Kirby: Lee’s TV DP? Part 2

Yesterday I was discussing Barry Pearl’s posts:

Jack Kirby Takes an Auteur Detour
By Barry Pearl, on March 15th, 2012

Kirby the Auteur Part II
By Barry Pearl, on March 18th, 2012

Pearl wrote, “To compare a comic book artist to a director, is a huge  fallacy.” Pearl went on to make this analogy: “The comic book penciler is more analogous to TV’s director of photography.”

As I said yesterday, I think Pearl is wrong. Kirby was more than Stan Lee’s TV DP. I  would say Jack Kirby was the “author,” specifically what I call the “principal author”  or principal auteur of his 1960s Marvel stories. I discussed my definitions for the terms here:

Jack Kirby: Auteur? Part 2
Posted on September 17, 2011


(1) Pure Auteur – Artist controls all aspects of storytelling

(2) Principal Auteur – Artist controls all aspects of storytelling, but changes and additions are made later in the process.

(3) Visual Auteur – Artist works from a full script and adds elements to the final product

If Pearl wants to make film/TV/comics analogies, here is another one that I’ve been making for years: Jack was the writer and director and editor of a silent film.

That’s Phase One. Then in Phase Two, Stan Lee added narration to that finished Kirby silent film. In Phase One, Jack is the prime mover. The catalyst. The mastermind behind his stories — therefore, the Principal Auteur. If a Producer tells Charles Chaplin to do a  funny movie with a dog, that Producer is not the auteur behind A Dog’s Life.

You have to give weight to each part of the process. Stan giving Jack a one sentence plot doesn’t even begin to compare to the two weeks Jack spent figuring out to how to make that sentence into a story, IF Jack even used Lee’s plot. Obviously Jack had tremendous LEEway to do whatever he pleased (AKA: “Marvel Method”). Plus Barry Pearl’s analogy of a comics artist/TV DP assumes Lee played a significant role writing the story in Phase One. But that is not what happened. This is what happened:

Stan Lee described the Kirby/Lee 1960s division  of labor by saying: “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.”

Now I realize the argument put forward by a few notoriously pro-Marvel comics historians is that early in the relationship (1960 – 1964), Lee was far more involved — Lee would give Jack bigger plots sometimes, maybe a paragraph or two (or maybe not). The problem is that’s what I call an editor handing out a job assignment. Unless Lee gave Jack a 20-page script with the whole story clearly spelled out, in my opinion that makes Jack the writer and artist of the story making Jack arguably the  auteur/author of all of his 1960s Marvel stories (except the few where Lee gave his brother Larry a plot, Larry typed up a script, then Jack followed the Lee/Lieber script). Later on (1964 – 1970), most comics experts I’ve met agree Kirby did the bulk of the principal storytelling  using visuals and margin notes.

Here’s the 1960s Kirby/Lee working relationship chronology:

Step One: Assignment. Sometimes Lee gives Jack a plot; sometimes Lee gives Jack no plot at all. So in this step, Lee either gives Kirby a springboard such as “Let’s let the next villain be Galactus,” or Lee gives Jack nothing and Jack is on his own to make up 100% of the story with visuals and extensive notes in the margins.

Step Two: Story/Art. Kirby writes and draws the story. Jack sits at home and spends about two weeks writing and drawing a story with images and margin notes. It takes Jack around 100 hours or so to  write/draw the story from scratch.

Step Three: Lee Reads Jack’s Story: Stan Lee receives Jack’s art and reads Jack’s 20-page story for the first time. This is where Jack Kirby is the auteur. What Stan Lee is reading is a 20-page story completely written with visuals and margin notes by Jack Kirby. In this phase Jack is the author of that story. That 20-page penciled story was written and drawn by Jack Kirby — alone.

Step Four: Captions, Letters, Inks, Colors, Printing: Lee takes a few hours and adds text to Jack’s art, then the art goes to the letterer, inker, colorist, then back to Lee for final edits, then off to the printers. So the final printed product is indeed a collaboration. It could be argued that Jack wasn’t the “auteur” of that published book. So I use the term  “principal auteur” or “principal author” to describe Jack’s part in the entire process (from conceptualization to publication) because I think that is an accurate way to describe the history — the actual division of labor.

Stan Lee would be the “secondary author” using my terminology. Kirby and Lee both are authors of the story. Jack wrote it first with visuals and text, Lee added his part next. Here’s an analogy: a band composing and laying down an instrumental track, then the singer writes lyrics and sings them. So I’m not marginalizing Lee at all here. Hell, you could argue Lee was the “auteur” of the entire Marvel Comics publication run in the 1960s since Lee controlled so much of the production, my point is that if you look specifically at Jack’s stories, Jack is the uncredited and was the uncompensated author (auteur) of those stories in phase one.

Think of it like this. Let’s use Chaplin’s A Dog’s Life again to make one more analogy. The film is an absolute masterpiece: a brilliant little piece written and directed by Chaplin. I say that film is the equivalent of a 20-page Jack Kirby story in the pencil phase. In the same way Chaplain was the auteur behind A Dog’s Life, Jack Kirby was the auteur behind his penciled epics of 1960s Marvel comics art.

Is Charlie Chaplin no longer the auteur if someone like Stan Lee adds dialogue to the silent film A Dog’s Life? If Lee added dialogue to Chaplin’s story, does that make Lee the ONLY writer of A Dog’s Life? Doesn’t Chaplin deserve SOME credit for what he contributed to this panel above.

I humbly disagree with Barry Pearl; Jack was far more than a metaphorical TV DP (who points the camera at some TV actors), and I’d love to see more Marvel experts admit that Jack’s side of the story might be true — that Jack Kirby helped create all the major 60s characters and Kirby did the bulk of the writing on his stories.

I contend that Jack Kirby deserves to be recognized as (1) the auteur of his penciled stories and (2) the principal auteur of his published 1960s stories.

I see that more and more people are beginning to realize Kirby was far more than Stan Lee’s penciler, and I know many of Lee’s devoted fans find this upsetting because they think this might tarnish Lee’s legacy, but I still say Lee’s reputation as a comic demigod  is set in stone. All a few of us who have studied Jack’s life and work are saying is: why not add a “writer” credit next to Jack’s name in the record book when discussing  the 1960s Marvel comics? I think Jack deserves at the very least to be  discussed as “ONE OF” the writers of his 1960s stories. And despite comics historians like Barry Pearl dismissing Jack as nothing more than a TV director of photography, I say the evidence suggests Jack wasn’t just ONE of the writers, Jack was the PRINCIPAL WRITER of his 1960s stories, Stan Lee being the secondary writer adding text to Jack’s images.