(A version of this article was published for Laughing Place on April 25, 2022.)
“Bang! Boom! Pow!” These words are like poetry to generations of superhero comic fans. These pieces of pulp art were first popularized in the United States in the 1930s, as pillars of strength, perfection, and morality. They were also fairly one-dimensional in personality. But then two future titans of comics emerged in New York City, entered the comic realm, and reinvented the superhero notion, turning it into the boundless multi-layer (and multiversal) genre we know today.
Stan Lee took the perfect superhero model, and made it human, imperfect, and fallible, and in doing so he made characters so much more interesting and relatable to readers. Jack Kirby digested Stan’s ideas and put them brilliantly on paper, rendering some of the most colorful and memorable comic characters that have ever graced the pulp pages.
Lee and Kirby progressed in their own separate careers, yet both brilliantly collaborated for a magical period that has become known as the “Silver Age of Comic Books.” Let’s learn more about the Dynamic Duo and their most famous creations in this edition of Laughing Place Celebrates: Disney Legends Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
Stan Lee – The Writer
Stanley Martin Lieber was born in 1922 in NYC. He had one younger brother, and his family of four was one of many who were victims of the Great Depression, living in a small apartment in the Bronx during his youth. Lieber had many small jobs during his teen years, several of which included writing – obituaries, news services, and press releases, among others. He entered and won a high school essay contest in the New York Herald Tribune at age fifteen, and the newspaper suggested he consider writing professionally. The seed was planted.
With the help of an uncle, Lieber got a job as an assistant with the Timely Comics division of the Martin Goodman Publishing Company, where he met Jack Kirby. Lieber made his comic-book debut in 1941 with a text filler piece for Kirby’s Captain America comic – Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge. It was here that Lieber first used the pseudonym Stan Lee. Lee has since explained that because of the low social status of comic books, he was embarrassed at the time to use his own name, and used a pen name so that nobody would associate his real name with comics, when he might eventually write what he called “the Great American Novel.” He eventually adopted Stan Lee as his legal name.
When Kirby and Editor Joe Simon left Timely Comics, Lee was promoted to the position of Interim Editor. He did so well in that position that he was made Editor-In-Chief, a title he carried until 1972.
Lee took a three-year detour from comics to serve in the U.S. Military, where he said his official military classification was “Playwright.” During his time with the military, Lee still contributed writing assignments to Timely Comics.
Timely Comics became Atlas comics in the 1950s, and evolved to become Marvel Comics by 1961. Lee had become bored writing tired old hero stories, and was planning to quit, when he was given his greatest opportunity – to develop a new superhero team. Since he was planning to quit anyhow, Lee’s long-time wife suggested he use this as an opportunity to try something new, with very little to lose. This allowed Lee to try his hand at making a change to the idealistic superhero archetype. Lee gave his superheroes a flawed humanity, real world problems, and relatable emotions. That’s when the real magic started.
Jack Kirby – The Illustrator
Jacob Kurtzberg was born in August 1917 of Austrian-Jewish immigrants, and was raised in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Kurtzberg worked on newspaper comic strips in the late 1930s, also briefly for Fleischer Studios as an in-betweener artist for Popeye cartoons.
In Kurtzberg’s early days of comics, he wrote and drew for science fiction, pirate, and western genres. During this time, he went by many different pseudonyms. He first used the name Kirby in 1939 with the pseudonym Lance Kirby, which progressed to Jack Kirby, as he was known for the rest of his career.
Kirby’s big splash came when he partnered with Editor Joe Simon to create Captain America in 1941. The first Captain America comic was released just months before the U.S. entered World War II. Kirby’s work with Simon was interrupted by his contributions to the U.S. involvement in World War II, between 1943 and 1945.
Following Kirby’s service in the war, he and Simon continued to work as a team for well over a decade. The pair bounced from Timely Comics (predecessor to Atlas Comics, and later Marvel Comics) to National Comics (predecessor to DC Comics) to Harvey Comics, and back again. The pair sometimes worked directly for the publishers, and other times they did freelance work. The relationship between the comic creators became strained in the 1950s, though the pair parted amicably. In the late 1950s, Kirby began working more regularly for Marvel Comics, and soon a new partnership would form.
The Marvel Method
By the early 1960s, Lee and Kirby started collaborating more regularly together. With Lee’s genius scripting and Kirby’s imaginative pencil, the duo really hit their stride. The pair’s creative process developed into what came to be known as “The Marvel Method.” The overall process was simple – involving just three steps.
- Lee comes up with a plot.
- Kirby sketches comics and the characters based on Lee’s synopsis, and adds some of his own ideas.
- Lee returns to script the dialogue.
The formula worked perfectly and spawned superheroes that have stood the test of time.
Throughout the 1960s, Lee scripted, directed, and edited most of Marvel’s comic series, and Kirby had the primary hand in co-developing and illustrating most of Marvel’s hot new characters.
