Stan Lee, Presented

“A creative producer is very involved with the writing, even though he does not do the screenplay and is not the author of the original material.  You work with the writer, you guide the writer, you try, as the producer, to see to it that you and the writer achieve the basic story you set out to tell.” — Stanley Rubin.

The above quote appears in the commentary for a Warner Brothers release of a DVD pairing two obscure films noirs, Crime Wave (1954) and Decoy (1946).  Rubin wrote the original story on which Decoy was based, and though he did not directly collaborate in its adaptation, had nothing but praise for the director/producer who helped translate the work to screen.  Later Rubin became a minor writer-producer in Hollywood.  One must see his defense of the “creative producer” in the light of that experience.

The mainstream comics world in the U.S. has become consumed, and very nearly defined, by one controversy over authorship: the one that arose from the collaboration of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee at Marvel, beginning in the late 1950s and concluding at the end of the 1960s.

Both men, at one time or another, made claims of sole authorship, and yet at other times admitted that they took some degree of input from their respective collaborative partners.  Any time I’ve read either Stan Lee or the late Jack Kirby making claims of sole authorship, I hear in both of them the sound of Hollywood old-timers like Frank Capra, who also downplayed the role of collaboration in his work in favor of personal grandstanding.  Given that filmmaking is if anything more collaborative than comic-book crafting, the notion of sole authorship in either medium seems highly problematic.

In fannish circles, the lion’s share of sympathy has gone, perhaps appropriately, to “the King,” i.e. Jack Kirby.  I don’t dispute the dominant notion that Kirby received inequitable treatment from Marvel Comics or from Stan Lee.  However, I do dispute a notion present in the claims made by both Lee and Kirby: that the first person to articulate a basic idea is the sole author.

Lee’s employment of this notion is well-known.  In the recently-concluded suit between Marvel Comics and the Kirby Estate, Lee valorized Marvel Comics’ claim to sole copyright ownership by asserting that he, as Marvel’s head editor and thus a full-time employee of Marvel Comics, conceived the basic ideas behind every Marvel story on which he collaborated.  One example of his legal justification appeared in a Roy Thomas interview in THE JACK KIRBY COLLECTOR #18:

Roy Thomas: I remember Stan and I got into a good-natured argument ten years ago in L.A. I wasn’t even working for Marvel at the time, and we had lunch. He talked about people like Stephen J. Cannell and television, saying if Cannell comes up with a general idea, and wants a few people running around doing this and that, and calls them the A-Team, he’s created that. It says “Created by Stephen Cannell.”

Given that few if any fans were present to observe the Lee-Kirby collaboration, this may be the exact way Stan Lee did promulgate the “basic ideas” that his collaborators were expected to elaborate.  Indeed, Daredevil Annual #1 includes a jokey “how we make the comics” back-up feature written by Lee and drawn by Gene Colan.  In this four-page tale, Lee lampoons himself as a blowhard who can barely manage to spin a coherent plot for hardworking Colan to execute—in essence, the same sort of lampoon Kirby made of Lee in the famous “Funky Flashman” story.  Some commentary by then-contemporary comics-pros suggests that there was some glimmer of truth in this characterization.  But the fact that Lee could make fun of the canard himself suggests at the very least that he didn’t feel threatened by it.  Some anti-Lee fans take the portrait of “Lee as credit hog” as something approaching the Gospel of the Evil Editor.  They’re willing to believe pretty much any derogatory tale about Stan Lee, and may even believe (as the Daredevil tale has it) that Lee charged hardworking Colan a buck for a cup of coffee served in Lee’s own house.

There are two problems with Lee’s citation of Stephen Cannell in regard to authorship.  First, Lee cites Cannell purely in legalistic terms, essentially saying, “The producer is the creator, period.”  Of course most fans will be prone to question the ethics, rather than the legality, of this practice: it inadvertently confers on Cannell the same canard Lee suffers, the credit-hog boss who lets his underlings do all the work.  If Lee ever cared about fannish reactions to his authorship claims, he did himself no favors here.

