Though Stan Lee is often credited as the visionary behind many of Marvel’s classic comics, they were really the result of collaborations with artists like Steve Ditko (best known for co-creating Spider-Man) and Jack Kirby (who helped originate Black Panther, the X-Men, Captain America, the Hulk, and more). Not only did they illustrate the stories, but they also disputed Lee’s claims that certain ideas, plotlines, and even whole characters were his own. Lee’s commitment to presenting himself as the preeminent Marvel mastermind caused serious tension with Ditko and Kirby, who both ended up leaving Marvel to create for other outlets (Ditko in 1965; Kirby five years 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 back to a 1965 profile of Lee printed in the New York Herald Tribune. Its author was Nat Freedland, a Tom Wolfe wannabe who was dazzled by Lee and the wider world of New York comics. During a visit to Marvel headquarters, Freedland witnessed a meeting between Lee and Kirby concerning a forthcoming issue of The Fantastic Four: Lee talked through plot points with showy charisma while Kirby said nothing except the occasional noise of assent.
But according to Kirby’s assistant-turned-biographer Mark Evanier, the whole exchange had been staged by Lee. “They had already plotted that issue beforehand, and they were basically recreating it for the reporter,” Evanier recounts in a True Believer excerpt published by Slate. “[Kirby] wasn’t gonna take anything home and draw that story. The story was done for him.”
This, of course, was unbeknownst to Freedland, who chronicled the scene in his article and described Kirby as someone you’d mistake for “the assistant foreman in a girdle factory” if you saw him in passing. Lee, by contrast, was painted as “an ultra–Madison Avenue, rangy lookalike of Rex Harrison” who “dreamed up the ‘Marvel Age of Comics.’”
When the piece appeared in the newspaper one Sunday morning, Kirby’s wife, Roz, roused him from sleep and told him about the travesty. Kirby promptly called Lee to air his grievances. According to Evanier, “Both men later recalled that the collaboration was never the same after that day, and it was more than just an injured ego at work.” Kirby bided his time until an opportunity opened up at DC Comics in 1970, but he’s mentioned the New York Herald Tribune story as a defining moment in the deterioration of his partnership with Lee.
Freedland, for his part, feels bad that his article caused Kirby so much grief. “‘Girdle factory.’ Oh, God,” he told Riesman. “Oh, poor Kirby. What the hell was I thinking?”