Oct 27, 2010

Creating the Marvel Universe: Who Deserves the Credit? Part One

One of the oldest debates in comic book fandom is the issue of who exactly created how much of the Marvel Universe.

As most comics readers know, the explosion of Marvel Comics as a company and as a shared universe in the 1960s really revitalized and invigorated the medium and the industry. With characters such as Spider-Man, a shy teenager whose life's problems are only worsened by the fact that he is a superhero; the Fantastic Four, a family of superheroes who wore no costumes (at first), had no secret identities, and constantly bickered; the Mighty Thor, the Norse god of thunder who was stuck in the body of a mortal for being too arrogant; and a revived Captain America, who continually tried to reconcile his old 1940s values with the then-current world of political turmoil, Marvel Comics turned the superhero genre upside-down. Where superheroes were often one-dimensional characters, with their only real traits being that they were good people who fought crime, Marvel characters were two-dimensional characters, and this caused kids from ages two to twenty-two to take notice. (No lie. In a 1965 article in Esquire Magazine, the Hulk and Spider-Man were voted in by readers as two of their favorite revolutionary icons of the time, alongside Bob Dylan, Che Guevara, and Malcolm X.)

There were many forces at work here, including Bill Everett, the creator of Namor the Sub-Mariner, who collaborated with Stan Lee to create Daredevil, and  Don Heck, who collaborated with Lee to create Iron Man. But the bulk of the work and the success are primarily attributed to three men.

The first is Stan "The Man" Lee. Stan's role was twofold: he was both the editor and the "writer." (We'll be defining this soon.) That is, he would come up with an idea, such as, for example, "Puny teenager who gets bullied gets bitten by a radioactive spider, and his life's problems are worsened by this fact."

He'd give these ideas to the artists. And in the case of Spider-Man, this artist was "Smilin'" Steve Ditko.

And in the case of pretty much the rest of the Marvel Universe, this man was the King of Comics, Jack Kirby. Okay, Kirby didn't create Iron Man, but he redesigned him into his classic look and integrated him into the Avengers, which was really the in-universe cornerstone of Marvel.

Marvel was different from DC Comics in that DC Comics revolved around Superman and Batman, fictionally and in actuality. The fictional citizens of the DC Universe idolize Superman and Batman, and the publication of the books were centered on Superman and Batman. In the Marvel Universe, though, everyone was pretty fair game. The in-universe cornerstone were the Avengers and the Fantastic Four, but the publication, merchandising, and licensing centered around those characters just as much as characters like Spider-Man and the Hulk - complete outsiders and loners. Later on, the X-Men, a group of outcast mutants, would be the cornerstone of Marvel's publishing and marketing, and these guys were also created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

The idea of the "realistic superhero," or at least relatively realistic in those days, was not new - Will Eisner did it with The Spirit, and Harvey Kurtzman deconstructed superheroes with a subversive realism (it's complicated; I'll get to it in a future post) in TALES CALCULATED TO DRIVE YOU MAD. But where the Spirit was still a character who was pure of heart and Kurtzman's spoofs were made to make you laugh, the Marvel characters were, quite frankly, relatable. You could envision yourself as Spider-Man, and you could definitely relate to the X-Men, and you could definitely relate to the Fantastic Four. You had to wonder what it would be like to be Superman, but in your angry moments, you could feel like the Hulk.

The idea of a superhero that you can relate to - and many superheroes you could relate to - the idea of superheroes with flaws - came pretty much directly from Stan Lee. Lee was frustrated with his career and was thinking of leaving comics in 1961, and when publisher Martin Goodman told him to come up with a superteam to counter DC's Justice League of America (a team consisting of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, among others), Stan wondered how to do it (especially considering that Marvel at the time wasn't publishing superheroes to make a big guns team out of). His wife then said he should just write superheroes the way he wanted to, and the Fantastic Four was born.

Now, of course, Stan Lee is the most famous out of these three names.  In fact, I was talking to an officemate just last month about Thor, and when I told him that Thor was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, he just said, "Oh, so it's still Stan Lee?" in a tone that betrayed the fact that he'd never heard of  Kirby.

There are many reasons for this. The oft-cited reason by casual fans is that Stan Lee's the name on all the credits. He wrote the stories, he came up with the ideas, and he created the characters. The artists just drew what he said to draw.

It's sound reasoning.

Except it's not true.

How exactly did Stan Lee collaborate with his artists? Who deserves more credit for Spider-Man: Stan Lee or Steve Ditko? What about Jack Kirby? Who was more important, Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko? And where does the Merry Marvel Marching Society fit into all of this? Click here for Part 2 of Creating the Marvel Universe: Who Deserves the Credit? same Cube time, same Cube channel!


Darrell D. said...

Very nice post. If I wasn't so lazy, I would do something like this.
Saying that Stan Lee didn't create the Marvel Universe by himself (because he didn't) is not the same thing as saying he did nothing. Was he a credit hog? Probably. But, the synergy that Lee and Kirby was important, and I believe it was VERY important to Kirby's growth as an artist and creator. After Marvel he exploded with ideas and never stopped.

