Excelsior Fanzine (1968) Kirby & Lee Interviews

Thanks to Mike Gartland for sending in the cover and pages 21 – 23 from the rarely-seen fanzine Excelsior (1968) featuring interviews with Jack Kirby and Stan Lee.





I love Mr. Fantastic stretching at the bottom of page 21 — a stretch-character is perfect when you need to fill some horizontal space at the bottom of a comics fanzine page. 🙂

As Mike Gartland pointed out yesterday, one of the most interesting bits in the interview is Stan’s comment that “both” he and Jack Kirby conceived the FF. Lee does say it was “mainly” his idea, and then goes on to mention “Jack created characters visually.”

Because this interview was conducted in 1968, before the Kirby/Lee break-up, I think Lee at this point tends to be a little more honest about the Kirby/Lee collaboration. I think Lee sees his role as editor and the writer of the captions as a very important part of the creative process, but you can see Lee has no problem saying “both” he and Kirby “conceived of FF” together. As equals. Stan has been asked that question 100s of times since the Kirby/Lee break-up in 1970 and I don’t ever recall him saying both he and Kirby conceived of FF. As you all know, Lee usually tends to tell the story about how he was going to quit comics, his wife inspired him to do a comic for adults, and Lee claims he created FF alone; Jack penciled his story. So I think Stan’s reply from 1968 before the Kirby/Lee divorce is probably more honest, and quite frankly, more sincere and far more respectful to Jack.

And when Lee says, “Jack created characters visually,” I think Lee is not only acknowledging the importance of Jack’s costume designs, but since the interviewer was talking about the conception of FF, I think Lee is also suggesting here that Jack  helped to establish the personalities of the characters and their relationships using visuals. So I think Lee is stressing Jack’s importance in the creation (conception) process as the visual designer of the FF characters, a co-designer of their personalities, and the architect of the world the characters lived in.

This is a very fair division of labor here. It fits the patterns in Kirby and Lee’s careers, and checks out when you look at the FF # 1 synopsis. Fantastic Four may have been “mainly” Lee’s initial idea (a comic featuring a team of superheros), but as Stan Lee says, Kirby and Lee both conceived of the characters and Jack created the characters visually.

When Jack was asked the question: “Do you plot the Fantastic Four stories by drawing the stories and then having Stan write the dialogue?” Jack responded, “This is Stanley’s editorial policy. As a Marvel artist I carry it out.”

If you read between the lines here, I don’t think Jack liked that arrangement at all, but as an employee who works for Stan he has no other choice. Jack would have loved to get that “writer” paycheck for taking 4 – 5 hours to add captions to his own story that took him maybe 80 hours to write with visuals.

In this video of the Jack Kirby Tribute Panel at the New York Comic Con, April 20, 2008, there’s a segment where Dick Ayers and Joe talk about how important it was to make every hour count if they wanted to survive in comics.

Dick Ayers and Joe Sinnott (2008) New York Comic Con, Kirby Tribute Panel

When maximizing every minute to make a living was tantamount, imagine how it must have felt for Jack to spend about 2 weeks (60 – 80) hours writing and drawing a book, then if Stan Lee would have allowed Jack to spend 4 – 5 hours adding captions to his story — Jack would have received a writer’s paycheck plus the pretige attached to being listed in three successful books a month as a writer. You’re talking about 60 hours of work to be the credited/paid “penciler” of a book, vs. 65 hours of work to be the credited/paid “writer and penciler” of a book.

Jack could have used that extra money as well as that “writer” credit — not only would a “Jack Kirby: Writer” credit on the books have been accurate, but it would have been great for Jack’s reputation. Instead of just being some cigar chompin’ employee who penciled stories for his Fearless Leader, Jack would have been considered the creator and writer of all of his 1960s stories — and he would even be considered (with Lee) the creator and architect behind the so-called “Marvel Universe!”

So in 1968, I think you get the impression by Jack’s very cryptic response that Jack is not thrilled with the Stan Lee “editorial policy.” I doubt Kirby was ever happy with the fact he had to write stories with visuals uncredited and uncompensated (as you all know, Lee made up a name for this arrangement: Marvel Method).

