Jack Kirby’s Son Slams Disney’s ‘Stan Lee’ Documentary
For more than 50 years, there is one name more associated with comics more than any other: Stan Lee. The gregarious writer and editor of Marvel Comics during its 1960s glory days, and the co-creator of most of the company’s most famous characters from that period like the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the X-Men, and the Avengers, Lee mostly stopped actively writing Marvel’s books by the mid-1970s. But he remained with the company for decades in a variety of management roles, and spent a lot of time traveling the world and evangelizing about comics in general (and Marvel specifically).
He also played himself in Marvel TV and movies, and the more he played “Stan Lee,” the larger-than-life face of Marvel, the more he became inextricably linked not only with the company, but with its characters — to the point where the artists he worked with creating all of those characters and comics often got overlooked. Lee did tend to give a bit more credit to artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko in his later years, and Marvel has begun to credit these men in their comics and movies. But to a lot of laymen, if you ask who created Marvel or Spider-Man, odds are a lot of them would say one name: Stan Lee.
That notion will only be reinforced by Stan Lee, a new documentary about his life that is now streaming on Disney+. As one would expect for a film that is streaming on the service of the company that owns all of Lee’s most iconic work, it mostly tells a simple, uplifting story about the rise of Marvel. It only spends a handful of minutes on any of the animosity between Lee, Kirby, and Ditko over the authorship of their creations. And it is almost entirely narrated by Lee himself, in interviews and through archival audio of “The Man.” It is very much Stan’s story.
And that did not please Neal Kirby, the son of the late Jack Kirby, who died in 1994, and who co-created the Fantastic Four, Thor, the X-Men, the Hulk, and many more great Marvel characters. In a statement posted to Twitter, Neal Kirby wrote “The challenge is extended to anyone who wishes to count the number of ‘I’s’ during the 86-minute running time of Stan Lee” — meaning Stan Lee is all about what Lee did, to the detriment of what Marvel’s artists like Kirby did.
Neal Kirby added:
“I (ooops!) understand that, as a ‘documentary about Stan Lee,’ most of the narrative is in his voice, literally and figuratively. It’s not any big secret that there has always been controversy over the parts that were played in the creation and success of Marvel’s characters. Stan Lee had the fortunate circumstance to have access to the corporate megaphone and media, and he used these to create his own mythos as to the creation of the Marvel character pantheon. He made himself the voice of Marvel.”
The precise authorship of Marvel Comics’ characters is complicated. While Lee was the writer on Marvel’s comics all through the 1960s, he was so busy managing an entire line of comics, that he also employed a creative method, discussed in the Stan Lee documentary, where he gave his artists only an outline of a story to draw. They would go off and illustrate the comics almost entirely by themselves, then return the art to Lee, who would then add his dialogue on top of what they drew.
That process — where the artists were really generating a lot of the story, but often only getting the credit for the art — would only fuel the arguments about who did what. If I tell you to make a comic about a super-wizard, let’s say, and you come back and you’ve named the character and you’ve given him his backstory and you’ve designed his costume, who is the true “creator” here? And that’s just the matter of a character’s authorship; the feelings about the characters’ ownership, which is all in the hands of Marvel and Disney, is a whole other can of worms.
In closing his statement, Neal Kirby wrote “The battle for creators rights has been around since the first inscribed Babylonian tablet. It’s way past time to at least get this one chapter of literary/art history right.” If you want to watch it and see how this story is told for yourself, Disney’s Stan Lee documentary is now streaming on Disney+.
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