While Stan Lee is often seen as the visionary behind many classic Marvel comics, they were actually the result of collaborations with artists like Steve Ditko (best known for co-creating Spider-Man) and Jack Kirby (who helped create Black Panther, the X-Men, Captain America, Hulk, and more). Not only did they illustrate the stories, but they also took issue with Lee’s claims that certain ideas, plots, and even entire characters were his. Lee’s commitment to portraying himself as Marvel’s quintessential mastermind caused serious tensions with Ditko and Kirby, who both ended up leaving Marvel to create for other outlets (Ditko in 1965; Kirby five years old). later).
In his new biography True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee ($ 25 from Amazon), Abraham Riesman traces Kirby’s decision to defect to a 1965 profile of Lee printed in the New York Herald Tribune. Its author was Nat Freedland, an aspiring Tom Wolfe who was dazzled by Lee and the wider New York comic book world. While visiting Marvel HQ, Freedland attended a meeting between Lee and Kirby regarding an upcoming issue of The fantastic four: Lee spoke of the plot points with gaudy charisma while Kirby said nothing except the occasional noise of nod.
But according to Mark Evanier, Kirby’s assistant turned biographer, the whole exchange had been arranged by Lee. “They had already traced this problem in advance, and they were essentially recreating it for the journalist,” says Evanier in a True believer excerpt published by Slate. “[Kirby] wasn’t going to take anything home and draw this story. History was made for him.
This, of course, was unknown to Freedland, who recounted the scene in his article and described Kirby as someone you would take to be “the assistant foreman in a duct factory” if you saw him in passing. Lee, on the other hand, has been portrayed as “an ultra-Madison Avenue, lanky Rex Harrison lookalike” who “dreamed of” Marvel Age of Comics. “
When the article appeared in the newspaper on a Sunday morning, Kirby’s wife Roz woke him up and told him about the parody. Kirby quickly called Lee to voice his grievances. According to Evanier, “The two later remembered that the collaboration was not the same after that day, and it was more than just an ego injured at work.” Kirby bided his time until an opportunity presented itself at DC Comics in 1970, but he did mention the New York Herald Tribune the story as a defining moment in the deterioration of her partnership with Lee.
Freedland, for one, feels bad that his article caused Kirby so much grief. “The belt factory. “Oh, my God,” he told Riesman. “Oh, poor Kirby. What the hell was I thinking?