Last week Disney+ released a new documentary about Stan Lee, the erstwhile face of Marvel Comics who died in 2018 at the age of 95. As with anything related to Lee and his legacy, the documentary rekindled the eternal debate about his role in the creation of Marvel’s pantheon of superheroes during the critical Silver Age era (1960s), when he served as Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief and principal credited writer, collaborating with Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko on titles including The Fantastic Four, The Amazing Spider-Man, Thor, Iron Man, The Avengers and the X-Men.
Lee has always claimed primary – and sometimes exclusive – credit for coming up with those characters and telling their stories. And that has nearly always been disputed by the artists, who pointed to the “Marvel Method” of collaboration that placed an unusual amount of responsibility on the penciller to drive the plot, pacing and mood of the stories. Kirby’s son Neal recently went public with criticism of the new Disney documentary for underselling his father’s contributions. There’s also the fact that Kirby, and to a lesser extent Ditko, were creative powerhouses both before and after their tenures at Marvel, whereas Lee’s career outside of the stretch of the 60s where he partnered with them was not especially distinguished, and featured a lot of notable flops (“Striperella” anyone?).
Starting in the 1980s, Kirby began noisily challenging Lee’s claims of creating the characters, launching legal and public efforts to reclaim his credits that lasted far beyond his death in 1994 and were only resolved in 2014 when Disney, fearful that a Supreme Court review might pry open a Pandora’s Box of potential copyright claims, settled with the family for an undisclosed but reportedly large amount. Ditko remained insistent on his moral rights to authorship of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange until his death in 2018, and legal claims are now being pursued by his estate.
Even Lee’s ostensible role as writer of dialogue and captions, a task he once compared to filling out a crossword puzzle, is disputed by scholars pointing to marginal notes on the drawn pages in Kirby’s hand, indicating text that ended up either fairly close to, or else completely at odds with, what Lee later had lettered onto the printed pages. Abraham Josie Riesman, in her extensively-researched 2021 biography True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee, noted that Kirby’s claims of solely creating and writing the vast majority of the Marvel work he was involved in, cannot be dismissed given what we know about Lee’s role at the time.
But here’s the thing: even if Stan Lee did not create the characters and had far less to do with the “writing” of the individual issues than we have been led to believe, he still had a pivotal role in the rise of Marvel that no one disputes, and no one else on the scene had the skills or temperament to perform: He made us care.
In the early 1960s, the American comic book industry was in disrepute after allegations that the medium contributed to juvenile delinquency led to establishment of a draconian Comics Code. Distribution contracted from highs of the early 1950s, and almost all comics on the stands were aimed at kids. Creators today renowned for their work in the field were reticent to even admit they worked in comics.
In marked contrast to this prevailing sense of malaise and resignation, Lee beat the drum relentlessly for his company, its characters and his own larger-than-life persona. In doing so, he brought a generation into his confidence, assuring them that, as Marvel fans, readers and eventually “Marvel Zombies,” they were a cut above ordinary comic book readers because Marvel respected their intelligence and was responsive to them on a human level.
That message, delivered in Lee’s reassuring tones on letter pages and in “Stan’s Soap Box” columns, resonated. He took a second-rate publisher on the brink of collapse and, in half a decade, turned it into an unlikely cultural touchstone that influenced the aesthetics of the 1960s and, of course, transformed into the entertainment juggernaut that dominates global pop culture more than a half century later.
It is no scratch on the creative imaginations of his collaborators to credit Lee with brand-building genius that helped turn those creations into something that echoed far beyond the confines of the comic book industry. Whatever virtues Ditko, Kirby and the others had as makers of awe-inspiring comics, shameless self-promotion was not among them, and that’s what was required to catapult Marvel into public notice. It is also enough to cement the reputation of Stan Lee as one of the most significant figures in the history of American comics and American business.
But somehow it was never enough for Stan Lee to be known as a master marketer. He always fancied himself a creator and a storyteller, and never considered comics to be a big enough canvas for his ambitions. According to his biographers, he liked the limelight and needed the money. And having the avuncular and charismatic Lee, who was a career salaryman and never asserted personal claims to ownership over Marvel’s corporate property, as the father-creator figure suited both his ambitions and Disney’s agenda.
Asserting Lee’s maximalist position regarding the creation of the Marvel characters against a mounting pile of evidence supporting his collaborators’ claims only puts a bigger spotlight on Lee’s more problematic aspects as an unreliable narrator and highlights his least endearing personal qualities. But somehow, according him the acclaim he indisputably deserves for turning Marvel into a world-conquering brand and multi-billion dollar treasury of IP through the force of his personality isn’t enough for his legion of admirers, including the producers of the new documentary.
Maybe someday Stan Lee will get the full credit he deserves, and none of the credit he does not.