The credit states that Thor was created by Stan Lee & Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby – I believe that’s the current formulation. It always makes me laugh for the very simple reason that it is both laughably false and completely factually true, absurd and undeniable at the same time. Because of course Stan, Jack, and Stan’s kid brother didn’t create Thor, the Norse god of thunder, or Loki, or Odin, or Asgard, or any of all that. Asserting that they did is silly on the face and yet ...
... Well, they did, and it’s completely 100% true that those characters were created by Stan, Jack, and Stan’s kid brother. Shakespeare didn’t create Julius Caesar or Henry V, either. Thor in the comics was recognizably the same guy you learned about in grade school, if maybe not so much the guy the Vikings actually worshipped. Gone was much of the fun stuff from the pre-Christian past. Odin and Loki were no longer blood brothers in competition with one another over the secret rites of women’s magic, and Mjolnir was now only Thor’s penis in a subtextual fashion.
It would be hard in this light to argue that the men who worked on the first few years of Marvel’s Thor weren’t contributing just as much to the same kind of bowdlerization project begun with the initial transcription of pre-Christian myths by the first generations of Christian converts. But it would be equally hard to argue that what they actually accomplished with Marvel’s version of Thor wasn’t nevertheless an impressive feat of cultural translation. Myths and legends are not solid things in the minds of believers. They change over time, and are changed by storytellers.
The version of the Norse Gods that pops up throughout Neil Gaiman’s Sandman is far more “true” to the records of how those characters behaved in the Eddas (themselves already, as I say, products of a post-Christian literary culture): they’re nasty creatures fixated on double-crossing one another before their inevitable deaths at the end of the world. Just like the myths, perfect for being worshipped by a bunch of folks who thought the moon was eaten by an evil wolf every month, if maybe not exactly anyone you want your kid dressing like for Halloween.
Thor’s still going strong after a couple millennia, even if he needs an occasional change of clothes. The Norsemen themselves would most likely just be happy that Thor was still remembered and worshipped – and how could you possibly show them an image of the mighty Thor being projected twenty-feet tall on a movie screen and not conclude we were still worshipping the same god? The details may change, but the details always change some. They were a lot more forgiving about regional variation back then.
I picked up a volume of Tales of Asgard strips, from the original Lee & Kirby run recently. Those back-ups started about a year after Thor first debuted – if you’ve read the early run of Thor, it took a bit for the character to gel. He wasn’t unusual in the Marvel stable for that, and it’s certainly true that he gelled a lot faster than Ant-Man and the Hulk. The Asgard back-ups began with adaptations of the original Norse myths, which are pretty fucking metal even in Comics Code Approved form, and they’re interesting for being a rare example of Lee & Kirby collaborating on someone else’s story.
As you might expect Kirby takes to myth like a duck to water and much of the earliest episodes are spent giving him an opportunity to draw things like Ymir roaming the ancient frozen universe with only his cow buddy for milk and company (the cow isn’t named in the comics but her name is Auðumbla). That’s in the myths, and it’s in the Marvel universe, and Jack drew that primeval cow like a motherfucker. What Lee does is translate the stories into his invented Asgardian argot, the faux Shakespearian bombast that served as one of the character’s signatures until quite recently. One of the reasons that works for these characters in particular is that gods and goddesses by their very nature have outsized motivations and personalities. Adopting a bit of that old Shakespearian rag gives them a vocabulary to describe what are some very recognizable and familiar bits of human drama, such as: my dad doesn’t think I’m ever going to grow up and he doesn’t want to give me a chance, my brother’s an asshole, and I cannot turn around for five fucking minutes without having to worry about frost giants and me-damned Geirrodur the me-damned King of the Trolls.
Hate that guy.
Eventually the mythical adaptation are superseded by new stories featuring the established cast of Asgardians as well as members of the new supporting cast who had no mythological corollary, like the Warriors Three. You can see very clearly how something new is created out of very old material through a process of liberal borrowing and translation.
Always Lee’s dialogue and captions constantly push the reader forward. The overwriting works, and works wonders, when Lee can manage to keep a consistently high emotional key to match Kirby’s visuals:
Summoning the awesome forces of nature to his behest, the monarch of Asgard hurls mighty meteor bolts at the fearsome frigid behemoths who are menacing his domain! But those of the ice giants who survive mighty blasts use their deadly ice-clubs against Odin, trying to batter him from the skies! Unable to strike the swiftly-darting chariot, they then resort to their most potent power . . . in unison, the ice giants unleash a titanic gust of frozen north wind, hurling their noble foe from his crazily-spinning chariot! As the graceful winged stallions fly off, Odin lands atop the mountain on which the ice giants stand . . . then, as his confident foes creep slowly towards him, mighty Odin draws back his magic sword . . . and strikes, splitting the entire mountain in two with one incredible blow!
