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The Strange Case of Stan Lee


Trading card from Marvel Series 1 set, 1990, painting by Arnie Sawyer

My first encounter with Stan Lee came sometime in 1993, at age 10. A friend showed me this card, which was already a few years old, and it commanded all my attention, as if it were some kind of Ark of the Covenant type artifact. I knew every character referenced and loved them. Every one made by a single person? The concept of so much originating from one mind was a genuine thrill I won't soon forget. It was probably more memorable than the work itself, the moment in time when I stared at this card. Instant respect for this person, a kind of allegiance, was registered.

But there was something wrong with the image, at least for the 10-year-old eyes viewing it. Lee is inviting the viewer to celebrate his act of creation, but his smile felt twisted, without pleasure. He didn’t seemto share the love for these characters that everyone else had. And up top, we have a sign of some other view of the man coming into play: a devil's horn and a top hat.

Trading card from Marvel Series 1 set, 1990

Lee was, instantly, a confusing figure to me and he remains so. My entry into comics (outside of reading Tintin or uncomprehendingly looking at Krazy Kat) involved a pre-adolescent fascination with the drawings of Jim Lee and Todd McFarlane. Comics were drawn by artists, and the artists accounted for much of what made a comic a comic, at least in my early understanding of them. Now, here was a man presenting himself as the God of the comics I loved, accompanied by text jovially explaining that while he was "aided by some of the most talented artists in the comics biz, Lee created virtually the entire Marvel Universe, and revolutionized comic book writing as we know it today." [Italics mine.] The card "wasn't big enough" to list all his creations. This man was responsible for what my friends and I adored most, but something didn’t seem right. At this moment, I’d still never heard of Jack Kirby, let alone Steve Ditko, Wally Wood, or Bill Everett. They didn’t have cards in this set, of course.


Tweet from comic artist Erik Larsen, November 14th, 2018

When Lee passed away last week, non-comics world friends reached out to me to express condolences. They knew I loved comics and that I'm interested in the history of the medium... Clearly, this was a loss, right? A melancholy day? When I responded by trying to explain what a strange and confounding figure Lee was, and that he didn't exactly create the characters the media was saying he did, I found myself at a loss to explain why. Lee wasn't standard, he didn't just take credit for something that he had nothing to do with, so it couldn't be explained in a black and white way. He did have a large role in what Marvel was (and is), much of it positive. Why was he not what he claimed to be? It wasn’t easy to summarize and it felt exhausting, even ridiculous, to try.

My genuine love for people like Kirby and Ditko made that confusion seem cruel, intentional, a lasting way to obscure the work of actual creativity in the collective consciousness—a comic-book-villain type of crime. To get at the subversion, one had to bring up the 'Marvel Method,' which no one with a passing interest in these things should be expected to understand (although journalists covering Lee's passing could certainly do a little research). The Method is an odd system to base a major media company on, and yet the strangeness of it, the counter-intuitiveness involved, served Lee well in regards to his legacy. I’m sure, at the outset, it was simply a way to produce comics faster and cheaper by letting the artists be cartoonists. But no one really understands what cartooning is, and so Lee becomes a figure in people’s minds, the idea of the absolute heights a comic book can contain. True embodiments of the forms potential, Wood or Everett, exist as cultural foot notes in comparison, as if André Derain is the first name and Matisse the second.

The Marvel Method has been discussed at length on this site and many other places, but for our purposes, let's summarize it quickly. The writer offers the artist a verbal (as explained by Erik Larsen above) summary, the artist jots down some notes, plots the summary out, breaks it down into 20+ pages, draws it, and offers notes on the margins, this time for the writer as a guide. The writer then adds dialogue, copy.

Lee is credited with the 'creation' of the Marvel Universe and it’s fine that there are no typed scripts of his major moments of genius to donate to the Smithsonian—-he ‘wrote’ with The Marvel Method. Part of the murkiness and strangeness of Stan’s legacy is that people seem to enable the simplicity of explaining away this conundrum. Longtime former DC comics editor and president Paul Levitz, in a recently penned remembrance, related this anecdote:

"I worked with all your artists, Stan, and no one ever got as great work out of them as you did. Never mind Jack and Steve, you got the best work of their lives out of Don Heck and Dick Ayers. Good guys, incredibly professional, but you got so much more out of them than I did."

