Who did it?
That’s the question that’s been on the minds of Marvel Comics fans for years now when it comes to the creative partnership between legends Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. The co-creators of such legendary characters like The Fantastic Four, The X-Men, The Avengers, Black Panther and so many more, Lee and Kirby were the industries Lennon and McCartney, although unlike those pop music masterminds, it has become harder and harder over the years to determine just how closely comics’ dynamic duo actually worked. As the decades progressed, it became clear that Kirby and Lee viewed each other’s contributions in significantly different lights, with the end result finding fans often choosing sides.
With his new book, Kirby & Lee: Stuf’ Said, TwoMorrows Publishing owner and co-founder John Morrow has delved deep into the history of Kirby and Lee, creating an in-depth look at the creative process between the two men, using their own voices to tell the tale. Stuf Said‘ is compelling and controversial, and already has fans on both sides of the comic aisle talking. While there have been other books that tell the history of Marvel Comics (including Sean Howe’s excellent Marvel Comics: The Untold Story) , nothing has come close to comparing the view points of these two comic book titans.
I had the chance to interview John Morrow over email about his longtime love of Kirby, and how Stuf’ Said came to be:
Andy Burns: In many ways, Kirby & Lee: Stuf’ Said feels like the culmination of the work you’ve been doing for decades now. Before we get into the new book, I wanted to ask you a bit about your history. How did you first discover Jack Kirby’s work?
John Morrow: I’m just a longtime Jack Kirby fan, first discovering him by accidentally getting an issue of Kamandi in the early 1970s. Something about it clicked for me, and from there I worked backward to discover his earlier Fourth World series for DC Comics, and then his 1960s Marvel Comics work with Stan Lee, and his even earlier work with Joe Simon. So I didn’t grow up reading the Kirby & Lee books off the stands each month. I guess that could’ve helped me approach the Stuf’ Said book more objectively, since I wasn’t beholden to that material through nostalgia for my childhood. But if I ever write a book on the New Gods, it’ll be much tougher to not be influenced by my early love for that material, as it’s my all-time favorite Kirby work.
Andy Burns:What was it about Kirby that led you to create The Jack Kirby Collector?
John Morrow: It was really just a longtime admiration for Kirby and his work that led me to start The Jack Kirby Collector back in 1994, which in turn launched TwoMorrows Publishing. But at the time, I had no idea it’d amount to anything more than, at most, a few issues celebrating Jack’s work. My wife Pam and I were deeply entrenched in building our advertising agency, and the Kirby Collector was just a fun idea I had to fill my spare time. It was initially only a 16-page newsletter, and wouldn’t take that long to produce every couple of months, so I was clueless about what it would eventually lead to. When Kirby died in February 1994, it just seemed like someone should do a fitting tribute for his fans, and since we had the computer equipment and design skills from our day job, I gave it a shot. It’s funny how you never know when some offhand decision you make will completely affect the rest of your life. Starting TJKC was definitely a life-changing moment for me in hindsight.
Andy Burns: There have been books about the history of comics, and specifically the history of Marvel, but Kirby & Lee: Stuf’ Said really does a remarkable job in diving deep and thorough into what may be the greatest question in comics history – who did what? Tell me about what led you to writing this particular book after all these years.
John Morrow: Well, I’ve now been documenting Kirby’s career for 25 years, with the help of countless contributors to the magazine. In that time, I’ve tried to run an interview Kirby did in every issue, and I’ve nearly succeeded. It’s amazed me to keep finding so many interviews by Jack; with his crazy workload, how did he find time to do them? But he always made time for his fans, and that’s left a pretty decent record of how he felt about a lot of things. Unlike Stan Lee however, most of Jack’s interviews appeared in less visible areas like fanzines. Stan, as the main voice and cheerleader for Marvel in the 1960s, was interviewed much more often than Jack, and that got his message out to the masses, in major newspapers, and radio and television. So obviously, the general public only heard Stan’s version of events, and got to know him as sort of “Mr. Marvel Comics,” unaware there were other important contributors to those stories and characters—most notably Kirby and Steve Ditko.