Listening to the radio interview conducted in 1987 on Jack’s 70th birthday (famous because Stan Lee calls in and basically hijacks Jack’s birthday interview) I think you can still hear that 20 years after the Kirby/Lee collaboration was over, Jack is still frustrated from having to work in that situation. Here’s a link to the interview:

1987 – Jack Kirby’s 70th Birthday: A One Hour Interview with Jack Kirby and Special Guest Stan Lee

1987 Kirby Interview

You can hear Lee laughing at Jack when Jack talks about contributing to the writing of the captions. In Jack’s defense, even though he didn’t dialogue his 60s stories, I recall at least 100 examples of text in Kirby’s margin notes making it into Lee’s dialogue balloons (and you have to remember sometimes 75% of Jack’s notes were cut off the art in production, and many pages are in the hands of private collectors and have never been studied). So some of Jack’s text did make it into Lee’s captions. Usually Lee would use his own words, but Jack’s visual story came first — some comics experts would call that “writing.” Lee’s captions came second — some comics experts would all that “dialoguing,” or “captioning.”

For the bulk of the Kirby/Lee 1960s stories, I say:

Kirby was the Primary Author (Visuals)

Lee was the Secondary Author (Text).

Lee and Kirby define “writing” differently. Jack thinks writing the story with visuals and margin notes in Step One is “writing.” Lee thinks adding text to Jack’s visuals and margin notes in Step Two is “writing.” And both men are technically right, they are both writers, but I think you can understand why Jack must have had a hard time with that arrangement. He did not get paid as a writer and he got zero credit as a writer. I don’t think Jack was pleased with the arrangement in 1968, and as you can hear at the end of Jack’s 70th birthday interview in 1987, I think you can tell Jack is still not thrilled with the way Stan Lee paints himself out to be the primary author and primary creator of virtually every book Jack worked on in the 1960s.

Finally, in the Excelsior fanzine, the interviewer asked Jack: who created the Inhumans? Jack simply says, “I did.”

The Inhumans first appeared in Fantastic Four #45 (December 1965), above is the splash page (Medusa and Gorgon appeared in earlier issues of that series #36 and #44). The credits here say “Story by Stan Lee,” and “pencilling by Jack Kirby.” What kid reading this comic book would have thought Jack wrote this story with visuals and margin notes, and Jack created and designed the Inhumans?

One of the things that is so fascinating about studying Jack, is that you still have people out there who claim Stan Lee created characters like the Inhumans alone. That’s how successful Lee’s solo-genius creator propaganda has been. Stan’s word is so important in the way the history has been written, if Lee doesn’t say Jack helped create a character, there is always that shadow of doubt cast over Kirby as creator. Except for Silver Surfer, Lee did admit Jack gave him one good idea.

It reminds me of when I saw a Beatles cover band years back. They did all the Beatles tunes. Then at the end of the show the John Lennon look-alike came out dressed like Lennon in the Live in New York City video. Before they started playing the next tune, the Lennon look-alike said, (British accent) “I saved one for me-self,” and he started playing “Imagine,” the only solo-Lennon song they did.

So Kirby saved one for himself. Silver Surfer. He gave Stan Lee one character in 10 years… that is if you believe Stan Lee (post-1970).

I believe Stan Lee (1968), before the break-up; I believe Lee is telling the truth in the Excelsior interview — Kirby/Lee both conceived of FF and Jack had a tremendous impact on the creation of the characters and the story in FF # 1 in the illustration phase. You can read my ongoing series of interview questions for Stan Lee on FF # 1 to see why I agree with Lee (1968) and I don’t agree with Lee (1970 – 2012).

My Interview Questions for Stan Lee Part 1

My Interview Questions for Stan Lee Part 2

My Interview Questions for Stan Lee Part 3: Chapter Breaks

It’s too bad no one sat down with those two together in 1968 and did a really thorough interview because I think we would have a pretty reliable account of what actually took place. But the Excelsior fanzine is a pretty amazing time capsule. It shows how in 1968 when Kirby/Lee were at the peak of their success, comics fandom was literally just beginning. The creators of the Excelsior fanzine may not have even owned a typewriter or maybe they were going for a comic-like handwritten look? Either way, the Excelsior Kirby and Lee interviews are an interesting little glimpse back in time. Along with some hints about the true history of the Kirby/Lee collaboration, in these hand-written pages we can see the humble beginnings of what has become a multi-billion dollar phenomenon.

Comic-Con 2009

If any of the people who put the Excelsior fanzine together are out there, please get in touch, I’m sure we’d all love to hear your recollections of your Kirby and Lee interviews. Thanks again to Mike Gartland for sharing this with us.