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The darker side of Stan Lee’s legacy

Honoring Lee’s legacy at Marvel means honoring the people he worked with.

Stan Lee arrives at the Los Angeles premiere of Marvel Studios Ant-Man at Dolby Theatre on June 29, 2015, in Hollywood, California.
Stan Lee arrives at the Los Angeles premiere of Marvel Studios Ant-Man at Dolby Theatre on June 29, 2015, in Hollywood, California.
Jason Merritt/Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Marvel legend Stan Lee died on Monday, at the age of 95.

Lee is considered the godfather of Marvel Comics, having helped to bring so many of its treasured characters to life, from Spider-Man to Iron Man to the Fantastic Four. But that’s not the full story of how the magnificent Marvel universe was built.

The popular refrain is that without Lee, Marvel’s superheroes would never have become such beloved fixtures of popular culture. But in the comic book industry there’s a more tempered version of that refrain: that Lee, for a long time, took most of the credit and usually left very little to spare for the co-creators, partners, and artists he worked with along the way.

In 2016, Vulture's Abraham Riesman spent months talking to several Marvel writers, editors, and creative minds about Lee's impact on the world of comic books, including whether he deserves as much credit as he often gets. The result was a complex and extensive piece that dug into Lee’s callous reputation within the comics industry, in part by pinpointing a specific fracture point between Lee and Jack Kirby, the great comic artist-writer and Lee’s working partner at Marvel.

Kirby and Lee worked together to create characters like the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, and the X-Men. And while many fans today are much more aware of Kirby’s extensive contributions to those characters and their stories, Kirby (along with fellow Lee collaborators like Steve Ditko) did not get the mainstream credit he deserved when they were working together.

Riesman identifies a 1966 article by Nat Freedland, published in the New York Herald Tribune, as the catalyst for the eventual dissolution Lee and Kirby’s friendship and working relationship. Freedland’s article was a glowing piece on Lee, giving him credit for Marvel’s success but it also failed to acknowledge the work of his collaborators, even when Lee himself said in the article that he wasn’t as involved as others in some of the company’s titles, including Spider-Man.

As Riesman explains, the article ultimately had a lasting effect on Marvel, and Lee's legacy.

"That article did enormous damage to Jack, personally and professionally," recalls [comic book historian Mark] Evanier, who knew Kirby better than most. "It convinced Jack he couldn't get the proper recognition [at Marvel]." Kirby stayed put for a while (he’d later say he wanted to leave but had to earn money to support his family), but abandoned Marvel to work for DC in 1970. Almost right away, he wrote and drew a short story about a thinly veiled Lee analogue named Funky Flashman. Funky is a verbose fraud who orders around a Roy Thomas pastiche named Houseroy and constantly declares his own greatness without ever producing anything.

"I know my words drive people into a frenzy of adoration!!" he insists. "Image is the thing, Houseroy!" Kirby’s anger was shared by other people in the industry who disapproved of Lee’s methods: A DC comic called Angel and the Ape featured a comics editor named Stan Bragg, who asks a creator, "Why are you so ungrateful? When you write good stories and do good artwork, don’t I sign it?" A satirical series called Sick featured a strip in which comics editor Sam Me tells an artist to make some arduous revisions before reminding him, "And don’t forget to sign my name to it!"

Essentially, Freedland’s article unintentionally crystallized the way audiences saw Lee, making him out to be a wizard of imagination, in contrast to how Lee’s colleagues knew him — as the man behind the curtain, an expert marketer and salesman who lavished the praise and adulation from fans.

As fans, we should celebrate Lee’s work and the wondrous comic book worlds he helped create. At the same time, it doesn’t take away from Lee’s legacy to also acknowledge the comic book writers, artists, editors, colorists, and everyone who worked with him to produce those characters and universes — the people who don’t, and perhaps never will, enjoy the same level of recognition.

Head to Vulture to read Riesman's full piece.

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