The Stan Lee Law of Creativity

I thought about wrapping up my little series on Stan Lee and the “creation” of Fantastic Four # 1 today (and I will wrap it up in the next few days) because this is a subject people get sick of talking about real fast. You have comics collectors out there who have been reading about this subject for upwards of 50 years, they made up their minds on the subject in 1974 and have no interest in rehashing the old Kirby/Lee debate; then you have Lee’s fans who go ballistic when anyone criticizes their beloved Stan; you have Jack’s fans who sometimes get upset by the topic because Lee’s hypocrisy is so mind-blowing; and finally you have people who could care less, they are here to see great Kirby art so they look forward to the end of this series. As much as I would like to get back to Jack’s art now, I want to say a few more things on the topic, specifically because (as I mentioned before) Stan Lee is still alive. I want to put these observations out there now with the hopes that some interviewer may call Lee out on some of these issues.

Today I want to talk about what I’ll call “Stan Lee’s Law of Creativity.” I’m sure you’ve all heard of Einstein’s famous theory of relativity. Well this is not a theory – unlike Einstein’s theory, this is a law, a law of physics.

“Stan Lee’s Law of Creativity.”

∞ – x = x

Infinity represents an infinite number of possibilities.

X = Stan Lee

The equation means that out of an infinite number of possibilities, if Stan Lee is part of the creative process then Stan Lee is the sole creator of the idea, concept, or character. There is absolutely no other possibility.

I know many of you are thinking this is absurd, but I can assure you I’ve met several fans of Stan Lee’s who treat this equation as if it is historical fact. I’m not a big math guy, so maybe there is a better equation, but this one comes the closest that I can think of to describing the “Stan Lee solo-creator genius” legend: there is one and only one explanation for something like the creation of something like the FF – out of an infinite number of possibilities — Stan Lee came up with all the ideas, therefore Stan Lee, 100% by himself, created The Fantastic Four alone.

This is actually a brilliant rhetorical strategy. I hate to compare Stan Lee to some of the Christians here in America, because I know many Christians who are incredibly exceptional, honest people with tremendous integrity and common sense, but “Stan Lee’s Law of Creativity” is very similar to the literalist debate strategy many fundamentalist Christians use to defend the historical accuracy of the Bible. For example let’s substitute “Noah’s Ark” for x in the equation. That means out of an infinite number of possibilities there is only one possibility – the Noah’s ark story really took place, therefore it is an undisputed fact. You simply cannot debate the subject.

I can think of a great friend of mine, a man I have the utmost respect for. Years ago, I recall one day discussing Noah’s ark with him and I raised the idea that maybe there were other possibilities behind the story. Maybe it’s a global legend that was not meant to be taken literally. I pointed out that it would be very difficult to get 2 of every type of animal to the ark. I raised some other questions.

As we walked, my friend told me a long story: he told me that God floated all the animals to the ark; God made the ark from special wood so it could withstand the destruction of the entire world by flood; God used his hands to keep the boat floating; God made food appear in the bowls of the animals; God even faked the fossil record to confuse non-believers, giving them the ultimate test of faith.

One of the questions I asked was, “there were tens of thousands of animals on the ark, how was Noah and his wife able to get rid of all that animal poop (I didn’t use the s-word, my friend is offended by that type of language)? ”

My friend told me God apparently took care of that also, he floated it out. He took all the animal poop and floated it right out the windows of the ark and into the ocean.

I asked my friend, “who told you this?” And he answered, “no one told me, I know that’s what must have happened because the story is a fact.” In other words, the guy was imagining what must have taken place. This was the first time he had ever really thought about it. In his mind’s eye just as clearly as he could see his first son being born, my friend was visualizing God floating all the animal poop off Noah’s ark just as clear as if it was happening right before our eyes. That had to be what happened because Noah’s ark was a fact. End of conversation. All other possibilities, irrelevant.

