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