My Interview Questions for Stan Lee, Part 1: Comments

I see some folks are commenting on my hypothetical Stan Lee interview on the Kirby Museum Face Book page, and I’m getting some private emails as well. I’ll get to Part 2 of the proposed interview with Stan about FF # 1 soon, after I address some of the comments. I’ll respond to a couple of them today. Maybe more if I have time. This is from the Museum Face Book page. Thanks to the readers who sent these in, I appreciate your feedback.

Mitchell Sternbach: I agree that the sign on Stan Lee’s door in the piece indicates a one-sided perception.

Remember, more than anything, the “Lee Interview” post is a piece of satire, done in the format of a mock interview. I’d be shocked if Lee actually answered my questions, but I threw them out there anyway. The door with the “Kirby: Do Not Enter” sign is the equivalent of a comics’ political cartoon. You might not agree with the gag, but it is symbolic of a perception that is out there — it visually shows you one aspect of the Kirby/Lee authorship debate –that Lee somehow prevented Kirby from contributing any ideas to FF. That image is certainly not my literal interpretation of what took place because I’m convinced Jack worked on FF with Lee from day one, but that image does, I think symbolize Lee’s version of the history, in a funny way, of course.

John Coyne: If I were Stan Lee I think I would get up an quietly leave the interview once you started throwing around the word liar.

Notice I used the term “liar” when I talked about Jack Kirby. Why would Stan Lee walk out of an interview when someone points out he painted Jack as a liar? Isn’t that what Lee did? That’s what happened. Why would the truth offend him?

I also recall at least one comment Lee made where he insinuated that maybe Jack was crazy when he talked about helping to create a character like Spider-man; or maybe something was wrong with Jack. Why not take the high road: why not say, “it’s possible Jack did help me create Spider-man!” Would that kill Lee? Why take all the credit and portray Jack in a negative light? I just don’t understand why Lee did that. It was incredibly cruel and must have been very hurtful to Jack while he was still alive to see Lee not only take all the credit for creating all the 1960s properties alone, but then to add insult to injury Lee questioned Jack’s honesty and his sanity.

Either Lee remembers what took place and Jack is indeed a liar, or Lee does not recall every moment from 1960 – 1970, which means Lee isn’t telling the truth.

Grilling, as you mentioned, is not a good way to interview someone and expect answers.

Right. But again, try and think of this as a Saturday Night Live sketch. I don’t expect Lee to ever address these questions; he’s had 50 years to do so, but I love being proven wrong so I threw the questions our there — maybe Stan will surprise us all tomorrow with his replies. That being said, even with a heavy dose of sodium pentothal, I think we’d find Stan Lee just doesn’t remember specifically what took place. Which is fine and understandable. Just tell us that! That’s one of my main points with this comedy sketch: I don’t think Stan Lee has a photographic memory, so I don’t think he clearly remembers creating all the major 60s Marvel characters alone.

It still amazes me that people who were not there in that room seem to the “truth” more than those who were.

This is a very common debate tactic I’ve seen used frequently in this debate. This is the argument (I’m paraphrasing): “The only person who was in the room that is still alive is Stan Lee, therefore we must give his story the most weight. Anyone’s opinion who was not in the room is irrelevant.” Have you ever watched a court TV show? Tune into one today. Chances are you’ll see two people who were in a room together last month telling two totally different sides of a story. The judge has to weigh both sides and come to a conclusion and reach a verdict. What about a case where someone is dead? Do you simply rule in favor of the survivor because they were the only one in the room who can testify? Just because Jack passed away, must we disregard his account of what took place in that room? What about Jack’s associates?

So, no, none of us here were in the room with Lee and Kirby, but we can look at other evidence like the margin notes on about 7000/10,000 pieces of Kirby 60s Marvel art which show Jack was involved in the creating/writing process, we can look at Jack’s  interviews, we can read Lee’s interviews and his “bio-autography”(that’s what Lee called his ghost-written autobiography) which are full of contradictions, and we can compare and contrast the accounts of their associates like Ditko, Brodsky, Lieber, Romita, etc., all suggesting Kirby was more than Lee’s “penciler,” therefore we can try and guess at the “truth.” As long as we clearly label our speculations as such, you the reader can reach your own conclusions.