Anyone who doesn’t get the natural rhythm and relentless percussive cadence of Lee’s dialogue and narration should experience them in what I imagine and believe to be as close as possible to the author’s original intentions: being yelled at by an overenthusiastic middle-aged hype-man who is really, really happy to be able to tell you that the best is still yet to come, always just around the corner, all you have to do is be here with your twelve cents next month.
I met him once. 1991. Medium-sized con in the Bay Area. He signed a couple books – Secret Wars #1, because that’s how I’ve always rolled, and a not-terrible-shape copy of Fantastic Four #50 purchased at the same show, from back in the days when you could still find the decent Silver Age books for reasonable amounts of money.
It was only about twenty seconds, all told. I don’t remember anything said by either of us, but I was a kid so it couldn’t have been all that scintillating. My mom has a better story, from when she was standing in line without me. A woman in front of us had brought a copy of Fantastic Four #2 to be signed. He ripped the front page while signing, then without missing a beat wrote “Personally torn by” over his signature.
The Lee & Kirby Fantastic Four lasted 102 issues, plus a handful of annuals and oddities. At its height, a stretch of issues which runs from the somewhere around issue #36 and for roughly three years thereafter, it was some of the best comics ever published. In hindsight the peak era has clearly come to an end sometime before issue #74, which began a multi-issue storyline featuring Galactus and the Silver Surfer, the last appearance of the latter prior to the beginning of his solo series and subsequent origin retcons.
What’s the clue? After the frenzied peaks of the middle section of the run they both seem to dial back their expectations around the same time. The storyline moves ahead with enough alacrity but the manic pace of invention that pushed the book through its early and middle stretches has mostly abated. Although the duo had not yet created their last new character together the fact was that the series was quickly becoming dominated by reprises. The Surfer had gone from mysterious stranger to de facto co-star in two years.
So what precisely are they doing here? It almost seems as if they’re putting together a Mad Lib based on preexisting material: Galactus comes looking for the Silver Surfer so he flees to the Microverse where of course the Psycho Man shows up (he has nothing else going on, ever), meanwhile the FF is minus Sue because she’s in confinement because oh god this was published in 1967 so yeah scientists don’t understand the concept of “babies.” Which is actually one of the few bright spots of this run, believe it or not, because it’s one of the few aspects that does seem like a fresh spark between the two men. They may just be moving the old pieces around the board, but it’s in the service of a story where the subtext is that the characters themselves are spinning their wheels and at loose ends while Sue undergoes the final stages of a difficult pregnancy.
There at least was an experience that would be familiar to both men, separately, both fathers who had certainly gone through the same tense rituals incumbent on all expectant fathers, at least in an era before cultural expectations of fatherly participation in the child birthing process become more hands-on. (There’s still not a lot dads can do if there’s a problem.) The nervous energy undergirding Reed, Ben, and Johnny’s Sausage Adventure in Microland reflects the fact that they’re basically just whuppin' Psycho Man because they’re scared stiff about Sue. Which is sweet, real, and perfectly nestled at the center of the Venn diagram where Lee & Kirby’s respective sentimentalities intersect. The fight stops when Reed is able to tell Psycho Man about Galactus and they all agree they have more important things to be doing.
The Silver Surfer flies through the whole thing less a character than a McGuffin – the Surfer just wants to be free, man, so he runs away and everyone else has to scramble after him. (Worth pointing out that the whole conflict here begins because the Surfer doesn’t want to help out Galactus, whereas later the problem is solved when the Surfer . . . agrees to help Galactus. It’s not the tightest plotting, is what I’m saying.) This was the last Silver Surfer story Kirby did before Lee took the character over to his own solo book against Kirby’s wishes and saddled the guy with an origin and supporting characters that his creator never sanctioned. This is where things get ugly because that version of the character, Norrin Radd from Zenn-La, was the version who became the Marvel mainstay. Kirby’s version of the character was effaced almost completely. We know why.
If it’s not hard to conclude from this run of stories that the character needed some direction, but he became as well a symbol of the breaking point of a fraying and tense creative partnership. The Surfer should be my favorite character in terms of the sheer amount of time I’ve spent reading and collecting him but the fact is that as I get older I have less and less patience for the kind of willful denial it takes to ignore the fact that the version of the character I encountered and fell in love with as a kid was the product of a grave crime. It’s because I do love the character that I can say without reservation that he can probably never be redeemed from that original theft.
