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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Write or wrong

Two weeks ago I more or less predicted that, ultimately and in the grand scheme of things, movies based on Marvel comic books would generally fare better than those based on DC comic books. And I laid responsibility for this pretty much entirely on the quality of writing of Marvel’s icon Stan Lee.

Then, a mere couple of days later, an authority no less than The New York Times deigned to undercut my argument.

Specifically, a piece by Brent Staples in the Sunday paper chronicled the efforts of the heirs of legendary artist Jack Kirby to share in the copyrights of many of Marvel’s most popular properties. At the heart of the issue is the question of how much Lee and Kirby, as individuals, had to do with the creation of such characters as the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, et al.

Staples asserts plainly and simply that Kirby “was the defining talent and the driving force at the Marvel shop.” He notes, accurately, that during the comic book revival of the 1960s, which came to be known as the Silver Age, Marvel’s major creations were birthed in Kirby’s skilled illustrator hands before, often, being passed on to other artists while Kirby moved on to the next big Marvel thing. There is no disputing the quality of Kirby’s drawings. My pal Eric and I (i.e. the combined authority on great comic books, at least in our own minds) preferred to read comics drawn by Kirby than by just about any other artist. The images he produced were nothing short of magical. So you will get no argument from me as to whether Jack Kirby deserves all the credit he gets for his work—and then some. Did his contributions go beyond merely drawing pictures to go with someone else’s concepts and dialog? Clearly.

But I also have to stand up for the writer here. Yes, I have a bias. When Eric and I made our own comic books, I was always the writer and Eric was always the artist. Sometimes Eric came up with his own stories and dialog, and sometimes I drew my own comics. But we always knew which of us was the writer and which was the illustrator. Eric’s drawings made mine look sick, or at least silly. And I always preferred my own writing to Eric’s, and maybe he felt the same because he never threatened to go off and do a solo act. But no matter the arrangement, we both made a major contribution to whatever we did and had a lot of respect for the other’s work.

Staples notes that, in the 1960s, Lee referred to Kirby as an equal in the creative process and said he “needed ‘no plot at all’ to produce stories.” I myself recall such comments from Lee in those days. He was full of praise for his colleagues, and they certainly deserved all of it. But I always took Lee’s statements—about how he hardly did anything while the artists did all the work—as him just being self-effacing. As Staples recounts, in a 2010 deposition Lee was not nearly so magnanimous, suggesting (in Staples’s characterization) that “Kirby was little more than a talented foot soldier who followed the whims of his boss.” Well, if an octogenarian, who has generally shown little ego over a long career, wants to defend the body of his work for posterity (and perhaps protect his own legal and financial interests), I will not begrudge him the right to do so.

I won’t pretend to know the right or fair thing to do in regards to the copyrights. Those questions are, as they say, above my pay grade. But I do know that whatever money may be earned for Kirby’s heirs, it will be too late for Kirby himself to benefit from it. Maybe they are doing it purely for Kirby’s memory and reputation but, as far as I can see, those are already secure and have been for a long time.

How do I have such faith in the writing and talent of Stan Lee, in spite of so much evidence that Kirby and other artists were heavily involved in the creative process? I’ll tell you why. It’s not that I have some inside or first-hand information about how things worked back in those days. I was simply a reader, albeit an avid one. And what I can testify to is that there was a consistency in the writing of Marvel comics back in those days that did not vary from one book to another, regardless of who was wielding the pencils and the inks. When another writer besides Lee took over writing a particular title, it was immediately apparent. On the other hand, when Kirby or whoever was replaced as the artist, the visual tone changed but not the writing quality. And when Kirby left Marvel for DC and he both wrote and drew comic books there, they were interesting, but they just weren’t as good as the Marvel ones. That’s how I know that Stan Lee was the single critical creative component for so many wonderful comic books.

Lee had an impeccable ear for working class types, like Ben Grimm in Fantastic Four, and for upper-class types, like Reed Richards in the same comic. He could write dialog that aped Shakespeare, as he did for The Mighty Thor, but he also knew not to take it so seriously that readers laughed at it instead of with it. Most importantly, he made all his characters feel real. Superman and Batman were too far above us mere mortals for us to feel like we could really know them as people. Lee’s characters always seemed like someone we could sit down with and have a long chat over a drink. Their problems were our problems. (What guy could read The Amazing Spider-Man and not identify with Peter Parker’s social problems and frustrated love life?) There is too much in common among all of the many and varied titles that Lee is credited with writing to dismiss him as the creative common denominator. That doesn’t mean the artists weren’t just as important in their own way and didn’t contribute story ideas and maybe even dialog. But it does mean that one shouldn’t make the mistake of doing to Lee what he is accused of doing to Kirby, i.e. devaluing his work.

By all means, give Kirby and the other Marvel artists their due. But please don’t do it at the expense of the man who helped make it all possible and tied it all together so magnificently.

-S.L., 7 July 2011

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