Make Mine Marvel—Jack Kirby and Stan Lee: Models of Inspiration

Jack Kirby (left) and Stan Lee (right) are to comic books what John Lennon and Paul McCartney are to popular music

The fan boys n’ girls know better. But to most people the name of Stan Lee—alone—is synonymous with comic books and the spate of superhero inspired movies that have dominated the box office in recent years. But the truth is that Stan Lee worked alongside a number of artists that co-created and influenced, the design, look, and character of the many superheroes that dot the popular landscape to this day. Among these co-creators, none stands higher than the legendary Jack “King” Kirby.

Like so many famous partnerships people tend to line-up behind one or the other. Team Edward or Team Jacob? Well honestly, I’m inclined towards Team Kirby but I well recognize that without Stan Lee’s gift of words and inspired storytelling there would be no Marvel Comics as we know them. Much the same way as there could never be a group called The Beatles without Lennon “and” McCartney (for what it’s worth, I’m more Team Lennon when it comes to that arrangement).

But back to Stan and Jack.

The Avengers, The X-Men, The Incredible Hulk, The Fantastic Four, Iron Man, The Mighty Thor, Daredevil, The Black Panther (the first African American superhero in mainstream comics) were all created by this dynamic duo. Spider-Man is a Stan Lee/Steve Ditko creation although Jack Kirby penciled that icon’s first comic book cover. Captain America is a Jack Kirby/Joe Simon creation but Stan helped re-fashion him for his 1960s return.

Marvel Comics’ chief rival has always been Detective Comics (DC) home of Batman, Superman, The Green Lantern, The Green Arrow, The Flash, Aquaman, The Justice League, Wonder Woman, Plastic Man, The Teen Titans, and many many more characters. Like most kids of my generation I grew up reading the stories and enjoying the art featured in both brands.

However, in 1967 at the ripe old age of nine, I first discerned the more sophisticated writing evinced in the story-telling of Lee and Kirby. Ironically, it came courtesy of the animated incarnation of the Fantastic Four appearing on ABC television from 1967-1970. Marvel’s superiority was particularly evident in an episode where the FF meet the world devouring entity known as Galactus and his faithful, but naive, herald, the Silver Surfer. I was blown away by the cosmic scale of the confrontation and the staggering implications brought about by a device called the “Ultimate Nullifier”. The story originally appeared in a Fantastic Four comic book  arc spanning three  issues #48-50.

Stan and Jack’s magnum opus issues #48 #49 and #50— featuring the introduction of Galactus and the Silver Surfer

Great stuff to be sure and this arc provided the basis for the disappointing film adaptation Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer that debuted in 2007 as a followup to 2005’s mediocre origins story, Fantastic Four. Honestly, of all the Marvel titles deserving of a reboot this one is it—but I digress.

Stan and Jack created characters I really cared about and the melodrama and interpersonal crises that played out across various comic book titles captured my youthful emotions like few other creative mediums of the period. However, Jack Kirby’s depictions of sheer physical power were an equally attractive drawing card. Think about it. Every child and teenager lacks power. They are constantly told what to do and when to do it—whether at home or at school.

Watch the wonderful Independent film, Napoleon Dynamite. This entire coming of age story focuses on Napoleon’s absolute lack of power and control over every aspect of his life. It’s only after he performs that amazing dance sequence on behalf of Pedro that things start turning around for him. So there you go; if you “didn’t get” Napoleon Dynamite now you do. It’s all about a teenager’s lack of power and how he matures once that elusive power is obtained.  I love that movie!

Some say Jack’s peak creative peak was 1967 but my own bias leads me towards 1968 (for a convincing argument against my opinion please read David Fox’s brilliantly argued “1968: the year Marvel sold out” . 1968 was not the best (I freely admit) in terms of imagination or the propagation of new characters and ideas but simply in the presentation of his art. Maybe it was the introduction of larger panels that year. One might say of Kirby—“go large or go home”. The larger the panel the more powerful Kirby’s work seemed to be.

Young Adult author, Holly Black recently tweeted that she was surprised at how much she enjoyed the Avengers movie released this past Spring. Honestly, I think many if not most female Young Adult authors would benefit from a crash course in Lee-Kirby story-telling with a particular focus on Jack’s depictions of sheer physical power. In general, it’s something that falls outside the purview of female experience and therefore I feel women writers can greatly benefit from exposure to Kirby’s work.

Stan and Jack certainly left a creative impression on my own writing. I have a tendency towards hyperbole (in a positive sense) and some of that I can attribute to Stan’s influence. By the way, if you want to learn how to create a “virtual” community? Stan’s the man! Back in the 60s’s while DC’s letters pages were simply addressed: “To the Editor” Marvel’s letters were addressed to Stan and Jack or Stan and Steve (Ditko) or Stan and Gene (Colan) etc… For those in the know, Julius Schwartz held that post over at rival DC Comics in the 60s but for many preteens he was a nameless entity and therefore DC lacked the sense of intimacy that Stan’s approach was able to generate.

Marvel called their creative team the “Bullpen”. God! How I wanted to make a pilgrimage to New York and see “the Bullpen”, the creative offices where Stan, Jack and the gang would be pumping out reams of new issues full of adventures featuring my favorite heroes. I pictured “Jolly” Jack in one office, “Smilin” Stan frantically moving about ,”Jazzy” Johnny Romita in another office , “Gentleman” Gene Colan in another, etcetera. But in fact, the Bullpen was mostly figurative, as many of the creative cast worked out of home-based studios, including Jack Kirby.  After some years the Bullpen did manage to accrue more in-house artists but at the time it was more an idea than anything tangible.

My understanding of physical power comes courtesy of Jack Kirby. It makes its way into my writing. Jack passed away in February 1994  and I’m ashamed to admit I was oblivious to the event and only learned of his death some years after the fact. Recently, I happened upon a Youtube video featuring an interview he conducted with my fellow Canadian, Rick Green, on his now defunct Prisoners of Gravity television program.  This show was a real gem aimed specifically at the nerd/geek community of which I am a proud card holding member.

The interview provides us with some real insight to Kirby “the man”. I’d like to leave off with a Kirby snippet from this interview:

Commander Rick (Green): What kind of influence have your wife and four kids been to you?

Jack Kirby: Oh, they’ve been a tremendous influence. They’ve shown me that I know true love. And knowing true love I think is one of the greatest feelings in the world. And it’s something that absorbed my entire being and absorbing all of love I find that I live a wonderful life. You can’t have a wonderful life without love. And in loving my own family my life is even more wonderful. I love my children, I love my relatives, I love my audience. These are true feelings. I’ll never deny them. I suppose I love everybody.

Wow! No wonder I’m such a fan and happily count Jack Kirby as one of my own heroes. So thanks to Stan and Jack and the other members of Marvel’s fantastic Bullpen for making my childhood better than it might otherwise have been; for instilling in myself a love for great storytelling and providing me with the basic tools necessary to make it all happen.

A Kirby self-portrait featuring some of the many characters he helped co-create. Kirby is not out of place here for in my opinion and in the eyes of many others he’s as truly a hero as the many characters he helped create.


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Filed under Popular Culture, Publishing

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