Comments on Lee’s “How I Invented Spider-Man” Article

Here’s an edited email I posted to the Ditko-l yahoo chat list and the JackKirbyCreates yahoo chat list about Lee’s article. I figured I’d post it here since those are groups you have to join to read the content. I also briefly posted this on Kirby Dynamics on 08/27, but I decided to bump it back a few days to add the images, so sorry for any confusion caused to those of you who saw the link pop up on the Kirby Museum’s Face Book page.

A few quick things:

Lee does mention Ditko in the article — once — but only in passing.

I find Stan’s “Monday morning quarterbacking” of the events surrounding the production of Amazing Fantasy # 15 (Aug 1952) fascinating. I realize we all tend to glorify the past, but I suspect in reality Spider-Man was simply another character Jack pitched to Stan; when Ditko was about to ink the first 5 pages, Steve told Stan that Jack’s Spider-Man origin was almost identical to the Simon/Kirby Fly origin; then I suspect Lee told Ditko to fix it — Ditko discarded Jack’s art, and re-designed the costume.

Ditko's illustration of Jack's Spider-Man. Ditko felt the design of Jack's Spider-Man was similar to Jack's Capatain America.

Lee’s contention that he consciously decided to reinvent the superhero genre by creating Spider-Man is hilarious. Spider-Man is clearly a combination of Superman (kid living with aunt and uncle, works at a newspaper) and Batman (kid sees family member murdered, swears to fight crime). Whether this was Jack’s idea and it made it into Ditko’s story or Lee’s idea, we will never know, but I think you will agree, this is in no way shape or form a reinvention of the superhero genre.

Ditko's original cover for Amazing Fantasy # 15. Lee wasn't satisfied with it, so he had Jack draw the iconic published cover that appears at the top of this post.

In my opinion, Ditko is the one who makes the most significant contribution to the Marvel Spider-man — it’s the costume: that’s what resonates with people the most. Instead of the absurd mask we see on a character like Batman where only an idiot wouldn’t recognize he was Bruce Wayne — or the even more preposterous Clark Kent gimmick where Superman wears glasses and acts like a bumbling imbecile to prevent people from recognizing he is Superman — Ditko completely covers Peter Parker’s face. This makes the character believable — that’s what a real person would do, totally obscure their features so that they are truly anonymous.

But certainly there are elements of Jack’s Spider-Man in the Ditko Spider-Man. In his article “An Insider’s Part of Comics History” on the creation of Spider-man, Ditko mentions that there was a spider-logo on the chest of Jack’s Spider-man, and although Jack’s was a little more abstract, that element did make it into Ditko’s design.

Art by Steve Ditko

Ditko also mentions that Kirby’s Spider-man fired webs out of a gun. Ditko changed that to wrist webshooters, this makes the character less like a cop or a soldier and more like an actual spider, but this is still an aspect of the character based on Jack’s original design.

Ditko mentions that Peter Parker was interested in science in Jack’s Spider-Man origin — that may have played a role in Ditko deciding to have Peter Parker invent the webshooters. Jack may have been the one who decided to depict Peter Parker as a scientist and Jack may have decided to use  science to transform Peter Parker into the Spider-character. This Kirby plot element of the kid/scientist and science as a catalyst for the metamorphosis may have made it into the Ditko story.

You could also argue the blank white eyes without pupils may have been in Jack’s original design for Spider-Man.

And if we can ever get the person who stole the original artwork of Jack’s Spider-Man story from Marvel to give us scans of the material, we might even see that on the splash Jack’s Spider-Man has wavy lines flying off of his head — the idea for the extrasensory spider-sense may also have been there in the first 5 pages of Jack’s Spider-Man origin.

Ditko’s decision to change Uncle Ben from the hardened, ball-breaking ex-cop in Jack’s origin, to sugary sweet Uncle Ben changes the core-personality of the Spider-man — instead of a vigilante avenging his cop-Uncle’s murder, Ditko’s Spider-man fights crime out of a sense of guilt. I think this taps into the classic Christian psyche of many of the young kids reading comics at that time. But having Peter Parker live with his aunt and uncle and the plot element of the death of the uncle leading to a life as a crimefighter may have been concepts Lee/Ditko took from Jack’s origin of Spider-Man.

