Thursday, August 23, 2018

What Stan Lee do after Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby left Marvel?

Let’s start with one important fact: The decade of the 1960s was Marvel’s most creative especially during the first five years. No company since has ever created so much great material in such a short time, especially with so few people.

I am often puzzled by people who try to diminish the accomplishments of Stan Lee by asking, “What did he do after Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby left?”  That is an ambiguous statement and it shows that they may not understand Stan’s job at Marvel in those days. Stan was not just a writer; he was the editor and art director for much of the decade. The question is ambiguous because Steve Ditko left in 1965, five years before Kirby did, in 1970, and we need to count those years, although many detractors don’t. 

Of course, an equally valid question may be: “What did Kirby and Ditko do after they left Marvel?”

No matter what fans want to think, producing comics is a business, the art and story come second. Stan’s job was to make money for Marvel, produce comics on time, and increase sales. He did that very well. Even Jack Kirby would say that his job was “to sell magazines.” Not create good ones, but to sell them. In 1960, Marvel was selling 16,000,000 copies a year. By 1966, Steve Ditko leaves and we no longer have his version of Spider-Man.  Marvel then was selling 35,000,000 comics a year. Without missing a beat, Stan assigns John Romita to Spider-Man and adds many aspects to the character Ditko had rejected.  Aunt May becomes younger, Peter becomes better looking and he gets a girlfriend or two that he can actually keep. The new team not only produces great stories (I loved Spider-Man #39-40, Romita’s first issues) but soon, a great villain, the Kingpin. This version of Spider-Man draws in new readers and becomes a college sensation, drawing in the older readers that had abandoned comics a decade earlier.  Spider-Man becomes Marvel’s biggest seller.  By 1970, annual circulation at Marvel had increased to 60,000,000. Five years after Ditko left circulation doubles. That was Stan’s job. If you’re going to give him blame later you have to give him the credit now. With circulation up, and more money coming in, publisher and owner Martin Goodman enables Stan to recruit not just Romita, but Gene Colan and John Buscema at higher page rates than Marvel had offered before.  Iron Man and Daredevil are further developed and sell more comics with the team of Lee and Colan. Buscema adds to Spider-Man too, but does well with everything he touches.

Different from DC’s Earth I and II, the concept of a singular Marvel Universe was Stan’s vision. While artists, including Steve Ditko, did not appreciate putting in guest stars, Stan loved the idea and did it often.  With circulation increasing it would have been hard to quibble with that idea. Stan’s vision though, has been incorporated into the last ten years of Marvel movies with incredible success. Those movies have taken in over 17 billion dollars.

From the beginning of the Marvel Age, Stan injected many adult themes, including the cold war, unemployment, handicapped people and ageing into his stories.  This was something his main competitors did not do. He even retitled Amazing Adventures to Amazing Adult Fantasy, and advertised it as "The Magazine that Respects Your Intelligence."

Lee wanted to push the limits of creating comics and he and Romita produced the black and white Spectacular Spider-Man, aimed at older readers.  Marvel also published the first Savage Tales, another magazine for adults that was also outstanding. Sadly, Goodman cancels them both. He was fearful that he would run into trouble with the Comics Code. It took courage, then, in 1971, for Stan to publish a three part anti-drug story in Amazing Spider-Man #96-98. It was published without the Comics Code approval. No other publisher or editor had done that before and there was a risk that no dealer would put in on the stands without a Comics Code seal.

Stan was the editor of at least sixteen comics a month during the 1960s and writer for about half the stories.   At DC, several editors produced only five or so comics a month and of them, only Robert Kanigher wrote.  So, beginning in 1965, Stan hired Roy Thomas. Roy worked his way up to the Avengers, partnered with Buscema, Sgt. Fury with Dick Ayers, and the X-Men with Neal Adams. Roy and his partner produced great stories that sold well.

Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D. was created by Jack Kirby, but assigning it to Steranko was inspired. Nick Fury’s circulation was not the highest, but his readers were very loyal. In other words, they kept buying the book. While at DC reprints were often from a generation earlier, Lee started (in 1965) reprint titles of fairly current stories. This catered to new readers and brought them up to date.  Oh, and I loved Not Brand Echh, which was a funny, satirical look at Marvel comics at first and the entire industry as time went by. By the end of the 1960s, circulation had reached 60,000,000.

In 1968 Marvel is bought by Perfect Film and Chemical, Goodman is no longer the owner. Jack Kirby leaves in 1970. His last year at Marvel was not inspired, but it was still Kirby.  According to Mark Evanier’s Kirby bio, the new owners don’t really negotiate or try hard to keep Kirby.  This is foolish on their part, of course. Soon Kirby leaves and Stan takes an extended vacation and doesn’t write.