How do you think any crimes in this country would get solved if the detectives just believed the story of the last man standing and didn’t try and speculate on other possibilities? So I don’t think this kind of “you were not in the room with Lee and Kirby, therefore your speculations are incorrect argument” has that much credibility, although, sure, we may never know for sure what really happened unless the CIA tapped Lee’s phone line, or aliens recorded their conversations in a UFO somewhere.

Later in life, as we know, Jack made lot of claims of character creation that were not true (and I am certainly not calling him a liar for that!)

I’ve said in the past, I think at the very end of his life, there were moments where Jack reached a point where he was at the end of his rope. Decades of Lee’s false witness had worn him down. Jack realized he was never going to get promised royalties from Goodman. Jack realized Lee was stealing all the credit for his 60s creations and this was hurting his reputation. Jack knew he was not going to be able to leave his family a nest egg despite the immense value of his creations. That must have been hard for him. He was always that little kid who survived the depression inside, I’m sure a kind of panic might have set in.

Jack was a quiet guy. A humble guy. I suspect he was like a lot of men from his generation. He kept his mouth shut. He didn’t complain. And he knew better than to criticize Lee if he ever hoped to work for Marvel again. I heard one anecdote that in the 80s Marvel actually threatened to sue Jack for using his own style! (that was off-the-record, so that may be hearsay). Imagine if Jack couldn’t even draw the way he illustrated because some court decided Marvel owned his style? So Jack knew he better keep his criticisms of Saint Stan and Marvel to a minimum if he was ever desperate and needed the work.

I doubt he was consumed by rage, but there must have been moments of anger when he’d see Lee on TV pretending he created Jack‘s characters and that must have been infuriating and painful. If you’ve ever had a former friend lie to your face, you’ll know how this feels. Imagine seeing that in the press for 2 decades! Also, Jack was not a great orator. I don’t think he had the verbal skill or the desire to fight Stan Lee and Marvel in a war over his creations – so for a bunch of reasons I think Jack tried to avoid a confrontation with Lee/Marvel.

But, at the end of his life, when his health was failing him, Jack got mad when a couple interviewers asked him about Stan Lee. Jack decided to fight fire with fire and he famously said in one interview: “Stan created nothing.” Can you blame Jack for saying this? It’s the same thing Lee had been saying about him for 2 decades! Jack, in his own admittedly awkward way was telling you: Lee’s story is not true! Jack could have probably handled it with more tact, but unfortunately the Kirbys really needed a good PR person, they didn’t have one, and Jack just wasn’t shrewd enough to come up with a better plan to get his own story out there.

As for his “Stan created nothing” comment, I’ve said before, I think Kirby was not speaking literally. He was using a metaphor. Obviously Stan created something on his own. Or at least I guess he must have at some point (I think Lee is credited with creating She-Hulk for example in the 1980s, but I’m not positive). I think Jack was saying: if you look at the big picture, if you look at the whole of the 1960s, in the Jack Kirby books, metaphorically, Stan created nothing – nothing alone, none of those characters were created by Stan Lee alone. That’s what I think Jack’s point was.

As far as Jack claiming he helped create some of the characters — like I have an audio interview where Jack says he pitched a character to Stan called Spider-man who Jack wanted to “crawl all over the walls of NYC” — how do we know that’s not true? What if Lee got the story wrong or consciously decided not to tell the truth about Spider-man? Why must Jack be the one accused of saying things that (as the Face Book poster said) “were not true?”

 Also, the sign on Stan Lee’s door in your piece speaks volumes of the one sided perception of the interviewer. Not good journalism.

