The partnership between Jack Kirby and Stan Lee is legendary. The two comic book giants worked together at Marvel to produce some of the most famous characters in comic book history. But their collaboration didn’t last forever. After almost a decade of successfully working together, the two men became bitter enemies. To this day, their fans argue over which man was the true creative force behind some of their legendary work. Here’s what you need to know:
1. Kirby & Lee First Met at Timely Comics in 1940
Timely Comics was the business that eventually turned into Marvel. In 1940, both Jack Kirby and Stan Lee were working there as artists. Their first meeting was not a big success. Lee reportedly described Kirby as an unapproachable loner; he said, “I could never get close to Kirby because he was sitting at his desk drawing all the time, puffing on his cigar.”
For his part, Kirby thought of Lee as an annoying prankster. He told the Comics Journal that Lee was a “pest” : “I thought Stan Lee was a bother,” Kirby said. “You know, he was the kind of kid that liked to fool around — open and close doors on you. Yeah, in fact, once I told Joe [Simon] to throw him out of the room. Yes, because he was a pest. Stan Lee was a pest. He liked to irk people and it was one thing I couldn’t take.”
2. A Decade Later, Lee & Kirby Met Again at Marvel, Where Their Collaboration Began
Kirby left Timely Comics, and Lee, who stayed on, was promoted to the position of editor. Timely turned into Marvel Comics. And in 1958, Kirby came back to work at Marvel. That’s when Kirby and Lee finally started putting their heads together and creating some of the legendary comic book characters who are still known today.
Working together, Lee and Kirby created the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, and the X-Men. They also created the Black Panther, who was the comics’ first black superhero, and his Afrofuturist nation, Wakanda. The old comics are now collectors’ items and of course, the stories and characters live on in movies as well as in the pages of comic books.
3. Kirby & Lee Parted Ways on Bad Terms
By the late sixties, Kirby had become dissatisfied with his work at Marvel Comics. He was reportedly jealous of all the media attention that Stan Lee was getting. The two men also had disputes about credit-grabbing, with Kirby accusing Lee of taking the credit for his work. And of course, they were in very different positions at Marvel; Lee was the editor-in-chief, earning a comfortable salary, while Kirby was a freelancer. But the last straw came when Marvel offered him a contract which he felt was unfair.
In 1970, Kirby left Marvel and went to work for its rival, DC Comics. There, Kirby created a character called Funky Flashman who was basically a caricature of Stan Lee — something which may have been Kirby’s way of retaliating for what he saw as his poor treatment at Marvel. Flashman was a spoiled, idle rich man who never had to work for his fortune. Nevertheless, he is greedy and opportunistic, and happy to take advantage of others. You can see some examples of Funky Flashman here.
4. Kirby & Lee Each Claimed to be the True Creator of the Fantastic Four
After Kirby and Lee parted ways, both men claimed credit for the wildly popular Fantastic Four series. Lee initially had said that the Fantastic Four was a collaborative effort. But by 1974, he was claiming full credit for the inspiration behind the series. Lee wrote, in 1974, that the Fantastic Four was the result of a midlife crisis that he was going through: “I had a talk with my wife, I had a mid life crisis, Martin Goodman mentioned the Justice League of America why don’t you create a team of superheros.”
Lee portrayed Kirby as nothing more than his staffer, someone who carried out the nuts-and-bolts work of drawing the comic book after Lee had created the stories and the characters. “It was natural for me to choose Jack Kirby to draw [Fantastic Four]. Jack had probably drawn more superhero strips than any other artist and he was as good as they come. … I wrote a detailed first synopsis for Jack to follow, and the rest is history,” Lee said.
Meanwhile, Kirby had been claiming that the Fantastic Four was entirely his inspiration. In 1970, when Kirby went to DC Comics, he said “It [Fantastic Four] was my idea. It was my idea to do it the way it was; my idea to develop it the way it was. I’m not saying Stan had nothing to do with it. Of course he did. We talked things out.” But, Kirby said, he increasingly worked from home, and more and more of the ideas were his alone.
5. Lee Said Kirby’s Last Words to Him Were Forgiving
Jack Kirby passed away in 1994. (Stan Lee died on November 12, 2018.) Before Kirby died, he apparently found time to mend fences with his long-time rival, Stan Lee.
By Lee’s account, the two men ran into each other at a comic book convention. They didn’t have a long conversation. But they did walk up to each other — and, Lee says, Kirby made it clear that he didn’t hold any grudges.
“I saw him at a comic book convention,” Lee said in an interview. “And I walked up to him, and he said ‘Stan, you have nothing to reproach yourself for,’ which I thought was kind of an odd thing. I liked hearing it, but it was odd for him to say it.”
Lee added, “A lot of people who were big Kirby fans always thought that I was taking the big share of the credit and Kirby wasn’t….I don’t determine how much credit people should get.”