Those in comics fandom who had read the Kirby fanzine interviews were more well informed about his relationship with Lee than the general public, and the Kirby Collector naturally gave a forum for discussion of the disconnect between the public perception of Stan as the sole creator of everything at Marvel, and the reality of the situation. It’s also spilled over into other TwoMorrows publications, although the Kirby Collector is the epicenter of it. But it really came to a head with the 2009 lawsuit between Marvel Comics and the Kirby family, just after Disney purchased Marvel. Until they reached their out-of-court settlement in 2014, there was constant public information in the news, helping the masses learn that, just maybe, Stan didn’t do it all by himself. And my own 2011 participation in the case as an Expert Witness was enlightening for me personally, and started the gears turning toward the idea of Stuf’ Said. Marvel’s attorney pulled out a full run of Kirby Collectors at the beginning of my deposition and spread them out on the conference table before he started grilling me on Kirby’s history, which I assume was a tactic to intimidate me. But once he started questioning me, it became apparent to me that he wasn’t at all versed on his Kirby history, and I took it upon myself to correct him on dates and the sequence of events whenever it seemed appropriate. I guess he didn’t actually read all those Kirby Collectors—and I assume my testimony must’ve been reasonably compelling, because their legal team worked really hard to get it thrown out.
That experience inspired me to try my hand at documenting the facts of the Kirby/Lee relationship myself, to see if I personally could learn anything new. So I announced the project in 2014, but stepped back from it after the two parties reached their settlement that year. It was such a momentous day when we realized that Kirby would finally get equal billing by Marvel as co-creator, that it seemed unnecessary, and that people might not be interested since the question was legally settled.
Still, one thing kept nagging at me; the discrepancy between Jack and Stan’s own quoted accounts of how things played out in the 1960s, and what seemed to be inconsistencies in their stories over the years. I’m happy to say that, by doing all this research and assembling it in chronological order—and juxtaposing it against what comics they were producing at the time their quotes were given—it’s no longer nagging at me. It’s all a lot clearer to me due to Stuf’ Said, and also to readers of the book, based on the amazing number of comments I’ve received on it.
Andy Burns: As you put together and uncovered quotes from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and hear from others who were around them or had done their own interviews, I’m wondering what, if anything, you learned about either of these men or their work that surprised you?
John Morrow: I was a little surprised at how consistent some of Kirby’s comments were over the years. He gave an interview to the Comics Journal in 1989, that raised a lot of eyebrows, due to some bitter-sounding statements he made about Lee and Marvel. Some of the details he gave didn’t jibe with the accepted public perception of things at the time. As a fan back then, I wondered if Jack was getting too old to accurately recount what actually happened in the 1960s, and was shading it to his benefit. But after assembling every interview I could track down, and reading them in chronological order, I now see that he was alluding to many of those 1989 claims all the way back in the 1960s, although being much more diplomatic about it, since he was then employed by Marvel. The process put my mind as ease about that particular 1989 interview, and a few others Jack gave during his 1980s fight to get his original art back from Marvel.
Stan was overall pretty consistent in his own accounts as well, but I was surprised by the number of small details that changed as the years went on. I’m thinking specifically of things like how in 1960s interviews, he didn’t remember whether he or Jack had come up with the names “Galactus” and “Silver Surfer,” but by the 1980s, he was positive that both names were his ideas. I was also a little taken aback by the rather obvious hogwash he’d interject in later interviews, such as how the idea for Spider-Man came from—in one interview—the pulp hero The Spider (who has no similarity other than the name). In another interview, Lee said he saw a spider crawling on the wall, and that inspired him. Due to my own advertising background, I get the need to juice a product with the best, more favorable copy you can come up with to spark potential customers’ interest. That’s just smart promotion. But when you invent new “facts” out of thin air, that are in direct contrast to the historical record, it’s got to be questioned and proven or disproved. I feel readers can compare both men’s quotes in this book, along with the history that’s presented, and decide for themselves what’s an accurate account. Having it all presented chronologically, you can also give more weight to the earlier comments, which were made before big budget movies and lucrative merchandising came into play.
Andy Burns: Can you tell us a little about the layout of the book, how it can to be with the colour coding for who is speaking, image placement, etc? Like the best of comics, I feel like the appearance of Stuf’ Said is exciting and engaging.