The new owners had a new direction for the company:

1. Initially, no more continued stories disrupting what had been established over the last decade.

2. They wanted, instantly, a huge amount of new titles, to compete, one on one with DC.

3. Whereas comics initially had 24 pages of art, then 20,  by the mid 1970s it was down to 17.      In 1970 Marvel comics were to have two half-pages, which DC’s had done but Marvel’s never did.

4. The prices on comics triple, from 12 cents to 35 cents in just a few years.

5. The black and white line was started.

6. And they wanted to go after the international market.
      Under Stan, characters (except for Captain America and Nick Fury) appeared in only one comic, enabling their authors to control their continuity. Now, most title characters must appear in at least two books, with different authors, complicating continuity. (Spider-Man was in three titles.)

Stan Lee had to adapt to those changes. So what did Stan do with this burden?  Stan worked with Roy Thomas and creates a big hit with Conan the Barbarian and later Kull; Marvel returns to horror with great talent in Chamber of Darkness and Tower of Shadows; and takes the Silver Surfer to new heights with John Buscema.

But here is the big thing:  In 1973 Stan Lee becomes publisher. This fact is ignored by the dissenters.  This was a big step up in his career; it meant more money and more prestige and no writing or deadline pressure. He increases circulation at Marvel to 70,000,000. This is what a businessman is paid to do.

By the early 1970s the industry was not drawing in many new readers and total sales were declining. This meant that Marvel’s new readers came at the expense of DCs readers. Under Stan Lee, Marvel sales exceed DC for the first time and have remained that way ever since.

There were successes in the mid-1970s, Stan introduced many successful new comics. In 1972’s America it took courage to produce Luke Cage, the first African America hero to have his own national title. By having to produce so many new titles, in so many genres, and there were also many failures. Unlike publisher Goodman, Stan was not an owner and had to follow instructions. With so many new titles there was no time to develop new talent and the bookkeepers often decided what titles were to be cancelled. Often within a failure there is a success. The magazines of the mid 1970s mostly failed, but Conan, Deadly Hands of Kung Fu and a few others were successful.  Marvel did, lose most of its female readers.  

Roy Thomas (Comic Book Artist #2 1998): There was a great drop off in female readers in the early ‘70s. We came up with three strips for which you made up the names and concepts: Shanna the She-Devil, Night Nurse and the Claws of the Cat. (We were) trying to woo the female readers back” Stan Lee said, “The failure of the Cat was my biggest disappointment.

But Stan did give it the old college try.

There is no question that Lee, Kirby and Ditko did outstanding work and nothing like that has happened since at any company. While Ditko and Kirby continued drawing and writing, Stan’s career took a successful turn up the company ladder. Stan’s later trajectory does not parallel the other two, it was more perpendicular!


  1. Barry, good post. Always enjoy your stuff. Never really understood the Stan as a talentless hack and/or villain meme. I adore Kirby and Ditko, but Martin Goodman screwed them on $$$, not Stan. Yes, he was a credit hog, but his bombastic pitchman skills -in addition to his writing - were a major part of the "Marvel Revolution" of the'60's. Stan recognized talent and helped it flourish. The whole Stan vs. the Artists construct is a false - and to my mind - a foolish one.

  2. Mark, you’re right. And I would like to strongly emphasize that it was Martin Goodman that determine their salaries and payments not Stan Lee. But in the 1960s when everything was working well they produce the best Comics. And I still enjoyed them.

  3. D'you know, I could've sworn I read a very similar post to this one on another blog. I must've imagined it. That's a good point about it being Martin Goodman who determined salaries, Barry, but I'm quite sure that Stan would've bent his ear from time to time about giving their top artists an increased page rate, as he wanted to recompense Kirby and Ditko in some way for their contributions to plot, etc. (And probably Jack and Steve occasionally bent Stan's ear on the same subject.) You mention that Ditko wasn't too keen on having guest stars, so the fact that The Torch popped up so often in Spidey's mag shows that Stan was guiding the direction of the stories to at least some degree. This surely casts doubt on the claims of rabid Lee haters who say he did nothing and that everything was down to Steve.

  4. Kid, its deja vu all over again.

  5. I was under the impression it's less about Stan's work ethic and more about Stan's ongoing and documented claims to have been the sole creator, etc. If you look at Kirby especially post-Stan collaboration, one sees he is an endless fountain of new concepts and characters, whereas Stan is not. No one doubts that Stan is not a tireless champion of branding and spin-offs. He's just not at his best unless someone brings him the rough idea(s) to hone and cultivate. And that's not meant as a dig, either.