Second, Lee, by concentrating on nothing but the base origins of characters and concepts, does a disservice to all producers and editors—or, to parse things a bit more accurately, all “creative producers” and “creative editors.”  As Rubin’s quote makes clear, the job of the film producer— or, to take in Cannell as well, the television-show producer—does not necessarily end with telling minions how to make him look good.  Film-producers like Val Lewton never wrote the original scripts of their movies, but they worked on the finished scripts to bring them into line with the producer’s creative vision.

Did Stan Lee impose such a creative vision upon the works of his 1960s Marvel collaborators?  I think there’s some evidence that he did so, though he probably was not as aesthetically motivated as Val Lewton.  For many years as a young fan I admired Lee’s creativity without knowing much about the role played by his collaborators. Only in recent years did I realize the special nature of Stan Lee’s creativity: not as creative writer, but as creative editor.

I think that Lee probably did originate some of the ideas in his collaborations, but his primary job at Marvel and its earlier manifestations was the job of editor.  Thus Lee was always an editor first, and a writer second.  For his first twenty years as editor and writer, he largely followed the dictates of publisher Martin Goodman and imitated whatever genres seemed popular in the comic-book market.  In the early 1960s he and his collaborators forged a new path for the superhero genre (with some minor effects on the genres of war and western as well).  But even if it could be demonstrated that every single Marvel concept arose from one of Lee’s collaborators, Lee would still deserve strong credit for providing the “quality control” function of a truly creative editor.

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Also by Gene Phillips:

Minutes to Midnight: Twelve Essays on Watchmen



  1. Sometimes I feel that some fans’ reaction to the discovery that Stan Lee didn’t “really” write all those stories is similar to what they did when they found out that their daddy was not the strongest, smartest, coolest guy in the world.

    It is silly. Time to grow up.

    Yes, Stan Lee can be an annoying personality.

    But his dialogue is such an important part of so many of his characters. Thor only started talking like Thor when Stan started writing the dialogue. Would the Fantastic Four be so interesting without Reed’s or Ben’s voices? Spider-Man would be a much darker character without Stan’s jokes!

    Some people have a problem accepting the idea of collaboration.

    • Miguel Rosa says:

      Well, there are many artists on record saying that Lee didn’t really collaborate in the production of stories. Add that to the fact that Lee himself many times tries to take credit for everything, and that he has collaborated in denying artists their due – not to mention original artwork they should own – in the service of corporate interests, and I think it becomes understandable why many people – myself included – don’t like him. A creator who doesn’t stand up for his fellow creators, for me is scum!

      The fact is, Lee without his artists, was always a mediocre writer; Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby and others, without him, still managed to create masterpieces. To me it’s clear where the talent truly resided.

  2. Mario– we’re totally agreed about the importance of judging Stan in terms of collaborative work.

    Miguel– I can believe that, as some artists have testified, Stan might not have contributed much at the outset. (Then again, we shouldn’t discount the fact that a lot of employees don’t like their bosses and may exaggerate the things he did or didn’t do.) But the point of my essay is that even his after-the-fact collaboration is still collaboration.

    Say it’s true, as John Romita asserted, that Stan had no input into plotting the first two-part Kingpin story in SPIDER-MAN. Stan is still providing the “voice” of the characters old and new. That’s an element that Romita, for all his skills in other departments, couldn’t emulate.

    I think that even on certain works not associated with Kirby and Ditko, Lee did a lot of average work coupled with a handful of above-average tales. He was not, I’ll admit, a creative genius in terms of inventing new characters, but that goes along with the priorities of being an editor first, which means paying more attention to the work others produce than your own.

    On a related note, Jim Shooter produced a fair amount of solid average stories when he worked purely as a writer. During his stint as Marvel’s chief editor, he produced SECRET WARS and a smattering of strories ranging from so-so to awful.

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