But then if you concede that . . . how do you salvage any of it?
I said goodbye to Stan Lee many years ago, when I realized the Stan Lee we met in the comics was different from Stan Lee, the actual person, who wasn’t even named Stan Lee. People are complicated. People in real life don’t act like you’d wish they would if they were characters in a comic book.
Both of my grandfathers were of Lee & Kirby’s generation, veterans of the WWII era who shared the same cultural traumas and triumphs. I don’t hold idealized versions of either of them in my head – I got to know both of them enough that I can now, with some additional life under my belt, contextualize things about their lives I didn’t know or didn’t understand at the time. My dad’s dad was a real son of a bitch in many ways which don’t bear public airing but he was also a gifted surgeon who saved literally thousands of lives over the course of a long career in medicine. Saving all those lives doesn’t negate being a son of a bitch but being a son of a bitch can’t negate the good either. The same man was capable of both.
And that’s what it comes down to: the same man is always capable of both. Whatever you think, sure, people contain multitudes. Sometimes monstrous evil can outweigh even massive good, but more often than not the truth is just a fucking muddle. Not every asshole literally saves lives for a living, after all, and not every beloved entertainer is a closet sexual predator. Sometimes you have to just say, OK, he was a son of a bitch and he wrote Fantastic Four #51.
Don’t throw up your hands: engage with the problem. The problem is that people don’t give a shit about artists. The problem is that everyone wants to believe that Santa’s elves are always happy, whether they’re drawing comic books or staying awake for weeks on end coding a video game. The problem is that the comics industry specifically benefits and has always benefitted immensely from the fact that the average Joe on the street has no fucking idea how labor intensive the production is of even the shittiest shitty comic book you ever scraped off the sole of your shoe.
People can dislike each other personally and still bring out the best in their partners. The fact is that Lee fell out with the two men who were fated to be his greatest collaborators, neither of whom either liked or respected him after the relationship was finished. It’s worth mentioning here than I don’t think he ever recovered in this respect from Joe Maneely’s death, and I’d be surprised if there wasn’t a part of him that resented subsequent collaborators for that fact. Maneely died in 1958 by falling between moving subway cars. He’d lost his glasses. He got on well with Maneely but Maneely died and so he got Kirby.
Problem was Lee’s uncle had fucked over Kirby (& Simon) on Captain America so you know Jack wanted to work for Martin Goodman again like he wanted another hole in the head. Try to keep that in mind, because it’s easy to forget: Timely screwed over Simon & Kirby over Captain America in the early 1940s, and then Kirby came back to Goodman’s firm in the late 50s when everyone else was going bust. What Kirby and Goodman shared at that precise moment was that they had both been essentially pushed out by the industry cartel that had coalesced around the Comics Code Authority in the middle of the decade. Timely had been one of the main publishers targeted for censure during the Wertham era, but Simon & Kirby’s own Mainline was swept up in the general market downturn as well, and a combination of financial controversy and distributor woes proved insurmountable. In hindsight late 1953 had been an inauspicious moment to start a new comic book company, period. By the late 50s they needed each other, and I’ve always imagined that’s what galled both Lee and Kirby the most: they were both by their own separate accounts no more than six months to a year away from leaving comics when they improbably sparked a cultural revolution, together.
Hey, here’s the deal, you can imagine a particularly imaginative devil offering, you get to be the famous writer you always wanted but the rub is you get famous partly by working with this guy who your uncle fucked over twenty years ago, and no one involved is ever probably going to forget that for longer than thirty seconds for the entirety of your working relationship . . . I mean, until it’s superseded by more recent amity, that is.
Thinking through the relationship from Lee’s perspective, I believe that up until he actually started to achieve significant success as the company’s face the single most defining conflict of Lee’s life had been his uncle. Even at his most hagiographic, in interviews he was always remarkably lucid on the power dynamics in that office: his uncle ran things and his uncle was a son of a bitch and much of his life was spent trying to get one over on that son of a bitch. Objectively speaking Goodman was a son of a bitch, and the Marvel of today is still very much the company founded by a man whose attitude to competition was always and forever glutting the market until the competition couldn’t breathe. That his competitors saw fit to punish him in the late 1950 by saddling him with a strict distribution cap always struck me as a particularly apt punishment.
Imagine, then, getting to the end of the 1960s, starting to see real movement, media deals, a lifting of said distribution cap, to say nothing of the fact that so many of these books, his books, were really good – basically everything he always wanted, succeeding explicitly at his uncle’s expense. And then it turned out that no one really gave a shit that he had won some three-decade war of wills with a guy at a desk in an office, what people actually cared about was how he treated the help. There’s a part of me that doesn’t imagine he was ever able to square that distinction.