He smiled, and the 'avatar' started to come on. The Stan Lee we know from the stage said, "Every time I sent Dick a script--he was doing some western, I don't remember what it was--he'd call and say, "What do you want me to do with this one, Chief?'"

"And I'd say, it's a western, Dick, I want to see the spurs shining and hoofs flashing..." and Stan never got to finish, because I was laughing out loud.

This description of Lee’s process—essentially, give me more cliche and plenty of it! And make it loud!—amazingly comes after Lee says to Levitz, "But Paul, I wasn’t much of an editor. I wrote almost all of the stuff myself."

Lee never talks about ‘writing’ these scripts he sends Ayers (‘I don’t remember what it was’ as always, and the fact that Ayers has to place a call after receiving the script to ask what is needed is not addressed) but he does discuss his editorializing, the part of the creative process he was always most comfortable discussing. Somehow in people’s minds, the two activities (writing and editing) become merged and then transformed, with Lee victorious on the other side as a visionary writer. One might think it would be enough to be a gifted editor and art director. Why push for something else? The question screams itself at us when we observe Lee’s behavior with Wally Wood:

Exchange with Wally Wood and Mark Evanier, from The Life and Legend of Wally Wood, edited by Bhob Stewart, 2007

Those enjoying Daredevil at the time, before issue 10, were reading Wood's creative choices: the pacing, the ideas, the way characters moved on the page, the way they landed punches, etc. They were enjoying the work of a cartoonist. Lee's dialogue was probably also appealing, but nothing Wood couldn't easily emulate. As Wood notes, Lee didn't need to change much of anything in the actual script. What he did, immediately, without a doubt need to change was the possibility that people might think Wood was writing these books:

Letters page from Daredevil #11, in response to a readers enthusiasm for Wood's script in #10

"Our Leader" is a man who had private conversations with one of the best artists to ever work in comics, offered nothing, put his name on the books anyway, and held on to the credit even after artists like Wood met tragic ends. It may have begun as a desire to pay Wood (or Ditko or Kirby) less, but quickly merged into a maddening desire to be seen on the same creative level. As long as Lee is doing some strange form of writing, it's a particularly tricky grift to explain. And an odd one at that, since taking credit for choosing to put Wood on such a book is more than enough for a legacy: a strong bit of editing. But, of course, Julius Schwartz, Mort Weisenger, or Bob Kanigher, all excellent editors, are not on the lips of Bill Maher (or whoever was the Bill Maher of the moment in time when they passed). They are merely respected within their field, not cultural icons. Being a visionary is where it’s at.

Tweet from comic artist Erik Larsen, November 14th, 2018

What is cartooning to most people? It’s a cartoon, like Bob’s Burgers or something. Cartooning as writing is a foreign concept to even the most dedicated cultural student. Wood’s choice to compress a concept into a certain number of panels, to have a character emote in a certain way, to have a specific scene happen at dusk, making choices, is what we’d call cartooning, and a real form of writing, one that asserts itself decade after decade. Lee’s conversations with artists is, clearly, much less a writing practice than Wood’s and so it doesn’t make sense that people would accept his suggested role in things for so long, except when you see Lee falling over himself to diminish Wood. He kept the public story of his creation and writing consistent, from that '60s letter page to the card I discovered of him in the '90s, and of course on through the endless cameos of our present era.

Marvel really did employ cartoonists, because The Marvel Method demanded it. Art comics, scoffed at by mainstream devotees, often takes the idea of an artist writing and drawing their stories as proof of a higher use of the form (Dan Clowes, Julie Doucet, etc) than that used in most mainstream comics (penciller, inker, letterer, writer, editor). Marvel actually did adhere closer to the Doucet model than most large publishers, and I think this is why their books were so creative and popular. They were works of cartooning, a single artist's vision, and Lee is deeply important for setting this system up, a moment of wild creativity in mainstream publishing. Auteur cartooning, minus 10% (Lee’s copy).

