KIRBY & LEE: Stuf’ Said! by John Morrow (the only book I have to review today) is an attempt to sort out the longstanding question among Marvel fans about what exactly each man contributed to their partnership in Marvel’s Silver Age. Both men have claimed to be the real writer of most of their joint work and due to the Marvel method it’s difficult to figure out for sure.
The standard Golden Age approach to writing comic was for the writer to create a detailed page-by-page script, then the artist would build the visuals based on the script. The Marvel method put more of the work on the artist: they and the writer would put together a rough synopsis in a story conference; the artist would draw the story based on the synopsis, effectively handling the detailed plotting; then the writer would dialog the result. As Stuf’ Said makes clear, this was Lee’s solution to his workload as Marvel took off: if he was working on a script when an artist came in to talk about an upcoming issue, he’d tell them to come up with an idea themselves.
This approach worked spectacularly well with storytelling talents such as Ditko and Lee, less well with artists who were more comfortable working from a full script. Even less so as Lee left more and more of the plotting to the artists (as Brian Cronin discusses in some of his Avengers history articles). As artist Marie Severin said, they sometimes wound up plotting the whole story and not getting paid for it (though her example involves Gary Friedrich, not Lee).
Morrow combs through decades of interviews, reminiscences and comments by both Lee and Kirby and concludes that both men sincerely saw themselves as the “real” writer of their works together. Kirby, after all, had done most of the plotting so he was the writer; Lee saw himself as coming up with the core idea of each story and developing character through dialog, so the artist was just a hired gun carrying out Lee’s vision. It’s an interpretation of their statements I’ve heard before, but I don’t find it convincing here. From all the Silver Age anecdotes and quotes Morrow collects, it seems clear Lee presented himself as the writer even when he left the artist to come up with the idea. I still think he contributed a great deal, but he hogged more of the credit than he deserved, while sometimes going out of his way not to credit the artists with plotting or writing (this is perversely amusing as Stan claimed, inaccurately, that he broke new ground by giving his team credits in the stories — Julie Schwartz had been doing that for years).
That said, Morrow does do a very good job recounting both mens’ careers, their accomplishments, the eventual dissolution of their partnership and Kirby’s shoddy treatment by Marvel afterwards (Lee had the advantage of being related to publisher Martin Goodman). Money was part of the problem: Marvel went from being a struggling small-time comics company to a big bucks enterprise but Kirby’s pay rate didn’t go up any. Another was creative control because when they disagreed, Lee got it his way. He rewrote Kirby’s origin of Adam Warlock, wrote the Silver Surfer’s origin when Kirby planned to do it (as Kirby created the Surfer, that was a particularly sore point), and rewrote the ending of a Galactus arc in Thor (maybe one reason I found that era of Thor so forgettable).
There are a great many other little details that made the book worth reading, even though by the end of the book Lee and Kirby’s quotes tend to repeat what they’ve already said. It’s definitely a book for comics nerds, but hey, I am one.
#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holders. Art by Kirby.