Ditko’s visual depiction of the scrawny, ectomorphic, outcaste high school geek must have resonated with many teens who at that time had disposable income for comics. Plenty of teens weren’t on the football team, they were sitting at home after school, bored; and they were hungry for imaginative visual entertainment. Many must have related to Ditko’s autobiographical misfit living in a moody, creepy 4-color comic book world. Ditko deserves all the credit for turning in great work, and in my opinion, there is no question that his artwork on the Spider-Man character is the single most important reason that character became such a succees. 

Art by Steve Ditko. This art was donated by an unknown person to the Library of Congress. Image from comicartfans.com.

Spider-Man was completely visually original in Ditko’s hands — there was nobody like Ditko on the comics stands. But story-wise it was the same teen drama that had appeared in Romance comics, and endless books like the Archie comics, and the Archie rip-off stories like Patsy and Hedy & Millie the Model that Lee had been hacking out for decades.  Then you had several pages of typical men in tights colliding fight scenes kids had been reading for decades in thousands of previous super hero comics. The concepts were old hat but Ditko’s style was unique. Ditko’s art pulled you into his world. Readers had to pick up the new issue of Spider-Man and see what was going to happen next. How long could Ditko keep building the tension before Peter Parker inevitably had to grow up and become a man?

Lee’s captions, bullpen bulletins, letters pages, and promotion were also an important part of Spider-Man’s success — and I think that is Lee’s real part in the historical process — but I think it’s pretty obvious that after Kirby left Marvel in 1970, thereby ending Lee’s 10-year period of “creativity,” in the 1970s Lee was determined to promote himself as the solo-genius behind intellectual properties like Spider-man, and this article is an example of the type of historically inaccurate propaganda he would go on to produce for decades in order to maintain a position of power at Marvel.

I also think John Romita deserves tremendous credit for turning Spider-man into an icon — Romita changed Ditko’s dark, creepy story into a beautiful romance comic where the fight scenes are slick visual ballets, and I think it was Romita’s pretty style and simple dynamics that really put Spider-man over the top with readers.

Art by John Romita

I doubt there’s a single thing that’s historically accurate in Stan Lee’s “How I Invented Spider-Man” article. It strikes me as pure shtick. I could pick this article apart line-by-line and point out crimes of omission and outright incorrect information, but I don’t have all day.

A couple other things: how about Lee’s contention that he took no pride in his previous 20 years worth of work; his contempt for the children who read his previous 2 decades of stories; and more importantly, how about Lee’s philosophy of friendship and success on the last page? Wow.

Despite the fact that people love this guy and deify him and to this day there are Lee-literalists who take everything the guy says as fact, I do think because of the online discussion of this topic more and more people are starting to learn that Kirby and Ditko played a very significant role in the creation of characters like Spider-Man, and my hope is that at some point before Lee passes away, he will sit down with an interviewer and tell the truth. I think this would be a great way for Lee to save his legacy from the inevitable scrutiny it’s going to get from comics historians and scholars looking at pop culture and entertainment. I don’t think history is going to be kind to Stan Lee.

As it stands now, if Lee doesn’t set the record straight I think he’s destined to become a punchline — like Tiger Woods has become a punchline for infidelity jokes — in comics circles and maybe even in the larger global discourse community, I have a feeling Stan Lee will become an agreed-upon symbol of the ultimate example of phoniness, ego, and greed .

I actually kind of like Lee because I enjoyed his comics as a kid — I find him to be an entertaining comedian like Paul Reubens doing his Pee Wee Herman act — so I hope Lee admits the truth: Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko played a pivotal role in the creation of 1960s Marvel intellectual properties like Spider-man.

I hope Lee redeems himself. Unlike Stan, I like to see everyone succeed.