Duy Tano said...

Thanks, Darrell. I do notice on message boards, there's a tendency for some fans to see it as one or the other - either he created everything or he did nothing and took all the credit. The truth is somewhere in between.

I think Kirby was already prolific with ideas before his collaboration with Stan, though. But I do agree that it probably made him even MORE prolific. I would be inspired by working with Stan, even if he did take all the credit.

Darrell D. said...

I agree about Stan having a lot of positive energy, especially in the early days of Marvel. Joe Quesada has that same kind of energy with his creators, but I know I would be burned in effigy if I said that on a comic message board.
You're right, Kirby had a lot of creative energy, but by the time Fantastic Four started, he was probably worn down by the industry, and Stan letting Jack do whatever he wanted had to be cathartic. Compare his work for DC years earlier, where he was basically browbeat by editors who had no creative inclination, and would basically hamper him.
Jack needed Stan at that time, as much as Stan needed Jack. Later, of course, both men were able to diverge down different paths, Jack's was more overtly creative than the path Stan was on.

Duy Tano said...

Hating editors-in-chief is so weird to me. They're just trying to do their jobs, y'know? Who wants to lose money?

I completely see your point about Kirby, and I'd argue that the same is true of Ditko as well. In fact, I'd even say that Darkseid aside, Ditko creations were more memorable than Kirby creations... if only Ditko's dialogue wasn't so bad.

Darrell D. said...

Well, we may have to agree to disagree, because I absolutely LOVE the DC work Kirby did; OMAC, Fourth World, Kamandi, they all have this incredible charm and they were under appreciated. Ditko, beyond The Question and The Creeper, never got me the same way.
Then when Kirby went back to Marvel, I loved his Captain America, Eternals, Black Panther.

Duy Tano said...

It's just a matter of taste, but I can't deny that Kirby was the better writer. I've always been really attracted to the more experimental type stuff though, and I always thought Ditko was more trippy than Kirby.

Fun fact: I was first exposed to Jack Kirby on his work on the SUPER POWERS comic in the 80s. I think I was four at the time, and I remember thinking it looked horrible. It took me a long, long, long time to "get" Kirby, and now I can't get enough.

Darrell D. said...

I was exposed to Kirby in the mid seventies as a kid, and I thought his art was blocky, and was into the flashy art of Neal Adams, Byrne, and Perez at the time.
Then, when I hit my teens a friend lent me his New Gods books and my mind was BLOWN. My admiration for Adams and Byrne and Perez has faded; but Kirby is still King.

Duy Tano said...

It seems that you're about ten years older than me, Darrell. Can I ask something - did you notice the Filipino Invasion when you were reading comics back in the 70s?

A while back, I decided to wallpaper my room with enlarged panels from comic books. I couldn't believe how much Ditko stuff I was picking out.

Dunno if you ever saw my article on Kirby. Here it is, for your reference. http://comicscube.blogspot.com/2010/06/top-ten-most-influential-comics-artists_08.html

Darrell D. said...

I'm not sure about the Filipino invasion; can you give me some artist's names? I'm sure I would recognize the names, I probably was just ignorant of their nationality. I do remember the South American artists coming up, doing the westerns and Sword and Sorcery stuff.
I will definitely check out your Kirby post.

Duy Tano said...

Filipino artists: Jess Jodloman, Alfredo Alcala, Alex Nino, Tony DeZuniga, Nestor Redondo. Basically, I've always wondered if it was actually a big "Filipino invasion" or if they just happened to hire a bunch of people from the Philippines and then they retroactively called it the Filipino invasion.

Darrell D. said...

Oh, yeah. Alfredo Alcala just blew me away. Amazing artist, my second favorite Conan artist, after Buscema.
DeZuniga really made Jonah Hex, in my opinion, and seeing it in Black and White in the Showcase edition was even better.
Redondo, another great artist, I think I remember him doing a Batman story at some point, same with Alex Nino.
But, yeah, I remember the influx of those artists, mainly because the quality was so good.

Duy Tano said...

Alcala was the man. And the overall quality was indeed great. I see you didn't mention Jodloman, though - people tend to either not remember him or not know him at all, which I think is a shame, since I think he's right up there with Alcala. http://comicscube.blogspot.com/2010/08/reclaiming-history-jess-jodloman.html

Darrell D. said...

Jodloman was someone that didn't jump out at me, but after seeing the art on that post, I wish I was more aware of his work. Very good.
The thing that I was very impressed with guys like Alcala and DeZuniga was the speed they had. They could really move pages, and not sacrifice quality one bit.

Duy Tano said...


There was actually a talk here a few months ago about when Alcala was first hired by DC. His son said he felt really hampered by a lot of the layout restrictions, because DC wouldn't let him jump out of the panel (ala Garcia Lopez), when he and the other Filipino artists were doing that in the local komiks here already in the 40s. Looking back on it, Kirby's the only one from that era (before Adams and Steranko came along, definitely) who was doing that kind of wild layout. It's interesting to see the restrictions in place. I wonder what artists like Infantino and Gil Kane could have done without that restriction.

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