From The Avenging Mind by Steve Ditko, 2008, published by Snyder and Ditko

The other 90% took a lot of work. Ditko, in his Avenging Mind tract from 2008, said that Lee's explanation of how he created Spider-Man boiled down to 'I'm the guy who dreamed up the title, the concept and the characters.' The phrase 'dreamed up' catches Ditko's ire, precisely because it's so vague: about as vague as what happens in closed door meetings with an artist to talk about a story. In the absence of a hard copy script, we must refer to Wood's characterization of it all: 'We'd stare at each other until I came up with a storyline.' Ditko knows this is how these things went, and he knows the beauty of the title/concept/characters is in his cartooning arrangement of it. The non-effort of a 'dream' is too glaringly close to the non-effort of staring at an artist for Ditko to let is all pass without pages of analysis. He knows the implications of this turn of phrase too well.


A 60s era Stan's Soapbox

When Lee passed, I saw this image, a '60s era Stan's Soapbox editorial about the evils of racism, floating around the internet. I want to believe this is who Stan really was---and I think it probably was, mostly, or who he evolved into. But in the '50s, Lee subjected African American cartoonist Cal Massey to this kind of treatment:

Interview with Carl Massey, Alter Ego Magazine

Again, I believe that Lee grew beyond this type of behavior and stood for something else. But the unthinking coupling of Lee to deep progressive foresight when the reality is far more muddy speaks to the constant cloud of confusion around Lee: over and over, people accepted (and continue to accept) his simplistic statements on who he was and what he did. The soapbox statement is about as accurate a document of his core as the idea that telling Ayers ‘spurs shining and hoofs flashing’ qualifies as a creative act.


Page from Ditko Etc!, by Steve Ditko, Snyder and Ditko Publications, 2007

A spread from a Ditko story in 2007 provides a nightmare high contrast to what Lee was up to at roughly the same time.

Promo Image for Stan Lee's Stripperella, 2003

Ditko was 80 years old when he drew those images, as was Lee when he did whatever it is he did with Stripperella. When you’re an artist, you can always create. All you need is time and space. When what you do is arrange talent around vague concepts, sometimes you show your hand.

If Lee’s legacy is a bizarre one, it’s a microcosm of the greater confusion surrounding the artistic credentials of cartooning. The personal, inverted work of people like Ditko feels a lot farther away from what comics have come to mean to the general public than the ham-fisted, loud, and often pure-shit of their more boisterous peers. We have Lee to thank for a lot of that.


From The Avenging Mind by Steve Ditko, 2008, published by Snyder and Ditko

Dylan Williams once said that people had all these ideas, theories, and rumors about Ditko, but whatever the truth about him was, who could say how they’d deal with going through what he went through? At first, I thought Dylan meant, ‘How would you deal with something being taken away from you?’ As time goes on, I think Ditko’s struggle was more about being precise and thinking, thinking a hell of a lot about what went into one’s expression and what it could withstand, what it would say, while all the while having to be endlessly linked to someone who was very much the opposite.

Cover for The Avenging Mind by Steve Ditko, 2008, published by Snyder and Ditko

Ditko’s tract of essays about comics, many of them about Lee, was called The Avenging Mind and the Scales of Justice. As long as the mind is on, right can be found and will be done, in Ditko’s view. If there is one assumption I’d hazard to make about an artist who hated assumptions, I’d say it’s that he formed much of his post-Spider-Man thought in reaction to Lee’s brazen meddling with facts.

