Tuesday, November 20, 2018


I’ve been looking at various press reports on Stan Lee's passing, most of them sincere, some of them extraordinarily inaccurate. Saying, as one did, that Stan was just a guy who "filled in the balloons” in stories by Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko is as wrong as saying he created all those stories and characters himself. And to laud Stan as a superb PR man (which he was:  Without Stan’s ability to sell Marvel to the public—to charm, coax and cajole an entire generation of readers—those books, no matter how brilliant, might never have found an audience) while dismissing his contributions as a writer is just as bad.   

The reason some folks are resentful of Stan is because for years the Marvel Myth portrayed him as the genius behind it all, while the artists just drew his stories—which we know wasn't true. By most accounts (and here’s Stan himself talking about it in a 1968 interview), the plots for the early issues were collaborations, with significant input from Lee; but, as time went by, both Kirby and Ditko were plotting the stories solo, creating characters and whole universes out of their imaginations. They were both visionaries and their contributions to Marvel were incalculable.

That said, Stan did so much more than just write copy that mirrored the artists’ stories. Only people who don’t understand how comics work could think that. As I know from personal experience, you can profoundly change a story in the dialogue stage, bending plot and character to your vision. And as both editor and scripter Stan had tremendous leeway...pun intended...to do just that.  (I’ve heard tales of Stan actually cutting pages of artwork up and then pasting them back together—changing the order and meaning of those pages—so that he could tell the story his way.) In fact, some of the bitterness that arose between Stan and Jack, and Stan and Steve, was because Stan changed things in their plots that they viewed as fundamental.

In the end, the key word is collaboration. Lee and Kirby—who co-created the bulk of Marvel’s characters in those early days—were like McCartney and Lennon: the creative tension, the conflicting visions, the desire to one-up each other, made the stories stronger. Same with Lee and Ditko (who was, perhaps, the Bob Dylan of 60s comics?) where, from all reports, that tension was even stronger.  Together they created something that they never could have created alone. It’s not one side or the other—it’s not “there’d be no Marvel without Stan Lee" or "without Jack Kirby" or "without Steve Ditko."  It was all three. Each of these men brought a unique point of view, and unique talents, that, when melded together, birthed the Marvel Universe. That creative Big Bang changed comic books forever.

And we’re all the better for it.

©copyright 2018 J.M. DeMatteis

Wednesday, November 14, 2018


Here's a conversation I had with the Just Us Nerds podcast, discussing Constantine: City of Demons and other fun things.  Enjoy!

Monday, November 12, 2018


I have friends in the business who knew Stan Lee well and spent lots of time with him, but I only encountered him face to face on a couple of occasions.  In 1980, when I’d just started working for Marvel, Stan was still occasionally in the office.  One day I was making copies of some Gil Kane Conan art when Stan ambled up with some papers he needed to copy.  Like a loyal courtier I allowed the king to use the machine first—and I wouldn’t be surprised if I bowed as I humbly backed away!    

Years later—I think it was 1997—when I was working with producer Chris Columbus and director Carlo Carlei on an early incarnation of the Daredevil movie, I came home to find a message from Stan, telling me, with great enthusiasm, that he’d read my treatment and thought it was the best filmic interpretation of a Marvel character he’d ever seen.  I was, as the British say, gobsmacked and quickly called him back.  I’d like to say I was more confident than I’d been all those years before, but I was still intimidated by this man I’d adored since I was twelve years old and barely grunted out my words of thanks.  But when I was in Los Angeles a few months later, I called Stan and he invited me to have lunch with him at the fabled Friar’s Club.  This time I was able to actually form coherent, reasonably intelligent sentences and we had a lovely meal.  But the whole time there was a star-struck kid in my head screaming:  "Holy crap!  It’s Stan Lee!  I’m having lunch with Stan Lee!!

That star-struck kid is incredibly sad today. 

And so am I.


Stan Lee has died.  Even though it’s been clear, in recent years, that Stan was struggling, fading, the idea that he isn’t on the planet anymore is simply heartbreaking.  

Contemporary comic book readers can’t possibly understand how different the 1960’s Marvel Comics were from everything else on the stands.  DC’s comics—for all their imagination and artistic flair—were pristine and sculpted, All-American and squeaky clean to the point of being nearly antiseptic:  no rough edges, no raw emotions, nothing messy at all.  If you looked at the Marvel books, especially in the early days of the line, it was all mess.  The covers said it all:  lurid colors.  Captions screaming for your attention.  Oversized word balloons with thick, black borders around them.  Artwork so primitive it was frightening.  The Marvel Universe was everything a kid in love with super-heroes and science-fiction could ever ask for.  It exploded my imagination—and I’ve been picking up the pieces ever since.

There’s been much debate, down through the decades, about the relative contributions of Stan (who was Marvel’s editor, art director, and head writer in that formative era) and his collaborators.  From my perspective, Stan’s contribution was incalculable.  Even if, hypothetically, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko (both of whom were absolutely essential to the company’s success, it couldn’t have happened without those two visionary geniuses) plotted every single one of those stories on their own, Stan created the vibe and the mythos of Marvel Comics.  He did it with cocky cover copy and the warmth of the Bullpen Bulletins pages, the hilarious footnotes and scripts that managed to be absurdly pseudo-Shakespearean and yet utterly down to earth at the same time.  Most important were the absolutely relatable (especially to a boy on the verge of adolescence) characters, constructed of equal parts angst and humor and, most important, heart.  Stan put his passion into those pages.  They clearly mattered to him, and so they mattered to us, as well. 

If Marvel hadn't cast its magic spell over the comic book industry, changing the creative rules of the game, there's a very good chance I would have left comics behind in junior high school (for the record, the first Marvels that hooked me were F.F. #54 and Spider-Man #40, at the tail end of the seventh grade) and never even considered writing them.  And I'm sure there are dozens, if not hundreds, of comic book creators who would say something similar.  You simply can't underestimate the impact that Stan had—and still has, all these years later. 

Thank you Stan, from the bottom of my heart, for all you’ve given us.  Excelsior!