Now let me be clear, I hope it doesn’t seem like I’m mocking my firend. This guy is a class act, and I’ve met hundreds of people over the years who have the same philosophy. I respect them all. My point here is that not only is it possible the Noah’s ark story is actually a legend not meant to be taken literally, but we are talking about the BIBLE here. Even non-believers have to give that book some respect because of its impact on the world’s culture. Some of Stan Lee’s fans are applying logic used to defend the historical accuracy of the Bible to his solo-genius mythos. Does Stan Lee really deserve the same treatment as God?

The literalist argument is the same type of rhetorical strategy I get from a handful of hardcore Stan Lee fans when discussing the Kirby/Lee collaboration. Some of Lee’s fans will not even admit it’s possible that Jack contributed ideas to Fantastic Four # 1. For example, let’s pull one thing from the FF # 1 synopsis. Lee isn’t sure whether to have Sue’s clothes turn invisible or she has to get naked to get invisible, which would raise comics code issues (Lee doing his job as editor). I asked a couple Stan Lee fans: is it POSSIBLE in the story process, maybe Jack decided to just have her clothes turn invisible? Maybe that was Jack’s idea? The answer: NO! NO! It’s not possible. Stan Lee created Fantastic Four! That had to have been his idea! Stan must have told Jack to do that later!

And I brought up some other issues I discussed in the synopsis, but the answer was always the same: No! Stan Lee created Fantastic Four alone, so any idea in the synopsis that was not used must have been taken out by Stan Lee. Any ideas not in the synopsis must have come from Lee later. End of conversation.

Again, I know this sounds hard to believe (and I think some of Stan’s fans simply like to argue or have an inability to admit when they might be wrong) but I’m telling you I’ve seen this behavior first hand. In fact, thus far, we’ve seen this from Stan Lee himself! So I suppose it should come as no surprise that his most ardent true believes follow suit.

Now of course, obviously, maybe there was a Noah’s ark and maybe Lee created all the major 60s Marvel characters alone. I’m willing to admit that’s possible. That’s the difference between me and Lee’s hardcore supporters. I’m willing to admit they might be right. And that is the brilliance of their debate strategy. By never under any circumstances compromising or bending even an inch, in the final analysis, they win the argument. You eventually simply have to throw up your hands in dismay and give up. They believe what they believe and that’s that. End of conversation.

For me, though, for the purposes of this discussion, I’m not discussing “belief” (and I want to make it clear, I respect people’s beliefs), I’m interested in discussing the actual history. In that respect, here is what I think is a more accurate creation equation. I’ll call this one the “Kirby Dynamics Theory of Creativity.”

∞ + (x + y) = ∞xy

Infinity represents an infinite number of possibilities.

X = Stan Lee

Y = Jack Kirby

In other words, I think something like the Fantastic Four is the result of an infinite number of possibilities, combined with the collaboration of Lee and Kirby. We will never know for sure what took place (represented by  ∞ = an infinite number of possibilities), but in my opinion, Jack Kirby was part of the equation, resulting in a final product that reflected that combination of factors. Out of an infinite number of possibilities, some of which played a part in the process, Lee and Kirby worked together to create characters like the Fantastic Four, and Kirby/Lee worked together to create the Fantastic Four # 1 story. Together.

I know this sounds like common sense to a lot of you (and I’m sure a few of you disagree with me), but I want to put these simple theories out there because these were the two conflicting philosophies in play when I started studying Jack’s work in 2002, and you still see these equations in play today.

So to quickly wrap this up, I think the “Stan Lee-solo-genius” mythos and the “Stan Lee Law of Creativity” are calculated, uncompromising rhetorical strategies used to defend Lee’s version of the history; they are metaphorical brick walls that prevent any progress being made if you want to sincerely analyze and try and describe the real history. On the other hand, I think the “Kirby Dynamics Theory of Creativity” is a more logical and realistic way to look at the history. Using a common sense approach that considers Jack’s role in the process and an infinite number of ultimately unknowable possibilities gives us a better understanding of what actually took place – this methodology gives us a way to admit we can never know for sure 100% what happened, and it allows us to begin the process of separating myth from fact.