Stan Lee on Jack Kirby (1968): “We’re Practically Both the Writers on the Things”

There was an orgasm, a veritable volcanic eruption of interviews from Stan Lee this month for his “documentary” — he did literally hundreds of media interviews, although the only real new thing we learned is that Lee doesn’t seem to know or care if Jack gets a credit on a film like The Avengers. Plus you had thousands of online posts talking about the new Avengers movies, so I hope all of you Stan Lee fans got a nice hearty dose of your Fearless Leader this month.

Unless the Queen of England knights him, I don’t know how many more accolades this guy can possibly receive.

I’m going to wrap up Stan Lee month with a great interview from 1968. Doug Pratt was nice enough to send in the Stan Lee interview from Castle of Frankenstein # 12 (1968).

I’m going to post the whole piece tomorrow so people doing a google search for it can just read it for themselves without my commentary.

A couple observations. This interview hasn’t been widely circulated so there are a few things in it I haven’t seen discussed before.

My first reaction reading this is this: I like this version of Stan Lee! A lot! This may be the only real glimpse we will ever get into this guy. Stan is at work, he’s juggling a lot of balls, and he’s actually talking to the interviewer; he’s not mechanically regurgitating his top-20 talking points as he’s been doing from 1970 – 2012. He still has that used car salesman persona to an extent, but this version of Lee’s personality circa-1968 is a little more of a team player. He hasn’t started using his fake solo-genius shtick yet. I found this interview refreshing and I actually found Lee quite likable. So I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest we get a taste of the real Stan Lee in this 1968 interview, before he became this egomaniac shyster character who has to have all the credit for creating everything.

A brief personal aside: after reading this interview I was reminded of a good friend of mine. He was married to this really sweet girl for many years, and they had a great relationship. Then one day out of the blue they got a divorce. My friend went through a similar change in personality to the one I see between Lee here in 1968 and Lee after 1970. Like a lot of married couples my friend was incredibly happy before the divorce. He had noting but positive things to say about his wife. After the divorce, the way he talked about his wife changed immediately. He wouldn’t necessarily badmouth her, but he started to spin things his way, he would only focus on certain incidents in the relationship that painted him in a positive light, there were frequent major crimes of omission in his stories, and he always did it with a smile.

After the divorce, he started subtly revising the history. And I knew the history so I knew  he was cleverly twisting the truth — he was lying. But again he did it with such a good-natured and friendly manner it was hard for anyone who didn’t know him to imagine the positive things he was saying about himself were damaging the reputation of his wife. And I always wondered was this a calculated move on his part to badmouth his wife by twisting the truth, or do human beings just change the way they perceive the past and over time they really do believe their reinterpretations of history. Anyway my friend’s transformation reminds me a lot of what we see with Lee before/after Kirby left Marvel in 1970. And my friend is a great guy, it’s just that when he talks about his marriage he has selective-memory, and ultimately the story he is telling is not true, because I saw what happened.

In this 1968 interview Stan Lee seems like a regular guy, he doesn’t seem all that calculating, and he doesn’t carefully choose each word and spin the story in his direction. I’m sure he was still a master manipulator behind the scenes, but he seems to be willing to make an effort to give the interviewer honest answers to the questions and I think Lee comes off as an average hard-working and honest dude here. But here’s what I wanna know:

Where did this Stan Lee go?

It seems that almost immediately after Jack left Marvel, Lee suddenly started promoting himself as the prime creative force behind all the Marvel characters (as opposed to the editor and facilitator we see in this interview) and all the artists he has such high praise for in this interview all became his hired-hands, not equals writing the stories with him. And I understand this, when you change jobs as Lee did (moving to California in the early-70s to promote himself and the characters Kirby and Ditko helped him create) you are going to accentuate the positive aspects of yourself. You are going to leave elements out of your story that don’t make you look good. I don’t expert Lee to say the name “Kirby” every time someone asks him about FF, it’s just interesting to see Lee answer these type of questions in 1968 when he is not merely promoting the “Stan Lee” brand and celebrating his own Stan Lee legend.

I’ll only touch on two specific things in the interview, then you can read it for yourselves tomorrow. The first thing I want to mention is Lee’s discussion of the creation of FF. The fairy tale about him wanting to quit writing comics to write a novel and his wife inspiring him to reinvent the superhero genre with the first adult comic book is pleasantly absent from his account here. Lee does admit to being bored in 1961 and wanting to do something off-beat, but he spares us the fictional ode to his muse that he’s been giving us for the last 50 years.

The main thing Lee felt was new to the FF concept was the idea that the characters did not wear costumes. This is interesting because Lee does not mention this idea anywhere in his FF # 1 synopsis, so this would suggest either Kirby and Lee did verbally discuss FF # 1 before the FF # 1 synopsis was written, and Lee told Jack this idea verbally. Or that must have been Jack’s idea.

Note: The generic FF uniforms remind me a lot of the Challengers of the Unknown uniforms if you ask me (although you can argue the purple color could just be a coincidence).

Also Lee talks about the non-costume idea being discarded immediately because of fan reaction. So am I the only one who finds it interesting that the most important innovation Lee felt he brought to the superhero genre — the lack of costumes — was rejected by fans then ironically Kirby/Lee gave the FF costumes almost immediately? This suggests to me that maybe Lee DID want to do an innovative, unique type of superhero comic with Jack, but his first idea clearly didn’t catch on and it was rejected. The main thing Lee felt made FF “adult” in 1961 was not accepted by fans.