From Identity Crisis! by Stan Lee and Marcos Martin, published as a back up story in The Amazing Spider Man #600, 2009, Marvel Comics

Many people will say what Lee did wasn’t that bad (with one commenter on this site saying that they were hardly ‘war crimes,’ a high bar to hit!), that his gifts outweigh the crimes. I can agree that there are gifts, but when I look at the mark he left his artists with, I don’t have much sympathy. Ditko thought about his craft, he respected cartooning and elevated it as high as one person could. His work has few peers in any medium, in my heart and mind. Lee obscuring the fullness of Ditko’s art for his own benefit is a misstep for the form, a loss. It creates a misconception of cartooning on the public stage that the medium still hasn’t untangled.

In 2009, Lee wrote a back up story for The Amazing Spider-Man #600, with art by the great Marcos Martin. It’s a very charming twelve pages. Lee, as a psychiatrist, counsels Spidey about his many transformations and what it all ‘means.’ In Lee’s hand, the answer is ‘nothing much except a few cute jokes,’ which is fine. The story has a certain sadness hovering over it, which is never grasped at. Lee’s work, for all its bombast, doesn’t risk any real self-revelation. But then we come to the final page:

From Identity Crisis! by Stan Lee and Marcos Martin, published as a back up story in The Amazing Spider Man #600, 2009, Marvel Comics

Owing to The Marvel Method, we can’t know if it was Martin or Lee who called for Stan to have his own psychiatrist resemble a caricature of an important figure in his (and Spidey’s) life: Ditko. Whoever made that choice adds a jarring moment of truth to the otherwise light affair, as Ditko’s prescription for his patient is blunt: THINK.


20 Responses to The Strange Case of Stan Lee

  1. Austin English says:

    And a THANK YOU to Patrick Ford for finding the Wally Wood relayed letters column response!

  2. Alex says:

    I was the “war crimes” commenter mentioned toward the end, so here’s a clarification– I was specifically responding to the amount of venom Gary Groth was spitting at Lee so soon after Lee had died. Groth was speculating Lee had no internal life, that he didn’t think about things at all. My feeling, and you can disagree with this, that’s fine, is that you’d have to do some really insane shit to get that laid on your fresh grave. I don’t think Lee did that shit. I think he was a deeply flawed egomaniac who stole a thousand times the credit he deserved. I don’t think that means he becomes sub-human in retrospect.

    I also don’t think a generic cape dude stepping on the word “evil” as it farts out the word “irrational” is any kind of achievement in art so I don’t know, maybe we just don’t agree on anything.

  3. Michael Hill says:

    Thank you, Austin. Fabulous.

    Just a note on the inception of the Marvel Method. Kirby accurately called its original purpose in his interview with Gary Groth: Lee noticed Kirby taking home writing and pencilling page rates for the “monster” books. Lee admitted a few years later that Kirby, whose writing page rate was the initial target of the Marvel Method, didn’t even need to be given the *germ* of an idea.

    GROTH: I just want to clear one thing up–did you write the Challengers, too?

    KIRBY: Yes. I wrote the Challengers. I wrote everything I did. When I went back to Marvel, I began to create the new stuff.

    GROTH: Did you find that fulfilling?

    KIRBY: Of course it was fulfilling. It was a happy time of life. But. But, slowly management suddenly realized I was making money. I say “management,” but I mean an individual. I was making more money than he was, OK? It’s an individual. And so he says, “Well, you know…” And the old phrase is born. “Screw you. I get mine.” OK? And so I had to render to Caesar what he considered Caesar’s.

  4. WP says:

    Ask yourselves this “ Why didn’t Kirby go out and create comics books himself”? There were plenty of publishers as there are today. And countless other artist who just cranked out the work and just accepted the pay, less all the fanfare. Only later in life did the seek out royalties for the past work they did or shouldn’t they of been more astute creating side projects at home to sell to the masses when they got famous.

