my guess as to what took place. Lee didn’t “invent”  Spider-man alone in a vacuum as he claimed in his “How I Invented Spider-man” article; Jack created the initial character, then Lee and Ditko made major revisions to Jack’s story. Lee may have given Jack’s Spider-man character to Ditko simply because Jack was already doing about three full 20-page books a month. Jack simply could not handle another book. Ditko is sitting around twiddling his thumbs waiting for Kirby art to ink; maybe Lee realized Ditko’s skills would be better utilized by having him write, pencil, and ink his own work, thus adding another hero book to the Goodman line, freeing Jack up to work on other projects. As you all know Jack would go onto help other artists working on their hero books as well – Jack helped Heck with the Iron Man design and he helped Everett with the Daredevil design; he even did layouts for artists like Romita and Heck to teach them the “Marvel Style” which more accurately should be called the “Kirby Style.”

Could I be wrong? Did Jack have nothing to do with Spider-man? Was Spider-man a 100% solo-Stan Lee creation? All of Jack’s ideas were obliterated from the final story? And Lee/Ditko deserve 100% of the credit for 100% of the final book? Maybe. But I think the circumstantial evidence suggesting Kirby might have been a major part of the creative process is compelling, so I think it’s worth discussing the possibility that Jack played an important role in the Spider-man genesis process, in the same way Jack played a pivotal role in the genesis of all the major 1960s’ Marvel intellectual properties.

At the very least, Ditko’s account certainly contradicts Lee’s “How I Invented Spider-man” article. And, as I’ve pointed out before, Lee’s “How I Invented Spider-man” story makes no sense because Spider-man is not a reinvention of the super-hero genre as Lee claimed — the Marvel Spider-man in Amazing Fantasy # 15 is a combination of Superman (kid with superpowers and secret identity lives with aunt and uncle) and Batman (kid sees family member murdered, becomes crime fighter, and invents cool crime-fighting gadgets). In my opinion, the truly unique and original elements in Amazing Fantasy# 15 all come from Steve Ditko — the skinny ectomorphic characters; the grim, creepy high school world; the weird shadows and odd villains. Ditko’s Randian, dystopian vision made Spider-man unique. If anyone reinvented the superhero genre, it was Steve Ditko, and Lee has been riding that horse all the way to the bank for decades. To give Lee credit, his “with great power comes great responsibility” line is the icing on the cake. Amazing Fantasy# 15 is a remarkable example where Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and Steve Ditko — between the three of them — came up with an extraordinarily successful and iconic character and origin. That book is a classic. A genuine comic masterpiece.

Ironically John Romita’s beautiful, slick, romanticized depiction of the Marvel spider-character is the one that really caught on with readers. In the late 1960s with Romita doing the artwork, that’s when I think the Marvel spider-character really started to seep into the collective unconsciousness of the world. All the Spidey cartoons, and Spidey toys and Spidey junk plastered the image of those empty white semi-triangular eyes on red webbing into our brains, and once millions of people began to really love the character, that’s when Stan Lee starts to formulate his “I reinvented the super-hero genre” propaganda. Lee didn’t consciously reinvent the superhero genre in 1962; as editor with Kirby and Ditko, Lee played a role in helping to a create a character that in the future would go on to redefine the superhero genre.

To wrap this up, all I’m doing is suggesting Jack played an important role in the creation process, and I personally enjoyed the process of debating and learning about the topic over the years. It’s been fun. A lot of fun. And based on my current online reading, most people who discuss this topic nowadays tend to give Jack credit for being part of the process that led to the creation of Spider-man, and I think that’s the result of the work of several great comics historians like Stan Taylor doing the digging and sharing their research. The case for Kirby’s involvement in the creation of Spider-man is so compelling that it is has become common knowledge.