Lee also mentions another concept he felt separated FF from other teams and that is that the characters fought amongst themselves. First of all, I’m no expert on this, but surely in comics history some members of a super-team had a disagreement. Right? And the history of fiction is full of teams and families arguing. So is this idea really all that ground-breaking? But again, let’s give Lee the benefit of the doubt like we did with his comment about no costumes for the FF, if it was Lee’s idea to have the FF be the first comic book hero team that argued with each other, and that was his new innovation to the comics medium, is that really a reinvention of the superhero genre? Lee invented super-characters that don’t go “yes sir,” every time another character speaks?

And you have to ask: what about Jack? Maybe Jack had the characters bicker in the artwork and Lee ran with it. Maybe the fans loved it and that’s why Kirby/Lee kept that particular element of comedy relief in the story. Let’s be honest folks, this is a very, very common motif in many fictional stories — fictional characters squabble but in the end they really love each other.

So I think what we are looking at here is that in 1968 Lee remembers wanting to do a new type of hero team in 1961 without costumes and one that argues. And Jack ran with that and gave him FF. Of course the thing that made FF such a success was Jack’s stories and Jack’s art (as well as Lee’s captions), but I think clearly Lee feels his contribution of those two core concepts (no costumes, and infighting) helped make FF successful (this is ironic because Jack’s first design for the Spider-man costume was also discarded, in the same way Kirby/Lee discarded the original concept for the FF’s lack of a costume).

I think Lee’s solo-genius mythos over the last 50 years with the story about considering really quitting comics, and doing the first “adult” story for his wife, is revisionist history, and quite frankly an insult to Jack who obviously did a tremendous amount of work not just on FF # 1 but on the whole 10-year run.

Reading this 1968 interview, I think you will get an idea that there was a process going on at Marvel where people were working together. Lee wasn’t locked in a room creating superheroes alone, he was in a freewheeling group situation where people were coming in and out of his office and they were all throwing around ideas. The truth is that with something like FF # 1, some Lee ideas were used, others were not, and much of the most important decisions going forward were based on fan reaction, not Lee consciously wanting to reinvent the superhero genre in 1961 because his wife inspired him.

One also has to wonder how much Jack played a role in Lee’s attitude towards superheroes and doing a new superhero team in 1961. Jack DID have experience doing super teams (understatement). Jack did have ideas. Maybe Jack wanted to do something new — take the Challengers of the Unknown template and do a team that are transformed into heroes with powers. Maybe Jack campaigned to do superhero books and had lots of opinions on the genre and this influenced Lee. When the decision was made to do hero books, maybe Kirby was the one  who got “bored” by the idea of doing a tired Submarier & Human Torch type of superhero book and he was the one who campaigned to do a book with a dynamic family like FF. Maybe Jack was the prime mover and the architect of that intellectual property and Lee just added captions and gave Jack a little guidance. One thing we can say for sure is that in 1968 Lee hasn’t perfected his talking point that he created FF alone… yet.

One last thing: The main thing I took from the interview was this quote. Lee is discussing Kirby:

Stan Lee: “…Occasionally I’ll give him a plot, but we’re practically both the writers on the things.”

Where did this Stan Lee go?

How many times has Stan said Jack was a “writer” on all the 60s stories since this interview?

Now I already know the argument we’re going to get from Jack’s critics (although we might not see it in public since they choose to congregate in private chat rooms where they can preach to the choir uninhibited by criticism), they tortured us on Kirby-l with their philosophy for years — Kirby’s Critics will say: “In 1968 when Lee did this interview, Lee was lying. He did it to appease Kirby. He lied about Jack being a writer because he wanted to show Jack this article — he thought a lie would make Jolly Jackson happy.” I know this is hard to believe but I’ve heard that argument many times before from Jack’s critics.

I also remember a year-long debate on the old Kirby-l where we discussed a quote where Carmine Infantino said Jack Schiff “basically blacklisted Jack from DC,” and since Carmine said the word “basically,” which is a qualifier, therefore the word “basically” negated the meaning of the sentence — Jack’s critics argued the sentence actually meant Shiff DID NOT blacklist Kirby! Invariably you can bet Jack’s critics will also claim the word “practically” is a qualifier, therefore it negates the meaning of that sentence. And I’m sure Jack’s critics will find some OTHER way to say this quote actually proves Jack was NOT a writer even though Lee says he is, unless they’ve thrown in the towel.

This is what I think we see in the Castle of Frankenstein interview:

I think for one of the only times in the history of the Kirby/Lee story, this may be the only real interview with Lee where we get a genuine look into what was really going on in the Bullpen in the late 1960s, and we get a tiny glimpse into what type of a person Lee was before his divorce with Jack Kirby in 1970. And let me tell you: I wholeheartedly, 100% agree with Stan Lee (circa-1968) that every single shred of evidence I’ve seen on this subject agrees with what he said here:

Stan Lee on his writing partnership with Jack Kirby: “Occasionally I’ll give him a plot, but we’re practically both the writers on the things.”

Yes. Sometimes Lee gave Jack a plot, Jack then wrote the story with visuals (from 1964 – 1970 with visuals & margin notes), and then Lee added text in the blank spots Jack left him on the art. This is a fact: Jack Kirby and Stan Lee were both the writers of the 1960s Marvel books that Jack worked on.

It’s nice that we have an actual quote where Lee says this. Will this end the Kirby/Lee authorship debate? Of course not. But this is one more piece of evidence suggesting Kirby was indeed the uncredited and uncompensated ghostwriter of his 1960s stories for Stan Lee.