He may have been Stan “The Man” Lee, but the Marvel Universe would never have come to be without Jack “King” Kirby, “Sturdy” Steve Ditko and the other writers and artists who breathed life into Marvel’s comicbook stories. The unique way they worked with Lee produced some of the best collaborations comics have ever seen, as well as some of its biggest controversies.
Foremost among Lee’s collaborators was Kirby, who co-created Captain America in 1941 with his then-partner Joe Simon. When Kirby returned to Marvel without Simon in the late 1950s, he and Lee created most of the early Marvel series including Fantastic Four, Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, X-Men and the Avengers.
“They were able to bring to comics at the time a more intense personality,” says Mark Evanier, an animation and comics writer who has worked with both men. “Before Lee and Kirby, a superhero story was about catching the bank robber. After Lee and Kirby, a superhero story was about what it meant to the people in the story to catch the robber.”
In the early 1960s, Lee wrote most of the company’s comics. To keep his freelance artists busy, Lee stopped writing full scripts and gave each artist a simple outline — often little more than a spoken idea for a story — that the artists were free to draw however they wished. Lee would then write the dialogue after the story was drawn.
“There are some artists who couldn’t do that,” Lee says. “Unless they have a script in front of them, they don’t know what to do. But all of our artists were visual storytellers and they were just wonderful to collaborate with.”
Many preferred to work for Lee even though Marvel paid less than some other publishers. “He sent them off feeling very enthused about doing something new,” Evanier says. “They didn’t operate for him out of fear, as they did for some editors.”
Lee was friendly with his artists and became close with Kirby and his family. That didn’t extend to Ditko, with whom Lee cooked up Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. “I liked him very much and respected him greatly, but we didn’t socialize,” Lee says. “He was a little bit reclusive.”
When Ditko and Lee clashed in 1966 over a key plot point in Spider-Man, Ditko resigned. Though he continues to produce comics, Ditko has refused to be interviewed or to discuss his work in public and only a few photographs of him have been published.
Replacing Ditko was John Romita, a romance comics artist who returned to Marvel from DC in 1965 to draw Daredevil. Romita had doubts at first about working in Lee’s “Marvel style,” but found the result very satisfying. “Every story I did for him, after he wrote it, it made me prouder than when I did it as a drawing,” Romita says.
The same year, Lee took on Roy Thomas, a former schoolteacher who published a comics fan magazine, as an assistant editor and writer. “My job was to pick up the slack as Stan dropped it,” Thomas says. “Not just around the office, but in the Marvel Universe.”
Lee began to move away from day-to-day writing and editing duties as the company grew through the 1960s and won over new — even influential — fans. Among them were film heavyweights Federico Fellini — who marched down the hall to Lee’s office wearing all black followed by a single-file line of identically dressed associates in descending order of height — and Alain Resnais, helmer of “Hiroshima, mon amour,” who had Lee write a screenplay for him that was never produced.
As Marvel and Lee got more attention, Kirby began to feel slighted. Kirby left Marvel in 1970 to write, draw and edit his own line of comics for DC, while Lee was promoted to publisher of Marvel in 1972.
Evanier says it was easier for Marvel’s owners to say Lee, a company employee, was the driving creative force and the freelance artists were interchangeable.
“Jack, to his dying day, resented the fact that he was not credited as co-creator of those characters,” Evanier says. “He was very upset that there was no ongoing financial commitment to his widow and his children.”
Evanier says Kirby became more philosophical in his later years, though he and Lee never reconciled. When Kirby died in 1994, Lee attended the funeral and later spoke with Kirby’s widow through phone calls arranged by Evanier.
While comics fans continue to hold Kirby in the highest regard, official recognition from Marvel has been limited. Evanier says on the first “X-Men” film, Kirby got “the worst credit ever,” being listed in the “producers wish to thank” segment; he received no credit on “X2.” On Ang Lee’s “Hulk,” Lee and Kirby were credited with creating the character in the film’s end credits. Lee and Ditko made the opening credits of both “Spider-Man” films.
Since coming to Hollywood in the early 1980s, Lee has made many fans, from James Cameron to Steven Spielberg, though onscreen success eluded Lee and Marvel until the company’s current hit streak began with “Blade” and “X-Men.” Lee says Marvel’s management did not make film and TV a priority until the current leadership, spearheaded by Avi Arad, came to power in the late 1990s.
“As long as he’s at the helm, our superheroes and all our characters are in very good hands because he’s able to communicate to the writers and directors just who these characters are and how it should be done,” Lee says.