People always forget “must,” but “must” is the most important word.
Everyone likes to say “with great power comes great responsibility,” but that’s not the quote. It significantly obscures the meaning to assert that great responsibility simply and naturally follows great power. For one thing it’s patently false. People assume great power all the time without also realizing any commensurate responsibility. It doesn’t “just happen” that people know what to do, and indeed that is precisely the point of Spider-Man’s origin: it’s not that he gets the responsibility with the power, it’s that bad shit happens when responsibility lags behind power. It’s not that power devolves naturally, but that it must also devolve. It’s very possible to be greatly powerful without feeling so much as a hint of responsibility.
These aren’t small questions. This isn’t an academic distinction. There is a huge, huge difference between just asserting that great power somehow magically creates the means of its own regulation, and the alternative, which is the unstated corollary that it is very possible to use power irresponsibly.
Dropping the “must also” may not seem like a lot but it’s a recipe for authoritarianism: well, hey, I have great power, so I must perforce be greatly responsible, right? It’s not like responsibility is something that needs to be painstakingly learned, or even that power is something that can be used irresponsibly – simply, great power and great responsibility are a package deal. QED.
It’s an old lesson, one of the oldest: be careful. Pay attention. Think before you act. Be mindful. Stand up for your convictions. Be responsible. You aren’t born responsible, or knowing how to do the right thing, or what the wrong thing even is. You have to learn, just like I have to learn, and we all have to learn, and that’s what life is all about. Funny how some people act like they’re just now hearing it for the first time.
The real son of a bitch of it all is that he deserves the credit.
Neither Kirby nor Ditko on their own were ever capable of scaling the same heights. Maybe they didn’t enjoy what they were doing as much, maybe it wasn’t their most personal expression, maybe it wasn’t fatally compromised in one of a hundred ways – the primary reason their names will be remembered for hundreds and hundreds of years is still that they spent by all accounts a rather miserable decade working with Stan Lee. If that fact sticks in your throat a bit like a bitter pill, it doesn’t make it any less true.
That doesn’t take anything away from anyone because it’s not a contest. They’re all gone now.
On his own Kirby had unfettered access to a realm of pure expression, but he spent the last decades of his life often struggling to channel that into commercially viable packages. On his own Ditko was free to develop in as astringent and ascetic direction as he desired, and didn’t seem to care much that his audience was small as long as they were respectful. There were profoundly great things inside both men but they were also both stubborn artists who hated the fact that on some level Lee knew their readers better than they did.
That was Lee’s superpower, more than anything else: he knew what readers wanted, and later, what audiences wanted. It wasn’t always the same as what artists wanted or needed, or even what the stories necessarily needed, but he knew how to create things that people really wanted. That he often knew before they did gave him a slightly pathetic air during his heyday as a media personality, ironically long before the great success of his twilight years. That’s the image of Lee I hold in my mind the longest: the hustler, just past his creative prime and I think he knows it, maybe on some level knows now that he’s succeeded that he’ll never be hungry enough to be good again, but he’s been doing a lot of college speaking and likes the applause. He’s been buying some polyester shirts that let you see that little rakish tuft of chest hair, like if someone turned the James Caan down about 60%.
That Stan, he knows, with an absolute crystal certainty, that Spider-Man could and should be the biggest thing on the planet. He knows – he sees it with the certainty of Moses staring out across forty years in the desert – knows that he’s going to live to see Spider-Man’s name in lights. Even if it seems unlikely to everyone else on the planet, well, hey, people like hearing this guy talk. He’s got something, alright, even if he’s not sure what.
That Stan also understood that for Spider-Man to be as universal as he could be he needed to be just Marvel’s Spider-Man, not Stan Lee & Steve Ditko’s Spider-Man. That’s important to remember, too: as much as Lee’s actions may have hurt others, the fact is that relative to the amount of money his creations have made for other people, Lee got fucked over, too. Maybe more than any of them, if you cared to add it all up. They all got fucked over. Every single one of them. Even the ones who fucked each other over still fucked themselves over in the process. There’s no justice anywhere in this.
But there doesn’t have to be. There isn’t usually. There’s not always some neat callback to the very beginning of the story pointing you towards the moral that was sitting there in plain sight all along. It’s only a lifetime spent reading comic books that tells us there needs to be some kind of moral at the end, some kind of handy-dandy way to tie up what are in actuality always very messy affairs. Like most people, Stan was who he was, absurd and undeniable at the same time.
Excelsior, you son of a bitch.