John Morrow: Thank you for that compliment. As a graphic designer, you often wonder if anyone will notice all the thought that goes into what you design. I’m a big proponent of the idea that “form follows function,” and that good design isn’t just flashy; it has to support the clarity and understanding of the material, or it’s just superfluous clutter. So after spending months accumulating all this dense research, and finally editing it down to a manageable amount, I started roughing-in the layout of the book, which was originally solicited to be printed in black-and-white only. But the sheer volume of quotes, especially from Stan Lee (since he gave so many more interviews than Kirby), made it visually overwhelming for me, since it was so text-heavy. And while I’ve enjoyed other oral history books, I always felt like they could be presented more effectively with a different typographic treatment, but no one ever took the time to figure one out. So I accepted that challenge, and spent several days trying out various type treatments and layouts, to find one that’d make it as clear and concise for readers as possible. After some elaborate attempts, I fell back on what I learned in design school; simplicity is usually the best approach. So I opted to use a typewriter font to set the quoted material apart from my written narrative. And then, I bit the bullet on printing the book in color, so I could show all the Stan Lee quotes in Red, the Kirby quotes in Blue, and the Ditko quotes in Green. This gives the reader a visual cue of who’s speaking, without having to include a lot of redundant “Stan Lee said…” and “Jack Kirby said” lead-ins to every quote.
Even the few die-hard partisan Lee and Kirby fans, who feel I was too harsh on their guy, seem to agree that my presentation really works well. You can easily flip through and see who’s talking, and compare the relative sparsity of blue quotes vs. red quotes. So I think I pioneered a nice design motif, and I won’t be too surprised to see it copied by others in their future oral history projects. Just remember, you saw it here first!
As for my image choices, I didn’t have to track down many new ones. After a quarter-century of producing the Kirby Collector and our other publications, there was plenty to draw from. The key was presenting those images in chronological order to support the concurrent text; that gave them much more weight than when they appeared in a random article, out of the full context of Lee and Kirby’s relationship.
Andy Burns: The first TwoMorrows Publication I ever read was Mark Alexander’s Lee & Kirby: The Wonder Years. It certainly set me on a path of greater understanding of Jack Kirby’s influence and impact on the books I love. Do you view that title and yours as bookends at all?
John Morrow: I guess they could be viewed that way, but that certainly isn’t my intent. Mark’s book is a wonderful recollection as viewed through his personal experience of it, but it’s like a pep rally for the Kirby/Lee books—celebrating them, but not dwelling on the differences that arose in the relationship. Stuf’ Said is a more sober examination of the work, making every effort to be as pragmatic and balanced as possible, but never hesitating to show all aspects of the relationship, warts and all. They both present the history, but in different ways. Stuf’ Said is meticulously footnoted, and when I do introduce conjecture, I clearly indicate it with a salt shaker icon (as in, “Take this with a grain of salt”). The Wonder Years is a joyous, uplifting statement about the work. Stuf’ Said is a more serious examination of what went on in producing that work. Both have a reason to exist, and stand on their own, I think.
Andy Burns: With Stan and Jack now no longer with us, and with Stuf’ Said tracing their work together so thoroughly, is it possible that we’re done debating the question of “who did what?”…or will it always be one of comicdoms great debates?
John Morrow: I naively hoped that Stuf’ Said would help finally put the issue to rest. The day after its release, Facebook showed me that wasn’t likely. A handful of partisans on each side came out, either with “I feel this is unfair…” declarations with no documented evidence to support their dislike of a passage or quote (this was mostly on the Lee side), or with isolated evidence of slights of Kirby and Ditko that weren’t included (as you’d expect, from the Kirby side). I had been unaware of a few of those, but many I had just edited out of the book for space reasons, or because they were redundant to the material I included. And so far, of the few negative comments I’ve gotten on Stuf’ Said, or the occasional missed factoid that I wish I’d included, nothing I’ve seen would’ve fundamentally changed the book’s focus or direction, or my own “verdict” at the end of the book, for what it’s worth—there’s plenty of evidence there for any reader to reach their own conclusions about Stan and Jack’s relationship.
I have gotten valuable feedback from people who agree that it’s a fair and balanced take, and who’ve sent me corrections and new information that I’ll be incorporating into any updated edition. Based on the overwhelming positive response and reviews, and the word of mouth, I wouldn’t be surprised if a new edition eventually happens. The 1960s Marvel stories and characters are so influential, and the interplay between Kirby and Lee is so fascinating, that I guess the best I can hope for is that Stuf’ Said will add some worthwhile meat to the discussion, and keep the dialogue rational and focused on facts, even if it rages on indefinitely. And that’s good enough for me.