Stan Lee, Presented (Part 3)

In Part 2 of this discussion of editor / writer Stan Lee’s contribution to the creative process in the era of Silver-Age Marvel Comics, I argued that Lee had done far more than just dialogue whatever his artists brought to him. Regardless as to whether some of the artists liked Lee’s input or not — and indeed, there’s evidence that Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby did not generally like said input — there should be little doubt that the input existed.

To some extent this ever-raging fan-controversy has come to more of a head due to the recent suit between Marvel Comics and the Kirby Estate. Stan Lee testified, in essence, that because he had conceived the original ideas for all (or nearly all) Marvel characters, he was their primary creator. Since he was a salaried employee, that meant that Marvel owned the characters.

One response to this legal argument came from Marguerite Van Cook at The Hooded Utilitarian:

Another aspect of this debate, which has become so reductive in its claims of creative primacy, suggests that the idea is the only criteria for original creation. Even if hypothetically Lee originated characters, I would argue that where there is no previous model then the artist creates the image and reifies a concept. If there is no model to work from, then one must create the original figure, which henceforth will become that model.

I agree with this basic statement, but would add that fans have seen any number of claims of creative primacy from the late Jack Kirby as well. Here’s an example of Kirby’s recollection as to how he created the Hulk:

The Hulk I created when I saw a woman lift a car. Her baby was caughtunder the running board of this car. The little child was playing in the gutter and he was crawling from the gutter onto the sidewalk under the running board of this car — he was playing in the gutter. His mother was horrified. She looked from the rear window of the car, and this woman in desperation lifted the rear end of the car. It suddenly came to me that in desperation we can all do that — we can knock down walls, we can go berserk, which we do. You know what happens when we’re in a rage — you can tear a house down. I created a character who did all that and called him the Hulk. I inserted him in a lot of the stories I was doing. Whatever the Hulk was at the beginning I got from that incident.

Often fannish defenses of Kirby seem to take the exact same tack as the defense of Stan Lee: Jack Kirby had the basic idea first, and provided story-plot through his structuring of each story on which he and Lee collaborated. After that, with all the heavy lifting done, Stan Lee simply came in and provided dialogue.

I think it’s demonstrable that this scenario can occur: that writers may participate in collaborations where the artist calls all the shots and the writer is a “hired gun,” employed purely to put the artist’s ideas into commercially viable form.

However, that does not seem to be what Stan Lee did. On the contrary, though Van Cook does not say so, it would seem logical that on some occasions the writer might, under the proper circumstances, further “reify the concept.” One cannot ignore the patent fact that comic books combine words and pictures, and that it is possible for the verbal aspect of a work to be as significant a part of “the concept” as the visual aspect.

John Romita, speaking in a 2003 interview in Comics Journal #252, spoke rather more admiringly of Lee’s contributions than either Kirby or Ditko ever did:

Ditko would do a whole story of a riot on campus, Stan would change the thrust of the story, and that would lead to changes of expression and everything. Stan always did that. He did that with Jack, he did that with me. Many times, I would have one thought in my drawings, and he would turn it into something else. And that was the proof of the pudding of what a great writer and editor he was. He was impressed with artwork, but he wouldn’t hesitate to change the artwork if he thought the story could be better.

Was the changed story better? Apparently Romita thought yes, while Kirby and Ditko thought no. Scholars of comics can only hypothesize as to whether an artist’s original intent would have yielded a better story than the one re-conceputalized by the writer, or, alternately, by an editor. In most cases there is no actual “before and after” for comparison. Fans have often argued that the two-part Lee-Kirby “Beehive” story from Fantastic Four #66-67, as conceived by Kirby, would have been superior to the version as re-written by Stan Lee. But strictly speaking, there is no way to be sure, and one may point to a fair number of solo Jack Kirby stories that do not successfully exploit their core concepts.

One of the few examples of a “before and after,” appearing many years after the end of the Lee-Kirby collaboration, was X-Men #137. Wikipedia summarizes the editorial controversy surrounding the storyline’s climax:

The ending of the story was a matter of intense controversy with the editorial staff. Claremont and Byrne originally wanted Jean to be depowered by Lilandra’s alliance to prevent any recurrence of Dark Phoenix’s havoc, so that they could bring Jean (and her evil Dark Phoenix alter ego) back for future stories. Their editor, Louise Simonson, agreed to this ending. But problems surfaced when then Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter objected, weeks before Uncanny X-Men #137 was published. After learning of the plot point, he expressed to Claremont and Byrne his feelings that such a light punishment was wholly disproportionate to the magnitude of her crime, which was essentially genocide. Shooter ordered the original ending scrapped and a new ending produced, which would have Jean pay the supreme penalty for her crimes.

Because Marvel Comics also published the original scenario for the climax, scholars can come to their own conclusions as to which story was better. But the essential point is: if a non-creative editorial decision could impact so greatly on the aesthetic parameters of the X-Men, how likely is it that Stan Lee — both editor and writer — did no more for the Marvel books than “fill in dialogue?”

Tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.


No bio available.

See more, including free online content, on .

Also by Gene Phillips:

Minutes to Midnight: Twelve Essays on Watchmen


Leave a Reply