    When I shot the shit with Stan he was just pretty much a simple guy. Though, picture him holding a toilet plunger working his magic on something Kirby or who ever else clogged up the toilet. Think of it this way – in WW2 for somebody to get a desk job drawing VD cartoons and probably sketch military training manuals. Well, the printing of pictures was costly and for a training manual illustration the differences between skywave propagating and direct line of sight etc. Well, I would speculate Stan got to see some cutting edge technology in those manuals. Which is no doubt used to this very day as look at how hacked the net is. Hence, Stan probably had a Secret clearance or higher, as he has the highest one now. So with that said he was going to be watched by the FBI. And since he was just ink & pencil guy well look at how long he was in the business. Forever. And look at all the folks that came and went doing a variety of jobs to one day put in their comics hence. Hence, Stan was on lock down and look at how long he was married. Only one child. But, just know. Stan did what had to be done in management. He kept his mouth shut on some things and took out trash, swept the floor and countless other thankless jobs. Just to keep his ship – in ship shape condition. You guy do know the US Army has ships ? If you ever drive down the Florida Keys and drive pass NAS Key West well just know that was once an Army base and do know they still are in the area. As look at all the assholes at the Navy Exchange buying up all the good stuff tax free and holeing up in a tent for the winter. Brrr. It must be super cold in NYC or Chicago. So you guys go round and round about Stan Lee taking credit, but credit is due for those are essentially imprisoned for what they know. And all those artist that walked, well let’s hope their biography is as good as Stan or better. As where are their side jobs or stuff that ended up in the garbage can which they might of took home to work at home?

    Hence, later in life they probably dwelled on the fact they threw away a huge fortune in subpar work. Half ass sketche work for some character they could of created at home. And made millions from.

  5. John says:

    “Hence, later in life they probably dwelled on the fact they threw away a huge fortune in subpar work.”

    I dunno, WP, I’m afraid that wasn’t the conclusion I came to at the end of that fantastically abstract rant of psychobabble. You truly are the Kanye West of Comics Journal blog post contributors.

    Was there really as viable a market outside of the big publishers at the time as you’re asserting? I think maybe you’re over-estimating the commercial utility of “creating side projects at home to sell to the masses” for the regular comic book cartoonist of the time. I imagine artists of the time would have been better pressed towards advertising or design jobs if they weren’t satisfied with the editorially restrictive practices of the ‘big leagues’. Ultimately, it seems as though, for many cartoonists of their day (before the underground comics scene began to truly emerge), figures like Stan Lee were just an unfortunate footnote to consider as unavoidable working in an industry driven by passion and run by opportunists and egomaniacs.

    Whatever there is to be said about Lee, I think it’s pretty clear to see that the only creative project he ever truly ran through to full execution and conclusion himself was that of his own false and bloated legacy. The idolatry surrounding the man, despite extensive proof of his over-extended credit, is the real confirmation of his success.

  6. Brad Brooks says:

    Great piece as ever, Austin. Thank you.

  7. If this is all that important to commit to an article, why would you wait until the man has passed away? Also, I agree with WP. No need to be mean people.

  8. WP says:

    What hobbies did Stan Lee have ? As he did he do scrapbooks like Hefner. Two old Army guys.
    One who stayed true to his wife an one who tasted them all. And some knew how to cook and some didn’t know how to follow simple directions. And then probably knew to act dumb so as to let Hef staff do all the work. Hence, the purges. And ironically, only the rocks stayed behind so as to keep him company.

    Mrs. Lee was a bit like Mrs. Crandall. (Robert Crandall, was one a CEO at American Airlines). And Bob was a hoot to talk aviation with. As I don’t think anybody knew who he was at that Gogo Air shareholders meeting. Except the management. Didn’t go back the following year as it was dog, using Thincoms Military grade equipment on civilian airplanes. I don’t think so.

  9. Austin English says:

    Hmm, good point!

  10. James Romberger says:

    Nicely done, Austin.

  11. Matt Seneca says:

    At dinner with my extended family I said I was thankful for wp in this comments section.

  12. Nate A. says:

    WP is the comments section find of 2018!

  13. Jon Holt says:

    Austin, thanks for this. After Ditko’s death, now Lee’s, it’s still hard to process. One mourns Ditko. Because we can’t see what he’ll create next. With Lee, I feel like we’ll never get the real story now — never an apology.