    1. This.

      After Kirby and Ditko left, the new titles created to expand the line were, frankly, mostly crap. 1970 seems to be the year the magic went away, with only two creations having the kind of staying power that the 60's (and by that I mean Kirby and Ditko) produced- the new X-Men and the Punisher. Lee's only creative effort during that time was Silver Surfer, a self-indulgent, bloated (double the size of the other titles,) whiney soap opera. And, despite the fact that it was (arguably, but let's be real here) someone else's creation, Lee decided the Surfer was his and his alone to write- and it tanked after 18 issues, with Kirby coming on board with the final issue to, what, boost sales and save the book?

  6. Barry,
    I may have missed something, but when you mentioned the same-year publication of Amazing Adventures and FF, were you referencing the fact that AA would get refitted into Amazing Adult Fantasy, dedicated mostly to Lee-Ditko "Twilight Zone"-ish tales, and eventually superseded by a certain webhead...?

  7. Hi Barry,
    Curious on your take regarding Jason Goodman's comments regarding Stan. He has been less than kind and seems to insist that Martin deserves more credit for basically approving of the characters and also insisting that Stan never "snuck" anything in such as Spider-man in AF 15 since Martin approved everything. Jim Van Heuklon

  8. Dear Jim:

    You ask an interesting and complex question.

    Martin Goodman was a good, perhaps not great, businessman who made a lot of good choices, and a few bad ones. For example, giving up his Atlas distribution company might have led to the end of his comic and magazine lines It certainly curtailed comics for several years.

    Publishers, who put up the money and make major decisions are often ignored when fans discuss the creative process. Stan Lee often said that Goodman could tell a good over and made some very important decisions regarding that. But we also read that he had trouble organizing and collecting fees for merchandizing and perhaps underestimated the price of his own company when he sold it. And he certainly, with Lee and Kirby, had little good luck with his 1970’s Atlas comic line.

    But now that the movies based on comic books are incredibly popular, taking in billions of dollars, many relatives, as well as artists and writers, are going public claiming as much credit as they can. Where were they ten years ago?

    We don’t credit Pope Sixtus IV, for the painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, which was named after him, we credit Michelangelo.

    Goodman recognized that Super-Heroes was coming back and assigned Stan Lee (who then assigned Jack Kirby). Of course, DC had discovered that earlier. Goodman had a reputation at the time of not initiating new ideas but following popular trends established by other companies.

    Goodman should not be ignored, he gave the go ahead on these titles, but the creativity came from Lee, Kirby, Ditko and many others.

    Stan could not and would sneak anything past Goodman But Goodman did nothing to inspire the creation of Spider-Man and, according to Stan, was not that concerned about him appearing in a last issue. Mister Goodman’s grandson was not there at the time but Stan was.

    STAN, In Comicbook Markewtplace in 1998 said: "Our most famous character... Spider-Man was a surprise to me, I never thought he would be as successful as he was. It was just something I wanted to do... wanted to get out of my system. I’ve told this story often, I suggested to my publisher, Martin Goodman, that we create Spider-Man but he didn’t want to publish it. He said it was the worst idea he had ever heard. He said, “People hate spiders, you can’t call a book Spider-Man.” Then when I said I wanted him to be a teenager he said teenagers can only be sidekicks, a teenager can’t be a main character. Then when I told him I wanted Spider-Man to have all kinds of problems he said, “Don’ t you understand what a hero is? Heroes don’ t have sprained ankles and dandruff and acne and money troubles, and girl troubles!” Anyway, the debate went on and on... and he wouldn’ t give the OK for the book. Then we decided to kill Amazing Fantasy/Amazing Adult Fantasy. … I gave it to Steve Ditko... Steve did it just the way I had always envisioned it. Steve’ s rendition was perfect and we did it as a 10 or 12 page story in Amazing Fantasy. I put Spider-Man on the cover of issue #15 and forgot about it. Then the sales figures came in a couple of months later. I’ll never forget Martin walking in and saying, “Remember that character of yours, that crazy idea that we both liked... Spider-Man. Why don’t you do a series of it?” So that was the whole story of Spider-Man. Never expected that it would turn into anything, I just wanted to do it... and get it out of my system."

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  10. Barry, I was also coming here after only just now seeing Martin Goodman's comments over on TCJ's assorted articles about Stan's passing and legacy. (I didn't see Jim's comment when I started writing mine) I have to say there seems to be some validity to the fact that Martin saw everything and would veto covers, and also that Sgt. Fury could be started over a bet ("Martin Goodman didn't bet")- I'm wondering if maybe these were just good stories for the press that became legend. Not taking the Goodman's side- we all know all creative aspects came from Stan, Jack, Steve, Larry, etc.- but I thought in the way J. Goodman wrote these, it was thought provoking to say the least. Sorry to bring up a nearly year old topic also, but I only just read these!

  11. *Martin Goodman's GRANDSON'S comment that should have said!