Lee wrote a monthly column called “Stan’s Soapbox”, and wrote endless promotional pieces, often signing off with his trademark motto, “Excelsior!” Lee insisted that all artists who contributed to individual comics receive proper credit, and wrote it into the credits at the end of each comic, along with the inclusion of friendly “Dear Stan and Jack” segments in the publications.
The list of iconic heroes created during this legendary partnership is a literal “Who’s Who” of the comic world.
The Fantastic Four
This fearsome foursome were the first superheroes created together by Lee and Kirby. The group included Mister Fantastic (Reed Richards), who can stretch his body into incredible lengths and shapes; the Invisible Woman (Sue Storm), who can render herself invisible and project powerful invisible force fields; the Human Torch (Johnny Storm), who can generate flames, surround himself with them, and fly; and the Thing (Ben Grimm), whose exterior of stone possesses tremendous superhuman strength, durability, and endurance.
The team was immediately popular, and opened the floodgates to create a whole cavalcade of new characters and stories.
Hot on the heels of The Fantastic Four, Lee and Kirby struck gold again and again, creating several characters who would soon team together to become the founding members of “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” – The Avengers.
The team made its debut in The Avengers #1 in September 1963. The original team included The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, Ant-Man, and the Wasp. Contrary to popular belief, Captain America was not a founding member. He was discovered trapped in ice in Avengers #4, and joined the group after the group revived him.
Fun Fact – It was the Wasp who gave the Avengers their name!
The Incredible Hulk
Like many comic heroes, Doctor Bruce Banner got his abilities courtesy of a laboratory process gone wrong. In the Hulk’s case, it was gamma radiation. The real beauty of the Hulk is in the differing viewpoints with which Lee and Kirby saw the hero. Kirby compared the Hulk’s abilities and transformation to the will of a woman lifting a car off her child in danger. Lee was inspired by gothic monsters Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as well as Frankenstein.
“How do you make someone stronger than the strongest person? It finally came to me: Don’t make him human — make him a god.” – Stan Lee
Both Lee and Kirby were huge fans of mythology. Kirby had illustrated a previous version of Thor for DC Comics. The pair, along with Lee’s younger brother Larry, updated Thor to be not only a mythological god, but also a relatable superhero. And as Lee had acknowledged – “…readers were already pretty familiar with the Greek and Roman gods. It might be fun to delve into the old Norse legends.”
Lee saw the character of Tony Stark as a counterpoint to the prevailing anti-war sentiments of the 1960s. Instead of a righteous champion, Lee made Stark an ultra-wealthy arms manufacturer, billionaire, and playboy, but with a weak heart (Tony’s Achilles Heel), which made him compelling. Kirby, Larry Lieber, and Don Heck joined Lee in fully developing the character.
Ant-Man and The Wasp
Ant-Man is one the earlier examples of a superhero being a continuity of those who prove worthy of the suit. Biophysicist Hank Pym originally created the technology and suit allowing him to shrink to the size of an ant, to fight crime in a way no other large-bodied hero could. In later years, Scott Lang – a small-time thief who stepped into the right place at the right time – proved himself capable of taking up Pym’s mantle.
Janet Van Dyne – better known as the Wasp – originally appeared as Hank Pym’s partner. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Van Dyne is scripted as the daughter of Hank Pym, who develops a romantic relationship with Scott Lang.
While Avengers continued to rage with immense popularity, Lee was getting tired of concocting different reasons why superheroes had special powers. As Lee himself said “I couldn’t have everybody bitten by a radioactive spider or exposed to a gamma ray explosion. I took the cowardly way out. I said to myself, ‘Why don’t I just say they’re mutants? They are born that way.'”
Kirby took Lee’s idea of the X-Men, and refined it by giving the mutants a teacher (Professor Charles Xavier) and a place to develop their skills, instead of alienating them for being different from the rest of humankind. The original six members of the X-Men included Professor X, Cyclops, Iceman, Beast, Angel/Archangel, and Marvel Girl/Phoenix. The group has since grown to include dozens of members – both good and bad – to persist in the battle of good vs. evil.
Continuing their pioneering ways into 1966, Lee and Kirby developed the first comic where a character of African descent was not portrayed as a brutal savage. Black Panther first appeared in an issue of The Fantastic Four, and inspired readers as a smart, eloquent, and thoughtful leader and creator.
Black Panther paved the way for future Marvel heroes of African descent, including Falcon (1969), Luke Cage (1972), and Blade (1973). DC Comics followed suit with the creation of Green Lantern (1971).
Another character to make their debut in The Fantastic Four is Silver Surfer, who first appeared in “The Galactus Trilogy”, a famous three-story arc in the comic series. Silver Surfer initially appeared as a herald doing the bidding of the villain Galactus, but he turned on his master to help defend Earth – further demonstration of Lee’s desire to give his superheroes flawed personalities and internal demons to overcome.