As I said, this was a comedy piece. I loved Stan Lee comics when I was 5-years-old. If I had died in 2002, I would have told you Stan Lee was a genius with my last breath. But after studying the topic, I had to change my mind. I learned that Kirby was the real creative force behind those 60s Marvel stories (specifically the ones Jack worked on for Stan) and I think Lee’s false witness about the real history behind the creation of those iconic properties was hurtful to Jack while Jack was alive, and now Lee’s behavior is just plain disrespectful.

So the jokes with the doors locked are not based on me being “one-sided,” they are based on me looking at both sides from 2002 – the present, not just the side in Lee’s Origins books. That is a visual depiction of the absurdity of Stan Lee’s version of the history. It’s laughable, ridiculous, and for Jack and his family, tragic. Again, my “interview” was not meant as hard journalism. I think the joke there is that most people would answer those types of questions without giving them a second thought, but Stan Lee will not. Hence the irony. These questions are all out there anyway, people all over the net have been asking them for years now, I just put them all in one place, so I say if Lee wants to set the record straight, I’m sure we’d all enjoy reading what he has to say here.

If Stan Lee remains silent and never addresses these types of criticisms, then these unanswered questions are going to be a part of his legacy for all time. Yes, when they build the comics hall of fame, it will most certainly be called the Stan Lee Comics Hall of Fame, because Lee is unquestionably a deity in the comics industry, he is the undisputed, unparalleled king of the medium, a comics god. But as it stands now there are always going to me murmurs when people pass that massive gold statue of Smilin’ Stan at the front of the Stan Lee Comics Hall of Fame museum. People are going to look at the carving in the base of the statue that says, “I created everything” in Latin, then as their eyes rise skyward, they are then going to look up at his smiling golden face, his sunglasses reflecting the morning sunlight, and ask themselves and their friends: “Did Stan Lee really create all those characters alone?” Add someone is going to raise their hand, step forward, and invariably say, “No, Stan Lee is a liar and a fraud. Jack Kirby helped create all those characters.”

Stan’s still here with us. He can set the record straight if he answers these questions (and they are the tip of the iceberg, I’m only discussing one book: FF # 1). If Stan answers these questions, I think there is still a chance he can save himself from being a punchline in comics circles for symbolizing the bottom of the barrel – a credit thief — a man who stole credit from Jack Kirby, a man who was by all accounts one of the biggest class acts to ever work in the industry, not to mention one of the most unselfish, most reliable, most creative artists to ever work in the comics.

I like redemption stories. I like a happy ending. I’m still hoping for a death bed conversion from Stan. If not, he’ll certainly remain a comics icon, but I suspect because of his treatment of Jack Kirby, in comics circles (and maybe in the wider culture one day) if Lee doesn’t tell the truth, after he passes on he may become a target of scorn and ridicule.

Or no one will care about any of this stuff in 10 years. For now it’s fun to discuss because many of the principal players are still alive. We can ask them questions. Once they all have passed on — and that will be a sad day, the end of an era — then no one who was “in the room” will be able to give us any new information, so I feel now is the time to discuss this stuff. Now is our final chance to try and get answers.

I’d love to see Stan end this debate. If he merely admits maybe Jack helped him create all those characters,  then the Kirby/Lee debate will be over, and this cloud that hangs over Kirby/Lee partnership will be gone for good. If Lee sticks to his story until his dying day, then this debate is never going to go away, and these rumors of Lee as a credit thief and a back-stabber will only be discussed more and more as long as Stan Lee remains the Walt Disney of comic books.

We are nearing the end of the final chapter on the “Marvel Age of Comics.” I’d still like to see an ending where Lee and Marvel admit Jack played a pivotal role creating all the major 60s Marvel characters and I’d like to see an ending where Lee and Marvel admit Jack helped write the bulk of his stories. Maybe I’m naive, but I can’t help but be an optimist – that’s just my personality, and that’s why I put my questions out there. I hope Lee does answer them. For his sake and for the sake of the hobby.