    I wonder if the problem with Lee’s belief in his writing the comics comes down to what we define as writing. I always got the idea that he _scripted_ but didn’t create the comics. And by scripting, I mean he would take the word balloon contents, and “jazz” up the language so it might be consistent across all the titles he edited.

    The Wally Wood example seems telling. Maybe Lee despaired at all the work on the word balloons for Daredevil he would have to do to “jazz” them up. Maybe Wood didn’t have the “ear” for Daredevil’s characters. Forget the plot, forget the story. Lee probably thought that by providing the voice of the characters, he was the true creator. Or, that he had rights to the character. The character’s soul. So when people would ask Lee about how much he created the character, probably in his mind he thought he gave personalities to these 2d characters.

    Someone should make a connection to Lee’s failed Hollywood transition. Probably when Lee realized that in the greater writing community outside of Marvel’s offices that his writing was shit, that he would never be the creative genius he thought he was, he might have realized: “Holy shit, I have no talent. Maybe I need to cover my ass from here on out, get my paychecks, and see if no one notices that I didn’t really do that much work.”

  14. Michael Hill says:

    Jon, Lee didn’t “believe” in a different definition of writing, he *redefined* writing. Kirby told us that Lee noticed Kirby was earning more than he was with the pencilling and writing page rates on the “monster” books. To rectify the situation, Lee instituted credit boxes, where first he wrote himself in as plotter (against all evidence), and then writer; the credit boxes determined who was paid what for a given story. He then created the Marvel Method, a kickback scheme by which only writers who were willing to give up their writing page rate to Lee received assignments. These two “innovations” were designed to give Lee the writing page rate for the *many* pages Kirby churned out, already written. Lee showed just how ridiculous this sounded in a 1968 interview when he was asked about Ego, the Living Planet: “That was Jack’s idea too. I remember I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ He said, ‘No, let’s get a living planet, a bioverse.’ Well, I didn’t want him to think I was chicken. I said, ‘All right, you draw it, I’ll write it.'”

  15. There is not one goddamned thing that is confusing about Stan Lee and his career. He was a corporate shill whose position enabled his employers to be able to steal the intellectual property of as many of its actually creative employees as possible. Lee created nothing, wrote nothing. His job was to serve as the aforementioned shill and proxy.

    His memory should–if there is even one atom of justice–be lodged somewhere below Bob Kane and and slightly north of Bob Ford.

  16. Everything Stan Lee and Jack Kirby got was because of the vision of publisher and Marvel Comics Creator Martin Goodman. It would be nice if these articles reflected the facts but I guess because their all written by amateurs with agendas it probably won’t ever happen

  17. Paul Slade says:

    I’m finally getting round to watching HBO’s Westworld. Hard to watch this scene from episode 1/3 without wondering if Lee & Kirby’s relationship may have helped inspire it://

  18. Seymour says:

    So who does the top hat represent in the marvel universe?? This has been driving my buddy crazy

  19. George says:

    Good to see the TCJ comments are still dominated by venom-spewing jerks.

    Kirby’s solo work showed why he needed a writer-editor with savvy commercial instincts — a Joe Simon or Stan Lee. Left to his own devices, Kirby produced incoherent gibberish and VERY bizarre dialogue. And so did Steve Ditko.

  20. Sylvia's says:

    Kirby did good work on his own, but very different from what he did with Lee. Ditto did creative work on his own, but it lacked a human touch that Lee provided.

    Why is it that people have so much trouble understanding collaboration? The work these guys did together had a synergy; writer and artist contributed. Most accounts of Lee plotting sessions, including the one in fantastic four annual 5 that Kirby got a writing credit for, show artist and writer throwing ideas back and forth at each other. Lee’s scripts filled the plot holes and logical gaps in Kirby’s breakdowns; a lesser writer or more of a control freak would not have been able play that kind of intellectual ping pong.

    Kirby did get writing credits at Marvel, including on a SHIELD story. And Lee hired writers who got credits. Very little money was paid for plots; Lee came up with them for other writers because he was on salary.

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