Why did he fly on a surfboard? According to a quote by Kirby “because I’m tired of drawing spaceships.”
Aside from their preeminent working relationship, both Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created amazing characters outside of their partnership. Let’s explore each creator’s other signature characters.
It’s hard to believe, but during the heart of his epic run with Kirby, Stan Lee still had enough bandwidth to create perhaps the most enjoyable comic book hero of all time. Along with Steve Ditko, Lee created the nerdy, wise-cracking, web-slinging Spider-Man.
The alter ego of Peter Parker faced some of the goofiest adversaries in Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus, along with the frightening Venom. And who can forget the loud, sarcastic editor-in-chief of the Daily Bugle, J. Jonah Jameson.
An accident involving radioactive material blinded a young Matt Murdock. While he can no longer see, his exposure to the radioactive material heightened his remaining senses beyond normal human ability, giving him a “radar sense” of the world around him. The character is inspiring for his ability to succeed beyond a limitation to his physical capabilities.
Lee co-created Daredevil with artist Bill Everett. Kirby wasn’t directly involved in the character’s creation, though he did give him his signature weapon – the billy club. Kirby also drew the first Daredevil comic cover.
Lee envisioned Stephen Strange in a bit of the same mold as Iron Man’s Tony Stark – egotistical and self-centered, with brilliant mental capacity. Strange’s success came in the medical field, as a world-renowned surgeon. When a car accident damaged his hands beyond sufficient repair, Strange faced a future full of debilitation and despair – until he met the Ancient One. Following a period of enlightenment, Strange moved on from his physical limitations (much like Matt Murdock/Daredevil) and ultimately assumed the position of Sorcerer Supreme.
Doctor Strange represents the classic case of Mind Over Matter, offering inspiration tucked into his otherwise brash personality.
As mentioned above, Jack Kirby created Captain America with Joe Simon in 1941, some 20 years before his collaborations with Lee. Steve Rodgers’ alter ego was designed as a patriotic supersoldier who often fought the Axis powers of World War II. “Cap” was immensely popular during the wartime period. Kirby’s iconic cover image for the first Captain America comic shows the hero punching Adolph Hitler in the face.
The character’s popularity waned in the wake of World War II, and was revived (quite literally, per the comics) for Marvel in 1964 to join the Avengers team.
Going Separate Ways
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby flourished together for most of a decade, creating hit character after hit character. The duo was to comics what the Beatles were to music at the time.
But by the late 1960s, Kirby grew increasingly dissatisfied working at Marvel. According to Mark Evanier – Kirby’s biographer – Kirby had a resentment over Lee’s media prominence, and was frustrated with his lack of creative control. Kirby was also angry over what he perceived as Marvel’s failure to properly credit him for his story plotting and for his character creations and co-creations.
Kirby went to DC Comics in the early 1970s, then bounced back to Marvel for a few years in the later 1970s, where he created The Eternals and The Celestials. Kirby did more independent work in the 1980s and early 1990s, and strove to eliminate the freelance-for-hire system which awarded contributors no rights to the projects they worked on. In his final years, Kirby spent a great deal of time and energy sparring with Marvel over the rights to some of the comics he worked on – most notably The Fantastic Four.
Stan Lee stopped writing monthly comics in 1972, when he assumed Marvel’s publisher role. Lee still did occasional writing, but did more collaborating and promoting of the Marvel brand. He ceased regular duties at Marvel in the 1990s, though he continued to be the face of Marvel Entertainment. He made cameos in most of the Disney-Marvel MCU films, up until his death in 2018.
Comic Superhero Legends
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were inducted as Disney Legends in 2017. Lee was able to accept this honor in person, while Kirby received his honor posthumously, having died in 1994.
These two titans of the comic book industry changed the face of the pulp superhero. Both men enjoyed decades of individual success. But it was the comparatively short period of time where they collaborated together – less than a decade – where their creative ideas took them both to heights never before reached in comics entertainment.
Lee and Kirby opened the door for black heroes with Black Panther, and acknowledged a place in superhero stardom for heroes with alternate abilities, like Daredevil and Doctor Strange. The duo made the comic universe a space where all can strive and succeed, so long as they have the heart and moral fortitude to do so.
The pair didn’t always agree, and ultimately their ideas and philosophies were too large to continue existing in the same space. Much like John Lennon and Paul McCartney of the Beatles, Disney songwriting legends Richard and Robert Sherman, and even Walt and Roy Disney at times, genius minds can pollinate each other brilliantly.
Who is your favorite comic superhero? Were they created by Stan Lee or Jack Kirby? Reach out here with a comment, or find us on social and start a conversation.
Disney D23 Legends Pages – Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Time Magazine – Roy Thomas – How Stanley Lieber Wrote His First Comics Story and Became ‘Stan Lee’, November 13, 2018
Stan Lee’s Most Iconic Superheroes, Christian Holub and Alyssa Smith